My Worst Personal Training Experience Ever--and What You Can Learn from It

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Last month, I joined a new gym. (So did my boyfriend, and we hope to work out together more often.) Each new member is offered one free session with a personal trainer.

The reason I wanted to join a gym is because although I exercise regularly--I run three times a week and practice yoga most days--I (gulp) skimp on strength training. Though I do build strength with yoga, I know I need to add some cross-training to my regimen. My excuse: I'm busy! But, by rejoining a gym, I have committed to strength training at least twice a week. So far, I've stuck with that goal.

I arrived at the gym, ready to work out. The trainer started with a fitness assessment. My body fat had dropped a half-percent since April (yay!), and my weight was about four pounds higher (I was wearing shoes, but I haven't been running as much in this heat). I felt pretty good about myself. And then we started talking…

The trainer asked me a little about my fitness background:

"Well, I haven't been to a gym since last fall…"

"Last fall?" he asked, his brow furrowing.

"Yes, but I'm a yoga instructor and I've been training for various races. Between running and yoga, I didn't need a gym. I work out at least five days a week."

Trainer wasn't pleased, but he moved on.

"Why aren’t you in the best shape of your life?" he asked.

I cleared my throat, contemplating my answer.

I am in the best shape of my life. I'm not the thinnest I've ever been, but I'm definitely the strongest. I ran a half marathon three months ago, and I'm starting to train for my second one. My shoulders and arms are getting stronger and more defined, and I just feel good.

"What's keeping you from reaching your fullest potential? What's your weakness?" he asked before I could respond.

"I like a glass of wine with dinner," I said. "I like good food. I eat right, but I eat."

"Well, it sounds like nutrition is an issue for you."

"Actually, I'm a vegetarian who cooks mostly from scratch. I work for a healthy living website, and nutrition is one of the topics I cover. I eat when I'm hungry, but I eat pretty healthy most of the time."

He changed gears.

"Let's look at your body fat percentage."

He pulled out a chart.

"Yours is here," he said, pointing to his chart's section for above average. I looked more closely at the chart. I'm familiar with the categories for body fat percentages, and the gym's chart was off. According to the American Council on Exercise, a woman with 21%-24% body fat is in the "fitness" range; 14%-20% is "athlete" range. ACE tells me I'm in "fitness" range; the gym tells me I'm "above average."

"We want to get you here," he said, indicating the "fit" range on his chart, which started much lower than the ACE chart. "Now let's get started."

He called over another trainer, who started my workout.

For 25 minutes, the trainer led me through a series of exercises that pushed my limits. Full pushups to plank to forearm planks, several kettlebell exercises, more squat than I care to remember, and several straight-leg abs exercises.

Just halfway through the workout, when the trainer was checking his phone instead of checking my form, I knew that this would be the first and the last workout I would do with him. (Better to break up with a trainer sooner rather than later!) I couldn’t wait to get to work today to tell Coach Nicole all about this workout--there were so many things he did that would have made her cringe!

From giving me no instruction on kettlebells to asking me to go way too low in squats, then focusing on abs exercises that--I repeatedly told him--compromised my lower back by forcing it off the mat, I knew I had a blog post in the making.

I will continue to go to the gym, but I will look to other fitness professionals (and our Exercise Demos) to help me integrate strength training into my routine.

Not only is my body in the best shape of its life, but so is my mind. I'm confident about my body, and I accept my flaws. I will never have a bikini-ready belly, and I'm OK with that. I love myself, and anyone who tries to tear me down--even for the sake of "toning me up"--has no place in my life. I could have much lower body fat if I spent more time in the gym or restricted my eating. I don't want to do either of those things. I eat right, exercise regularly, and I'm at a happy weight.

Let my experience be a lesson for you.

1. Don't let anyone try to deflate your self-esteem. Regardless of your fitness and health goals, your self-worth is not determined by a number on the scale or your body fat percentage. If a trainer doesn't respect the hard work you're doing to reach your goal, find someone who does!

2. A trainer is not a dietitian, a therapist, or a pharmacist. Know what they can recommend and what they can't. (Learn more about what to look for in a trainer.)

3. Don't be afraid to say no. I knew heading into my "free" session that the trainer would try to sell me a year's worth of sessions. Though I told him early on that I usually work out at least five days a week, he tried to tell me I wasn't committed to fitness. I thanked him for his time and told him I didn't want any sessions. "You won't be back," he said. Um, to the gym, yes. To you, no.

Trainers can be a valuable resource along the road to a healthier you, and I know people who credit theirs in large part for their success. My experience was, I hope, a rare one. I don't want to single out one person or one gym (I won't name names), but I hope you'll remember my experience when you're out shopping for a gym or a trainer. A few years ago, when I first tried to lose weight, I went to gym that offered a free session every three months. The trainers there were wonderful, and I wish I could have afforded regular sessions because then, unlike now, I needed the motivation. (Take our quiz: Do You Need a Personal Trainer?)

Have you ever used a personal trainer? What results did you achieve? What would you have done if you were me?

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USAF-RETIRED 1/25/2021
My personal trainer has a Bachelors degree in exercise and a Masters degree in physiology. He knows more than the orthopedic doctors, I went to. Report
PATRICIAANN46 10/24/2020
Thank You......... Report
Not very professional is he?? Report
As Bugs Bunny said "What a maroon!" Report
So sorry this happened. I do Silver Sneakers which is pretty much just working out on my own. I also workout a home quite often since I'm a caregiver and can't always get tot he gym. Thanks for sharing your story. Report
the trainers at my gym have degrees in nutrition and physical fitness areas. i researched this. i ended up with an injury, which is why I chose to have a trainer, to avoid injury.I said something of course, that I thought something was amiss, but well, there it is. i still have the painful shoulder injury, years later!

my new pt stays right with me, keeps me focused. and listens to me, immediately stops if im not comfortable. The others were looking at other people, their phones or whatever. im at a totally different, more professional place now. Report
That trainer had a bad attitude plus wrong information. I would have talked to the gym manager about it. The trainer needs to be corrected. It isn't good for the participants at the gym and also not good for the business of the gym. He needs retraining, or maybe he didn't have proper training to begin with. Report
I requested a female and the guy who would have otherwise been the one to give me the free trial kept busting in the room to make a snide remark about me but as if I weren’t there. (I.e. “just so she knows I’ll see her anyway.”) Who does that?! I never went back, to her or the gym. She was a great trainer but I was so put off by how he was acting I couldn’t see myself being comfortable there at all. Report
I believe I would have done the same as you. He didn't seem to have your best interest at hand. Report
thank you Report
Absolutely Report
Your whole experience really makes me so grateful for the gym I joined last summer and the wonderful trainers, instructors and staff who are employed there. My own personal trainer is just wonderful. Yes, she pushes me but only to the point where I can go. Just Monday she was having me do something (already can't remember) for 10 reps and then rest, and again a 2nd and 3rd time. By the third time my arms were getting so tired that she had me stop at 8. She knew if I tried to push I could very well have hurt myself. Our instructors walk around the class and help with form when someone needs correction - today in my 30+ person Life Barre class our instructor made several suggestions to improve the form of individuals. And no one has EVER tried to sell me anything, unless I asked about a product. Thanks for sharing your story. Report
I got upset just reading about how you were treated! I have had two positive experiences with personal trainers, but clearly, that isn't always the case! to me, choosing a trainer is a little like choosing a doctor...if the first one doesn't work out, you need to move onto another one because one size does NOT fit all! I say shame on the trainer and good for you! Report
I would have given feedback to management. They should be made aware of how damaging that trainer could be. Report
As a senior citizen at the gym, I am invisible. The trainers aren't interested in working with an older woman even though I'm reasonably fit and have continued to remain fit and exercise since my twenties - - and let me tell you, it's a struggle to stay in shape with the aches, pains, and recently a full hip replacement. For all those reasons, it's imperative to stay active and keep fit. I live in a rural area and the gym I belong to is the only one not exclusive to competitive body building, boxing and martial arts, hot yoga and cross fit. Speaking of cross fit - tried it - but the instructors and others in the class were not welcoming to this old body infringing on their little club. The senior citizen center "fitness classes" consisted of chair yoga and chair aerobics. No thank you. Report
My experience was decades ago. The gym i joined offered a pack of three training sessions with signing up. The trainer I really wanted wasn't available so they told me I had to see the other trainer. Bad move. I should have insisted despite the fact that the sessions had an expiration date. If I had gone with the guy I wanted I probably would have signed up for more sessions. The trainer I did get wasn't horrible per se, but we didn't get along. Go with your gut!!!! Report
What a sad story. Thanks for sharing it. Report
DON'T DO IT. I thought the purpose of Personal Training was to get fit. They also blame it all on my food. I work out in the morning. The gym can't keep a decent morning training. I can't even count the times I was stood up with no notice. AGAIN, DON'T DO IT! Report
I have two experiences with trainers. 12 years ago, I worked with a personal trainer for over a year. Scott encouraged me, pushed me, motivated me--he was understanding when health issues I deal with interfered, but he was also sensitive to know when I really just needed a push. Although active as a child, I have always fought the weight battle. Running was something I did for short bursts due to exercise induced asthma. But he worked with me with me, on the treadmill and on a trail next to the gym, and bit by bit he got me to the point where I could run for longer. He then stated "You are going to run the St Pat's 5K, you will not walk and I will do it with you to make sure you don't." Needless to say, he did, and I ran the whole thing--coming to the finish line was such an exhilarating feeling!! And it was all thanks to Scott. With his encouragement, I also did other races, did spinning, did bike races, even won a few medals. And when I would report my results to him, he was always excited for me. Unfortunately due to finances, I had to stop the training, and then the gym too. (hubby had lost job--I didn't make enough to continue). About a year later, I tore my meniscus in my knee and had to have surgery. After that, with residual pain in the knee, I got out of the exercise habit, became a couch potato and gained lots of weight. After several half-hearted attempts at losing and exercising, I am now motivated again. Thru Facebook I got hooked up with a virtual 5k group, got started on a couch to 5K plan and hubby and I joined a gym (new state). I took advantage of the free session and Nick was great--he set me up with a weight routine and was impressed with my knowledge of the machines and techniques. Every time I go to the gym, if I see him, he asks how I am doing, encourages me, gives me a high Report
I loved your article, it really brought home a few of my favorite gripes lately. It seems no matter where I go, people are too concerned with a "close the sale" attitude and not listening to the consumer. I feel like I need to research every little thing, every single time I take out my wallet! A little sales compassion would go a long way!

Also, when did people stop listening? It's really become a lost art! That trainer obviously did not listen to you or you weren't giving him the answers he was trained to say. Sounds like a trained parrot could have given you the same workout, except more entertaining! Report
Last week I was at the Y and one of the trainers was working with a client and her son. I feel he pushs people too hard but I never interfere. I was on the elliptical and he put her and her son on the elliptical. She looked over at me and said I was really good at it. I said in my opinion she should start out on the treadmill. The trainer asked why and I told him you have to crawl before you can walk. I noticed the other day her and her son were on the treadmill. I was very pleased. I am not a trainer and I don't pretend to be but I think when someone is struggling with an exercise, maybe the trainer should rethink his strategie. Report
My gym also offers free sessions every 8 weeks with trainers. So far, those experiences have been positive and I wish I could afford to pay for sessions. Recently though, I returned to the gym after taking a hiatus due to a back injury. I was greeted by the trainer who usually does my sessions and after hearing how long I had been out of the gym not very tactfully or kindly said, "I hate to say it, but I can tell." Not very encouraging at all. Report
I signed up for some sessions with a personal trainer a few years ago - I told the gym I needed help with motivation. So what happens on the first day at 7am ??- she didn't show up! Well, I didn't go back to the gym after that, but I did get my personal trainer money back.

I signed up for 6 sessions with a personal trainer this morning - at a new gym. We'll see... I'm still unmotivated and very skeptical. Report
I would send a copy of your blog to his "boss" and let the boss know that "listening, as well as recommending action" is the trainer's job. It is obvious to me the personal trainer had his ears closed... and the gym needs to update their charts! Report
I use personal trainers at my local Y. I’ve never had a bad experience. My trainers push me. They all offer something unique. Sometimes, hearing instructions in a different way from a different person makes things click. I am so sorry to hear of your disappointment in trainers. Report
"Not only is my body in the best shape of its life, but so is my mind. I'm confident about my body, and I accept my flaws. I will never have a bikini-ready belly, and I'm OK with that. I love myself, and anyone who tries to tear me down--even for the sake of "toning me up"--has no place in my life."

This is a great sentiment! I love me too! Report
Wow, this happenend to me as well.
The Manager of the trainers started off our session with the health assessment, No Stretching, Few Minutes on a treadmill, then a few exercises. Most of the exercises were for my legs. My goal was to see how the gym equipment worked, and discuss a few exercises for beginners. Report
I've had good luck with several trainers, but there have been a few where I've said "no thanks." Not sure if anyone else suggested this, but going into the gym with an idea of what you wanted to do (which you did) and the terms on which you would work has been helpful. If they won't do it MY way, then no deal.

For me, I want a workout that I'll follow on my own for a month - which we'll do together the first time so they can watch my form, a general discussion on my diet (with action steps and accountability), and encouragement. If a trainer tries to get me to work out with them several times per week, I just say no and find someone else. Even within the same gym there are gems and duds.

Good luck! Report
the WORST i've ever seen was a 4th grader i watched--her mother was overly concerned about her own looks and when her daughter started getting a little round(but she was VERY active--parents tempted her constantly with sweets and less-than-healthy foods) ...anyway, mom went to a trainer, so she took daughter to SAME trainer who had NO certification with children and started her with WEIGHTS!!! it drove me nuts--sooooooo many injuries can happen to children with weight training--especially with poor guidance/form...and this was one of those boutique-style EXPENSIVE gyms...very exclusive--yeah, only people with money(lots) and are willing to check brain at the door...and HOW do we convince those not just wasting money, but very possibly harming their own kids? very frustrating... Report
This is informative, as I am starting training sessions in the next week. I hope you reported his unprofessional behavior to the gym manager. Even though you know better his next client may not and it may mean that they leave the gym, and as he said, "Never come back." That would be a shame. Report
Congratulations for being aware, self-assured, and confident about yourself and your own health! Report
I go to a gym where 70% of the personal trainers are not fit looking at all. It seems they are just there to try and pick up girls and hang out. When I watch them during a session they are on their phones and not paying attention to their clients. I am not paying money for that! Report
The one personal trainer at our local Y (I live in a small town) is pudgy. For that reason I won't ever pay to use his services. I'm trying to not look like him. Report
Egads! That experience surely would have put me off of personal trainers, too! Fortunately, I have had the opposite experience. My gym, which does month-to-month memeberships, gives you three sessions when you join. I had never had a pt before but always wanted to try it. They head trainer pairs you up with different trainers based upon your personality and goals. I got a "girl" almost 15 years younger than me who had an amazing body, and the intelligence and personality that when she looked at an 80lb overweight mom of three she saw the potential I had. I don't need much in the way of encouragement, but she kept me accountable with weekly weigh-ins, corrected my form, and when an exercise was uncomfortable, in the bad way, would change or adapt it.

She left to go back for a teaching degree so I'm doing things on my own until I find someone else who will help me to meet my goals. Report
I now have a permanent distrust of gyms and personal training programs. A few months ago I made the mistake of signing up for a gym membership and a years worth of personal training sessions. The free session was all well and good, the person in charge of the training program really knew her stuff. But then she handed me off to Steven. A man who was more interested in chatting than instructing and texting than watching my form (is this a common problem?) which led me to throw out my lower back, a problem that still persists (i cant sit in certain chairs or certain positions for any extended period of time. it's a serious issue that I'm having a doctor look at next week, the pain's almsot unmanagable.) Report
hi, wow I am so greatful that yo put this blog on. I am a personal trainer myself and I really know what you mean when the trainer is so distracted that they cannot be bothered about how you are feeling or what your goals are.
First of all, if you are there, to get started in any kind of shape, then it is to be congratulated and encouraged. Then het should not have split the transaction and given you someone else to train you after he "assessed" you.
What is the use of trying to build a report with someone and making them understand you so that you can work with them if they send you off to be killed by someone else.
Now the therapist situation is something that I sometimes struggled with as a PT, because I am a therapist on other days... what I have realise is that depending ont he client, some really need more therapy than exercise and they often need more encouragement than others. However if you are training for marathon's then therapy is obviously not the aim. All I can say is this whole bad experience you had is what I combat all day, because people tend to think all PT's have no clue of what they are doing. Anyway, I love my job and my clients and hope you find a person that takes your goals seriously. Report
hi, wow I am so greatful that yo put this blog on. I am a personal trainer myself and I really know what you mean when the trainer is so distracted that they cannot be bothered about how you are feeling or what your goals are.
First of all, if you are there, to get started in any kind of shape, then it is to be congratulated and encouraged. Then het should not have split the transaction and given you someone else to train you after he "assessed" you.
What is the use of trying to build a report with someone and making them understand you so that you can work with them if they send you off to be killed by someone else.
Now the therapist situation is something that I sometimes struggled with as a PT, because I am a therapist on other days... what I have realise is that depending ont he client, some really need more therapy than exercise and they often need more encouragement than others. However if you are training for marathon's then therapy is obviously not the aim. All I can say is this whole bad experience you had is what I combat all day, because people tend to think all PT's have no clue of what they are doing. Anyway, I love my job and my clients and hope you find a person that takes your goals seriously. Report
I am a new personal trainer and that is no way to treat a client. I would recommend that you look for someone with a NASM certification. Not that ACE or any other certification aren't good. NASM focuses mostly on core, balance and strength. You just can't get into shape without first getting the basics. It's a hard certification to pass and requires a lot of time and dedication. Report
Not the typical trainer. Mine is fabulous. Best way to pick one - word of mouth, ask around. A trainer should always pay 100% attention to their client AND understand their physical limitations, but also be able to decide what is a mental barrier vs. a physical barrier. Find another... there are awesome trainers available to you. Wouldn't trade mine for the world. Report
I am a personal trainer and I take my job very seriously. My passion is in helping people achieve their goals, become healthier, and happier. I get so frustrated and angry when I see trainers treating their clients poorly and not giving them the encouragement, respect, and attention that they deserve.
I give 100% of my attention to my clients and I make myself available to them 24/7 as they are paying me for my services. It is their money, committment, lifestyle, and their body so they get the final say. Please do not let a bad experience turn you away from trainers! You must be smart. Do your research, use referrals, and listen to your guy instincts just like you would when choosing a doctor or other health care professional.

Remember "The greatest wealth is health!"

This story has made me so angry! Good for you for not letting him get you down. Report
I love my trainer. I have been with him for 3 years. Not that I need the instruction any more, but I know I push myself harder WITH him than without.

I'd say, since you have committed by joining a gym, go at different hours and just watch the different trainers there, if you still think you might want or need to work with someone. Maybe you won't, since you'll be with your boyfriend. I went through 3 different trainers before I found "mine." Don't feel bad about switching. Sometimes people just don't mesh, and you are not "theirs."

Good luck at the gym! Report
Wow, I'm so sorry to hear about your experience. I have had two experiences with personal trainers... the first was great. I got a free session when I joined my gym and the guy was awesome and not too pushy with the sales pitch. I have been working out for years and years and really just wanted the session to get familiar with the new gym, and he respected that.

The second experience was at the same gym. They were doing free body fat testing. I suppose they thought people would be so horrified at their BF% that they would sign up for personal training on the spot. My % falles into the "athlete" range, but the trainer was looking at the %'s for men and insisted, repeatedly, that I was average (may have even been above average). I kept pointing out that he was looking at the male side of the scale but he was deaf to me! Report
I've had both experiences (but my bad was no where NEAR as bad as your experience, thankfully). One trainer, it was like it was her joy to do what she could to HELP me and I do mean that. Another trainer, well, she basically was doing me a favor by even speaking with me (her opinion, not mine).

Guess it's like everything else - good and bad apples in that barrel and you just have to be careful which one you pick!! Report
Great article. Too bad that all a person has to do to be a trainer is pass a test. Report
I've thought about a trainer for a short time to get some new exercises, but I watch some of them at the gym I go to and if I did some of the stuff they do, I wouldn't be able to get off the floor. I'm also too independent :) I don't like "classes" because I want to do my own thing. I really appreciate the videos on SP because they show me how to do things properly and I'm old enough to know what I can and can't do with some of the physical limitations I have (lower back issues). Thanks for the insight. Report
I have been working with a personal trainer since mid-June and while he has done a good job of pushing me in my sessions, I also think that he has unrealistic expectations of life. Several weeks ago, my sister was married. Bachelorette party, rehearsal dinner, wedding, gift opening brunch, I knew I was going to gain. He told me to eat lots of fruit and veggies, no white bread, and stay away from any sweets. Okay, I am all about avoiding dessert on a regular basis, but I had a few too many other things to worry about to worry about counting calories. I wasn't going to write down my food in my food journal because I was too busy setting up, keeping my toddler in line, and being a part of the ceremony. I lost 2/10 of a pound and I was so happy I didn't gain, but he was disappointed that I didn't follow my meal plan to a now, if I have an event come up, I just don't write it down for him, I just write down what he wants to see, and I've not seen a negative reaction since.

I like how others have reminded us that personal trainers are not dieticians. Mine is certified and has a degree in athletic training but I know at a lot of bigger gyms it really is a one-size-fits-all approach and that's too bad. Report
Good and bad of everything - don't be afraid to speak up though is my only addition to this - even a "free session" really isn't ! It's part of your membership fee....if you are not getting what your paying for ask for your money back or a nother trainer ..and more importantly if what they are asking you to do isn't safe - stop! Report
This sounds so frighteningly similar to my first (and only!) experience with a personal trainer, although I certainly wasn't the most fit I had been in my life.

From the start I felt that the young man was condescending and more interested in strutting his stuff than in helping anybody - much less an older woman. He might have taken a different tone with me if I had been 25.

Early in the interview he asked about my fitness activities. I told him that I walked 4 miles 3 times a week, did some cardio tapes at home and practiced yoga every day and sometimes twice a day. He sort of chuckled and said, "Yoga isn't exercise. It's just stretching." Hello? We were not off to a good start.

During the nutrition part of the conversaton, he asked how often I eat fast food. I told him that I rarely eat fast food and had not eaten that stuff for years. He said, "Yeah, right." and moved on. He was really ticking me off.

The nail in the coffin, so to speak, was when he set me up on a machine to lift weights with my ankles. I gave it a try, but after a couple of reps, it was clearly not going to work out for me. I explained to him that I have titanium plates and screws in my left leg just above the ankle and that the bar for the weights put too much pressure on one of the screws, making it very painful to try to lift. Instead of offering an alternative exercise that would have much the same benefits without the pain and risk of tissue damage, he told me that I should do more reps with just the painful leg to strengthen it. Okay...well, it wasn't about the level of strength in that leg, it was about having the weight pressing against a screw.

Of course, he tried to sell me a year's worth of sessions. When I didn't go for that, he tried to sell me a 3-month package. When I explained that I had never belonged to a gym before and that I wanted to see if working out there would fit my schedule and be enjoyable for me, he rolled his eyes and said, "You just want an excuse to be lazy about it." That didn't stop him from trying to sell me a 6-session package for $200. When I declined that, he said, "Well, I can't help you if you dont' want to help yourself" and walked away.

Not only did he put me off personal trainers, he dampened my enthusiasm for going to the gym to add more cardio and strength training. Report