12 Ways to Tell if Your Personal Trainer is a Waste of Money

money burning

As sad as it makes me to state this – “anyone can be a personal trainer”. This statement is perceived to be “true” on two levels.

First, there is a lack of regulations governing licensure requirements in terms of who can and can’t call themselves a personal trainer. In other words, there’s no law that says “to be a personal trainer, one must possess X, Y, and Z.”

Second, this statement, unfortunately, is reflective of a misguided perception of the industry.

The authentic truth is this: Being a personal trainer is tough stuff. Influencing people in a positive manner every day and maintaining the multifaceted knowledge base required to keep up with ever-changing health research is a challenging responsibility.

Many do earn the title of personal trainer fair and square, but not everyone that calls themselves a personal trainer is actually worthy, unfortunately.

If the personal trainer you’re working with broaches any of these points, consider finding someone else to help you achieve your fitness goals.

1. Questionable (or no) Credentials. A quality personal trainer worth his or her price tag will openly and proudly display a credential package (college degrees or accredited certifications) on business cards, a website, or other print and digital media.

We work hard for those degrees and certifications; if we have them, we show them in order to substantiate our knowledge and establish a professional profile. If a trainer does not have a credential, move on.

2. A Myopic View. Helping clients achieve a healthy lifestyle transcends the physical results. If a personal trainer is narrowly focused on the physical achievements of the program, he or she is short-sighted and misguided.

Yes, it’s one thing if a client is training for performance gains, but the majority of clients are looking to “tone up”, “slim down” and “increase energy”. Effective personal trainers do that by taking a multidimensional approach to lifestyle change.

3. Too Much Skin. There are some “trainers” that sensationalize their own appearance. While working out and working with clients requires specific gear and appropriate clothing, it will never require booty shorts, crop tops, or shirtless posing matches.

A personal trainer should dress professionally for the role he or she serves. In a gym setting, appropriate workout pants and full torso shirts and other sports tops are fine. Resembling a lycra-covered gym treat is not.

4. Zero or Sloppy Record. Effective personal trainers keep records or SOAP notes. These are kept neatly and safely within a client’s individual folder. Personal trainers keep records to track progress, note changes in a workout, plateaus, complaints of discomfort, etc. It’s poor practice to work with a client and neglect to take notes. If a personal trainer seems to “wing it”, fly right out the door to someone else.

5. Programs from His or Her Perspective vs. the Clients’. Goal-setting is an integral part of crafting a safe and effective workout program. Personal trainers must make a conscious effort to know all they can about their clients. We must learn not only what the goal is, but why our clients wish to achieve a particular goal and what motivates them to move forward toward that goal.


6. Uses Session Time for Cardio. Beyond a warm-up, using session time to have a client perform 30 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio is not worthwhile for the trainer or the client. Cardio can (and should) be done outside of the session.

The training sessions should be focused enough to maximize results. This means building creative programs that target a number of components in a short amount of time (less than 60 minutes). Using 50% of the session time to sweat on a treadmill isn’t going to achieve the end goal.

7. Lack of Assessments. Not every client will benefit from a full physical fitness assessment right out of the gate. That’s not the point. The point is, to track progress, we need to establish benchmarks. In doing so, trainers have a guideline to follow and a barometer by which to measure and evaluate change. Without assessments, we don’t quite know where to aim. This can lead to slipshod programming, injury, and discouraged clients. No good. Assess early; assess often.

8. Doesn’t Teach. Being a successful personal trainer requires teaching – and not just teaching critical form cues and technique. To help clients maximize their potential, we have to help them develop the skills and tools that will become the catalyst for their own success. If a trainer brings a client in for a session and does little more than count reps and sets, what’s the outcome?

A client who knows how to count reps and sets and perform specific exercises. We want our clients to know how to fuel their bodies, manage stress, improve sleep, and be mindful of changes in their physiology. In other words, teach beyond the weight bench.

9. Frenzied Fiasco. We all have our crazy days; sometimes life, no matter how diligent we are in planning ahead, goes down the drain. It’s one thing for someone to experience a hectic session, but it’s another if it’s a habitual occurrence. Part of being effective in our roles as trainers is the ability to be extremely organized and on our “A game”. If a client shows up to a session and the trainer consistently displays a C average, move on.

10. A Poor Motivator. Admittedly, motivating people is an uphill battle if we make no effort to understand what triggers them. By motivating clients, I don’t mean shouting statements like “dig it out” or “finish strong”. I mean finding ways to make meaningful interpersonal connections with clients that allow us to evaluate their extrinsic and intrinsic motivational needs. Personal trainers are not cheerleaders on the sideline; we are committed coaches focused on reflecting the values and practices we encourage our clients to adopt.

11. Allows Program to Become Stale. The body gets bored just like the mind. A strategic and qualified personal trainer will keep things fresh and fun by infusing a client’s program with new training techniques, different equipment, and creative approaches to common movements. A trainer who allows a program to become stale or who uses a cookie-cutter approach to working with his or her clients is not worth that hourly rate.


12. Can’t Answer Questions. While educated and certified personal trainers are extremely knowledgeable, we don’t know every answer to every possible question a client can and does ask. However, practiced and effective trainers will seek out the answer and will be honest about his or her lack of expertise in “that” area.

The worst thing a trainer can do is answer a question with some random “fact” retrieved from an online search engine. Be authentic and honest and say “That’s a great question. I don’t know, so before I address that question, let me do some research and I’ll email you want I find.”

And, because I can’t stop at 12, let’s add one more for a “bonus”? All certified personal trainers (who are certified with an accredited credential) are required to achieve a specific number of continuing education units or credits. Consider it suspicious if a trainer infrequently shares new information with clients. If a personal trainer doesn’t appear to be in sync with the changing trends of the industry and/or doesn’t make an effort to participate in continuing education, keep your money in your wallet.

Professional personal trainers have the role to protect the integrity of the field of fitness. We are not “overnight sensations” or “people who just like to exercise”; we are professionals – proud and educated and worth the fees we charge for services. Not just anyone can be a personal trainer – at least not an effective one.

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Dr. Erin Nitschke, NFPT-CPT, NSCA-CPT, ACE Health Coach, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Therapeutic Exercise Specialist, and Pn1 is a health and human performance college professor, fitness blogger, mother, and passionate fitness professional. She has over 15 years of experience in the fitness industry and college instruction. Erin believes in the power of a holistic approach to healthy living. She loves encouraging her clients and students to develop body harmony by teaching focused skill development and lifestyle balance. Erin is also the Director of Educational Partnerships & Programs for the NFPT. Erin is an editorial author for ACE, IDEA, The Sheridan Press, and the Casper Star Tribune. Visit her personal blog at belivestaywell.com
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