Experts, amateurs and hacks reside in almost every field; personal trainers are no exception. You'll find a breathtaking chasm between the competent and the downright dangerous. A word of warning: if you are sensitive, do not read the rest of this essay, as it may offend you. Recognizable characteristics separate the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Here's my list of some of the worst offenders:
1. The Lazy Unfit Trainer Do what I say, not what I do. Trainers certainly don't need to look like or perform on the same level as 'The Rock', Serena Willams or Michael Jordan, but they need some personal experience with the exercises they prescribe. I guarantee you Tiger Woods' trainer is not a better golfer than he is. Nevertheless, it is one thing to know about getting stronger, losing weight and performing better, but the harder task is actually accomplishing those goals. Knowing about something is different than being able to do it consistently. Taking action requires mental and physical fortitude. I've seen trainers demonstrate exercises they themselves cannot do properly! That being said, your trainer does not have to be fitter than you. Skilled trainers and coaches are often not the best athletes or strongest people on the block, but they understand what it takes to get there through a wide knowledge base and personal experience. A trainer who looks and seems out of shape is a huge red flag.
2.The Functional Circus Trick Trainer Fundamentals are key to any movement practice. Functional training is supposed to enhance everyday activities so that you can perform better. However, the data show that many of these so-called 'functional exercises' do not transfer over to the playing field or daily life. If you’ve ever observed a “functional” training session, it comes to resemble more of a circus act than an actual exercise session. "Balance on this ball with one leg while you press an unstable barbell over your head." Unless you are training for Cirque Du Soleil, you don't need to do all those weird balance exercises. Funnily enough, even if you are training for a gymnastics spectacle, you'd be better off leaving most of these 'functional' exercises out of your program. To a certain extent, all movements and exercises are 'functional.' Stick to the basics.
3.The 'No Pain No Gain' Drill Sergeant Trainer Some people like to be tormented and yelled at. Some even enjoy actual physical harm. The no pain, no gain dogma is an antiquated doctrine that has led to innumerable injuries in the gym. Training outside one’s comfort zone with occasional scheduled bouts of discomfort will produce safe and more efficient results. Don't get me wrong, sometimes the last few reps will hurt. Depending on your goal, this may be advantageous when used sparingly. But workouts don't need to be an all out endeavor every time. A smart periodized training routine cycles through many variables and effort levels. If you are 'killing it' every time you go to the gym, you are working out, not training. Some individuals want to be berated, and that's fine so long as their program is couched in a periodized model that is individualized, attainable and evidenced-based.
4.The Latest Fad Trainer Every couple of months, a new gym toy or crackpot fitness theory emerges. A subset of trainers believe that "if it's not new, it's through"; only the latest is the greatest. I see a lot of pros pushing detoxes, weird diets and unproven fitness ideas. Pseudoscience is strong in my profession. If your trainer starts talking about the energy within crystals, chakra alignments, the advantages of detoxes, homeopathic supplements, etc... you may want to find someone new. If they believe this stuff, I guarantee they don't have a grounding in science and evidence-based data. Pushing hokey ideas will only serve to distract them from the real work. Simple foundational exercises and sustainable diet plans work. Don't be fooled by the hype.
5.The Absolutist Trainer "It's my way or the highway." Here is a sampling of things you may hear this type of trainer state: "This is the best diet"; "This exercise is bad"; "You need to do it this way"; "Carbs are bad." You will rarely if ever, hear the absolutist trainer say, "I don't know." There are very few absolutes in the health and fitness world. There is so much we don’t know about strength training, biomechanics, and exercise physiology. No trainer on earth knows it all. It behooves a good trainer to be relativistic, looking at each client as an individual. Being overly dogmatic causes one to ignore complexities and alternate possibilities. There is seldom only one right way to do something. If you don't like an exercise or it causes you pain, there's always another way.
I could list many more unprofessional and toxic traits some personal trainers possess. Ultimately it is up to you as the client to choose wisely. Don't be afraid to speak up when something seems misguided or fallacious. Sessions are expensive and you deserve to get the most out of your time.