Is the Trainer They See the Trainer They Get?
Do your "looks" attract or detract when viewed by potential clients?
Does your age or gender determine the kinds of clients you attract? Is the way you dress working against you? Could your personal shape, weight or style be a professional liability?
If you’re not attracting the clientele you want to train or the numbers you need to succeed in business, it may have nothing to do with your skill level and everything to do with your appearance. The fitness industry is unlike most other professions when it comes to the importance placed on outward appearance.
When assessing the ability of other professionals to perform their respective jobs, consumers may base their opinions on education, past experience and success rate. But as fitness professionals, we are often judged by more outward “credentials,” such as weight, age, gender, race and wardrobe—to name just a few. Becoming aware of these external influences—and learning how you can make them work in your favor—could be the difference between success and failure in your fitness career.
I have been a personal fitness trainer (PFT) for 20-plus years. Over those years, I have watched personal training grow from something akin to a “hobby” to the professional and respected field demanded by today’s fitness clients.
In the beginning, the “training business” was primarily made up of bodybuilders and floor staff trying to pick up some extra cash. If you were muscular and looked confident while working out, people would seek you out for advice and ask you to be their exercise buddy. I, myself, had limited experience working with weights and had never been trained when I got my first clients. I was a young, fit aerobics instructor and people assumed I knew all I needed to know.
Fast-forward 20-something years, and you now have a multimillion-dollar industry replete with myriad fitness degrees, certifications, branded training programs and organizations. Nowadays, PFTs have master’s degrees, multiple certifications and all kinds of specialty training. As today’s trainers begin to work in concert with physicians, physical therapists and other allied health professionals, there is a growing need for better-educated fitness professionals.
As we assume more professional roles in the medical and rehabilitation communities, we find our clientele has also changed. Once the bastion of the fit, today’s health clubs are more representative of society at large, with members of all ages and fitness levels. Additionally, the public’s reasons for hiring trainers have changed. What was formerly considered an extravagance for movie stars and models is now viewed as a form of preventive medicine and an essential component of a bigger mind-body complex. It’s no wonder that our current generation of trainers is a far cry from the early fitness pioneers.
With all this professional growth in the fitness industry, one would think that today’s consumers would look first at educational background and “hands-on” experience when selecting a trainer. It would make sense that a trainer’s physical appearance would matter far less now than it did before. Unfortunately, that is not really the case.
Because there is a scarcity of hard data about the relationship between outward appearance and success in the fitness industry, I conducted numerous interviews with club managers, fellow trainers and clients of all ages and sizes to prepare this article. After speaking with upwards of 50 men and women of various persuasions, I was surprised to learn that physical appearance remains a higher priority than education or experience when a client is initially selecting a trainer. In fact, few of the clients I interviewed have ever questioned their trainers’ education/experience but instead have formed a perception of their education levels based solely on the trainers’ appearance!
Interestingly, potential clients typically look for trainers who fit their own self-image—or at least what the clients would like to look like. Additionally, many clients believe that “older” trainers (age 30 and older) are more knowledgeable and compassionate than younger ones. According to one client I interviewed, “Older trainers can understand my aches and pains better, and my everyday stresses. They can relate on some level. People in their 20s haven’t lived enough to understand.”
I have experienced this same attitude when meeting some of my own clients for the first time. Several have said, “I’m so glad you’re not some 20-something blonde bombshell. Someone like that would never understand my physical and emotional struggles. I couldn’t relate to that kind of person and I doubt whether she would be able to motivate me.”
It is of great interest to me that this dialogue transpires before I ever demonstrate my skill level. Instead, the attitude is all based on my physical presence.
Judging by my personal experiences and those of other trainers, our outer “shells” have the potential to be our biggest assets in getting clients’ business. Shawn Freeman, a fitness manager at an upscale health club in California’s San Fernando Valley, has seen it all in her 27 years in the industry. “People are drawn to someone who is fit and looks the part,” Freeman says. “Would you want to train with an overweight trainer?”
As an astute manager, Freeman tries to match up members with trainers based on the members’ goals and needs. “Some people want to train with women because they feel more comfortable, and some want to train with men because they feel they will be pushed harder,” she says. “If you want to be a bodybuilder, you’d want to train with the guy or gal who has that look; if you want to be a triathlete, you’d train with someone who has done that. That is why, as a manager, you look for those specialties in trainers.”
Katherine Burrows, MS, member programming manager at the Spectrum Club Southbay, in Manhattan Beach, California, has a similar view. “Members tend to prefer trainers of a certain age, but I’ve never heard a comment about someone not wanting to work with a trainer because of [his or her] weight or race,” says Burrows. “All our trainers are fit. They may not have perfect bodies, but they are fit. Some of the members like that the trainers are ‘normal,’ because it’s less intimidating. In fact, two of our female trainers who are in their late 40s and 50s are always busy.” Like Freeman, Burrows tries to match specialized trainers with clients, depending on the goals and needs of her club’s members, who tend to be professionals between 30 and 45 years old. Her PFTs also get clients from referrals throughout the club; these may be sparked at least in part by the trainers’ outward appearance.
Although both Freeman and Burrows work at clubs that require trainers to be certified and meet certain education levels as conditions of employment, few prospective clients inquire about these qualifications when searching for a trainer. In fact, in the course of researching this article, I found that the three factors most important to clients choosing a trainer are
- whether the trainer is overweight
- whether the trainer is out of shape
- the trainer’s age
Clients also expressed “concern” about the trainer being too thin, dressing too revealingly or having a pierced tongue. Over and over again, the people I interviewed commented on the need for a trainer to “look the part” in order to be motivating and believable. And most clients said that excess weight has the biggest negative effect on their hiring decisions. >
As in any profession that involves sales, one of the top priorities for trainers and clubs is “getting the person through the door.” Once inside, you can regale potential clients with all your accomplishments and close the sale by “pitching” your hard-earned degrees and certifications.
But what are you doing to get people in the door in the first place? Considering how important outward appearance is to consumers, are you presenting yourself in your best light? Moreover, do you know how to emphasize those qualities that are likely to attract business and—equally important—how to minimize the traits that may be working against you?
For example, when it comes to gender, numerous female trainers I spoke to felt that being a woman worked both for and against them in attracting new clients. Lori Chaplin, MA, owner of Sol Gym in San Diego, says that in 15 years as a PFT, she has lost only two potential male clients because of her gender. More frequently, Chaplin says, being a woman works in her favor. She also finds that her age and cultural background are positive factors.
“I have found that clients want to be with someone who understands them and thinks the way they do,” says Chaplin. “So if they think, ‘She is the same age as I am or she understands me because she is also a woman, then I know I can seal the deal. But [getting] this type of information [across to clients] is the trick. It has to be carefully spliced into a conversation where specifically warranted.”
Like many other trainers, Chaplin has learned from experience that most potential clients want a healthy, fit trainer. In fact, she recently felt compelled to share some personal news with her clients to explain a noticeable change in her own physical appearance. “I felt the need to explain myself to potential clients when I was 5 months pregnant, so they wouldn’t think I was just fat!” Chaplin says.
Burrows believes that, although every trainer has the ability to successfully cultivate new business, PFTs who are exceptionally attractive and have a good physique tend to attract more clients. “Who’s kidding who? People want to train with someone they want to look like!” states Burrows. However, she is quick to add that trainers can overcome this tendency among clients. “Many factors [affect] why a member wants to work with a certain trainer.”
During my own career as a PFT, I have worked with men and women of all ages, body types and fitness levels. As I have gotten older, so has my clientele. In fact, the majority of my current clients are in their 40s or older. I still work with both men and women of varying body shapes and abilities, but they all have one thing in common: They all want to improve their quality of life and stay healthy. And while most still want to get toned and perhaps lose some weight, these factors are no longer their main focus.
I have discovered that my age can work in my favor in drumming up new business. And now I use this very quality to market myself to an “older” demographic.
While age is becoming less of an issue for prospective clients, body weight remains important. Most clients I interviewed believe that a trainer’s experience and knowledge are reflected in the shape and tone of the trainer’s body. If they perceive that a trainer is carrying excess body weight, they tend to attribute that to ineffective training. As one person put it when questioned about the importance of outward appearance, “I’m not asking them to be my fashion consultant, but if they don’t keep their body in shape, why should I think they can get mine in shape?”
Although several recent studies have affirmed that it is possible to be both “fit” and “fat,” it’s clear that many consumers who are in the market to hire a trainer do not share this notion. That is unfortunate for highly skilled and educated trainers who happen to be somewhat overweight. But there are ways around this obstacle, say several successful PFTs.
Take the case of Miranda Mirsec, MA, for example, who is one of the more passionate and knowledgeable fitness professionals I know. A past finalist for IDEA Program Director of the Year and now the physical health and recreation program manager for the National Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Society’s Los Angeles chapter, Mirsec may not fit your stereotype of a trainer in that she is a “larger” woman. During her career, she has experienced weight prejudice from both fitness managers and what she calls “regular-size” clients. Fortunately, she has overcome this offensive barrier by playing to her (many) strengths.
Mirsec says that by concentrating on training a specialized clientele (i.e., those with MS and other debilitating diseases), she has found a niche where her appearance is not an issue with prospective clients. “The people I work with now aren’t interested in the ‘body beautiful,’” she says. “They are concerned with regaining and maintaining use of their limbs and function of their bodies.”
Even if you are not qualified to work with clients with medical conditions, there are plenty of other niche populations out there looking for caring and experienced fitness professionals. Such populations are typically less concerned about the weight, age or race of a trainer and far more interested in achieving their goals.
- older sedentary, healthy adults
- middle-aged women
- pre- and postnatal clients
- children and teens
Although my survey affirms the importance clients place on outward appearance when hiring a trainer, you may be heartened to know that once training begins, this takes on less significance. In fact, once a client forms a relationship with and feels motivated by a trainer, changes in outward appearance (unless “drastic”) appear to have little impact on the client’s desire to stay with that trainer.
That said, the one aspect of a trainer’s outward appearance that continues to “alarm” clients is excessive weight gain. This sentiment was shared by some trainers themselves, who admitted to worrying about client reactions to their progressive weight gain during pregnancy.
It should be made clear, however, that the clients I interviewed were relatively healthy. I imagine that some of my findings would have been quite different had I interviewed clients from special populations whose goals centered less on outward appearance and more on meeting physical fitness goals. I bet these “special” clients would put far more emphasis on a trainer’s overall experience and knowledge—and be less inclined to judge a book by its cover!
How many times do you think you have lost out on potential clients because of your appearance? The wiser you become about the reasons you lose clients, the better chance you have of turning things around and making those very reasons work in your favor.
Rest assured that there is a client base for every trainer out there. You just need to decide which clients will be best served by your particular strong suit—and that definitely includes those aspects of your outward appearance that can draw clients to your door. Remember that once you get clients inside, you can sell them on who you are and what you have to offer.
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Obviously, there are aspects of our physical appearance that we can control (like the way we dress) and others that we cannot (like our age and race). The point is, you can use even the things you can’t control to your advantage by marketing yourself to the right clientele. Here’s how:
- Research different client populations and find innovative ways to get them “through the door.” For instance, if you are interested in working with women, market your program by focusing on issues that matter to this population (e.g., dealing with menopause symptoms; fitting exercise into the hectic lifestyle of a working mother). If you prefer to work with older men, develop a golf workout by pairing with a local golf pro.
- Be sensitive to the way your clothing choices may be affecting your clientele. Although the majority of those interviewed said they did not find bare midriffs or sports bras offensive, there was a general consensus that revealing clothing is inappropriate. Many felt that such clothing detracts from a trainer’s professionalism.
- Play up your strengths, not your weaknesses. For example, if you are an “older” trainer, create sessions or programs for healthy seniors. This is an arena in which your clientele will appreciate your life experiences. As a “peer,” you may also be in a better position to understand the types of exercise modifications these clients are seeking and the kind of functional training they need to continue performing the activities of daily living. (This is also a population that looks for discounts—since many older people live on a fixed income—and that benefits from the socialization of a group setting.)
- Seek out fitness facilities that draw the type of clients who most mirror your own physical traits. For example, if you are a bodybuilder, you might want to work at gyms that cater to bodybuilding clients. For different populations, investigate places other than health clubs (e.g., retirement communities, country clubs, etc.).
- Once you have determined which group you want to work with, get the appropriate training, create a unique program and market exclusively to that group.
- If you do suspect that your appearance is working against you, ask a trusted colleague to honestly critique areas that need improvement. But be prepared for what you may hear and be sure to give thanks for the advice!
- Know your legal rights in the event you meet with some form of employer discrimination based on your physical appearance; see “Powers of Discrimination” on page 44.
As a fitness professional, what is your recourse if you suspect you have been a victim of discrimination based on your outward appearance? There are no laws to protect you against such discrimination when dealing with consumers; after all, prospective clients do have the right to hire whomever they want as their trainers. But if you feel a potential or existing employer has discriminated against you, there are laws that can protect you.
According to Richard A. Love, JD, a Los Angeles-based trial attorney specializing in employment and discrimination matters on behalf of employees, “The purpose of the discrimination statutes is to prohibit adverse employment actions, by employers, against certain protected classes of people in hiring, firing or the conditions of employment. Typically, the protected categories under both federal and state statutes include race, gender, age, disability, religion and ethnic background, among others.”
Because most states have their own versions of discrimination statutes, Love recommends that fitness professionals seek legal counsel to determine what applies in their own cases. “Physical appearance, in and of itself, is not a protected category under the discrimination statutes and can validly be a job requirement,” he says. “However, the requirements have to be applied evenly: You cannot require female trainers to be in top shape and discipline them for getting out of shape, yet allow male trainers to be fat slobs. That would constitute gender discrimination.”
Love says that weight (or being overweight) is not in itself a protected category. However, a person who is overweight as the result of a physiological condition, such as an abnormal thyroid gland, cannot be rejected for hire because of weight, nor can that person be fired for gaining weight after being hired, according to Love. Such actions would “in all likelihood violate at least California’s disability discrimination law and the federal Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), since you would be discriminating on the basis of (a) a job requirement that is not necessarily central or necessary to the performance of the job duties, and (b) a physical disability.”
Love warns that there are situations in which employers have the right to terminate employment because of appearance-based issues. “If a trainer gains weight once hired, and it is not due to a medical cause, an employer can terminate that employee if [being in shape] is a valid business criterion,” he says.
However, Love cautions that if you do suspect you have been discriminated against because of your appearance, it can be difficult to prove the reason for your termination. “I doubt that the employer would admit to firing someone due to weight gain,” he says.
Once again, your best option in such cases is to seek legal advice, preferably from an attorney who specializes in the employment laws that govern your state.
For more information on discrimination laws, check out these resources:
Over the years, IDEA has heard many viewpoints on the topic of outward appearance. Are your clients more concerned about your education and experience or about your physical appearance? Tell us your story, and we will share perspectives in the Speak Out column. E-mail rothc@IDEAfit.com or write to Cynthia Roth, IDEA Health & Fitness Source Speak Out, 6190 Cornerstone Ct. E., Ste. 204, San Diego, CA 92121-3773.
© 2003 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.
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