3 Ways Your Personal Trainer Steers You Wrong

Female exercising with personal trainer at gym

When you hire a personal trainer, you expect that he or she will provide you with a high value for your hard-earned money. You expect instruction on how to safely and effectively use scientifically-proven training methods. You also expect a tailor-made exercise approach that best fits your specific training goal.

That’s the dream, anyway.

Here’s the reality: Many of the common fitness training “trends” that trainers use are based more on misconception, misinterpretations and myth. The result: You pay good money for bad information. Here we’ll show you three of the most common ways personal trainers unknowingly misguide their clients, and how you can work with a trainer to get the results you’re looking for.

But wait: Don’t blame your trainer for all your bad habits!

Before we get into our list, let’s make it clear that you can’t blame your trainer for you not losing body fat if you go home and eat like a lazy teenager. It also unfair to blame your trainer for not helping you make drastic muscle gains if you only work with the trainer once or twice a week and do absolutely nothing the rest of the time.

Training is not something a fitness professional does TO you; it’s something they do WITH you. It’s up to YOU to keep moving in that direction throughout each day.

People exercising on stationary bikes in fitness class. People workout in gym. People with personal trainer.

Don't let your personal trainer steer you wrong.

1. You’re getting a private lesson in their favorite exercise method, not a personalized program of the best exercises for you.

There are many training approaches. Some trainers may follow a bodybuilding-type philosophy where others are more into Pilates, while others do “ 3-D functional training” and others may be more into kettlebells — the list goes on.

THE PROBLEM: In many cases, personal trainers give advice based on their chosen training philosophy (i.e. bias) instead of delivering a truly personalized workout program.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Arm yourself with a set of informed questions you can ask trainers before you train with them:

  • Here’s my goal. What’s the best way to achieve it?
  • Why is that method better than other fitness training methods for helping me to achieve my goal?
  • Do you use the same basic training method for everyone you work with? Why or why not?
  • Have you ever worked with others like me (similar age, sex, body-type, medical history, etc.) who have the same goals?
  • If so, did you use this training approach with them?
  • If so, please show me some before and after pictures of these clients or at least provide some testimonials?

While you’re interviewing trainers, be aware of how they talk to you. If they use jargon, complex terminologies, or speak to you in a way that you can’t understand, find someone else. What you really need is someone who can communicate well and relate to you.

Additionally, the letters behind a trainers name (i.e. their qualifications) are no indication of their practical skills, so don’t pick a trainer based on their schooling or educational certifications they can show you. Education helps, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Pick a trainer based on the RESULTS they’ve gotten for others like you.

WHAT YOUR TRAINER CAN DO: Understand that ALL forms of exercise have their benefits and their limitations. And that certain training methods are best for certain goals, and no one method is best for all goals.

Example: Yoga is great for mobility and breathing, but if your goal is to gain muscle, bodybuilding methods will get you there faster and more effectively than yoga ever could.

If you have a multifaceted goal, like gaining strength while improving athletic movement, then you need to train with a multifaceted approach. Practice your sports and perform some sports training drills. Add some weight lifting for strength.

2. You want to get better at a certain sport, so your trainer offers “sport-specific workouts.”

This is probably one of the most misunderstood concepts among personal trainers and fitness enthusiasts alike.

THE PROBLEM: Some trainers assume that exercises have to look like the sport you’re training for. The truth is, the movement skills required in sports are EXACT — not similar. Case in point: Shoot 10 free throws with a regular basketball. Then shoot 10 more with a two-kilogram medicine ball. You'll quickly find that the motor pattern to throw the heavier ball is completely different, as your first few shots with the heavier ball will come up short until you adjust.

Adding load to a sports-specific skill in the gym is, in reality, training a different skill, which can potentially throw you off your ability to perform the original sports skill.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Understand that “sports specific” training doesn’t happen in the gym. It happens when you work with a coach to practice the specific skills required in your given sport. So, tennis practice and your tennis lesson are where you go for “sport-specific training.”

Anything you do in the gym to get in better shape is just plain “training.” Strength and conditioning workouts simply give you the physical fitness to do what you need to do when you practice for your sport. (Also, understand that getting into better shape will only go so far if you stink at your sport!)

WHAT YOUR TRAINER CAN DO: Sure, there are a few “specific” things that you can focus on in the gym depending on the sport. Examples: If you’re in an impact sport like wrestling or football, neck strength is important. And, if you’re a tennis player or golfer, increasing your rotational strength and flexibility can help you improve racquet or club speed.

Still, those are small additions to a general focus on total-body strength and power training. All athletes can benefit from adding strength and increasing explosive power, which can help you to run faster, jump higher, etc., and also transfer more force to an implement, like a swinging bat or throwing a punch. General strength training can also help athletes better protect their connective tissues, which could help decrease injury risk.

Young beautiful and attractive fitness girl workout on her balance by standing on the half ball on the one leg

Don't let your personal trainer steer you wrong.

3. Your trainer wants you to lift weights on unstable surfaces.

Does your trainer have you lifting weights while standing on unstable surfaces like wobble boards or a BOSU ball to improve your “functional strength” or “core stability?”

THE PROBLEM: In order to improve strength, you must produce high amounts of force. And in order to build muscle, you must overload your muscles. Neither of these can be done effectively on an unstable surface, says Juan Carlos Santana, owner of the Institute for Human Performance.

“Unstable base training is not ‘functional’ for sports or life activities because movement and sports are about transferring energy from the ground to something," he says.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: If your goal is to improve your overall strength or core strength or to gain muscle, lift weights on flat, stable ground in the traditional style. Unstable surfaces can be great for improving balance and for rehabbing ankle, knee or hip injuries.

So if you also want to improve your balance or simply enjoying using unstable surfaces, there’s no reason you can't incorporate some balance training using unstable surfaces in-between sets of strength training exercises.

WHAT YOUR TRAINER CAN DO: Better understand three key concepts:

1. Science

According to a 2004 study by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), “The performance of resistance exercises on unstable equipment has increased in popularity, despite the lack of research supporting their effectiveness."

According to another 2004 study also by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), “The diminished force output suggests that the overload stresses required for strength training necessitate the inclusion of resistance training on stable surfaces.”

2. Specificity

If your goal is to improve sports performance, unless you’re playing your sport in an earthquake, the ground you're playing on is stable. So train on stable ground.

Additionally, when lifting weights while on an unstable base, as the saying goes, “you can’t fire a cannon from a canoe.” So when using unstable surfaces, you can't be as explosive as you need to be in order to improve your explosive capability.

Some studies have shown increased core muscle activity when lifting weights on fitness balls. However, if your goal is core strengthening, there are many core-specific methods to use.

3. Safety

Lifting weights on a Swiss ball can be down right dangerous. In 2009, the NBA’s Sacramento Kings found this out the hard way when starting forward Francisco Garcia, whose contract was worth $29.6 million over 5 years, missed a huge chunk of that season after an exercise ball accident broke his right wrist.

Even if you don’t agree with the science discussed above, common sense tells us that the risks involved every time a client is place on a Swiss ball while holding free weights far out-weight any supposed benefits.