The best-laid fitness plan may come to nothing if it doesn’t truly suit your personality. And sometimes understanding the motivations behind what you like and what you’ll stick with can be tough.
Welcome to the Enneagram, a tool that synthesizes the wisdom of several spiritual traditions. It can help you maximize your inherent strengths, comprehend your weaknesses, and discover the activities and circumstances that can help you thrive.
In short, the Enneagram may be just the sort of personal trainer you’ve been looking for.
“What makes the Enneagram different from other personality tests is that it’s not about your behaviors, so it’s not that you’re outgoing or shy,” says Ashton Whitmoyer-Ober, author of The Enneagram Made Simple. “It’s about your motivations behind those behaviors.”
Ennéa is Greek for nine; “gram” is a figure or something written. The Enneagram includes nine basic personality types, each having its own traits, fears, and desires. (For more on the system’s background, see “Peace Through Personality“.)
“The Enneagram is a great, in-depth way to learn more about yourself so that you can figure out how to make your personality traits work for you,” says Life Time personal trainer Lindsay Ogden, CPT.
Understanding her Enneagram type — predominantly type 1 — helped Ogden better plan her workout routine.
Type 1s love organization and are often perfectionists, she explains. “Knowing this, I’ve hired coaches to write programs to help me get organized, while tracking allows me to see progress.”
“If fitness is driven by motivation, you can relate what motivates or doesn’t motivate you to your fitness activities,” says Whitmoyer-Ober, who is a type 2, the Helper or Giver.
Yet there are also benefits to stepping outside your comfort zone — that’s how and where growth happens.
“A type 8 is usually more aggressive, so they typically like boxing and heavy lifting. However, that may not be what they need for personal growth and greater self-awareness,” says type 8 Dave Nixon, owner of Functional Fitness Australia and author of Minding Yourself.
If you’re a type 8 — the Challenger — you might benefit from incorporating more relaxing activities like yoga, Pilates, and nose breathing into your routine, even if you find these pursuits challenging, he advises.
The first step to using the Enneagram is to figure out your type. To determine this, take an assessment at Truity.com or any of several other Enneagram-related sites.
Next, familiarize yourself with the motivations, desires, and fears related to your personality type. Note that the core “desires” and “fears” are deeper than wanting to set a 5K PR and feeling spooked by spiders; core fears and desires form the basis of your motivation.
And they are closely linked. For example, a type 1’s core fear is being bad or being wrong, while their core desire is to be good or right.
Meanwhile, a 4’s core fear is having no significance or meaning; their core desire is to be authentic and find meaning.
Knowing your primary fears and desires — your core motivation — can help open pathways to overcoming obstacles and resistance as you pursue your fitness goals.
Once you have this awareness, it’s likely that some behaviors will change naturally. Take things a step further by applying your new knowledge to intentionally modify behaviors that aren’t serving you and to create new systems in your life that support, rather than force, a sustainable fitness habit.
Keep in mind that working with your core desires and fears isn’t designed to change them. They are part of who you are.
This counters a deeply ingrained aspect of fitness culture: the belief that we must change who we are, and that exercise can help us upgrade to a new and better version of ourselves.
Enneagram is useful, in fitness and in other life areas, because it teaches us that we are not bad or wrong or undesirable as we are. It teaches us to start where we are, work with what we have, and grow from there if we want.
“Your fears and desires won’t go away, but you can learn how to manage them so they work for, instead of against, you,” Whitmoyer-Ober says.
Ready to get started? Our experts explain the nine Enneagram types in greater detail and offer suggestions to help each type thrive on their fitness journey.
Type 1: The Perfectionist or Reformer
Rational, idealistic, and wise, they have a strong sense of right and wrong. They can also be resentful and impatient. Their core desire is to be good, ethical, and responsible.
Strengths: Well-organized and fastidious, they strive for high standards.
Weaknesses: They can be so preoccupied with doing things “right” that they fail to see that progress is a process, Nixon says. They can also be self-critical and impatient.
How to Thrive: Type 1 athletes can find fulfillment in activities or sports that are mastery-focused and that can be progressed over time. Strength training offers nearly endless opportunities for improving form and increasing weight. Running and cycling might be good fits because they allow for boosting your distance and speed. Pilates epitomizes the discipline and control that define many 1s.
Tracking sets, reps, and other details will likely motivate them to come back and do better.
Training styles like bodybuilding or powerlifting, which are structured and measurable, are also great ways for 1s to gauge progress.
How to Grow: Type 1s can stretch by taking on an activity that is outside of their comfort zone and may never result in mastery or real-life application. Dance classes and martial arts are examples of activities that can help relieve some of the rigidity that 1s are prone to and incorporate elements of joyful movement.
Team or partner sports are a way for 1s to learn how to be flexible and adapt their approach in the moment, which can be tough for them.
Type 2: The Helper or Giver
Empathetic, generous, and friendly, they want others to know how much they care. They can also be needy and possessive. Their core desire is to be loved and appreciated.
Strengths: They do well in group situations and make others feel welcome.
Weaknesses: They can be too focused on the successes of others to acknowledge how far they’ve come in their own pursuits.
How to Thrive: Type 2 athletes thrive doing activities and sports that are team or community focused. Interactive group fitness classes, such as boot-camp-style training and Zumba, are great ways to feed a 2’s need for connection — and they offer plenty of opportunities to support and cheer for others while building strength and cardio. Activities in which people sync up, like dance, lap swimming, or indoor rowing classes, can feel good.
Additionally, 2s often find fulfillment in training for races and other fitness events that raise money or awareness for charitable causes. An often-overlooked activity that is well suited to 2s is gardening.
How to Grow: Nixon recommends pursuits that help 2s “connect with your mind and body” rather than solely focusing on others. In a group class, a 2 could benefit from the simple act of stopping to receive support from others — and noticing how it feels when someone cheers them on. Yoga and meditation, as well as strength training, are other activities that can help deepen 2s’ relationship with themselves.
Powerlifting is an activity that nourishes internal and external connections: Lifting heavy weights requires people to tune in to their bodies and hone self-awareness; at the same time, it comes with a strong sense of community and support.
Type 3: The Achiever or Performer
Ambitious and self-assured, they strive to succeed in every pursuit. Their core desire is to be valuable and admired.
Strengths: Self-driven and hard-working, they strive to be their best.
Weaknesses: They can be competitive and overly concerned with what others think of them.
How to Thrive: Competition fuels many type 3s, so classes with a competitive element are motivating. Periodized training plans are especially valuable for 3s, who typically want to know exactly what to do and what they will get for their efforts. Goals not only give them guidance in building a training plan but also motivate them to keep training. Ideal activities include running, cycling, swimming, and lifting weights. Sharing their progress with others is a way that 3s can stay accountable and on track in their training.
How to Grow: Type 3s can challenge themselves by resisting the urge to constantly share their fitness efforts with the world: Exercise where there aren’t any mirrors, leave the phone behind, and avoid posting about their workout.
Yoga is a great choice for people who want to work on tuning in to the present moment while tuning out the need for approval — “shifting their attention to their breath or building a stronger mind–muscle connection rather than a number on a scoreboard,” Nixon explains.
Type 4: The Individualist or Romantic
Creative, inspired, and deeply feeling, they want to find and express their significance to others. Their core desires are to be authentic and to find their place in the world.
Strengths: They are self-aware and creative, with an innate ability to be in tune with their body.
Weaknesses: They can get stuck comparing themselves with others, which limits their ability to reach their full potential.
How to Thrive: Joy, creativity, and self-expression are guideposts for type 4s looking for a sustainable fitness routine, Nixon says. Dance, primal movement, martial arts, yoga, trampoline, gardening, and aerial arts using a trapeze or aerial hoop are perfect examples. Yet Nixon says that any activity can fit the bill if approached with an eye toward exploration and play. (Like running? Mix in some skipping and galloping. Like kettlebells? Try kettlebell juggling.)
Because 4s can be sensitive and withdrawn, an activity like indoor cycling, where they can do their own thing while being surrounded by other people, can be quite fulfilling.
How to Grow: For 4s ready to step outside their comfort zone, Nixon suggests trying a team sport that requires them to play an active role and abide by a set of rules. “Another option is a smaller group fitness class where you can still interact with fellow workout buddies without getting lost in the crowd.”
Because rules can feel stunting to 4s, consider this: Are the rules of, say, volleyball stifling creativity and self-expression, or are they providing space for exploring creativity in a new way?
Type 5: The Investigator or Observer
Insightful, curious, and independent, they can concentrate on developing complex ideas and skills. Their core desire is to be competent, capable, and self-sufficient.
Strengths: They are extremely studious and willing to follow a program that offers results.
Weaknesses: Prone to being high-strung and secretive, 5s can get stuck in their heads and fail to build a deeper connection with their physical bodies.
How to Thrive: Type 5s love research and shy away from group activity, so ideal fitness pursuits typically combine the opportunity for precision with the ability to do it on their own. Cardio activities (running, cycling) and strength training are often rewarding. Type 5s do well when they follow their sense of curiosity, so trying new things and exploring new fitness trends could be up an Investigator’s alley.
How to Grow: Type 5s will find a challenge in activities like martial arts or yoga, which encourage them to get outside their heads and tune in to their bodies. “It doesn’t matter too much which forms of yoga or martial arts you choose,” Nixon says, “but I recommend martial-arts styles that have moderate amounts of sparring — where you’re forced to not just learn the movements and lines but also respond in the moment.”
Type 6: The Loyalist or Skeptic
They are reliable, hard-working, and excellent troubleshooters, capable of foreseeing problems and encouraging cooperation. Their core desire is to be secure and supported.
Strengths: They do their research to find qualified personal trainers, group fitness instructors, and other experts. Then, they follow the expert’s advice to the letter.
Weaknesses: They can be defiant and rebellious, suspicious of authority figures other than the ones they trust. They can also be indecisive and battle self-doubt, which keeps them from pursuing their goals.
How to Thrive: Type 6s crave security, which means they can thrive in cooperative activities and fitness pursuits that foster strong relationships. Team sports, working out with a partner, and small-group or personal training can be great fits. The key is to commit to a full season, a series of classes, or several sessions to build rapport while learning and improving their performance.
How to Grow: Strength-based workouts like powerlifting, Olympic lifting, and strong(wo)man training can encourage self-growth and resiliency, Nixon says. Loyalists often fear a lack of support and guidance, and these forms of training can help them learn to trust themselves and their bodies. (Learn more about how exercise fosters physical and mental resilience — and find a resilience-building workout that you can do alone or with a partner — at “How Exercise Can Help Build Physical — and Mental — Resilience“.)
Type 7: The Enthusiast or Epicure
The busy, fun-loving type, they are playful and spontaneous, and they love variety and adventure. Their core desires are to be content and to have their needs satisfied.
Strengths: Extroverted and versatile, they’re always trying new things.
Weaknesses: They can be impatient and impulsive. At their worst, they may not finish what they start.
How to Thrive: Type 7s are drawn to fun, fast-paced endeavors. Mountain-biking, skiing, hiking, skydiving, and kayaking are just some of the exciting activities that can be done on a 7’s own time in the great outdoors.
Group fitness classes, particularly those that raise the heart rate — be it through excitement, effort, or both — are also great choices in the gym. (Dance cardio, anyone?) “It doesn’t matter which type of class, so long as there are plenty of options and times available,” Nixon says. Finding a positive, encouraging environment is important.
How to Grow: Following a program from start to finish, without skipping steps or fudging details, is a challenge worth pursuing, Nixon says. “Type 7s can be guilty of not finishing things or changing things up for the sake of making them more fun.”
Another way that 7s can stretch is to slow down — primal movement modalities like MovNat and Animal Flow are fun and playful while also precise, efficient, and intuitive. Primal movements can help 7s connect to their bodies in the moment without giving up the sense of spontaneity they love.
Type 8: The Challenger or Leader
Strong and assertive, they face challenges head-on. Their core desires are to be independent and to be in control of their own lives.
Strengths: They are straight-talking and decisive, and they enjoy using their strength. They will give projects and commitments all they have.
Weaknesses: They can be domineering and confrontational and can have an all-or-nothing attitude.
How to Thrive: Activities that leverage the strength of type 8s, like powerlifting, strong(wo)man training, and rock climbing — as well as combat sports like boxing and Mixed Martial Arts — are common favorites of this personality type.
Some 8s may also enjoy longer runs and bike rides, Nixon says, though he notes that it’s rare for a type 8 who loves lifting to also love long-distance cardio.
How to Grow: Slowing down and finding focus are great challenges for 8s, who can tend to be bullish in their pursuits. Yoga, Pilates, and nonsparring martial arts like tai chi are examples of activities that can teach dominant 8s how to relax and calm their nervous systems.
Type 9: The Peacemaker or Mediator
Easygoing, creative, and supportive, they strive to bring harmony to their environment. Their core desires are to be at peace and to have inner stability.
Strengths: They get along well with a variety of people and are willing to chip away at projects while following and trusting the process.
Weaknesses: They may struggle with commitment, which delays them from starting or completing something. They also avoid conflict.
How to Thrive: Type 9s thrive with peaceful settings and activities. Yoga, nature walks, gardening, and other types of noncompetitive — even spiritual — movement can feel great.
Strength training can also be powerful for 9s, whose conflict avoidance can veer into suppression of difficult feelings, such as anger, grief, or sadness. Nixon advises that 9s follow a plan rather than wing it in the weight room.
How to Grow: Once 9s are ready to stretch themselves, increasing the challenge of their strength training — particularly through powerlifting or strong(wo)man types of training — can help them “truly access their strength and aggression in a safe and healthy way,” Nixon says.
This article originally appeared as “The Enneagram of Fitness” in the January/February 2023 issue of Experience Life.