Calling Out All Trainers: Education, Body Image, and Credibility – Here’s the Hard Truth from your Clients’ Eyes.

Whether you have all the degrees, all the muscles, or none of either - Society is teaching you a lesson. You just need to look.

The commercialized, most profitable aspect of fitness has made the majority of the world view it as another form of popular culture and entertainment. Not a necessity. 

Many people use fitness and health as something of a facilitator to a good time, a social endeavor, or a way to meet new people. This is the culture that’s most pervasive, and as long as platforms larger than those of “real training” exist, I don’t expect much of that to change.

People are different.  I can confidently say the reason I decide to head to the gym and train isn’t the same reason my next door neighbors would. This variety will make its presence known even more so when it comes to trusting advice that’s delivered from fitness authorities or professionals.

We can keep trying to coerce people into thinking about training from a “strictly performance and health” perspective, but the ways it’s used for many (listed above) will still be the motivating factor for those ones to get into the gym – performance and health appearing  later on their list of benefits.

It’s interesting to think about how that affects people like me – fitness professionals – when dealing with this reality. It behooves us to consider two real factors that most people consider (albeit a bit more than they should) when selecting a personal trainer. Truth is, it’s the reality of the world we live in, and in certain lights, it might even benefit us as trainers to play the game – even just a little.

Visual Cue

I’ll never forget this experience.

It was the tail end of my first year as a trainer – I was 21, and midway through a busy day at the gym. A lady walked up to me, saying she was referred to me by (I believe) another employee at the gym. She asked me whether or not I had time in my schedule to work with her. At the time, my schedule was set for long days, so I told her I’d have a spot available for her to come on board.  Then, came the golden lines:

“I’m looking to train pretty hard, and I want to build muscle, get lean and finally get a six pack. I’d like a lot of our training to be focused around the core.”

“I can do that”, I said. “Plus, many of the big movements I choose for clients will involve plenty of core as a bonus.”

“Do you think you can help me get a six pack?”, she asked.

“I don’t see why not.”

“That sounds great. Now, can I see your abs?”

I took pause.

I wasn’t taken aback because I didn’t have a six pack – as a matter of fact, being 21, I was fresh off the track at a whopping 200 pounds soaking wet, and still sprinter-lean. I had visible abdominals in all their glory.

I was more surprised that beyond anything – my experience, my accomplishments, my knowledge base, my client results – anything – the real factor to seal the deal for this client seemed to be whether or not her trainer displayed the results she was looking for.

There’s a reason this memory sticks out in my mind as something I can’t shake 13 years later. It hasn’t gotten drowned out by other training or client experiences because there are enough trains of thought, social media threads, television shows and other forms of mainstream attraction that serve as reminder that her train of thought wasn’t anomalous. And that can serve as a lesson for trainers in the game.

Whether they’re educated and informed or not, people are probably going to naturally gravitate toward paying someone who physically evidences fitness results (by way of body composition) before paying someone who doesn’t.

I’m not saying that’s right.

But I’m not saying it’s not, either.

The ‘practice what you preach’, ‘look the part’ mantra has many more factors and moving parts attached to it that I won’t address here, but the culture of the fitness professional world as a whole can wrongly start treating that mantra as a “dangerous” piece of advice full of caveats.  At it’s core, I believe it’s something we all should strive for if we’ve committed to making this our means of living. There will always be people who say it doesn’t matter, but that’s contrary to the evidence in the real world that shows it absolutely does. With all things equal, a trainer who says that being capable, in-shape, strong, and muscular doesn’t have an effect on client retention, leads, or client buy-in, likely has never been those things themselves. Furthermore, that’s likely going to limit the diversity in audience or potential clientele they’ll attain (even by a small amount).

To be clear, with all of this, I’m not talking about the 74 year old fitness trainer, nor the formerly morbidly obese individual who made major life changes to attain a much healthier composition (one that may only be considered “impressive” when compared to images of their former self). Nor am I talking about trainers who are looking to corner very fringe niches of the PT client base. All of these represent far less frequent cases in the big picture, and do not comprise the majority of the fitness industry’s professionals. My thoughts toward such cases can be saved for another article. For now, these folks remain notwithstanding.

The mania that’s infested the fitness lifestyle culture toward making training about what makes you “happy”, developing long term habits via little changes, not punishing yourself for not sticking to the plan, or feeling empowered by what you choose to do definitely started in a good place – but it’s unfortunately become good advice that has been taken far out of context by too many people, to ultimately promote an ideology of true fitness and health that may be a touch too flexible. Instead of promoting self-awareness, it’s made many justify and rationalize a lack of true motivation to work toward fitness goals, whatever they may be – which generally involves getting out of one’s comfort zone.

I digress. It shouldn’t be a stretch to expect a fitness trainer to be in above average overall fitness compared to a run-of-the-mill client who hasn’t yet adopted a fitness-based lifestyle.  Included in that by default will be that trainer’s physical appearance. Fitness experts everywhere have been determined to debunk this mindset that permeates the general public, but I’ll be one to voice the following: Maybe, within reason, the public isn’t entirely off base.  And maybe a modest physique or body comp as a paid fitness expert can even serve as a silent motivator for clients who do struggle in the departments I listed above. All I’m saying is, there could be a good side to the seemingly pernicious idea of ‘looking the part’.

And for the record, I didn’t show that client my abs. And she didn’t end up training with me.                    

Alphabet Soup: The Credential Chase

If you thought a client thinking of a coach’s capability strictly based on their physique was narrow minded, it’s now time to examine the other side of the coin. The one that represents the clientele who won’t pay for anything with anyone without confirming a fitness professional’s certification, university degrees, or college diplomas.

Education in this industry is important, and it’s the root requirement for catalyzing positive change, but, there’s a but.

When a client, or even another trainer, acts like having a degree in exercise science or kinesiology is an instant rite of passage to being “good” at this craft, it holds everyone back from approaching this with the right mindset. Unfortunately, there are clients who would trust a young university graduate with 3 months experience as a trainer and zero accomplishments more than a 20 year trainer with a list of industry accolades, who only has high school on paper. In my eyes, something’s wrong with that.

Here’s one truth: While I was studying in university, I found little of the content directly applicable to what I do today. Anatomy, some physiology, a few practicum courses for fitness assessment and training, and biomechanics was basically the extent of it.

I teach college students now, and I’m in close contact with people who hire young trainers for work in their facilities. Despite their schooling, many of these prospective trainers have difficulty answering basic questions about the way the muscles of the body work – on the most simplistic level possible (kind of like asking a dental hygiene student to locate the incisors or molars).  A pretend-client case study is often approached with nearly clinic-level ambivalence, which is probably well intended, but can be counterproductive at the same time.

In 14 years in the industry, I’ve found that the problem above isn’t that of not receiving the knowledge. It’s about receiving the knowledge in a way that sticks. This industry clearly shows that formal, school-based education is absolutely not the best or most ideal form of information delivery for everyone who wants to belong to it.  I’m sure that rings true for other industries also, but this industry is especially unique in its hands-on, practical edge.

I have had many conversations with younger trainers looking to set themselves apart from the crowd and make a name for themselves in the industry. In seeking my advice, they often suggest the possibility of going back to school to pursue further education, attain those credentials, and have a list of letters to follow their name. To be fair, I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with that. Based on the way the industry seems to work today, it can be the way to open a number of select doors for a mere chance at a seat at the table.

But it’s important to be aware that more school won’t particularly make you a better trainer. Training better will. 

Yes, that sounds far too imprecise, but that sort of reflects the openness of this industry as a whole.

In truth, you need a combination of knowledge, client experience, mentorship, reading, shadowing, attention to your own health and fitness, certifications, workshops, and an intangible “X” factor of being good, genuine and naturally personable with people to thrive in this game. You can’t go wrong if you’ve accumulated all of the above.

But many clients don’t know that.

And since they don’t, the push for nothing but school-based education remains intense, and young aspiring coaches often seem to feel coerced into pursuing this as their primary means of learning, despite its shortcomings. Thousands and thousands of dollars later, many are left disappointed.

The fact of the matter is, many members of this generation of clients will attach a trainer’s merit much more with “where he went to school”, and much less with how he received his education.

And if we want to be politically correct about all of this, it’s exclusionary to do so.  An assiduous youngster without the means to afford college or university (nor willing to take on massive government loans to do so) shouldn’t be considered less capable or informed compared to a person who paid for formal schooling, unless his work ethic and real-world application speak to that. Academia picked the wrong vocation.

Why I’m Saying All This: Muscle and Education FTW

As seen in each subheading, there’s a worthwhile argument to be made for both sides. But people like to be polarized, and extreme trains of thought will continue to remain issues in the industry unless we as fitness professionals spearhead the change of perspective that pertains to them.

Your body can certainly be your business card, as long as it’s not the whole business.

And having the right knowledge base to back up your hard work and results you’ve attained in the gym should not be confined to having letters proceed your name.

In both cases, clients need to be made aware of this. Because in both cases, putting all your eggs in just one of these baskets will only leave you with half the answer.

But we’re not in the clear of responsibility as trainers.

As mentioned at the outset, this surface-value assessment is the nature of the business for now, and it’s the climate of the industry if we give an honest, realistic take on it. Say what you want about that – it probably won’t change overnight. If we don’t play the game at least a little bit as fitness professionals by attaining a reasonable balance of both of what I’ve highlighted – call it “muscle and education”, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot – or at the very least, rolling an ankle.

The kind of clients who make what I’ve written above equate to 100% of a trainer’s worth, are probably the kind of clients we as trainers wouldn’t want to deal with (at least not me).  In essence, they had a point, but they’ve taken it too far and become entrenched in an irrational stance. Client traction is what keeps our industry alive, so while we give them better insight on what should really matter, it’s still important to acknowledge the reality for what it is. It makes it imperative that we do our part as trainers and bring up the industry of fitness and health by setting a modest, realistic and reasonable example. That’s put on clear display by way of the lifestyle we lead, and by our always continuing to learn.

If we truly care about the industry, we probably don’t need this reminder.

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