Personal Training: Problems in An Unregulated Yet Needed Industry
Personal trainers are the experts on how to get healthy, fit, gain muscle, and lose weight. Or so much of the public thinks who didn’t do their research. Unfortunately, MOST personal trainers are given WAY too much undeserved credibility. A quick Google search will show you how many certifications are online. Freelance personal training, which is what most trainers do who hope to make it their career, doesn’t even require a certification unless you want liability insurance.
Do most clients ask their trainers if they have liability insurance or a certification? No.
Do most clients even know what certifications are worthwhile? No.
Do clients even want to put that much trust in someone who got a certification on a weekend online? Apparently.
Do you even want to trust someone who got a certification from one of the more reputable sources (ACSM, NASM, ACE, NSCA, Cooper), which requires a testing center, when they don’t even have a formal education in the subject? Apparently.
Do you trust them to take care of your diabetes, hypertension, orthopedic concerns, cardiovascular concerns, understand what medications limit exercise, etc? Apparently.
What if you get light headed during training…then what should your trainer do to help that problem and explain it to you? Are you being taught myths and fads or evidence based techniques? Why are we doing this exercise?
Apparently, YES, people do trust people with weekend certifications to know all this information. The industry proves this due to how many successful fitness “professionals” there are without any education. The industry is driven by charisma, unfortunately. This is ONE big problem with the industry. The number of barely qualified people doing the work far outnumbers those with formal education on what they are doing.
Does your trainer have a degree in kinesiology, exercise science, biomechanics, exercise physiology? Have they ever taken an anatomy class? You would think these would be requirements, but they aren’t!
In other fields, non-professionals doing the work of the professionals is not NEARLY as much of a problem. Companies won’t hire you unless you have a degree in the subject and there aren’t many freelancers who think they can do better than they could do at a company. You wouldn’t trust any other medical provider to operate on you or otherwise care for your health without formal education. You wouldn’t trust someone without a JD to give you legal counsel. Why is it any different with exercise science and nutrition? People will accept information from ANYONE in this field! Mantras like “everyone is different” and “it works for me/Cameron Diaz/Dr. Oz/Oprah/Arnold” dilute real knowledge and wisdom when we need it most as a nation. The number of charlatans drowns out the true professionals.
A second problem is the fact that the lay public thinks personal training will make them lose weight. It doesn’t make you lose weight. If that were the case, personal trainers would be rail thin due to all the activity they do every day. Exercise changes your body composition. It doesn’t change your weight, and if you’re overweight, you’re not going to change your body composition enough to look like your trainer without nutrition changes. If anything, you will gain weight because exercise stimulates your appetite due to the muscle breakdown.
You would do better spending your money on a registered dietitian if your goal is weight loss. Weight loss is one of the biggest issues in America today, and people have the misinformation that exercise causes weight loss. Most uneducated personal trainers will not know it isn’t the exercise but diet that causes weight loss, and if they do, will they tell you and risk losing you as a client to a registered dietitian? Probably not because exercise is always good for everything right? Wrong.
People give WAY too much trust to trainers on topics like nutrition. Did you know that some people, such as registered dietitians and those with a bachelor’s degree in nutrition, are much more minimally qualified to counsel on nutrition issues? These include: weight loss and weight gain, cholesterol, hypertension, performance nutrition, and many other nutrition-related issues. You shouldn’t trust your trainer on nutrition unless they have a degree in nutrition and/or are a registered dietitian, which is someone with a degree who has been accepted into a competitive 1200 hour supervised practice program and proved their efficacy that they know what they are doing. Not all nutrition majors get into these programs.
A third MAJOR problem is the financial disparity between employment and freelance personal training. You cannot make a living at most places that employ personal trainers, especially since the Affordable Care Act (thanks Obama). Some places prevent you from working more than a certain number of hours so that they don’t have to pay you benefits. Now, the health and wellness specialist, the personal trainer, has to pay for his or her own health insurance. Most commission places pay anywhere from 33% to 50% to 60% maximum of your client income, expect you to do the sales, and they don’t reward you for being a good trainer or getting results.
The only reasons you would get a pay increase are more certifications, more formal education, or more experience, but it isn’t enough of an increase to make the education cost-effective (but does make a better trainer and decrease risk of injury to the client and ability to achieve client results). Plus, most of the fitness industry certifications are stupid. I don’t think I need to get a certification on how to use a kettlebell, battle ropes (lol), vibration training, or TRX after having degrees. Seriously? Interestingly, getting a kettlebell certification is a similar increase in pay as a degree at many gyms. That’s just ABOMINABLE, isn’t it?
Other gyms sell packages of sessions and don’t pay the trainer the rest of the sessions if the client doesn’t finish them with the trainer. So if you do a good job and your client learns what they are doing ahead of time, they will stop seeing you because you’re a good teacher, and they think you’re pocketing the rest of the sessions. WRONG. The trainer just doesn’t get paid because he/she didn’t work the hours. Additionally, most places make you do all the scheduling, so if you’re not working with a client, you’re playing scheduling whac-a-mole with all your clients times so that you aren’t working 12-15 hour days while sitting around for hours between clients. If someone cancels repeatedly, you may or may not get paid for reserving that time slot.
Considering the fact that pay at employed training isn’t enough to make a living, many personal trainers end up having to “under the table” train, ie they squat at various gyms that did not hire them, stealing potential clients and not paying for the equipment they use. Many gyms don’t think you’re training if you’re “working out with” the client–this is one of the stupidest policies I’ve ever seen in my life. If an extremely fit guy is working out with someone not even at the same level, you think he’s doing it for free? He’s just doing it out of the kind service of his heart? You, as a gym, are ok with the liability of that? Ok then!
This is also unfair to those who are employed legitimately at those gyms because these freelance trainers can charge what they want and not give half their gross to the employer (and a chunk to the government). Some even only accept cash and then don’t report it on their taxes. These trainers are taking business away from the gym. Because it is the responsibility of management and not the other trainers to report “squatting” trainers (definition 3), they often get away with what they are doing. Management has these policies to avoid confrontational events, but if management doesn’t enforce it, employed trainers just have to watch it happen and have to bite their tongue.
What makes this worse is so many of these barely qualified trainers do it as a hobby on the side and charge a fraction of the prices you must set if you need to make a living in the industry if you are a full-time trainer. The amateurs are in a freelance, unregulated market, charging less against fully educated, real professionals. These amateurs who do it as a hobby lack any experience or education. Anyone can have a great body, but education makes you know the principles behind why it works and how to assess what other people need and teach other people what they are doing that is or isn’t working in a way that they will understand. These trainers don’t know (or care in some cases) if their training style is healthy long-term. Some trainers can be extremely enthusiastic but not know a thing about what they are really doing.
People often gravitate to what the cheapest trainer charges who looks good. Well guess what? You get what you pay for. In many cases, this is eye candy. Chances are the “ugly” or not overly muscle bound trainer knows what he/she is doing more if they are successful.
You might ask, then, what makes someone with a degree different than someone who just has the bare minimum? The public thinks we’re here to just “give you a workout and tell you what to do,” and often doesn’t even take our profession seriously. They think it is about leisure.
There are different techniques of training that yield different results. Strength training is different from bodybuilding, which is different from endurance training. Flexibility, agility, fat loss, muscle gain, and strength gain all are different training techniques. Injuries require alternate techniques than uninjured people and have contraindicated exercises. Diabetics need to know how exercise will affect their metabolism and how to deal with that. Sometimes counseling techniques are needed to elicit behavior change. It is impossible for any one trainer to be excellent at all styles of training, even with a degree, but the degree should give them an idea of where to start at least.
A trainer with a degree in kinesiology will know a more comprehensive way of working out the body so as to not neglect underused muscles that get injured later on because the person didn’t strengthen the neglected muscles while progressing in their program. The trainer with the degree thinks by anatomy and muscle actions, letting those needs dictate the training program than having a pre-made, one-size-fits-all workout of the day. Speaking of generic workouts, many new and uneducated trainers think that you have to burn someone to the ground to train them. This style only works with a certain population of well-fed individuals who want muscle gain who don’t want any specific training adaptations and are fine with not being able to use their affected body parts for days after. This sort of training also carries a high risk of injury, such as rhabodomyolysis, which is when muscle cell integrity fails and spills contents (myoglobin) into the blood, which can cause acute kidney failure.
That’s not the point of training. The point of training is to increase your lifetime functional capacity. One of the most pointless adaptations is to be able to do something 10-15 times in the long term. Where in life is this useful? It’s currently a popular training style because people think that’s how many times you have to do each movement. Granted, I do recommend somewhere in this range for beginners who are still learning movements and want lower risk of injury during the learning phase, but staying in this repetition range long term when you’re not an endurance athlete is nonspecific training. The point is to get better at something.
Trainers who aren’t educated won’t know what energy systems and adaptations that produces other than it might make you socially look good for whatever body type is trending right now in the magazines and media.
In summary, the lack of education and low barrier to entry to credibility to the fitness field, the dilution of true professionals in the field, and the business structure of the freelance vs employed environment make the personal training industry a hot mess during an obesity crisis in the US. Obesity is not fixed with physical activity yet people think it does, and registered dietitians are not even recognized as the key to weight loss on many health plans while the public thinks personal training is the way to do it.