Do you need to sack your trainer?

Andy MorganTraining Principles39 Comments

(How to Hire One and Why You Need to Choose Carefully.)

Do you need to sack your trianer

If yours gets you doing crap like this, then yes you do.

Whether you stay soft and flabby or get chiseled out of stone, for many people it will come down to the trainer that they choose. It is not the act of hiring a trainer. Choice is important. But for the average person that doesn’t have the knowledge to make an informed decision, this turns out to be a lottery. Are you prepared to play this lottery? You should’t be. So I aim to put the power back in your hands and help you make an informed decision with this article.

Though I don’t think a personal trainer is needed indefinitely, I recommend someone that is new to training hires one to teach them the correct form. This should be quite a simple thing to do and yet in the last 6 years of going to different gyms in Japan I have met very few trainers I would be able to confidently recommend a client to. And sadly after reading Martin Berkhan’s recent article I have to draw the conclusion that this problem is not confined to Japan.

Which brings us to quite an interesting problem: If it’s difficult for me to be be able to confidently recommend someone, how does a beginner know if the trainer they have hired is showing them correctly? How can a person know whom to choose?

All trainers are not made equal. All gyms are not made equal. You need to be very careful with your choice!

I hope this article can explain why this is, the pitfalls you should avoid, and provide a guide to choosing a good one. If you have a trainer at the moment, I hope this will help you to decide if it’s time to consider getting a new one.

Firstly however, it is important to understand why the fitness industry is in the ‘shit state‘ it is, before you can diagnose if you have a problem.

The ‘Shit-State’ the Fitness Industry is in. (A quick recap)

Any person that sets foot in a commercial gym usually gets given a basic program by a trainer during their ‘gym induction’ which utilizes the weights machines and some form of cardio equipment. It will usually be a full body routine. It’s quick to teach, low hassle for the gym, the chances of the member hurting themselves is low, and it ensures little in the way of future questions. The staff the gym needs to hire to do this require little in the way of qualifications, so they are cheap to hire.

This is the most profitable option for gyms, needless to say this doesn’t mean it is the best for you.

Even a rank beginner will stop making gains on such a program within a few months, and at this time, presuming they don’t quit they will either go looking for routines in Men’s Fitness, hire a personal trainer, or both.

Here’s where the problems begin.

A Little Knowledge Can Be a Dangerous Thing.

When a person goes to the oncologist they rarely argue with their doctor’s suggested course of treatment. They can’t. They do not have the knowledge to. They put their entire trust in their doctor to choose what is right for them.

However when a person goes to a gym the situation is unfortunately very different. Through years of being exposed to advertisements in magazines and on TV, nearly everyone seems to have an opinion on what they need to do to get strong and the equipment that is necessary for this. We are no longer in ignorant bliss, and this little bit of knowledge is what screws us.

Every gym is there to make profits. This will be achieved by either:

  1. Giving awesome results for its clients, (as is the case with DeFranco’s Gym that has a reputation for getting kids into the NFL) or
  2. Providing excellent shiny, pretty-looking facilities that the average person thinks they need and thus getting a lot of membership sales.

Unfortunately most of the fitness industry is clearly stuck in category number 2.

To paraphrase Rippetoe here:

The typical Gold’s Gym manager asks themselves, “What, of the $300,000 of equipment do we have on this exercise floor that we can use for these people?” Not, “What problem (weakness) is this person trying to solve?” and thus tailor the program for that.

The unfortunate result of our “little bit of knowledge” is that the world becomes a weaker place because of it. Even the few knowledgable trainers at your gym may be steering you toward less/ineffective exercises purposefully.

First allow me to explain why this is, and then how you can tell these people apart from the idiots, because you may well have to hire one.

The Commercial Trainer’s Dilemma

Let’s set aside the majority of trainers that have either become engulfed in their own commercial gym “machine training” bullshit, think squats destroy the knees, never touched a barbell in their life, or have got lost down the ‘highly-advanced Bosu-ball “core balance” training’ road.

Here I want to consider the trainer whom knows that compound movements are best for strength, understands good form, and has the ability to teach it.

Paid on commission, they face a huge dilemma.

Competing with the other trainers in the gym, when a potential client comes to them with an open copy of Men’s Health Magazine and says they want to be shown the latest six-pack routine, though they know that squatting deep and heavy and getting the diet in shape is the best way to build and reveal abs, the trainer has little incentive to try and convince them, for fear of losing the custom.

Sexy (read: complicated) training is what is selling. Barbells and pull-ups while effective, are not sexy. Yet communicating this to the client can be very difficult when the whole gym is set-up is a joke.

Here’s the biggest problem: They learned long ago that clients can rarely handle the pain and mental focus it takes to squat low and hard when everyone else’s training around them seems so easy. And even if they do, considering body-recomposition is 70% diet, a huge factor in which they have no control, it becomes very difficult to justify the hard training to a client that is lazy with the diet and “just wants abs!”

The client quits, finds another trainer, and make no progress but are happy with their routine because they can get a sore stomach. The trainer waves goodbye to their commission, and the customer is no better off.

The job of the trainer is to listen to what the client wants, but prescribe what they need.

So when you come along, can you trust them to show you what you need? Or are they likely to take the safer option when teaching you?

There are probably a lot of personal trainers out there in commercial gyms that are as much the unfortunate victims of circumstances they work, or were trained in, as their clients.

Do I think that gives them an excuse? No. I think it’s despicable. It angers me immensely. I feel cheated out of years of training because of this. If they can’t explain and convince customers of the type of training they are recommending then they need to study more and/or try harder.

Checklists For Choosing a Good Trainer (or Identifying a Bad One)

Fortunately, you know exactly what kind of training you need because I have written it here in the training guide, so we have taken this problem out of the equation. All you need to do is find someone that can teach it to you.

Are they knowledgable enough?

  • Do they show clients what is effective or a what is easy for them to teach? – Before hiring them, watch them train someone.
  • Does your trainer have the ability and knowledge to show you the exercises that you need? – Ask them to show you a barbell squat. Did they go past parallel? If not, choose someone else.
  • Do their teaching methods suffer any of the 25 symptoms of “Fuckarounditis“?

Are they strict enough?

  • Are they going to have the balls to stand up to you and tell you what you should be doing, or are they a soft sap that is likely to pander to your every whim?
  • Is the force of their personality enough that they are going to be able to push you to get those all important last couple of reps out at the squat rack when your mind is telling you you can’t go on yet your body still can? – Personally I like a whole torrent of abuse in this situation, but this differs for the individual. You know what you need. Look at them. Can they give it to you?

Looking at them physically, do they inspire confidence?

Is your trainer doing too much for you?

  • Are they mature enough to leave you the hell alone? – Your trainer should be spotting you with his eyes, not with his hands. I see trainers getting a Deadlift workout when spotting their clients at the Bench-press every week. If your trainer regularly give you assistance on the last three reps for every set then they are not doing their job. You need to be lifting the weight, not them.

Breaking Out On Your Own

You don’t need a personal trainer forever. But you need to set yourself up now, so that you aren’t dependent on one. Log your own workouts. Time your own rest periods. Load your own barbells with plates. Prepare yourself now for when you are doing it on your own.

Once you’ve got the form down, a gym partner with the same routine and level of commitment is perfect. Second place is your gym log and the knowledge that you’re going to have to post the results on for people to see. This should be enough to motivate you in most situations.

Thank you for listening to my little rant. I hope you found this useful. Good luck!

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About the Author

Andy Morgan

I'm an online nutritional and training coach living in Tokyo, Japan. After seeing one too many people get ripped off by supplement and training industry lies I decided to try and do something about it. The site you see here is the result of a lot of Starbucks-fuelled, two-fingered typing. It's had a lot of love poured into it, and I hope you find the guides to the diet and training methods I use on this site useful. When I'm not helping clients you'll likely find me crashing down a mountain on a snowboard, racing around Suzuka circuit, or staring at watches I can't afford.

39 Comments on “Do you need to sack your trainer?”

  1. Hi Andy,
    Do you think that a personal training certification has any value? Im asking as someone who is interested in becoming a trainer. Or in your opinion are they as “broken” as the industry they represent?

    1. A certificate will get your foot in the door to places that will employ you. But it’s not going to teach you everything you need, just the absolute basics. I think the danger is that, kind of as with school, people will do just the bare minimum the need to do to pass the certifications. This is human nature when it’s the certifications themselves that lead to immediate pay rises, increase in rank and rewards in the commercial gyms, not further study.

      So, I’d take those certifications, just because they will open doors. But if you want to be good, independent and successful then you need to widen your knowledge base and love what you do. Consider applying for an internship at a good gym. A really good one, like Cressey Performance in Boston for example. You’ll work for free, but, well it’s much better to think of it as getting an education in exchange. You’ll need to be very good to get in though.

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  3. Hello Andy!
    I’m planning onto becoming a personal trainer, and I’m reading this to improve myself. I already know that I don’t want to be like the typical commercial gym trainer. I want to be more on the lines of you and Martin. I had a question though. If someone is looking for strength, give them a program including the big 3. This goes the same with hypertrophy (I’m assuming). But what if they’re looking for fat loss, conditioning, or general health? What would you recommend?
    Thanks in advance, Andy. Your information is much appreciated.

  4. Hi Andy

    I’m a chiropractor in Sydney, Australia and I was recently asked by one of my patients to read an article about squatting by Mark Rippetoe, . I was also referred to your site by the same patient. I found the article very entertaining, but the author’s reasons for squatting to parallel or lower are not well qualified. I have read on your site as well that you are a believer in squatting to parallel or below.

    I’m commenting here today not because I wish to start an argument or claim I’m more knowledgeable than anyone else in this forum. I merely want to start a constructive discussion. I can see from your site that your prime objective is to help others – something I highly respect. Please know that I am also committed to my patients and I am always trying to learn how I might serve them better too.

    My understanding is that squatting to low may in some cases, cause terrible injury. Many individuals simply do not have adequate joint range of motion nor sufficient muscle length around the ankles, knees, hips, lower back, upper back, shoulders, etc to perform a squat movement pattern to thighs parallel or lower. The joint ranges of motion and muscle lengths are limiting factors in the squat movement pattern and if you can’t maintain correct form all the way to legs parallel or lower, you WILL be injuring yourself. I am specifically referring to the importance of maintaining the lubar lordosis at all times throughout the squat, no rounding of the lumbar spine should occur at any point during the squat. If you round out your lumbar spine at the bottom of the squat, you will stress the annular fibres of the intervertebral disc and in turn cause a herniation. It will only be a matter of time until you are permanently unable to squat. This is not my opinion but rather a scientific fact.

    I have gathered this knowledge mostly from Dr Stuart McGill, PhD in spine biomechanist at the University of Waterloo, Canada. You have probably heard of him.

    Fortunately for Mark Rippetoe, it seems he may have been blessed with good range of motion throughout his joints. Also, he has clearly worked at squatting possibly to the extent someone like Roger Federer might have worked at hitting tennis balls. Practicing the squat movement pattern from a young age and continuing it through life goes a long way to maintain the required joint range of motion and muscle length necessary for deep squats. Whilst he might be an expert, I’d like to see him coach even some of my younger patients to squat to parallel without putting them at risk. In some cases, I just don’t see how it could be done. Some of my patients simply don’t have the ability to squat deeply. This people aren’t necessarily old or severely injured either, they’ve just never bothered to exercise much. Furthermore, I’d love to know the reasons behind using weight belts??? My feeling is if you’re needing a weight belt, the weight is too heavy…

    Again, please don’t interpret this as an attack on your opinions. I must stress that I am willing to learn from your knowledge base and hopefully I can point you towards some of my teachers. Stuart McGill’s stuff is certainly worth the time. I would love to discuss my thoughts with someone like Mark Rippetoe as well and I’ll be commenting on his page as well. I’m positive there’s much to learn from him, and I would hope others like him would be willing to take on a health practitioner’s perspective.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts Andy.

    Kind regards

    Tom Cartwright

    1. Tom, thanks for the comment.
      I’ve read extensively on the subject and I am well aware that there are two sides in the medical profession that have people with strong views both for and against squats. I have been swayed more by the “squat to parallel or beyond” as long as flexibility allows” school of thought. If you would like to start a discussion then you need to take this up with the experts, not me.

  5. Andy,
    Great overview about identifying good vs. bad PT’s. I’m not far away from needing to “upgrade” my gym to one that can take my progress further. From past experience, I dread shopping around for one and getting the hard sell…it reminds me of buying a used car.. I plan to go in with a very specific set of requirements of what I want: 1) the right equipment, 2) an experienced PT who understands compound lifting and safe technique. 3) a trial period for me to assess if I’m happy without locking into anything contractual.

    Is this a good approach and can you add any inside info that can cut through the “crap”. What are the pros and cons of going to a CrossFit-type gym versus a standard one?


    1. Walk into the gym. Ask to see the equipment. Go at the time when you will normally train. Have a dead serious expression on your face and don’t let yourself be sat down in a chair. You want to see the equipment, walk in and then go to walk out. If they stop you and you like the place then just discuss how much. If you are asked a bullshit question, then ignore it and ask your own.
      There are no negatives of going to a cross-fit type gym as long as you can have access to the equipment to look after your own training.

  6. Hey Andy, Just want to say that between you and the leangains website I have really stepped up my training and made some really good gains. At the the moment i’m going for a ‘slow bulk’. Well at least that’s how i understand it. I’m essentially doing the leangains diet while improving my strength. I’m training in a gym which is pretty limited on it’s equipment so i have to adapt my session as best i can to involve plenty of compound movements. Sadly, my gym lacks barbells so i cant do a decent deadlifting. Sad Face! I’m currently around 12% bf and weight about 66kg at a height of 183cm. My bench press (which in my situation is my only consistant comparison to progress) has gone from 28kg (dumbells) to 60kg on my top set of reverse pyramids in around 4-5 months. Im a Level 2 trainer myself and strive to dispel all the common myths about lifting. Love lifting with a passion (even though i’m a hard gainer) and just want to share all this wisdom with everyone.

    Was also wondering if there was any chance of an invite to fitocracy?

    Thanks for all the help from the community, your all very welcoming and accommodating.

    Cheers, Paul.

      1. I lost 9kg in 2 mths because I chose to listen to Andy’s advice. Bill gates does not have a cert and yet he created the biggest software empire in the world. Passion makes somebody and nothing else. Andy, keep up the good works! 🙂 Without yr help, I don’t think I will ever know how valuable your advice is!

        Keep it up!

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  11. Andy,
    A couple quick questions about training on a cut. Your page on ‘The Big 3’ Routine mentions training on a cut with RPT with the Squat, Bench, and DL; all being performed in each session, three days week. Beyond Brawn, of course, emphasizes progressive poundage. Should we focus on another goal with RPT on a cut vs. progressive poundage? Also, you mention a ‘Three Day Split RPT’ with four exercises on another page. Being on a cut with restricted cals seems like the split routine would be better if we’re cutting. But logic doesn’t always prevail so I’m coming to you for advice.

    I’ve been doing a three day split RPT up until today when I changed it to the Big 3 all in one session. I’m just looking for a little clarification. While cutting, should I focus on just the Big 3, three times per week? Or should I do the four exercises on a 3 day split?

    Also, a question regarding diet. I’ve found from nutrition data sheets online that 1kg of raw chicken breast ends up being around 140-160g of protein. Your protocol has me at 200g P/day. 1kg of raw chicken per the simplified rules is supposed to be enough. Should I adjust my P intake? I have been dropping weight pretty quickly so I don’t want to mess with a good thing but if I change my workout pattern to the Big 3, three times per week, I may need more. Or, should I switch back the split RPT and keep the diet the way I’ve been doing it up until now?

    Thanks in advance.

      1. My apologies for the long list of jumbled questions.

        On my cut, should i be focusing on the Big 3, with all three exercises three times per week? Or should I be doing a 3 day split with the Big 3 + chins and OHP? I see suggestions that point to either method being used on a cut.

        For protein, I am supposed to have 200g/day. I have noticed that 1kg of raw chicken breast has ~150g of P. My simplified rules have me consume 1kg of raw lean P/day. Is it more important to make sure I get 200g of P or to follow the simplified rules that have been laid out?

        Again, sorry about the original comment.

        1. 1. That depends on you Josh. Those that have been lifting a while have learned to batter their bodies harder than those newer to it so need created recovery time between workouts. If you don’t know which you are you’ll have to simply try it and see. -generally your lower-back will be the first thing to complain. Listen to it, and then drop the Deadlift to once a week perhaps. You might enjoy the book “Beyond Brawn” by Stewart McRobert.

          2. Just follow the simplified rules mate. 🙂

          No worries, thanks for taking the time to clear it up.

  12. I missed martins invites as well do you still have any invites left? Even if not thanks for all you do!

  13. Ha, perfect timing! I’m finishing up a write-up on this same topic, got some new ideas…

    Just yesterday I watched a trainer put his 50-year-old female fat loss client through seated calf raises, biceps curls and cable pushdowns. The ‘Shit-State’ is very much the norm in the industry and it surely doesn’t look like things are gonna get any better in the near future.

  14. “If they can’t explain and convince customers of the type of training they are recommending then they need to study more and/or try harder.”
    I don’t like the term ‘convince’ but if you can explain what you do, why you do it, and then deliver kick ass results, you’ll be fine as a trainer. Like most businesses, word of mouth and referrals should be a big way of getting clients. Don’t believe the hype, use this guide and ask the trainer’s clients if they are 100% happy with everything.

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  16. Was worried my workouts might suffer after Thanksgiving but I hit the gym and lifted MORE today and at the last workout (1 more to go). I’ll send the results in the weekly follow up. By the way, do you think I’m ready for Fitocracy? if so, send me an invite and I’ll hook it up. Peace

  17. I just woke up to Martin sharing on his facebook page that he’d gotten a THOUSAND free invites to fitocracy! I still didn’t make it lol. I hope I can still get one from you!

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