The Unprofessional Fitness Professional

Last week I posted on Facebook ( some grainy photos of a personal training session I stumbled upon in the Pacific Beach area in San Diego. I had parked my truck above the bayside beach to take in the view and draw inspiration for some goal setting and strategic planning I was doing.

Well, I was inspired alright. Inspired to vent my shock and disbelief for what this “trainer” was pulling off as a paid personal training session.

The photos below are from the personal training session I witnessed. As I fitness professional, I was naturally drawn to the isolated personal training session taking place right in front of me in this beautiful setting. Sitting there for ten minutes, I couldn’t take my eyes off what was happening. You know the way people drive by a car accident on the freeway very slowly so they can see what is going on? And then when they catch a glimpse, they can’t pull their eyes away from it? That was me. I watched for another 10:00 and took some pictures.
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When they were all finished with their session (which involved much of the same as the photos show), the trainer packed up his travel kit and put it in his mobile training van. On the way, they walked passed my truck and I caught a sound bite of their conversation. It was the trainer discussing a potential personal purchase he was going to make and the associated investment. It was all about him.

The looks on both their faces, the lack of emotion in their voices and their body language mirrored one another. They reminded me of what my two young daughters look like when they are asked to straighten up their playroom. Hardly inspired would be an understatement.

By the unprecedented number of fitness pros that weighed in on the pictures, it touched a nerve with you too. The comments ranged from hilarious to disbelief. The thread then evolved into ways that we can be constructive and learn from this captured incident.

As I commented on the initial Facebook post, it was unbelievable to see how disengaged this guy was with his client. It literally looked like he was just waiting for the hour to be over. Physically present, but intellectually and emotionally somewhere else.

Several comments suggested that maybe he was training a friend, girlfriend, etc. That thought at first made me pause and want to cut the guy a little slack. But then the quote came to mind; “How you do anything is how you do everything”. If I train a friend or family member, I probably overcompensate to show them how awesome I am :).

We can all hypothesize what made this session what it was or what made this trainer behave this way. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words. Our newest team member at Function First and PTA Global/NASM educator Derrick Price suggested trainer burnout. Definitely a possibility. I’ve never experienced burnout in 23 years of working with clients so I can’t relate, albeit I don’t do more than 20 sessions a week and never start earlier than 9:00 a.m. (cue smart-ass comments about Anthony).

If it is burnout, should his clients still be paying him for a service that looks like that which I witnessed? Should I have swooped in to their session and relieved him (and me) of the tragedy occurring?

Another possibility is that this guy really doesn’t know any better. We have no idea what his educational and/or professional background is. Did he get a certification and suddenly go into business? Did he ever have the opportunity to work alongside or be mentored by some exceptional professional(s)?

We’ll don’t really know the answers to any of these questions. We do know is that the photos evoked a response in most of us. We all need to accept that the responsibility to raise the bar lies with each and every one of us.

What did I learn from this experience and all the posts that went along with it? It made me reflect on the times that I may have dropped the ball with a client during a session. At times, I’ve had brief conversations with my assistant about business related issues in the presence of a client during a session. Or I’ve let a vendor distract me while with a client. Little things compared to what I witnessed on the beach, but things to improve up nonetheless.

Tony Babarino, a Los Angeles area trainer posted a lot of comments. He was so irritated by the photos he set up a page on Facebook for photos of “trainers behaving badly”. Tony wants you to feel free to add your photos My wish would be that we get a good laugh from all this and then apply the lessons so obvious here.

I’m going to leave you with a few words or phrases that I would like someone to use if they were asked to describe a photo of me working with a client. I’d love to hear the same for a session with you.

Dedicated to raising the bar in our industry,


26 Responses to “The Unprofessional Fitness Professional”

  1. Mark says:

    Amazing how the personal training industry is getting more and more saturated with idiots who do not know how to train.
    They make those of us who train to make a difference with our client shake our heads and fists in anger and disappointment.
    On top of this potential clients see the under cutting lower rates some of these useless wanna be trainers charge which makes us look over prices.
    Yes over priced until the client of the so called trainer works out with them then with one of us proffesionals.
    Thanks for the pics Anthony.
    Better Back Fitness

  2. Amanda Vogel says:

    Great post Anthony and I commented in Facebook too.

    It strikes me that part of our effort to elevate the level of professionalism is to educate clients that it’s totally uncool for a trainer to behave in such a detached, uninspired manner.

    I’d say that the experience of being trained should evoke some form of many of the words you listed above as well.

    Thanks for opening up this discussion.


  3. Good for you to share this with all. Because of trainers like this, I’m often embarrassed to admit that I’m actually a personal trainer.

  4. Alicia says:

    As a trainer I definitely feel the frustrations too when running across a trainer such as the one pictured above. However it is my advice to you that you remove the photos posted above or you could get yourself into an unnecessary legal battle. Regardless of how wrong his training techniques, you are just as wrong for taking and posting those photos without the above pictured not signing a release. Just a word of advice. It’s called defamation of character.

  5. Anthony,

    Thanks for posting this! I think this happens way more than people realize, and I have seen trainers eat during sessions as well, and check their cell phone too. I cannot for the life of me figure out why any trainer would think this is acceptable behavior! Too bad, because it gives trainers a bad name, indeed.

    Thanks for bringing it to the forefront.

  6. Ryan Halvorson says:

    Great post, Anthony,

    I agree with Amanda. As an industry we need to teach the client to recognize the difference between good and bad.

    I’ve worked part-time as a personal trainer for 7 years. Only ONCE in that time did a potential client ask me about my experience, credentials and qualifications. It strikes me as odd that so many individuals are willing to blindly give away hundreds of dollars to a stranger without doing any research.

    Guys like this won’t have a job if the consumer is educated on what to look for. Otherwise, guys like this will continue to offer substandard training sessions and get away with it.

  7. Alicia,

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. Can’t say I agree with them though. First, the photos are grainy and taken from a distance. So very difficult to I.D. the person. I would not have posted a clear shot of his face.

    Secondly, defamation of character only occurs if the statement is false and/or is done with malice to harm the individual. These aren’t false statements and they were not done with malice to intentionally harm this trainer. I don’t even know his name.

    I have nothing to gain from using him as an example other than the personal satisfaction that I am not sitting on the sidelines and want to be a voice for our profession.

  8. Erik Petersen says:

    Alicia, unless the parties came forward (and they won’t) nothing to worry about. No names and too difficult to tell who this is from the pics so no worries. Would be different if the faces were clear and names used. Personal Training has to evolve quite a bit above it’s current level to be a useful occupation to earn a living in and pay for so this is a good article by Anthony. Put a bell in the hand of a trainee and they are forced to engage!

  9. Although we all have our flaws and moments where we are “off”, be it personal or business, we should never allow ourselves, especially personal trainers who are professional, to become complacent, lazy, or lose sight of why we do what we do (and get paid well for it).
    Here’s some of my personal quick tips to be “orderly” and on task when training clients (and I’m sure this list could grow!):

    1) Nothing in your hands, except a stop watch (buy a Gymboss!), and keep you hands out of your pockets and don’t cross your arms.
    2) Never slouch, lean, or sit. You’re being paid well, so be attentive.
    3) Always be within two arm lengths of the client
    4) Never have conversations while client performs exercise. Talk during rest.
    5) Dress appropriately & don’t show off. Your arms, cleavage, & legs may look good and probably inspire client, but client already paid, so don’t make them feel even more self-conscious by flaunting your body: work on theirs! (complimentary clothes that flatter your shape is ok).
    6) Never drink, except water (coffee, tea, protein drinks for after!!)
    7) Anything that happens outside your two-arm length rule does NOT matter. Call it the “sphere of influence”.
    8) Treat the elderly and out-of-shape with the exact same kindness, thoughtfulness, and respect you do with the bikini-girl/hottie.
    9) Lead by example and be your own client. If what you know is SO good, what do you look like? Not ripped, but is your tummy flat, posture good, clean-cut, etc?
    10) Over-deliver service and continue to educate yourself to be better, always.
    11) Everyone is always watching. You are being judged, whether you think that is fair or not, it is happening.
    12) Do not get too comfortable with clients. You are hired help for exercise, not their psychologist, therapist, registered dietitian, or doctor. You’ll lose some authority if they learn personal things about you. Keep it all about them when they talk during rest.
    13) Be friendly, not friends. You may violate this, but you’ll add possible complications to the business-side of the relationship.
    14) Be honest, but be cordial about it. You need to protect your authority and the client’s feeling. So use good judgment.
    15) Nobody is the best trainer. That is a client’s individual decision. So, always learn, share with others, and business competition is good but be willing to give and accept credit and compliments.
    16) Unless you have a 4 year or Master’s degree in nutrition, be very super careful and conservative. Trainer’s are guessing and sometime get lucky or cause issues that happen later to clients. Registered Dietitians know more about nutrition than anyone (some are good, some bad, like any other job). So, team up with one or two of them; you’ll look like a genius!
    17) Make exercise fun (but plan intelligently). If they enjoy the hard work you program, they’ll need less motivation from you and they’ll feel empowered.
    18) Don’t use toys just because you have access to them. Make familiar things more interesting. Add toys as needed.
    19) College does not teach everything and often lags behind on knowledge and tools that show up in life. Find information anywhere you can. “Fitness is more often laboratory than library”
    20) Trainers are good guessers. We are not diagnosticians; we are suspectitians. Know what you know, but know what you don’t know!

  10. Thanks for this posting and all of the comments. It touches on a topic that I often think about (and wonder how many other fitness professionals do too).

    I agree that we may not know “exactly” what was going on there and don’t want to criticize without knowing all the facts. But, it is a great way to bring up and discuss how the health & fitness industry is viewed by many outsiders and potential clients. I don’t know to best describe the situation other than “A few bad apples spoils the bunch”. I sometime feel the same as Jean Marie.

    It is great to see that there are many others out there who are trying to defy the “personal trainer” stereotype (i.e. Brad Pitt in Burn After Reading). I am by no means close to perfect and will always strive to do better.

    We are in this industry because we want to help people, and like Anthony, we should be a positive voice and role model for the profession.

  11. Charlie says:

    The funny part is that these clients still pay for these trainers. Which begs the question, are they necessarily looking for exercise? Often times, they could be using personal trainers as cheap therapy, potentially a way to get away from their husband/wives/kids, to pay an expert to micro-manage their health instead of owning it themselves, or perhaps out of fear that they will hurt themselves.

    Our industry is flooded with far too much “expertism” and our continuing education system is forged around training “knowledge”, including exercise programming, new fitness tools, athletic conditioning, etc. However, what i feel we miss the mark on in continuing education and mentorship are things like behavioral change counseling, how to have difficult conversations, how to get out of your own way, etc.

  12. Tom Sadowski says:

    I may be wrong, but it looks like the trainer is doing a good job in these photos demonstrating DB Flyes and the client is completely disinterested, looking around for an escape route.

  13. LOL Tom! It’s all in your perspective. Point well made.

  14. Wonderful tips Mr. Tony Babarino! May I use them in our manual for new trainers? Excellent job! My current aspiration is to work towards having a schedule like Anthony’s! First client at 9am sounds super! LOL!

  15. dawn maclear says:

    This is, exactly, why I prefer group exercise

  16. ben loh says:

    hi Anthony,
    Couldn’t identify what exercises were being done? Was it some meditation type?! The last photo looked like some db flyes. Anyway, point taken if you’re a PT and that’s your client, you should be more attentive and try to push the client (not like Jillian though ;0

    Charlie’s point is valid too… people use (PT / fill in the blanks) as time out to think thru things, or even escape thinking thru things, etc. I know it’s off topic, but should that happen, the PT has to be able to read between the lines and perhaps redirect the client to counsellors. Red flags might include your client booking session after session (or appearing in the gym for multiple exercise sessions).

  17. Gail Accardi says:

    This could have a lot to do with why people think they can train via YouTube. A video can’t tell you if what you’re doing could cause injury. Since he’s not looking at her, maybe that guy couldn’t either.

  18. Trina Gray says:

    Thanks for the investigative work and strong reminder that fitness is about people, more than pounds or sessions.

  19. janine moniot says:

    There is still a social responsibility to protect people from potentially lethal large scale criticism and embarrassment and this approach is the antithesis of that. It is possible that this and other trainers are/will be identifiable by scenario, activity whatever and that seems deeply inappropriate.

    Many of us do not suffer from any form of mental illness inclusive of depression but many others have and disinterest, lack of focus, flat affect are symptoms as well and compounding any potential underlying problems with social stigma–should be reconsidered.

    Education does not have to be derisive and there has never been a profession that has been able to “weed out” mental health issues, monetary focus above community focus, ego issues of a human being and I vote this site be removed because suicide is real and any provocation in that direction creates tragedies for families, friends and critics. We can do better than high-schoolers–at least I hope so. Anyone amongst you willing to have the world see your worst driving moment, your worst parenting moment, your worst professional error over and over without end?

  20. Janine, thank you for your thoughtful comments. Admittedly, I never considered the possibility that this trainer potentially had some mental illness. Although, I did purposefully do my best to avoid identifying him through the distance/quality of the photos, not providing his name or company name or even the exact location where I took the photos.

    I don’t think any of us would ever want to see mental or emotional harm come to this trainer or any trainer as a result of the comments. Some folks were definitely out of line and got off topic.

    It seems the majority of comments both here and on the original Facebook post were people’s reactions to his performance as a representation of what many trainers do wrong or their lack of professionalism and not necessarily a direct attack on him. Although some comments seemed as if there were directed specifically at the individual, in my opinion they were really directed more at what this individual represented to our industry.

    I agree education does not have to be derisive. And we have no business trying to “weed out” mental health issues (assuming that mental illness is contributing to the case here). I do believe part of the visceral response by so many was due to the fact that the fitness profession is not formerly regulated. And that was my one of my reasons for the original posting. I was hoping a lesson could be learned from it versus a personal attack on the individual.

    We regularly see examples of the news media displaying video or photos of professionals who are entrusted by the public (law enforcement, medical professionals, politicians, etc.) behaving inappropriately or unprofessionally. Is that right or wrong? I don’t know.

    And should that same public scrutiny apply to that professional, if they were doing something inappropriately in their own backyard while off-duty? I wouldn’t think so.

    But I do know that if we position ourselves to the public where they entrust us with their health and their money, we have an obligation to uphold a level of professionalism and trust to that person. We should always be on our best behavior when representing ourselves publicly. To me, what made this particular incident so relevant, was that this training session was occurring in a very public place.

    Your point is extremely well taken: I would never want many of my personal faux pas showing up for eternity on the internet. Due to my own discretion and standards, I’d like to think there is less chance of any such professional blunders showing up.

    The more comments that are posted here and on Facebook seem to raise more and more issues. You have added to that and I thank you.

    1. Should I have even posted this pictures in the first place? More than a hundred people have seen it as an opportunity to express their thoughts on his behavior. A handful thought it was unprofessional of me to post the pictures. Two people wrote to me and thought that I did it as a self-serving marketing ploy.

    Four years ago I might have just used those pictures in a presentation for 50 trainers. Now with social media and my blog, it reached thousands. If my intention was for their to be a lesson in the post, is it better the lesson reached fifty or several thousand trainers?

    2. Is it OK for a trainer to behave this way as long as someone is willing to pay him/her for the service?

    3. Is it the responsibility of other trainers to intervene in some way when they see another trainer that is not their subordinate behaving this way?

    4. If this sort of behavior pepetuates the fitness industry, does it have a negative impact on the public’s perception of fitness professionals as a whole?

    I would assume if this trainer found himself in these pictures and the associated posts that he would be pretty upset. More than once I’ve thought about what I would do if contacted me because of my posts. And I genuinely would want to meet him and give him the opportunity to share his side of the story. And I would make that available to anyone who wanted to hear about it as well.

    Thank you again for your input and more for all of us to consider.

  21. janine moniot says:

    Thank you for such an inclusive response. It generated some more questions in me. When I think about personal trainers I think health care professional not politician –who have made a choice to be in the public limelight. Client privacy is quintessential to health care. Is there any risk that anyone on the beach could identify either one of them? Would a breech of client privacy lend itself to a favorable image of your professionalism? With professional regulation what consequences would play out if any for someone looking away?

    Maybe it is the vividness of the memory of each person I have loved that has committed suicide. Maybe it is because of spending the wk end in the ER this Halloween hoping that my family member would not lose much function from a serious suicide attempt or the statistics that 47% of the population have episodes of clinical depression and the proven capacity of social rejection or just personal rejection to cause someone to make whatever wrong choices that are available to us, humans. Because stress does that, or the unique circumstances of being an educator for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill that all combine to make me say there are potential complications here.

    There are probably very few folks in my circumstances so if it continues to work for you -as in feels right–(although note people don’t feel wrong easily)–to designate concerns over unknown people’s potential functioning –as outlier concerns. And you value/identify this process as one that is creating compelling momentum to initiate a reduction of less sophisticated trainers and more benefit for the herd–as they say– which is what your current action of continuing the post demonstrates – then know that being wrong to me doesn’t interfere with my positive regard. In wrongology it goes you assume someone is ignorant, you attempt to teach them and when they don’t get it you think they are an idiot and then if they don’t get it you think they are evil. I won’t do that with you.

    I highly respect your professional sophistication. I also think there can be value in exploring social forums. I certainly did not think that you needed to promote/market your exceptional skills in such a forum. However, I, as a small minority, was and am concerned over the risk benefit of this exercise.

    I don’t think defensive humans are prone to open mindedness about whether to dust or vacuum first. I doubt that if this person were to call you the phone call would have the outcome of his taking yours or someone elses seminar to improve skill set. But I will think good thoughts for a good outcome for your passion.



  22. Tim says:

    Anthony how much responsibility should the customer hold in this picture ?

  23. Great question Tim. I really don’t know and would love to hear other’s thoughts on this. If she has no other reference, she might think this is the way a personal training session is supposed to be. Or, she is just looking for a “rent-a-friend” for her workout.

    This is part of the whole challenge with a trainer practicing this way: The public perception of what a personal trainer is and does.

  24. Professionalism as a Personal Trainer can be defined by many things – however ultimately being a ‘professional’ should mean actually caring for your client and the results they achieve.

    Body language is a powerful method of assessing whether a Personal Trainer is engaged in the session and ‘cares’ about their client.

    Brendan Rigby
    Inspire Fitness for Wellbeing

  25. Janine I do appreciate what you have been saying….
    Anthony I agree the photo is not a “Professional Look” It would seem that the natural progression for this Trainer would be to find work else where if this was any where close to the norm for his sessions.
    Although I do want to say that as a long term PT, we too like all Professionals can have days where we do not want to go to work. Or find ourselves worrying about something, be it financial or personal. Of course this needs to be overcome if you are to succced in this industry. And as a PT like all jobs we can reflect a little on the industry as a whole. At the end of the day we are all human though and yes we do make mistakes. It s how we learn from them that counts. Lastly I do think people are way to quick to judge other people these days , me included.
    Heres hoping he had lots of shit going on and it was not a usual session for him.

    Richie PT as well as person

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