You are here: Home Training Design Human Behaviour and Exercise Psychological seeding

Psychological seeding

This is a technique you can use to influence a Personal Training client's efforts to change without the need for a lot of input and direct guidance from you, the Personal Trainer.

Psychological seeding – how to encourage your clients to change without the song and dance

This is a technique I used to help clients change elements of their nutrition that were consistently the most problematic for them.  There are many ways you can use this technique but primarily I would use it after a nutrition review.


How I used this technique most often

Nutrition reviews were simply either; a 3-day dietary behaviour record or a long-term eating behaviour record.  The aim of both of these records was to establish the following:

  1. Where are the calorie peaks in my client’s day occurring consistently – I’m looking for consistently high calorie foods being eaten at regular times of the day
  2. What situations are triggering these calorie peaks – I was always looking for the environmental triggers (where were they, what was in front of them, who were they with, how stressed were they) and the preceding behaviours (what were they doing over the last 2-3 hours that would likely support this intake).


If you’re not sure why I’m writing about ‘eating behaviour’ rather than ‘diet’ or ‘dietary intake’ you should probably read one or all of these articles:

A Healthy Approach to Behaviour Change and Living

View Eating as a Habit

How Can Personal Trainers Help People Eat Healthily?


personal%252520training%252520trainer%252520with%252520megaphoneSo, what should I have done once I'd identified the likely causes of the high calorie intake?  Should I...

  1. overhaul the diet at that time of day, dictate the ‘can’ and ‘can’t haves’ 
  2. provide a short yet powerful lecture on the total calories provided by the fat and sugar contained in the food they were eating at that time
  3. ask them how long they wanted to live when they were eating food like that – tut tut…


None of the above.  I found, despite all the temptations to lecture and provide numbers and science that the single most powerful approach to having a client change one particular behaviour at a particular time was to ‘psychologically seed’ the issue.

Now, for those of you who are worried that I took my clients into a dark corner and used approaches akin to the Tread Stone Project (of Bourne Identity fame) – that’s not what this is.  This is by far the least work you will do for the biggest result in Personal Training ever. 


The ‘psychological seeding’ technique

The technique was one I stumbled on and then tested with my clients (no, they didn’t know) over time and it worked wonderfully.  I first stumbled on this after giving a client a nutrition review homework task.  Then, during the PT session I ran out of time to discuss what they thought about the results of their homework.  So, as they were leaving, knowing the area I was most interested in was morning tea (due to its regular calorie peak), I said “Awesome session today John, that cross trainer is now 12% better than a month ago and well you know what we’re seeing across your weight training a 110% change since we started – it really is great progress.  What I forgot to do today was discuss your nutrition homework but I’d like to talk to you next time about your morning teas.  Unfortunately I’ve another client now, but we’ll discuss that in some detail next time you’re through okay?”

personal%2520training%2520vegan7 days later John was back.  He bustled down the stairs to meet me at reception and before I even got to shake his hand and welcome him he splurted out “I’ve had fruit and a muesli bar every morning tea since we spoke – my wife is putting it in my brief case and I’m taking it out by the river most days and sitting and eating it watching the boats go by”.  My inside voice said “holy mylanta”.

No lecture, open questioning, exploring options, committing to action plans was required.  I simply posed the question and boom the client made the change.  I know, I know you’re about to say this is luck / rare / a client you’d kill for.  Nope, I repeated a very similar process with client after client and it worked for the good the bad and well I never had ugly clients they all looked great to me!


Personal%252525252525252525252520Training%252525252525252525252520Tick%252525252525252525252520Why this technique works

So here’s my thoughts on why this works.

  • A client usually knows what is good food to eat for snacks and what isn’t – if they don’t, then they learn pretty quickly when you give them a ‘top ten snacks for weight loss’ tip sheet.
  • The nutritional recall tool heightens their awareness dramatically.  If you complete something like a nutrition recall you have to really think and write and become aware of what is actually going on.
  • The one change is often the only thing that they are changing and is looked on as a ‘tidy up’ rather than a major and 'effort heavy' overhaul.  Clients are much more likely to do something that appears small and easy.
  • The client knows how best to implement simple changes in their lives with some support from those directly around them.  Clients tend to be able to effect their immediate environment and are willing to solicit help if the amount of support and effort required doesn’t appear to burden anyone around them greatly.  This is like asking for a $1 versus asking for $100.  The small change they need support with is a $1 change and therefore they are more likely to ask for and get support.
  • Clients see you as an authority on nutrition and fitness and respect your commitment to them.  They do not want to disappoint or sabotage that feeling of reciprocal obligation that exists.  This is why PTs who are very professional get better results from clients – the reciprocity of effort is higher.
  • If a client doesn’t act on the seed they will feel guilt.  I know that seems bad, but guilt is a damn good motivator.  Ask a 3 year old. 
  • Clients are human and humans generally fear the unknown and want to resolve the anxiety they feel.  To do this, they take action that usually supersedes the actions you would have asked of them because they want to be sure they leave no stone unturned in resolving their anxiety.  The last thing they want is to do something about the issue that you’ve seeded and then when you meet them again, have you act as though they haven’t done enough to meet the basic requirements.


How to optimise resultsprofessional shooting

Okay, so I said earlier I 'fluked' this and then managed to work out what was going on and tested it until it worked more and more.  Here are some tips to making this technique super effective.

  1. Don’t try it with any client you don’t have a great relationship with as it will simply fall over.  The client must know, like and trust you and you must have shown an unwavering professional dedication to their result.  You simply have no leverage otherwise.
  2. Don’t try this whilst your client is going through a lot of other change at the same time.  If they are starting their exercise with you and working to fit it in to their lives consistently then don’t rattle the tree while the roots are still forming.  Wait until your client has done their exercise plan without missing for a month and then consider what to do next.
  3. Always raise the awareness by using homework (they must do this by themselves, away from you, without your support).  If they are going to arrive at a bespoke and personal solution then they need to do the thinking independently as you will seed the issue and expect them to solve it independently.
  4. Don’t seed anything you think they can’t solve independently.  I know it’s hard to let go, but do it, it’s in your clients' best interest.  As long as you know they understand the basics of nutrition you don’t need to spell it out for them any more than that.  Just seed it, and leave it.
  5. Celebrate their decision and do not, under any circumstances, modify what they have come up with.  You can down the track (a few weeks) but not immediately.  You simply need to praise the hell out of them for making the change and be thankful they did – they likely just took 300 calories out of their nutrition without a blip of effort from you.
  6. Give them specific individual feedback on the value of the change the next time they come to meet you.  This reinforces the change after they’ve made it and encourages them to concrete that change in.  An example would be; John you know that morning tea you changed, you know how I said it was a fantastic thing, well I ran some numbers and your calorie intake is 50% lower because of those changes and that’s about an extra 15 minutes on the cross trainer you’ve done everyday you eat morning tea that way.  Note; I use % change and exercise equivalents quite a lot because it gives the client the ability to communicate their progress easily with significant others and allows them to receive more praise more easily.  Always package information so your client can leverage it to get more encouragement easily.  If you want to know more about this type of approach take a look at Fitness Testing: 'In Session Tests'
  7. Increase the feelings of reciprocity immediately preceding the seeding (rhyme!).  If you want to super charge the guilt motivation then the client must be acutely aware of the bond and responsibilities they have to your partnership.  The Japanese do this culturally to visitors.  I was billeted in Japan for a month when I was at highschool.  The generosity, care, thought and support was so immense that I still feel bonded to the Japanese and their way of doing things.  I’ve had friends play rugby for a few years over there and they share this sentiment – one said he played harder for his Japanese club than any other team ever (this chap represented his province in NZ).  Note; there is no shortcut – you can not fake this commitment – you must work very hard for your clients and this reciprocity will develop over time naturally.
  8. Make the issue clear but give no chance at all for a discussion at the time the seeding occurs.  Under no circumstances can you allow the client to discuss this issue with you as they will simply work to lower their anxiety and therefore motivation.  They may also try to pass back elements of the issue and worst case the actual thinking involved to implement the change in their lives.  Because you are confident the client is the best person to be in charge of this issue and can solve it you have to dis-engage from this area to allow the client to go through the process.  It is not unkind, it is necessary.
  9. Seed when there is at least 3 days between sessions.   A week is good but minimum 3 days as that gives your client time to consider options, make decisions and take actions.  Given the client may see you three days a week I would suggest Thursday/Friday seedings are most practical.
  10. In your confirmation text/email you send to confirm the next session (usually sent the night before for morning sessions and early morning for later in the day sessions) include a little casual reminder of what you were going to talk about.
  11. Leverage the nutritional review again (or whatever it was you used to create the awareness that you can now use to monitor the progress).  You want to forecast the use of the nutrition record again.  Ideally let your client know you are going to repeat the homework a few weeks after the change has been adopted and then do the homework a few weeks later.  This continues some level of fear and anxiety (motivation) for the client and helps maintenance.  Once you get the client doing the change for 30 days there is a massively increased likelihood of the change being maintained for the long-term.



personal%2520training%2520carrot%2520vs%2520chocolateStep by step

Here’s how this would look as an action flow chart.  Remember this process involves directing the client to something that you're sure they will know how to change and then giving them the time, space and motivation (their anxiety and reciprocal commitment to you) to do it.  You then praise, reinforce and monitor.  This all takes very little time and effort but can have a massive effect over time particularly once two or three subtle calorie shifts are achieved.



Issue nutrition homework

Hi John.  Hey as we’ve been chatting about, you’ve done a great month of training with me, attending 8 out of 8 PT sessions and completing 8 of your own sessions and I’m absolutely wrapped with the 56% increase in strength and 28% in fitness you’ve achieved.  I think we’re now ready to get your nutrition history completed so that we can look for new opportunities together.  Here’s a little pack of material for you to work through – it’s about 50 minutes that I could see you doing in a lunch break at work sometime in the next three days.  Can I get you to commit to having that back to me at our next session on Tuesday? Great! If you do have any challenges doing the homework then shoot me a text and I’ll get hold of you as soon as I can.

Get homework back

Thank John specifically for the effort put in to filling out the form honestly and completely.  Let him know you’ll take a look and they chat to him about it by the end of the week.


Thanks for a great session and effort today John, we’ve moved the bench press up again and the cross trainer – it’s very rewarding training someone like you and I appreciate your efforts.  Having had a month where you’ve moved your fitness over 28% and your strength over 58% you’re a star client already.  I do need to apologise though as I forgot to chat to you about your nutrition history and in particular your morning teas.  We’ll have to pick that up next time as an issue to discuss but right now I have to fly and start Sue’s session.  Congratulations and thanks again for your progress to date.  We’ll chat next week about those morning teas okay.  See you then (shake his hand good bye)


Text: Hi John. Looking forward to training 8am Tues (tomorrow). Reminder, we will be talking about your morning tea nutrition. Thanks for training so well with me! SG


Hey John I was so pleased that you’d changed your morning teas I just couldn’t get it out of my head so I did some numbers and worked out with that change you put in place you’ve dropped the calories in that snack by over 52%.  The 300 calories you’ve stripped off is the same as about 20 minutes of intervals on the cross trainer.  What do you think of that? Fantastic change to make – you’re making all the right moves now.


Hey John I was really happy that we did that nutrition report for you and that you made that really significant improvement in your morning tea snacks.  What I thought we might do in a few weeks is do the report again and see where we are at and whether we can find some new opportunities to improve again.  I’ll give you the paperwork again in the first week of next month okay.

Registration content image - exercise program templates.

PT Program Template

FREE Download

Make writing personal training programs easy with these custom designed exercise templates, and keep your clients focused and progressing.

Link to PT Program Exercise Templates

Registration content image - client back care guide.

Client Back Care Guide

FREE Download

Pain-free clients are happy clients. Claim your free copy of the client back care guide today. Your clients will thank you for it!

Link to Client Back Care Guide