elitefts™ Sunday edition

The Clueless Trainer Paradox

My name is Timmy, and some of you will probably remember me from this.

Despite the obvious rocky beginning, I’ve actually done pretty well for myself in the fitness industry. After being turned on to “The Darkside” all those years ago, I’ve made a career for myself as an in-demand personal trainer, managed several personal training departments, and currently manage a training facility in a major metropolitan area. And if I do say so myself, I’ve also gotten respectably strong along the way.

Being involved in both commercial fitness and powerliftng, I’m frequently approached by lifters who want to make the jump into personal training, either as their first career, or as a switch from an unrelated career. Usually the assumption in both cases, is that the lessons under the bar will translate directly into the training of others.

Unfortunately however, this is rarely the case, at least not in the beginning. While you, as a strength athlete, understand the basics of improving human performance, the rest of the industry – for the most part – does not. Furthermore, fitness companies do not as a rule, emphasize the most effective means of training…they generally push the most marketable. What other explanation could there be for super-slow training?

At times, it’s a little like being the only sane person in a world full of lunatics. Now don’t get me wrong, my reason for starting this series is NOT to deter you from getting into the fitness business. If anything, I hope that by sharing my insights, experiences, rants and horror stories, I can help you to become a leader in this absolutely ass-backwards business. For God’s sake – we need you.

In this, the first part of the series, I'm going to do my best to explain what I call the “Clueless Trainer Paradox.” This is a phenomenon you see mostly in commercial gyms and while you might aspire to own a club one day, the odds are pretty good that you will at least start your career in the typical “Globogym” setting. Most of us do.

As you will find out, most personal trainers actually know surprisingly little about things like program design, motor learning, exercise physiology and even basic exercise technique. Although the industry improved in recent years, a sizable percentage of trainers still consist of meatheads, aspiring singers/actors/dancers/models and “free spirits” who just aren’t cut out for a “real” job.

You would think that knowing almost nothing about your own profession would, you know, prevent you from being successful at it, but oddly enough, this is not the case. In fact, it is often the opposite.

If you’ve spent any time at all in the commercial gym setting, you’ve probably noticed that it’s not uncommon for the most clueless trainers in the club to be the highest booking, while their more advanced co-workers barely scrape by.


Although this phenomenon may seem like a fluke, it’s not. There are some pretty damn good reasons why it works out this way. Once you can identify them, you can change your strategy and beat them at their own game.

Reason 1: Everyone’s an “Expert”

Think about the last time you got your oil changed. When you drop your car off at the Quickie Lube, do you demand to see the mechanic/technician’s credentials, ask him how long he’s been changing oil, or quiz him on his knowledge of the internal combustion engine? Probably not. If you’re like most of us, you just hand your keys to the first guy you see in a dirty blue jumpsuit, assuming he will not pour five pints of oil into your radiator.

Would you even think to ask him if he actually works there?

Most people are the same way with trainers. They walk into a gym, see an in-shape guy/girl in a shirt that says “Trainer” and just assume that the said "trainer" actually knows what they are doing.

The mistake many competent trainers make is to assume that clients can actually tell the difference. Do you really think that a middle-aged accountant setting foot into a gym for the first time is going to be able to tell the difference between a CSCS and an ACE certification?

The Solution

The first step to overcoming the clueless trainer paradox is to recognize that in the eyes of the members, you are all equal. This doesn’t seem like much, but once you accept this fact, you will drop the frustration and begin to put together a real game plan.

I’ve seen way too many good trainers go down in flames because they expected prospective clients to just inherently recognize their superiority.

Reason 2: Most Clients Don't Like to Work Very Hard

Training hard scares most people, but not for the reasons you may think. It’s not always the pain of the work itself they are afraid of. Most of the time, they are afraid of failure. When a lifter misses a weight in training, it’s really no big deal right? They might get pissed of course, but they recognize it as just a part of the process.

Now picture yourself in a totally foreign and intimidating environment, self-conscious about your physique and not confident in your abilities, all while surrounded by people in way better shape than you, that you just know are quietly judging you. Now it’s time to try something that everyone else in the room can do easily, but you are going to suck at.

For most of us, it would be like entering a bodybuilding contest or powerlifting meet without actually having trained for it.

Sound like a good time?

This is what most clients feel like the moment they get a look at your chains and Prowler®.

This truth can be frustrating to us darksiders because we have a very hard time with the idea of walking people through B.S. workouts. We know that training hard is the ONLY way to accomplish your goals, and when we don’t work someone hard, we feel like we’re cheating them.

Clueless trainers on the other hand, have no problem going easy on everyone because it’s likely that they have never really put a hard day’s training in either.

Now if you’re a brand new member, who’s probably apprehensive at just the thought of exercise, which trainer do you think you’re going to be drawn to? The big dude with the shaved head who’s got his client doing pull-ups with chains over their shoulders, or the 165-pound metrosexual, who’s client is doing 30-pound pulldowns while telling a funny story about her cat?

The solution

Judge prospective clients on their terms, not yours. What we consider a ridiculously easy workout might still be more work than your client would ever be able to accomplish on their own. As they gain experience and confidence, you can start to transition them to harder, more effective training modalities.

Beat them up right from the get-go, and they might never step in a gym again, or worse, they’ll waste time and money with someone who will take them nowhere. Trust me, they are much better off with your “easy workout” than they are with a clueless trainer’s. As the client improves and gains confidence, you can gradually start challenging them more and more. Pretty soon they will be training circles around the same members (and trainers) that once intimidated them.

Not only that, but the rest of the membership will see two things when they watch you on the training floor (trust me, they are always watching). They will see that you not only have the ability to adjust to any skill level, but they will also see your clients progress from beginner to badass.

Reason 3: Most Clients Are Also Gullible

It's a sad fact, but most otherwise smart clients will believe anything their trainer tells them. Why? Two reasons:

  1. First, there's the oil change analogy mentioned earlier. If the clueless trainer looks the part, they are already an “expert” in most potential client's eyes.
  2. Second, crappy training tends to have better public relations than good training. This is not an accident. The more trainers a gym has on the floor, the more money they can make. Thus, it makes financial sense to push training modalities that literally anyone can learn and implement with minimal training. Even if the modality happens to be stupid.

I’m lookin’ at you body pump.

This will make your job exponentially more difficult because it’s hard enough to convince your middle-aged housewife that squats are superior to the “butt blaster” without every other “expert” in the place telling her the opposite. Generally, most people will choose to believe that the easier exercise is more effective because they want it to be.

We don’t make it any easier on ourselves in our approach either. When trying to settle the great “squats vs. butt blaster debate” most knowledgeable trainers will explain it in terms of things like biomechanics and fiber recruitment. Generally, it doesn’t work. Most people will just "yes" you to death so that you leave and they can get back to their butt blaster.

The Solution

Sell results, not science.

The next time you catch yourself pontificating to a prospect about the intricacies of moderate vs. wide-stance squatting, try reminding yourself that the odds are very good that this person owns a ShakeWeight.

The average member doesn’t care about the science of training. That’s why they don’t have an Exercise Physiology degree or advanced certification and you do. Instead of focusing on the science of correct training, focus on tangible results.

Don’t knock yourself out trying to explain why, for example, weight training is important to weight loss…show them.

Use your existing clients as your calling card. Show the prospect some assessment records, as well as before and after photos of your best success stories (assuming you have your clients’ permission of course). Some clients will even be happy to serve as references for you.

If the rest of the local trainers are just putting their people through the motions, the differences should be striking.

Reason 4: The Clueless Trainers are Out-Working You

This is the harshest reality of them all, but if you take just one lesson to heart here, take this one.

No one is successful by accident. If a trainer is able to out-book you despite offering an inferior product, then you really need to stop focusing on what they do wrong, and find out what they are doing right. In most cases, the answer is that they are out-working you.

Earlier in my career I worked as a trainer for a high-end fitness company, located in one of the richest neighborhoods in the country. The gym catered to not only the super-rich, but numerous A-list celebrities. This gym, like most other major companies had a strict policy against independent trainers, allowing members to train only with the in-house staff.

There was one trainer however, who due to her extensive celebrity client-base, was allowed to not only bill clients and manage her business independently, but she was even promoted by the club, despite the fact that she was technically competing for our business.

Needless to say, we hated her with a passion and whenever there were more than three of us in a room, the topic would inevitably turn to what a piss-poor trainer she was.

On one hand, we had a point. She didn’t have any real credentials to her name, and she didn’t seem to have much of a grasp on even the basics of program design. Most of her workouts were a random mish-mash of bodybuilding and steady-state cardio. Tons of enthusiasm, but not much substance. I would say that a least half of the trainers on staff were well beyond her in terms of knowledge and abilities.

But while we were bitching and moaning in our crappy little break room, she was out there hustling. While we picked her training style apart like a group of wash-women, she was leveraging her client base to pick up higher profile clients, raising her rates, and negotiating bigger and better deals with some of the biggest players in the fitness business.

While she might not have been able to teach a proper squat, she could damn sure build a business.

While you may not encounter anyone with this level of success at your club, you will absolutely run into trainers with seemingly more success than they deserve. Your first mistake is assuming that they are somehow more successful than you by some evil twist of fate. Your second mistake will be to waste time and energy trashing them to anyone who’ll listen (like I did), rather than paying attention to how they did it. Building a successful business isn’t rocket science, but it isn’t easy either. If you want to be successful, you’re going to have to earn it.

Here are a few strategies that work:

Set up camp in the gym – If you want to catch a lot of fish, you need to cast as big of a net as possible. When you’re starting from zero, this will mean becoming a fixture in the club. The trainers who book up fast in the beginning are the ones who dedicate the most time to it. Therefore, 90 percent of success is showing up.

Be friendly – This seems like a no-brainer, but you'd be amazed by how many trainers are downright stand-offish, especially when they start to get frustrated or burnt out. Building a client base is about relationship building. Be friendly, learn the members’ names, engage them in conversation without pitching them. When they need help, they will go to who they feel comfortable with.

Be helpful, not pushy – You don’t want the reputation among members of being pushy or aggressive, but you should still go out of your way to be helpful. If you see someone doing something wrong, politely ask if you can make a suggestion. If after helping them, it’s obvious they’re interested, go ahead and try to close the deal, or at least offer a comp session. If they seem hesitant, just give them the free advice and move on. After a while of doing this, the people you’ve helped in the past will start to seek you out, especially when it becomes obvious your clients are having success with you.

When the time is right, pull the trigger – You wouldn’t believe how many trainers fail because they are too afraid to make a sale. It’s kind of like a first date. If you don’t go for the kiss when the time is right, you wind up in the “friend zone." When you finish a comp session, you must go for the close. Don’t worry about coming off as a salesman, the prospect knows that this is what you do for a living. If you’ve provided a great service, you should go into a close assuming they are interested.

Build a referral system – Referrals are the number one sales tool you have. Don’t just expect your clients to pass your name on – give them incentives to. I’ve had success by offering free sessions in exchange for referrals. Encourage clients to try group or semi-private training with a friend. As I mentioned earlier, your clients are your calling card. Use them!

If a sub-par trainer can get referrals from their clients, so can you.

Remember, there is more to eliminating the clueless trainer paradox then simply doing what they cannot. You also need to kick their asses at what they CAN do.