I begin each of my training sessions by posing a simple question to my clients:

 “Is there anything special you would like to work on today?”

With new clients, their answers are almost always nouns: a stronger core, toned triceps, open shoulders, shapely legs, a straighter back. While they’re giving me their body image wish-list, I admit, I’m not listening to what they’re saying.

I’m watching what they’re doing.

There is a posture a person adopts when they talk about the pieces of themselves they don’t like: the muscles around their mouth strain, their breath shallows and moves high in the chest, weight shifts to the dominant leg and won’t shift back; the whole upper body subtly implodes, closing the space around the sternum—the heart—as though expecting a blow.

The way a person rearranges themselves to hide the parts they are ashamed of—much more than the words coming out their mouth—will tell me what they need to be stronger.

My long-time clients answer very differently: with verbs. We’ve never once worked on a noun, a piece, a portion; we work on patterns, forces and transitions. They arrive to each session with something they’d like to do, rather than something they’d like to have.

The difference can be hard to spot, but it matters. When someone says to me: “I want knees that don’t hurt,” they say it in that defeated posture: breath shallow, body closed. I see it all the time. It is predicated on the assumption of failure: that a knee is an object, like a cell phone or a tea pot, that is now broken and has depreciated in value. They don’t want these knees. They want new knees.

Change the wording of that desire to “I want to run without knee pain” and something amazing happens: the target of the dissatisfaction is no longer the knee; it’s the pain. Contained within that statement is the assumption of ability. The injured joint needs to be cared for, not replaced.

This represents an enormous shift in thinking. Unburdened of self-criticism, a new posture emerges: the closed and defensive body becomes one that is eager, receptive, adaptable.

When we reach this point, my job gets a lot easier. I can’t give someone new knees but I can teach anyone how to use the ones they have.

When a client talks to me with verbs I know that, in their mind’s eye, they are seeing themselves moving well: running, walking, swimming, working, playing. I watch strong people crumple under the burden of a list of nouns all the time but I’ve rarely seen a person with a few carefully selected verbs do anything but improve.

Verbs are not static. They go places. They change, just like bodies. With a clear understanding of what we want and a vocabulary for defining, discussing and pursuing it, we can count on our bodies changing for the better.

Feel free to leave a list of your favorite verbs in the comments . . . and don’t forget to share them with your trainer!

6 Responses to “How to Talk to Your Trainer”

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    Haha, nice one!

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    My verbs: I want to pull myself up three times in a row. I want to invert consistently (pole fitness). I want to touch my knees with my nose.

    My best accomplishment since January is I can now sneeze without back pain. Lol

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    One of my favorite verbs is PLAY. I want to be strong enough and fast enough to play with my daughter. I like to play with poses in yoga. I like to play with speed on the treadmill. I want all my workouts to feel like play!

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    We see the same in PT…People who take an active role and ownership respond very differently than those who dont.

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    Julie Moore

    Brilliant! We need to speak to ourselves this way, too. Making a healthy body requires a healthy mind. One cannot be successful without the other.

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    Hi, this is excellent!
    I underwent a fundamental shift of thinking about 6 months ago when I started my 365 exercise project and I inadvertently did what you suggest when I defined my project as one to make me fit enough to dance 🙂
    so my favourite verbs in terms of the things I would like to be able to do at the end of my project are:
    Fight (in a martial arts sort of way not a crazy person sort of way)
    smile (while I am doing all of the things)


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