This is an installment of Good Fit, a column about exercise.
I became a personal trainer and group fitness instructor out of a mix of altruism and practicality. As someone with little to no natural physical skills or basic body awareness, I’d struggled to find exercises that clicked for me, cycling through weight training, running, martial arts along the way. I hoped that my experience and knowledge could help other people in my position avoid some of the confusion, frustration and humiliation I’d suffered. And I needed the money.
I was about to turn 24, five years into an erratic career as a freelance music journalist, six months into a promising but still unprofitable gig as a professional pillow fighter (yes, really), and three years away from an autism diagnosis that would help to explain the body awareness and employment issues, among many other things. The people in my life telling me to get a “real” backup career were getting harder to ignore. So I started studying for certifications and applying for work.
Given my experience covering the sometime-seedy music industry, and my own ambiguous motivation, I wasn’t expecting the fitness industry to be especially pure. But I was still caught off guard by a lot of the behavior and attitudes I witnessed from my fellow trainers. I ended up spending 10 years teaching classes like Pilates and indoor cycling, and doing one-on-one and small group sessions. Though I burned out and quit a while ago, I still grapple with the ways in which I contributed to some of the problems that clients can experience in gyms.
When I began, one of the first issues I noticed among my new cohort—even if I didn’t have the words for at the time—was a kind of survivorship bias. A lot of people get into fitness because they were good at sports and/or gym class when they were growing up. Which makes sense. If you’re good at something and you enjoy it, why not try to make a career out of it? Unfortunately, people who are naturally talented at specific tasks are not necessarily gifted at explaining the steps that the rest of mere mortals might have to take to approach their level.
They’re not always patient when people fumble. I’ve seen otherwise well-meaning trainers misread honestly confused clients as willfully obtuse, and mistake genuine inability to perform a move as laziness. I’ve also heard less well-meaning trainers openly mock clients behind their backs for their lack of physical skills and slow progress. They seemed to not understand that their own unwillingness to connect with certain clients, and that the quality of their instruction, could play a role in the problem.
But it’s also not like personal training gigs incentivize taking time to really hone your teaching techniques. Fitness in the 2000s paid better than Canadian music journalism, but that wasn’t saying much. The rates that most gyms and mobile services offered were barely enough to adequately compensate workers for the sessions and classes themselves, let alone all of the preplanning, research, and continuing education that went into making them effective, engaging, and safe. Finding and securing enough of those hours to live on was an almost unending struggle. The only people who could afford to continue working in fitness for any period of time were either very good at the grind, talented and lucky enough to find their niche and run with it, or had another job or family support that allowed them to treat their fitness career like a side hustle or hobby. I only survived my first few years because my now-husband let me crash at his place rent free.
On the positive side, the low pay meant that a lot of trainers were working out of a genuine love of fitness and helping other people. On a less ideal note, it meant that there were many trainers—those who could afford to treat it as a hobby—who didn’t really understand what some of their less financially-stable clients were going through. People who have always been well off or even comfortable can have compassion for people who haven’t been as fortunate, if they try. But I don’t think they can truly understand the physical and mental exhaustion that comes from not knowing where your next paycheck is coming from, the guilt that can come from taking any time or spending any money on yourself, and the shame that can come from trying to explain that to someone who doesn’t get it. This obviously affected practical issues on the business side. I’ve overheard some really patronizing and ignorant pep talks from trainers and gym managers who were trying to strong-arm people into spending money they didn’t have on more training sessions. There was a lot of conflating literally not being able to afford goods or services with not caring about health and results. But it could also cause a more subtle fracture in the relationship between a well-off coach and a client who was less so. People who are financially comfortable tend to see the relationship between effort and reward as a relatively straight line. They don’t always know what to do with those of us who no longer believe it’s that simple.
Trainers are supposed to help you grow—but that might first involve tearing you down. I refused to walk up to people on the gym floor and find something about their workout to pick apart to convince them they needed professional guidance. I never pushed people too hard during orientation or free trial training sessions to convince them that they were even more out of shape than they thought and in desperate need of my services. Both of which are actual techniques I was taught on the job and watched a number of colleagues do with little to no self-reflection. But I did sometimes teach classes that were harder than I believed all levels drop-in classes should be because I wanted students to think I was tough and come back for more so that I could keep my attendance up, and keep my job.
That wasn’t my only mistake, either. During my own fitness journey—and just in my general existence as a woman in the world—I have internalized criticisms of my body and how it worked. I passed too many of the critiques onto clients. Nothing as egregious as fatphobia. I’m proud of my efforts to fight against that. But I wish I’d been quieter and more helpful about the occasional hyperextended elbow I saw in classes, for example. My focus on proper exercise sometimes veered too close to perfectionism. The fact is that sometimes bodies just do different things and unless your client is a professional athlete training for a specific purpose, it’s probably fine to let them be. As long as they’re not hurting themselves, they’ll get more out of being able to exercise without having to worry about exact foot placement or the angle of their elbow in a plank than they will out of a tiny form correction.
Coming from a martial arts background where people willingly touch and sweat on each other constantly left me with a poor concept of how comfortable the average exerciser might be with partner work and contact. I wish I’d made more space in classes for people to work alone at their own pace without having to worry about whether or not I’d ask them to hold someone else’s ankles for wheelbarrow walks.
In general, I wish I’d spent less time trying to play the part of the super tough, all-knowing trainer. I was trying to get people to take me more seriously than my tiny stature, baby face, and autistic body language would allow on its own. But I will always wonder who else I could have helped if I’d been more vulnerable and more myself. And who I left behind because I wasn’t willing to risk it.
While I can’t change the past, I hope I can use my current work to demystify personal trainers and fitness instructors for anyone who is a little too in awe of or intimidated by them. We are human beings who are often working through our own issues and disseminating information through our biases while we try to survive in a less than ideal industry and culture. Most of us have at least some valuable information to share, but we’re not infallible. Speak up if something isn’t working for you—and know that every trainer won’t be right for every exerciser. But there’s probably someone out there who will be right for you and your goals. You don’t have to defer to anyone who might risk your health, values, self-esteem, or mood. The whole point of going to the gym is to build those things up.
Sarah Kurchak is the author of the newly-released Work It Out: A Mood-Boosting Exercise Guide for People Who Just Want to Lie Down.