SP Premium
SparkPeople Blogs  •  fitness  •  safety

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?

Click here to to redeem your SparkPoints
  You will earn 5 SparkPoints


Wow. Thanks for the informative post. It certainly provides a lot of food for thought. Report
Thanks Coach Nichole. I had no idea personal trainers had no regulations. I have a personal trainer at Curves. She is certified by Curves and I feel does things properly. She won't get you to overexercise at the risk of your health. Rose recommends slow weight loss instead of high demanding workouts that the beginners should not be doing. I would be scared to have someone else for a personal trainer. Report
That's correct, but nothing is ever simple. In some states the official title for registered dietitians is nutritionist, so I wanted to be sure to include that here. Report
Okay, thanks Coach Nicole for your clarification. Report
Just a nitpick: in most jursidictions in North America, the title "nutritionist" is NOT regulated. The statement "[b]y law, for example, a person must meet certain requirements to call himself or herself a dietitian or nutritionist..." makes it seem like both titles, dietitian and nutritionist are protected. In most U.S. states and Canadian provinces, anyone can call themselves a nutritionist.

I'm a Registered Dietitian, so the proper use of titles for nutrition professionals is an important issue for me.



Thanks for writing this blog! I have friends who have become Certified Personal Trainers who I frankly would no more trust with my physical fitness than I would trust them to set a broken arm. The certification process is far too easy! I think when you pay for training you are mostly just paying for someone to motivate you and "force" you to work out harder than you would on your own. I got a few free training sessions at the gym and although it was helpful to have someone instruct me on how to use the machines, I learned pretty quickly that the trainer/salesgirl I was working with only knew how to "train" from what her softball coach told her. Sometimes I think a gym buddy is just as good, and a heck of a lot cheaper than a trainer is. Report
I found this article very informative. I get sick of seeing trainers in the gym who are NOT professional. They check themselves out in the mirror, not even looking at their clients, they drink or eat while "training", or as mentioned above they have their clients working with poor form or doing dangerous exercises. To get my certification I had to take a 2 month course, pass a written and a practical, get CPR certified, and do a 24 hour internship. I got additional certifications like Partner Assisted Stretch. But the gym I worked for did not require any of this. All the training they gave us was on customer service and salesmanship. We had a one week crash course in fitness and a very easy test upon applying. That's it. Report
I'm too frugal to spend money on a Personal Trainer, so after reading all these negatives I'm glad I didn't waste money. There are SO many YouTube videos that teach the proper way to do exercise, not to mention Tony Horton's P90X work out. Report
Thanks for a great follow up blog!! I am definitely wary of any certification you can earn in a weekend...in any field, not just personal training. But I am sure that there are good trainers who earned their certifications that way, as well as poor trainers who have a degree in exercise. I wish gyms would allow a trial session with more than one trainer to find a good fit before you commit to a personal training "package". Report
My personal trainer was certified, and so is the owner of the business. I made up my mind that I needed to do this for me. Luckily, I know the owner through my hubby's running friends. The owner is a woman about 22 years younger than me, and my personal trainer was a woman, about 10 years younger than me. I don't know if that makes a difference but, thought I'd share that with you. The owner is a certified NASM, and she requires that her trainers be certified also. However, I do agree with you about knowing what is safe and what is not safe to do when it comes to exercising because each person is different, and all of us have health issues which make a routine of exercising taylor made for each one of us.

I know that my chiropractor said not to do crunches, any type even on the stability because they are very bad for the back, with which I need to pay close attention to. However, when I went to workout with my personal trainer and spoke with her about it, about one session later she tried to get me to do crunches on the stability ball. I told her no, that I wasn't suppose to do crunches and then she asked me again, and I told her no & stood my ground. So we did other things to strengthen my core, abs, arms, legs, but not crunches.

However, I did learn a whole lot, specifically how to do a circuit, how to keep my body guessing as I shook up my routine, and lost inches in appearance, and about 15 pounds over the course of 18 weeks.

Mind you, building the muscles in my arms, quads, glutes, and legs didn't happen overnight but with consistency and dedication to do what I was asked to do, (minus the crunches), and without complaint.

In the process, I have taken up swinging kettlebells to further strengthen my body overall in hopes of shedding some more weight.

But more important, I love working out, and even now, especially on my own without a personal trainer.

If you can afford one for a packaged session, and find a good trainer, then it will have been money well spent. Report
I also had some bad experiences. The trainer who signed me up was more like a salesman and he only did a couple of sessions with me before passing me off to someone else. Luckily the new trainer was good. She had conquered her personal weight problems, so was very understanding of what I could and couldn't do. I was supposed to see her once a week and then work on my own until the next time. This was a disaster. I couldn't translate what was on my exercise plan into which machine, how to set it up, how to use it, etc. UGH! Then she got promoted to manager so I was transferred again to another girl. This one was really bad. She was late to sessions, was more interested in talking to the other trainers and members than what she was supposed to be doing with me, etc. I felt like she didn't want to help me because I was overweight. Needless to say, when my contract with the gym was up I quit. They asked me why and I said "Because I hated every minute of it!" That wasn't entirely true, I did like to walk on the treadmill and watch movies on the big TV, but I can do that at my work's fitness center for 1/3 the price! Report
I am so glad I read this. My bf was trying out different trainers at our gym to get the right fit. One of them (that is overweight and only 20) started to smart off about how my bf didn't choose him in the end. He was trying to convince my bf that he needed to bulk up and should be maxing out. My bf was not looking for those results, he wanted to look leaner. After he went with someone with seemingly more knowledge and manners this guy started telling him that he shouldn't work out with me anymore. He started talking bad about my bf's new trainer and started making fun of other patrons. He also gives me dirty looks constantly when I am working out with my bf. In my opinion this guy needs to get fired...fast. Report
Thank you for the follow up blog! Great tips for those of us that might feel uncomfortable and unsure of ourselves in the gym atmosphere in the first place. Report
This is great information...I was thinking about finding a Personal Trainer, but had no idea what to look for. Reason #5741 to love Spark People - they answer my questions before I even form the question! Report
Amen to this, probably the best, most relevant blog ever written on Sparkety Spark. Spells it out, amen again, watch out for all these signs as it happens ALL the time. Report
Great article as follow-up to Stepfanie's, Coach.

I have worked with 4 different trainers; two were well-certified and understood (as well as 'youngsters' can) the challenges of an ageing body. One was older herself--had trained as trainer in the 80's, kept up her cert., and was awesome (she moved, or I'd be with her still). The fourth, omg! he wanted me to jump onto stools, (I'm overweight, was really out-of-shape, and in my 50s), do walking squats, lift ridiculous weights--it was scary. He did pay attention to form (and I have NEVER had a trainer with a cell phone) but what he wanted would have been a challenge 20 years ago; now? ha! So I cancelled out on that, took the $$ loss (figured it was better than the cost of physical therapy if I stayed with that yahoo) and use SP, the suggestions of my chiropractor and osteopath, and what I remember from my three good trainers. Here's the odd bit--all 4 have the same qualifications/ training on paper... Report
Great information. Thank you so much. At my age, I'll just keep doing what I have been doing and keep my money in my pocket! No gyms for me. Report
This and the previous blog post have come as a sort of divine intervention for me...Recently, I have been convinced by a friend to buy some sessions from her trainer. They were a good price and he was willing to meet me at my office without having to actually join the gym. On Wednesday I had a free trial before my sessions would begin and it was not what I anticipated...He flirted with my friend, distracting her from her actual workout, took calls and text messages, never once corrected my form on any exercise (even when I was obviously struggling and uncertain) and talked to other girls in the gym--clearly trying to drum up business.

I have been injured in the past with a personal trainer that I absolutely loved and trusted completely. And then I found out the trainer had my friend do sprints after she told him of a knee injury, which worsened her injury.

In the past two days I have kept making excuses for this guy's behavior even though I had a nagging feeling in my gut that I could not trust this guy and should not pay him to help me. I thank you and Stepfanie both for your great information that helped remind me to make a logical decision for my health and not be guilted into anything that was not in my best interest. Report
I have recently joined a Fitness Boot Camp and what I enjoy about it most is that the instructor cares about everyone doing the exercises properly and at the proper weight.
He first takes the time to review complex moves before we all try them with weights, even if we have done them before. He tells us how to judge if we are using the correct weight. And lastly, him and the assistant coach constantly walk around the room to ensure we are all using proper form and that the weight is right while we are performing the exercise.

I cannot imagine attending this class and not being given the proper instruction and guidance so that I get fit in a safe manner. It is unfortunate that not all personal trainers provide the same excellent instruction that others do, but I am glad that there are those that do (and that I have found one). Report
A lot of gyms push training on you. It's expensive and I've watched their trainers work with people. I was not impressed.

Thanks for a great blog---some things I never thought of being a trainer. I just assumed they went to school to be one and all had degrees.

I can see where some are consider bad trainers--a good trainer will be more concern about the other individual's fitness and overall health. Report
Oh, this list doesn't surprize me at all. Honestly, I see it every day at the gym I work for. Fortunately, all the trainers and group ex instructors do have to be fully certified by reputable fitness organizations before they can work for the gym. That's the good thing. The bad thing ? Some of my colleagues aren't as qualified as they should be. Some of them are guilty of every behavior Stephanie complained about.

I do have one co-worker who does have a fabulous body and members flock to him because they believe he can give them the results just like he has. Well, he does some pretty unsafe stuff in order to get those results. He's teaching the members some very unhealthy habits and they believe him because he's got that great body to back up his statements.

He's a firm believer that if you aren't ready to hurl by the end of his class, you didn't really work hard enough. And I think that's just unsafe and wrong. I firmly believe someone is going to be hurt because of him and no one at the gym sees to be interested in hearing the complaints against him. I don't get it.

I've worked with some really great trainers. Every single one of them was high qualified and up front with me. They never held anything back. When I work with clients, I'm honest with them too. I tell them not to expect miracles and that what they get out of our sessions is dependent on what they put in.

There are some really wonderful PTs out there. Unfortunately, it's the bad ones that make the rest of us look bad.

I've been shocked to see some of the exercises that SparkPeople has on their site. Some of them are very dangerous not only for beginners but also for people with experience. Report
Glad to get the info on the certifications - have been considering trying to get certified, and was very confused by the info I've been finding on the web. Report
I responded to the article that inspired this one. I have had experience with two trainers since February 2007. One was certified, one was not. The one who was not, was the one who taught me everything I know about lifting. He told me up front that he had studied, but never gotten certified. The one who is cetified is impressed with how much I know, and is always telling me I have excellent form. They are both excellent trainers, both worked me hard, but pushed me beyond what I would ever have done on my own. If you think your trainer is pushing you too hard, tell him! If you attempt to do everything they want, they don't know that you are struggling. I have no problem telling them that I have had enough, I can't do this or this bothers my.............(insert body part!) I really don't think being certified makes you a better trainer; I guess my experience was the exception to the rule :) Report
Horror stories are out there. I for one, look forward to sessions with my trainer. He does not exhibited any of the negative behaviors listed in the article. He is very aware of my phyiscal limitations, and carefully monitors to make sure I am not doing anything that will cause harm or injury. I think it important that people look for a trainer the with the same care and scrutiny they would choose a physician, dietitians, or anyone else whose advise have the ability to impact your health and well being. Have a good rapport with your trainer, and don't be afraid to question them, let them know if something hurts or you cannot perform an exercise. Mostly importantly exercise is not supposed to hurt, it something hurts, don't do it. Report
ZORBS- I agree that a weekend cert. isn't necessarily bad. But one that doesn't take months of study or preparation in order to pass it over that particualar weekend would be one to look out for, wouldn't you agree? I also think that specialty cert's (like yours in KBs) to be different than a general PT cert. They are not designed or meant to take the place of all the things you'd learn with a general cert. Report
Thank you for this very practical information. Report
I have been working with a trainer for over three months now. She pushes me very hard! I wake up every morning trying to figure out how to get out of my contract. There has just not been enough progress, plus I am tired and sick the rest of the day!

However I am determined to get in shape and lose the weight ! Any advice? Report
Although this list doesn't surprise me, I have to say something. If you can find a good trainer, they can make all the difference. I've been working with a personal trainer (through my gym) for a while. Honestly, most of the trainers at my gym seem rather...well...less than stellar, but the guy I work with went to school for exercise science, and is really good at what he does. He pushes, he motivates, and helps with working towards goals. He'll even give me "homework" and write out a routine or two for me to do on days I don't meet with him. Things don't get boring, we always do different combinations and different styles of workouts.

As odd as it sounds, one of my goals is to flip a tire. Not a car tire. A BIG tire. And he's helping me with it. More so than just lifting. He said he'll get a "training" tire (about 150lbs) so I can get used to it before I move on to a bigger one. When it finally does happen, he's going to videotape it, so I can show the world!

But i digress. I'm just trying to say that there are some wonderful trainers out there, you just have to find them. Report
At the local community collage there is a 3 credit class you can take. If you pass the class at the end there is a test you take to get your certification. Considering what it takes to pass a class (C or better) that IS scary.
As scary as your doctor giving you medical advice with the same criteria. Grant it they have to pass multiple classes but still they don't have to ace them. Report
My main certifications (Can-Fit-Pro, Agatsu), took place over a weekend, but required passing tough written and practical exams and Can-Fit-Pro is pretty much the most respected and common certification available where I live. I don't think the course being a weekend course necessarily makes a trainer bad.

I don't have a degree in fitness, because that's not the direction my life was headed post high school, and I'm not interested in pursuing another degree at this time, but if I had been into fitness in my late teens/early 20's I certainly would have pursued a degree in that field. Report
Walking Guide