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Behave Yourself!

Boundary setting—a look at the client-trainer relationship.

Fitness professionals walk the line between “revered professional” and “regular person” in their clients’ eyes. It’s not always easy to identify that boundary, let alone adhere to it. So it isn’t surprising that some consumers have used the term rent a friend to disparage the role that personal trainers play in their clients’ lives. To be sure, personal trainers can sometimes be heard and seen behaving in ways that are not professional.

To earn a top-tier professional reputation, it’s necessary to define for yourself some professional boundaries you can commit to in all circumstances. You’ll benefit from periodically examining your behavior in the workplace and brushing up on your boundaries. If you can do this, you will feel such pride in your professionalism that it will propel you to new heights in your career.

To understand how boundary setting, or a lack thereof, can affect you and your clients, let’s examine some common scenarios that might play out in a typical workday and how a personal trainer’s stated boundaries can be implemented to address each situation.

Live Within
Your Boundaries

Trisha, a veteran personal trainer of 14 years, walks into the facility and heads
toward the gym floor to find her client, Joe, who tends to gossip. As soon as he sees Trisha, he smiles and launches into a story about his night out clubbing. Trisha acknowledges his enthusiasm but does not indulge him in his gossip habit. “It sounds like you had quite a night, Joe. Ready to get to work?” With that, Trisha turns on her heels, motioning Joe to follow her toward the free weights. During Joe’s session, he notices another trainer talking on a cell phone while training a client. Joe comments on it, asking Trisha if she thinks that’s okay. “When I’m in a session with you, Joe, my cell phone is in my locker. You are my priority for this hour.”

It’s time for Trisha’s second client, Melissa, but she is nowhere to be found. Upon checking her voice mail, Trisha discovers that Melissa has been up most of the night finishing a report that is due that morning, and is unable to make her session. Melissa wonders whether Trisha can stick around at the end of the day to make up the missed morning session. Trisha calls Melissa back and confidently but cheerfully tells her, “I completely understand about priorities, and I wish you the best with your report. I can’t stay late for you, Melissa, but I’ll look forward to seeing you at your next session later this week!” Trisha will, of course, deduct a session from Melissa’s training package, and Melissa is aware of this cancellation policy. Melissa moans a little bit, expressing her disappointment at forfeiting a session, but Trisha simply repeats, “Yeah, it’s a bummer. Good luck with your report, Melissa. B’bye!” Trisha uses this found time to do her own workout.

It’s 11:00 am and Trisha finds her next client, Chris, warming up on the treadmill. This is their third session together. “Hi Chris,” Trisha says, “How are you feeling today?” Chris reduces his speed, straddles the treadmill belt and takes a big sigh. Although he still hasn’t responded to Trisha’s greeting and question, she waits patiently as he wipes his face with a towel. Finally, Chris looks at Trisha and says, “You look tired.” Trisha, not expecting this, responds with, “What an interesting comment. Thanks for sharing. How are you feeling today?” Chris jumps off the treadmill, ignores Trisha’s question for the second time and asks, “Ready?”

Trisha recognizes Chris’s behavior as passive aggression and decides to tackle the problem sooner rather than later. She tells Chris, “I’d like to talk to you, Chris. Let’s do a few stretches while we talk for a minute.” She sits down, models the stretch she wants him to do and says, “Chris, I feel like we’re not on the same page in our communication, but I’d like to be. I notice that frequently, when I ask you questions or try to get any type of feedback from you about exercises, you ignore me and instead make a comment or an observation about me. Is there a reason you won’t respond appropriately?” Chris becomes flustered and stammers, “I don’t know what you mean. Can we just get moving?”

Trisha knows from experience that the income isn’t worth the stress, and that if she can’t get a client to engage in open dialogue, the training relationship isn’t going to work. “No, I’m sorry, Chris, we can’t, because I don’t think we are a good match. For the past two sessions I’ve felt like I’m walking on eggshells and working hard to lead you through your workouts, despite the fact that I can’t get straight answers from you about anything that has to do with you. It’s not possible for us to continue this way. Please see the personal training director for suggestions on switching to another fitness trainer.” Although Chris tries to say it’s all in her imagination, Trisha is steadfast in her decision because tolerating this type of behavior from a client is outside of her boundaries.

In the middle of Trisha’s 1:00 pm session, her client Frank begins to talk about his troubled marriage, sharing intimate details. As much as Trisha wants to lend Frank a kind ear, she knows that allowing him to discuss this subject is inappropriate for their working relationship, as it will distract him from his workout and could result in his sharing more details during future sessions. Trisha compassionately replies, “Frank, my heart goes out to you and your wife. I’ll keep you two in my thoughts and hope you can remember all the wonderful things you love about each other and find a way through. Let’s concentrate on your exercises so you can have a clear head for dealing with your problems.”

The remainder of Trisha’s workday goes smoothly, and she makes a point of telling each of her afternoon clients something she appreciates about them. As she retrieves her bag from her locker and reflects on the day, Trisha notices how contented she feels about the actions she took with each challenging client. She is proud of herself for adhering to her boundaries because she knows that this is what’s best for her and her clients.

Then a wonderful thing happens as Trisha heads out: Melissa, the client who asked Trisha to stay late, is walking into the gym. Melissa says happily, “Hi, Trisha. I’m here to do my workout by myself. I didn’t want to, but I knew you’d be so proud of me.” Trisha stops in her tracks and replies, “Melissa, this is the icing on my day! Thank you for being so diligent. Have a great workout, and I’ll see you at our next session.”

Trisha knows that tonight she will sleep peacefully with a clear conscience.

Drawing Your
Line in the Sand

Based on the examples set forth here and your own work experiences, create a list of professional boundary values to which you can commit.

Another helpful tool: get in the habit of observing yourself objectively from an outsider’s point of view. When interacting with clients, is your behavior professional and respectable? If not, it’s time to clean up your act. And if watching yourself objectively gives you a sense of pride, well, nothing beats that feeling. n

Professional Boundaries

Examples of a personal trainer’s professional boundary values:

  • My Professional Reputation Rests in My Full Control. Regardless of events in the workplace, my own everyday actions are the ultimate determinant of how others perceive me.
  • I Do My Part to Keep the Lines of Communication Open and Forthright. I think before I speak and say only what I mean in order to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama.
  • Cheerful Confidence Is My Natural Disposition. Since people’s moods can be infectious, I choose cheerful confidence and let it rub off on my clients.
  • I Choose to Stay Out of Other People’s Business. I believe it takes two people to gossip, that the listener is as guilty as the speaker and that less knowledge about people’s private lives is often best.
  • Respect for My Clients Is Important to Me; I Demand the Same in Return. Just because I’m the service provider doesn’t mean I must tolerate mistreatment or disrespect.
  • I Choose Not to Take Flippant Comments Personally. When I remember that the opinions and actions of others reflect on them, not me, I am not the victim of needless suffering.
  • I Don’t Make Assumptions; I Investigate the Truth. When I make assumptions based on imagination or a lack of evidence, I often make mistakes.
  • I Consider This Question: How Do I Want to Feel About My Actions When All Is Said and Done? I choose my actions carefully because I’m the only one who has to live inside my head with my memories.
Benefits of Boundaries

Adhering to your set boundaries benefits you and your clients in a number of ways:

  • At the end of the workday, you can go to bed with a healthy conscience.
  • By sticking to your own rules, you earn increased respect from clients.
  • Consistent professional behavior places you in an upper echelon within the industry.
  • No erroneous expectations = no disappointment.
  • Acting professionally leads to feeling like a professional.
  • Your no-nonsense style will bring about more referrals.
Stay Within the Boundaries

Crossing your stated boundaries has negative effects:

  • The session quality deteriorates.
  • You lose respect from clients.
  • Client referrals decrease.
  • You feel inner guilt on your part.
  • Your behavior reflects poorly on you as a professional.
  • It becomes an unhealthy outlet for your personal struggles.
  • It gives the industry a bad reputation (think “rent a friend”).
  • It incites a vicious cycle of erroneous expectations on the client’s part.
  • It devalues your service.


Gavin, J., & Gavin, N. 1995. Psychology for Health Fitness Professionals. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Hendricks, G., & Hendricks, K. 1990. Conscious Loving: The Journey to Co-commitment. New York: Bantam.
Piorkowski, G. 1994. Too Close for Comfort: Exploring the Risks of Intimacy. Cambridge, MA: Perseus.
Ruiz, M. 1997. The Four Agreements. San Rafael, CA: Amber-Allen.
Ruiz, M., & Mills, J. 2000. The Four Agreements Companion Book. San Rafael, CA: Amber-Allen.

Tiffany Crate, MS

Tiffany Crate, MS, has more than 20 years of experience as a fitness and lifestyle coach. She holds a master's degree in exercise physiology and is regularly quoted for her fitness expertise and insight. She is known for her enthusiastic and comedic presentation style. In addition, IDEA Fitness Journal named Tiffany an Outstanding Member in 2006. Certification: ACE

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