A Fitness Trainer Explains How She Uses the Four Tendencies to Help Her Clients to Succeed.

My book The Four Tendencies is coming out in September, and I’m very excited to have my full theory of this personality framework out into the world.

Of course, I’ve been writing and talking about it (perhaps obsessively?) ever since Better Than Before came out.

I love to see how other people apply the Four Tendencies in different contexts, so I was thrilled to read this post “Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies…and Fitness!” by Rachel Trotta  on her blog, where she writes about managing nutrition, exercise, and general health. She’s a personal trainer in New York City whose main focus is helping women reach an optimal weight, build strength, and develop a healthier relationship with food.

Given her area of expertise, I was fascinated and thrilled to see that the Four Tendencies works well for her clients. I have my theories about how to use the Four Tendencies, but the true test is how the theory works when it’s actually put into practice by other people.

(Don’t know anything about the Four Tendencies? Read a quick overview and take the quiz here, to find out if you’re an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel.)

I found her post so interesting that I asked her permission to re-post the whole thing:

Rachel writes:

Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies… and Fitness!

The Four Tendencies

Do you make fitness resolutions over and over, only to see your efforts fizzle out? 

Do you buy tons of tupperware for meal prep, but never cook the meals? 

Do you struggle with weight loss setbacks like vacations or special occasions? 

Do you feel motivated, but your behavior doesn’t match your intentions? 

As a personal trainer and fitness nutrition specialist, I often have to ask myself the same questions about my clients – why do some people thrive and see amazing results, while others stall out and have difficulty getting ahead?

Several months ago, I read Gretchen Rubin’s book Better Than Before, and immediately some of my questions were answered. She describes the “Four Tendencies” as being the way that people respond to inner and outer expectations. As she says on her website, “Your response to expectations may sound slightly obscure, but it turns out to be very, very important.” I wholeheartedly agree.

Her “Four Tendencies” are:

  • Upholder – meets BOTH inner and outer expectations
  • Obliger – meets outer expectations but RESISTS inner expectations
  • Rebel – resists BOTH inner and outer expectations
  • Questioner – meets inner expectations but RESISTS outer expectations

You can take the quiz (and see a helpful visual graphic) to figure out your tendency HERE, on Gretchen Rubin’s website!

Why did this book change my perspective so much, and why do I recommend it to my clients now? 

Understanding how you are motivated will give you the key to unlock your personal fitness journey, because different things work for different people. We’re all motivated in unique ways. Using the “Four Tendencies” as a framework in my professional work has helped me to treat clients as individuals driven by varying internal and external forces, as well as to develop more empathy for people who struggle to make positive changes.

Now, I understand much better why some clients struggle to see progress, and I know better how to provide the specific structure that they need to succeed.

The Importance of Adherence

The reason that knowing your Tendency is so crucial is that adherence is the primary driver of results, especially when it comes to health and fitness practices.

The same practical biology applies to all people in developing athletic goals. Weight loss, for example, boils down to a calories-in-calories-out endeavor, regardless of your personality or metabolism. Running your first half-marathon requires a structured training plan that is pretty much the same for everyone, most of the time. Lowering your blood sugar levels only happens by improving your diet, regardless of whether you are Paleo or vegan.

The magic, however, of any diet or exercise plan is sticking with it. Otherwise, no matter how excellent or sensible the plan is, you won’t see results. Going low-carb or “slow-carb,” for example, only works if you actually implement the diet over a very long period of time.

Adherence is the biggest obstacle to fitness goals for most people, including my clients. Understanding your personality and your “Tendency” – whether you are an “Upholder,” “Obliger,” “Rebel,” or “Questioner” – can help you choose wellness strategies that fit your motivational framework and improve your chances of adherence. Remember, adherence equals results. If you are a “Rebel” and you pick a mode of fitness that would better fit an “Obliger,” you are setting yourself up for failure, because you will have difficulty adhering!

I’m going to go through each “Tendency” individually, and discuss my interpretation of the fitness implications of each personality type. I will include weaknesses, strengths, and suggested strategies for tweaking your routines to increase the likelihood of success! If you haven’t taken Gretchen Rubin’s quiz, take it now!

Upholder

For my few “Upholder” clients, literally any plan or structure works. These clients often quickly wean off of in-person training to become remote clients, because all they need (after a few months of improving form) is the instructions via e-mail. Once their workout is in a Google Sheet and they can track their own progress with periodic check-ins from me, they’re good to go! The intrinsic motivation is so powerful and their response to outer expectations is so strong, that they can accomplish amazing feats apparently all on their own, with just a little guidance.

One of my clients recovered from a broken foot and ran a fast half marathon in four months with only a few in-person meetings – the rest of her sessions were completed on her own, using a Google Sheet as structure for the training plan. Since then, she has run three more half marathons with no in-person meetings at all. She is now training for the New York City Marathon. She is a classic “Upholder,” and meets both inner and outer expectations easily. When she participated in one of my nutrition coaching groups, she – unsurprisingly – had very good results and lost some extra weight with no problem.

The strength of the “Upholder” is independence and self-efficacy. “Upholders” are also very good at sticking to a plan exactly as written and following instructions perfectly, which is also a recipe for good results. While “Upholders” are not exempt from the normal problems of motivation (they still benefit from group support and cues like leaving their gym clothes out for the morning), they respond excellently to a sense of internal drive as well, and can seem to have very good willpower.

The weakness of the “Upholder” can be a perfectionistic attitude and overly-high expectations. If you are an “Upholder,” I recommend that your first tactic be developing “unconditional positive regard” for yourself. Then, focus more on actions than on outcomes. Keep doing the work, without getting caught up in the future or the past. Finally, take advantage of your ability to handle a lot of information, and make sure you have a structured workout plan! There are plenty that you can download online, and I also recommend getting a friend or trainer to work out with you, just for that outward nudge of external expectations.

Obliger

I read Better than Before during one of my first nutrition coaching groups, and I was so intrigued by the idea of the “Four Tendencies” that I immediately e-mailed several of my clients to get their thoughts on their own “Tendency.”

I sent one of my clients the visual representation of the “Four Tendencies,” and she immediately e-mailed me back a two-sentence e-mail: “Obliger! 100%.” This fit my impression of her, because she had had great difficulty in losing weight in her 30’s, and nothing had ever worked for her… until she joined my nutrition coaching group. The constant e-mails, the Facebook group where support could be shared, and the one-on-one nutritional coaching finally represented the external expectations that she truly needed to adhere to a plan, and she lost weight.

Even though she wanted to lose weight, and was motivated to get healthier, she simply could not do it on her own. This is a key component of “Obligers,” in my opinion – they want it. Desperately. It is not an issue of motivation – it is a question of meeting expectations. And until someone else provides the expectations and support, the “Obliger” will not stick to a plan or make progress independently, because they do not respond to their own internal motivation. 

“Obligers” need workout buddies, personal trainers, nutrition coaches, and other external motivators. They need someone holding them accountable in real-time. Their strength is that once they have the slight pressure of an external source of expectation, most “Obligers” do a marvelous job of adhering to a program. They are loyal, flexible, consistent, supportive of others, and often learn to genuinely love practicing sound exercise and nutrition principles (even though they may not be able to do it on their own consistently).

The weakness of the “Obliger” is vacations, business trips, and family pressure – in other words, any time the external pressure to exercise or eat well is removed (or replaced by a less positive influence). My “Obliger” clients often experience setbacks on holidays or trips, because they lack an internal compass of self-powered adherence. This is especially pronounced in situations where there may be negative social pressure to overeat or be sedentary – they are almost helpless to resist the influence of others, and need continued support (check-ins, e-mails, Skype sessions, etc.) while on trips or on holidays.

If you are an “Obliger,” I cannot stress enough the importance of getting a personal trainer, joining a fitness or weight loss challenge at your gym, or participating in a nutrition support group like Weight Watchers or one of my nutrition coaching groups. Any support at all will help you access the love for exercise and eating well that you truly have deep inside!

Rebel

Ah, the Rebel. This is often the hardest type of client to identify, as far as I’m concerned. Why? When you hear the word “Rebel,” you picture someone really, really tough, with rough edges and an attitude. However, “Rebels” – in the sense of the “Four Tendencies” – aren’t usually wearing leather jackets or nose rings.

Instead, “Rebels” often present as “Obligers” – they are discouraged, have “tried everything,” never sees results, and need help.  However, the difference between “Rebels” and “Obligers” rises quickly to the surface, because an “Obliger” will follow an exercise or nutrition plan pretty accurately if you support, while a “Rebel” will inexplicably – and frequently – fall off the wagon, even if you support them.

This is because “Rebels” resist both inner and outer expectations. They not only lack internal motivation – they also do not respond to your coaching, and check-ins may actually irritate them. My experience as a personal trainer and fitness nutrition specialist is also that “Rebels” rarely have access to that important, inherent love of healthy habits that “Obligers” can eventually stir up through consistency and habit.

What I have learned over time is that “Rebels” thrive on novelty, unconventionality, extremes, and anti-orthodoxy. “Rebels” who don’t love exercise do love powerlifting (or long-distance running, or hot yoga, or kettlebell training). “Rebels” who hate dieting love – and can stick to – raw veganism (or the Paleo method, or the ketogenic diet, or intermittent fasting). They love the ideas that run counter to traditional health and fitness wisdom, and they thrive on practices that set them apart from others. One of my classic “Rebel” clients was a whole-foods-only, vegan, ketogenic diet adherent. I did not impose this diet on her, and I cannot imagine that it was easy to maintain, but she thrived on the unconventionality and creativity of this lifestyle.

The potential challenge of “Rebels” is (1) finding something that works before you get so discouraged that you completely give up, and (2) not spinning your wheels with absurd or counterproductive – but trendy – diet protocols. If you work with a “Rebel” client, I want to share the main concept that I have learned: you, the coach, need to let go of your pre-conceived notions about “what works” and help the “Rebel” stick with what works for them. They may, ironically, resist your coaching, and it’s your responsibility to help steer and guide them into a plan that they can adhere to long-term, and the only time you should curb their tendencies to anti-orthodoxy is when their diet or exercise plan is truly harmful.

If you are a “Rebel,” all I can say is this: find something you love and that makes you feel good, and don’t let other people pressure you. Be your unique, creative, and unorthodox self in the world of fitness and health, and you will be an inspiration to other “Rebels” around you!

Questioner

Questioners” respond well to inner expectations but tend to resist outer expectations – that means that a diet or exercise plan needs to (1) make sense to them, (2) be fundamentally in alignment with their principles and intuition, and (3) be sufficiently flexible that they can control it and modify it themselves.

A “Questioner” may present like an “Upholder,” because of how independent they can be, but the main difference that I have experienced with both clients and myself (I am definitely a “Questioner”) is that “Upholders” are fantastic at following instructions down to the tiniest detail, while “Questioners” are extremely consistent overall while taking liberties with small adjustments and tweaks. They are confident in their personal goals, ask a lot of questions if they work with a trainer, but are not motivated to work on things that are not central to their goals. This can be frustrating for personal trainers.

My “Questioner” clients, for example, can have a bumpy road to weight loss goals, because they don’t follow instructions about nutrition if they do not perceive nutrition to be an important component of weight loss. However, once they have “locked on” to the importance of moderating their eating, they experience fantastic success.

One of my clients was very motivated by running in particular (and was training for her first half marathon), and did not need check-ins or external help in completing running assignments on her own outside of sessions. She also was excellent at making slight changes in her lifestyle to prioritize and accommodate running. However, she resisted moderating her diet for quite some time. She did not (would not, in fact) consistently track food, and did not realize the importance of diet until she had difficulty zipping up her jeans a month or two into our program together. At that point, it “clicked” that long-distance running alone would not help her manage her weight. Although she did not ever transition to tracking her food or following specific nutritional plans, she did become more aware of a few key eating principles and transformed her diet in a way that made sense to her.

If you are a “Questioner,” this is my word of caution: don’t get too caught up in finding the “right” plan for you. Pick something, stick with it, and make the modifications you need, but remember that adherence is key!

Universal Truths

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by figuring out your “Tendency,” keep it simple and remember that the following maxims apply to most people:

  • Consistency is better than intensity
  • Almost anything works if you stick with it

Self-understanding can simply help you along the path.

Rachel’s insights are terrific. I love learning about how different people interpret and apply the Four Tendencies, so if you have examples from your own experience (as a professor, doctor, sweetheart, sibling, employee, etc.), let me know!

  • SRC McCarthy

    After reading Rachel’s descriptions, I realize that I have to stop calling myself an Obliger. I’m a Rebel. Any time I’ve tried to work with a trainer or diet program, I have pushed (hard) against any suggestions or requirements of the plans. I thought that paying for these services would make me accountable; nope, they made me cranky! For a while now, I’ve thought that I had labeled myself incorrectly. I even came up as a false-Obliger on the Four Tendencies test. I’m starting to admit to myself that I only meet other’s expectations if it is something that I want to do.

    • Rachel Trotta

      This is why it’s crucial to find a routine that works FOR YOU… and having a trainer that understands that really helps! 🙂

    • Leslie Rieger

      I really thought I would fall into the Obliger category when Gretchen first started talking about the four tendencies. Imagine my surprise when I turned out to be a Rebel! The more I read about it, the more convinced I become that the Rebel tendency fits, although I still have moments when I think I behave like an Obliger, so I found it very interesting that Rachel said many of her Rebel clients initially present like Obligers.

  • Lisa Zahn

    This is great! I am really hard to figure out because I think I look like an Obliger to most people and even sometimes to myself (especially in my freelance work meeting deadlines and, formerly, at school where I aimed to be a good student). But this seals it–I’m a Rebel through and through. I think that’s why the Whole30/Paleo diet works for me, as well as yoga when I feel like it, and walking almost daily because I love it. Finding something I love, and often that’s countercultural, is definitely what works for me. Thank you for this!

    • Rachel Trotta

      So many of my clients have the EXACT same experience. They think they’re Obligers… until they realize they’re Rebels. 🙂

  • Leslie Rieger

    I don’t consider myself to be particularly extreme or unconventional, but I do get bored easily, which is one of the reasons I like working out with a trainer. I’m not very good at putting together my own workouts, and videos are really only fun once, but my trainer always has something new for me to do. I also like fitness classes for that reason – I don’t need the accountability (accountability groups & check-ins make me irritable), but I need the variety. I do love running though, and will complete my 4th half marathon next weekend. Nutrition is the hardest part for me – I have a terrible time sticking to any kind of diet. I resist anything that’s “trendy”, and I don’t like to follow any specific program (some of my friends have tried to convince me to try Beachbody, but I just can’t). My dieting philosophy pretty much consists of “eat more plants and less sugar” (the plants part is getting easier as I’ve fallen in love with fresh vegetables, giving up sugar, not so much).