In the early days of my fitness career I worked as security in pubs and clubs to supplement my income. We felt ‘bouncer’ was derogatory – although in those days for many, quite apt! We called ourselves ‘door supervisors’. This wasn’t pretentiousness or title inflation (unlike the conflict managers!); it was really just to give a much needed image change.

What’s in a name?

I have noticed something similar happening in the fitness industry. Given, we aren’t yet hearing titles like ‘muscular development technician’. But there is a shift from those calling themselves a personal trainer (PT) to ‘coach’ – today’s preferred handle.

This is presented not just as a different name for the same job. There is an increasing number of articles desperately justifying that these terms are not interchangeable and that there are is a chasm between them.

To save you the web search I’ll sum up; the coach is described favourably and the obviously better choice. The PT is painted as an incompetent rent-a-twat, if usually well-meaning, but ultimately useless. 

Many in the fitness business are neither coaches nor PTs and give legitimate practitioners a bad name. Instead, they are wannabe drill sergeants, friends for hire or bored looking rep counters who stand next to their client playing on their phone. They are not offering a service at all.

The articles you find online discussing the differences between PTs and coaches highlight that the industry is unregulated and there are different levels of ability, skill, service, value and results depending who you pick. 

It is futile to use job titles to avoid the bad eggs. When someone changes their title from trainer to coach, it does not elevate them from the rabble. Even the ineptest could do the same. There are no hard and fast rules in what differentiates coaches from trainers and I’m not convinced there is any difference at all, so do not read too much into some ambiguous title – instead look at what they do and how they do it.

Industry standards

A person may be a fitness professional but that does not make it a profession. Being a trainer or coach does not require any formal training, there is no compulsory governing body or peer reviews or a protective title involved. 

A person’s affiliations, training or education can be unrelated to their ability. I’ve been on fitness courses that have left me entertained instead of educated and feeling like a customer rather than a student. The average fitness qualification is loaded with just enough exposure to digestible information to give the illusion that some sort of learning has taken place. Really, most certificates only mark attendance and exposure to information, not competency.

I don’t even think years in the industry are a useful indicator either. Who wants someone stuck in their ways? Regurgitating the same stuff year in, year out is not experience, it’s just mindless repetition and suggests it wasn’t particularly good in the first place! Experience is what has been achieved over the span of a career to date, and most importantly, what was achieved most recently. There should be clear and continued progression and ongoing effort to improve if years active are to mean anything.

Watch out for trainers saying ‘I follow the latest research.’ You want someone who uses time tested methods, has some of their own insights and doesn’t just jump on the latest bandwagon. They need to be open to new ideas, but not copying whatever they saw five minutes ago on YouTube.

Many come into the industry under the illusion that because they like working out, they should be a trainer. They usually fail in the attempt to turn their hobby into a job, fewer will be able to make this their livelihood and hardly any will turn this into a career or a business. Before you go checking which PT has the nicest house, be aware you can only read so much into this. It may have more to do with luck or inheritance! Remember popularity has nothing to do with quality. 

Also, a bit of professionalism won’t go amiss. The trainer should be reliable, friendly, have a decent work ethic and a good nature. Clients will have to spend a fair amount of time with whomever they hire. If they are unbearable to be around, it wouldn’t matter how good they are. Even if they were Yoda and Mr Miyagi’s lovechild, they just won’t get many clients with a bad attitude.

The trainer should also be in reasonable shape. Not because it matters if ‘they’ve gone through it themselves’, but I think it is important that they practice what they preach. No one wants a seasick captain at the helm do they?

There is just no one measure that can determine expertise – unfortunately even a combination of qualifications, experience, achievements, longevity and general impression is no guarantee. You’ll just need to see who is the best fit for you.

What personal training isn’t

We’ve all seen those clichéd fitness personalities, smiling so wide it looks like they slept with a coat hanger in their mouth, animated, bouncy and looking like they could do better as kids’ TV presenters. You see them on shows rifling through people’s cupboards, binning all their snacks, taking the client to the park to run up and down hills and stairs and when they aren’t training them, they are constantly checking in, or sending little motivational quotes throughout the day. It makes for a good show but a client doesn’t need 24/7 support from a stalker, and all this is not a viable service to offer. 

Contrast this to some of the online coaching I have seen being offered that is almost completely automated, with a subscription for set workout plans. This has attracted idle ‘trainers’ who are more interested in self-promotion, convenience and making a scalable business than actually offering real coaching. Personal training is by and large a 1:1 time for cash business; an occasional video call from their car whilst they are slurping a coffee is not coaching and it is unacceptable to pretend otherwise.

Getting the most out of your trainer

Hiring a trainer is not the same as getting in a tradesperson. You aren’t outsourcing who needs to do the work and you are buying a service, not the results themselves. You need to decide what service would be the most help.

If you just want someone to review your routine, check over your form or give a bit of advice, you don’t need more than a session or two. However, this isn’t coaching, which is a much longer term affair. The type and amount of sessions, the frequency or the duration of coaching will vary greatly depending on the client’s needs and likely to change over time.

You can’t go in expecting instant results or ‘transformations’ or have a shopping list of demands on what you expect to achieve and how you want to do it. If that’s the case, you’re best off training yourself with whatever ‘product’ offers the cheapest, most convenient or quickest fix. Because it isn’t going to work, so at least waste as little time and money as possible until you realise this or for the fitness-urge to pass. Lasting results are an investment – they take time, effort and coaching. 

To maximise the benefits you will have to have a little faith, trust the trainer and the process. This will mean giving up a bit of control, at least in the early days. It’s unlikely you’ve hired a fortune teller in a tracksuit. They won’t know exactly how you’ll respond to the training, if you’ll do it, your preferences or whatever random events will appear in the future that require a radical shift in your programme. Hence there is no need for an intricately detailed plan. Usually a general template can be used with only minor adjustments. 

As time goes on and you and the trainer get to know each other better, the plan will become more bespoke, a blend of what you want and what the trainer feels you need. Mutual respect is a must. At this point client feedback and input is essential, the client and trainer are now working together and the coaching truly begins.

In short, choose the person, not the title.