There are two rules that govern my work as a trainer. These rules, though closely related, stand alone and are defined by their own set of principles, none of which have anything to do with sets or reps or exercise selection. I was fortunate to have their importance emphasized repeatedly by my mentors, to the point where they’re now coded into my brain.
Rule #1: Do No Harm
Whether you’re a personal trainer working with aesthetically-minded clients or a strength & conditioning coach implementing a periodized plan to enhance an athlete’s performance, not putting people in the hospital should be your first and foremost concern. It sounds obvious, and it is, but as every MMA fan can tell you, this very basic edict is all too often ignored.
It doesn’t matter how much you know about energy systems or force vectors or Olympic lifting — if you injure clients you’re a bad trainer. No one can argue this point. Freak accidents notwithstanding, most injuries result from a combination of ignorance (e.g. poor programming; an inability to properly coach a technique) and ego (e.g. showing off). Rather than focusing on basic movement patterns and sound technique (BORING!), the bad trainer will try to wow their client and everyone else in the gym with their advanced knowledge of exercise progressions. Who cares if their charge can barely stand up straight without wincing in pain — today we’re doing pistol squats on a BOSU ball. We’ll worry about that twisted ankle and strained hip flexor tomorrow.
And while broken bones and slipped discs are best avoided, it’s important to remember that “harm” isn’t always physical in nature. TV likes to tells us that screaming in a person’s face is the trainer’s tool of choice for unleashing peak performance, when really all this does is make said person wish you and everyone else with a clipboard and stopwatch would burn in hell for all eternity. Call it emotional harm, call it spiritual harm; whatever you call it, know that this approach can have just as much of a negative impact as reckless coaching.
The best trainers are the ones who break down the barriers that prevent their clients from making exercise a regular part of their lives. It doesn’t take a vivid imagination to see how The Over-Caffeinated Drill Sergeant Style of Personal Training achieves the exact opposite effect. Bad trainers belittle and shame. Great trainers encourage and empower.
Which brings us to our second rule.
Rule #2: Make Each Client Walk Away Feeling Great
Us fitness pros often take for granted that most people do not enjoy exercising. Sounds crazy, I know, but it’s true! In fact, most of the people I train hire me because they know they’ll never go to the gym otherwise. Consider for a moment the effort it takes people to get to the gym. Chances are they’re sacrificing time with their family or a couple of valuable hours sleep in order to fit exercise into their routine. Great trainers know to reward this by making each session as positive an experience as possible.
Now, this doesn’t mean being fake or obnoxiously subservient. Unless you’re an awkward, antisocial jerk (in which case a career change may be in order, given that personal training is very much service-oriented) showcasing a slightly more attentive version of yourself should suffice.
It’s easy, really. Greet clients with a genuine smile, then say something positive. Compliment their shoes, comment on their shirt — start things off on a high note. Resist all urges to talk about yourself unless specific questions are asked, and even then keep your answers brief. Do not complain about your day. Do not moan about how sore/tired/underpaid/overworked you are. Say your piece, then shift to focus back to the client without being dismissive.
For me, remembering to shut up is the most difficult part of the job. It’s natural to want to talk about yourself. But this isn’t about you. It’s about them, the client, the person who’s PAYING YOU to do a job for one hour. They deserve your full attention. Make them feel special. Wipe down the bench, hand them their water bottle, put their weights away. These little things make a big difference. It’s this sort of personalized service that helps to create positive associations with the exercise experience. Not only will heeding this rule keep you gainfully employed, it will lead to one less person on the opposing team.