Are Personal Trainers Evil?

Recently I read a comment from a trainer who was actively encouraging people online to not listen to their trainer.

Despite being a trainer.


That’s what I thought, but it lead to great discussion about the state of the industry in which they elaborated on the claim.

It wasn’t, ‘don’t listen to your trainer’ so much as, ‘be skeptical and learn things on your own too.’

Sure…but I still left the discussion feeling like despite being a trainer, he didn’t really understand the value of his own profession.

Now I’ve been trolled plenty of times online by folks with the notion that trainers are not useful, intelligent coaches who attempt to help people accomplish cool physical stuff. Rather, they are the modern day equivalent of used car salesmen.

Nasty stuff.

Yes, the industry is often shameful, but that doesn’t mean you’re better off without us. To the contrary, we’d do better with greater transparency and having more accountability from the public than we presently do.

And quite frankly people do better when they can get feedback from objective people and can collaborate with experienced individuals to brainstorm ideas/solutions to problems.

There was a wonderful article in the New Yorker back in 2011 about a surgeon who took it upon himself to have another surgeon coach him through surgeries so that he could improve. The man in question was very experienced, already seemingly close to the top of his field and probably already a “better” surgeon than the man coaching him.

And yet, the surgeon still managed to get better at surgery and found a great sense of renewal in his career.

Was Phil Jackson a better player than Michael Jordan?

My point here isn’t that bad trainers exist, the low barrier to entry into the field and high attrition rates yields an industry riddled with scam artists and empty promises. Controversy combined with something ‘new and exciting’ can propel a nobody to a somebody quickly. No one notices the ones that don’t succeed and they move on to another industry.

This is true in this field more so than others, save the ‘get rich quick’ online hustle, but that doesn’t mean that great trainers don’t exist any more than it means that great financial planners exist.

It also doesn’t mean that you have to have a trainer with a PhD in exercise science to work with you. Let’s be honest all the major sports teams gobble them up anyway.

Certification doesn’t grant expertise, but few trainers are experts, nor need they be. A certification merely implies competency. Your trainer doesn’t need new and exciting methods. The majority of what we know about fitness training hasn’t changed a great deal in the 10 years I’ve been training and I’d argue hasn’t changed much since the 70’s (I’m a bit of a history fan).

I have many books that are 30…40…50 years old or more, that still seem as relevant today, as they were then.

New and exciting is a presentation attempt to distinguish yourself in a somewhat crowded field. The reality is that most changes a trainer makes are relatively simple. Eat less and exercise, you will probably lose weight/fat. You lift weights you make someone stronger. You do it with enough volume you give someone some muscle. There isn’t a great shroud of secrecy concealing the effective practices of top trainers.

Yes there are some nitty gritty details that matter depending on the person.

Most of the time that’s what distinguishes good trainers from great trainers; Communication. It’s not that they are abreast of the latest and greatest techniques, it’s that they can get people to use the right technique at the right time.

Continual learning helps everybody in the long-run but it’s not necessary for a fitness coach to be so highly educated (though some are) to be effective. Everyone has to start somewhere. To be effective a trainer needs basic knowledge of principles in training and then practice in identifying when those principles are useful or not based on the context of the situation of the client.

This basic knowledge can be at or near the level of knowledge a trainee might have. I’ve had enough existing trainers as clients to know that I’m useful, despite similarities in knowledge.

I’ve also worked with enough great (not necessarily ‘more knowledgeable’) trainers myself, to know that I can’t always see how my spine looks during a particular exercise on a particular day. Or how my hip kicks out at a certain part of the squat. Or someone to tell me things look good, add load, or take a little off that bar something isn’t quite right today.

Joe (not his name) came in for a session the other day, which should have been a heavy weight training day because it’s typical of Monday to expect Joe to be fresh for the week. Joe’s going through a messy divorce and was up all night worrying about his kids, worrying about his soon-to-be ex-wife’s ability to manage things on her own and thoughts looking towards what he might do in the future. He skipped breakfast because he wasn’t hungry and was anxious to let off some steam.

Within 5 minutes of starting I could tell this was not going to be a heavy training day and it took me another 10 to convince him that not all training needs to be hard and heavy to be useful. We can’t just layer intense nervous system stress over existing nervous system stress and not expect a crash. “Let’s do some oxidative lifting, some tissue work, some stretching, and finish with some light aerobic training and try to bring your amped up emotions down a notch,” I said…

By the end of the session he asked, “did we just do yoga for 45 minutes?”

We laughed, I asked him how he felt, he told me “much better…” we exchanged niceties and my next client arrived. I found out later they were signing the papers that day and managed to have a civil discussion during it.

It wasn’t by some random act of great training knowledge that I elevated Joe that day in anyway shape or form. I just told him what I saw and have practiced the ability to downshift situations (I usually plan B and Z). Good intuition maybe, but hardly groundbreaking exercise.

Yes, in case you’re wondering I’m probably more experienced than a lot of trainers and generally above average studious, but it didn’t take anything from me really to show him some compassion and match the workout to the mood. It wouldn’t take a training genius to read the situation, it just takes a willingness to want to help.

80% or so, of gym goers still don’t lean on a mentor or coach of some sort and they should be able to. This is heavily linked with a general lack of success. Objective feedback helps us all, by removing or identifying our bias.

It’s true in sport. It’s true in business. It’s true for your career.

It’s the relationship, and the feedback, rather than the new information.

Yes, sometimes there is a fee associated with this, however it’s been my experience in offering ‘free trials’ and ‘giveaways’ that free isn’t associated with value. There are also plenty of knowledgeable people who share their knowledge online on forums, facebook, their blogs, in books or

Another client of mine recently competed in a local ‘masters’ white belt Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) tournament and took home gold. I’m not a BJJ coach but I know considerably more about conditioning that most BJJ coaches probably do.

He was going to his classes and putting in the practice time to hone his skills, I gave him homework to do that would prepare him for a long day of intense five minute rolls. The value offered was in working with them to assess need, formulate a plan and execute it. If need be, the plan was tweaked during execution as well. I can’t take credit for all the work he put in, but I can see the value provided.

He didn’t have to go looking at multiple sources of information or do the guesswork associated with taking on a challenge all by yourself. He didn’t have to determine what sources were better quality than others. He didn’t waste money on books that might turn out to be of poor quality or that he would never have time to read. In short; He saved hours of time. Time that he could then spend training.

Anyone who has tried a home renovation or tried to fix their car for the first time can attest to this. It takes forever to figure things out on your own, doing things right to code is complicated.

There is nothing wrong with taking on building your own fitness program. There are plenty of free resources online if you’re motivated enough to learn, can tolerate the trial and error and hopefully get to use those skills again.

For the most part though, if you value your time, or don’t have much of it, it’s cheaper just to pay a contractor or a mechanic to worry about it. It’s less trial and error. You don’t develop bad habits in the first place that need to be broken when you want to get to another level later.

Bad personal trainers are bad personal trainers the same way bad doctors are bad doctors. That doesn’t mean there isn’t value in doctors. It doesn’t mean they’re evil.

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