Josh Hillis: The Fat Loss Happens on Monday Coaching System

In the last few years, “habit-based weight loss” has become the new thing.   There are now dozens of programs of habit-based weight loss. Fat Loss Happens on Monday came in with a whole wave of habit-based books, and every day, I talk to trainers who are using a habit-based approach with their clients.

josh hillis fat loss habits

First off—that’s awesome!   A habit-based approach, coaching how to eat instead of what to eat, is so much more effective! Second, the habits in these books are only half of the habit coaching system. Let’s take a look at the rest of the system now:

  1. Three-Step Coaching System
  2. Reflective Listening
  3. Open-Ended Questions
  4. Specific Positive Feedback

These four steps come from an extremely well established and researched world of “behavioral weight loss.”


I’d like to start with pointing out that behavioral weight loss programs (BWLPs) blow the doors off of the entire fitness industry when it comes to average results. Behavioral weight loss programs have clients who average 8-10% weight loss every six months.[[1],[2]]   That smashes the average weight loss for gyms and trainers.

Most trainers hang their success on the few outlier clients who get results, while their average weight loss is close to zero.

Let’s look at what works about Behavioral Weight Loss Programs:

  • Self-monitoring
  • Gradual ramp up in healthy eating
  • Gradual ramp up in exercise
  • Specific habit-based goals
  • Autonomy supportive/guiding style

Trainers usually manage to screw up every step of this. They basically flip everything that works into things that make the trainer feel special, but don’t work for the client. Trainers usually:

  • Monitor the client’s food and result—this makes the trainer feel smart, and the client feel dumb.
  • Give clients too much too soon, in both food and workout changes. Clients get quick results that they can’t sustain and quit in a few months.
  • Set outcome goals instead of process (aka habit-based) goals. Too much focus on outcome goals (like scale weight) set up a weekly win/lose rollercoaster that tends to reduce the very actions (doing the food habits) that lead to results.
  • Lastly, most trainers adopt a directing style—they tell the client what to eat. It makes trainers feel smart, and most trainers are really worried about that. The clients actually like being told what to do, because it’s simple. Unfortunately, telling clients what to do rarely results in long term behavior change.

What most trainers do is exactly the opposite of what works about behavioral weight loss programs. Trainers coach exactly backwards, and then are shocked when the majority of their clients fail.

Most clients are so used to their trainers being completely terrible at weight loss, that they don’t even hold trainers accountable for how poorly they coach. Trainers, conversely, blame the clients for not being motivated and not doing what they are told.

I’m completely sick of trainers consoling themselves with a few successful clients, telling themselves that the rest of their clients “weren’t motivated.” The reality is, the trainers were the ones lacking coaching skills.

We can do so much better.


How can we make a difference for clients:

Making a difference is when the client
puts together a plan
that they can win at
for a new action.

When the client comes up with the plan, it massively increases their follow through. Our job is essentially to consult—to give clients habit options that work, and consult on implementation.   The client gets to choose the next step. The client gets to be the expert on what is going to make a difference in his or her life.

In Self-Determination Theory, autonomy is one of the three psychological needs people have to motivate themselves.[[3]] Essentially, autonomy is when the client has a feeling of self-directedness; some choice and a feeling of taking actions in line with their values and of their own volition.

Randomized controlled trials have shown that autonomy-supportive coaching increased weight loss results at 18 months. On the flip-side, directive coaching (telling them what to do) hindered weight loss results.[[4]]


The simplest way to do autonomy-supportive coaching is the three-step coaching session:

  1. Review last week
  2. Give them habit options
  3. Let them choose how much

First, the two of you start with reviewing last week. Find out what was hard for them. Find out what they did well. Ask them about what they learned about the habit they were working on.   Find out what they want help with.

Basically, let them give you all the information about how their last week’s habit practice went.

Second, both of you get to have a conversation about which habit they should work on next week. Often, it will make sense for them to work on the same skill for another week. Other times, they’ll want to move on. If they had a great week, they may want to know what new habit would be a progression. Or, if they had a hard week, they may want to know if a different habit can help make the last one easier. It can be really effective to give them three options, and let them choose which would be the best fit for next week.

It’s super simple to set this up. Fat Loss Happens on Monday has five strategies:

  1. By the numbers strategy
  2. Planning and preparing strategy
  3. Win-one-meal-at-a-time strategy
  4. Fullness-leads-to-fat-loss strategy
  5. Mindfulness strategy

Each strategy has six to eight habits. Whatever strategy you have selected for that client, you can offer them options of habits from that strategy. So, if you have a client who wants to work on feeling less hungry (Fullness-leads-to-fat-loss strategy), you could give them the options of eating slowly, getting protein at meals or journaling about which meals have them feel the most full. You give them three habit options that will make a difference, and they get to choose which one to work on next.

Third, they choose how much they would like to practice that habit. We call this “goldilocksing” —finding out how much skill practice is just riiiiight. Just like the three bears, where some porridge is too hot, some is too cold and some is just right. It’s the same with habit coaching, where too small of a habit goal is too boring, too big of a habit goal crushes and demoralizes people and getting it just right is the sweet spot where clients make the most progress, learn the most and get the best results.

The sharp reader will notice: Reviewing the week, the client tells you how last week went. Giving them skill options, the client tells you which one to work on next week. Goldilocksing, the client tells you how many meals/which meals they would like to practice that habit on. This is a really, really simple way to coach with that autonomy-supportive style we were talking about earlier.

The client comes up with the plan, for a new action, that they can win at.

That’s how clients rock the plan—it’s their plan. We just consult.

Have clients coach themselves

Open-ended questions are a powerful tool from Motivation Interviewing for getting clients to coach themselves.

Open-ended questions are about getting people to think and reflect on what’s working and what’s not working. As they think through it, they figure it out for themselves. When they’ve figured it out for themselves, it sticks with them in a way that you telling them never would.

And yet, most trainers really only ask closed-ended questions:

  • Did you do your habit last week? (yes/no)
  • Was it a good week or bad week? (good/bad)
  • Did you hit your calorie goal last week? (yes/no)
  • I think we should adjust your plan like this, does that make sense? (yes/no)

Closed-ended questions are good for gathering information. And sometimes, you just need some quick information.

But that’s not how most coaches use closed-ended questions. Most coaches have a coaching model that is about the coach gathering the information and then telling them what to do. In that case, closed-ended questions are a way to facilitate the trainer looking smart and giving advice that mostly won’t be used.

Open-ended questions, on the other hand, assume that the client is smart enough to figure this stuff out on their own (spoiler: they are). In fact, smart coaches know that open-ended questions are practically like cheating, because the client often comes up with better thoughts and solutions to their problems than the coach would have.

Open-Ended Questions:

  • How did your habit go last week?
  • What did you do well?
  • What did you notice, working on portion sizes last week?
  • How do you think we should we adjust your habit plan this week?

When the client sorts through the issues for themselves, it sticks. And when they come up with smarter things than we would have come up with, it almost feels like cheating. It’s too good.

Some of my favorite open-ended questions about reasonableness:

  • What do you think someone really old and wise would say about this?
  • What would it look like to be kinder to yourself?
  • What advice would you give your daughter, if she was dealing with this?
  • What would Dan John do?
  • What is going to be the most important for you about this, ten years from now?
  • Who are people in your life that matter to you? What are other areas of your life that matter to you?   What would it look like the balance your fitness goals with these other things that matter to you?
  • Does that feel like something you can keep doing for a few years?

Helping clients sort out what matters to them, what’s working and what to work on

James O. Prochaska and Carlo Di Clemente, in their book Changing for Good, talking about the Transtheoretical Model of change, state that all change is self-change.

If you think about it from the perspective that all change is self-change, coaching becomes a lot simpler. Intuitively, you already know that people do better when they work things out for themselves, than when you figure it out for them and tell them. Telling them usually has no impact. But when they figure it out, it shifts their approach and their behavior.

Reflective listening is a tool used in an evidence based behavior change model called Motivational Interviewing, and comes from Carl Rogers’ model of client-centered counseling.[[5]]  At its simplest, it’s listening and summarizing. Amazingly, even non-directive reflective listening—just listening without coaching, has been shown to be effective for really intense psychological issues.[[6],[7]]

The essential part is to hear what the client says, and then be able to summarize it back to them. It really speaks to your ability to be present with them, instead of thinking of something else, or thinking about what you’re going to say. Your first job is to listen, and to “be there” in the conversation.

It’s as simple as:

  • Listen
  • Summarize
  • Ask if you understood them correctly

You want to be listening for what they are doing that’s working, and helping them sort that out. At the same time, you’re listening for what they’re doing that isn’t working, and helping them sort that out. The trick is—you’re just helping them sort it, it’s coming from them.

So, our goal is to set up a coaching conversation where they can figure it out for themselves. This has more to do with us listening and reflecting back what they say, than anything else. In our listening, our clients feel honored, understood and get clearer about what to do.

We want to reflect what we hear in what they said in such a way that our clients connect cause and effect. Ironically, people are usually pretty bad at noticing cause and effect. It’s not even their fault—they are so busy following (often totally false) diet rules they have heard in the past, that they don’t see the cause and effect nature of what is actually happening. When we reflect, “So it sounds like you planned a balanced dinner and then you were really successful at eating just enough,” they get to see that that’s what made the difference.

You’re also listening for their values. You’re listening for when they talk about what matters to them, because you can help them clarify that into their values. If you notice that people’s motivation for their goals waxes and wanes, you’ll find something much longer lasting in their values. People always want to take actions consistent with their values.

Lastly, you’re listening for their concerns. Their concerns point to either values or obstacles. Again, your job is to help them sort and clarify their concerns.

They talk about what matters. You reflect that back, so they can clarify what matters to them into values. Then you connect those values to habits. They talk about what they are concerned about. You reflect that back, so they can sort that out, and then you connect those concerns to habits that will impact the concern.

Mouth closed. Ears open. They don’t need you to talk, they need you to listen. You create the most value for your clients by asking questions, then listening and then summarizing and clarifying their values, what they did well and what they learned.

Have your clients do more of what’s working and build their confidence

There are four kinds of feedback:

  • Negative non-specific: “That sucked” or “That was stupid”
  • Positive non-specific: “That was awesome” or “Good job”
  • Negative specific: “Your shoulders came up and forward on that last pull-up”
  • Positive specific: “Awesome keeping your shoulders down on that pull-up”

Negative non-specific feedback is a good way to make people hate you.

Positive non-specific feedback is worse than being useless—it starts to become noise that your clients tune out. I had a client early in my career who said: “I could stop hiring you, and just play a tape that says ‘good’ every few reps.” Ouch! It’s easy to fall into a very lazy trap of just saying things are non-specifically good.

The worst-case scenario for non-specific positive feedback is that people just stop trusting you; they can’t tell from your non-specific feedback if they really are doing well or doing poorly.

Research has shown that novices are most motivated by positive specific feedback, and experts are most motivated by negative specific feedback.[[8]]  

 Most of our clients are, at least initially, novices at weight loss. The have a long history of weight loss failures, and will benefit most from specific positive feedback. This explains why trainers and coaches who spend most of their time dealing with higher level athletes are usually so ineffective with novices—they can’t switch from the massively different needs of experts (technical feedback) to that of novices (competence and commitment support).

All of our coaching is habit oriented. Another way of saying that is that it’s action oriented. We get the best results because our clients take more action than anyone else’s. We get that action because we talk about action, we plan action and we praise action.

Specific positive feedback is like water and sunlight to plants, it grows whatever actions you pour it on. So, if someone cooked dinners last week, and this week they cooked their dinners and their lunches, make a huge deal about it! Let them know that cooking twice as many meals is an enormous step forward from the week before. Praise that specific action result that they produced in real life.


It really is as simple as the three-step coaching session: Ask how last week went, give them habit options, and then they choose how much of that habit they want to work on. Your biggest coaching tools are: Asking open-ended questions, reflecting what you heard them say and giving them specific positive feedback on what they did well.

The habit revolution was to start coaching people how to eat better instead of coaching what to eat. The client-centered coaching revolution is listening more than you talk, and guiding instead of directing.

This article covers four of the 48 habit coaching modules we teach at One By One Nutrition.

More coaching guidance from Josh Hillis:
Josh Hillis fat loss habits coaching bundle

josh hillis fat loss habits

[1] Perri, Corsica. Improving the maintenance of weight lost in behavioral treatment of obesity. In: Wadden, Stunkard, editors. Handbook of Obesity Treatment. New York: Guilford Press; 2002. pp. 357–379

[2] Behavioral treatment of obesity. Gary D Foster, Angela P Makris, and Brooke A Bailer, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2005

[3] Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2008). Self-determination theory: A macrotheory of human motivation, development, and health. Canadian psychology/Psychologie canadienne49(3), 182.

[4] Gorin, A. A., Powers, T. A., Koestner, R., Wing, R. R., & Raynor, H. A. (2014). Autonomy support, self-regulation, and weight loss. Health psychology33(4), 332.

[5] Arnold, K. (2014). Behind the mirror: Reflective listening and its tain in the work of Carl Rogers. The Humanistic Psychologist42(4), 354-369.

[6] Cuijpers, P., Driessen, E., Hollon, S. D., van Oppen, P., Barth, J., & Andersson, G. (2012). The efficacy of non-directive supportive therapy for adult depression: a meta-analysis. Clinical psychology review32(4), 280-291.

[7] Stain, H. J., Bucci, S., Baker, A. L., Carr, V., Emsley, R., Halpin, S., … & Startup, M. (2016). A randomised controlled trial of cognitive behaviour therapy versus non-directive reflective listening for young people at ultra high risk of developing psychosis: The detection and evaluation of psychological therapy (DEPTh) trial. Schizophrenia Research176(2), 212-219.

[8] Fishbach, A., Eyal, T., & Finkelstein, S. R. (2010). How positive and negative feedback motivate goal pursuit. Social and Personality Psychology Compass4(8), 517-530.

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