Five reasons to ditch your personal trainer

Find out when you're ready to go it alone, and how to tell if your trainer is doing you more harm than good
By James S. Fell, CSCS
Five reasons to ditch your personal trainer Getty Images

I know people who will not work out without a trainer. I have a couple of friends who are top-notch trainers, and they have wealthy clients who use them for every single session. One friend has a client who is the wife of an NHL player and she trains her five times a week, for a hundred dollars an hour.

I wish I had that kind of money. If your boat is worth more than my house, and you simply can’t motivate yourself without your trainer there to push you, then I can see how having a trainer for every single exercise session you do would be advisable.

As for me, I’m cheap and don’t like spending money if I don’t have to. That's why this article is designed to save you money if you don’t have it to burn, and to give you advice on when it may be time to switch to a different trainer if the one you have isn’t helping.

When to change your trainer, or go it alone

1. You’ve learned what you need to know

Sometimes you just need to fly solo.

Here is a warning: many trainers don’t want you to graduate out of not needing them. They teach learned helplessness by making you dependent upon them, so they have a continual cash flow coming from you. In commercial gyms, they often have quotas of personal training they need to sell. They don’t want to ever lose you as a client, so they train you in a way that makes it difficult for you to leave.

Don’t let them do this. In fact, if you feel a trainer is doing this, find someone else to work with.

If you’re on a budget, you can probably learn the basics in weightlifting within six sessions, a dozen at the most, but you have to use the trainer properly. The trainer should not just be evaluating technique and telling you what to do — they need to educate you on the process. Don’t let them do everything for you and teach learned helplessness. Have them show you how to adjust benches and machines, and properly place weights. Focus on learning how to complete every step yourself, and don’t get used to having a helper who does everything but the lifting for you.

Once you feel confident that you can do it alone, do. It’s about more than just saving money — I think it helps build self-confidence to strike out on your own, which leads to additional motivation because you know that you’re in charge of your own fitness.

2. Your trainer isn’t paying attention to you

I see this happen a lot, and it makes me angry. It’s mostly male trainers who are guilty of it, in my experience — I've seen them ogling female patrons when they should be correcting their client’s form. Either that, or they’re just bored and have their head in the clouds.

When you’re paying a trainer to train you, then you’re also paying them to pay close attention and not just phone it in. Don’t tolerate such nonsense.

3. There isn’t a good personality fit

Just because you like the way a trainer looks doesn’t mean you’ll actually like working with him or her.

The whole purpose of hiring a trainer is to learn the art and science of proper weightlifting and exercise, and that’s difficult if you’re distracted by loathing for this person. Your trainer should inspire you to pay close attention, work hard, and enjoy the learning process.

4. They’re trying to get you to do a bunch of stupid stuff

This is the learned helplessness stuff again. The majority of good weightlifting focuses around the core multi-joint movements of squats, deadlifts, bench press, overhead press, chin-ups, and rows. If they’re trying to teach you a bunch of weird things that go beyond the traditional, then what they’re really trying to get you to do is buy more training.

Get a trainer that teaches you how to do the core movements well — that really is all that you need. After that, you’ll have a good feel for proper weightlifting technique and you can figure the rest out on your own.

5. They’re pushing you too hard

I’ve seen trainers make older, overweight, and out of shape clients put a barbell across the back of their neck and then do walking lunges with a twist. It’s a recipe for disaster.

Don’t get me wrong: a good trainer will push you to achieve, but there is a limit. I’ve seen some trainers that just don’t seem to get when they are pushing a client beyond their capabilities, setting them up for serious injury — or at the very least, days of pain.

To improve your physical performance, build muscle, and lose fat you need to push, but this must be done at a tolerable pace. You don’t go to the wall right away — the result will be a you-shaped bag of pain who thinks weightlifting sucks. Some stiffness and soreness is fine. Four days of the penguin walk and wincing every time you sit down is not.

To finish up, I believe the personal trainer should be a temporary tool to use while you learn the ropes. Then it’s time to take the plunge and be independent. Note that independence doesn’t have to mean exercising alone, as there is great benefit to be had by working out with a spouse or a friend.

I do recommend occasional tune-ups. Every year or two, you may want another session or two to critique your technique and help you stay on your game. And if you’re rich and want to use a trainer all the time, good for you. (And can I borrow some money?) But if you can’t afford to use a trainer strictly for motivational purposes, then eventually you'll need to move on anyway. True exercise motivation should come from within.

James S. Fell, MBA, is a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Calgary, AB. He writes the column “In-Your-Face Fitness” for the Los Angeles Times and consults with clients on strategic planning for fitness and health. Get a free metabolism report at Body For Wife. Email James at


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