NLP and Fitness Training


Robert Dilts, Daniel Dilts and Lily Dilts

Personal fitness is one of the keys to a long, happy and healthy life. In addition to increased energy, vitality, strength and flexibility, the benefits of good fitness include better concentration, more stamina and greater readiness to meet life’s challenges. Research also shows that good fitness greatly reduces the risk of a variety of illnesses and physical problems such as osteoporosis, heart disease, and adult onset diabetes.

Despite the many positive consequences of fitness, people often struggle to achieve and maintain it. Sometimes this is due to lack of knowledge of effective health habits. It can also be because people need help to reshape their lifestyles and reprogram unhealthy patterns of behavior.

Physical and mental fitness both involve developing a certain degree of flexibility and stamina. These are achieved through consistent exercise and healthy life practices rather than through “quick fixes.” In general, fitness is a result of personal congruence, respecting the value of the body, and promoting the connection between mind and body.

Good fitness, then, is more than physical conditioning. Complete fitness applies to both body and mind. To be truly “fit” means to be healthy physically and mentally. Ultimately, fitness comes from living a healthy lifestyle. Nutrition and exercise are the two areas of focus necessary for good physical fitness. Both are very important. Eating a healthy diet, for instance, leads to having a healthy heart, a sturdy cardio vascular system, low body fat, strong muscles, solid bones, etc. Being fit also means having a healthy attitude and outlook on life. Attitude, physical conditioning and good nutrition all support each other to produce a healthy life style.

Helping people to achieve and maintain a better state of fitness is the role of fitness trainers. Fitness training is the act of teaching, supporting, helping and motivating clients to achieve a healthy lifestyle. This involves supporting clients on a number of different levels. In addition to the environmental and behavioral aspects of fitness, people must address issues relating to the development of new capabilities, beliefs, values and even their sense of identity. Thus, fitness training is much more than just counting repetitions on the weight machine. In addition to teaching proper lifting techniques, correct form and proper nutrition, fitness trainers counsel and listen to problems, acting as caretakers, guides, coaches, teachers, mentors, sponsors and, at times, awakeners for their clients.

The “Inner Game” of Fitness

The mental aspects of fitness are related to what can be referred to as the inner game of fitness. The concept of the “inner game” was developed by Timothy Gallwey (1974, 2000) as a way of helping people to achieve excellence in various sports (e.g., tennis, golf, skiing, etc.), music and also in the workplace. Success in any area of performance involves using your mind as well as your body. Preparing yourself mentally to perform well is the essence of your “inner game.”

The “outer game” has to do with physical skills. In fitness training, for example, this would involve how many calories to eat, which types of exercises to do, how many repetitions to make, etc. The “inner game,” on the other hand, has to do with your mental approach to what you are doing. This includes your attitude, confidence in yourself, your ability to concentrate effectively, deal with setbacks, and so on.

People tend to think of fitness training as being mostly focused on the “outer game” of fitness, but in order for people to successfully reach fitness goals, they must also develop their “inner game.” Many fitness trainers will tell you that the hardest muscle to train is the muscle “between the ears.” You can have a room full of the latest and best equipment, but if it is not used, it is no help. Some key components of a successful inner game of fitness include:

Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) provides a model of change and a variety of tools that can help clients in this “inner game” of fitness. In addition to their applications to problem solving, NLP processes and principles can greatly enhance a person’s fitness in a number of ways.

Creating the Future

Goal setting is the first and primary technique used by fitness trainers to help their clients define what they really want. A key to goal setting is defining the right kind of goals. Fitness, for instance, is not about having the “perfect body” but rather about having your own body become fit and healthy. It is important for fitness trainers to help their clients rephrase goals such as “being thin” to “being healthy” (i.e., having strong bones, a good heart, able to touch your toes, etc.).

For women who have recently completed a pregnancy, fitness goals might include losing excess weight, toning up their lower abs and getting their breasts back in shape. For other women, fitness training is useful to help shape up their triceps, glutes, hips and abs.

While people frequently seek fitness training when they are out of shape or overweight, it is not always the case. Bob, for example, was an avid bicyclist. He had powerful legs but a weak upper body. Dan helped Bob to define and achieve a balanced physique by working with him to get his upper body to catch up with his lower body.

To succeed in reaching fitness outcomes, it is often important for fitness trainers to help their clients to begin by setting short-term (micro) goals. For instance, the trainer may urge a client who is very overweight to think in terms of losing 10 pounds first (rather than 90). But shorter term goals must then be connected to long-term outcomes and life-long motivators. It is important to keep in mind that fitness is not only about eating right or exercising so that you feel better for today. Fitness is preparing for your future and constantly looking toward the future.

As an example, Sue set a goal of losing 60 pounds for her wedding—which she did—but then gained it all back afterwards. Lily helped Sue to get a clearer picture of her longer term future and connect her current actions to that future. When thinking about her daily eating and exercise habits, Lily coached Sue to ask herself questions like, “What kind of body do I want at the age of 70? How do I want to move? How much energy do I want to have? What do I need to start doing today in order to ensure that I will get there?” As a result, Sue was able to develop more realistic, long-term health habits and reach a healthy, manageable weight.

People who are truly fit make fitness part of their identity. Good exercise and eating habits should be as natural as washing your face, brushing your teeth, bathing, etc.

Achieving good fitness involves making yourself a priority. We do so many things for others in our lives (children, partner, boss, clients, colleagues, etc.); it is also important to consider, “Who is taking care of me?”

Fitness is about doing what you can for yourself. When deciding what to eat, for instance, think of yourself as an expensive car. If you had a Ferrari or a Jaguar, what type of fuel would you put in it? Treat your body the same way. Think of your body as a temple. Care for it the best you can

Motivation and Confidence

Motivation is critical for people to achieve good fitness. A trainer can tell clients what they need to do and how to do it, but that will not make any difference unless their clients are motivated.

Many people desiring to achieve good fitness are challenged by motivational issues, especially when they are overweight, tired, discouraged, etc. People who are out of shape frequently feel very low self-esteem. They joke about their “multiple chins,” for instance, and feel embarrassed to be seen by others. This can even start a downward spiral. They will avoid going to the spa to work out because they are embarrassed to be seen in their gym clothes and, as a result, end up even more out of shape.

Good fitness requires a lot of learning, discipline and control. It can be difficult for people to keep up their momentum, and they may find themselves struggling with laziness and boredom. It is important for fitness trainers to help clients discover and focus on their own personal “motivators.”

A good illustration of this is the case of Scott. Scott is a business owner who weighed nearly 500 pounds. Scott knew he had to lose weight but did not want to. He signed up and paid for fitness training to help him lose weight but was not motivated to follow through. He constantly showed up half an hour late for a one-hour appointment, knowing he would then only have to work out for half an hour.

The big breakthrough for Scott came when Dan helped him to reframe his motivation from “losing weight” to “gaining strength.” Dan realized that Scott was a successful businessman who understood the need to meet a quota. Increasing strength was something Scott could relate to. As a businessman, Scott did not like to “lose” anything. More strength was something Scott could go toward and increase, rather than “lose.”

The resulting transformation in Scott has been remarkable. He drives an hour and a half three days a week to make his appointments, and if he misses, he reschedules immediately. He has lost more than 50 pounds, but, more importantly, has quadrupled his strength. Scott is happy that he is losing weight (now that he can get on a scale that is able to weigh him), but his biggest motivation is seeing his gain in strength. He makes it a point to try to compete with the biggest, strongest guys in the gym.

It is significant to note that Scott was originally planning to have his upper intestine removed or have his stomach stapled because of his ambivalence towards losing weight. It is important to realize, however, that drastic or extreme measures such as these do not ultimately lead to fitness. They leave flabby skin, affect the body’s ability to retain sufficient water and nutrients, and rob people of the opportunity to learn about healthy living for themselves. In addition to losing weight, Scott has benefited from becoming educated about good exercise and nutrition, learning about himself and seeing the relationship between strength training and food.

As Scott’s example shows, people’s belief and confidence in themselves and what they are doing can be important motivators for fitness. Fitness trainers are constantly building confidence in their clients by reinforcing their progress in strength, weight loss, body definition, proper form, etc.
Another important motivator for clients can come from thinking of others whom they care for and who look to them as role models or mentors. A key motivation for a woman, for instance, might be to become “a good strong role model as a woman for my daughter.”

Of course, the trainer himself or herself must at times be a key role model and motivator. Lily’s client Liz, for instance, hated the “gym scene” and refused to come to the gym to train. Lily offered to train Liz at home for months, even though it was not as efficient and desirable as working out at the spa. After fostering a strong sense of rapport and trust with Liz, Lily finally convinced her to come into the gym with a friend.

Knowing that Lily was going to be there to tell her how good she was doing and how good she looked was an important motivator for Liz. As a result, Liz now enjoys both the success and camaraderie of working out and she has lost 30 pounds.

Another benefit for Liz has been a change in her relationship with her husband, a “workout nut” who had been constantly nagging her about getting in shape. Now she can relate to his interest in fitness and join him in workouts at the gym.

Creating a Compelling Future

Creating a compelling future is one of the keys to winning the “inner game” of fitness training. Creating a compelling future involves visualizing desired goals and successful outcomes. Such images help to inspire us and propel us forward toward a dream, goal or outcome. In addition to helping create positive expectations, visualizing successful outcomes helps you to tap into and direct your own inner source of motivation. Compelling futures are typically formed around key values. To get a sense of your own values, consider for a moment the following questions: “In general, what motivates you?” “What inspires you?” “What moves you to action, or ‘gets you out of bed in the morning’?” Some possible answers might be:

These are all examples of “values.” When we can connect our future plans and goals to these values, those goals become even more compelling. Use the following structure with yourself or clients to link fitness goals to key values:

According to NLP, we hold or represent these values to ourselves in the form of inner pictures, sounds, words and feelings. These sensory perceptions influence how we think and feel about something a great deal. Consider the ways in which your sensory perceptions influence your degree of motivation and desire. Think of an advertisement on television that made you want to own the product being advertised, for example. What was it about the ad that inspired you to go out and buy the product? Was it the color, brightness, music, words, tone of voice, movement, etc.? These particular features are known as “Submodalities” in NLP, and often play a significant role in people’s degree of motivation and desire.

The following process uses imagination, values and visualization to help create an inner representation of a compelling future.

Visualizing Success

  1. Think about both your near-term and long-term future. Ask yourself, “What kind of body do I want at the age of 30, 40, 50, 60, 70? How do I want to move? How much energy do I want to have?” Put yourself into your future and imagine that you have already achieved these fitness goals and are really enjoying it. Get in touch with what you are seeing, hearing, doing and feeling while enjoying these benefits.

  2. Adjust the sensory qualities of your internal experience in such a way that it feels more motivating or compelling. Does the experience become more compelling and attractive if you add more color? Brightness? Sound? Words? Movement? What happens if you bring the image closer or move it farther away? What happens if you make the sounds or words louder or softer? What do you experience if you make the movement quicker or slower? Identify which qualities make the experience feel the best. Applying those qualities, experience the good feelings that come from having your outcome.

  3. Ask yourself, “What do I need to start doing today in order to ensure that I will get my long-term fitness goals?” Remember the good feelings that will come from reaching your successful future as you picture yourself doing the exercises and eating the way that you know will help you move closer to your fitness goals.

Breaking Old Habits
Changing old habits and establishing new healthy ones is another key to achieving good fitness. It is important, for instance, for fitness trainers to remind and support their clients to step back and “think before you react.” For example, let’s say a client is offered some cake. Rather than just reacting by reaching for it, clients need to first ask:

As these questions imply, it is important for clients to sort out “need” from “want.” If a client wants the cake for the taste, for instance, how much does he or she need in order to get the taste? If it is to please him/herself or others, are there other or better ways to do that? Additionally, if the client is eating in order to please him/herself, he or she can be prompted to consider, “Are you really pleasing yourself?” “After you’ve eaten it, how will you feel?”

Questions such as these can help clients to switch their mindset about healthy eating from “depriving myself” to “benefiting myself.” This allows people to get the same feeling and gratification from not eating as they do from eating. They begin to realize that the pleasure of not eating will last longer than that derived from eating, and that the “food hangover” that frequently results from overeating is not nearly as pleasant as the feeling of energy and confidence that comes from eating healthy portions of food.

Clearing the Past

In working with diet and weight issues, it is also useful for fitness trainers to help clients understand the difference between themselves and food, what food is for, and what their internal “programming” is regarding food. Some people, for instance, “live to eat” rather than “eat to live.” Frequently, these people have addictive personalities or enjoy food beyond enjoying themselves. In some people’s minds, their joy in life comes from sitting down and eating something, trying to satisfy a never-ending need.

This is where NLP can be especially handy for fitness trainers. NLP techniques, such as those involving time line work, can be very useful to help bring such a person back into his or her past in order to discover the situations that triggered unhealthy eating habits leading to weight gain. This can be a very emotional process, but once people find such triggers, the issues can be addressed directly rather than trying to resolve them through food. It does take more than one or two sessions to identify and reprogram the problematic thought process. Taking this time, however, can help lift the burden off clients so that they are able to move forward with their lives.

Alexandra, for example, struggled with eating and weight issues. The source of this struggle was her feeling that she didn’t deserve to be happy. Dan helped Alexandra explore the origin of this feeling and discovered that she came from a rural, blue collar background. Having grown up in a poor but hard working community, Alexandra felt guilty that she was more successful than her friends and relatives. She was afraid that if she embraced her success, she would lose it all. Overeating and being heavy was a way of punishing herself for her success, so that she wasn’t perfect.

Once they discovered this fact, Dan helped Alexandra to reframe the part of herself that felt guilty for succeeding. As a result, she was able to change her perception of success and find other, more satisfying ways to share and celebrate her accomplishments with her family and friends.

Elise struggled with her weight for a different reason. She had recently broken up from a long-term relationship with a particular man. In exploring her unhealthy relationship toward food, she discovered that she was doing it as a way to punish both herself and her old boyfriend. A part of her thought, “I’ll show him and get huge. I’ll punish myself, then he will feel sorry for me for being unhealthy and overweight.” This realization allowed to Elise to reevaluate her feelings toward herself, her ex-boyfriend and food, and to get satisfaction by taking care of herself rather than punishing herself.

By exploring the events that triggered her unhealthy eating habits, Lily helped Josie discover that her conflicts about fitness stemmed from the fact that she had been molested by her father when she was a child. Josie placed much of the blame for this situation on her mother, who always wore a lot of makeup, and who Josie thought of as a “slut.” As a consequence of her family history, Josie did not want men to look at her. She hid behind her weight, choice of drab clothing and lack of makeup. After working with Lily using the NLP Change Personal History technique to bring new resources to herself and resolve these past events, Josie went home, dressed up and put on makeup for the first time. This was the beginning of a series of positive changes that Josie claims has “changed her life.”

Triggers and beliefs that come from the past are not only limited to weight and food issues. Kathy, for example, was a ski instructor who was involved in fitness training in order to get to the next level in her profession, but she found herself “holding back.” An exploration of her resistance revealed that she felt she “shouldn’t do things boys can do.” Her belief was, “If I am fit, I will compete with men. Girls don’t do that.” When Dan helped Kathy reflect upon the origin of this feeling, she recalled that her mother had discouraged her from being athletic. It turned out that Kathy had an older brother who was not interested in athletics at all. Kathy would use the equipment her parents bought for her brother and her mother thought her father would “have a fit” if he found out. By going back on her time line to explore the situation more deeply, Kathy realized that her father did not mind at all. As a result, Kathy was able to let go of the concern that she had picked up from her mother’s well-intentioned but erroneous messages and reach her goals on the ski slopes.

Another example is that of Margaret who was thin and athletic but had suffered a back injury. She came to fitness training in order to regain her strength after surgery. She sometimes found herself listless and demotivated, however, because she had lost a lot of money in the stock market as a result of the “dot-com” crash. Lily found that it was important for her to do a lot of listening and be an outlet for Margaret’s concerns in order for Margaret to be able to keep up with her training.

Reframing Inner Resistance

To successfully reach our goals we must be congruent about getting what we want. This is another aspect of the “inner game” of fitness. Sometimes it seems like parts of us are resisting or uncooperative. Other times, we have to struggle against old patterns, responses and habits. Rather than simply fighting with ourselves, it is important to acknowledge and communicate with all parts of ourselves.

Reframing is an NLP process for addressing inner conflicts and resistances, and for finding other ways to get what we want without engaging in negative or unwanted behaviors. Reframing is based on the principle of “positive intention.” The principle of positive intention states that at some level all behavior is (or at one time was) “positively intended.” Another way to say it is that all behavior serves (or at one time served) a “positive purpose.” The positive intention behind eating candy, for instance, might be to “get comfort” or “reward yourself.” “Comfort foods” often serve the positive purpose of “showing appreciation or love,” “sharing a good experience,” etc. In other words, every behavior or response is aimed at getting for a person something that he or she wants.

Once the positive intention behind the seemingly negative behavior has been discovered, resources and alternatives are much more easily found. It is important to have other choices that are at least as effective for fulfilling the positive intention of the problem behavior in order to appropriately address the obstacle. If there are no alternatives, the risk is that you will become conflicted internally or become overly rigid or dogmatic.

Rather than feeling mistrustful, guilty or ashamed about difficulties, the recognition of your own positive intention leads to trust in your positive intent and gives a specific strategy for finding other alternatives rather than becoming frustrated with the typical “trial and error” (or “trial and horror” as it is sometimes called) approach.

The reframing process involves understanding and communicating with yourself, rather than blaming or punishing yourself. The basic steps involve:

  1. Identifying the problematic feeling, response or behavior. What behavior or response is getting in the way of achieving your fitness goals?

  2. Discover the source of the problematic feeling, response or behavior in your past. When did this pattern of behavior start and what were the conditions under which it began?

  3. Finding the positive intention or motive for the response or behavior. What is that behavior getting for you or trying to do positively for you?

  4. Identifying alternatives and resources that address the positive intention, but without the negative consequences. What other ways can you get that benefit? What resources and understandings do you have now that you did not have at the time that this pattern started? (Find as many as you can.)

  5. Enlisting the cooperation of all of your inner parts to try a new choice. Which new alternatives and resources would you be willing to try? (Choose at least three.)

Fitness and fitness training are classical examples of the overlap between mind and body, and achieving good fitness demonstrates the many benefits of that integration. The ultimate objective of fitness training is to create a positive spiral in which eating right and working out lead to better sleep and more energy which, in turn, lead to natural weight loss and other positive physical results. People are often surprised to find that they can be eating plenty of food and losing weight at the same time.

While fitness training requires a certain amount of motivation, learning and effort to begin, once a good routine is in place, it becomes a form of therapy and stress management in and of itself. Workouts are like a type of therapy and can become powerful ways of relieving stress and provide an effective strategy for taking preventative action. Fitness trainers can show clients how to use workouts to relieve stress. Then, instead of having a couple of drinks at the bar, clients can go to the gym for the same amount of time and work out the stress.

While there are basic guidelines for achieving good fitness, it is important for fitness trainers to remember that each person is unique and trainers must treat them as individuals. Fitness training and nutrition plans need to be adapted to the needs of each client, helping clients find their individual motivators and dealing with potential inner blocks and resistances. NLP is an important resource for fitness trainers in order to accomplish this.

NLP Tools such as establishing Well-Formed Outcomes, Creating a Compelling Future using Time Lines and Submodalities, Mental Rehearsal, Future Pacing, Changing Personal History and Reframing can be used to help clients achieve success in the “inner game” of fitness.

About the Authors

Authors Dan and Lily Dilts are both certified Fitness Trainers and certified NLP Practitioners. They help people to unite their mind and body to achieve good fitness through their company Whole Person Fitness. Dan and Lily combine NLP and fitness training in 1, 5, 10 and 20-day training packages. For more information, see their web site at

Robert Dilts is an internationally known NLP trainer and developer with a strong interest in fitness and health. He is co-creator of the NLP Health Certification Training (with Tim Hallbom and Suzi Smith) and a founding board member of the Institute for the Advanced Studies of Health (IASH). Robert is an author of 20 books on NLP. His most recent book From Coach to Awakener describes the tools that coaches can use to support their clients to grow and change at a number of different levels. You can find Robert’s training schedule and other NLP resources at

Bibliography of Reference Texts and Related Readings