Creating Autonomy for Fitness Clients

AUTONOMY- What is it? And how does it relate to fitness and training of clients?

Autonomy means to create independence with one’s own thoughts or actions. Many of us developed autonomy as a result of parents/guardian-child or teacher-student relationships. We are taught a certain task and then given the free reigns to apply those tools so that we can learn to master the said task on our own. For example, learning to ride a bike. We are shown how to do so and with practice over time, we can ride a bike without help from others.

The concept of autonomy has been adapted within many other professions. In health care, creating patient autonomy is a huge initiative to reduce medical costs and allow patients to have more control and say in their treatment. Several studies have been conducted in support of patient autonomy. For example, published papers by Elwyn 1 and  Entwistle 2 encourage enabling and providing support which allows patient to be better informed and manage their treatment.

This movement isn’t as prominent in fitness outside a regulated health setting (i.e. sports medicine, rehab etc) but it also isn’t a novel idea. Unfortunately many fitness businesses rely on the clients depending on their trainers to navigate their sessions and thereby create a dependency. From a business model it makes sense to have this type of dependent relationship. But if the purpose is to truly promote a healthy lifestyle, then helping the client create the foundation for proper movement is imperative. Thus creating client autonomy.




Client autonomy isn’t just about teaching the client what to do and expect them to perform the task on their own. IDEA Fitness Journal defines autonomy for clients as one where the individual engages in exercise because they choose to do so 3. They state that the trainer can do the following to create client autonomy:

  1. offer the clients exercise they will choose to do
  2. help them redefine what exercise means to them (i.e. that doing certain exercises at the gym on x day for y sets for z time isn’t the only exercise they can do. If the client feels restrictive then the drop out rate will likely be high.)

But in order to create client autonomy, other elements must play a role for it to be effective. The self -determination theory is a contemporary theory of human motivation and it comprises of three elements, one of them being autonomy.

  1. Autonomy- a desire to engage in an activity of one’s choosing
  2. Relatedness- feeling connected or belonging to an environment
  3. Competence- feeling desired to interact effectively with the environment




Teixeira et al  conducted a systematic review of the literature looking at exercise, physical activity and self-determination theory. Amongst the 66 empirical studies, the literature demonstrated the importance of client autonomy in fostering physical activity.

Further to that, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM’s) Health and Fitness Journal published an article suggesting that if the exercise environment is rich in autonomy support, structure and interpersonal involvement, then the needs of autonomy, relatedness and competence will be supported 4. This would thereby allow health and fitness professionals to empower their clients to take ownership of their exercise and subsequently achieving the benefits associated with an active lifestyle.

There are some fitness establishments that take pride in creating client autonomy. Bang Fitness in Toronto, for example, offers “Hybrid Training” whereby the client gets the best elements of personal training and group fitness. They get an individualized program design, nutritional counselling and 1:4 ratio personalized coaching.



Example of the Hybrid Coaching- A few clients training independently and one Fitness Coach on hand to provide guidance


As I was curious about this style of training, I sought out more details from Founder and Head Strength & Conditioning Coach Geoff Girvitz. He described the Hybrid approach as one where they “bend the system to fit the person”. He explained that they believe in creating a meaningful process with long term goals in that the client can learn proper biomechanics so that later on in their lives they can remain durable and better aware of their body’s movement i.e. a concept rooted in movement.



Geoff Gervitz- Founder and Head Strength & Conditioning Coach at Bang Fitness in Toronto


Initially the clients are shown the proper techniques, and instead of micromanaging them for the hour, they are given their program and left to train on their own but with their trainer present. This allows the clients to train independently and show their trainers what they know, and the trainers can subsequently correct the clients when the biomechanics are off. It’s a concept which truly empowers the clients to take ownership in their training.

I encourage those of you reading this article who desire a more independent style of training, especially for longevity, to seek out fitness professionals willing to create a program or system that promotes autonomy in training.


For more information on Bang Fitness, please check out their site:


** All photos depicted in this article were taken at Bang Fitness, with permission of Founder Geoff Gervitz




  1. Elwyn D. Advocating mandatory patient ‘autonomy’ in healthcare: adverse reactions and see effects. Health Care Analysis 2008; 16: 315-28.
  2. Entwistle V. et al. Supporting patient autonomy: the importance of clinician-patient relationships. J Gen Intern Med 2010; 25 (7): 741-5.
  4. Edmunds J et al. Helping your client and patients take ownership over their exercise: fostering exercise adoption, adherence, and associated well-being. ACSM Health & Fitness Journal 2009; 13 (3): 20-25
  5. Teixeira P. et al. Exerces, physical activity, and self-determination theory: a systematic review. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 2012; 9:78-108.



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