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Is the Biggest Loser Ruining Personal Training?

by Jonathan Goodman | Follow on Twitter

Don’t you hate the negative image shows like the Biggest Loser give to personal trainers? I do. But what really goes on behind the scenes…

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The Biggest Loser is a black eye on the personal training industry right? It’s not what we do. We care about our clients and take precautions to keep people safe.

Photos and videos from the Biggest Loser get shared of atrocious form. We cringe and tell people “that’s not what personal training really is”. It’s despicable and is ruining the personal training name.

That’s true. It isn’t what personal training really is. What’s seen on the show is often cringe worthy but the contestants lives are being changed. Isn’t that what personal training is about? Isn’t tough love sometimes needed? In the words of Tony Gentilcore, “our clients aren’t delicate flowers” after all.

Personal training is about getting life changing results and empowering and educating the client to maintain these results.

Few personal trainers get sustained long-term results. Their clients go through varying levels of commitment. A large reason is the lack of support networks that trainers provide. This is no better exemplified by the quote on the back blurb of my book, Ignite the Fire: The Secrets to Building a Successful Personal Training Career:

“Personal Trainers are now expected to be salespeople, psychologists, nutritionists, post-rehabilitation specialists, and motivational speakers. You can have all the training expertise in the world, but you must also be able to inspire passion in your clients, and develop relationships with the people you serve”

Few, if any, trainers are qualified for all of these roles. Even if they were there isn’t enough time to perform each job effectively by one person. It takes a highly coordinated multi-disciplinary team to get and maintain large changes. I don’t know many trainers that have been able to achieve this on a consistent basis.

The Biggest Loser Has…

I’ve been fascinated by the show and negative press in fitness circles and have always though that there must be more to it. This led me to reach out to Kevin McLernon the winner of Season 3 of Biggest Loser UK who lost 180lbs on the show. He admitted that the methods included some serious tough love but you will quickly see that not all is as it seems on tv. This is his story and his experience of what really goes on in the Biggest Loser.

The impetus

At 450lbs Kevin needed a change and became inspired after hearing Tony Robbins echo the phrase, “what can you do in the next 90 days to change your life”. Living with the love of his life Joanne he turned to the internet like many others for the magic solution. Pills and fad workouts didn’t appeal to him but he stumbled upon an application form for the previous season of The Biggest Loser in his favorites file. Kevin shouted to Joanne to come and see what he had found, she looked at him smile and said, “you’re going to win” to which he replied, “yes I am!”..

Confidence was Kevin’s biggest ally throughout a journey that was fraught with doubt. For many obese men and women the desired weight loss seems like an insurmountable and daunting task. 2lbs isn’t much when you weight 450..

biggest loser personal trainer

The audition

The first question asked was “why do you want to be on the show?”. According to Kevin that question was asked many times by tv execs, trainers, doctors, and psychiatrists. It wasn’t a secret that the journey would be tough and they needed to know that the participant was committed.

During the second audition Kevin completed a blood test, psychological analysis, doctor interview, and a step test. Every test was medically supervised.

How many trainers take these precautions before putting their clients through intense workouts? The participants were ready and able to exercise at a high level from day 1 — more then I can say about many commercial gym screening programs.

The call that changed Kevin’s life

Sitting on his brown leather couch staring at the family photos on the wall the phone rang. The door to the upstairs was open and Joanne heard the beginnings of the conversation. According to Kevin she came flying down the stairs and, “went mental”. There they sat after he hung up the phone staring at each other on the same brown couch where the journey began. Kevin had gotten his chance to make the next 90 days change his life.

Personal Trainer on the biggest loser

Nobody is pretending that the producers of the shows motives were altruistic. Kevin was chosen because he would make good tv. And good tv he made…

The shock and near disappointment on the first day

The caravan of Chrysler Voyagers carrying the participants stopped 3 miles from the stately mansion in the English countryside. It was here that Kevin and the rest of the participants were told of the first challenge. To run 3 miles to the house. Being the heaviest contestant in the history of the show and being told the last 2 to arrive (Kevin had a partner) would be up for elimination, threatened to end his journal before it began.

Off camera there were paramedics on set and a full warm up was done before the race began. The contestants were released in sets of 2 spaced 2 minutes apart. These were the first of many safety precautions the viewing public never saw.

One by one Kevin was passed. Almost in tears as he finally arrived at the mansion he was told that one other duo took longer than him. They were safe. Now was his time.

The workouts

“People watch a tv program and they will make a decision. Then they watch the show throughout the season and try to pick out points to reinforce that negative idea.” – Kevin McLernon

The workouts were tough. They broke down the participants. Sometimes Kevin and his cohort failed at an exercise. Sometimes they were shouted at.

Isn’t that what trainers are supposed to do? Push people beyond their comfort zone but within they’re safety zone. So the people were pushed and made uncomfortable, you know what? Maybe that needs to happen more in everyday training. Maybe we need a bit more old-school ass-kicking in the age of the functional trainer. A client never spent $100+ an hour to train with me because they wanted their left glute med to fire better. The goals we’re creating for our clients are fabricated and trainers are losing site of reality.

So ask yourself, are you giving your clients what they want or what you think they need?

But don’t you have to walk before you run?

Kevin did. He just walked fast, uphill with the intensity ramped up. The trainers gathered the group before a workout and laid out the plan for the day. A warmup was completed (off camera) and verbal feedback was provided throughout the workout. If an exercise was performed improperly the trainer immediately stepped in to correct. You didn’t see it because cueing doesn’t make sexy tv, but it happened. All the while paramedics were monitoring the participants every move behind the camera.

One of the Biggest Loser trainers, Rob, was known for army-type training. He yelled and was condemned in personal trainers circles as not being cognizant of the limitations of the exercisers. Want to know the truth?

During an outdoor work out Kevin couldn’t make it over a gate. Rob stepped in and gave him a variation of the exercise so he could continue (sounds like proper use of regressions to me). All the trainers spent time after the workouts to give Kevin and the others advice on recovery and listened to feedback on the workouts. According to Kevin nobody got pushed to the limit where they were going to hurt themselves. They got challenged within reason. Not comfort — reason.

There was also a psychiatrist on the Biggest Loser staff who Kevin had both a weekly check in and the option to check in whenever he felt it was needed. How many of your obese personal training clients consult with a psychiatrist? This is the kind of multi-disciplinary communication that’s sorely missed in most personal training environments.

The other 16 weeks

After leaving the Biggest Loser mansion Kevin spent 16 weeks at home following the Biggest Loser plan. Kevin had personal trainers at home, at a local gym as well as his Biggest Loser trainer Richard sending him regular workouts and checking up with text messages. They had a weekly phone call and Richard made himself available at any point if needed. Kevin even ended up doing some of the training at Richard’s gym.
The psychiatrist was also on call for the participants. Kevin never needed the help but others did.

Personal trainer Biggest Loser

After the show

“I know without a shadow of a doubt I will never be 450lbs again” – Kevin McLernon

According to Kevin some of the participants have maintained the full weight loss and others have put some weight back on. Every one is better than they were when entering the show.

After the final credits rolled of the Biggest Loser a letter was given to Kevin and the others with the numbers of the full support team — the trainers, psychiatrists, dietitians etc.. They all make themselves available whenever a past participant calls.

Kevin gets random text messages from the psychiatrist and his personal trainer Richard asking how he is. Just a couple weeks ago even the studio execs messaged him to wish him a happy birthday.

The participants have formed a private Facebook group where they keep in touch. They motivate and empower each other to stay on the course that was started with the show.

Personal training is about changing lives

A month ago Kevin received a tweet. The man said that he remembers Kevin from his initial audition. Apparently they passed each other in the hallway. Kevin was chosen for the show, this man was not.

Kevin has lost 200+ pounds and his life has been changed. This man is still struggling with obesity. He has failed on countless diets, hired and fired trainers, and suffers from obesity-related illness.

The next time you watch a show like the Biggest Loser be proud of the transformations. The trainers on the show are doing a fantastic job changing lives. Yes they push people to their limits but proper precautions are taken, instruction is given, and other professionals are involved as needed. Imagine if gyms across the country could get the same type of results these shows get. It would be a giant step in tackling obesity.

We’re all fighting the same battle. Enjoy the successes of your peers. Stop forming negative opinions beforehand and looking for opportunities to reinforce that decision.

Biggest Loser and Personal Training

Photo credits: All Photos courtesy of Shine TV.

Special thanks to Kevin McLernon for sharing his story. Kevin asked me to share his Twitter and Facebook accounts for anybody who wanted to connect with him.

So tell me what you really think of the Biggest Loser. Did I make you view the show in a different light or do you still hate it? Comment on the Facebook status embedded below

About the Author
Jonathan Goodman

Jonathan Goodman is the creator and head coach of the PTDC and has a distaste for third person bios ... Hey, I'm Jon and I'd have to say that this site is pretty awesome. Thanks for being here. If you're interested in my brand new book, it's called Ignite the Fire (revised, updated, and expanded). My team and I have also created the first Academy and certification for online trainers. Click here to check out the Online Trainer Academy.