Read Frank Bruni’s Op-Ed, “Our Pulchritudinous Priesthood” to put my response in context.
By equating personal trainers with animals (“chimp[s]”) and inanimate objects (“Mr. Potato Head[s]”), Mr. Bruni’s article derides the thousands of serious professionals who make their living by improving the physiques and functioning of those in their charge. As a fitness professional with a decade of training experience—and a graduate degree in the field—I certainly agree that there are some training certifications that have abhorrently low standards for one to join its ranks.
Unfortunately, these dilettante trainers perpetuate exercise myths espoused with equal ignorance by some of the biggest celebrity trainers. The serious fitness professional, who has taken the time to learn the scientific foundations necessary to practice this craft at a high level—exercise physiology, biomechanics, anatomy, program design, kinesiology, and motor learning—must constantly fight against the fiction on TV and in magazines that has infiltrated the minds of uneducated consumers, and who must also push back against the unflattering, one-sided portrayal of trainers championed in this op-ed.
Just as there are dilettante trainers there are also dabbling clients who give a lackluster effort during our training sessions or who seek an empathetic companion to coddle them through their workouts. They are satisfied paying a fortune to outsource effort and perhaps that is why such clients never know us to be anything more than “paid listeners,” “paid talkers,” or “priests”: they don’t require us to access the stored information that we would love to employ but don’t get the pleasure of using with them. It is only with the committed, engaged clients that we can reach into the memory banks for and implement undulating pyramid schemes or other torturous training tools.
Mr. Bruni points to the fact that trainers are easily customizable, molding to the needs and goals of our clients—hence, the Mr. Potato Head reference. I would argue, though, that the flexibility needed to service such a wide variety of clients requires a far greater working knowledge of evidence-based practices and a commitment to continuing education. Unlike doctors, who develop a specialty after an initial period of standardized medical training, trainers have to be specialists in multiple fields in order to service the “general” population, of which Mr. Bruni appears to be one. A cardiologist will not have to treat a woman with hip pain but trainers often work with clients who have cardiac and joint problems. We field the most common request of weight loss while managing to tackle specialty issues like pre-partum fitness and marathon training to post-surgical protocols and cancer recovery.
While some clients may truly be “self-indulgent,” hiring trainers to maintain their standing among wealthy peers, I certainly wouldn’t use Bruni’s label to describe the bulk of my clients: an early 30s cancer survivor learning to walk after having had multiple leg muscles cut out, a mid-60s woman needing strength and balance to mitigate the effects of the autoimmune disease scleroderma, post-surgical hip and knee replacement clients whose medical insurance no longer cover physical therapy, boomers in need of structured exercise guidance for the first time in their lives, or morbidly obese clients addressing their impending health crises.
Throughout the training process with any one of these clients trust increases and friendships can follow. Yes, clients confide in me about personal struggles and other topics that are too delicate to share with others. Being a confidante is a large responsibility and the sensitivity with which I approach each circumstance helps to reaffirm the strength of our relationship, one that must be sturdy enough to withstand the long-term setbacks from unwelcome medical diagnoses, divorce, and even death in the family. Likewise, a partner in the training process can help clients celebrate the triumphs of improved physiques, new personal records, and greater confidence which they can bring into other areas of their lives.
Gym memberships, despite their expense these days, do not include exercise know-how. Members who sign up for training may have a variety of motivations and intentions for taking such a step. But, rather than thinking the worst of these clients and their trainers, perhaps Mr. Bruni could hunt for the serious training pairs dotting his gym floor. We might not create a big spectacle or monopolize the machines but, if he should spot a trainer staring intently at a client’s hip position on a lunge and scribbling notes, take heart: we are there.
-Carolyn Appel, MA, CSCS