By Nick Tumminello
There are a wide variety of delusions personal trainers have about the realities of their field. Here are what I’ve found to be the 10 biggest delusions of the personal trainer.
Some of these delusions apply better to new trainers, while others apply more to seasoned veterans.
1. You’ll be able to train mostly athletes
Most young trainers say that they want to train athletes, which is a great goal to have and to work towards. However, not only are athletes a very small part of the population (so it’s unlikely they’ll become the majority of your clientele) but most of them aren’t in the financial position to pay you for weekly training.
Sure, it’s great to do some free work to give back to the local athletes in your community, but you’ve got bills to pay! You need to have enough regular paying clients in order to be in a financially stable enough position to do some free work on the side. It’s because of this reality that the majority of the people you’ll most likely end up working with as a personal trainer – even a successful one with a reputation – are everyday Joes and Janes. In most cases it’s predominantly women who’re interested in mostly general health and fitness with an average age of 35-50 who regularly train with a trainer.
2. You’re not a PE teacher for adults
Personal trainers can try to give themselves fancy titles like “human performance coach,” but the reality is we’re most often serving as PE teachers for adults. This is because the majority of people who are exercising in most big box gyms and private training facilities – with or without the guidance of a professional – are usually recreational exercisers who are looking for general health and fitness without specifically focusing on physique, performance or fat loss.
It’s important to note that, although this type of client often asserts that they’re looking to lose fat and improve their physique, many are not truly interested in changing their eating habits accordingly. Instead, what they’re really exercising for is weight-management in order offset all of the foods they love to eat, while also reaping the multitude of other health and fitness benefits of regular exercise.
Many clients in this category enjoy regular exercise but often say that they “don’t want to think” when they’re working out with the personal trainer. They just want a great workout experience that challenges them but doesn’t hurt them. Therefore, these clients view the fitness professional as their PE teacher for adults whom they visit regularly to be told what to do for a workout each time they visit. And, this type of client often gauge success by how much they’ve enjoyed each workout, how they feel at the end of the workout, and by the fact they completed a certain number of workouts per week.
This explains why so many competent fitness professionals have long-term clients who don’t look that much different and don’t have impressive increases in their lifting numbers than when they started working with the trainer. It’s because most clients aren’t interested in organizing their entire lives around gyms, kitchens, and bathrooms. But these clients are far better humans than they were when they first started because they’re healthier physically and mentally.
3. It’s all about physique and performance
Piggy-backing on what I just covered above, many fitness professionals feel that one is wasting their time unless one is training for very specific physique or performance goals. Put simply, this belief is ridiculous and plain ignorant of the numerous well-evidenced physical and mental health benefits to men and women, in addition to the obvious muscular and weight management benefits that come from engaging in regular physical activity. Examples of these include:
- Decreased blood pressure and risk of developing Coronary heart disease (CHD), stroke, type 2 diabetes, and some forms of cancer (e.g., colon and breast cancers). (1)
- The preservation of bone mass and reduced risk of falling (particularly in older adults). (2)
- Prevention of and improved mood in people with mild to moderate depression while also potentially play a supporting role in treating severe depression. Not only has research has research found that exercise’s effects lasted longer than those of antidepressants, but in regard to anxiety, research has shown that physical exercise reduces anxiety in humans by causing remodeling to takes place in the brains of people who work out. This evidence suggests that active people might be less susceptible to certain undesirable aspects of stress and anxiety than those of sedentary people. (3,4)
- Improved sleep patterns, which can help you become more alert in the daytime and also help promote more sleepiness at night. (5)
- Enhanced feelings of “energy,” well-being, and quality of life. (6,7,8)
- The stimulation of brain growth through the production and preservation of new brain cells and neurons, which enhances learning and memory, and is associated with a lower risk of cognitive decline and developing Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. (9,10,11)
- The delay of all-cause mortality. (1)
It’s for the above realities that general fitness & health clients shouldn’t be looked down upon as being “satisfied with being mediocre” as I’ve heard many fitness professionals proclaim simply because these clients aren’t interested in being gym rats who’re concerned with their performance in the deadlift or with building a wider back. Simply looking for a PE Teacher for adults to help you stay active, get into better shape and live and longer, healthier and happier life is very worthwhile goal to have. In fact, it could be argued that it’s a much more realistic and long-term goal than many physique and performance goals, which often provide shorter-term gratification but long-term injuries, disordered eating behaviors, etc.
4. Having a degree, or the type of personal trainer certification you get matters to your success.
One of the biggest questions I get is, “What type of personal training certification should I get?”
It is true that certain fitness clubs may insist that their staff hold a certain certification that they’re biased towards for whatever reason. However, the majority of clients you’ll be working with have no clue about any of the certifications offered in the fitness field. The reality is that your education determines your technical competence, but it’s your personality and ability to successfully apply your education in a practical manner that your clients can understand and relate to that determines how many clients you get and how successful you are as a trainer. “Exercise is medicine,” but people are far more likely to take their medicine (i.e., stick to a particular workout approach) when they think the medicine tastes good.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to pursue a variety of certifications and continued education to help you to build a more well-rounded knowledge base, and provide you more tools in your toolbox. It’s just that you don’t want to fall into the trap of thinking that the type of certification you get will have much of an impact on the success of your personal training business. The only exception may be for those fitness professionals who are interested in attracting a specific population, such as Golfers for example; having a specialist golf performance certification as a part of your credentials can help separate you from the rest.
The same thing can be said for having a college degree. It’s great to pursue higher education, but don’t make the mistake of going to college for a training related degree thinking that after you graduate you’re guaranteed to attract more clients because of it. Statistics have shown that college graduates generally do make more money in the job world than non-college graduates – however if you are shy, don’t communicate well or you’re simply are an arrogant asshole who people don’t seem to like to be around, all the degrees and certifications in the world won’t make you successful. Why? In this business, you need personality. You need to be good at relating to people and building relationships, and you don’t get that kind of emotional intelligence from any college or certification courses.
5. Your way of training is the best way for everyone to use
It’s no secret that trainers have their training biases. Some trainers follow a bodybuilding philosophy, others a powerlifting philosophy, others are more into Pilates, while some do “3D functional training” and others may be more into kettlebells, and the list goes on and on. And, they usually think that their chosen method is the best, most complete method of training, and therefore train everyone the same way, while pointing out the problems with the other training methods.
The reality is that improving one’s overall health and fitness, building muscle and increase one’s general functional capacity, which is what most personal training clients are looking to do, is the multi-factorial goal. Therefore, it requires several different resistance exercise components because no single type of resistance exercise will be ever able to fully address such multi-factorial demands fully.
As I said in my book, Building Muscle and Performance:
“Just as nutrition experts always encourage eating a ‘colorful diet’ with a variety of both vegetables and fruits because they all have a different ratio of vitamins and minerals, different types of resistance training exercises have their own benefits and limitations. So, these arguments about this vs. that method of resistance training are ridiculous because they’re like arguing about whether you should eat vegetables or fruits. Avoiding one or the other will leave your diet deficient.”
So, it makes sense that taking a mixed approach to exercise programming will provide superior training results than exclusively using only one type of exercise. In that, incorporating a variety of exercises to help you improve your functional capacity by developing strength in various movement patterns, directions, and body positions. Remember, if you can perform a broader range of specific tasks, you possess a higher functional capacity. This relationship is crucial because most personal training clients don’t want their body to be merely more adapted to a limited number of gym-based exercise movements (only Olympic lifters and powerlifters need to specialize in specific exercise movements). Instead, they want their body to be more adaptable so that you can successfully take on a variety of physical demands.
6. There are “must do” exercises for everyone
Many trainers love to say they base their programming on the foundational principles of training. However, many of these same trainers will look at a training program and say it’s “good” or “bad” simply because it does or doesn’t use a certain exercise. Unfortunately this is putting training methods before training principles.
When you have a grasp of training principles, you have a clear understanding that it’s only those competing in weightlifting-oriented sports who must do certain exercises. But there’s no particular exercise that any athlete or gym-goer must do in order to improve. There are only training principles that must be adhered to, and there’s a wide variety of exercise applications and variations that allow athletes and fitness enthusiasts to adhere to principles in order to achieve their goals.
Sure – the big lifts, for example, are a great way to create progressive overload, but they’re not the only way. Resistance exercise is just a way to put force across joints. That’s it! When you understand this, you quickly see that no particular exercise has magical powers because barbells, dumbbells, cables, machines, and bands are all just different tools that allow us to apply force across joints. And, that includes bilateral and unilateral training, too. Neither is magical and both should be used to elicit specific training effects.
The principle of specificity, a foundational principle to effective exercise programming, dictates that your goal ultimately determines the exercises that need to be part of your training. The adaptations to training will be specific to the demands the training puts on the body.
So, if you want to become more explosive, use explosive exercises (like Olympic lifts or medicine ball throws). If you want to improve strength, incorporate some training with heavier loads. If you want to improve your rotational ability for a rotary-oriented sport, use a variety of rotational exercises at various speeds and loads. The training goal(s) ultimately determines the exercises that need to be a part of your training, not some allegiance to a given training method or a fanaticism about certain types of exercises (barbell exercises, kettlebell exercises, stability ball exercises, etc.).
In other words, when it comes to good program design, we don’t go from methods down, we go from principles up. So, a good training program isn’t determined by the exercises it incorporates, but how training principles are utilized. That means forget about your emotional attachment to certain training methods or going by what some guru says.
7. You’re one of the “good ones”
When speaking about technical ability, it’s very common for trainers to say that “most trainers aren’t that good.” I absolutely agree – most aren’t very competent when it comes to individualized exercise prescription and properly utilizing the principles of programming. Interestingly, no trainer who ever says this thinks that they’re on the wrong side of that equation. However, it’s far more likely that you’re in majority, not the minority.
From a technical knowledge standpoint, what most often separates fitness professionals from one another, and makes some individuals more competent and qualified than others is how often they’re investing in and pursuing their continued education. Unfortunately, many personal trainers get much of their information from predominantly mainstream, commercialized names (e.g., pro athletes, fitness celebrities, insta-famous people, etc.) or from their own prep coach, which are all notoriously unreliable sources that often promote pseudoscience and dogma. Many personal trainers remain pretty clueless to who the more reliable sources are of scientifically-founded information within their field, because their idea of continued education is going on YouTube simply to find some new, cool-looking exercises and workout ideas they can use to “push” their clients with.
The minority of trainers – the good ones – are the trainers who can’t stop thinking about training. And, I don’t mean thinking about their own personal workouts. I mean spending much of their free time thinking about how they can provide their clients a better training service by constantly reading articles and research, questioning themselves, evaluating their practices and are always looking to talk shop. They’re the ones who’re spending most, if not all, of their “fun money” on their continued education – to regularly buying books and video courses/products to attending as many live events as they can afford. At big box gyms that have a large staff of trainers, I may find one trainer out of the bunch who is like this.
8. The diet that worked for you is the best diet for everyone
In my book, Building Muscle and Performance, I offered the following simple nutritional guidelines:
“Eat mostly foods based on fruits and vegetables and on high-quality meats, eggs, and fish (or protein substitutes, for vegetarians and vegans). Limit your intake of refined foods, simple sugars, hydrogenated oil, and alcohol. And don’t overeat.
If you start by focusing on the quality of the foods you eat—emphasizing fruits, vegetables, high-quality proteins—you’ll likely end up taking in fewer calories without even counting them. Indeed, when it comes to calories, the easiest approach is to first emphasize the quality (i.e., nutrient density) of the foods you eat rather than the quantity (i.e., the number of calories) and see where that gets you. It spells success for most people because fruits, veggies, and lean proteins are generally lower in calories than are fast food and candy. You don’t just want to be well fed; you want to be well nourished.”
Every adult most likely already knew these things, but the goal of marketing is to make you think you need something more — like a special diet formula. Trainers often get caught up in the certain diet formula that they follow themselves, and often passionately promote it as the best diet across the board.
As I said in my book, Strength Training for Fat Loss:
“It’s important to note that some of the foods that are on the “no-no” list in one magic-bullet cure-all diet are emphasized as “good” to eat in another different magic-bullet diet. If this alone isn’t enough to highlight why these “cure-all” type diets are based more on great marketing than they are on good science, keep in mind that every few years, there seems to be a new “cure- all” diet that claims to be better than the last.”
However, when we strip away the (often questionable) marketing claims and proprietary systems that separate different diet formulas, we see that they all end up being different delivery systems that amount to no more than tinkering with the basic nutritional principles and simple advice that I’ve provided above. So, it’s really not the special diet that’s “working”; it’s simply amount and quality of the food they’re eating.
The fact that so many otherwise intelligent trainers get caught up in these different diet formulas demonstrates how we often think we need to use exotic nutrition (and exercise) practices, and make the process way more complicated and unrealistic than it needs to be. Sometimes everyone just needs to be reminded to keep it simple.
9. Strength coaches and therapists are the best continuing education resources for personal trainers
More than ever it seems that fitness professionals are gravitating towards strength coaches who work in the collegiate and professional setting and rehabilitation specialists for their continuing education. Although we all can benefit from learning from other practitioners in the each of the various allied health fields, we must do so while maintaining the perspective of our own field of practice: the professional fitness training field.
The fact is both college strength coaches and physical therapists come from a very different perspective than someone who works in a personal training setting. In that, personal training is a customer service business, whereas strength coaching and physical therapy are not. Personal trainers have “customers” who come and go on their own volition; whereas strength coaches have “athletes” who must be there if they want to stay on the team. Rehabilitation specialists have “patients” who also have to be there in order to rehab from an injury, surgery or pain issue. In both the strength coach and physical therapy arena the practitioner points to the end-goal and then takes the patient or athlete through the most direct path to get there. On the other hand, in the personal training arena, the client is the one who points to where the end-goal is, and the trainer’s job is to lead them on the most direct path to that goal. Of course there are always special situations, but, in general, in the strength coaching and physical therapy game, the athletes’ or patients’ preferences mean little to nothing. But in the personal training realm, the client rules!
With this non-negotiable reality in mind, it’s important that fitness professionals focus their education on the techniques and applications that have been developed and utilized by other fitness professionals to be used in the personal training setting. When fitness professionals do engage in educational ventures taught by people in other allied health professions (like physical therapists and strength coaches), which they certainly should; we must understand that some of the techniques, concepts, thought processes and communication strategies may not apply directly to the personal training setting. And, the things that do apply to the fitness field may need to be heavily modified in order to fit the personal training setting.
10. You want to open your own facility for the right reasons.
Many personal trainers seek to open their open facility at some point. And, that’s fantastic to want to work for yourself and run your own place! That said, many trainers want to open their facility because they want to have all the cool equipment they want to use and be able to play the type of music they like. These are shitty reasons to focus on when looking to open your own business because they have nothing to do with running a profitable business. They’re just simply cool features of it.
You should open your own gym because you think you 1) can make more money that way, 2) have a business plan to make that happen, and 3) are interested in transitioning your daily tasks from those of a personal trainer to those of fitness business owner. Or, you’ve partnered with someone who can and will take care of the business and marketing operations side of things while you (the trainer) focus on providing programming and leadership to the clients.
You could be the most passionate about helping people and about being the best personal trainer you can be for your clients and those in your community, but that wont last long if your numbers aren’t working and you’re mentally and financially bogged down with stress and debt.
That said, it used to be “great trainer, bad business person.” Now, it’s more common to see “great business person, bad trainer.” This is because the business of fitness training has grown faster than the educational techniques required for good training. You’ll find that most of the successful training facilities have two people running the show: a great trainer and a great businessperson.