How to Spot a Bad Personal Trainer

Posted: July 20, 2010 in Misc., Training

Personal Trainers are typically under-educated with little understanding of the fields of study relating to their job. Frighteningly, any chump with a few hundred bucks and an outdated manual can become certified. Because of this prevalence of underachievers, trainers are forced to fabricate ridiculous ideas of what they should be doing with clients, and in fact, what the purpose of a trainer really is. Following is a review of the most frequent offenses personal trainers commit, giving the industry a bad name, and leaving me with funny things to write about.

Molesting the Bar

Have a seat over there...

This awful training behavior is so commonplace that it has become expected from clients and actually mistaken as useful. Bad trainers don’t have much to do while a client is performing a set, so in a combination of enforcing their own self worth and the client’s co-dependence; the trainer will assist the client with each and every repetition. The lat pulldown is a steadily abused culprit, but most trainers find a way to manhandle just about every exercise they prescribe.

The trainer stands behind the trainee and pushes down on the bar every rep, while on some mental vacation staring at girls on the other side of the gym trying to decide which one to awkwardly hit on after the session. No logical reason exists for a trainer to have his or her hands all over the weight. Tracking a client’s progression is impossible when an accurate distinction cannot be made between how much the trainee is lifting vs. the trainer. This type of trainer is usually poor at record keeping, because they are either too lazy, or don’t understand the paramount value in the slightest. Or what paramount means. Typically, the trainer will just ballpark a random weight, if it’s too heavy, they do more of the work, if it’s too light, they just leave their hands on the bar anyway to ‘guide the weight’.

I’ve come to realize that trainers will invoke this embarrassing maneuver for one of two reasons. The first, and more sinister of the two, is simply to elicit client dependence. The trainer is conditioning the client to need the trainer, and actually cause them to believe that they could not possibly lift weights without the trainer right there molesting the bar throughout the entire set. This dependence obviously increases neediness, and since a trainer that uses this method typically doesn’t have much to offer a client with regards to tangible results, they use this trick to keep them signing over another $80/hour, week after week.

The second of the two types of bar-molesting trainers is the typical gym rat that couldn’t find another job. This trainer doesn’t have the foresight to do this for the sake of client retention, but he’s seen every other trainer at the club and on The Fattest Loser do it, so he/she thinks this is what personal trainers do. This is a sad, sad soul. This is the same person that would try to cheat on tests off of his neighbor, not paying attention when the teacher would mention that an “A” and a “B” test would be given out, to ensure the person sitting next to you would have a different test. Another F? I need to start sitting next to smarter people.

Exception(s): When a client is learning a new exercise, and struggles to respond to verbal cues, it can be helpful to grab the implement with them and guide them through a few repetitions. However, the key here is letting the bird leave the nest. You must let go of the weight and let them perform the movement by themselves after they understand the movement. If you can’t teach a client a movement with verbal and acute physical cueing, you’re either a lousy trainer or you need to consider a less complicated hobby, like suicide.

The second, and very rare exception, is assisted/forced reps. This is an advanced method that should be used extremely rarely, and only with advanced clients. Otherwise, it’s an excuse for being too lazy to come up with effective training modalities. Which leads me into the next topic…

Relying on Forced Reps

This kid loves forced reps

Instead of researching effective training variations, trainers love to use forced reps to “bring up the intensity” or some otherequally ridiculous nonsense they propose. Aside from the fact that intensity has everything to do with percentage of one rep max (1RM), and nothing to do with how hard a set is, this method is awful for a number of reasons.

Again, a lot of it has to do with dependence. Clients are conditioned to believe they can’t get an effective workout unless they train past failure, with the trainer helping them complete extra forced reps at the end of a set. Any reasonable strength and body composition goals can be achieved without ever completing a single forced rep. In fact, I can count on less than one hand the number of times I’ve used forced reps in my own workouts; it certainly isn’t a secret to unlocking the magic door to a super-physique. It is, however a great way to prolong recovery and promote excessive soreness. So many wonderful methods of extending sets and exercise manipulation exist; this just screams lack of knowledge. And, coincidentally is often accompanied by actual screams. And now to expand on another briefly mentioned point…

Avoiding Record Keeping

Tracking a client’s workout is so elementary, yet so rare that it astounds me. I’ve even heard this referred to as a negative thing as in “You won’t find any of those damn clipboard trainers here”. What? You also won’t find an IQ in three digits. Workouts should be planned, the more detailed the better. A trainer should have a general guideline of the exact exercises, sets, reps, rest periods and loads written out before the workout starts. This is of course subject to change during the workout based on performance, injuries, etc, but it needs to be tracked and improved upon every single workout. This is the trainer’s main job! Progression should involve an increase of around 2% in load every workout, or an increase in volume, density (decrease in rest periods, or completing more work in the same time frame), perceived exertion of a set, or a combination of many other variables. But just taking a client through a bunch of exercises with the intent of ‘kicking their ass’ is a joke and guarantees nothing in the way of progression or results of any kind. Clients don’t know the difference, as long as they feel like they worked hard they think they’re getting their money’s worth. And when they’re still fat and weak four months later, the trainer can always blame their diet. Speaking of tracking…

Skipping the Measurements

Lack of confidence coupled with overt laziness tends to fuel this tire fire. A client should have body fat and midsection circumferences taken at minimum once per month. And I’m not talking about handing off a bioelectrical impedance unit, waiting for three beeps and writing down a number. A caliper test needs to be administered, the more sites the better. I prefer a nine site test, which not only gives you an idea of where they are losing or not losing, it can also give a great idea of any hormonal imbalances that need to be addressed due to skewed ratios.

Midsection circumferences (widest and narrowest points) should be used to track visceral fat gain/loss. I’ve seen clientsabdomen skinfolds stay the same or even go up by a millimeter when they’ve lost an inch or more from the circumference around the same area. Unless the client has done zero abdominal training and somehow lost a significant amount of muscle in the area (highly unlikely), you can bet this means that his or her body has been removing visceral fat before the subcutaneous fat. This would have shown up as a lack of progress if calipers were the only method relied upon.

Trainers are often scared to perform these tests regularly because it’s an all out fraud alert if the client doesn’t (and often won’t) see any progress. And when they do perform the tests, the trainer typically improves the results for the sake of the client. Most trainers are so poor at proper caliper usage; that this is a shot in the dark anyway. A good trainer should be able to take five clients body fat measurements on a nine site test, record all the numbers, then start over with a blank sheet and get the exact same numbers on all five clients, down to each millimeter. That’s 45 numbers that should match up; most trainers will be lucky to match 10-20. If you can’t come up with at least 40 matches, you’re not training any of my clients when I’m sick. Luckily, I never get sick.


Back in the day when I was a young pup, I recall an encounter with a fellow trainer at a health club that has always stayed with me. He approached me as I was teaching an advanced client how to perform a proper hang clean. His eyes were glazed over in a mix of confusion and fear, and he finally found the words to ask me, “So, how do you spot a client when they’re doing this? From the front, or from the back?” Many trainers feel as though their job title is interchangeable with ‘Professional Spotter’. This typically goes hand in hand with the Bar Molester. They feel as though they need to hover on top of a client during every rep of every set, in case something goes horribly wrong. Of course the right answer to his inquiry was, you don’t spot a hang clean, you stay the hell back and let them do the set. Again, when in doubt, get your hands off the bar. Let the client perform the set, and observe their movement patterns looking for muscular imbalances and dynamic postural deviations. In other words, do something useful. Now if the client is working around an injury, or is extremely uncoordinated and learning a new movement, or attempting a one rep max, you will want to keep your hands close by (if the exercise allows). About 90% of the time, clients should be stopping at least one rep before form failure, which makes this incessant spotting completely unnecessary.

Abusing Isolation Exercises

Such a better place the world would be, if trainers would stop relying on isolation (single joint) exercises withtheirclients. Beginners particularly (which makes up the largest percentage of almost any trainer’s client base) have almost zero use for isolation exercises. Most novices want to drop body fat and increase lean body mass to something in a healthy range. Isolation exercises are about as metabolically demanding as smoking a cigarette, and activate a far smaller percentage of the total motor unit pool compared to compound movements. Why perform cable tricep pressdowns when you could have them doing dips? If they’re too out of shape for dips, use an assistance dip station. Even bench dips can be a useful introduction exercise; as long as the intent is to increase strength and neural control enough to move them to parallel bar dips (bench dips place the anterior joint capsule of the shoulder in a stressful position). A narrow grip bench press is another viable alternative. Dumbbell curls? Why? Use narrow grip supinated pulldowns with an upright/vertical torso alignment, they activate more muscle fibers in the bicep and are immensely more metabolically demanding. If you ask a client why they are performing curls, extensions, etc, they typically will inform you of their intent to tone the area. When I tell a female that dips will be working her triceps (among other things), a typical response is “Oh, then I want to do hundreds of these!!” This is with the false hope of that saggy tricep fat being left behind at the dip station, which of course not going to happen.

Every compound pressing movement will be working the triceps, every compound pulling/rowing movement will be working the biceps. Squats, deadlifts, etc will work the quads and hams exponentially better than knee extensions and hamstring curls. Does a client really need to be doing dumbbell flyes when they can’t even perform a bodyweight push up? No. Hundreds of great compound exercises exist, and progress will be much faster if these are utilized in place of isolation movements.

Exception(s): After a client becomes more advanced and is looking to add more muscle to a certain area, isolation exercises can be a great tool in the toolbox. Aside from local hypertrophy, isolation exercises can also be highly useful at correcting imbalances or fixing postural deviations. I almost always include single joint rotator cuff exercises in a beginners plan, as this area is typically grossly underdeveloped compared to the internal rotators. The Rhomboids and Serratus Anterior can also be isolated to improve shoulder balance.

Getting Suckered into “Safe” Movements

Many of the popular certification programs discourage the use of big movements like squats, deadlifts, bench presses, etc. while encouraging the use of leg presses, machine chest presses, hamstring curls and knee extensions. This is to minimize the apparent danger of the former exercises. This tends to be enforced by training managers at clubs to minimize injuries and potential law suits, and fully embraced by trainers who don’t know how to properly instruct these movements. When these “dangerous” exercises are performed, they are typically taught with a shortened range of motion to ‘increase safety’, such as the quarter squat and the bench press lowered to 90 degrees of elbow flexion. I’ve also heard quite a few trainers say that the “muscle shuts off” when taken into a fully stretched position, as in the bottom 1/3 of a bench press. This is actually the opposite of what happens, the muscle is most active at this point and motor units from other heads are forced into activation creating a much greater training effect. Partial ROM alternatives eventually cause chronic shortening of the muscle fibers which can lead to injury and severe joint imbalances. Again, laziness prevails.

Exercises such as these recruit a large number of muscle fibers and teach the client extremely useful neural patterns that they need to be using on a daily basis, enforcing the primal movement patterns. The alternatives tend to further imbalances in favor of the prime movers, add no benefit to neural enhancement, and offer no more safety than the former exercises when properly taught. The take home message is, learn the proper form on the full range of motion of the big-bang exercises, and learn how to properly teach them.

Exception(s): Machine alternatives and short range of motion exercises can be used effectively if used occasionally as ancillary exercises, not replacements. Clients need to be taught the more difficult free weight movements first, not the other way around. Learning how to leg press will offer the nervous system zero help in learning a squat or deadlift, and can actually make it harder to develop the neural patterning to grasp the movements. Master a deadlift however, and the leg press can be performed more effectively and safely.

Prescribing Counterproductive Warm Ups

In another disturbingly common act of ignorance, trainers tend to force their clients into performing a cardio warm up followed by general static stretching before weight training workouts. Cardio based warm ups (the typical 5-10 minute treadmill/bike/elliptical recommendation) are not only useless before strength training, they’re counterproductive. They provide a great way to warm up the wrong energy systems and neural demands, at best. A warm up for strength training should involve *surprise*…strength training. Performing multiple, progressive, low-rep warm up sets of the first exercise for each cold muscle group in a workout will not only increase safety of the exercise, but also allow for increased loads to be used if performed correctly. If you haven’t read “Warming Up to a Great Workout”, it provides a detailed overview of effective warm up protocols for various types of training, so I won’t go over all of the details again here. If you haven’t read it, do it now. Static stretching weakens the muscles before they are about to be called upon for maximal force output, not a brilliant plan…and can actually increase chance of injury.

Exception(s): As stated in the article, static stretching of antagonists or chronically tight musculature that will cause a deviation in proper technique can be effective. This is also a great time to incorporate foam rolling, just don’t get carried away with a muscle group you’re about to train because self myofascial release can create it’s own trauma requiring recovery. So do your light foam rolling pre-workout, and the more invasive stuff at home. Dynamic stretching and PNF movements can also be very helpful if performed correctly. When performing high rep workouts, cardio warm ups and static stretching tend to be less counterproductive, but still not useful in most cases.

Acting Like a Jackass Trainer from The Biggest Loser

If you’ve been unfortunate enough to be caught in front of the T.V. when any show or infomercial involving personal training infiltrates your living room, you may have noticed the similarities between the trainer’s workout techniques and a drunken carnival act. T.V. trainers are there to entertain you, watching somebody workout really shouldn’t be very exciting. Wacky exercises, throwing punches (for client’s who aren’t boxers), yelling at clients, forcing them to run to the bathroom and vomit up soy-smoothies…it’s all nonsense. Clients come to expect this, and trainers hand it over.

The most nauseating offenders are the ‘stability exercise’ trainers that ensure the majority of the client’s exercises are performed with one arm, one leg, standing on a bosu ball, blindfolded, with a woodpecker on their shoulder beak-fucking their ear as a final distraction technique. These stability exercises are a complete joke, and have little to no place in the gym for 99% of the population. The 1% of the population that could use these movements include pirates (but only the ones with peg-legs), professional jello-wrestlers, people that play volleyball on row-boats, and people that enjoy being completely un-appealing to potential sexual partners. Stability can be achieved by learning proper inner unit bracing during movements such as squatting, deadlifting, or anything on the feet. Unilateral exercises on the ground (not bosu balls or swiss balls) can be another effective technique to help the trainee learn stability while using an exercise stable enough to allow for strength gain as well. The collection of ridiculous stability exercises typically performed requires such a small percentage of the trainee’s maximum strength, that clients will commonly become weaker by using these frequently. See my Q&A here for my review of recent research on the subject.

Exception(s): Sensible unilateral (single limb) exercises can be very useful for beginners, intermediate and advanced trainees. Here are some of my favorites to increase stability, joint proprioception, and decrease chance of injury outside of the gym:

  • Unilateral Romanian Deadlift
  • Unilateral Hyperextension
  • King Deadlift (bodyweight only one-leg deadlift, non working limb travels backward, torso leans forward over knee)
  • Pistol Squat (bodyweight only one-leg squat, non working limb travels forward, torso stays more upright)
  • Decline/Incline Step-Ups (for a quad/hamstring emphasis respectively)
  • Bulgarian Split Squats

Swiss balls have a place in training when used judiciously as well; most trainers just have no idea what this place is. Bosu balls have no place in a weight room whatsoever. For increasing knee stability, a folded towel or 1-3 sit up/yoga mats can be placed under the working foot of unilateral exercises such as the split squat. This works great in re-habbing various knee and ankle injuries after phases of solid-ground unilateral stability have been achieved.

Whether you choose to use a personal trainer, chances are you know a friend or family member that does…do them a favor and have them give this a read before they write the next check. And if you are a trainer, hopefully you either got a laugh, learned something, or got extremely pissed and defensive. Good trainers are out there, it just takes a bit of work to find them. Certifications don’t mean a thing, but typically avoiding ones like ACE, ACSM, and NASM in favor of NSCA, CSCS, ISSA, PCIP, or anything from the CHEK Institute would be a good start.

  1. […] information on “How to Spot a Bad Personal Trainer“. *********************************** Liked it? Share :o)TwitterFacebookRedditStumbleUpon […]

  2. Oh I love this. I get so freaking sick of watching/ hearing about/ seeing crappy personal trainers and knowing how bad they make the true professionals look. All of these are great. I’m linking this to my facebook training business page. Hope all my clients and fans read it.

  3. Trey Ramsey says:

    Reblogged this on Vita Brevis and commented:
    If you’re trainer EVER tells you to curl in the squat rack, just leave the gym.

  4. Anonymous says:

    lol i love how the ending badmouths ACE and ACSM seriously i was about to agree with some of your posts until i saw you discredit the organizations from the trainers that have had the certs. You don’t know anything

    • Fitport says:

      Dear Anonymous reader,

      You have a long and exciting journey of learning ahead of you, and we thank you for stopping by here in your initial stages. When you’re ready, you’ll find quite an extensive amount of great information here that will seem far more relevant to you than it does now.

  5. David says:

    I mostly agree with all of your witty exposed article. My question to you is why would you suggest to avoid an organization like ACSM, an organization that has been teaching for so long and subscribes to most of what you have said in your article? Do you follow an agenda?

    • Thanks for your comments, and taking the time to read the article David. While ACSM promotes some great ideas, they also have quite a bit of room for improvement. I am confident that organizations like NSCA and their CSCS cert not only keep up with the most cutting edge research, but they also conduct and contribute to it.

      ACSM is very well respected in general, just like anyone with an M.D. after their name, which often ends up embracing the appeal to authority fallacy when we really look at the true science vs. what these organizations promote.

      There’s lots of great trainers with ACSM, NASM, and even ACE certifications, but they are the exception, not the rule. If you were a layperson picking a trainer on certification alone, I would be willing to bet that statistically you would have better results with someone with NSCA, CSCS, PCIP, or an ISSA cert.

      And to hopefully demonstrate my lack of bias, I have had an ACE cert in the past and currently have a NASM cert, and have thoroughly studied the ACSM material. Again, good info with lots of room for improvement.

  6. uwin says:

    I blog quite often and I truly appreciate your information. This great article
    has really peaked my interest. I am going to bookmark your site and keep checking for new details about
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