Working Closely and at a Proper Distance

More and more there are articles touting the importance of personal fitness trainers forming an emotional connection with their clients for success and retention. But, can a trainer become too friendly with a client? How friendly is too friendly?

When people allow trainers into the deep, and sometimes dark, depths of their world, often the people change their perception of the trainers. The trainers become viewed as friends and family members. Of course. Family and friends are the ones who hear our deepest secrets and who learn everything about us.

Trainers ought to allow dialogue no matter how difficult it is to hear, but stay detached in order to draw a line between being a professional and posing as a friend. Trainers: you’re not a friend. You’re a professional. You’re not a therapist, by the way, either. You are a personal fitness trainer who obtains counseling skills (hopefully).

It is ethical for a trainer to provide general counseling, which mostly means listening. I tell trainers, “If you’re talking, you’re not an effective counselor. Sh! Listen. Otherwise, you’ll miss something important.“

When I was in college, I took a class that involved practicing counseling. The students were divided into pairs-one student was the counselor and the other was the client-and then we switched. At one point my teacher asked, “Jeanne, which are you?“ I told her that I was the counselor. She asked, “Then, why are you talking so much?“ That stuck with me. Those two simple questions have been instrumental in me being an excellent counselor.

A trainer who is an effective counselor may listen to a client’s love life woes, but will not advise on it. “Just dump him“ is not appropriate for a trainer to say. Rather, “I know of a good marriage/family therapist“ is within the boundaries of a trainer to say.

Another important aspect includes maintaining confidentiality. Just as one shouldn’t disclose clients’ percentage of body fat, one shouldn’t share their other personal and professional issues.

Also, trainers should keep their personal views to themselves, especially those that are non-health related. They should remember that they are hired to teach the facts about exercise.

I can’t think of anyone in my professional life, particularly clients, who knows my view on abortion, politics, war, religion, or managing finances. It doesn’t matter what my views are on those topics. That’s not why I’m hired. All my clients need to hear from me are the facts about health and fitness.

Another way that I draw boundaries is that I don’t allow former clients to become friends and I don’t allow friends to become clients. Former clients will always view me as a counselor and will continue to tell me their problems. As for friends, I answer their health questions, but never charge them.

How close is too close of a connection with a client? That is up to individuals to decide. I keep my business life very separate from my personal life. I don’t socialize with my clients unless I am attending an event to support them. I have many offers ranging from a night at the movies to marriage proposals; all of which I turn down.

Trainers should also know their boundaries with regard to touch. Before a fitness evaluation I have clients fill out an informed consent, which explains what tests I will perform. It is obvious that I will have to touch the client to perform the tests. At the beginning of the second appointment, I ask the client if it is alright if I touch him. I don’t assume that a client will be comfortable with touch. Some people, particularly those who have been abused, are very uncomfortable with touch. After I ask if it is alright to touch, I explain why I would want to: Touching an exercising muscle 1) adds stimulation to the muscle sight, 2) offers a client understanding as to which muscle is working, 3) tells me that the correct muscle is working.

Health club owners and fitness directors should discuss with their trainers what is expected of them as a counselor and what expectations exist with respect to drawing boundaries. This dialogue will be based on the club’s mission statement.

I know of one trainer who became friends with a client. During a workout, they goofed off on a Roman chair. The client injured her back and filed a claim against the trainer. So much for being friends.

About the Author

Jeanne “Bean“ Murdock, is the owner Beanfit Health and Fitness Services. She is the host/producer of Celiac Radio and the author of “Ask Bean“, an online column and “Successful Dating at Last! A Workbook for Understanding Each Other“ and “The Every Excuse in the Book Book: How to Benefit from Exercising, by Overcoming Your Excuses.“ Contact Jeanne for more information at 805-226-9893 or through her website at


These resources are for the purpose of personal trainer growth and development through Continuing Education which advances the knowledge of fitness professionals. This article is written for NFPT Certified Personal Trainers to receive Continuing Education Credit (CEC). Please contact NFPT at 800.729.6378 or [email protected] with questions or for more information.
Get 35% off certification packages

Celebrating 35 years

We’re celebrating 35 years with 35% off!

Our biggest discount EVER!

Get 35% off certification packages.