How to Talk to Your Friends and Family About Strength Training

by Andrew Lewis, SSC | December 30, 2020

andrew lewis with old man style

It can be frustrating to try to help friends or family members start lifting. It's obvious that strength training will help them improve their lives and health, but they seem so resistant to the idea. The problem is that they are at a different stage of idea acceptance than you. You have fully accepted the idea that strength training is one of the few Holy Grails in life. You need to recognize that there are people who don’t even know what strength training is, let alone that it will fix many of their physical problems. Many of your friends and family don’t even know they have a physical problem. They see their diabetes, weak muscles, chronic back and knee pain, and low energy as a part of their life that won’t go away, that's just a part of who they are. You can’t propose a solution to a problem they don’t perceive to exist. Furthermore, you can’t make people change their habits or opinions. Only they can. You can guide them, but you cannot upload the mindset and knowledge into their minds to “fix” them. They must come to the realization and decision to change of their own accord.

In this article, I'll outline the process I use to guide people to begin strength training. It is not a 100% effective method, because I'm not trying to force someone to start. I'm helping them think about potential solutions to their problems, and sometimes they arrive at conclusions that improve their lives that aren't strength training. They also may realize that strength training will help but choose not to pursue it. However, this can help them think about their health in a different way and move toward healthier habits. Perhaps someday, they will decide to train.

Underlying Characteristics

There are a few key strategies you must adopt while guiding a person toward a change:

Acceptance: Before anything else, you must accept people for who they are. You can hope they change and assist them if the time comes. You can choose to confront them and explain how their actions affect you and your relationship. They may choose to change based on your feedback, but they may not. You have to accept that this is who they are and that they may never change. You cannot hope or control someone into being the person you wish they were.

Autonomy support: People do what they want to. Suppose you talk your friend into a rhetorical corner. He concedes that you must be correct; his lifestyle is unhealthy, his life would be better if he was stronger, and he would live longer and better. He tells you he should definitely start lifting. You walk away victorious, and he goes right back to whatever he was doing with no change. You may have actually made things worse because now he has prejudice associated with the discussion. It has been shown that when people's autonomy is threatened, they will act in opposition in order to assert their independence and retain control.

Therefore, a head-on “I’m going to tell you what you need and how it is” approach is typically counterproductive. You have to accept that people are going to do what they want and have to make their own decisions in life.

Compassion: This endeavor has to actually be for the sake of the person you’re helping, not for the sake of your coaching resume. Wanting what’s best for your friend or family member is critical in assisting them make a change.

Partnership: You’re not fighting this person in an argument to “convince” him of your point. You are both working together to help him. An appropriate metaphor here is that you are in a dance, not a fight. At the end of the day, if you fight them, they always have the choice to ignore your argument. Even if it’s something as confident as “you must make a lifestyle change.” In fact, they don’t have to make that change. A smoker does not have to quit smoking even when an immediate threat to his life is apparent.

Understanding the problem: You cannot offer a solution to a problem you don't understand. Seeking to understand your friends' problems will have three effects. 1) Your responses will be contextually relevant. 2) They will feel like you understand their problems and they will feel heard. 3) You will learn if their problems can actually be solved with strength training. Strength training solves a lot of problems, but it doesn't solve all of them.

Use active listening, open ended questions, reflections, and summaries to better understand the problem and show your friends that you understand. It may seem unnecessary that someone feels understood, but it is not enough that you understand their problems. They must know that you understand or your rhetoric will fall short.

Active listening: Listening is the easiest skill you can acquire to provide a massive benefit. It is as fundamental as learning to read or write. It takes time to become a good listener, but every day is an opportunity to improve.

When someone is talking, you should only be listening to him. Don't think about what you're going to say. Don't judge what he's saying. Don't just wait for him to stop talking so you can talk. Don't look at your phone. This sounds so obvious, but the next time you talk to someone, unless you've practiced listening, you'll notice your mind wandering. You'll notice that you impatiently wait for him to stop talking so you can talk about what you think is relevant to the conversation.

Active listening is critical for understanding. Your friend will tell you about how his back has been hurting lately, but it's not enough to just have heard him. You need to give him feedback that you understand. This starts very simple: "It sucks that your back hurts." But this tells him a lot. First, it tells him that you're listening. Second, it tells him that you know his back hurts and that's a negative. Asking open-ended questions will facilitate continued understanding and discussion.

Open-ended questions: Typical information gathering involves closed questions. These have a short list of definitive answers. "Yes/No" is the most common type of closed question.

"Does your back hurt here?"


"Is it dull or sharp?"


"Does it hurt when I touch it



This kind of questioning has its place, but it feels like an interrogation or clinical questionnaire. It leaves no room for complete answers to a problem. Consider this alternative:

Me: "How would you describe your back pain?"

Friend: "It's dull. It's in this area. It's really bad in the morning and stiff, but it seems to get better throughout the day and if I stay active. But certain positions make it ache worse. Like if I bend like this, it aches."

So much information resulted from one question. Closed questions can be used to clarify, but most of the questions should be open-ended. These open-ended questions should be coupled with reflections.

Reflections: Reflecting is speculating on what your friend has implied, and mirroring his language. This allows him to clarify when you're wrong or continue talking when you're right. This should not be done as a question, because it disrupts the concentration of your audience.

From the earlier example:

Friend: "...But certain positions make it ache worse. Like if I bend like this, it aches."

Me: (Reflecting) "It must affect your work."

If you're right, he'll continue talking and explain the effect the pain has.

Me: "It must affect your work."

Friend: "Yes. I stand all day and frequently have to bend over to grab something under my station. That makes work tough right now".

If you're wrong, he tells you and then continues anyway.

Me: "It must affect your work."

Friend: "Not really. I move around all day, and like I said, that helps. It becomes a big problem when I'm playing with my daughter. She wants me to pick her up, and when I bend like this, it hurts a lot."

This seems like mild conversation, but they're telling you what matters to them and how solving this problem would improve their lives. This will come into play later. Like active listening, this is awkward at first, but becomes natural and fluid with practice.

Summarize: Summarizing is important when a lot of information has been provided. This could be at the end of the conversation or just at a break point. Summaries allow you to be corrected by your friend if you're wrong about something. This also allows him to clarify or further explain a point he didn't fully develop. Finally, like everything else, it gives feedback that he has been heard and understood by you. It is terminated with a closed-ended question asking for clarification.

From the most recent example:

Me: "It must affect your work."

Friend: "Not really. I walk around all day at work, and like I said, that helps. It becomes a big problem when I'm playing with my daughter. She wants me to pick her up, and when I bend like this, it hurts a lot."

Me: (Summarizing) "So your back pain is dull, it's bad in the morning, but gets better throughout the day especially if you exercise it. Bending over makes it ache a lot worse which isn't good because you have to bend over a lot when you play with your daughter. Did I miss anything?"

Friend: "No. That's about it. It just really stinks. My doctor got my back X-rayed and there's nothing obvious that would be causing the pain, and I don't want to get an MRI."

Now that you have a good understanding of your friend's problem, you can provide comparisons of how others have improved that problem.

Comparable examples: There is no sense in telling your friends how strength is going to magically solve their problems unless you're speaking from a position of authority, or unless they specifically came to you for help. However, it is helpful to draw on actual examples. Examples cannot be refuted – you can say "Deadlifts will lessen your back pain" and they can disagree or not believe you. Generally, though, sharing someone else's story is less likely to be invalidated unless it's unreasonable. "My back pain got better when I started deadlifting" cannot be brushed off because it's your experience.

The examples have to be comparable, because it's easy for your audience to think "Well, that's fine for him, but I'm different. I'm older. I'm too heavy. I'm a woman. etc." It will not be received as intended if you tell your 60-year-old mother that your 30-year-old lifting partner deadlifts 405lb, and that makes his back feel better. Tell her that your friend's 60-year-old mom got her back stronger by strength training and her back doesn't hurt anymore – she will be more likely to imagine her back pain being reduced by doing strength training exercises.

You: The average lifter has not coached a lot of people, if any, but should have a story of his own success. You are going to be the first example of how strength has improved someone's life. Not how it's going to improve your friend's life, just what you did and how it helped you. This is not the only example of strength successes you will use, because the subject must be similar to your audience – just the first example. You have no business explaining how strength will improve someone's life if it hasn't improved your life, and people notice that. It is rhetorically weak. You don't need to have a 600lb deadlift, but you should have a story to tell.

Lifters you know or coach: The example must be comparable, so you'll need additional sources to explain to your mom that gardening will be easier if she gets her squat up to 135lb. Collect examples and stories over time as you participate in the strength training community. These are great to have ready for any given audience. You understand your audience's problem, and they've told you why their lives are diminished because of their weakness. This is the part where you'll use that understanding to draw comparisons between other people's successes and your audience's problem.

Other examples: Maybe you only have yourself as an example. That's okay. There are many examples on the Starting Strength forum that you can use to draw comparisons. Don't lie to your audience. It will be tempting to embellish, but expectation management is critical to perceived success. If you read on the forum that someone's back pain improved in six sessions, don't tell your audience that you have a friend who's back pain was gone after two sessions of deadlifting. Data is crucial in expectation management, which is why a good coach will retain records of previous clients. Don't speculate or lie about what a prospect will achieve – just show them what 45-year-old Carol's first month was like, and let the prospects decide for themselves if that seems like something they believe and want to do.

Other notable examples of internet successes include Gus age 91, John age 90, Shane the pilot age 47, Kendall the BJJ instructor age 30, Claire the nurse with cerebral palsy, Emily the ballet dancer aged 16. There are a ton of examples on the SS Stories that you can learn about and draw on when talking to friends and family.

Theoretical understanding and explanation: Your audience will have questions and preconceived notions of what strength training is. Being able to address these concerns will be helpful. You mom will not squat if she legitimately believes that squats are bad for the knees. You can address that by saying that there are ways to squat safely that keep the knees healthy. This doesn't mean you need to be able to give a lecture on knee anatomy in the squat, but it would behoove you and your audience to be able to address a few common concerns. Here is a short list of common concerns that come up, and that you'll want to be able to address:

  • squats, bench presses, and deadlifts are just for powerlifters
  • deadlifting will hurt your spine
  • squats are bad for the knees
  • strength training makes women bulky
  • strength will make you muscle bound
  • strength training will ruin your ability to run or do cardio
  • isolation is better than compound movements
  • strength training takes too much time
  • strength training will make you slow
  • strength training will make you fat

Time: Time is the most frustrating factor in this process. It will seem so clear to you what your friend needs to do right now, but he needs time to process and think about what's been discussed. He also needs time for his problems to potentially get worse, and therefore require a change. People do not typically readily accept new ideas.

The transtheoretical model of change proposes five steps to behavior change. Precontemplation: not even knowing that change is possible or beneficial. Contemplation: believing there are costs and benefits of maintaining the status quo, but also that there are costs and benefits to making a change. Preparation: accepting that a change needs to take place and working toward executing that change. This might be buying squat shoes or signing up for a first session in a gym. Action: starting the change – starting lifting. Maintenance: continuing the changed behavior.

Your friends and family will go through each of these stages at varying speeds, and some will never make a change. You need to consider which stage they're at when talking to them. Telling them which squat shoes are best to buy is inappropriate if they are still ambivalent about making a change. You also need to recognize when they need more information or when they need to be left alone to think about it. I've had clients with whom I spoke for three years on and off before they were ready to make a change and sign up. It took my mother years to decide to try just deadlifting.

This process takes time. Support any positive steps they take in the right direction. Your dad has been sedentary for years, but decided to start taking walks – support that. Your mom isn't ready to squat, but wants to get in the gym and use machines three times a week – support it. Your friend wants to do Stronglifts 5x5 or PPL or Olympic weightlifting – good for them. Support it. They can always make a change later, but fitness becoming a part of daily life is positive.

Finally, keep in mind that familiarity breeds contempt. It may be wise to outsource the conversation to someone your audience doesn't know socially. This could be a coach or a fellow lifter who has a similar experience to your audience. Professional coaches are practiced at talking to prospects and will be the best resource, if your audience is open to the idea.

You cannot make your friends and family start lifting, but you can help guide them to make smart decisions that positively impact their physical being. Understanding the problem by using listening, reflections, open ended questions, and summaries is crucial in being able to draw parallels between them and success stories. They will also be more likely to listen, because they've felt heard and understood. The success stories may be of yourself, lifters who you know or coach, or just strangers from the internet who have a good story to tell. Your friends and family also need time to move through the stages of change and come to conclusions in their own time. Support them in any way you can as they take steps in a positive direction.

Although not comprehensive, you can learn a great deal more about this topic from the books Motivational Interviewing by William R. Miller and Stephen Rollnic and SPIN Selling by Neil Rackham.

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