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6 Scary Truths about Personal Trainers

By , SparkPeople Blogger
When Stepfanie recently told me and then subsequently blogged about a bad experience she had with a personal trainer, I wasn't surprised. I know a bit about what goes on in gyms where the line between trainer and salesperson is a fine one. What surprised me more was the sheer number of readers who replied to her post, relaying tale after tale of personal trainers gone wild—and not in a good way. So many asked, "What qualifies these people to train some else?" and, "What does it take to become a personal trainer?" that I thought I'd answer those questions in a follow-up blog.

I am a certified personal trainer with a degree in fitness and exercise and I have worked as a personal trainer in the past. Plenty of my friends and former college classmates work as trainers. It's an interesting profession and one that I think has potential to do a lot of good in helping people reach their fitness goals. I know some downright amazing trainers who are smart, trustworthy, extremely experienced and well educated in their trade. But I've also seen my fair share of trainers who are the exact opposite, and it's too bad that many of those trainers are giving the profession a bad rap. But even more concerning: Some are putting people who trust them at risk by having them perform unsafe exercises or giving them dangerous advice. You should be able to trust your personal trainer, right? Well, not all the time. Just in time for Friday the 13th, here are 6 scary truths that your personal trainer might not tell you.

  1. "My industry is not well regulated." I can tell you from experience that many trainers working both independently and in gyms have no certification or credentials that qualify them to train others. How can that be? Well, a single regulatory body for personal trainers does not exist. There are countless different personal training certifications or certificates available. Not all are created equal (more on that later). Unlike dietitians, which have specific roles, responsibilities and guidelines they must adhere to by law, no such regulations or laws exist for personal trainers. By law, for example, a person must meet certain requirements to call himself or herself a dietitian or nutritionist. In contrast, there is no law that stipulates what is required for someone to attach the status "personal trainer" to his or her name, so be wary. Yes, there may be some exceptions to this rule. An experienced professional with a master's degree in exercise physiology is probably more qualified than many personal trainers whose only experience comes from their weekend certification course, but unless you know everything about that person's education, background and experience, a certification is still a good thing to look for.
  2. "I got my certification over the weekend." Not all personal training certifications are equal. If you want a well qualified trainer, not just any certification will do. Personal training certifications run the gamut in cost, requirements, difficulty level and prestige. Some are so easy to get that a person can just fork over a few hundred bucks and get a certificate in the mail in a matter of days. Others require a bachelor's degree in a relevant field to even to sit for the exam. If you're looking for a qualified trainer, look into the certification that the trainer holds. A reputable certification will require that the person be CPR-certified, take an exam that contains both written and practical application questions (often conducted in-person), detail the required score the person must achieve to earn certification status, and require continuing education credits to remain certified by that organization. In general, the more difficult the exam is known to be, the more in-depth your trainer's knowledge will be (assuming he or she passes the test!).

    Some of the toughest and most highly regarded personal training certifications are from the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) and the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA, whose certification is called CSCS or Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist). The American Council on Exercise (ACE) and the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA) also meet the criteria for a reputable certification that I listed above. There are probably dozens if not hundreds of other personal training certifications out there, including several more reliable and respected ones, but these are the ones that I am most familiar with. If you are interested in what it took to get your trainer certified, ask or visit the website of the organization to see what you can find out. If your trainer doesn't have a certification that meets the reputable standards I outlined above, proceed with caution.
  3. "Actually, I'm not certified at all." According to the IDEA Health and Fitness Association, up to 45% of trainers who claim to be certified aren't. That's shocking! Your "certified" trainer's status may not be up to date if he or she allowed it to lapse, which happens if a trainer doesn't complete the required number of accredited continuing education credits each year. Continuing education is a must for any trainer to refresh his or her knowledge and stay on top of the latest research and trends in the industry. A currently-certified trainer should be able to show you his or her current certification card, which should have an expiration date on it. If it does not carry an expiration date or just looks like a "diploma," then continuing education probably isn't required by that organization, which should make you wonder. And yes, many trainers work without ever having had a certification. One clue is the title "personal trainer" instead of "certified personal trainer," but asking to see a copy of the current certification works, too. The IDEA Health and Fitness Association has recently created a great website to set up consumers with trainers—and verify that they are currently certified. You can use their Fitness Connect search tool to look for a verified, certified personal trainer in your area.
  4. "I have no experience." Even after passing a personal training exam, a certified trainer could have no experience training individuals. And an uncertified person working as a trainer could have even less—no formal training (education) at all. Simply being certified—even from one of the best organizations—does not mean that your trainer will be a good one. Personal training requires a person to take a great deal of knowledge and apply it to a wide variety of individualized cases, which is no small feat. This doesn't even get into the other issues like personality fit, motivational style, how well the trainer designs workout plans to your individual needs, or how well the trainer cues you and pays attention to proper form during each exercise. Yes, every trainer once started as an inexperienced one, but if you want to ensure the best experience, ask about theirs—and for a list of references, too.
  5. "I going to put your health, body and life at risk!" I know that a lot of people hire trainers as motivation to push themselves harder than they would on their own, but a good trainer ALWAYS puts your safety and well-being first, using gradual progressions—not working you so hard that you throw up or pass out. No, those are NOT the signs of a good workout. While each organization that certifies trainers includes several safety standards that their trainers are supposed to abide by, including lists of exercises that they deem too risky and precise guidelines for how to progress a person through a fitness program, your trainer may go against these rules based on his or her own ideas and theories. I've seen countless trainers (especially those on TV) whose workouts are completely inappropriate and unsafe for the weight, health issues and fitness level of their clientele. I've seen trainers in the gym who allow people to perform highly advanced exercise in poor form and do nothing to correct them. And in my opinion, it's the goal of far too many trainers to push a person to their physical limits, despite the fact that doing exactly that is counterproductive to that person's goals and against the safety recommendations of exercise organizations. Technically, such actions would (or should) result in that trainer's certification being revoked. But for that to even happen, the certifying body has to know about it and take the time to investigate and revoke the status. Despite seeing a lot of bad trainers in action, I've never heard of anyone's certification being revoked (although I HAVE heard of trainers being sued by clients).
  6. "Just because I have a great body or doesn't mean I'm qualified to train you." Many trainers got their jobs by word of mouth from friends or family members, simply because they look good, lost weight or are really "into fitness" themselves. Many gyms are willing to hire "trainers" who simply have an interest in fitness but otherwise no credentials. Remember that there are countless diet and fitness programs one could follow to get into great shape. Some are safe. Some are healthy. Others are extremely risky. What works for this one individual may not be appropriate for the people he or she trains. Would you trust a layperson who happened to figure out the trick to getting a good body themselves to do the same for you? I hope you answered no. While a lot of people may say yes to that, I would exercise a lot of caution—especially if you've never exercised, have been injured, are overweight, or have had any health or medical issues at all.

    Certifications do exist for a reason—both to protect the fitness consumer and the trainer (against liability and lawsuits if they hurt you in some way). Certifications are based on medically accepted science, safe protocols, good judgment and sound research, among countless other safety measures. While a non-professional may have a good deal of knowledge about exercise, proper training in anatomy, physiology, exercise physiology, exercise assessments and prescriptions and other areas covered by a good certification is essential. What your friend with a six pack read in a magazine may not be accurate, safe or effective for you, even if she feels qualified and experienced to train you. Without having read a personal training manual, studied the material and passed a test, she doesn't know what she might not know.

The personal-training industry is large, complex and filled with both the good and the bad. A good personal trainer is good, but don't be fooled by title alone. That means it's up to consumers to do their own research, look into backgrounds, and find a skilled and qualified trainer, which is no small feat. Sure, there are exceptions to all of the cautions I outlined above, but those are exceptions—not the rule—for a reason. Hopefully this information will make you better equipped to do exactly that if you want to hire a trainer in the future. For more, check out these SparkPeople articles to learn more about hiring a good trainer:

Do You Need a Personal Trainer?
How to Choose a Personal Trainer
What You Forgot to Ask Your Personal Trainer
Breaking Up with Your Personal Trainer

Does anything on this list surprise you? Have you ever worked with a trainer who may have been hiding one of these five secrets from you?

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ST3PH 11/3/2020
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RAPUNZEL53 9/16/2020
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ARMSTRJE3 9/9/2020
Thus far, the information and practices on this site coincide with the trainer I work with, which is a great pairing! Report
NANASUEH 5/28/2020
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I wholeheartedly agree with you! Thanks for sharing this one! Report
Scary stuff. I follow the advice of my PT. Report
Thank you. Very useful hints Report
It is really good... i like it..We also provided fitness related tips. I Provided Online Personal Training classes.. So if you want any query related to fitness visit our website.

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Never had a personal trainr, but surely would now go armed with what to look for and questions to ask. Report
Great information. The gym I go to offers personal training for a fee. I wish I had read this before I wasted my money on it. Report
Thanks, Coach even though I have never had a personal trainer. Report
Also, being on steroids, seems to be the attraction for most clients, who don't have a clue that's what their personal trainer is on. I went to a gym, and because i am a natural professional, i couldn't believe people who were being trained by PT's who i knew for a fact where injecting HGH and Winstrol V.. Report
Excellent info. Report
Very insightful, finding a trainer is like looking for a doctor that you're comfortable with. Report
Healthy fitness tips - maintaining a fitness diet which includes fruits and vegetables, pulses, protein, carbohydrates, fats and workout routines is a solution to all the health problems.

https:// / Report
We do need to be careful who we hire. Report
Interesting. Report
It's a pretty scary thing I think for clients. As a personal trainer, I think more people need to really thoroughly research their personal trainers before hiring them. As mentioned above, the field is not regulated - it's why insurance will definitely not pay trainers (it needs to be licensed by the state first).

I wish that more personal trainers would make a career out of the field and not just a "job" just for the temporary money. I'm a full time trainer and I make a living from it and even opened my own facility. In addition, I continued my education (earned several degrees including become a registered nurse).

If you are a trainer please take our field seriously and make sure that you keep learning and help your clients.

If you're a potential client, make sure that you review your trainer, make sure they are certified (NCCA accredited) and are knowledge and can actually help you.

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Also, there are many personal trainers out there who don't practice what they preach in terms of their own personal health habits. Eating disorders are common in the industry. Also, there is an unbelievable number of smokers in the profession. I never seen the trainers in my gym smoking (I suspect they are forbidden by management to be seen smoking in front of the clientele) but members of countless other gyms say they see the trainers out on smoke breaks all the time. I have worked with smokers who once were PTs or did it on the side and they have no issue with smoking while engaged in a health profession. It's scary! Report
As always it is up to the consumer to gather as much information as possible as to the qualifications of any personal trainer; just as you would if seeking investment advice or medical advice. Also be careful of those who refer to themselves as "fitness trainers" which is a term which has practically no meaning at all. Report
The Fitness Connect didn't work. I put on zip code and hit apply, but it just told me I should make sure my trainer was certified. Duh. There may not be any in my area, but tell me that! Report
You are right- there are a lot of personal trainers that are just salespeople! Most are, like you said, not even certified, and just assume that they know what is good for your body because they have been working out their entire life. To prevent yourself from having a bad experience, I would recommend taking a few nutrition and basic physiology classes. I may no be as healthy as my friends, but when talking to them about conditioning, I can tell you that they are misinformed about a lot of things!

I decided to delete my comment as I as not sure it was totally on topic. Report
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Item #1 is incorrect re: nutritionists/dietitians. Some states have no licensure or title act to protect nutrition. I am a RD and trainer and in NJ anyone and everyone calls themselves nutritionist and even dietitian having never gone to school. Sad. Report
Invaluable post , I learned a lot from the info - Does someone know if my business might be able to acquire a blank a form version to type on ? Report
I know this is an older blog post, but since I just found it and it kind of fits in with a question of mine about trainers I'm going to comment anyway ;)
How common is it for trainers to talk about their clients outside of training sessions? I don't mean just like...talking to other trainers about progress/weakness or even referring to them as "another client of mine..." but making PERSONAL statements about them? I only ask because I've just recently been hearing too many horror stories about trainers saying really messed up things about clients to/in front of other clients and it makes me really nervous about continuing with mine... Report
Great article! Dead on too!

Take a look at my website and a recent article I wrote :) Report
thanx Coach! that was a great help :) Report
This blog was well-written and full of wonderful, invaluable tips and warnings. Thanks Nicole!! Report
I had always said if I had a personal trainer then I could stay in shape, no problem. But when I started checking on a gym I almost freaked. The male trainers was built like Arnold Schwarzenegger and wanted everyone to work out like him and the 2 females were snobs. I kept thinking they needed a sign on the door,"This gym is for the fit and rich only' I think someone who goes through the effort to get the certifications would be more willing to actually help those that need it and show some heart., not act like I'm a contestant on The Biggest Loser show. Report
I use to work at a gym and all the girls who are trainers did not go to any training program. I am a massage therapist and had more knowledge about the muscles and training. It is very disappointing to see people train who are not qualified. My cousin is a trainer and she is good. I have several friends who are trainers. These people need support. Please do your homework and make sure they have wualifications. Report
Wow, it makes me so grateful for my PT - he always insists that I start anything at very low weights, so I can perfect the form and not hurt myself - THEN I'm allowed to increase weights. Even between sessions (which I only do every few months), I can email him questions. He encourages me to challenge myself, and you have to be healthy and safe to truly challenge yourself. Report
Hi, I have a personal trainer who is a certified kinesiologist who is really principled, knows what he is talking about, and really cares about his clients. I am a psychotherapist who works with eating disorders and Jonathan Chant, certified Kinesiologist, with Fitness for Freedom, is a personal trainer who is dedicated to helping people achieve a healthy lifestyle, a healthy weight, and a fulfilling active lifestyle. He took me from illness to heatlh, and since working with him I have lost 65 lbs without focussing on weight loss, reduced my medications, and have worked out consistently for 22 months without injury ever preventing me me from working out!!! That is a big change for me. I have a long way to go but I know that he will support me as long as I do my part. Report
It dont seem to matter what type of job title one may have .Reality is there are people who plainly are not good people to begin with,or are of a type who should not work in public type jobs in 1st place.And these type well make bad raps in any type job that they get into.What is sick about it, is that a few can hurt so many who are out there to serve and do good to help others.For it is the few when caught that get in the news,not all those who do right in and by what they do. Why is it people tend too only see the bad of things more so then all the good out there?Why the saying only takes one bad apple to spoil the rest.And people will down all the rest who are good ,over that one bad one,or few bad .Such is life ,and it is the people who make it ,as it is. Report
I've had great successin working with a personal trainer. I found her through a high quality fitness club. I checked out the website listed here and was able to verify that she is both an ACE - Certified Personal Trainer (CPT) Verified
and an ACE - Group Fitness Instructor. She has helped me to make progress when I stalled on my fitness and weight loss efforts. It's been worth the investment in my health.
I have had both ends of the spectrum. My first "trainer" had a great body, was very nice but was also very unprofessional. He never watched me as he was supposedly training me. Then I was blessed enough to get the worlds greatest trainer. He was completely focused on me during our sessions and knew when it was safe to push me to do more and when to tell me to slow down. Even now he still calls to see how I'm doing even though I'm no longer his client. You really do have to check all the details before hiring a trainer. I learned that the hard way. Report
Wow. I feel so lucky right now to have ended up with a good, certified one, because I didn't think of any of this stuff when I first signed up! Report
I haven't tried any personal trainer but the list just scared me to try one! There are very few gym at my hometown and even less personal trainers (so far what's I've research) so I guess I'm still on my own, be my own trainer and motivator. Report
Thank you for sharing. I have been doing a lot of thinking and am interested in becoming a personal trainer. I know it takes a lot of looking into and figuring things out. I was looking at some different certifications and I had actually decided to go with the NASM certification; it gives me a little bit better feeling to know that you would recommend them as well. I am not set on anything yet, but I am definitely interested and looking into it. Report
As a trainer I see my role as that of one as a teacher who wants to graduate my clients so that they can maintain a personal fitness programme for life. I monitor FITTV to stay current with what my clients are "learning" from the workouts there. To be honest I am appaled at the content and workouts which are featured. The various "body challenge" series include poor workout programmes and ineffective exercises. Not only are there bad "trainers" in gyms some of those on television are as bad or worse. Recycling 1980s vintage aerobic dance routines and adding mini weights is not state of the art fitness training.

By using some of the excellent books available on the topic and using quality YouTube videos to learn how the exercises are done properly will allow the average individual to develop their own fitness programme. Report
I was fortunate enough to find my trainer through a studio that features yoga, personal trainers and fitness classes. She is young enough to be my daughter and wise enough to work me so I always feel challenged just enough. For the first six weeks, she emailed me every routine we did each session. There are mirrors in the studio so I can see what she is talking about with form. I feel very fortunate to have found a solid, trained, certified professional on my first try. Report
This is a very scary thought and something to really think about before looking for one, thank you Nicole for the wonderful information. Report
Very eye opening and very well written. When I signed up for the gym, I met with a personal trainer for the first time and she showed me how all the machines work and did some exercises with me and went over nutrition and then at the end she told me I could have three more training sessions for $99. I am sure some was a sales pitch, but overall I was very happy with my experience with a personal trainer. Now, was she certified, I have no idea, but to the person that does not know much about working out, she seemed like she knew alot about everything. Report
I've contemplated getting a gym membership and getting a personal trainer because I didn't know what I needed to do to tone up and do do it safely. But I've seen so many articles about exercise that can be done at home that doesn't empty my wallet. Now I know I've made the right decision. Report
"An experienced professional with a master's degree in exercise physiology is probably more qualified than many personal trainers whose only experience comes from their weekend certification course, but unless you know everything about that person's education, background and experience, a certification is still a good thing to look for."

The last person I worked with cost me some money, but he had a degree in physiology and experiences. Believe it or not, we never met. We worked via email. I paid him via paypal and he sent me my eating and workout plans. I sent him progress pictures and it went from there. From what I understand, this is pretty common for folks who are training for competitions. I wasn't but I had visions! I had a lot of success, but I had to stop due to an injury unrelated to exercise.

The last time I went to a gym on a temporary pass, I checked out the trainers' bios and wasn't surprised to see that none of them had the kind of qualifications that I would trust. I'd rather follow what I've found here than what I have seen in gyms.

Read more:

Now doing weight training on my own, I am grateful when I had a trainer, he worked me well re: form and motivation; I never injured my body while he was at the helm. I appreciate him even more now, though during our sessions I wanted him to work me harder. Report
This is very eye-opening, thank you! I recently worked with a trainer as part of my gym's circuit training program (free) and he was GREAT! Unfortunately, he said he was going to stop working the circuit and just provide PT sessions (which you have to pay for). I have never been able to justify paying so much $$ for a trainer in addition to my gym membership, so I just wing it alone. If I could afford it, I would. But I agree, you have to find a good one among some bad apples. Report
Very good informational blog. I am currently pursuing a ACE certification in Personal Training and now that I am becoming knowledgeable about proper technique I can see how some of the trainers at the health club are not instructing or supervising their clients properly. It really is scary to put oneself in the hands of someone who does not know what they are doing. Report
Thank you for this somewhat shocking information. I guess the best thing to do is just listen to my body and my instincts about the trainer's personality. I am currently hesitating about my trainer... Report