The Dangers of Hiring the Wrong Personal Trainer

By Mike DuBose and Joel DuBose

In a recent USA Today article, Nicole Auerbach reported, “We are in the midst of a fitness explosion; working out—or looking good while working out—has never been trendier.” People have become famous for sharing diet and personal training tips through their websites and apps like Instagram, with legions of followers willing to take their recommendations in search of the “perfect body.” In fact, with all of the (frequently, conflicting) advice out there just a short Google search away, many consumers are experiencing information overload. However, decisions regarding one’s diet and exercise plan should be taken very seriously. Following the wrong personal training advice can be hazardous to one’s health—ending in injury, hospitalization, or even death!

Hiring the right personal trainer has many benefits. Good personal trainers help individuals learn proper exercise techniques while making workouts educational, inspirational, accountable, and productive. They start by carefully assessing their clients’ health needs (as well as limitations, injuries, or disabilities) and designing custom fitness programs based on the findings. Then, they guide the trainee through the tailored program, providing encouragement along the way until the desired results have been accomplished. Competent personal trainers can literally change lives!

But just as good personal trainers can help alter peoples’ bodies for the better, incompetent personal trainers can cause them very serious harm. Incorrect fitness advice can spark problems, starting with minor pain and resulting in serious surgery. In extreme cases, death is even possible. With consequences so dire, it makes sense that personal trainers should have to undergo rigorous training and prove their knowledge to be allowed to practice.

However, that’s often not the case. Anyone can start a blog giving out fitness tips on the internet, and shockingly, even many major gyms employ personal trainers who are undereducated or willfully ignorant of important methods for protecting clients from harm. In fact, personal trainer Erik Strouse (who has master’s degrees in strength and conditioning), advocated for more regulation of his field in a 2015 Wall Street Journal article, stating, “It’s scary when you see a trainer do something that could cause a life-long injury.” Although big-name gyms often have criteria for whom they hire as personal trainers, these guidelines vary by gym—even within the same franchise. If you use private personal trainers and in-home experts, their credentials could even be more questionable.

Part of the problem is that individuals don’t legally have to meet any federal or state requirements to declare themselves as personal trainers. As Dimity McDowell noted in a Doctors Review article, “Even the woman who waxes your upper lip may have had more training—and she is certainly subject to more legal oversight—than the one who pushes your cardiovascular, muscular, and nervous systems; jacks up your heart rate and blood pressure; and strains your joints and ligaments.” In the same article, Atlanta lawyer Mark Bullman stated, “Others who hold themselves out to be experts need to be licensed. Yet somebody who wields heavy weights and guides your personal health needs nothing.” Our research supports the notion that many personal trainers are not qualified to assess health needs, design correct exercise programs, and guide clients through the proper activities that will build muscle and strength while preventing injuries.

Several different groups—ranging from reliable to untrustworthy—offer personal training certifications, which can often make a trainer appear more respectable. However, for some of the more disreputable programs, all individuals have to do is take a one-day course and pass a simple exam. Even if they know very little about the body and how it works, proper exercises, and health issues (all matters that should be taken into account when developing a personal training program), they now hold a nationally-recognized personal trainer certification! In fact, during our research for this article, we talked with a certified personal trainer who admitted he knew little about the proper methods to improve peoples’ health, yet he had been able to obtain his certification! Similarly, in his article, McDowell referenced a survey by the nonprofit National Board of Fitness Examiners wherein two-thirds of the 2,700 certified personal trainers surveyed said they knew of trainers who were incompetent.

Many subpar personal trainers look and dress professionally, and they use terms and phrases that make it seem as if they know what they are talking about. Some personal trainers like this work in large, well-known gyms. Their clients pay top dollar for their workouts, only to feel pain (or even undergo surgeries) afterward that could have been avoided.

The consequences of employing the wrong personal trainer are more common than many people realize. The following are some of the harmful outcomes that can occur when exercises are performed with incorrect form and/or amount of weight:

  • Shoulder impingement syndrome: This is caused when the connected tissue (a tendon) rubs on a shoulder blade.
  • Rotator cuff tear: Similar to shoulder impingement syndrome but much more serious, in this case, the arm becomes weak and a snapping feeling may be felt. Surgery is often required to repair the damage.
  • Patellar tinnitus: This injury involves inflammation of the tendon connecting the kneecap to the shinbone due to over usage of the knee.
  • Back sprain and strain: Weightlifting requires the use of the back, so injuries to this part of the body are common. Symptoms include pain, swelling, and trouble moving the back.
  • Herniated disks: This occurs when the cushions between the vertebrae slip out of place or rupture. The injury is particularly prevalent amongst weightlifters and others who are exercising improperly.

Many other injuries, such as trauma, fractures, and dislocations of the knees, muscles, and Achilles tendon, can occur with improper exercises, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The organization reported that many injuries occur because individuals do not warm up before exercising, do not know their body’s limits, attempt to reach unrealistic goals within a short period of time, or try to be “weekend warriors” by squeezing in a week’s worth of intensive workouts on Saturday and Sunday. In a best-case scenario, a personal trainer would help them maximize their results while operating within a safe range of activity, but all too often, bad personal trainers (or self-administered advice from the internet) pushes consumers to do too much, too fast…with dire results.

Several individuals we interviewed who had undergone shoulder surgeries said they had complained of pain to their certified personal trainers prior to being injured. In each instance, the trainer laughed their statements off and pushed them further, with one saying, “Don’t be such a wuss. Suck it up!” when her client commented that her shoulder hurt. (Surgery was eventually required to correct the damage caused on this trainer’s watch.) One nationally-known orthopedic surgeon also told us that patients who had previously been under the care of trainers from certain well-known gyms were coming to his practice in droves. Other chiropractors and physical therapists shared similar stories of injuries and pain brought on by poor training.

Many people who are being trained also have special medical needs such as diabetes, arthritis, heart disease, chronic pain, injuries, and muscle weakness that require unique care and attention. Competent personal trainers can work around these issues and develop customized exercise routines. However, many personal trainers we observed firsthand at local gyms used “cookie cutter,” one-size-fits-all workout routines without paying any attention to their clients’ form, individual needs, and pain levels. Instead, several talked with other trainers and friends, texted or conversed on their cell phones, watched others work out, or appeared to be bored while their client was performing the exercise—often, inaccurately. They simply were not engaged with or closely monitoring their client.

Inattention or incompetence can lead to poor results or injury—but can it even cause death? In a word: yes! McDowell’s article referenced the case of a woman who died at just 37 years old due to an interaction between her blood pressure medication and a weight loss drug that had been recommended by her personal trainer. “Deaths and serious injuries occur every year,” said Gregory Florez, a spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise (ACE).

The bottom line: When supervised by a competent, certified personal trainer, the right exercise program can have numerous positive health benefits. On the other hand, working out under the wrong personal trainer can have unhealthy, injurious, and even deadly outcomes! To succeed and stay safe, you need to know how to use gym equipment properly and take a gradual road to improving your health. Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor should your body be. Learn from the best so that your life can be longer, happier, and healthier!

About the Authors: Our corporate and personal purpose is to “create opportunities to improve lives” by sharing our knowledge, research, experiences, successes, and mistakes. You can contact Joel DuBose or Mike DuBose by e-mailing katie@dubosegroup.com.

Joel DuBose is president of DuBose Fitness Center, a private gym that only offers one-on-one personal training. He studied exercise science and psychology at the University of South Carolina and later served as the strengthening and conditioning coach with basketball coach Tim Whipple at Irmo High School. He is a Certified Personal Trainer with the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America and the International Association of Fitness Science. 

Mike DuBose, a University of South Carolina graduate, is the author of The Art of Building a Great Business. He has been in business since 1981 and is the owner of Research Associates, The Evaluation Group, Columbia Conference Center, and DuBose Web Group. He also partnered, with his son, Joel DuBose, to create the company DuBose Fitness Center. Visit his nonprofit website www.mikedubose.com for a free copy of his book and more than 100 additional business, travel, and personal published articles, including health columns written with Dr. Surb Guram, MD.

Katie Beck serves as Director of Communications for the DuBose family of companies. She graduated from the USC School of Journalism and Honors College.

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