“I want you to run across the room as fast as you can and drive your shoulder into that wall.”
The trainer was pointing to a slightly padded partition about 30 feet away.
“Wait, what?!?!” the client replied.
“What?” the trainer quickly responded with a slight irritation in his voice.
“You want me to lower my shoulder and run into that wall as hard as I can?”
“Yeah. The latest research shows that this is the ideal way to develop the shoulders.”
The client stood there stunned. After a few blinks he took off running towards the wall. He made it about 3 steps before the trainer grabbed him.
“I’m just fucking with you, man. Don’t be so gullible. Come on, let’s go train.”
This shit actually happened. I’m not trying to embarrass the client or call out the trainer. I’m simply relaying it to you because as I stared at this trainer-client interaction as it played out like a pivotal scene in your favorite Netflix series I learned something truly profound. Something that (cue the dramatic movie score) ended up challenging my beliefs and changing the course of my career.
Personal trainers have a lot of power over their clients. A lot. And while the above story documents how this can go wrong, in some cases, this is well warranted. I can name-drop dozens of pros with incredible skill sets who have positively impacted their client’s health and performance in a massive way. These men and women have more than earned their session rates and the respect they garner from their clients and the industry as a whole.
But for every two great trainers I’ve probably witnessed about 200 bad ones. Those whose knowledge of programming, biomechanics and general training principles only exceed those of their clients by the narrow margin that allows them to claim being an expert in comparison their unwitting customers.
There are likely dozens or reasons for this. Personal training can be decently lucrative and the barrier of entry is quite low. Many facilities do not require a minimum base of education or certification from their training staff nor do they incentivize them to improve themselves. This leads to the personal trainer becoming the modern day waiter - a way of earning money while waiting for their “real” dreams to come true.
Normally I wouldn’t let this sort of thing bother me. Let the bottom feeders, well, bottom feed and allow the cream to rise. But I have a giant soft spot for this industry and for coaches in general (not to mention that all of my career hopes and dreams are tied up in it) so I have a really, really hard time letting this kind of bullshit go.
But I don’t want this to digress into a bitch fest in which I bite the hand that feeds. The great portion of my own skill set comes from my time as a one-on-one trainer. But that experience, along with my time coaching small groups, has also given me great insight into who actually benefits from one-on-one training and which clients are just throwing their shoulders into the proverbial padded wall.
So who benefits from personal training? Glad you asked. There are three categories of people who are well suited and would gain the most benefit from one-on-one training. Let’s take a look.
You Are Post Injury or Post Surgery
If you’ve just come off a major injury or surgery and you’ve gone through the requisite physical therapy and early rehabilitation, a one-on-one setting is an appropriate way to gently and specifically get you back to moving properly and training with some resistance. In fact, in the right hands, this type of training can greatly aid in your recovery and ability to gain strength and function back in the affected area as well as get you out of your likely deconditioned state.
Two caveats: I can not emphasize “in the right hands” enough when it comes to this particular situation. It’s the rare trainer who has the skill set to take you from the operating table back to your pre-injury form. So you must do your homework and find a trainer with the correct education and experience. Secondly, this is going to be a financially costly relationship so make sure you have the funds to see this all the way through.
You Are Brand New and Terrible
If you have never done any type of strength training before AND (this is an important “and”, hence the capitals) you are a really poor mover working with a coach who has eyes on you for each and every rep and has the skills to cue and correct your movement patterns can accelerate your progress in a way that just won’t happen if you are hidden in the back of a 30 person HIIT training class.
Most people don’t need this type of exacting and direct attention. Even if you don’t know the difference between a kettlebell and a dumbbell, a good coach should be able to get you on the path to good movement standards in a reasonably sized group.
You Have Very Specific Goals
Most people train to get stronger, healthier and look better in and out of their clothes. It’s the rare person who has a shot at making the Olympic team in giant slalom or stays awake at night thinking about having a 900 pound back squat. And while one could - and I would - argue that these people would be better off training in a group of like-minded people with similar aspirations, they also truly need a very specific program and a lot of attention on technique to realize their goals.
If this sounds like you and you aren’t in an environment designed to help you reach these goals (like an Olympic Training Center or a collegiate strength and conditioning room) then finding a solid personal trainer who can design and help you execute a program that will help you realize your dreams.
So, Who Wouldn’t Benefit From Personal Training?
After doing plenty of research, analyzing the statistics, creating multiple spreadsheets and putting all the numbers into an algorithm it turns out that 98% of people do NOT need personal training.
OK, I just made that number up but I do believe it’s true. The vast majority of people would do just as well if not better in a group environment. There are several reasons for this.
Training groups drive an energy and accountability that just doesn’t exist when it’s only you and a trainer. I’ve trained with some very (VERY!) motivating and enthusiastic trainers, but there is a huge difference in doing ten sets of ten reps in the back squat with someone watching you and when someone else is suffering through it with you.
And while there are many coaches out there with great focus, I have yet to see a one-on-one relationship not, at some point, devolve into an interpersonal relationship in which conversation takes over for training and the client (and sometimes trainer) gets more interested in complaining about their spouse or shooting the shit about the warehouse rave they went to over the weekend than beating their 2K row PR. But when the dynamic shifts from a two-way interaction to a group the one common denominator everyone has is the training. So while I can’t claim that every minute of every session has laser-like focus on the training, things tend to devolve away from it way, way less.
Then there is the cost. There are no shortage of people in NYC that can easily pay hundreds of dollars each week to see a personal trainer. But that doesn’t mean they want to or should pay that kind of money if it’s not what they need. Plus the pay-per-session model actually encourages people to train less often and, last I checked, that’s not the greatest way to get results.
But what if someone just wants the personal attention? What if they are apprehensive or self-conscious about training around others? What if they want a trainer that dotes on their every need, counts their every rep and cues their every move?
If the trainer is willing and the client is able to pony up, that’s great. But that’s just not for me. And I’d still argue the client would ultimately see better results if they did it a different way.
You may love your personal trainer. They may be awesome and have the best of intentions. You may be making awesome progress. Your pockets may be very deep. If that’s you then, by all means, stick with it.
But if you find yourself talking more about the Academy Award nominations than your bench press. If you feel like your sessions suffer from lack of energy, engagement and progress. If you are wondering why you are spending hundreds of dollars per week. Even if you are wondering if your trainer is actually any good. It may be time - and I realize that the ‘break up’ is hard, but that’s a different post all-together - to find another way.
You can only run yourself into the wall so many times.