Personal trainers play an integral role in the day-to-day operation of the facilities in which they work. Research has identified a number of qualities and competencies necessary to be an effective exercise leader, but there is little scholarly work addressing clients’ attitudes related to the performance of personal trainers. Utilizing focus group methodology, female clients of personal trainers were recruited to provide viewpoints related to the desirable qualities of personal trainers, as well as opinions regarding trainer certification and academic preparation. Responses of the participants were transcribed, coded, and analyzed for themes. Four global themes emerged: Selection Rationale, Personal Trainer Rationale, Loyalty Rationale and Negative Characteristics. Selection Rationale consisted of qualities that influence a client’s decision to hire a particular trainer (e.g., physique, results observed in other clients, social skills). Personal Trainer Rationale referred to the clients’ reasons (e.g., frustration with current fitness level) for hiring a specific trainer. Loyalty Rationale referred to the credentials of a personal trainer that solidify the client/trainer relationship and Negative Characteristics referred to qualities considered unethical or unprofessional. The results suggest that undergraduate exercise science programs should devote additional time toward the development of future fitness trainers’ affective qualities and that clients would benefit from information about the credentials of personal trainers.
Key words: qualifications, certifications, credentials, licensure, attitudes, dispositions
Low levels of physical activity, like many other lifestyles activities (e.g., smoking), are strongly correlated with coronary heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States (4). Lack of physical activity is also associated with asthma, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, impaired psychological status, bone and muscle problems, and decreased life expectancy (5). Despite this well-documented relationship, 37.1 % of adults have insufficient physical activity (6). Of those who do adopt an exercise program, it is estimated that 50% will discontinue it within the first six months (10), making exercise adherence a critical issue. Factors affecting adherence are complex, but an important one is a client’s perception of support from their personal trainer (28).
The significance of personal trainers has been demonstrated in several studies. Ratamass et al. (23) compared individuals trained by personal trainers to individuals working out on their own. Results showed that both1 Repetition Maximum and Ratings of Perceived Exertion scores were significantly higher in individuals who worked under the supervision of a personal trainer. Similar results were noted in studies by Maloof et al. (17) and Mazetti et al. (18). Quinn (23) suggests that part of the advantage of working with trainers relates to motivation, and that, “certified personal trainers can provide structure and accountability, and [can] help … develop a lifestyle that encourages health.”
Personal trainers, as well as club managers, believe that clients are more likely to stay with a program if the trainers exhibit the attributes of empathy, listening skills, and motivation skills (21). In addition, McGuire, Anderson, and Trail (19) report that important components of clients’ satisfaction with their fitness clubs relate to the leaders’ social support skills and instructional competency. Despite these findings, little is known about how a trainer’s qualities, including training and certification, are viewed from the client’s perspective. Several theoretical models explain the adoption and maintenance of exercise behavior (14), but little research has examined these factors in an applied exercise setting.
Finally, women are a growing majority of all health club members, accounting for 57 percent of the grand total in 2005 (13). Within the commercial club category, women constitute 60% of the national membership. In addition, studies have shown that the majority of those clients who hire trainers are female (25). Because these statistics indicate that women are primary consumers of health club memberships and training sessions, this study focused on female clients. The purpose of this study therefore, is to use an applied setting in which to systematically investigate attitudes of female clients toward the dispositions, certification, and education of personal trainers. To the authors’ knowledge, this study is the first scholarly examination of the current state of personal training from this perspective.
The data collection was qualitative and interpretive in nature. The study used the three key assumptions of the qualitative research paradigm: 1) there are no “wrong” answers; only diverse opinions, 2) there is a potential influence of the inquirer (see Limitations section of this paper) and respondent relationship, and 3) the goal is to describe findings within a particular situation (29). This interpretive perspective used grounded theory, or theory that emerges from the data (9). Therefore, this type of inquiry is not a critical or empirical comparison to existing theory.
The investigation used a focus group to examine the overarching question, “What qualities are important to be a successful personal trainer?” The focus group interview offered compatibility with the qualitative research paradigm, opportunity for direct contact with subjects, and the advantages of group format (29). This research was conducted with clients of personal trainers. Global themes, major themes, and sub-themes were selected from the transcriptions. Evidence of credibility, reliability, and trustworthiness was provided in several ways. First, three different readers were used, bringing their varying perspectives to the group. Second, the data presented represents consensus reached via thorough discussions among individuals (readers) with expertise in personal training, exercise physiology, health behavior, and qualitative research methods. Finally, the investigators sent a one-page summary (a member check) to the participants and asked for feedback and clarifications and/or additions they would like to make. The study design was identical to that used in two previous studies which examined the current state of personal training from a personal trainer point of view (20) as well as from a manager point of view (21).
The primary investigator was a personal trainer for 10 years before devoting her time to teaching exercise science classes at the university level. She is a certified Health Fitness Specialist with the American College of Sports Medicine, and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. She is also a certified group exercise instructor with the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA), as well as a certification examiner for their organization. She has developed and maintained close relationships with both clients and personal trainers and is very familiar with the issues surrounding this profession.
Subjects included 5 female clients of personal trainers (M age= 36.2 years, with a range of 24-50 years). Detailed demographic information for the subjects is represented in Table 1.
Volunteers were randomly solicited from four health clubs in a small southeast community. This selection process involved recruitment through posted flyers as well as by word-of-mouth contacts. Subjects were either personally provided with or mailed a packet including: 1) a demographic/survey sheet, including name, address, age, occupation and education; 2) questions related to certification of trainers; 3) an informed consent form approved by the university Internal Review Board committee, explaining that the participants would be video- and audio-taped during the focus groups; and 4) a list of the questions that would be probed so that the participant could reflect on these prior to the meeting. Finally, in addition to the focus group interview and audiotapes, the surveys were used as a third method for triangulation of the data. After collecting all the demographic/survey sheets, participants were contacted via telephone and asked to participate in the focus groups.
Subjects who agreed to participate were given a list of the questions that would be discussed prior to the focus group meeting. These questions were:
Do you know the qualifications of your trainer?
a. If you do not know, how do you know that you are getting what you paid for?
b. Does it matter if they have certifications?
c. Do you know which certifications are the most respected?
d. If you knew that not all trainers had a nationally recognized certification, how would you feel about that?
Have you experienced any unethical behavior with a trainer?
a. If yes, what was the nature of this behavior?
b. Even if you have not experienced it, what do you consider to be unethical?
The focus group comments were recorded using a Marantz audio-recording system and videography (60 Hz). In addition to the informed consent, participants also signed a confidentiality agreement within the group. The confidentiality statement included the investigator’s agreement not to disclose names, as well as the participants’ agreement not to disclose or discuss what was said in the interviews with other participants or individuals outside the designated focus group time. Furthermore, anonymity was assured by removing participants’ names on the final transcripts, and by replacing real names with pseudonyms (see Table 1). A moderator’s guide, (29) was used in each of the focus groups. The focus groups lasted approximately 2 hours with an emphasis on each participant getting equal amounts of speaking time (29).
The focus group audio tapes were transcribed verbatim. The three investigators read and re-read each of the three transcripts and searched for key phrases emerging from the data. Key phrases were defined as those that occurred at least five times within the transcript, as the three investigators concurred that this arbitrary number was sufficient to denote a key phrase. The investigators converted the key phrases into codes and then examined the transcripts line by line, inserting the codes where appropriate. After consensus was reached concerning the coding of each line of transcript, the codes were entered into Ethnograph©, a computer program used for qualitative data analysis. In order to determine credibility and reliability, three different readers were used, bringing their varying perspectives to the group. All three read the transcripts, as well as reviewed the audio- and videotapes. This lessened the risk of allowing the primary investigator’s biases to strongly affect emergent themes. A bracketing interview was also completed to lessen this risk. In a bracketing interview, the primary investigator was asked the same questions her participants would be asked, and she answered them from her own perspective and in as much detail as possible. This was in order for her biases as a former personal trainer to be made clear to her and to the other investigators. Throughout data collection and analysis, the interview was referred to, so that her biases would not override the actual perceptions of the participants. Additionally, a member check was employed; the investigator sent a one-page summary to the participants and asked for feedback and any clarifications and/or additions they would like to make. Trustworthiness of data was established through two methods of triangulation: three data collection methods, and three different perspectives concerning the research question. The data collection methods were the focus group interview, the videotape, and the survey.
The results are reported by themes that emerged from each research question. Figure 1 depicts the hierarchical organization of the clients’ responses into global, major, and sub, and mini-themes. The global themes and their sub-factors are described therein.
The first global theme that emerged from the client focus group was Personal Trainer (PT) Rationale which refers to the clients’ reasons or motivations for hiring a personal trainer. Participants in the focus group provided a rich and detailed account of their motives for hiring a personal trainer. The discussion of PT Rationale produced two major themes, including Frustration and Motivation. The clients expressed frustration over their inability to achieve fitness and/or physical appearance goals, such as weight loss, muscular strength, or just the ability to fit into certain clothes. Lorraine stated,
I just got sick of the way I looked in the mirror naked. I didn’t like the way clothes fit; I didn’t like becoming a plus-size girl at 21 years of age. And, once at the gym, I asked to use the body fat percentage machine. [As the trainer] gave it to me, I was voicing my frustration and he said something about, ‘Oh, you need to lift’ and I [said], ‘Great, I’ll be here in the morning’. And that’s how I got started.
The clients also reported a desire to work with someone who could help them sustain motivation. Clients felt they could not generate the motivation necessary to adhere to regular exercise, and wanted a trainer to motivate them to work harder during a workout session. To illustrate, Carla said that her biggest problem was just getting herself to the gym: “Motivation for me, and for probably most of the population that’s overweight, [is] what they need”.
In summary, it appears that the clients’ incentives for seeking a personal trainer originated from the negative effect or frustration associated with their failure to achieve fitness/physical appearance goals. Additionally, they sought personal trainers to maintain their motivation once in an exercise program. These major themes led to a sub-theme, Body. Clients were frustrated with their physical appearance, and they expressed the need to hire a personal trainer who would help to create the motivation required to change their bodies and to achieve results (e.g., lose weight, gain muscle tone). Once the decision to hire a personal trainer was made, the clients used certain criteria to evaluate potential trainers in order to select someone who most suited them. These criteria are considered next.
A second global theme for the clients of personal trainers was labeled Selection Rationale (see Figure 1). While PT Rationale examines the reasons clients sought a personal trainer, Selection Rationale refers to the attributes the client considered when evaluating a particular personal trainer. This theme includes first impressions and characteristics that clients would be able to readily observe prior to hiring the trainer. The major themes associated with Selection Rationale are Gender, Empathy, Physique Appearance, and Results of Others. Interestingly, four of the women preferred a female trainer because they felt a woman would be better suited to understand their struggles and comfort levels. Specifically, these women chose a female trainer because they felt that they would not be as self-conscious about their bodies as they might be while working with a male trainer. They also indicated that a female trainer would be prepared to understand their gender-role concerns (e.g., balancing a toned body with a feminine image). Cassie believed that a female trainer would not make her feel self-conscious in the beginning, while she was still at a body size that was undesirable to her. Alicia associated high volume weight lifting with male trainers and that this would “make her own body get too big”. [Both clients later hired male trainers and found that this was not the case]. Lorraine preferred a male trainer because she felt that she would feel the need to compete with a female trainer, though this individual did not elaborate on the meaning of “compete.” In light of the importance of physical appearance relative to reasons for hiring a trainer, it is plausible to suggest that Lorraine felt like she would compete with the trainer in terms of physical appearance. In summary, it appears that gender may play a major role when clients select a particular trainer. Female clients expressed a preference for female trainers because they believed female trainers would empathize with them more than a male trainer could. In fact, the clients discussed empathy to such an extent that it was designated as a major theme.
Empathy refers to the trainer’s understanding of the client’s experience and her skill in effectively listening to their difficulties. Several clients preferred trainers who have personally experienced the challenges associated with weight loss and adhering to an exercise program. Alicia commented, “I knew I wanted someone who had lost the weight, who knew what it felt like to struggle…I wanted someone who felt that [way] to train me”. Whitney commented,
“I chose the person that I was with because of her [the trainer’s] own personal body change. I was watching her modify her diet and … all the training that she did and just seeing the difference in her own body… I just felt like she could achieve that with anyone who wanted to.”
These clients believed that if a trainer could feel what the client was going through (emotionally and physically), it would not only make the client feel more comfortable during the training session, but would also give the client confidence that they could achieve their own goals.
In addition to empathy and gender, the clients evaluated potential trainers based on the trainer’s physique. Physique Appearance, a third major theme, was discussed at great length and in much detail among all of the clients. The clients believed that a trainer who has a “good body” gave them confidence that the trainer “knew their stuff”. Furthermore, the clients believed that a trainer with an attractive physique must be motivated to be healthy, so they must possess the skill to motivate others. Whitney commented, “… how they look is important to me because I have to be able to put my faith in them and know that they know what they’re doing…”
The clients equated having a sculpted physique with competence. At the same time, several clients did recognize that mere physical appearance was not sufficient to indicate knowledge of personal training. Interestingly, the clients clearly identified empathy as a critical factor in selecting a trainer (i.e., the trainer feels or has felt the frustration associated with maintaining an exercise program), yet they also identified the appearance of the trainer’s physique as an important factor. After probing this issue, the clients concluded that for a first impression, the appearance of the trainer’s physique is important, but other factors may overcome this first impression. Clients felt that as long as they saw results with their own bodies, their trainer’s physique would become much less of a factor. Alicia commented,
“I think that in the beginning, I would be apprehensive [with an overweight trainer]. But I wait and see what kind of change I get after working out with that person for, say, 3 months. In the long run, it’s the changes that I make and the goals that I reach …that’s going to keep me coming back- not their credentials, not what they wear, not what they look like”.
The interviews also revealed that the results that other clients achieved with a personal trainer were more important than the trainer’s physique. The major theme, Results of Others, refers to the results (e.g., successfully achieving changes in physical appearance or fitness) that other clients have achieved while working with a particular trainer. Three of the clients explained that this was one of the major reasons they chose their trainers. Carla commented, “I think that seeing the results that they’ve accomplished with someone else is as important to me as their credentials.”
Another global theme that emerged during the client focus group was Loyalty Rationale (see Figure 1), which refers to the credentials of a personal trainer that solidify the client/trainer relationship. These qualifications were not necessarily known before the client started working with her particular trainer, but they were the reasons the client stayed with the trainer. This global theme included the following major themes: Social Skills; Individuality; Education; Passion; and Results. Social Skills refers to the interpersonal and communication skills of the trainer, as well as the friendships that sometimes result with the one-on-one training. Effective interpersonal skills (e.g., charisma, sincerity) can lead to deeper, satisfying relationships (e.g., friendship) in one-on-one training. The clients noted that they like a trainer who could give them a good workout, yet who made it fun. They enjoy the camaraderie they have with their trainer, and it gives them the motivation to come every session. Carla commented,
“…I think they should be enthusiastic, I think they should be fun. I mean, that hour is torture sometimes. And I think they have to encourage you…talking to him [trainer] and hanging out while we’re working out, is just as important probably- actually more- important than working out!”
Individuality was another major theme that emerged. It consists of two sub-themes: Full Attention and Documentation. Full Attention refers to the clients’ desire for the trainer’s complete focus and attention during their training session. Cassie commented, “I just think it’s very important to not only [oversee] training [for] the individual, but to make them feel special, make them feel that you want to be there”. Although the clients realize that their trainer has other people that she or he trains, during their hour they want to feel that they are the only client the personal trainer has.
The clients also preferred trainers who could listen closely to their concerns and make notes (e.g., programmatic changes) of what was accomplished during the session. Documentation was a sub-theme of Individuality. The clients felt very strongly that the trainers should keep formal records of what happened during each training session in order to keep track of the workouts so that they can differentiate among all of their clients. This theme also included effective listening skills, since it was believed that this would help avoid injuries. Avoiding Injury is a mini-theme that emerged from Documentation and Full Attention. These clients believed that it is important for trainers to listen to the client and document any injuries that occur so that the trainer remembers not to do that exercise again with that particular client. In addition, clients expected trainers to ask them for an update of the injured area at a later session. Some of the clients had encountered trainers who did not seem to listen when a particular exercise resulted in pain or injury, and some suggested that this was because the trainer had taken on too many other clients.
As one might expect, the clients valued the trainer’s knowledge of anatomy, physiology, and exercise program design, which was reflected in the major theme labeled Education. This theme was discussed in terms of college and certifications. College refers to any formal training at the collegiate level that clients felt should be required of trainers. Most of the clients believed that a trainer with a college degree has a broader understanding of the body than someone without a degree. Cassie, the client who had worked with six different trainers commented,
“I find that if I have trained with people who had a B.S., the title [in] sports medicine or a related field, [instead of] a weekend course…they have a broader, general understanding of the body besides just, ‘this is the exercise, this is how you do this’. They can give you much more advice about your nutritional needs, you know, some lifestyle changes…”
It was clear that most of the clients were more comfortable with a trainer who earned a college degree, and that most assumed that their trainers had a degree since they were seeing results.
In regard to certifications (the other sub-theme associated with Education), the clients were asked whether they knew the names of any of the certifying organizations. No clients answered affirmatively. In fact, four had not known any of the qualifications of their trainers before they hired them. The exceptions to this were cases in which the trainer had won a bodybuilding or fitness show. Lorraine commented, “In the beginning, I didn’t know [what the qualifications of my trainer were]. I just assumed that everyone was certified”. When clients were informed about the fact that trainers at some locations are not required to possess a degree or have any formal training before they take many of the certification exams, they were surprised. Alicia remarked, “I didn’t ask for their qualifications. It was through our interactions that I found out what the qualifications were. I’m sitting here thinking…when I go to a doctor, I certainly want to see their qualifications.”
Another client had also been disappointed when she discovered how “easy” it can be to acquire some of the certifications. Carla noted, “I think that a lot of these groups that certify people, it’s become more of a money game than making certain people know what they’re doing. To me, it trivializes it somewhat.” Several of the clients also recognized that some trainers elected a quick certification and were training simply to make extra money. Whitney commented, “I think somebody…who’s spent the better part of her adult life working on this kind of stuff is preferable to someone who just got certified in a weekend class.”
The discussion regarding education prompted a wide variety of comments. In the absence of any probe directly concerning college, the clients noted that a degree must be an important quality for a trainer. Although the clients were disturbed by the notion of a trainer without a degree or certification, the clients seemed to quickly dismiss this opinion in situations where the trainer is clearly dedicated to the field and loves what she or he does, regardless of degree or certification. The clients called this passion.
Passion is a major theme that refers to the trainer having a love for what he or she does, including a dedication to the profession. In fact, some of the clients decided that since having a passion for your job will probably motivate a person to become better, the passion of a trainer may be more important to the clients than their education. Carla commented, “If you have a passion for it, you’re going to have a desire to learn more, read more, and to enrich your client’s life with that.”
Although social skills, individuality, education, and passion were clearly important to these clients, detectable changes in their bodies (e.g., weight loss, improved muscle tone), or results, appeared to be the most powerful factor influencing continued work with that trainer. Results refer to the changes that the clients saw in their bodies, which is consistent with their rationale for hiring a trainer in the first place (i.e., clients hired trainers in part because of the frustration that resulted from inability to achieve significant body change). According to these clients, the results that they get from working with a particular trainer may be more important than any other qualification or characteristic a trainer may possess. Alicia reported that her trainer never told her what his credentials were and that it bothered her at first, but since she was seeing results, it seemed to matter less over time.
Finally, the clients discussed and identified a number of negative characteristics or behaviors that might impair the personal training experience. The last global theme that emerged from the client focus group was Negative Characteristics, which consisted of the sub-themes, Unethical and Unprofessional. Negative Characteristics are characteristics that clients felt were inappropriate for trainers. These characteristics might cause a client to terminate her relationship with a trainer. In this study, Unethical refers to behavior that is sexual in nature, such as flirting and sexual comments directed at the client or any other members in the gym.
Unprofessional behavior includes canceling appointments frequently, not calling to cancel appointments, cursing, and telling clients about problems with management. In addition, these clients considered inappropriate attire worn by the trainer as unprofessional. The clients expressed discomfort with female trainers who wear sport tops and bike shorts, since it seemed to make them feel self-conscious about their own bodies. Interestingly, the clients did not discuss male trainer’s dress at length, and when it was mentioned, clients suggested that the male attire should be “tasteful” and “clean”. Cassie felt that female trainers are more likely to wear inappropriate clothing. The female clients seemed to take it as a personal affront when their female trainers dressed in revealing clothing because it made the clients feel self-conscious about their own bodies. In other words, they want their trainer to have a great body, but they also want it covered. Additionally, the clients do not want to hear sexual comments made by their trainers, specifically male trainers. As Table 2 demonstrates, these clients were very clear regarding gender roles in the workplace; females should not show off their bodies, and males should not make sexual innuendos.
The purpose of the present study was to examine clients’ perceptions regarding the qualities of successful personal trainers. Using focus group methodology, four global themes emerged: Personal Trainer Rationale, Selection Rationale, Loyalty Rationale, and Negative Characteristics. Table 2 summarizes these results.
The clients in the present study identified several factors they considered when selecting a personal trainer. The clients preferred a trainer who could empathize with their struggles to adhere to an exercise program, help them lose weight, and improve their bodies. In addition, the trainer’s physique was important when selecting a particular trainer. These findings are in line with self-presentation theory (16), a process by which one monitors and controls how one is perceived by others. Research examining self-presentational processes in physical activity has typically focused on social physique anxiety, a perception that others are negatively evaluating one’s physique (12). The findings of the present study seem to indicate that self-presentational processes may influence the selection of a personal trainer. That is, clients’ perceptions of their own physical appearance in relation to that of a potential personal trainer may influence the selection of that trainer.
The finding that physical appearance was a major factor regarding the selection and hiring of personal trainers, as well as why people decide to exercise in the first place, mirrors contemporary society’s emphasis on the “body beautiful”. People want their bodies to emulate those seen on magazine covers and on television, and therefore seek out trainers who also have these sculpted bodies to train them. Additionally, because attractiveness is more central to women’s identity (11), women are more dissatisfied with their bodies than are men (26).
Although a trainer’s physique was an important factor in the selection of a personal trainer, the clients agreed that other factors may become more relevant (e.g., detectable changes in fitness level and physique) as they progress with their exercise program. The participants indicated that perhaps the most powerful factor when selecting a trainer is that of observing the results a trainer has accomplished with other clients. This is a factor that may lead to or be associated with false assumptions. First, it is possible that a trainer with a lean, athletic, muscular, and sculpted body has never had to worry about his/her weight. In light of the importance of genetics in determining body type, the trainer with the most attractive body may have always had a fit body, and never had to work to maintain or improve it. Thus, this type of trainer may not be necessarily empathetic to a client’s struggles with appearance. Moreover, a trainer may know how to train herself, but there is no guarantee that she can transform another person’s body. This may lead to unrealistic expectations for clients which may result in discontinuation of an exercise program.
Also, while people may see results from exercising (e.g., losing weight, toning muscles), there are incorrect ways to achieve these results. It is possible, for example, to severely dehydrate oneself in order to see more muscular definition, as some bodybuilders do prior to competition. Therefore, clients may obtain results, but they may not be using safe training methods. Finally, while factors such as noticeable results were important in the initial phases of evaluating potential trainers, they were not the factors that ultimately affected whether or not the client stayed with the trainer.
In regard to trainer characteristics, clients suggested that trainers should: 1) be educated; 2) recognize the individuality of each client; and 3) be able to help clients accomplish detectable body changes. In addition, they should have a passion for personal training, and make the workout enjoyable through the use of effective social skills. The importance of “fun” during a workout session corroborates Wankel’s findings (30) that the activity itself and the characteristics of the leader are significant factors that affect enjoyment and adherence to a program. One client mentioned that exercising is difficult, and that it is important for the trainer have the social skills to communicate as a friend and make the session as enjoyable as possible. Exercise is inherently a physically challenging activity. Therefore a trainer’s ability to use his or her social skills to make the training session comfortable is an important one. Clients are more inclined to continue with that particular trainer.
Thus, the clients want to work out in a socially friendly environment in order to sustain motivation. The importance of fitness professionals’ dispositions is critical. Studies examining the influence of disposition in service work (e.g., hospitality, retail) show that personality and social skills often outweigh a person’s technical ability (14,22). Collishaw et al. (7) also reported that an instructor’s genuine enthusiasm for teaching group fitness classes was perceived and appreciated by clients. Finally, clients report more positive affect and loyalty to a trainer as a result of positive body language. “Trainers should listen to [clients] and learn about who they are, what their lifestyle is like and what motivates them. This process will become easier with time and the personal trainers will develop a polished bedside manner.” (2). Clients also want to feel special during workouts and believe that the trainer has her full attention on the client, listening to them and documenting what worked and what did not in order to avoid potential injuries. This expectation for being treated as an individual (Individuality) is an example of the customer service that Americans demand from all businesses.
A trainer’s knowledge was important to the client. It did not necessarily have to be from a college degree or certification, however. As long as the trainer shows a passion for her occupation, and the client sees results with her own body, the need for other credentials may be minimized. If the clients recognize that a trainer is genuinely enthusiastic and shares continued education (e.g., reading) with her client, this may preclude the need for higher education. However, since the majority of the clients did not truly know what the qualifications of their trainers were, or any of the certification programs available, it is plausible to suggest that they also would not be certain that the information their trainer is seeking and distributing is from reputable sources.
While credentials are critical in the selection of a trainer and/or a facility, a trainer’s credentials (e.g., certification, college degree) may mean less to a client than the belief that the trainer can help the client achieve the desired results (8). Of course, this perception is based only upon what they observe (the body change of another). Clients may not recognize that people’s bodies change at different rates and in different ways due to genetic differences, time available for training, diet, and internal motivation.
The clients identified characteristics of personal trainers that they considered unprofessional and unethical. These negative characteristics may influence clients’ decisions to stay with a trainer. In some instances, this unprofessional behavior may result in a discontinuation of exercise altogether. As was previously noted, exercise adherence is quite low in the United States; unprofessional or unethical personal trainers only exacerbate this situation. While personal trainers who have sound knowledge and strong motivational skills inspire clients, those who do not possess these skills may be the reason why a person stops exercising. That is, if the client was frustrated before working with a trainer because she could not obtain desired results, or could not motivate herself to exercise, working with a trainer who displays negative characteristics may cause her to abandon exercise altogether.
Incompetent personal trainers may also hurt those trainers who are qualified and knowledgeable. Personal trainers who are not dedicated to the personal training industry or concerned with improving their skills severely damage the reputations of the qualified trainers who do an excellent job of caring for their clients and who make personal training a respected profession.
Several limitations should be acknowledged. First, qualitative methods were used and therefore, the results cannot be generalized to other populations. Second, this study used only females and attitudes toward trainers may be gender specific. Third, focus group participants volunteered to be a part of the sessions, and this might have created a potential bias since these individuals may not necessarily represent all clients of personal trainers. Finally, all qualitative research is dependent on the biases of the authors that analyze the data. Although measures were taken to eliminate bias (the lead author completed a bracketing interview and three authors analyzed the data through consensus agreement), it is possible that preconceived beliefs may have influenced the analysis. Despite these limitations however, the authors believe that the results of the present study contribute to scholarly inquiry and offer some important practical applications for the fitness industry.
The findings of the present study have several implications relative to the personal training industry, including a discussion of the skills and/or qualifications necessary for successful personal training. First, if personal trainers are to meet the priorities of their clients, they must learn communication skills, motivation techniques, how to treat the client as an individual, and how to design various weight training programs according to the goals of the client. They must also recognize the importance of their clients’ perceptions of training results. Also, while students who do not necessarily have an ‘ideal’ physique should not be discouraged from pursuing this career, they should be cognizant that a trainer’s physique may be a deciding factor in the hiring process.
Second, the public needs to be better informed about exercise and nutrition. Clients would also benefit from information regarding the certifications associated with personal trainers. The majority of the clients in this study had not known the qualifications of their trainer when they hired them, assuming all were degreed and certified by reputable organizations. If fitness professionals can find effective ways to inform the public regarding the selection of a qualified personal trainer, clients may be less likely to have unrealistic expectations when hiring a trainer. In addition, they may be more wary of the trainers who proclaim to be able to change their entire appearance by in a short time.
Third, the authors believe that undergraduate and certification programs should include training in the development of interpersonal skills such as active listening, empathetic communication, and strategies to enhance motivation. The findings of the present study are consistent with research showing that these techniques will positively influence exercise adherence (3). Clients in the current study sought and stayed with trainers who exhibit these skills. The authors therefore, support formal incorporation of best practices into undergraduate programs. Research has shown that using such techniques will positively influence exercise adherence (3,27,28). Additionally, the findings of the present study suggest that personal trainers need to take a more client-focused approach, treating their clients as individuals and not simply as dollar signs.
A final suggestion to strengthen the current state of personal training is to move toward state licensure. The participants in the present study were largely unaware of certification procedures and the multiple licensing agencies. Currently, there are at least 19 different personal trainer certification organizations (1), and approximately 90 organizations offering fitness certifications (31). With so many organizations having their own criteria for membership and certification as a personal trainer, there has been little regulation or assurance that personal trainers working in the field are qualified. It is critical that present and future club members improve their knowledge of how professional personal trainers are educated and certified. Given the poor exercise adherence and high level of dropout rates in the United States, qualified personal trainers are in a position to help change these rates.
Deana I. Melton, Ed.D., CSCS, HFS
Human Performance and Leisure Studies Department
North Carolina A&T State University
203 Corbett Center
Greensboro, NC 27411
Phone: (336) 334-7712
Fax: 336) 334-7258