You trust your PT, right? They trained for months before earning their job title, surely? Actually, it might not be so straightforward. WH investigates how to tell the gym chancers from the game changers
How well trained is your PT?
If you’re a woman and you’re into health and fitness (and we assume you are – you’re perusing this mag, after all), chances are you’ve been bossed about in a gym by a PT at some stage. I know I’ve been shown 17 entirely different ways to do squats over the years. I’ve been confidently instructed to ignore neck pain as I lifted weights. I’ve been in group sessions where I’ve been shouted at to ‘keep on pushing’ through a series of press-ups even as I felt my form deteriorate. And I’ve met PTS who never bothered to read my medical questionnaire or acquaint themselves with my lingering shoulder and pelvic injuries. If you, like me, have experienced the sinking suspicion that the shouty PT you’ve been paying has no idea what they’re doing, here’s the bad news: you could be right. Over the past five years, the PT industry has grown dramatically – there are around 22,000 PTS in the UK and eight million Brits have gym memberships. It’s an industry that’s now worth close to £600 million, according to the Academy of Fitness Professionals. Unfortunately, this profession, which previously required dedication, training, commitment and experience, has become increasingly amateurish and fragmented. Surprisingly, there is no legal minimum requirement to work as a PT – although most gyms require at least a first aid certificate, level 2 gym instructor certificate, a level 3 personal trainer qualification and PT insurance. In total, these requirements can be met in just four weeks. ‘It’s ridiculous how saturated the PT industry has become in recent years,’ says Rich Tidmarsh (r4reach.com), an experienced and respected trainer, who instructs personal trainers. ‘It’s never been more difficult for clients to make sure their trainers are qualified and trustworthy. There are still great personal trainers out there, of course. But there’s a growing number of
chancers who do a crash course over a few weeks, pay for Instagram followers and then set themselves up as a business. At best, their clients won’t get the results they hope for and become completely disillusioned. But I’ve also seen amateur PTS doing real damage to clients’ bodies.’
NO PAIN, NO GAIN?
Back problems and torn ligaments or muscles are regular complaints from those whose PTS are less than well trained. ‘So many patients come in for treatment for injuries incurred when a trainer or instructor has encouraged the wrong technique or exercise,’ says osteopath Simon Freedman (simonfreedman.com). ‘Many spinal and joint issues are exacerbated by poor form at the gym, and small adjustments make the difference between a safe, beneficial exercise and something that harms your body.’ The closest thing to a regulatory body for personal trainers is the Register of Exercise Professionals (REPS), which recommends only working with a trainer who has passed their level 3 personal trainer course. But REPS doesn’t award qualifications directly; it endorses qualifications by countless independent training bodies that conform to the National Occupational Standards (NOS), which are set at governmental level by the Sector Skills Council (SSC) Skills Active. And there’s widespread feeling among experienced personal trainers and medical practitioners that these standards fall woefully short. ‘I’ve met truly terrible trainers who are still REPS level 3,’ says Tidmarsh. ‘Anyway, when did you last request to see a PT’S certificates?’
So, why has the industry become so saturated? ‘Fitness has become more aspirational and fashionable and, unfortunately, some people just see being a PT as a way to get social media fame, freebies and validation,’ says Tidmarsh. ‘For some, it’s more of an online popularity contest than a profession.’ And it’s never been easier or cheaper to set yourself up as the hot new PT on the block. Most big-name chain gyms don’t employ their PTS, instead they rely on freelancers who are able to use their facilities – and their reputation – for a small fee. Combined with the trend for outdoor training, it’s feasible for a newbie PT to set themselves up as a pro with nothing more than an Instagram account and basic equipment. ‘Historically, the starting point for most newly qualified PTS would be a gym or leisure centre environment,’ says a spokesperson for the Academy of Fitness Professionals. ‘But the sector has seen some fragmentation over the past five years, and almost 50% of today’s personal trainers take a freelance or self-employed route.’ Only 18% of people who call themselves PTS actually make a living from the industry – an indication of an increasingly over-subscribed sector. Perhaps more than a qualification or two, one of the most reliable marks of a committed PT is that, as well as experience, they’ve invested in the industry. ‘Look for trainers in senior roles at small independent gyms, ideally gyms that have been around for three years or more,’ says Tidmarsh. ‘If a trainer owns or runs the place, this shows a level of commitment that you don’t need if you train clients in the local park.’
Whether you’re in a group or one-to-one session, don’t forget that you’re paying a trainer to personalise your workouts. One of the telltale signs of a less-than-reputable trainer is that they’re delivering the same workout to every client, regardless of their fitness goals, lifestyle, past injuries or age.
Georgie Okell (georgie-okell.com) is a PT who teaches boxing at London gym 1Rebel. ‘I’ve heard about women going to gyms and getting that free initial PT session and the trainer immediately assuming they are there to lose weight, rather than tone up, build muscle or improve overall fitness,’ she says. ‘A good PT will pay attention to their client. Everyone has different limitations, different goals and needs a different type of motivation to help them achieve them.’ Even in a group session, a trustworthy trainer will keep classes small, so they can offer variations to clients based on specific requirements. Repetitive strain is on the rise; if your trainer tells you to ‘work through the pain’ when you complain of muscular soreness, bin them right away. ‘A good PT will always think about your long-term health, rather than just try to get you to sweat so you come back next week,’ says Tidmarsh.
Aside from the disillusionment that comes from not reaching your goals, plus the risk of injury, let’s not forget all the hardearned cash you lose by choosing the wrong trainer. The average UK PT session now costs around £40 per hour outside of London – and £60 an hour in the capital. And some PTS are adept at pressurising you into coming back for more. Obviously, motivating clients is part of the job, but if it feels like bullying or pressure, walk away. ‘It’s human nature to avoid conflict and we don’t like admitting we’ve made a mistake,’ says Tidmarsh. ‘But if you’re not getting results and have doubts about your trainer, be bold and break up with them.’ Put simply: life is too short, and the contents of your wallet too precious to spend another minute with a PT who’s not giving you what you need. You’ve been warned.
Close to the chest