Gyms and fitness centers offer a lot of equipment and many in New York City even offer a free personal training session with your subscription. Great, right?
If it sounds too good to be true, then it is.
According to an investigative journal piece in Slate, many popular gyms and fitness clubs throughout New York CIty, including some of the most expensive ones, hire trainers cheaply in order to maintain higher profits. And as with many things in life, often times you get what you pay for.
What does that mean?
Because the exercise and fitness industries have little to no regulation, gyms and clubs can literally hire anyone. Some gyms don’t even look for trainers with certifications and the ones that do don’t specify the type of certification required. This means someone can take a quick 30 minute course, pay a small fee and call themselves a certified trainer. More legitimate certifications, such as ACSM, NASM and NSCA, do exist of course, but they require more time and investment to become certified.
It means the person who is responsible for pushing your cardiovascular, muscular and nervous systems, for jacking up your heart rate and blood pressure, for stressing your muscles, joints and ligaments, for stimulating the production and secretion of vital hormones, for knowing how the medications you take impact the workouts you should do, might not have any certifications or licenses whatsoever that makes them qualified.
I have worked with many clients in which I had to “clean up the mess” that previous trainers had helped create through improper exercise technique and inappropriate training styles.
Moreover, personal trainers in many fitness clubs are often overworked and underpaid, especially when you consider the high prices that the more expensive gym chains charge. While health clubs have become a $24 billion industry in the U.S., figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimate the median pay for fitness trainers is $34,980 an year, well below the median household income of $53,657. Trainers are routinely hired and forced to start recruiting clients despite not having any experience or any certifications.
Not sure what to look for? Find out more about personal trainers in our How To Pick A Personal Trainer article.
In one survey of fitness professionals, two-thirds of the 2,700 certified trainers interviewed admitted knowing trainers they considered incompetent (National Board of Fitness Examiners).
Gyms and fitness clubs are great for those already familiar with equipment but otherwise getting results can be tough and risky without a trainer. So it is vital that you do some research on what requirements your gym has of their trainers and ask to see a specific trainer's proof of certification. Even if you only use the gym trainer to explain how to operate the equipment, trainers themselves are often misinformed and can give you inaccurate information, potentially leading to muscle strains and injury.
In almost any service you pay for, don’t you expect and demand that the person be qualified and credentialed? Even your hairdresser has had to undergo more schooling and examination than the average personal trainer. So why should a personal trainer be any less vetted?
There are serious orthopedic, cardio-respiratory and metabolic risks in working with an under-qualified trainer who may not possess the expertise, knowledge, experience, nuance and finesse to adapt an exercise program to your individual needs.
"I stopped a training session with a client last year because he was having minor chest tightness. He ended up needing a triple bypass surgery a week later. If I had 'pushed' him or just didn't have the training to know better, this client may have had a heart attack, either during one of our sessions or on his own. Instead, he called his doctor that day. This is just one example of what's at stake." - Mark
Finding the right trainer who you trust can be transformative and it is vital for long-term success, for being safe, staying motivated, having fun and accomplishing your goals. Having a reputably certified trainer who truly knows what she is doing, who listens to you and who has the knowledge and creativity to adapt scientific principles to your individual needs will make the difference between success and the alternatives. So do your homework: ask a lot of questions, be skeptical at first, confirm their certifications and credentials, listen to your body, don’t be afraid to say no during a session if something feels off. It is your body, your health and your decision, no one else’s.
What you need to know:
The bottom line is always the bottom line! The more qualified a trainer is, the more a gym has to pay her/him. Therefore, gyms often go with the low-cost option and as in many things in life, you get what you pay for.
Gyms pay trainers based on how many clients they train and not based on their education level (New York Times). This incentivises trainers to become great sales-people but not necessarily highly-educated trainers. Don't get me wrong; experience matters, but it should not take place at the expense education and certifications.
The fitness industry has fought state and federal legislation to regulate personal trainers for this very reason.
There are efforts taking place to create standardized state-wide and national certification and licensing requirements (National Board of Fitness Examiners). It is a changing landscape, so stay tuned.
A study of health-and-fitness professionals recently published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that being certified by a reputable organization such as ACSM, NASM and NSCA had the greatest impact on how personal trainers performed on a test of basic fitness knowledge. Not years of experience, not chest and bicep size, not over-confidence, not a college degree, not being over the age of 18 with a high-school diploma.
A personal trainer with less reputabe certifications, or none at all, with little experience and no formal college degree in fitness or health related subjects, scores 36% on average in a test of basic fitness knowledge.
So make sure he or she has a reputable, evidence-based certification that demonstrates a baseline of competency and commitment. But then go further and make sure you connect with and trust this person, as sometimes a certification alone isn’t enough.
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4. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research