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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?