As of 2021, the fitness industry is worth over $100 billion. Successful personal trainers have been forced to pivot, offering online workout plans in the wake of the pandemic, and trainers and clients alike have found success with this one-to-many business model.
But while well-qualified fitness professionals are helping clients move toward health, there's no question that some ill-equipped trainers are taking advantage of clients. Personal trainers offer varying scopes of practice, and this can make it tough for consumers to know what to expect when they purchase a training package.
If you're a trainer who isn't quite sure what you should offer your clients, fear not—I'm confused too.
The personal training industry is changing rapidly, and we're all trying to figure out our next move.
The fitness industry is failing many of the people it aims to serve.
There's no singular governing body for personal trainers in North America. Any organization can create a cheap personal training certification program, snag money from fitness-pro-hopefuls, and deem those who complete the program as prepared to train clients. Fitness buzzwords—like HIIT training, metabolic conditioning, functional movement, core training, leaning out, periodization, and proprioceptive training—are used to draw clients in, not to actually help clients solve a problem.
If you've ever felt like you had to shell out money for the latest certification in order to keep your business afloat, you're not alone. Trainers are often tricked into feeling like they need to keep purchasing new courses to keep clients on board. In reality, however, trainers who are constantly shelling out for the next best thing are usually failing to nail the fundamental skills they need to help their clients move forward.
The personal training industry is designed to keep trainers paying for more certifications—not to help clients grow using the knowledge they already have. With all the money-grabs in the industry trying to get trainers to sign up for the next class, it's hard to understand what we actually need to help our clients thrive.
I got my start as a personal trainer. I loved working with my clients. Now my focus has changed—I work to help personal trainers develop the skills they need to succeed. Healthcare costs are rising, and it's scary to think that my generation won’t be able to support the medical bills incurred by baby boomers. Preventative care is a must, and exercise is an excellent way to help people ward off certain health conditions—like heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, depression, and some types of cancer—before they start.
Personal training offers a fulfilling, exciting, real-time way to affect people's day-to-day lives. It's not a part-time job—it's a full-time career that can change both your life and the lives of your clients. Teaching clients how to exercise with proper technique, form, and theory has been proven time and again as an effective way to decrease pain, prevent disease, improve quality of life, and decrease healthcare costs.
But with so much noise in the industry, misconceptions about trainers run rampant. Here are nine truths about personal trainers:
1. We don’t all have six-packs.
Are some personal trainers ripped? Sure. Is having a six-pack and bulging biceps a prerequisite for a successful personal training career? Absolutely not. Fitness matters, and it's important to practice what you preach, but it's also important to enjoy life. Both inside and outside of the gym, it's important to strike a healthy balance between work and play.
Some trainers spend countless hours in the gym (and the kitchen), making sure they're doing all they can to create and maintain a fitness-competition-ready physique. If you want to live that lifestyle, cool. If you'd rather have a piece of pizza from time to time, that's great too—and it won't stop you from becoming a successful personal trainer.
It's not smart for clients to choose a trainer based solely on their personal appearance. Most of us got into the industry because we fell in love with fitness, and many of us are still figuring out exactly what works best for our bodies and lifestyles. A good personal trainer knows how to create programs for different body types, goals, and lifestyles. Studies show that genetics have a massive effect on adaptation to exercise. Many aspects of fitness—from bone density to lean muscle mass growth—are affected by a client's genes. A solid personal trainer understands that programs that work for one client may not work for another, and will be able to adjust accordingly.
Yes, we need to practice what we preach—but we don't need to be stage-ready 24-7 to help our clients achieve our goals. Tiger Woods has a golf coach—and that coach isn't out-golfing Tiger. A successful coach spends time studying technique and knows how to coach and motivate. Just because a trainer doesn't have traps popping out of the neckline of their T-shirt doesn't mean that they can't help a client get jacked (if that's what the client wants). Personal trainers have decided the balance they'd like to strike between living life and staying fit, and they can help clients do the same.
The best program a personal trainer can create is the one that a client will follow. We need to work to ensure the programs we make mesh with our clients' lifestyles, making it easy for them to comply with what we ask. We do this for ourselves, and it's important that we do the same for our clients.
2. Our goal is not to make you hurt—it’s to make you hurt less.
Our goal is to help clients feel good—not to make it so it's hard for them to get through their day after a session.
Many people (trainers included) take intense muscle soreness after a workout as a sign that something is working. Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) occurs when the body adjusts to a new exercise, or when the exercise they're accustomed to changes in duration or intensity. When you do something different from what you're used to, you get sore.
The goal of training isn't to get you sore: It's to help your muscles grow. Sometimes, the two go hand in hand. The absence of soreness doesn't mean a training program isn't effective. It's possible for change to happen in the body without soreness. Hypertrophy (muscle growth) occurs through mechanical stress, metabolic stress, and muscle damage—all of which can occur without soreness.
Yes, I ask my clients how they're feeling, and I want to know if their muscles are sore, but soreness is not a point of celebration. It can inform the next steps in a training program and give me more information about how my client's body is adapting to the program I've created. If soreness is happening, something isn't right, and it's my job to figure it out.
Soreness negatively affects the way you move, and it's my job to help clients feel better, not worse. Less soreness means that you can train (happily) more often, and that's what I'm after.
3. We care more about the why.
That's right: The reason why a client wants to reach their goal is the most important factor to help a trainer develop an effective, individualized program.
George Doran, Arthur Miller, and James Cunningham rose to motivational psychology fame in 1981 with their development of the SMART goal. SMART is an acronym that represents five facets of goals that actually add value to a client's life—SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely.
All aspects of SMART goals matter in personal training, but the R—relevant—is especially important. Imagine a client who wants to lose 10 pounds over the coming two months. This goal is specific, measurable, attainable, and timely—but why is it relevant?
Understanding the why behind a client's goal helps a trainer to motivate a client in the face of hardships and setbacks. Perhaps the client wants to lose 10 pounds so that they feel confident before a high school reunion, or because they want to get off of medication for a weight-related health issue.
It's easier for a client to stick to the plan when they know why it matters. As a trainer, I have no interest in setting arbitrary goals for my clients. I want to know where they want to go, why they want to go there, and why their goals matter. Once we nail down those parts of the goal, we can get to work.
4. We get frustrated when you don’t do your homework.
Personal trainers aren't in it for the money. We work hard because we love helping people get strong, healthy, and confident. We put our all into our training plans and sessions, and it's frustrating for us when you don't do your homework.
Most personal training clients train once or twice a week. A few clients train three times a week, and even fewer clients train four times a week. There are 164 hours in the week for clients to go off the rails when it comes to exercise, nutrition, and lifestyle. Your trainer can keep you on track during your session, but they can't hold your hand through day-to-day life.
When clients aren't making progress, something is wrong—and as a trainer, I'm here to help my clients figure it out. For this to work, open communication is key. Your goals might be too lofty, or a part of your training plan may not fit into your lifestyle. It's my job to figure out what's not working—but you've got to be honest with me if you want me to help.
5. We worry about form as much as weight and reps.
Most new clients can’t do a push-up properly, even if they're strong in other ways. It's my job to help clients work through complex movement patterns in a way that actually benefits the body. This brings us back to SMART goals: What's the reasoning behind your desire to work with a trainer? If you want to look great, it makes more sense for us to focus on movement quality instead of loading up the weight bar.
A high-quality assessment allows me to figure out where my clients are starting, and develop a program that supports healthy movement patterns. The mind-muscle connection is vital, and clients need to know where they're supposed to feel the effort in their muscles before they begin a movement pattern. This increases muscle recruitment, helping you make faster progress.
Most of us have been there at some point: rushing through a workout to check the boxes instead of focusing on form and muscle recruitment. As a trainer, it's my job to help clients take a step back, refocus, and get the most effective workout possible.
6. We will advise you on nutrition—to a point.
As we mentioned, personal training is an unregulated industry. There is no regulated scope of practice that tells personal trainers what they can and can't do. Generally, it's okay for trainers to provide nutritional advice to clients. In many areas, personal trainers can legally refer to themselves as nutritionists (but not a dietitian or registered nutritionist—these terms are reserved for those who have government-recognized certification/licensure). As long as trainers aren't claiming to be something they're not (like a medical nutrition therapy practitioner), advising clients on how to eat is permitted.
Trainers should only promote eating habits they know well. Nutrition isn't cut and dry. Certain supplements, for example, could work well for one client and wreak havoc on another client's body. If your trainer recommends supplementation, do your own research before you open your wallet—especially if your trainer profits from your purchase.
Many trainers make large commissions through supplement sales. Multilevel marketing schemes (MLMs) run rampant in North America. Whether the products are effective is not the issue. Rather, it's important that trainers involved in supplement sales are fully transparent about how they benefit when you make a purchase.
In reality, most trainers don't know more about nutrition than the average person:
- Eat breakfast.
- Eat consistently throughout the day, without skipping meals.
- Eat healthy fat.
- Eat lots of veggies.
- Restrict carbohydrate intake to before and after your workout.
I know I'm oversimplifying here (and the paleo and intermittent fasting crowds are giving me the side-eye), but think about it: If everyone followed the above suggestions, we'd have a healthier population.
The bottom line on nutrition: It's your trainer's job to ensure that you have the information you need to make progress on your plan. If they don't have the information you need to eat well, they should refer you to someone who can help.
7. We hate the one-hour session standard.
One-hour sessions are the norm across North America, but they aren't always the best fit. Some programs require shorter workouts, while others require 90-minute workouts. If your trainer ends your session in 45 minutes instead of 60, it's not because they want a break—it's because a 45-minute workout was the best fit for you on that particular day. The expectation of a 60-minute training session often leaves trainers feeling like they need to stretch out workouts unnecessarily.
Don't get me wrong—in some cases, 60-minute sessions make sense. If a client needs a high-volume workout, 60 minutes may not be enough to get the number of reps that you need. The 60-minute time constraint limits trainers and greater flexibility is often needed to provide clients with optimal workouts for their goals.
8. We’re not educated by YouTube.
The way a fitness professional educates themselves shouldn't be the same as the way a client learns more about working out. Just like doctors don't prescribe treatments based on Instagram videos, trainers shouldn't be picking up workouts from YouTube.
To learn more about how to best educate clients, trainers need to read peer-reviewed studies, industry journals, and textbooks—not checking out the latest tips from social media gym aficionados. Clients aren't test subjects, they're paying customers who deserve to get what they're paying for—an effective program from a qualified, trained fitness professional. It's smart for trainers to constantly evaluate their craft and offer new techniques, but these new techniques need to be tested before they're prescribed to clients.
9. Yes, we’ve made (and learned from) mistakes—our job is to help you avoid them.
Personal trainers get into the industry after spending years on self-discovery, both physical and mental. We've learned, we've failed, and we've persevered. Self-experimentation has taught us what works and what doesn't, and we become trainers so we can pass this knowledge on to others who want to get healthy and strong.
We're here to help you get your dream body in the quickest, healthiest, safest way possible. When you hire a trainer, you're not hiring them for a session—you're hiring them for the years of expertise they bring to the table. Every day, we go to work with the goal of helping you become the best version of yourself. When you succeed, we do too.