16 Secrets of Personal Trainers
At the beginning of each year, people flock to gyms to finally tackle their New Year's resolutions to get in shape, be healthier, and/or achieve the six-pack abs of their dreams. For some, that means hiring the services of a personal trainer who can give them the one-on-one attention they need to achieve their fitness goals. But personal trainers do more than just supervise your push-ups and ask you to do more reps: They talk to you about your eating and sleeping habits, sometimes see you cry, and might even end up earning an invite to your wedding. Here are a few insider secrets personal trainers shared with Mental Floss about their jobs.
1. Personal trainers really don’t like it when you’re late.
Several of the trainers Mental Floss spoke to said their biggest pet peeve is when clients show up late to their session. After all, the trainer has created a plan for the workout, and it’s frustrating to have to adjust that plan to accommodate the shorter workout.
“You’re kind of wasting your money,” says Ackeem Emmons, a personal trainer who began his career at Equinox, later started his own training business, and now works with Aaptiv, an audio-based workout app. “It’s so funny, because [clients] think they’re getting over on me—when you’re just short-changing yourself.”
2. Their hours aren’t as flexible as you think.
“They tell you [that] you can make your own hours,” Emmons explains. “That’s a lie. I wake up at 4 or 5 every day, because people either want to train before work or after work.” That means busy mornings and evenings, and inevitable afternoon downtime for trainers.
3. The salary for personal trainers varies widely ...
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median income for fitness trainers and instructors across the U.S. is a little more than $39,000 a year, or roughly $18.85 an hour. But that’s just the median: The pay can vary quite a bit between location (in California, the average fitness salary is closer to $50,000), clientele (celebrity trainers can command hundreds of dollars per hour), the facility (a trainer at a private gym typically makes more than someone working at a local rec center), and certification levels.
4. ... and so do the qualifications.
There are numerous certifications available, which can boost earning power and add to a trainer’s potential client base. Organizations such as the American Council on Exercise (ACE), the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), and the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) all offer training manuals and certifications designed to make sure that anyone who calls themselves a personal trainer is well-versed in how the body works, nutrition, and injury prevention. In addition to general athletic certifications, there are specific courses for different exercise techniques, like using barbells, and for training specific populations, like people with chronic diseases or disabilities.
Some certifications are more rigorous than others, and some gyms are more stringent than others about the exact certifications their trainers hold, but in general, most trainers are always working on new certifications to add to their depth of knowledge. “I like to do it at least every couple of months to just learn something new,” Emmons says.
5. Personal trainers know when you’re not bringing your A-game.
Trainers can tell when you’re not totally focused on your workout, and they may pause the session to figure out why. “You have to figure out the reason why their mind is somewhere else,” explains Karyn Toffolo, a trainer who provides nutrition and fitness coaching through her company Happy Belly Strong as well as working at several New York City-area gyms. Solving that mental puzzle can be more important in the long run than it is to "kick their ass and give them this hard workout.”
Sometimes, however, the reason someone is distracted is much more simple. “I’ve had people come in drunk before,” Toffolo says. “You can just tell they’re not paying attention. So I have sent people home.”
6. Many clients come in with unrealistic expectations.
“A lot of people come in and say this actor put on 20 pounds of muscle in three months and I want the same result,” says Sean Collins, the co-owner and head powerlifting coach at Murder of Crows Barbell Club in Brooklyn. Goals like that are not in reach for the vast majority of the population—certainly not without performance-enhancing drugs—and he has to be the one to explain that. As Emmons puts it, “I’m a trainer, not a magician.”
They get a lot of very stereotypical requests, too.“Men all want huge arms, a big chest, and six-pack abs. And they need it by the 14th, because they’re going on vacation in two weeks,” Emmons says. “And women always want the triceps, the glutes, the inner thighs, and a six-pack—those are always the main things.”
7. Personal trainers also want to know about your diet.
Though most personal trainers aren’t nutritionists (Toffolo is an exception), helping clients eat right is still a big part of most fitness plans, according to Lacey Stone, a bi-coastal fitness expert who offers private training, group classes, boot camps, and virtual training, in addition to appearing as a celebrity trainer on E!’s Revenge Body With Khloe Kardashian. "I make certain that they have some kind of a higher protein/carbohydrate fuel before they work out," she says, because their body needs that fuel to perform.
Some of the education is just the basics. Stone says her clients often ask things like, "'Should I do keto? Should I fast? Should I do paleo?' I'm like, let's not worry about that until you even get like, what a vegetable is." (Stone is currently helping to launch a new line of milk-based protein shakes, called Core Power high protein milk shakes, so she likes to recommend those for an after-workout snack.)
“A lot of people come in with misconceptions about food—like someone will come in and say, ‘I haven’t eaten a carb in like four weeks,’” Collins says. “An important part of increasing muscle mass is increasing carb consumption. Sometimes they think fat will make you fat. They think too much protein will kill you, or too much carbohydrates will give you diabetes.” Part of the job of a personal trainer is to help re-educate clients on the role of food in their lives. That means not just telling people not to eat five slices of pizza in a row, but talking about what they're eating, when they're eating, and how that impacts their workout.
8. If they don’t ask about scheduling more sessions, it’s probably because they don’t want you to.
Not every client-trainer relationship works out, and sometimes trainers would prefer to let certain clients go. (Clients who are perpetually flaky or do nothing but complain throughout their sessions might not be asked back.) Of course, they try to be diplomatic about it. “I wouldn’t say I fired them,” Toffolo says of some former clients, “because they are paying me for sessions.” But if she doesn’t enjoy working with a client, when it comes time to schedule and pay for a new batch of sessions, “I just won’t ask if they want to renew.”
It’s not always personal, though. Toffolo works as a trainer at gyms like Brooklyn Boulders and Drive 495, and she occasionally hands her clients off to another trainer at the facility who might be better suited to helping them achieve their goals. For instance, if someone is rehabbing an injury, she is more likely to refer them to one of her colleagues with physical therapy experience.
9. Sometimes their sessions involve tears.
Stone says a fair amount of her clients end up crying at some point during the course of their training with her. “A big part of my program is getting people mentally and emotionally healthy before I can get them to do what I want physically,” she explains. Occasionally, that means tears—but “not sad tears. It's like, realization tears. It's like, finding your soul again tears.”
Collins deals with tears occasionally, too. “In power lifting, you can train for three to four months for one specific competition,” he says. So when people feel like they have fallen short of their goals when that big competition comes, it gets emotional. “I have had to manage a lot of tears,” he explains. “Any kind of fitness professional has to have a high level of empathy. I think the best ones out there are the ones who can completely understand why this is so upsetting to an individual.”
10. Personal trainers can get very close with their clients.
Personal training includes sharing a lot of intimate details about your life, like your diet, weight goals, sleep routine, and more, and as a result, trainers form tight bonds with many of their clients. Sometimes, "it can be more of a therapy session" than a workout session, Toffolo says. (That may happen whether the trainer likes it that way or not—"I’ve had a lot of people definitely share more than I wanted to," she adds.)
But Toffolo sees the client-trainer relationship as more of a friendship than a straight business relationship. She trains some clients for years on end, and has even been invited to some of their weddings. “It’s just nice to have that type of rapport with someone. It makes time go by quicker.”
11. They don’t need a big space to work …
Toffolo does house calls, and while some condo and apartment buildings feature high-end gyms, she doesn’t need a lot of space to work. “I can utilize a space as small as a closet,” she says. “I can manipulate [the program] so that it works with whatever the environment that I’m in.” That includes moves like stepping up onto benches, sprinting up stairs, and other moves that use the client's own weight as resistance.
12. … or fancy equipment.
Stone says that if there’s a few basic exercises she recommends to everyone, it’s squats, push-ups, and crunches—all things you don’t need a gym to do. “They've been around forever because they work,” she says. “I’m always like, ‘Get the basics down before you’re throwing a medicine ball around.’"
13. Personal trainers work with a lot of future brides.
Many personal trainers have a number of clients who are looking to get or stay fit for their wedding day. Stone and Toffolo both say they’ve had clients come on for just a few weeks or months prior to their wedding. “I had a lot of brides this summer,” Toffolo says, whose goal was “making sure they look good when they go down the aisle.”
While it may seem unrealistic to hope for dramatic changes just a few months before an event, with the right dedication, some of those pre-wedding workouts can yield impressive results. “I just had someone that lost 30 pounds with me in like seven months,” Stone says. “She looks unbelievable. She's been super inspiring.”
14. Yes, they heard you fart.
Everyone is human, and inevitably, a client will let a fart slip out during a workout. “It happens,” Toffolo says. “Most of my clients now I’m pretty close with, so I pretty much just laugh it off.”
15. Not all of them appreciate your New Year's resolution.
"The New Year’s resolutioners, they’re a little bit of my pet peeve," Toffolo says. "They take a lot of space at the gym for maybe one month," but aren't typically dedicated to sticking around for the rest of the year. "We make good money around this time of year, but usually, the New Year's resolutioners die down in February."
16. Personal trainers have to fit in their own workouts, too.
Personal trainers may spend a lot of time in the gym, but observing and coaching other people’s workouts isn’t the same as doing their own. In fact, Emmons says, “Not every personal trainer is in shape. As much as you’re training other people you have to train yourself.”
For Collins, being a trainer has actually made it harder for him to keep up with his own workouts. “Opening up a gym and coaching people has been the worst thing I’ve ever done for my own athletic endeavors,” he says. “There’s so much you have to get done as a business owner and a trainer, and so many things you have to do outside of client-facing hours.” That includes scheduling sessions, emailing clients, and coming up with new programs. As a result, he just doesn’t have the time he once did to focus on his own fitness goals.
But how much time a trainer spends on their own fitness depends on what training they’re doing, too. While Collins doesn’t get much of a workout coaching powerlifters, Stone leads classes at Flywheel, which specializes in indoor cycling. Though she may not be huffing and puffing as much as her students, she’s working out as she’s teaching. “When I’m working out, I can talk, because I'm at a high level of fitness,” she explains. “They're working out with me, so they get to actually see me doing what I'm telling them to do, five days a week.”
And though personal trainers love fitness, motivation can be as be as much of a problem for them as it is for you. “I’m just like everyone else,” Emmons explains. “I don’t want to work out every day—sometimes I just want to relax and catch up on my Netflix shows.” But he’s got to get himself to the gym anyway, because it’s his job.