Personal training: Shaping

Shaping is basically the use of extrinsic feedback to positively reinforce closer and closer approximations of the goal performance; in so doing, the client’s performance is gradually moulded closer and closer to what is needed.

New clients learning a new technique are unlikely to perform it correctly on their first attempts. The personal trainer needs to reinforce any action that resembles the goal technique. After subsequent attempts, the personal trainer should make the reinforcement more and more exact and only given when the client’s performance closely resembles the correct technique.

Shaping is essentially using feedback to promote all three functions outlined previously; i.e. to provide information to correct errors, to reinforce thereby strengthening correct performance, and to motivate for skill learning.

How can I actually use shaping?

Follow the steps outlined below. We will use a resistance exercise as an example.

Step 1:

Define the goal performance – the personal trainer demonstrates and explains the lat pull down exercise, highlighting key teaching points. The goal performance is 15 repetitions, observing the teaching points given.

Step 2:

Identify an initial performance that is as close as possible to the goal performance – the client rehearses the resistance exercise; the personal trainer observes that her performance was generally fine for the first 3 or 4 repetitions, but then a couple of errors developed, even with minimal weight (for example, a neutral spine was not maintained during the exercise, she was arching her back and also leaning back too far).

Step 3:

Develop performance objectives to take the client from step 2 (the client’s initial performance) to step 1 (the goal performance) – for example:

  • Objective 1: perform the technique without any equipment, focus on neutral spine and correct posture throughout
  • Objective 2: perform the lat pull down exercise with minimal weight and the personal trainer spotting for all 15 repetitions, again focus on neutral spine and correct posture throughout
  • Objective 3: the same as objective 2, but the personal trainer now only spots 8 of the 15 repetitions.
  • Objective 4: the client performs all 15 repetitions unaided on the lat pull down exercise.

Obviously, there are a number of other possible objectives depending on the actual client; for example, the personal trainer may include alternate exercises to strengthen the muscles involved in the lat pull down, or the personal trainer may do some postural work with the client to help them maintain the neutral spine.

Step 4:

Identify extrinsic feedback the client will perceive as positive reinforcement – this might include verbal and non-verbal compliments, praise and encouragement.

Step 5:

Prepare the client for each progressive objective by showing and explaining what to do at each stage.

Step 6:

Reinforce each stage with extrinsic feedback until each objective is met.

Step 7:

Complete each stage until the goal performance specified in step 1 can be achieved.


The diagram below gives a visual example of the process; in this case, shaping the client’s actions through three progressive stages to the goal performance. The number of stages will vary depending on what the goal performance is and the client’s initial starting point.

shapingClick to enlarge

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