Should You Fire Your Trainer?
What makes a personal trainer “GREAT”?
…If you asked a bunch of different people that question, you’d probably hear a variety of answers. This article intends to explore some of the most common answer-types, while encouraging the reader (you) to raise your standards and your expectations for the so-called “professional” trainer.
* “Beautiful words are not always truthful, and truthful words are not always beautiful.” – Lao Tzu (modified)
If you were to ask a gym owner about trainers, a “trainer” is a type of employee, and a “GREAT trainer” is often described as someone that sells a lot of training sessions, is outgoing and friendly with members, and doesn’t cause any friction among members or staff. Upon closer view, that gym owner’s definition might not mean much more than “valuable employee”. Of course, those qualities may be important – but (obviously) there’s much more to being a “great trainer” than just being a good member of the staff…
If you were to ask training clients or gym members the same question, you’d hear different perspectives than that of a gym-owner, and you’d hear some recurring answers. These common answers, in my opinion, highlight the low quality of the training industry as a whole, and highlight the low standards we have for the fitness profession.
…Wait, did I just say fitness PROFESSION?!?! Yes, you read that correctly, I did write that. Believe it or not, Exercise and Fitness is a PROFESSION! …well, at least it could have been… It was supposed to be. But instead, the fitness industry is where it is today; a could-be health profession that became a superficial, novelty-based, ADHD, entertainment & celebrity-driven industry instead*.
I know, I know – I sound a little salty and I probably sound frustrated. That’s because it’s true. I am. And you should be too… That gym-buddy you hired to help you is ‘faking it’ much more than you know*.
I’ve heard people describe why they think their trainer is great, saying things like, “she’s in great shape and practices what she preaches”, “he’s run 20 marathons”, “she really kills me”, “he’s got all these certifications” or “she’s so good, I was sore for days”.
Don’t get me wrong – some of those attributes may hold some degree of value, but I have to ask a few questions:
- Are those qualities enough to consider a trainer truly “great” at his/her profession?
- Is it really just about his/her accomplishments and accolades?
- Is it really about pushing people until they’re sick or hurt, and telling them it’s good for them?
- Is it really about how many certificates they can hang on the wall, regardless of whether it translates into better exercise decisions and better service?
You see, trainers are supposed to be more than pretty, friendly, motivating gym-buddies. Trainers are supposed to be health professionals; and as with other health professions, there should be a knowledge base, and a responsible decision-making thought process beneath his/her pretty external presentation and friendly bedside manner.
Have we grown to believe that a nice-looking trainer that barks out orders and repeats cliche statements is all we need and all we should expect from a “professional”? What do we expect from other health professionals? What would you expect from your physical therapist? Your physician? Your dentist? …Would you let your Doctor give you a pre-packaged plan while he ate snacks and played on his cellphone? Of course not! So why would you accept that from your fitness professional? You deserve better than that!!
Most trainers rely on their looks, dispense some pre-packaged exercise choreography, and recite a few cliche statements, soundbites, and memorized jargon. Most trainers make exercise decisions based on their personal biases and preferences, instead of based on your individual needs/tolerances/abilities. Most trainers toggle between watching you exercise, watching the tv, socializing with others, checking their cellphone, and sipping their coffee or protein shake. …If any of this sounds like your trainer, I’m sorry to tell you – you have a hired a rent-a-friend, not a professional trainer*. Sad but true – sorry ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, what I’m trying to do here is: 1. Invite you to question the “great trainer” qualities we’re used to valuing, & 2. Point out that there is a deeper level of professional quality that we deserve (and should demand) beyond these superficial qualities we’ve grown accustomed to.
So why has it become ok for trainers to over-promise, but under-deliver? Because people like you keep paying them, that’s why. Every time you purchase sessions with a poor service provider, you put your stamp of approval on their sub-par service, you reward their habits, and you sell yourself short while depriving the trainer of an opportunity to improve; to learn and grow as a health service provider.
If we are going to receive a better level of service, we need to set new expectations. We need to raise our standards, and recognize that when it comes to being a professional, and a provider of “GREAT” training:
- It’s not just about being a nice guy/gal.
- It’s not just about pushing people hard.
- It’s not about keeping up with the latest exercise fads and trends.
- It’s not about pushing MLM/pyramid scheme supplements, or dispensing some pre-packaged exercise choreography.
- During your session, he/she should not be distracted by other people, a phone, their snack/drink etc, YOU should be his/her sole focus.
A GREAT trainer may possess many personality traits you like, and perhaps he/she holds you accountable in the ways you need, but if this trainer is truly great, he/she can provide a level of quality that is consistent with a PROFESSIONAL level of service.
So what should we expect & demand? Here are a few characteristics of a GREAT trainer:
- He/she reads & studies at the professional level, not at the consumer level
- The trainer works to learn & grow in his/her “off” time
- He/she “walks the talk”
- He/she doesn’t allow personal biases to influence the exercise decisions he/she makes for you
- He/she understands biomechanics, exercise mechanics, and objective exercise decision-making
- He/she makes it a priority to custom-fit exercise for you based on your specific anatomy and idiosyncrasies
- He/she looks for ways to increase the benefit of an exercise while minimizing the “collateral damage”
- He/she is fully present and engaged during the entire session with you, cueing, correcting, coaching
So if your trainer has all the right habits (during and outside your sessions): is trained in biomechanics, provides a custom-fit exercise experience for you, and strives to constantly learn and improve – then let him/her know how much you appreciate that you’ve found one of the elite! Maybe buy him/her a giftcard to the bookstore to express your gratitude! 😉
Conversly, if your trainer undervalues or downplays the importance of exercise biomechanics (anatomy & forces), doesn’t give you a custom-fit exercise experience, doesn’t pay attention for every minute of the session, and/or values his ego more than your health, then you know what to tell ’em…
Don’t know where to start? Maybe begin by asking them if they know what a ‘Resistance Profile’ is. If they can’t answer, or if they try to downplay the importance of it, you will have your answer. If they don’t know forces & resistance, then they don’t know exercise. (That’s not my opinion, that’s physical reality.)
Watch this (unscripted and unrehearsed) video made at BDx Fitness for a few more thoughts and perspectives on the subject, and keep an eye out for future posts, which will go into greater detail. Have comments or questions? Leave a comment below.