The Power Of Body Language With Jill Greenwood

 In For Fitness Pros, For Men, For Women, Uncategorized

Walking into a maximum security prison yard amongst an entire wing of high-risk prisoners perhaps wasn’t the smartest move on my second week in this tough working environment.For a civilian member of staff (which I was) this was a no go zone without being accompanied by a prison officer. At the time, and until I’d entered the yard I had no idea where I was.

The building itself was hugely expensive, the exterior even bigger, a bit like being the new girl at a giant school of hostile-looking men, with no-one you could trust or turn to for help.

“Look like you know what you’re doing” I repeated over and over in my head. Alas, it was too late. The prisoners knew there was no way I was meant to be in these quarters and soon came the smirks, laughs and sneers and the many (unprintable) comments which were regularly repeated to me over the next three years of working there. My body language had given me away.


With a look of fear in my now pale face, lip quivering, head bowed, I scuttled to the nearest exit I could find and questioned how I was going to stay in my new job if I couldn’t even survive walking from one wing to the next without being spotted as the weakest member of staff to target. I was dripping in a cold sweat. My body language reeked of insecurity and fear.

At 5’4 inches tall, with a fairly minuscule physique I wasn’t exactly able to evoke any physical power either …or so I thought at the time…… Over the years I spent working with high-risk prisoners, I soon learned that my body language was the first and most important giveaway sign as to whether or not I would get a ‘buy in’ from the case I was dealing with. Without their belief in me as a competent member of staff, the trust would be absent, any work I did with a prisoner would be futile.

In one ear and out the other. No positive behavioral change. Does this sound familiar when dealing with your clients?

In a prison environment, staff who lacked professionalism would often treat prisoners as friends, often failing to notice small but poignant signals and signs of danger. The process of ‘conditioning’ was a stern reminder taught to us all when sadly the loss of a job occurred if compromising situations arose due to complacency.

Working in this arena day in day out, however, gave me a heightened awareness for reading people, which has left me eternally grateful in my later new career as a personal trainer.

Body language is an outward reflection of an individual’s emotional condition.

Every movement or gesticulation can provide valuable insights into how a person is feeling at the time. In a prison, every movement is intensified. You can literally smell a person’s fear. New staff members and new prisoners are easy to spot and you don’t have to be an expert in the field to see how they are feeling.

But, what did I learn about my experience when I later became a personal trainer? Surely terrorist prisoners have very different signals to that of a mum of 3 children who wants to shed a few pounds……? Well actually as I soon learnt – maybe not so.

There are some overriding lessons about ‘humans’ in general that we can all apply to both our own behavioral signals and that in terms of an observational capacity when working with our client groups. Body language is a huge indicator of information. How a person feels about you, your instruction and the session, can add to their (and so ultimately your) success in any long-term plan and this is often not linked to what you say, but how you say it and the way you present visually to convey that information.


Look Like You Know What You Are Doing!?

Now, this may be obvious. Had I held my head high, chest proud, chin lifted, in the prison yard on that day and walked purposefully and with direction towards an exit- would I have been so easily spotted as the newbie? I think not.

As practitioners of Strength Matters we are lucky enough to hopefully all know ‘what we are doing with a client’, but remember they don’t know (or sometimes even care) about our educational backgrounds, especially when they are starting out. At the recent SMK, there was a repeated mantra:

[bctt tweet=”‘Start like a professional and end like a professional’.” username=””]

This included the most finite of detail, from how we ended a set of swings to how we transferred a kettlebell from one side of a room to the other to place it back in its original spot. I certainly know I’ve fallen foul of this myself when throwing or maneuvering bells around the floor, with an almost nonchalant look on my face.

What does this say about your attitude? What does it give off about how you are feeling about the session? The confidence and professionalism you portray in your mannerisms all counts. This is your ENERGY. As we know ENERGY transfers to those around us. Make it count.

Develop Perception For Inconsistencies

Comparing prisoners with my female weight loss clients may not be the most obvious correlation to make! However, the one key principle that stands out when dealing with any human behavior (of which the individual may not be aware themselves) relates to inconsistencies. Otherwise known as telling unconscious fibs! Looking for, what I like to term as ‘false statements’, or contradictory signs within body language is difficult when a client is new.

Secondly and perhaps most importantly, however, it is important to remember that an individual who believes what it is they are telling themselves, can sometimes give away opposing verbal and physical cues. An example of this- a ‘no pain no gain attitude’ in a new client who may fear you think they are being weak or unwilling if they stop, may tell you something ‘doesn’t hurt’, whilst screwing up their face to indicate pain just to complete the set.

Knowing the difference between a client face of pain and that of the discomfort of training (beyond their comfort zone) is a skill we should all work on developing, especially if a client is not quite ‘there’ with perfect form. If a client reports of feeling ‘fine or ok’ when their slumped body language is feeding back signals of a week of overworking, marital problems and a lack of sleep, then this could be a signal to dig a little deeper when you plan their session.

Don’t rely on what a client always verbally tells you. Look out for such inconsistencies. Don’t assume the client is lying purposefully. It is your job to notice the whole picture. New clients can often be mistrustful or nervous. The exact experience most prisoners have when they meet a new probation officer! Past experiences may have scarred or altered their impression or perception of you as a ‘job role’ as opposed to a person! Is the hunched shoulder a physiological problem or more so a sign of anxiety, angst, and nerves?

Combine verbal and physical feedback together to formulate a picture, then work on joining up the dots. This takes practice.

Show The Client You Are Human

This may sound obvious – but standing with arms crossed or hands clenched will portray an image of defense. Maintain a healthy level of eye contact. Shake their hand. Smile, and laugh. Small signals such as these can relax a client.

Remember when seeking to obtain information from someone, the more relaxed they are the more likely they are to be open and honest. Remember the power of touch. This doesn’t mean hugging everyone you meet necessarily! In fact, recognizing that some people do not like or are not comfortable with physical contact at all, is one other big learning pointer for many trainers. This is an area which should be worked on in a progressive way as the relationship increases.

At the SMK the smallest of details were reminded to us. For example – cueing a client by showing them how to lengthen their spine by touching and spreading your fingers down their back. Never underestimate how a gentle pat on the shoulder for positive behavior can have a huge influence to show you are not a robot, and that you care. Verbal signals will inevitably be of great importance but (appropriate) touch can exert a powerful impact.

Always question the things that may seem the most obvious: Is the female you train self-conscious (and so covers her body up.) Or rather is this a religious practice? Does the male you train really have an ego problem (and appears to frown when you give direction)- or is this squint his face of concentration to evidence he is listening? Clearly, there are many far-reaching and extensive features of body language relating to race, ethnicity, gender, life experiences (which are outside the scope of this article) which will be relevant to the individualism of your clients.


Get to know them. Research things you don’t know. Be aware of how you present yourself. This can go a long way to assisting you down the line.

[bctt tweet=”In the SMK James Breese emphasizes the importance of the client relationship as being imperative to a long lasting partnership.” username=””]

Use your coaches eye, not just for technique, but to learn what exactly your client is trying to unconsciously tell you. I call it tuning into your third eye. A subliminal or subconscious awareness surrounding a person gesture can give you the edge as a coach who can read your client group well. It’s often not what you say- but the movements you choose to tell ‘how you say it’

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