How to Spot a Bad Personal Trainer

Published On 02/24/2016 Published On 02/24/2016
20th Century Fox

There's a bell curve in every field. You have a few rockstars who excel beyond measure, a good number of above-average go-getters, a lot of competent performers... and then, there's everybody else.

Personal training is no exception. There are a lot of below-average trainers, and a fair number of straight-up bad apples.

Since personal trainers get paid to help care for your body, if you trust the wrong person, you could end up more confused about health than when you started -- or worse, seriously injured. Luckily, there are some telltale signs you have a bad trainer on your hands.

Syda Productions/Shutterstock

Only shows shady certifications or education

Exercise science is an actual field -- as in, people spend more than eight years pursuing full-time study to get their doctorates in exercise science, physiology, biomechanics, sports nutrition, and a slew of other sub-specialties. In other words, the background, education, and certifications of your trainer actually matter. Now, I'm not saying trainers need to have a degree in the field to be qualified or effective, but they do need to hold a high-quality certification that proves they’ve prioritized some sort of education in the field.

Looking good in a bikini does not qualify as a certification.

Before you sign a contract, ask for evidence of current certifications. Some of the best include those from the American College of Sports Medicine, the National Academy of Sports Medicine, the American Council on Exercise, and the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

Has the attention span of a 4-year-old

Before you hire a trainer, you need to spend some time performing covert ops. Take an afternoon to watch your potential trainer work with other people. Do your own workout, but position yourself within earshot so you can hear how the trainer acts and interacts with their clients. It may sound a little odd, but as long as you're in a public space and aren't crossing obvious boundaries, it's perfectly reasonable to observe, especially considering the amount of money you may spend on this person.

If a trainer isn’t actively engaged with his or her client -- watching form, providing feedback, or offering encouragement -- it’s probably a bad sign. If you see a trainer abandoning a client, spending more time looking at a cellphone than at a client's form, or laughing with trainers and other guests instead of talking to the client in session, keep looking for a different trainer.

CandyBox Images/Shutterstock

Always trains a certain "type"

Now, don't get me wrong -- it’s normal and good for trainers to specialize in specific types of training. For instance, there are prenatal and postnatal specialists, cardiac specialists, and cancer specialists. If you have a specific condition or need, it’s important to seek out a trainer who has a background in the area.

That said, if your potential trainer's "type" is busty blondes or rich single men, you might have cause to question his or her priorities. You want a trainer who’s focused on you for the right reasons: helping you achieve your health and fitness goals. Sadly, some trainers are more interested in what their clients can provide them, whether that’s intense sexual fantasies, business connections, or big tips.

Has the demeanor of the world's angriest drill sergeant

Again, it's completely normal for trainers to push their clients. Frankly, most clients need it. If they didn't, they probably wouldn't hire a personal trainer.

But it's not normal for a trainer to be angry, abusive, or overly zealous about pushing you to the point of serious physical pain. You'd be surprised by how many trainers prioritize their own egos and the design of their workouts over their clients' needs. If you see a trainer continuously pushing clients to do more, work harder, and go faster to the point of pain, poor form, or injury, run as fast as you can in the other direction.


Is a boss instead of a teacher

Good trainers live by the mantra that they’re going to teach themselves out of a job. In other words, they want to teach you enough about form, program design, and fitness principles that in a few months, you’ll no longer need them. You may still want them (internal motivation can be hard to come by), but you may not need them.

Bad trainers tell and boss without teaching. Sure, you may still end up learning proper form, but it's more from repetition than actual instruction.

Is all about the up-sell

Trainers make money training. They also make money shilling supplements and other products. If your potential trainer starts and ends every sentence with, "And there's this great supplement that will help you with that," it’s probably worth keeping your options open. Even if you're a master at shutting down sales pitches, eventually the never-ending up-sell is going to wear thin. Besides, you want a trainer whose priority is to train, not to promote products that may or may not deliver on their promises.

Syda Productions/Shutterstock

Gives insane or overly restrictive advice

There's more than one way to get healthy. Any trainer who says differently, ignoring your needs or circumstances because "they know best," is a terrible trainer who could put you on a crash course to disaster.

This could come in the form of excessively strenuous workouts or putting you on an absurd diet. You're going to need more than a month of eating nothing but wild-caught salmon to get healthy; if a trainer insists there's only one strategy that works, find someone with more creativity.

Tells you what "problems" you need to fix

It’s one thing to tell a trainer what your goals are -- maybe you want to tame your beer gut or tighten up dat ass. Nothing wrong with that! It’s an entirely different thing for a trainer to point out your "flaws" as a misguided attempt to sell training. Be wary of the trainer who tells you your problems, since, you know, it's your body and you can do what you want with it.

Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Laura Williams is an exercise physiologist and fitness writer who wants you to know that there are REALLY good trainers out there, despite the horror stories. Share your own story on Twitter: @girlsgonesporty.



Learn More