Whether we want it to or not, gender preference often plays a role when choosing a personal trainer. Unfortunately, this can come at the expense of negating a trainer’s qualifications and experience. Therefore, it becomes incumbent upon gym owners and fitness center managers to educate members about the professional virtues of each trainer.
In so doing, not only might gender bias fade as a factor in trainer selection, but such information can foster an ideal match between the client and a trainer who specializes in his/her goals.
Gender Preference in Sports Coaching
Clients vary greatly in their reasoning for desiring a male or female trainer. Parkhouse and Williams (1986) reported that male athletes tended to have negative attitudes toward female coaches.
In addition, some female athletes admitted that they would rather risk having an unsuccessful experience with a male coach over working successfully with a female coach (1988). These studies may be decades old but, such prejudices are far from eradicated.
Other more recent qualitative research has indicated that the majority of female collegiate athletes, engaging in a variety of endeavors ranging from basketball, softball and golf to cross-country, track/field and soccer, also preferred a male coach (Frey et al, 2006).
Medwechuk and Crossman (1994), on the other hand, reported that swimmers tended to exhibit a preference for same-gender coaches. More recent research revealed that when choosing a strength and conditioning coach, male collegiate athletes preferred training under a male’s guidance, whereas female collegiate athletes showed no gender bias (Maguire and Mansfield, 1998).
Importance of Personality Factors vs Gender
One study led researchers to conclude that perhaps those individuals who exhibit no gender bias in trainer selection might reflect the different emphasis placed on exercise and fitness by competitive athletes versus the average gym-goer.
Both male and female collegiate athletes, who by their very nature place a greater value on physical conditioning than the general population, might feel that they can improve with a dominant and aggressive coach/strength coach of either gender, whereas gym members as potential clients do not often aspire to that same level of physical performance.
For these individuals, the idea of a helpful and approachable personal trainer with a reasonable amount of knowledge and a flexible schedule might hold more sway. Past association with trainers of a particular gender may also color one’s choice. Perhaps the nature of these trainer/client interactions — demanding, assertive and intimidating as opposed to positive, social and friendly — reflect male and female characteristics respectively (Eagly et al, 2000).
The polar opposite effect has also been demonstrated and noted. Male athletes often seek out a male trainer who displays the physical attributes he desires in himself, believing that training with this individual will render him an exact replica in terms of muscularity and testosterone-laden prowess.
These same types of men also tend to view a female trainer as nothing more than “fluff in a uniform”. Underestimating the capabilities of a female personal trainer or athletic coach in terms of strength is another consideration. Testosterone aside, women do possess the ability to achieve incredible amounts of power and strength through proper training and nutritional fueling and are just as capable of directing male clients towards successfully achieving their goals.
Sadly, many men never give women this chance.
Sending the Right Professional Message
Such issues give us pause while also offering an opportunity to learn why such delineations exist. What messages are we as trainers sending to potential clients with regard to our abilities to successfully engage with either gender?
In an attempt to clarify some of these points, one study focused its research on answers provided by interviewees regarding attitudes towards gender bias in trainer selection. While most subjects cited trainer empathy as an important factor, they also admitted to evaluating potential trainers based upon their physiques.
The consensus among female interviewees was that the professional with a “good body” would boost their confidence in acquiring the trainer’s practical knowledge. Furthermore, trainers with attractive physiques were perceived as placing greater emphasis on their own health and would likely pass such motivation on to their clients.
While the majority of subjects clearly equated a sculpted physique with competence, they also recognized that appearance alone failed to indicate knowledge of personal training. Interviewees felt that as long as they achieved results with their own bodies, the trainer’s physique diminished in importance. This sentiment tied into the subjects’ desires to observe positive results achieved by other clients who worked with a particular personal trainer.
The “fun factor” is something that interviewees deemed important toward maintaining motivation and program adherence. Regardless of the experience or competency of a personal trainer or coach, if workouts are not enjoyable, clients’ desires to continue in the relationship deteriorated.
How Trainers Perceive Gender
Gender bias is not the sole realm of the client, either. A trainer with 14 years of experience, Chris Broomhead of Salford, UK admits to a preference for working with female clients, noting a difference in their training mentality. He trains twice as many female clients as male clients.
“I do prefer training women and it’s mainly because males generally have a bigger ego in the gym. Women are just easier to teach, they accept help and advice better, and they are not bothered about admitting that they don’t know how to do something,” Chris explains. “When I started out, I had to ask the guys how to do the ‘big stuff’; everyone starts somewhere. But some men just don’t understand that and don’t want to be seen asking for help.”
Interestingly, one of our own NFPT trainers and blog editor, Michele Rogers, has experienced the opposite in her fitness career. “I’ve trained a lot of men, and have found they are generally far more receptive to my directions and adhere to programs better than most of the women I’ve trained.”
Perhaps there is a cross-gender interaction where egos are less dominant versus same-gendered relationships where similarities and the perception of being judged is more possible.
Special Considerations for Both Genders
Even personal trainers who are highly qualified and have years of experience in the industry might not be aware of key biological/physiological differences with regard to male and female bodies. Knowledge of these aspects can better prepare trainers to engage with clients of either gender. For example, the female body contains more slow-twitch fibers than the male body; as such, women can typically achieve more repetitions than men at any given percentage of their 1RM.
Most women can handle more volume and recover faster between sets than men, especially evidenced in females who are more aerobically fit than muscular. Furthermore, in terms of cultivating lean muscle mass, male clients typically perform optimally with an upper body/lower body training format, or daily body part split, whereas women fare better with whole body routines. Such subtle but important differences can prove invaluable for trainers when embarking upon program design for novice clients.
Putting aside the expected issues with male-female gender biases, LGBTQ individuals deserve additional consideration. There may be members at any gym facility who do not identify with either gender and/or identify as LGBTQ and certainly deserve the same respect and unbiased treatment that shown to cisgender and heterosexual clients.
As potential clients, there may be a bit of hesitation as they ponder which trainer and coach. The trainer’s job is to treat all of the members at their gym, whether they are clients or not, with equal courtesy, dignity and inclusiveness.
If a client shares his/her background and story, engaged listening skills will help determine the method in which this individual wishes to be trained: weight loss, adding lean muscle mass, prepping for a ski trip or hiking adventure, or simply overall wellness. This we do for all of our clients, so sexual preference ought never come into question with regard to professional behavior.
If a client is forthright about being transgendered then treat him/her as any other client with physical goals and potential physical considerations. Asking for a full medical history and about potential hormone replacement therapy is well within your scope of practice for designing an exercise program.
Trainers work with all types of individuals: significantly overweight or underweight, attractive or plain, young, elderly, and those with health conditions such as exercise-induced asthma. Ours is a helping and healing profession above all. Though we may not take an oath to “Do no harm” as is required for physicians, common decency dictates that we treat others as we wish to be treated.
Conversely, how might a potential client react to a fitness professional who is not cisgender or straight? Or later on in the training relationship discover that the trainer does not identify with their birth gender?
If you are such a fitness professional it’s probable you’ve faced such challenges and will continue to through the course of your career. There’s no easy way to navigate this issue in our current social climate. The best approach in the fitness industry is to decide how transparent you want to be about who you are and want to project to your comfort level.
Fill the Need, Don’t Play the Role
What additional considerations might we suggest to a client who is considering personal training? What qualities are they looking for in a trainer?
Asking questions will allow us to assist him/her in greater detail. Is the client concerned with a trainer’s experience with all ages and ability levels, or one with specific knowledge in a particular area (post-partum, competitive bodybuilding, weight management)?
What is the client’s comfort level with regard to a personal trainer’s need for the occasional physical contact required when spotting or pointing out form/body mechanics? Remind the potential client that if this relationship is going to continue over time, communication skills should come under consideration, as well as the ability to cultivate a comfortable working rapport that does not cross any unwanted boundaries.
Parkhouse BL, Williams JM. Differential Effects of Sex and Status on Evaluation of Coaching Ability. Res Q Exercise Sport 57(1): 53-59, 1986.
Williams J, Parkhouse B. Social learning theory as a foundation for examining sex bias in evaluation of coaches. J Sport Exerc Psychol 10(3): 322–333, 1988.
Frey M, Czech DR, Kent RG, et al. An exploration of female athletes’ experiences and perceptions of male and female coaches. Sport J 9(4), 2006.
Medwechuk N, Crossman J. Effects of gender bias on the evaluation of male and female swim coaches. Percept Motor Skill 78: 163-169, 1994.
Maguire JA, Mansfield L. No-body’s perfect: women, aerobics, and the body beautiful. Social Sport J 5(2): 109-137, 1998.
Eagly AH, Wood W, Diekman A. Social role theory of sex differences and similarities: a current appraisal. In: Eckes T, Trautner HM, eds. The Developmental Social Psychology of Gender. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum; 2000: 123–174.