It Is Six o'clock in the evening, and you have raced home from the office to be sure of an empty house for your first session with a personal trainer. You saw the advert on the leisure centre noticeboard, after you'd finished another half-hearted wander round the weights room. You liked the sound of "qualified instructor, home visits", and booked an appointment in the hope that intensive tuition might bolster your enthusiasm for exercise.
And here he is. It's only when you've let him in, and the door's closed, that you realise you are now alone with a man you have never met before.
Three things could happen. First, and most likely, is that you will have chosen as your fitness mentor a bright and enthusiastic individual, committed to helping you make the best of your body, and bearing a sheaf of certificates which testify to professional competence. You enjoy a great workout, happily part with pounds 30, and arrange to meet again in three days' time.
The second possible outcome is that you will have picked one of the unknown number of trainers offering no insurance cover or first-aid ability, and claiming qualifications which are either irrelevant or non-existent. Many body builders, strong on pec development but lacking all-round technical knowledge, advertise their services as trainers. If quizzed, they may suggest that the hours spent honing their physique are ample preparation for imparting skills to others - a belief no one in the fitness business would support. You suffer an unstructured and ill-taught workout, and ache for days afterwards. You decide to look elsewhere.
The final, nightmare, scenario has yet to happen. There has not been a reported case of someone masquerading as a trainer in order to gain access to a workplace or home. However, for as long as anyone can call themselves a trainer and tout for business then the horrific possibility remains of a client being robbed, molested or even raped.
"There are no rules and regulations in the fitness industry," says Mike Imlach, a personal trainer with a decade of practical experience backed up by a sports science degree and follow-on qualifications. "Most people know so little about exercise and what a good workout should include that they take everything on trust. I always carry my certificates, but I've only been asked to show them twice."
Rachel Walters missed the warning signs when a regular at her Hertfordshire sports centre offered to train her. "He was very fit and knew his way around the equipment, and I stupidly paid him pounds 50 for three sessions. But I soon realised that he had no teaching ability. It was all 'do that' and 'watch me'. He didn't plan a proper schedule, it was very casual. He mentioned a couple of qualifications, but I now know they don't mean anything. I saw him twice, then stopped. I should have challenged him, but I didn't feel brave enough."
"In America," says Joanna Berry, managing director of the National Register of Personal Trainers (NRPT), which maintains a database of qualified, insured and experienced trainers, "a rogue trainer would never get work in a gym. They wouldn't get through the door." In Britain, despite the efforts of the NRPT, the Exercise Association of England (EXA), and the Central YMCA, which administers the highly regarded Personal Trainer Award, the screening process is less effective.
The NRPT has around 1,000 trainers on its files, but Berry is unable to estimate how many others are earning money from customers who can't tell a good trainer from a bad one. "We heard from a very conscientious trainer in west London, who was angered by the fact that someone totally unqualified was working at the same club. Many members end up at the physio after they've seen her. Unfortunately, the onus is on the client to find out the truth of a trainer's claims."
Annette Burgess of EXA agrees. "There is a huge amount of trust - or is it gullibility? - on the part of the public. The only way to be guaranteed a safe and effective workout is to employ a trainer who can prove he or she is a member of a professional organisation, or use an accredited personal training gym."
David Plummer, of the recently opened Personal Training Centre in Fulham, has met clients who paid up front to trainers, only for them to vanish without trace. He entered a partnership with two other trainers because: "We felt it was the only way to gain credibility. There are trainers out there that we simply didn't want to be associated with."
Marilyn Luscombe, national director of the Association of Personal Trainers, recalls telephoning someone who advertised himself in a local newspaper as a professional, highly qualified personal trainer. "When questioned, he admitted to having done a one day course with multi-gym equipment, which had recently been installed at his local leisure centre. He hadn't heard of cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, had no insurance and was charging pounds 30 per hour."
To avoid hitching up to a cowboy, always ask to see a trainer's insurance indemnity certificate and qualifications. In addition to those already mentioned, others include the YMCA's Fitness Training Certificate, the RSA Certificate in the Teaching of Exercise to Music, and Fitness for Industry's Gymnasium Instructor Certificate.
Just as important as qualifications, however, is attitude. Are they well presented? Keen to discover your motivation for getting fit? Regularly updating their knowledge, perhaps with a Continuous Professional Development accreditation offered by the Exercise Association?
Or do you sense that they see you as just another financial opportunity? If so, keep your cheque book in your pocket, and your front door firmly shut.
National Register of Personal Trainers: 0181 944 6688; Association of Personal Trainers: 0171 836 1102; Exercise Association of England: 0171 278 0811.
Andrew Shields is sports and fitness editor of 'Time Out' magazine.
The first session with
a trainer should include:
A physical assessment, including checks on resting blood pressure and heart rate to ensure there are no potentially dangerous disorders.
Body composition analysis. "Weight on its own is misleading," says personal fitness trainer Mike Imlach. "The proportion of lean body tissue to fat is a much better indicator of physical condition." This can be measured with skinfold calipers or electrical equipment.
A gentle experimental workout, to assess posture, co-ordination, strength, stamina, suppleness and technique.
Discussion of likes and dislikes. "Some people love swimming and cycling outdoors, but hate exercise bikes and treadmills," says Imlach. "It's less important for me to prescribe a programme than for the client to decide what they will enjoy."
Target setting. For someone who has not exercised in years, this could be completing eight training sessions in a month. The slightly fitter could complete a local 10km race or to join a squash club. "I don't advocate weight loss as a specific target," says Imlach, "but four to six pounds in a month is realistic."
Commitment and enthusiasm from both parties. For Imlach, "my job is to help people feel better about themselves". However, personal training is a waste of money if it's approached half-heartedly.
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