NSCA CPT Chapter 8 – Exercise Psychology for the Personal Trainer
Chapter 8 – Exercise Psychology for the Personal Trainer

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    Chapter Objectives:

    •  Know the psychological benefits of exercise.
    • Work with clients in order to set effective goals.
    • Know the value of motivation.
    • Use methods of motivation on clients.

    Mental Health Aspects of Exercise

    A lot of evidence shows that physical activity has a significant impact on mental health.

    Stress Reduction Effects of Exercise: Evidence and Mechanisms

    About 7.3% of the population has anxiety disorders that warrant some form of treatment. A lot of people also have episodes of stress symptoms during their lives.

    There are two types of anxiety that regular exercise will relieve.

    • State anxiety: the short term stress processes. This is the actual experience of anxiety characterized by apprehensive feelings or threats, and it is also accompanied by increased physiological arousal.
    • Trait anxiety: the long term processes of stress. This is a dispositional factor relating probability that a certain person will likely view something as threatening.

    A lot of the research on exercise and the reduction of anxiety has been done on aerobic forms of exercise. Even so, all forms of exercise have positive effects of some kind in terms of anxiety.

    The rhythmic nature of exercise has often been thought to be one of the reasons for the positive effects. This can turn into a kind of relaxation technique. 

    The thermogenic effect has been thought to be another reason for the calming effects of exercise. This effect says the metabolic inefficiencies of the body results in some kind of heat production while exercising and cascades through many effects that eventually lead to some kind of relaxation also.

    The social aspect of working out is a big factor. You may workout in some kind of group setting, or you may strictly do it alone. Either way would be viewed as relaxing depending on your likes and dislikes.

    Antidepressive Effects of Exercise

    Just like with anxiety, exercise shows significantly good stats with the improvement of mood and overall depressive aspects of thought for people in general, but also people who are clinically depressed. 

    Bothe the hormones serotonin and norepinephrine have low levels during times where people are depressed. Exercise is antidepressive because both of these hormone levels rise due to exercise. 

    Cognitive Benefits

    There are a lot of effects on the brain that we mentioned in the previous two, and the third is the positive cognitive effects caused by exercise. This is in terms of memory, analytical thinking, planning, decision making, concentration, and focus.

    Physically fit people have better brain function than less active people. This statistic really shows in the ages after 55. This is where cognitive decline starts most rapidly. 

    Beyond just reaction time, mental performance of all kinds has been shown to be superior in physically fit people. Older men who are physically fit perform similarly to college aged men.

    Biological Mechanisms Underlying Cognitive Benefits: Vascular Changes

    Physical fitness decreases declines that occur in the cerebral blood flow that usually occur with aging or exerts an autogenic effect like the formation of new blood vessels.

    Biological Mechanisms: Neurotropic Factors

    In addition to the vascular changes from exercise, we also see increases in the expression of genes that code for neurotropic factors. These are agents that preserve and nourish brain cells.

    Neural Efficiency

    Physically fit men and women are most efficient with musculoskeletal and cardiovascular function. The enhancements made in strength allows for fewer motor units to lift a given weight or resistance. Also, a lowered heart rate is often seen as a response to the work after exercise training. These physiological processes seem to show what also occurs within the brain but in slightly different ways. 

    Specificity and Cognitive Functioning

    Tasks that are characterized by crystallized intelligence are basically unaffected by exercise, but with effortful cognitive tasks involving fluid intelligence we see marked psychological benefits. Fluid intelligence is referring to abstract reasoning and problem solving. Crystallized intelligence is in reference to knowledge we accumulate, and words and facts that we recall.

    Genetic Basis of Individual Differences in Response to Exercise and Physical Activity

    The responses found in clients is now known to be highly dependent on genetic variation. Some clients respond the same way perhaps, but with different forms of exercise.

    Goal Setting

    Goal setting is an important and powerful strategy used to increase participation in activities and exercise programs. It is a strategic approach to changing someone’s behaviors by setting progressive standards of success so we can try to increasingly reach a desired achievement. We have both long and short term goals.

    Goal setting is not one size fits all. It is very individual to the client and their own desires. What works for one person, will likely not work for the next.

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    Setting Goals for Feedback and Reinforcement

    These two are important for successful goal setting.

    Feedback is the knowledge of results. This leads to the knowing of if the person has failed or succeeded in reaching the goals being discussed.

    Long term goals are meant to be meaningful pursuits for clients. This kind of goal has a high level of meaning and purpose for the client. These goals will last through multiple short term goals used to progress to this long term goal.

    Short term goals give strategies to achieve long term goals through attainable steps. These are easier to attain and string together to make up the long term goal. They are essentially like walking up stairs with the top being the achievement of the long term goal.

    The achievement of short term goals reinforces the overall goal and provides motivation, which we will discuss later. 

    Goals can increase self-efficacy, also known as self-esteem. 

    Effective and challenging goals are seen to have about 50% of chance for success.

    Types of Goals

    Process Goals

    These goals have a high degree of personal control. 

    This may be something like the amount of effort put forth in a workout session. Also, technique and positive attitude would be process goals. 

    Outcome Goals

    These are goals that people don’t have full control over.

    A lot of people may not be fulfilled by these goals. Some people need to see their accomplishments and progress socially compared. 

    These goals are purely shown with some kind of this social comparison. 

    Performance goals

    These goals fall in between the last two and relate to personal control.

    They are more difficult than process goals and put in terms of self-referenced 

    Diversified Goal Setting

    Successful goal setting programs need to diversify their goals in the same sense that financial success involves a diversified financial portfolio.

    Goal Orientations

    Personal trainers need to keep their focus on the desired goals of the clients and also their expected outcomes, in order to develop a sound plan of action for clients.

    Tips for Effective Goal Setting

    Make goals specific, measurable, and attainable

    Make the time constraints clear

    Be moderately challenging

    Record goals and monitor progress

    Make the process, performance, and outcomes diversified

    Use short term goals to achieve long term ones

    Make goals internalized


    This is basically defined as a psychological construct to arouse and direct behavior.

    A construct is an internal drive or neural process that you cannot directly observe but needs to be indirectly inferred from observation of outward behavior.

    Positive and Negative Reinforcement

    A target behavior is termed as an operant, and the probability of operants being repeated in the future depends on when the behavior is reinforced.

    Reinforcement is any object, act, or event that increases the likelihood of operant behaviors recurring.

    We have both positive and negative reinforcement.

    Positive reinforcement is when you give something to the client in a response to a behavior, and negative reinforcement is when you are taking something away. 

    Punishment is an object, act or event that decreases something’s likelihood of reoccurring. 

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    Self Determination Theory

    Self-determination implies that the people are doing the activity for their own fulfillment instead meeting the expectations of other people. In short, it is viewed as fun instead of work.

    Intrinsic motivation is done due to the sense of joy that it derives.

    Extrinsic motivation is done to achieve some other goal.

    Amotivation is when a client lacks intrinsic or extrinsic motivation.

    External Regulation is when the client does a behavior o avoid being punished instead of for their own joy.

    Introjected regulation is when the client sees exercise and training as a means to an end.

    Identified regulation is when a client accepts the instructions of the personal trainer as benefiting their self, but they use the leadership of the trainer instead of their own program.

    Integrated regulation is when the client values exercise behavior, internalizes it, and then does this activity on their own free will.

    Effects of Rewards on Intrinsic Motivation

    External rewards play a role in intrinsic motivation and the adherence of exercise. They can be a way specifically to help with compliance and adherence to programs early on.

    When to Intervene with Motivational Efforts

    Stages of Readiness for Exercise Participation

    Precontemplation: someone does not want to increase physical activity.

    Contemplation: someone intends to increase their activity in some way, but they only think occasionally on it.

    Preparation: someone engages in some activity, but not most days of the week.

    Action: someone gets 30 minutes per day of activity at least five days per week but for less than six months in total.

    Maintenance: someone gets 30 minutes per day for five or more days for over six months now.

    Self-efficacy: Building Confidence 

    Self-efficacy is a person’s confidence and belief in their own ability for performing specific actions that lead to successful behavior outcomes.

    Four types of influence build self-confidence:

    • Performing accomplishments
    • Modeling effects
    • Verbal persuasion
    • Physiological arousal or anxiety

    Methods to Motivate a Client

    Minimizing Procrastination

    If someone believes they have too many options and can’t make a decision, they become stagnated. Trainers need to consider this when training clients, as they don’t just need to consider today, but the weeks and months too.

    Identifying False Beliefs

    No pain, No gain is a false belief that encourages overtraining and diminishes the possible results for a client.

    Identifying and Modifying Self-talk

    This is known as someone’s inner voice. It can be negative, or it can be positive. 

    Mental Imagery

    Relaxation Exercise for Mental Imagery

    Should be done in a relaxed state that is free of tension.


    This is the ability of the person’s brain to draw and recall images in their mind to help learn to create positive responses and improve their motivation.

    If you want assistance wrapping your head around this material, make sure to check out Trainer Academy for some awesome NSCA study materials. They have Practice tests, flashcards, and a fantastic study guide. They even offer an exam pass guarantee.

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