Professionalism: A Refresher Course

by Carrie Myers Smith on Jan 01, 2005

Make sure your behavior is a positive reflection of the fitness industry.

Tyco, ImClone, Enron, WorldCom. . . . How do these names make you feel about big corporate CEOs? Probably not too warm and fuzzy.

Just as there are some very disturbing trends in the corporate world, there seem to be some equally disturbing ones in the fitness industry. A recent article in a popular men’s fitness magazine, for instance, featured a whole piece on stories from personal trainers about their clients. Most of these tales were a total embarrassment for the clients—most likely at the time the incidents occurred, and certainly when the clients read about themselves in a national magazine! Trainers revealed details that should have been kept private—on everything from body odors and embarrassing stains to how a client’s pants caught on equipment and ripped to reveal that the person wasn’t wearing any underwear. Some trainers apparently place no limits on how far they’ll go to see their names in print. (But I’ll bet that was one article the trainers didn’t tear out and hang up on the bulletin board in their gyms!)

Whether we realize it or not, each of us is a reflection of the fitness industry as a whole. If consumers’ only exposure to personal training is in articles like that, do you honestly think they’ll be seeking out trainers to work with? Just as corporate scandals have seeded mistrust in the minds of many people regarding big business, crude articles and television shows that include input from (or are about) fitness professionals create a stereotype in people’s minds. With the help of some real professionals, I’ve put together this quick refresher on the dos and don’ts of professionalism, both in and out of the workplace.

Don’t Place Yourself in Risqué Situations

Because one-on-one training is physical, some clients can get the wrong impression. When you start returning vibes or accepting invitations to parties or dinner, consider the consequences. Before you find yourself in this type of situation, determine what you’ll do so that you have the tools in place to respond appropriately.

“I once had a male client ask me out to dinner,” says Martica Heaner, MA, MEd, personal trainer at the Peninsula Spa in New York City and coauthor of Cross-Training for Dummies (IDG Books Worldwide 2000). “We had been training for a few months already. I told him I didn’t think that would be appropriate, and after that, I felt uncomfortable training him in his home. Eventually we stopped training together.”

Heaner also points out some general differences between men and women. “Most men—if I can generalize—are not hugely talkative, whereas women are more so. I’ve found that sometimes if you’re just your normal female self—talkative and friendly—many men who may otherwise have a hard time opening up tend to interpret that normal friendliness as something more.”

Heaner recommends counteracting this tendency by keeping some distance in the relationship, so it remains more an acquaintance than a friendship.

Do Dress Appropriately

If you think nothing of tossing on spandex and skimpy fitness garb, you may find it easy to forget that not everyone dresses that way . . . nor will everyone view this clothing as simply your “uniform.”

“In a personal training situation,” says Heaner, “I wear totally different clothing than I would while teaching a fitness class, so no tight, sexy, flesh-bearing stuff. I try to be as covered and plain as possible. I think it’s important when training men—and women—to shift the focus away from your own body and back to theirs.”

For group fitness instructors, Petra Kolber, Reebok master trainer in Redondo Beach, California, suggests dressing to match your class. “You don’t want to intimidate, but you do want to inspire,” she says. “What you wear to teach seniors or expecting moms would be different from [what you wear] when you teach teens or kids.”

Don’t Overstep Your Limits

If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard (or read) it a million times: Work within your scope of practice. The lesson is still worth repeating.

“Many trainers not only give out nutrition and diet plans and advice,” says Michele Olson, PhD, professor of exercise science at Auburn University Montgomery in Alabama, “but they also recommend things like, ‘Eat two raw eggs in the morning and take two Hydroxycut capsules. For lunch eat just chicken or tuna with lettuce and take another Hydroxycut. For dinner . . . .’ This is not only purely unprofessional and beyond the trainer’s qualifications; it is, of course, very dangerous.”

Jackie Schanlaber, MS, a personal trainer and group exercise instructor in Lancaster, New Hampshire, agrees—and then some. “As an in-home trainer, it’s important to be careful not to cross the line of trainer to psychologist, nutritionist, childcare helper, dog walker, etc. When you enter into people’s homes to help them, you also enter into their lives, and some start to consider you part of their family. They then tend to take advantage of that if you let them.”

Schanlaber also relates this to setting parameters for the hours you’ll work. “Set up your business hours and make sure clients know right from the start what those are. Otherwise they’ll have you there at their beck and call.”

Many awkward situations can be avoided by having business policies in place. By outlining what is expected of a client and what services you offer as the trainer, you take the guesswork out of what each role entails. Include in your policies your business hours; the venues where clients may contact you; payment policies; and policies for late or cancelled sessions.

Don’t Smear Your IMAGE

Susan Morem, author of How to Gain the Professional Edge (Better Books 1997), says that professionalism can be boiled down to one word: IMAGE, which stands for Impression, Movement, Attitude, Grooming and Etiquette. I like this acronym because it pretty much covers all the bases under the professionalism umbrella. Consider how these aspects relate to the way you represent yourself in the fitness industry.

Being a fitness professional means being in a people-, service-oriented business. For that reason, you are held to a higher standard in many ways than someone who doesn’t deal so directly with people. Also for that reason, you need to be more careful about what you do and say and how you present yourself. So if a magazine editor or television producer comes knocking on your door someday, just be sure your IMAGE is in order before responding.

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About the Author

Carrie Myers Smith

Carrie Myers Smith IDEA Author/Presenter

As the former fitness and wellness coordinator at the Omni Mt. Washington Resort in the beautiful White Mountains of NH, Carrie has had the privilege of training and teaching people from all over the world. As a motivational speaker and author of the award-winning book, Squeezing Your Size 14 Self into a Size 6 World: A Real Woman’s Guide to Food, Fitness, and Self-Acceptance, Carrie touches people’s lives, encouraging real, lasting change, and offering a chance for them to find the courage within themselves to take the first step. Carrie also has experience speaking and presenting over various media, including radio and television and has presented to various sized groups--from small and intimate to over 500. Her signature yoga class, Yo-Fit™, continues to grow in popularity. With a foundation of vinyasa-style yoga, it is sprinkled with elements of fitness, and appeals to many who are intimated by traditional yoga classes. Carrie has a BS in exercise science and health education and is a certified Transformational Coaching Method Master Coach, and a therapeutic exercise physiologist with experience in disease prevention and treatment, as well as pre- and post-orthopedic surgery and rehab. She writes frequently as an expert for industry publications, including ACE and IDEA, and has also written for many national consumer magazines, including Shape, Fitness, Cooking Light and Health. She was also the head writer for IBM's online employee wellness program for eight years. Other writers frequently turn to Carrie as a fitness expert for their own articles, which has resulted in her being quoted in several magazines, including Self, Cooking Light, Better Homes and Gardens, Successful Living, and Family Fun. Her companies, CarrieMichele Fitness and Authentically You with CarrieMichele Coaching, strive to enrich women’s lives through wellness-related education, empowering each woman she touches to make their mark. Her goal: to not just survive, but to thrive, to live up to her potential, not just the status quo, and to find something to celebrate each day…and to teach others to do the same. Connect with Carrie on FB at or or Or on Twitter @CarrieMicheleM Or on LinkedIn at