Ten Things Your Personal Trainer Won't Tell You

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1. "My motto is 'One size fits all.'"
The word personal in "personal trainer" carries with it a clear implication -- that the professional you hire to get you in shape will come up with a program that is specifically designed for you, your body type and your training goals.

In the real world of fitness, however, trainers often get stuck on a "pet program" and start training all their clients the same way -- usually the way they train themselves. This is hardly a good idea, particularly if your trainer is a professional bodybuilder and you happen to be, say, 92 years old or pregnant.

But even in less egregious circumstances, your trainer's biases can leave you spinning your wheels, or worse, losing ground. Just ask Shannon Entin, the creator of an online fitness information service called FitnessLink. Entin chose her trainer because of her well-defined physique and actually hoped that the trainer would incorporate some of her own training methods into the sessions. But it quickly became clear that the intense, six-day-a-week cardiovascular workouts weren't going to do as much good for the client as they did for the trainer.

"It may have worked for her, but it wore me down," says Entin. "I was starving and exhausted, and I didn't feel good or look any better." When Entin asked for a different regimen, namely one that incorporated more weights, the trainer resisted, telling Entin that she didn't need weights, since she's "a girl."

2. "My favorite sport is sabotage."
Susan Cantwell of New Brunswick, Canada, who serves as a business coach to personal trainers, was giving a lecture on professionalism when a trainer raised his hand. "So, do you think it's wrong that at Christmas time, I give my clients chocolates?" he asked. "Why would you do that?" Cantwell queried. She recalls the following reply: "So they'll gain weight over Christmas and need more training when they come back."

It is true that the best personal trainers work themselves out of a job. It follows that the worst will try to keep you on as a client forever by doing whatever possible to make you feel that you will be lost without them. "They'll say, 'Don't worry, I'm here to help,' or 'I guess you've been bad all week, but I'm here now,'" says Peg Jordan, editor of AFAA's American Fitness magazine and author of "The Fitness Instinct." Doug Joachim, a trainer at New York's Reebok Sports Club, adds that part of the job is making himself so indispensable that the client can't do the exercise regimen on his own. Spoiling clients so they become "dependent," says Joachim, "is how we make our money."

3. "My credentials are worthless."
What does it take to call yourself a personal trainer? Not much, it turns out. In this largely unregulated industry, essentially anyone can claim the title, notes Larry DeLuca, an exercise physiologist and adjunct professor at Lehman College in the Bronx. As part of his graduate research, DeLuca surveyed 247 trainers and found that 20% had no certification whatsoever.

What about those trainers who are certified? Well, even the two most popular certifying organizations inspire little confidence. The course offered by the American Council on Exercise, or ACE, in San Diego, for example, is "one of the easiest," notes Joachim, adding that you could hit the books, ace the written test and still not know how to teach someone to do a proper sit-up. Meanwhile, the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America, or AFAA, offers a three-day course, which DeLuca, who has taught other classes for the organization, describes as a "blitz course" that leads to a "superficial" understanding of biomechanics. "There's a widespread consensus that standards need to change," DeLuca adds.

Tony Ordas, ACE's director of certification, counters that while his organization's exam might be easy for those with experience and formal education, it's actually "very difficult for those who are coming in with a blank slate." And Roscoe Fawcett Jr., executive vice president of the AFAA, responds that the amount of biomechanics taught in his class is sufficient, and that the organization recommends a thorough textbook and additional weight-training certification to round out a trainer's education.

What qualification should you be looking for? Certification by the American College of Sports Medicine, or ACSM.

4. "I'm trying to muscle in on your physical therapist."
In the good old days, personal trainers were for healthy folks while physical therapists were for those recovering from injury or illness. But now that insurance companies (and especially Medicare) have sharply cut back on reimbursement for physical therapy, a lot of people who really need it are turning to personal trainers to do the same job. This crossover is fine with trainers. They're "looking upon previously injured people as a cottage industry," says James Garrick, an orthopedic surgeon in San Francisco. The trouble, notes Garrick, is that many trainers are simply not qualified to handle the injuries. How does Garrick know? Because the patients often end up right back in his office.

The ACE has gone so far as to introduce a "clinical exercise specialist" certification to prepare trainers to work not only with clients who have orthopedic problems, but with those who are coping with health issues such as AIDS, diabetes, cancer and coronary artery disease. Some see it as a health nightmare in the making. DeLuca calls it "one of the most irresponsible things I have ever seen." He adds: "They are putting unqualified (trainers) with people who are too acutely ill, and blurring the line between physical fitness and diagnosis and treatment." The ACE's Ordas says it simply isn't the case: "Any ACE-certified professional is going to be working with individuals who have been cleared for returning to activity by their physician. Clinical exercise specialists are not diagnosing or doing any kind of rehabilitation or therapy."

5. "I don't just feel your pain, I caused it."
Ever wonder if your trainer caused that twinge in your neck? Caliope Makris of Youngstown, Ohio, never thought that her trainer could be responsible for the nagging neck pain that started halfway through her first training session. Even after her pain increased over the next few months as she attended 11 more sessions, and she underwent tests that later indicated four slipped disks, no one thought to question her workout. It wasn't until almost a year after the diagnosis that another trainer mentioned that the problem had probably originated with a leg press machine, which, the trainer added, Makris should never have been allowed to continue to use once her pain had started. She is currently suing her health club for negligence; the case is about to go to trial. The club denies a connection between the exercise and her injury.

Most training injuries aren't acute, so few people think to link their aches and pains to wrong moves their trainer may have made. And those who do make the connection tend to blame themselves, but in fact, any injury you suffer while training is your trainer's responsibility. "(People) say, 'I must've done something wrong,'" says DeLuca. "That may be true if no one's supervising them. But the trainer's job is to manage that."

6. "Your secrets aren't safe with me."
By nature of the fact that your trainer (a) needs to know about your health issues in order to train you safely and (b) is always making small talk with you during your workout, you've probably blabbed about all sorts of things to him -- including your actual weight and the details of your eating disorder/potential pregnancy/Prozac prescription. In fact, when you signed up for training, you probably filled out a health form. Ever wonder what happened to it?

Your trainer should keep it in a locked file cabinet, but don't assume yours does. Joachim points out that it would be possible for anyone to open an unlocked drawer "right out near the gym floor," browse through his files and find out which of his clients have HIV. (Joachim explains that the cabinet can't be locked because all the trainers need access to it throughout the day.)

Even if your file isn't snatched from a cabinet, the medical information that you share willingly with your trainer isn't sacrosanct. "None of that information has any legal protections for privacy whatsoever," says privacy consultant Robert Gellman. He adds that if you spill your medical secrets to your trainer (or anyone else, for that matter), you're waiving your right to have your doctor keep that same information secret.

7. "This could cost less than you think."
With fees for personal training running as high as $150 an hour, you'd probably love to find a way to make this luxury a little more affordable. Little did you know that all you have to do is ask.

Many trainers, for example, will let you arrange to "share" their services with a spouse or small group of friends, as long as their fitness levels and goals are similar. This "semiprivate" or "group" training could cut $10 to $25 off your hourly rate. While a 1997 survey by the fitness organization IDEA indicated that more than a quarter of all trainers offer such deals, you aren't likely to hear about them from your trainer. "I've been around for a long time, and I've never heard one say you have that option," says Cantwell.

You might also be able to trim your bill by asking to be trained with simple equipment, like free weights, at home or in a local park -- allowing you to cancel your expensive gym membership. Plus, your trainer might give you a break on his hourly rate, since he won't have to split his income with the health club. Not surprisingly, "a lot of gyms tell trainers not to do that, so a lot of trainers don't bring it up," says Joachim.

8. "Watch out: I'll take your money and run."
Prepaying for personal training sessions is a great motivator, since the idea of getting your money's worth may actually get you off the couch when you least feel like it. ("People are more attached to money than exercise," notes Cantwell.) But it can also turn out to be a terrible deal financially for you -- and a boon to your trainer, or the club where he or she works.

Some trainers will ask you to sign a contract when you prepay, asking you to commit to, say, six sessions in one month, in exchange for a discounted rate. Not a good idea. "What if in your third session out of 10, the trainer makes a racial comment? (Or) decides not to work at the club anymore?" asks Tracy York, director of the Lake Austin Spa Resort in Texas and co-chair of the ACSM's health and fitness subcommittee. "Is there another trainer there who meets your needs -- and can you transfer?"

Also check to see what happens if you have sessions left that you really can't use. "Often, you'll see no refund at all," Cantwell says. That's exactly what happened to Ellen Lund, a Simi Valley, Calif., woman who says she badly hurt her neck just three minutes into her very first training session at the local Bally Total Fitness club. Lund asserts she was too hurt to use the remaining 20 sessions for which she had already coughed up $450, and that the health club refused to refund the money. Dave Southern, a spokesman for Bally, says that the company will gladly refund the money if Lund presents a doctor's note.

9. "Don't swallow the pills I'm pushing."
Many trainers supplement their income by selling their clients nutritional supplements: those pills and powders that are supposed to help you lose weight or gain weight or build muscle mass. In fact, a 1997 IDEA study indicated that 15% of all trainers sell supplements. The repercussions can be, well, unpredictable.

Shannon Ames, a human resources manager in Cambridge, Mass., certainly wouldn't have predicted that she'd gain 15 pounds in two months, but that's what happened after her trainer supplied a slew of supplements. A nutritionist later advised her that her weight gain was probably due to the creatine she was taking.

Things went much worse for Anne Marie Capati, a 37-year-old New Yorker who collapsed while doing light squats under her trainer's care at Crunch Fitness. Capati later died of a stroke. Terrence McCartney, the attorney who has brought a $40 million suit on behalf of Capati's family, alleges that her trainer recommended ephedra, which interacted fatally with Capati's blood-pressure medication. The trainer, says McCartney, "was really out of his depth. (Capati) went to the gym because she was concerned about her health, and he recommended a product that increased her blood pressure." A Crunch spokeswoman says that the company can't comment because the case is in litigation.

Bottom line: "It's not the role of the trainer to prescribe this stuff," says Allison Sarubin, author of the American Dietetic Association's Health Professional's Guide to Popular Dietary Supplements.

10. "Sue me! You'll never win."
Remember that contract you signed when you joined your health club? You know, the one with all the fine print? Well, that document most likely contained a "waiver and release" clause that severely limits your ability to take your trainer to court for negligence -- and most certainly limits your ability to win.

And while the waivers often don't stand up in court, try telling that to Ellen Lund. Lund's trainer had never even asked her to sign a waiver. Nonetheless, when she later sued, the California court found that a clause within the Bally membership agreement (waiving her right to sue for "negligent instruction and supervision") applied to personal training. Explains Lund: "The judge said, 'A contract is a contract is a contract.'" Bally's Dave Southern says simply, "Both a California Superior Court and a state appellate court found that Ms. Lund's case was completely without merit and ruled in Bally Total Fitness's favor."

The idea that it's almost impossible to win a suit against your trainer hasn't been lost on attorneys who have taken these types of cases. Lund's lawyer, for example, vows never again. "Those releases are death," he says. "That's why it's the last case (of this kind) I'll take."