With sold out classes, devoted fans, and millions of social media followers, fitness instructors are becoming celebrities, but are these "enter"-trainers legit?
It's 7:45 a.m. at a spin studio in New York City. Iggy Azalea's Work is blasting through the speakers, as the instructor—a crowd favorite whose classes sell out faster than a Taylor Swift concert—shouts, "Push harder! Pain is change!" Later that day, she Instagrams an inspirational quote and receives over 200 likes.
Meet the new kind of fitness professional: the enter-trainer. Enter-trainers don't simply instruct us—they motivate us, inspire us, and empower us—in class, and on social media and TV. They push us to try a little harder and do a little more. It seems to be paying off: Americans are exercising more now than they have in the last seven years, according to a recent Gallop poll. (Stars are getting in on the action too. Check out the 6 Celebs Who Have Taught Fitness Classes.)
What many people don't realize is that our favorite enter-trainers—as inspirational and knowledgeable as they may be—don't necessarily have a next-level understanding of fitness. While your job probably required a degree or training of some sort, the personal training world is essentially the wild west.
"People tend to trust trainers, assuming they have a degree or at least completed a 500-hour course in the way most professionals need to," says Larry Betz, director of Brooklyn Athletic Club in New York City. But anyone can call herself a personal trainer, even if she only took a weekend course. "And a large following or a celebrity endorsed DVD doesn't necessarily mean solid ethical advice backed by real science," adds Dan Roberts, C.S.C.S., founder of X Combat, a 6-week high intensity exercise program and DVD. Just look at the Great Food Babe Fiasco of 2015 (the blogger has almost 100,000 Twitter followers, but recently received a ton of criticism for making nutrition claims without backing them up). The loudest voices aren't always the most scientific ones.
The Rise of the Enter-Trainer
That hasn't stopped many people from shooting to success. With millions of fans on social media, loyal blog followings, and an increased TV presence, a personal trainer has more of a platform than ever. (Just check out Our Favorite Celebrity Fitness Trainers on Instagram for proof.) And since many of these trainers also happen to be gorgeous models and charismatic actors, we look up to them; we double tap their motivational Instas, envy their $400 leggings, and gawk at their six packs. (Hey, nothing wrong with a little ab-spiration.) Barry's Bootcamp trainer Layla Luciano summarizes it perfectly in "Work Out in New York," Bravo's new reality show set to air this January, which follows seven trainers' lives in New York, "We are gods, a little bit," she says. We may worship them in class and online, but should we be following their every word?
See lots of times, trainers don't just train you: They dish out diet advice after class, offer questionable solutions to injuries, and frame unfounded (sometimes controversial) tips as universal truths. (Here's some of The Worst Fitness Advice Personal Trainers Give Clients.) We can chalk some of this up to the fact that some people are good at their jobs and some people are bad—a reality in any industry. But while no trainer knows everything, the best ones admit it. "Perhaps uncertified trainers are already self-conscious about their knowledge level and don't want to appear uneducated," says Joel Martin, Ph.D., assistant professor of exercise, fitness, and health promotion, and kinesiology at George Mason University. "The more I studied fitness, the more I knew I had to learn," adds Betz.
So What Should You Look for in a Trainer?
If you're kicking ass in class and calling it a day, you may not care if your instructor has a bunch of official-looking letters after her name. Example: If you want to spin, and your instructor knows a ton about spinning, that might be all you need.
But things get iffy when you're lifting heavy weights or trying to reach a specific weight loss or training goal. "Look for a national certification, especially for any one on one training," says Betz. Certs like the NSCA-CPT and CSCS require hours of studying fitness fundamentals and a guarantee that your trainer is continuing her education (she needs to get recertified every three years).
You should also ask your instructor how long she's been in the industry. "The owner of one of my favorite CrossFit boxes had a degree in kinesiology and studied weight lifting for years," says Martin. "He ran a very successful gym." Establishments with less knowledgeable and experienced management simply weren't as strong, he says.
As far as group instructors go, Martin suggests following trainers who walk around and correct form, over yelling "more reps!" when half the class is doing the move wrong. "That's a good indication that your instructor is more invested in the 'show,'" he says. (In fact, there's more to being an instructor than just working out all day. It's The No. 1 Myth About Being a Personal Trainer.)
Do We Need More Regulations?
Some say doing your own research isn't enough. Last year, the District of Columbia passed a law to regulate personal training for the first time. The Board of Physical therapy will implement the new standards next month, but it's unclear what they'll actually be.
While protecting gym-goers from unqualified trainers is important, not everyone is on board with getting the law involved. Exhibit A: CrossFit, DC's biggest gym chain, has opposed these regulations from the start, saying that they "will make fitness more expensive and less accessible." Other experts agree: "I see why they'd want to raise standards, but I think barriers to entry (the industry) should be reduced and competition should be encouraged," says Roberts. "That way, you—consumers—decide if a trainer or gym succeeds or fails."
No matter how (or if) these changes affect you and your workout, remember: You can get bad fitness advice anywhere (oh hai, Internet). "Always do your research and make sure your trainer's background aligns with your goals," says Betz. (In the meantime, try the Hardest and Best Exercises from Real Trainers.)