In a separate article I listed the many benefits of hiring a personal trainer. Today, however, I wanted to pull back the curtain on the industry and give you a peak into the underbelly – the negative aspects that everyone should be aware of.
I’ve worked in gyms of every shape, size and description from New York to Florida, including World Gym, Gold’s Gym, LA Fitness, YWCA, SNAP Fitness and independent gyms. Regardless of the type of club or its geographical location, certain things stay consistent. Also, the industry just isn’t what it used to be. So here’s the downside of what I’ve seen over my 20+ year career…
As with most things in life, not all trainers are created equal. Certifications are all the rage nowadays, but are absolutely no guarantee that a given trainer knows what they’re doing. Back when I first started training in the early 1990s, certifications were relatively rare. Most trainers were bodybuilders and fitness experts who knew their stuff from practical, hands-on experience, usually over many years of training themselves and others. Many of them modeled the lifestyle much more consistently than most young trainers do today, many of whom look like they’ve never picked up a weight, let alone taught anyone how to use one.
Now, this isn’t to say that trainers were necessarily better back in “the old days”, just that they tended to have a lot more life experience. Whereas today most trainers have a certain level of technical training and often little life experience, trainers back then often lacked more advanced knowledge of special populations and training paradigms, but were, in my opinion, much better able to apply their knowledge. And the fact that they looked the part far more readily than most trainers today engendered a certain level of respect from clients.
That said, there are dozens of certifying agencies today. I worked as a trainer for many years before jumping in and going for my certification. When I did, I went with an organization favored by many health clubs and gyms, the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Unfortunately, while that may sound like a snazzy institution, I was appalled by their certification program. Their one-size-fits-all reliance on core and instability training (something I and many researchers have roundly debunked) coupled with nutritional guidelines about 50 years out of date, were, to say the least, shockingly bad. It was abundantly clear that anyone who took this course would be woefully unprepared to work as a trainer without a great deal of prior hands-on experience.
Basically, certifications are a money grab. Unlike your college degree, which you hold forever, certifications expire after (usually) two years. Most certification bodies require continuing education credits and renewal fees to maintain your certification, even if you’re consistently working in the field. And while that may be fine in an industry like tax accounting that’s constantly changing, fitness training really doesn’t change all that much. Sure, there are numerous fads that are marketed as lures for self promotion, but by and large it’s old school work that gets the job done. Couple that with a healthy dose of creativity and you’ve got yourself a trainer – no certification necessary.
That said, almost all personal trainers today are required to be certified, though usually any certification will do. Some have college degrees in physical fitness, athletic training, kinesiology and similar programs, but they tend to be the exception rather than the rule. When picking a trainer, ignore the certifications unless you have a need specific to a certain type of certificate. More importantly, pick a trainer based on their experience in doing what you need. And find this out by speaking to the club owner or fitness director, not the trainers themselves (since most will tell you they can do anything).
Besides the issue with certifications, there are three main aspects of the personal training industry today that I abhor:
- Overemphasis on Sales – Trainers today are expected to be salesmen. Many gyms and health clubs hire trainers to besiege their members with requests for training, fitness assessments, follow-ups, consultations, etc. – basically, anything to get them in front of members to expound on the benefits of hiring them as their trainer.
These same gyms often do little to advertise for new training clients, preferring instead to use the trainers as sales personnel to recruit from a captive audience and squeeze more money from the existing members. Even worse, the trainer’s ability to “convert” members to training clients is often valued over whatever training experience they may have.
Many clubs can bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in personal training revenue, and this is done by pitching trainers against one another and against the members themselves. I once worked (briefly) in a club where the members hated to see a trainer coming their way because they were so tired of being solicited – not a good environment and truly the antithesis of what it means to be a trainer (i.e. a resource to the members, not a scourge to be avoided).
- Fad Training – Most people who join a gym do so to exercise in private by using the many machines and equipment freely available. Fad training is often employed to make trainers seem like a better alternative to more old-school approaches to fitness. However, because a trainer has such a broad spectrum of experience to draw from in creating workout routines, it’s unnecessary to resort to the newest fad to bring value to the training. A remarkable assortment of tweaks can be made to even the most rudimentary routines to vastly improve them and accelerate the client toward their goals… no flashy gadget or gimmick needed.
- Conflicts of Interest – One aspect of training that’s the same today as it ever was is that the very nature of personal training creates a conflict of interest. Most trainers work on pure commission; if they’re not training, they’re not earning money. Fitness assessments, tours, overviews, initial consultations, etc. are typically provided without pay all in the hopes of acquiring the prospect as a client. And once you have a client, you want to keep them for as long as possible, which means training them, but not teaching them.
You see, if the trainer teaches a client too well or too much, the client may find that they know enough to guide their own training without the need for the trainer. Granted, there are many other reasons to hire a trainer other than simply leading someone through a workout, but all clients eventually either quit the gym or go on to train themselves. With that in mind, why not better prepare them for that eventuality?
In an ideal world, a trainer would be there not only to train the client, but also to teach them enough to become self-sufficient. Unfortunately, doing so more often than not costs you money, so many trainers will opt to train but not educate. If gyms actually paid a trainer to provide a service rather than to act as a salesman, this would end quickly and members would go on to be far more educated in using the facilities.
On the plus side of all this negativity, those of us who don’t come across as salesmen, don’t push the newest fad just to woo the unknowing, and who train as well as educate, tend to stand out, garner the most positive word of mouth and acquire referrals from those we’ve helped. That’s a win-win in my book that sidesteps all the normal pitfalls of the industry.
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