"So You Want to Be a Personal Trainer?
A Testosterone Exposé
By Nelson Montana

Testosterone® | No. 40 | February 19, 1999

The following story is true. The names have been changed to protect my ass.

Hiring a personal trainer is becoming the new status symbol. So what? It would be a fair assumption that Testosterone readers are, for the most part, war-torn gym rats who know their way around the various exercise techniques necessary to build a better body without hiring an expensive training partner. It's more likely that an experienced weight trainer like the people who read Testosterone might be interested in giving a few personal training sessions to make some extra money. Why not? The public is more "body image" conscious than ever and that image is no longer just looking "fit." Have you seen the ads for the various health clubs lately, catered to appeal to the general public? The models look, dare I say, steroidal! If someone is willing to pay for advice on how to achieve that look, who better than a bodybuilder for knowing the most efficacious methods toward building muscle and burning fat?

Not so fast. Don't forget that we live in a society where one's knowledge is of little concern and even less importance. People want "credentials." Documents, diplomas, certifications, and titles, all designed to assure legitimacy and professionalism. It's amazing how much trust someone will put in another as long as they have a few letters following their name. As Grandpa Montana was known to say,

That fellow said he had a BS and a PhD. Well, we all know what the BS stands for, I guess the PhD means, "Piled Higher and Deeper!"

Nevertheless, "formal training" in the area of exercise effectiveness, physiology, and nutrition has become something that is now "institutionalized." In order to work as a personal trainer in most places, you must become certified. But by whom? And who governs this information? Just because someone takes an eight-week course designed by God-knows-who, does that make them an expert? Evidently.

It reminds me of when I was 16 and working at my first job in a department store. A woman approached me and asked my opinion on a car safety seat for her baby. Why was she asking me...a stupid kid? Well, I was employed by the store and wearing an orange smock, so apparently I was an expert on the subject. At times, it seems that people will trust any opinion but their own, as long as that opinion has been verified by someone else. The organizers of the various personal training associations know this. That's why they developed this cookie cutter approach to fitness education for profit. Think of it as the "Pizza Hut" of bodybuilding. Vince Gironda must be rolling over in his grave.

Your Mission, Should You Decide to Take It...

Most of the Testosterone crew share the same pejorative view of anyone who thinks they're hot **** simply because they have a trainer's certificate. This is why TC decided to let me loose and investigate some of the organizations that offer licenses, licenses that guarantee anyone immediate status as an exercise and nutrition "authority," as long as that anyone has between $300 to $1200 to pay for the privilege.

The first step was to check out some of the methods by which these schools teach. In an effort not to single out any particular organization and to get an equitable overview of the industry as a whole, I called to purchase a few "study courses" from several of the more popular organizations. The first operator I spoke to was a little more effervescent than I could handle that early in the day. He had a speaking style reminiscent of Tony Little with exaltations about how excited I must be to "join the thousands of ambitious men and women who have made the decision to become a personal trainer!!!" Yeah, whatever. How much?

Basking in the Glow of a Job Well Done

The majority of "study" in all of these courses is done at home. Some are entirely home study with no requirement to attend seminars or classes of any kind. One company even allows you to take the exam at home! My, what an honor it must be for you to receive your diploma from that place. Maybe get a nice frame for it. Imagine swelling with pride as you gaze upon it. Your shining hour immortalized.

Back to School

One look through these manuals and I knew I was in trouble. In all fairness, they do cover some anatomy and kinesiology that would be beneficial to someone who needed a better understanding of those subjects, but much of that information can be found in any number of books available at your local Barnes and Noble for about twenty bucks. Most courses also require that you get a certificate in CPR. A good idea for most anyone. It can be learned in a single afternoon.

But the majority of the material contained in these journals is, what I believe to be, overly simplistic, yet intentionally convoluted. Much of it is outdated and inaccurate. Whoever is writing this stuff is hilariously misinformed! The approach to nutrition is to "use the food pyramid presented by the AMA as your guide." There's hardly any mention of supplementation, but one agency goes so far as to claim that amino acids act like drugs! I wish.

As far as any mention of real drugs go, they have their heads so far up their asses that they don't even know how ridiculous they sound. Take a look at page 313 of the acclaimed ACE (American Council on Exercise) manual. There you will find the statement, and I quote:

Steroid use does not bring about any significant improvements in strength, lean body mass, or body weight.

I'm glad we got that cleared up! All this time I was thinking Dianabol was working wonders, but I was wrong. I guess it was the amino acid tablets all along.

Within the 529 pages of the ACE manual, there are exactly two sentences on squatting technique! You read that right, TWO!...SENTENCES!!! That's all you need. In all fairness, there's an additional two sentences on spotting for the squat. Yep, now you know what you're doin'.

This is not an endorsement, by any means, but for what it's worth, the NFPT (National Federation of Personal Trainers) and the ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine) had what looked like more of a "bodybuilding-like" approach to their instructional methods. This led me to think, why can't a certification company simply recommend some good books on the subjects of training and nutrition (such as "The Poliquin Principles") and test a potential trainer based on what he has amassed from said information? Oh yeah, I forgot. It isn't about what you know. It's about knowing what they want you to know.

Say What?

The one area that most of these organizations seem to be popping hard-ons over is the "science of evaluating heart rate." There are metabolic equivalent evaluations and clinical threshold values and Radionuclide VO2 maxes. Literally dozens of calculations and equations designed to find that elusive ultimate heart rate necessary to provide you with the body of your dreams (providing that body resembles Gary Null). There were so many formulas, I felt as if I needed a calculator, a computer, and an abacus to figure them out. First, there's the maximum heart rate determined by 220 minus your age divided by your resting heart rate multiplied by how tall you are plus the number of letters in your mother's maiden name, while adding the amount of vowels in the month and then subtracting the length of your penis, plus four.

The joke of it all is that none of this stuff means anything. It is all pseudo intellectual hogwash. There's no magically "perfect" heart rate for optimum results and the notion that it can be arrived at in an exact manner is ludicrous. I believe this nonsense is nothing more than specious bullying, not unlike legalese, which also has its own special and confusing "language" understood only by lawyers. No one else outside of the "fraternity" can comprehend this deluge of gibberish. Therefore, the "uninformed" need help in achieving that level of understanding. **** 'em! I won't give them the satisfaction.

Can I Be Excused?

The next step was to go out in the field and get a feel of the education process, so I attended a seminar that was being held downtown. The lecture dealt mostly with the basics: obtaining a balanced diet, the difference between complex carbs and simple carbs, stuff like that. They also spoke, at length, about cardiovascular fitness and the importance of aerobics. After about an hour (but what seemed like days) into the class, I was slipping into a cozy little coma when the instructor, "Jonathan," turned the topic of conversation to proper nutrition for optimum muscle growth. That got my attention.

My face must have taken on the look of a recent lobotomy patient when the teacher said:

"It isn't really protein that builds muscle, it's carbohydrates."

Wait a minute, I replied, giving him the chance to redeem himself. You mean that carbs will provide fullness to a muscle because their presence in the bloodstream increases volume, but it's protein that builds muscle tissue, right?

"No," he said, "that's where you're wrong. You see, most people eat far more protein than they need. As long as you eat four servings of grains and include beans, nuts, and legumes in your diet, you will..."

That's the last thing I remember before nodding off again.

Upon regaining consciousness from my stupor, I recall hearing some advice pertaining to the "presentation" of working with a client. Jonathan mentioned that the trainer should make sure that the client feels a "burn" while they're exercising; otherwise they won't feel as if they're getting their money's worth! I was too numb to argue.

Come On, I Can Take It

The sample test was loads of fun for the whole family. I'm not sure if the testing is meant to confuse or the perpetrators of this tripe are dumber than I thought. Here are a few examples:

How many servings of vegetables are recommended each day?

What does that mean? What size are the servings they're referring to?

If a man weighing 160 pounds cycles at 5 mph for 30 minutes on a stationary bicycle, how many calories will he burn?

Who knows? If he's out of shape he will exert more energy than if the activity is easier. Even if you could figure it out, the energy expended at one activity is kind of meaningless. Besides, riding a stationary bike hurts my balls.

True or false? Increasing protein intake will build more muscle.

Now, do I go with what I know, or do I go by what this guy just said? Do they mean in conjunction with exercise or simply an increase of grams? I said "true." The answer was "false."

Here's another example question from an NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association) exam:

If someone has lower back pain, which of the following weight training exercises would be least appropriate to include in the program?

A) Bench press
B) Bicep curl
C) Abdominal crunch
D) Shoulder press

Least appropriate? It all depends on the form, the weight, etc. There are so many factors, it's impossible to say.

Trying to make all of this into an exact science is pure folly. By the time they got to the questions about the formula to determine 60% of the maximum HR for a 40-year-old woman, I started to think that anybody who believes that this information makes them skilled in exercise expertise is kidding themselves. It was time to take the next step. Observe a training session first hand. Better yet, after sitting for so long I was feeling a bit lethargic and felt as if I needed to move my body. By allowing myself to be trained by a "certificate owner," I could kill two birds with one stone.

I Think I Can Taste My Spleen

I don't know what I was thinking, but I decided to actually participate in an aerobics class. The class was about to begin and I wasn't looking forward to it. The music alone is enough to make you wish for a swift and sudden death. I was feigning ignorance (easy for me to do) to the instructor, Sandy, prior to the catabolic onslaught. Sandy was a pretty but vacuous little pop tart. She told me that being an aerobics instructor was totally "awesome" and really helped her dancing "a whole lot." I said that I was interested in maybe getting my certification in aerobic instruction (oh, how I hated hearing the words come out of my mouth, but hey, it's like acting). I asked what organization she belonged to. It turns out that there's a separate certification for aerobics teachers and personal trainers. (So now they're specialists!) She belonged to AFAA (Aerobics and Fitness Association of America). She then remarked "Oh, you should go for it! 'Cause you got, like, a really good body and stuff, and the money is really good, and it really helped my dancing a whole lot!" Um, yeah. So I've heard.

The class was pretty much what you would expect with the obligatory "woo-woos" and the frenzied shrieks of enthusiasm. I was going along with the foolishness (minus the woo-woos) when I noticed out of the corner of my eye a woman, approximately 50 years old, looking very pained. She stopped and clutched her chest. Now I was worried. I stopped the inane hopping around and started walking her way, assuming that Sandy didn't notice the fact that this woman was over-exerting herself. Suddenly, Sandy let out a shout of "DON"T STOP!!!" At first I thought she was yelling at me, but it turns out she was yelling at the woman holding her chest! "KEEP GOING!" the insipid twit insisted. "WORK IT OUT! WORK IT OUT!"

"Are you all right?" I asked, as I approached the woman in pain. "Yeah, I'm okay," she panted. "It's tough, but Sandy's the best! She really makes me work!" I felt so badly for this woman, putting her trust in that retarded bimbo. Yet, she wanted to continue. "Just don't push too hard and stop if you feel discomfort, okay?" I said. "I'll be fine," the middle-aged matron replied. "Hey, if it doesn't hurt, it isn't working, right?" She recommenced the jumping. I guess that seminar instructor was right. Some people do have a need to hurt themselves in order to feel as if they're getting something out of the endeavor. I walked out on the remainder of the class.

Is It Alright If I Deep Fry That?

The next stop was a "nutritional consultation" with the health club's staff nutritionist, "Matthew," who looked as if his maximum bench press was about 85 pounds. I asked for his qualifications. He said he was a registered dietitian and a member of something cleverly entitled FIT (Fitness Institute for Training). Sounds good, I thought, so I asked if he could suggest a diet for me because I wanted to put on more muscle.

"So, what's a normal day of eating for you?" he asked, a little too politely.

"Well," I said, "I start out with about a half dozen eggs. I drink lots of milk throughout the day. My typical lunch consists of some kind of meat, usually steak or hamburger, and a salad with..."

"That's no good!!!" he squealed.

"Yeah," I replied, "I was thinking of dropping the salad, but..."

"You're not going to make it to 35 if you keep eating like that!"

"But I'm already over 40, so I guess I've got nothing to worry about, huh?"

"Your cholesterol must be through the roof!" he exclaimed.

"My cholesterol is 140."

Looking flustered, he remarked, "That must be because you have a genetic disposition for low cholesterol!"

"Well, if cholesterol is genetically determined, why are you freaking out over what I'm eating?"

He sidestepped the question. I think he was getting more than a trifle irritated by my statements.

I then started asking him about supplements.

"Is tribulus terrestris good? (Blank stare.) I heard that it increases luteinizing hormone. (Blank stare continued.) Are they all the same, or should I stick with the extract?" Now I see a look of panic in his eyes.

After clearing his throat a couple of times, he continued.

"The best thing to take is a good anti-oxidant formula. For a man your age, I would recommend Centrum Silver. (At this point, all I could do was try and ignore that voice in my head that kept repeating, kill...kill...kill...) Eat a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet..."

"So I should eat potatoes, rice, pasta?" I snapped. "Won't that make me fat?"

"Oh, no," he assured me. "They are all low-fat foods." (This is where I started grinding my teeth.)

"So bread is good?" I asked.

"Only whole wheat bread, not white. Pasta is good. So is rice. Lots of fruit, no sugar."

"But isn't pasta and white bread the same thing? Isn't fruit all sugar?" He looked confused. "What about protein?" I asked.

"Try to get it from sources like yogurt and tofu."

It was obvious that this conversation was going nowhere so I thought I'd do a little ball breaking.

"TOFU!" I shouted. "Mmmm, mmmm....I love tofu with melted mozzarella and bacon on whole wheat bread!"

He was getting visibly annoyed. My work here was done.

Take Two Anadrol and Call Me in the Morning

The final stop was at my gym where the trainers tend to be real bodybuilders. "Rick" is a physically impressive young man. Tall, good-looking, and obviously well-versed in the delights of chemical assistance. Rick has more clients (mostly women) than any of the other trainers. And why shouldn't he? He looks great! He must know what he's doing.

I didn't want to impose on the man's business, so I nonchalantly went about my workout, making sure I stayed within earshot of what was transpiring between Rick and one of his zaftig customers. The first thing he had her do was walk on the treadmill for ten minutes (can't do that without an exercise expert present). He then had her going through a random assortment of exercises. I gave up trying to figure out what muscle groups were being targeted. There didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to what he was doing. At one point, while she was doing barbell curls, Rick took out his cell phone and started making calls! When she was squatting, he didn't even provide a proper spot. He stood there with his hands on his hips looking bored and counting reps like he was doing her a big favor. Unbelievable.

What It All Comes Down To

Is everyone who has a degree in personal training a clueless cretin? Not at all. To most, it's a springboard. The first step towards having a better understanding of nutrition and training techniques. Many already highly-skilled people go through the motions of getting accredited by one of these organizations because they wouldn't be allowed to work otherwise. It's a racket. Whaddya gonna' do?

I heard Charles Poliquin speak at a clinic for trainers not too long ago, and he had the best advice I'd ever heard concerning personal training. (I may be paraphrasing, but...) He told the students, "Get to know your clients personality. That can be the most important aspect in determining results versus wasted effort." How true. What do you think a trainee would best respond to, judging from their personality? Are they the type that needs to be pushed? Or will the slave driver approach turn them off? Are you giving them something that they will find beneficial, or are you trying to find that extra one-percent heart rate elevation? Knowing how to read people and provide the proper impetus towards having them reach their goals is what will matter most in the long run.

Personal training is a luxury that people pay handsomely for. They deserve your undivided attention. Respect the fact that at least they're trying. When you work with someone that closely, they begin to confide in you, and a good trainer will need to know how to be a good listener as well as a knowledgeable exercise coach.

There is a place for personal trainers, but after observing the assorted "certification schools," I'm not so sure they're the place to go for cutting-edge information or even qualified expertise. They don't guarantee a quality education. They don't assure competence. Hell, they won't even help you find a job. They say they will, but all they really do is "suggest" where to go. You're on your own. At best, a personal training program may prove beneficial as an adjunct to your knowledge of physiology. At worst, they're erroneous and misinformed allegations about diet and exercise may do more harm than good.

If you're looking to educate yourself with real-world, applicable information, you don't need to have a fancy title. Prestige is often directly related to how much money you have to spend. (Remember TC's statements a few weeks back concerning mental midget Mira Sorveno, a Harvard graduate?) Many of the world's greatest minds never had any "legitimate" education in the field in which they excelled. The Wright Brothers didn't study aviation. Van Gogh never attended art school. John Lennon and Paul McCartney had no formal training in music composition. They accomplished what they did through observing and doing. After that, it all depends on how much talent you have.

So the next time somebody boasts "I'm a gen-u-ine certified personal trainer..." you may think, big deal! But don't hold it against them. They might know what they're talking about in spite of it. But I'll bet you dollars to dimes that the average Testosterone reader knows more."