1. "I'm a specialist — in marketing myself as a health expert."
Personal training is more popular than ever. Today an estimated 91% of health clubs offer it, and some 6.3 million Americans are signing up for sessions, up from four million in 1998, says the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association. But the growth has fueled competition among trainers, who are battling to stand out. The latest way: specialization. Trainers offer expertise in such areas as injury recovery, cardiac rehabilitation and the condition du jour, diabetes. "There's a real demand for these trainers," says Todd Galati, certification manager for the American Council on Exercise. "More people walking through the door are overweight or diabetic."
And yet not all so-called specialists are properly trained — on the fast-and-loose end of the spectrum, you'll find certification requirements as minimal as a $500 fee and passing an online exam. That worries John Buse, president of medicine and science at the American Diabetes Association, because when exercise isn't done properly, any vision problems and nerve damage in the feet that some diabetics develop could worsen, he says, in extreme cases to the point of blindness or amputation.
2. "I'll push you till you collapse."
When Richard Thomas of Brooklyn, N.Y., was a trainer at Bally Total Fitness in 2004, he says he witnessed an out-of-shape man in his 40s being worked so hard by a fellow trainer that he practically fainted. "I had to catch him," Thomas says. Sounds extreme, but it's not the only time he says he's seen a trainer push clients too hard to show them how out of shape they are — and thus in need of more personal-training sessions. (Bally Total Fitness declined to comment.)
Given that 37% of health club members are beginners, personal trainers are largely catering to the unfit, according to IDEA Health & Fitness Association, a San Diego-based organization for fitness professionals. They're reaching out to seniors as well, since clients 55 years and older constitute one of the fastest-growing segments of gym members, says IDEA's executive director, Kathie Davis. Nonetheless, many trainers are guiding clients with a less-than-gentle hand. "The majority of people that come into the club haven't worked out since their high school gym class," Thomas says. "Then we're told to work them hard. It's dangerous." If you feel your trainer is being too tough, speak up. Remember, you're the boss.
3. "Caution: Might not work well with kids."
One of the biggest trends in fitness today: enrolling Junior in a little one-on-one training. Concerned about their kids' weight and lack of physical activity, parents are increasingly turning to personal trainers at rates of up to $60 an hour. Seventeen percent of personal-training clients — over one million total — were between the ages of six and 17 in 2006, says the IHRSA; that's a 20% increase from 1998.
Bottom line: Be selective. For starters, ask for a trainer with a background in teaching, coaching or child development, Davis says. And if your kid is involved in a particular sport, requesting a trainer with a similar background can help develop specific muscles and prevent injuries.
4. "Bring a few pals and I'll charge you half price."
Fees for personal trainers can be pretty steep. Sign up for a session with personal-training superstar Jackie Warner of SkySport&Spa in Beverly Hills, Calif., for example, and it could run you about $400 an hour. But with most trainers there's a way to save in the neighborhood of 30% to 50% if you know what to ask for: More than 70% of personal trainers offer group sessions at a discount, according to a recent survey by IDEA. Even Warner has been known to offer reduced prices now and again — about 30% — when training two to five clients at once.
Though health clubs don't typically dangle the group option in front of you, most personal trainers will work something out if you ask. After all, it's a win-win situation. For a group of three, for example, the average fee of $60 per hour is reduced by half for each client, while the trainer brings in about 50% more than he typically makes in an hour. And it could mean a better workout: "There's a lot to benefit from group camaraderie, as long as you don't need a trainer counting every rep you do," says Richard Cotton, national director of certification for the American College of Sports Medicine.
5. "If I let you use the equipment, you'll realize you don't need me."
Does your trainer steer you away from the abs machine, making you do crunches with a medicine ball instead? Trainers are sometimes told not to spend too much time teaching clients how to use the big equipment for fear that once they get comfortable, they'll want to go it alone. That's why trainers might emphasize coordination exercises and rely on smaller props like stability balls, resistance tubing or bands, and balance tools, the three types of gear most frequently used by trainers. This type of "functional training" helps prep clients for popular recreational activities like tennis and skiing, as well as basic movements like bending down during household chores. But larger equipment also has its benefits; it can bring speedy results in strength-building and help keep weight off.
"The best trainers serve clients by helping them become independent exercisers," Cotton says. He suggests asking prospective trainers how they'll help you get there. A spokesperson for the National Exercise Trainers Association says it encourages trainers to prove to clients there's more to working out than using big machines, in part because of the benefits of functional training.
6. "I love to gossip — about you."
Word around the gym is, some trainers are sharing personal info about their clients. "It can be as innocent as a trainer talking to another trainer under the guise of asking for advice," says Gregory Florez, CEO of consulting firm FitAdvisor in Salt Lake City. Not so egregious, perhaps. But with more health clubs requesting medical information, which they often then make available to trainers, some clubs have had to crack down on disclosure: "We have no tolerance at all for gossip," says a spokesperson for New York Health & Racquet Club, explaining that after a written warning, an employee's job is at stake.
7. "I'm just as qualified to train you as, um, that guy lifting over there."
How to know what you're getting? Find a list of programs with third-party accreditation from the National Commission for Certifying Agencies at www.noca.org3, an umbrella group that weeds out lesser training programs. Industry experts point to the American College of Sports Medicine and the National Strength and Conditioning Association as two of the most reputable organizations.
8. "Just because I'm more expensive doesn't mean you'll get a better workout."
Personal trainers charge more depending on their level of experience and how booked up they are, and any fees you pay them are obviously an investment in your health. Nonetheless, a more expensive trainer won't necessarily yield better results. "At the end of the day, it's about behavioral change," fitness consultant Florez says. So safety aside, finding someone who personally motivates you and with whom you click is most important — and that person may not be a top-dollar seasoned veteran. "If he can't motivate you based on your personality style, you're throwing money away," Florez says.
To find the right match, ask for a trial workout session with a trainer before you hire one. Florez specifically recommends a preliminary consultation, which should include no exercise but rather an in-depth conversation about your personality and goals. To evaluate a prospective trainer's ability to produce results, ask questions like, "Have you worked with someone like me before and been successful?" If the answer is yes, request a recommendation from that person.
9. "Once I get my big break, I'm outta here."
When Patrick Wickman, a scientist for an engineering firm in New York City, signed up for eight sessions with a personal trainer at $70 a pop, he was excited about the prospect of developing a long-term program. And sure enough, says Wickman, the trainer promised to help him reach his goals — only to disappear after five sessions, at which point, Wickman says, he was passed off to other trainers: "The personal touch evaporated."
10. "I'm no nutritionist, but that won't stop me from telling you what to eat."
Personal trainers have been pushing protein powders and meal replacements for years, but now many are playing nutritionist as well. "There's no evidence that nutritional advice or any of these health products are beneficial — or at all necessary," says Ann Albright, dietitian and president of health care and education for the American Diabetes Association. "It's just an income generator, a way to push products."
Not only that, but if you're facing certain health issues, nutritional advice given by trainers can sometimes do more harm than good. "Nutritional supplements, when mixed with other medication and strenuous exercise, can result in injury or even death," says a spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise. Take one of the country's growing epidemics — diabetes. For those suffering from it, "it's crucial that your health care provider knows you're taking nutritional supplements, because it can be dangerous," Albright says.
Buyer, beware: Before agreeing to alter or supplement your diet based on a trainer's recommendations, ask lots of questions, and keep your doctor in the loop, Albright advises. The best personal trainers don't pretend to be health professionals, but they are happy to facilitate an open channel of communication between a client and a health-care provider if the situation calls for it, says a spokesperson for New York Health & Racquet Club.