Every profession has its share of bad apples. The most dangerous ones are those who abuse their power.
And personal trainers wield a lot of power.
Our clients entrust us with their money, their time, and their bodies. But most significantly, they surrender to us their “value of self.”
Becoming a client isn’t like getting a haircut. Sure, that’s another transaction involving money, time, and a part of someone’s body. But a personal training session—and the coaching tactics that envelope it—can dramatically impact the way someone feels about herself.
If a coach uses methods that cause physical harm or mental distress, it’s tantamount to abuse. Most of us probably agree with this, but we may not agree on where to draw the lines. That’s the first step to eliminating this problem.
But where is that line? In the past year or so, all of these have gone viral on social media:
- A trainer making a client squat on dumbbells.
- A trainer making clients do burpees for no apparent reason.
- A trainer allowing a client to deadlift with horrible form.
Those are obviously extreme—that’s why they went viral—but there are countless examples you can see every single day in gyms around the world:
- Forcing clients to use barbells for lifts.
- Having clients do ballistic movements before they’re ready.
- Not adjusting intensity to reflect a client’s abilities, goals, and needs.
- Emphasizing numbers—load or reps—instead of movement quality.
- Not providing adequate rest for optimal performance and overall safety.
The issues aren’t always as severe as what I’ve noted here, but the source of the offense is the same.
The trainer’s goal is to make himself look good.
Maybe he wants a reputation as a hardcore badass. Maybe he wants to be seen as a motivational guru who pushes people beyond their limits. Or maybe, just maybe, he doesn’t know any better. Whatever it is, he’s prioritizing his ego over the client’s needs, and sometimes over the client’s health.
It’s an approach that creates a negative reputation for fitness professionals across the industry. And it’s time for it to end.
But how? I believe personal trainers must hold each other to a higher standard. To do that, we must first hold ourselves to a higher standard. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but if we start with these three rules, I think we’ll make the fitness industry a better place—for us and our clients.
1. Train the individual in front of you, and only the individual
Taking the time to learn the nuances of the individuals you train allows you to design a training program that’s appropriate for them and their goals.
I once worked with a trainer who would begin every client’s session with 50 burpees. It didn’t matter if they were just waking up or coming straight from work. He wasn’t concerned with movement quality, joint mobility, core stability, or a gradual increase in body temperature. He made all of them throw their teeth at the floor 50 times before doing anything else. No exceptions.
When he was called out on his approach, he didn’t flinch. Instead, he defended his methods, saying he wouldn’t work with anyone who couldn’t handle his demands. It essentially says to clients, if you don’t like the way I train you, you’re weak—not just in body, but in character, too.
This attitude has no place in the fitness industry. It makes people feel bad about themselves and dislike fitness. That’s not good for anybody. Before you train a client, it’s your professional responsibility to ask questions, understand both physical and psychological limitations, and create a truly customized training plan.
You are, after all, a personal trainer.
2. Encourage your clients when they want to try new activities
I know a trainer who believes that anything done without external load is a waste of time.
He’s a great coach in his modality, and doesn’t routinely put people at risk of injury. But he turns his clients into hostages to his bias. Some have told me they’d love to do yoga, try Pilates, go for a run, or take a Spinning class.
Why don’t they do it? Because, in their words, “He won’t let me.”
Talk about a power trip. Why would any fitness professional actively discourage clients who want to pursue fitness? Why would we try to keep them from discovering new activities they might enjoy and benefit from? Even if you believe your preferred approach is superior to all others, why would that rule out even exploring other approaches?
It’s not just meatheads who think this way. I’ve met yoga teachers, Pilates instructors, runners, and functional gurus who think any external load is pointless or unsafe.
I’m not sure of many things, but I am about this: No single method is so obviously superior that it should be done exclusively.
To be clear, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with specializing. We’ve all known great coaches with awesome knowledge and skill in powerlifting, Olympic lifting, kettlebell training, gymnastics, bodybuilding, or metabolic conditioning. We’ve seen coaches who were peerless when it comes to training speed, agility, endurance, or movement skills.
If you love training so much that you want to do it for a living, it’s understandable that you’d have a strong preference for one type of training.
But that doesn’t give you any good reason to push that preference on every client, or talk down other types of training. It’s not just unfair to your clients, it’s unfair to your colleagues. You’re hurting our credibility along with your own.
READ ALSO: “Three Ways to Write Better Training Programs”
3. Seek out what you don’t know
The solution comes down to two simple words: Be better.
You can start by learning more. Not more of what you already know, but more of what you don’t know. Get out of your comfort zone and experience more of what the fitness industry has to offer, both physically and intellectually.
A few ways to get better:
* Survey your clients
Ask your clients what they like and don’t like about your training methods. They’ll probably be reticent, so make sure they understand you really want their honest feedback, with the goal of improving your service to them. You can make it anonymous by using a tool like Survey Monkey and sending them a link via email.
It’s a low-risk move for you. Your current clients will give you mostly positive answers. (If you want a wider range of responses, open the survey to past clients.) But even positive feedback often points to an area or two where you can be better.
* Hire your own personal trainer
Lots of coaches say everyone needs a trainer. Maybe you’re one of them. But do you actually believe it? There’s an easy way to find out: Hire a personal trainer. And I’m not talking about a friend, or someone you agree with on virtually every fitness-related issue. Hire someone with a different approach to training.
You’ll not only pick up new ideas about coaching and interacting with your clients, you’ll also gain insight into the training experience from a client’s perspective.
* Take practical, hands-on courses
The best way to experience a new modality is to learn directly from a top expert. Sign up for an Animal Flow seminar. Earn a TRX or kettlebell certification. The farther it is from your personal preferences, the more stimulating (and perhaps even humbling) it will be.
* Try new classes regularly
Group exercise classes are another way to get out of your comfort zone—one you can do early and often. The goal is to diversify your fitness portfolio by trying workout systems without regard for whether you’ll be good at them.
Start with the obvious ones that your gym probably offers, like yoga, Spinning, Pilates, barre, and Zumba. Try a few old-school group classes like kickboxing or step aerobics, if you can find them.
Pay a few bucks to test drive Soul Cycle, Orange Theory, Les Mills, or whatever workout system or boutique studio is currently popular in your city.
Visiting a new city? With a quick Google search, you can figure out what’s trending there, and check it out.
* Read everything
You probably have strong opinions about the latest diet trends—cleanses, keto, fasting, vegan, carnivore. But whether you love it or think it’s junk, when was the last time you read a book about it? I don’t mean reading someone else’s opinion of the book. I mean reading the original source, from the point of view of the person who made it a thing in the first place.
For example, have you read The Whole30, Wheat Belly, The China Study, or Eat Right 4 Your Type? All of them are, or were, hugely influential.
If you agree with a book’s philosophy, reading it will allow you to make more intelligent arguments in favor of it. If you disagree, you’ll be able to discuss its flaws with more authority. Either way, you learn from it.
Ultimately, the more we pursue experiences and content that both reinforce and challenge our beliefs, the better we serve our clients.
The more we focus on serving those clients, the better we make our entire profession.
And the better our profession becomes, the more people we can help.
Isn’t that the point?