What is the perception of Personal Training?

The exercise industry is booming. Some 10 million people have a gym membership – 1 in 7 people. Only 3 million people regularly use their membership, however, a huge disparity. There are 13,900 registered personal trainers in the UK, not all of them practicing, who work an average of 32.5 hours per week. Even if every personal trainer has 30 clients that’s a total of 420,000 people using personal training services at any given time.

It’s fair to say then, that the huge majority of people who have a gym membership don’t use personal training services. So why is this – why is personal training so underutilised? What role does personal training have in people’s eyes? Here are a few ‘syndromes’ that I feel affect perceptions. At the outset I want to be clear I’m talking about 1:1 personal training here and not group training, which is a different ball game.

‘I’m okay’ syndrome

Probably the biggest factor why people with gym memberships don’t use personal training services.  Gyms are choc full of motivated people beavering away happily doing what they feel is the right thing for them, or just something they like. Some are ‘tuned in’, maybe they’ve used a trainer before and have an understanding of what it takes to progress, some had some personal training sessions and are still doing that programme from 3 years ago, some have a plan based on something they read online or got from a friend, some people will never get to their goal because they are doing things that are counter-productive but that they enjoy doing, others kind of get somewhere by sheer effort or by accident. Whilst they may be happy, in my experience most people are not okay in terms of achieving their goal. Some goals are tougher than others and especially where progression is required the guidance of a knowledgeable trainer really pays off. Fact is, I have never had a client come to me who was doing the optimal work to hit their goal!

‘I know best’ syndrome

Extension of the first point but more of a retention issue is that people may not trust the advice given by a personal trainer because it goes against apparent common sense or what the client thinks they know. A great example is asking someone to increase calorific intake before they can lose body fat. It’s beyond the scope of this post to explain this but it’s often true. I lost a client because she simply wasn’t eating enough and her metabolic rate had down-regulated as a result. She left me and resumed her usual crash dieting cycle and is now unhappily spiraling ever downward into reduced lean mass and higher body fat percentage as a result with pretty serious health and mobility implications over the medium and longer term. There’s not much a personal trainer can do in this situation, unfortunately. Sometimes we just have to let people get on with it. From the perspective of being in a caring profession it is very frustrating indeed, and all we can do is try to educate in as helpful and non-pushy way as possible!

Value for money syndrome

I put this third because I know plenty of people with plenty of money who train but don’t have a personal trainer, and others with not a lot who do! Money is a big factor for sure and it may be a stretch for many but if someone derives utility from personal training services then it will be considered money well spent. Classes and boot camps offer great value for money where someone is looking to get fit and are hugely popular, but I’m specifically looking at 1:1 personal training here. As per another point further down: if a personal trainer focuses on providing a great service rather than making money it will pay dividends for all. I think this is especially true where corrective exercise is concerned as a client has a known or unknown (to them) issue that may be holding them back or even causing discomfort. Specifically targeted exercise can be life-changing and lead to multiple referrals. I think personal training can be made to be hugely valuable with a really targeted approach and, therefore, seen as an investment and not an expense for a client.

Jerry Maguire syndrome

Jerry, played by Tom Cruise in the 90’s movie, put his sports agent career on the line by bucking the trend and placing quality before quantity. Rather than focusing on the end goal of money, the focus was placed on providing a great service for fewer clients and building a strong relationship. Same goes in the personal training business – people want to feel like they are your only client. As a part of my continuing education I have trained with a couple of high-profile personal trainers. I learnt some useful things, but overall the experience wasn’t great. We are talking £80 and £100 an hour here, and unlike Jerry, I felt these guys were focused on the cash first and me and my progression second. We all need to make a living but it stands out a mile where money rather than service is the focus and can be off-putting. As good as they may be, I won’t be hiring either of them again.

Not understanding the client syndrome

Each Personal Trainer has their own innate style, and some may feel the letters ‘PT’ stand for pain and torture. Some clients do indeed enjoy being pushed hard, yelled at even, others do not. Each client is motivated differently so it’s important the trainer is perceptive and tunes into the client in order to adapt their style. It’s important client feels the personal trainer is actually taking an individualised approach and treating them according to their preferences. The clue is in the name: personal training.

One-size fits all syndrome

Planning an effective personal training programme takes skill and insight but is not rocket science. There are certain basics that are very beneficial pretty much across the board but treating everyone the same is an ineffective strategy. Without uncovering motivations and taking individual biometrics and preferences into account the chances of success are immediately lowered. People want to see results, if they don’t, they’ll be off, and their view of personal training will be set; ‘it didn’t work for me’.

Not looking great syndrome

Anecdotally I think it’s fair to say a personal trainer who looks out of shape and can’t do what they ask clients to do is going to get hired less. The number one factor should be the ability to teach and impart knowledge, but looks form a massive part of people’s perception. It is it’s a fact that someone who is very good at training may not be good at personal training, and a good, highly qualified personal trainer may not be good at training! There is the corollary that an overly buff or ‘showy off’ trainer can be intimidating to some people (yet inspiring to others). There needs to be a balance here. I think demeanour is important; an air of confidence and a smile is infectious and attractive to prospective personal training clients.

Specialisation syndrome

There is no right or wrong but in my view a personal trainer needs to find or create a niche and own it. By all means be a generalist, a wide expertise is fantastic but there is more competition and it’s harder for someone to decide which personal trainer to hire. Having a strong personal training specialism narrows the field in terms of how many people will be looking specifically for that service but if you’re good at it you’re more likely to find focused and committed clients. Personally, my area of specialism is Corrective Exercise and the study of human movement. I see my role as helping people with a very specific set of circumstances initially, which can then broaden.

Internet BS syndrome

There are so many self-proclaimed ‘experts’ on the net now. Some are great but there are plenty of charlatans that push ‘the best’ workout or diet and make claims that are not backed by any science. This is especially true with regards to nutrition and weight loss. It is very easy for someone to search online for a personal training or workout plan and think they have it cracked. There is often no mention of progression, what we call periodisation, so people switch around from one workout to another under the impression they are doing the best for themselves. I agree that doing something is much better than doing nothing, but it takes skill, careful planning and insight to genuinely progress someone’s fitness or strength levels. Pulling random one-size-fits-all workouts off the net is cheap, even free, but no substitute for focused one-to-one personal training which will tailor a plan over time exactly to fit a client.

To conclude…

I’m sure more gym goers would hire a personal trainer if they felt it would make a positive, tangible difference to their lives. The responsibility lies firmly with the trainer: if every trainer aspired to motivate and inspire then I feel the statistics would be very different to those set out in the opening paragraph. My personal view is that everyone should at the very least buy a few personal training sessions to begin with beyond the gym induction element to get them off on the right foot. Then, a check in for a programme change every 4-6 weeks minimum would be good and not expensive. I feel people would get much more out of their exercise if that were the case. I think gym goers generally have an interest in well being and the human body and I feel it is the role of true 1:1 personal training to spark further imagination and help people to understand and reach their true potential.

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