Personal Training What You Really Need to Know

Personal Training What You Really Need to Know by Jonathan Goodman

Misplaced guidance, unfounded promises, lack of integrity, biased decision making, and money-grubbing have all become synonymous with personal training.

The fitness industry was worth $21.4 billion in 2011 (1) and is expected to grow by 24 percent from 2010-2020 (2). Buying personal trainers’ services is an emotional decision and one that’s often done without adequate thought. It’s not surprising that some people are taking advantage of consumers. Personal training service is arbitrary. Trainers don’t have a prescribed scope.  Nobody really knows what they should, or should not, know.

  “Buying personal trainers services is an emotional decision and one that often lacks adequate thought” – Click to Tweet

What’s funny is neither do a lot of trainers. I’m here to tell you that we’re just as confused as you are.

confused personal trainer

The industry is in disarray.

Terms like metabolic conditioning, functional training, core, muscle confusion, leaning out, and periodization are thrown around so haphazardly that they have lost all meaning. Education for for trainers in North America is un-regulated. While good resources exist for trainers, the overall picture is not bright. Anybody can call himself or herself a personal trainer, even without certification. And anybody can create educational platforms and designate trainers as “certified”. Trainers are also duped into believing that the next best thing is better than the last best thing. The reality is that they get tricked into emptying their wallets just as much as the unfortunate clients they serve.  The trainers are trying to do the right thing. With all the noise, it’s difficult to get a clear and unbiased view of what the job entails and what methods work best. I was a personal trainer. It was my career and I was passionate about it. My focus is now on giving personal trainers the skills they need to succeed. The prospect that my generation won’t be able to support the raising health care costs for the baby boomers in the near future is scary. Preventative medicine must be a priority. Exercise has been well established to decrease/eliminate risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and even dementia. (3 4 5 6) Personal training can change people’s lives.  It’s a fulfilling career and not a part-time job. Teaching proper exercise technique and theory is the greatest weapon in our arsenal to decrease pain and suffering from disease, help people live more fulfilling lives, and save billions of dollars in health care costs. This is what personal training is all about:

We don’t all have six-packs.

Yes, even we sometimes have that  extra piece of cake and skip our workouts. Fitness is important,  but it isn’t all we think about morning to night. I believe that life should be enjoyed both in and out of the gym. (A six-pack doesn’t hurt for those days on the beach, though.) Sure, some trainers’ lives revolve around fitness. They eat a steady diet of un-flavored chicken and broccoli, work out twice a day, and are in bed by 9:00 PM sharp. I bet they’re ripped. I also bet you aren’t willing to mimic their lifestyle. Judging a personal trainer solely on appearance is not the way to choose a coach. What they did to attain their physique probably took years of trial and error or protocols that the average Joe can’t follow. Just because they are in good shape doesn’t mean they know how to help you. You’re different in everything from your daily commitments to body type. Even genetics has been shown to have a massive effect on adaptation to exercise. In one study, subjects followed the same protocol. Some subjects gained as much as 10cm in their biceps and doubled their strength, while others showed little to no gain. (7) While it’s important for a personal trainer to practice what they preach, their personal fitness level is not a good indicator of how much they can help you. Tiger Woods has a golf coach whom I’m comfortable assuming is a worse golfer than Tiger. This expert has taken years to study every aspect of the game and can help Tiger. Even if a trainer isn’t able to grate cheese with their abs, it doesn’t mean they can’t get you there. They know what it really takes and have decided to live a healthy life without the requisite dieting. The best program is the one that you will follow. A trainer’s job is to mesh a quality workout program with your lifestyle, while understanding your limitations. They’ve done the same for themselves.

Our goal is not the make you hurt.

This might surprise you: my goal is to make you hurt less. I don’t get secret pleasure when you can’t walk up the stairs and my goal is not to make you “feel it”. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) is the result of unaccustomed exercise and is modulated due to type, intensity, and duration or training. What this means is that anything different will make you sore. Making somebody sore is not the purpose for training; making the muscles grow is. It’s possible that the same things that make you sore also signal the body to build more muscle but powerful mechanisms exist in the body in the absence of soreness.(8) The three primary mechanisms for hypertrophy (muscle gain) are mechanical stress, metabolic stress, and muscle damage. All of these occur in the absence of soreness. So, yes:  I will see how you’re feeling and want to know if you’re sore. But I don’t pump my fist in jubilation when you tell me you can’t feel your legs. Soreness tells me how you’re adapting to the workouts and how well your recovery mechanisms are working. It allows me to adapt the training as I learn how your body functions (yes,  it’s different than mine). If you continue to get sore, something is awry. And my aim is to fix it. You will get stronger, look better, and function better in the absence of soreness. You can also train more frequently and be less miserable. I’ll save my fist pumps for when you put on muscle, not when you suffer. we only get stronger when it's difficult

We care more about the why.

In 1981 George T. Doran created the mnemonic SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely). The system was first published in an issue of Management Review and has since gone on to become synonymous with goal setting. The most important letter when it comes to adherence towards exercise is the “R” but most people focus on the S, M, and T. Having a goal of losing 10 lbs for the summer may seem SMART. It’s specific (10 lbs), it’s measurable, it’s attainable, and it’s timely (the summer). Why is it relevant? Does 10 lbs mean that you’ll feel comfortable going to the cottage with your friends and sun bathing?  Maybe it means that you will be able to fit into the red dress you wore on the cruise last year. ( You remember that cruise;  your husband told you that you were beautiful.) You will stick with your exercise plan if you take the time to look deep inside yourself at the why — and stop focusing on numbers. Running a 5k is not a goal, losing 10 lbs is not a goal, and benching 225 lbs is not a goal. The goal is the reason behind why you want to do those things. So why do you go to the gym?  

We get frustrated when you don’t do your homework.

Personal trainers don’t make millions. We’re hard working people doing a job that we love. Our greatest passion comes from seeing you succeed. That’s why we get frustrated when you don’t do your homework. The average client trains one to two times a week. Occasionally, somebody will train three days and week,  and rarely will somebody train four or more.. That leaves 164 hours in a week for you to mess up your lifestyle, diet, or exercise.  A trainer will make sure you’re exercising well. But the onus is on you to want it badly enough to take some responsibility in your own hands. If you’re working hard and not getting the results you want,  something is awry and we want to help you figure it out. Either the goals set are unreasonably high, or you’re not following your routine outside of gym hours. Open communication is a must. Tell us. If you’re finding it hard to do your homework our job is to figure out a way to fit it into your lifestyle. It may mean your goals will have to be scaled back but expectations must be realistic.  

We progress and regress appropriately.

Most new clients I take on can’t do a push up properly. There are people who boast 1.5x bodyweight bench presses yet they don’t have the requisite shoulder and mid back strength to support their own bodyweight. Most complex movements are done so poorly in the gym that they are ineffective. This goes back to my point on SMART goals (more particularly the “R”). Is your goal to perform a heavy bench press or to look good? If it’s to look good, you probably need to take some weight off of the bar and focus on quality of movement. 99% of trainees aren’t looking to become Olympic lifters. They want to get ripped to feel like they’re more attractive to the opposite sex. There’s a reason why bodybuilders flex constantly. And it less to do with ego than you think. The mind-muscle connection is a powerful way to recruit a higher percentage of muscle fibres. The idea here is to take a minute before you start the exercise to think where you should feel it. Flex that muscle and keep it engaged throughout the whole movement. The result is higher recruitment and more muscle. This cannot be done if you’re doing quarter squats or pumping out low-quality reps quicker than Universal Pictures makes sequels for the Fast & Furious movies. Oftentimes, taking a step back and refocusing is the best thing you can do for your workouts.  

We advise you on nutrition, to a point.

Personal training is unregulated. This means there is no scope of practice. Despite what you might think, it is generally okay for  trainers to advise clients on nutrition. In most places, they can even called themselves a nutritionist without repercussions. (Note:  you may only use the term “dietician”  if you have the appropriate  qualifications and the same caveat applies to the term  “registered nutritionist” in many places. The only real no-no for personal trainers everywhere is to dispense “medical nutrition therapy” or to  claim to be something they’re not.) It is the responsibility of the trainer to only advocate eating habits they know well. Nothing is black and white. Even common vitamins can be beneficial for some and toxic to others.  Supplements compound the issue. If your trainer recommends you take supplement,  I recommend you do your own research before buying it  — especially if the trainer is the one selling it to you. Large commissions are paid to trainers who sell supplements to trusting clients. Multi-tier marketing schemes are rampant in gyms across North America. Whether or not the products are effective is not up for debate here. What’s important is that full disclosure is given if the trainer is receiving compensation in any way for the recommendation. The reality is that most trainers know just as much about nutrition as you do. When you break it down it isn’t complicated:
  • Eat breakfast and consistently throughout the day
  • Eat lots of healthy fats
  • Eat tons of veggies
  • Restrict carb intake to before and after your workout.
I realize that I’m over-simplifying the point and the paleo/intermittent fasting crowd may be shaking their heads. Take a step back and think what’s really important. If everybody followed these very simple rules, the population would be a lot healthier. So the crux of it is that a trainer’s job is to make sure you have adequate information about nutrition and helping you devise strategies to adhere to your plan. If there’s anything they don’t have advanced knowledge of, or if you have specific needs, it’s their responsibility to refer you to somebody who does.   Untitled design-4  

A session does not need to be one hour to be effective.

Some protocols require more frequent shorter bouts of 30-40 minutes and others require 90 minutes. The one hour  session has become standard in gyms across North America. But you may be surprised to hear that personal trainers hate it. If we end a session in 50 minutes,  it’s not because we want to go to lunch earlier. It’s because 50 minutes was the optimal time for you to train. Because of the one hour rule, most trainers feel forced to stretch their clients after the session,  even though the stretching may be negatively affecting those clients’ results. On the other hand, some sessions should last longer than one hour hr because a high volume is needed. A trainer is often forced to cut the session at the one hour mark due to scheduling constraints instead of providing you with the optimal workout.
"Optimal training should dictate business practice, not the other way around". – Click to Tweet

We’re not educated by YouTube.

For some reason, it’s become accepted that personal trainers should educate themselves the  same way their clients do.  I don’t know why and how this happened. But it needs to stop. Accountants don’t do your books by reading “Accounting for Dummies” and doctors don’t prescribe based on what the latest popular magazine article recommends. To get ideas, a trainer should be reading industry journals and textbooks —  and not watching the latest Body Rock video on YouTube. Clients are not test subjects; they’re paying customers. The best trainers are those who constantly improve their methods and learn new techniques. But they test the techniques before prescribing them in a workout.  

Our Job is to make sure you avoid our mistakes.

People become  personal trainers after years of self-discovery, both mental and physical. They’ve failed and have learned from their mistakes. After years of self-experimentation, they decide they want to become a trainers to pass on their knowledge and passion for fitness to others. We want to make sure that you take the quickest route possible to the body you’ve always dreamed of. If you decide to hire a trainer, you are not hiring them for one hour. You are hiring them for their years of expertise. We go into work every day with the goal of making you better. Your success is our success.  


1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8.
  Jonathan Goodman Jonathan Goodman is the author of Ignite the Fire: The Secrets to Building a Successful Personal Training Career (Revised, Updated & Expanded)and creator of the site that teaches you how to become a personal trainer, the Personal Trainer Development Center (thePTDC). Grab the free course teaching you how to have a more successful, fulfilling, and profitable career today.[templatera id="6524"]