Published: 26 August 2021. Written by Rebecca Gillam
With a rise in reports of exercise-related injuries since lockdown, it’s worth making sure you’re getting the care and attention you need from your personal trainer (PT), as well as value for money and time out of your ‘new normal’ workouts. We reveal some warning signs to look out for and how you can swerve them
It seems that, for many of us, the pandemic has kick-started our enthusiasm for exercise. In a recent British Heart Foundation survey, 64% of people said exercising was a priority for improving their physical and mental health – up 6% from before the pandemic.
And with so many people taking to digital platforms to pass the time and stay healthy, it’s perhaps not surprising that another survey found 74% of UK fitness instructors were training clients online in 2020 – and 31% planned to do so even after the pandemic.
But the effects of this boom aren’t all positive. Internet searches for injuries commonly related to at-home exercise rose sharply when lockdown began.
‘Exercising online was great when it gave us a chance to be healthy and make the best of a bad situation,’ says Jonathan Kibble, PT and Head of Exercise & Physical Activity at Vitality. ‘But online trainers can’t assess your form and programme specifically for you, plus, aside from on screen, there’s no social aspect.’
‘I’d recommend attending a class in person or doing a one-on-one session, even just one or two online or in person,’ says Anna Parker, PT and founder of AP FITNESS. ‘It’s easy to fall into bad habits if no one is telling you what to do, and over time it can increase your risk of injury.’
Common sense (and research) tells us you can also get injured in the gym, with injuries commonly occurring due to overexertion, doing free weights, and falls in group exercise classes.
But don’t worry: whether you’re doing an in-person session or dialling in, here are seven red flags to watch out for, so you can stay safe when selecting a personal trainer.
Are they qualified?
There are more than 22,000 personal trainers in the UK, according to a recent IBIS World Report, but it’s a largely unregulated industry. So it’s best to be savvy when searching for one that suits you.
‘Don’t settle for someone who’s only got the minimum qualification,’ recommends Kibble. ‘Look for someone with a degree in sports science or a masters, or who’s continued their learning with a level 4 qualification.’ This is the highest level of recognition in the industry, giving trainers the opportunity to specialise, which only about 10% of fitness professionals have achieved.
‘Make sure it’s a recent qualification’, adds Parker. ‘And be aware that, unless they have a nutrition qualification, they shouldn’t tell you what to eat or write meal plans.’
Even if someone is qualified, they still may not be equipped to teach you if you have specific needs. ‘If you’ve just had a baby, you’re pregnant or you’ve been diagnosed with an injury or condition, make sure you’re being trained by someone who knows what they’re doing – level 3 won’t be sufficient,’ says Kibble.
Are they practising poor form?
Whether it’s lifting heavy or yoga, there are some universal truths when it comes to safe practice during exercise, such as knee and toe alignment.
But in an analysis of TikTok workout tutorials, one in five were found to show incorrect advice and form, particularly for exercises such as kettlebell swings, deadlifts and renegade rows.
‘Good form can be tricky to detect when you’re new to the fitness game, but there are some red flags, such as not stretching before and after a session, and telling you to go straight in with heavy weights,’ says Parker. ‘Consultation sessions are also important for sharing your goals, strengths and development points.’
Are they too focused on short-term results or aesthetics?
‘Although often trainers make grand promises in their marketing, someone solely talking about “burning calories” or “working out so you can justify eating a chocolate bar” is best avoided,’ says Parker. ‘Exercise should be about mental and physical health: getting stronger, having fun, improving posture, gaining head space and relieving stress. If your goal is to lose weight, it should be a steady journey with consistency, over a period of time.’
‘Rather than training or exercising to look good in the mirror or on social media, it’s about sustainable changes to perform well, feel better and beat your own previous PB,’ adds Kibble.
Are they adapting to your needs?
Everybody and every body is different, and one of the best things about a personal trainer is that they can programme a session to fit your needs. They can also modify it if necessary, based on injuries, exercises you don’t like, or simply how you’re feeling on a given day.
‘A good PT will adapt their style of training and their sessions, depending on the client,’ says Kibble. Don’t like burpees? Tell them. They’re providing a service that you should be looking forward to and have a desire to stick to – if you’re dreading it, it’s time for a rethink.
Are they focused on you?
If you frequent gyms, this will be a familiar sight: distracted PTs on their phones or chatting to someone nearby.
‘Check what they’re doing when they’re training clients: are they taking due care and attention? Is each client getting the same general class or are they attending to the client’s needs?’ says Kibble. ‘A green flag for me is having a plan in front of them – otherwise how do they know what the client is meant to be doing and how they’re progressing?’
‘Also, if you want to correct your form or get stronger, you’d expect someone to give you tips,’ advises Parker. ‘You’re unlikely to be doing it perfectly the first time, so there must be things to improve on.’
Are they exercising for likes?
Though social media can set the bar high when it comes to what we want to achieve, aspiring to get an eight-pack or do a clap push-up isn’t #goals.
‘For an exercise to be effective and safe, you need to use the correct load and form, so additions that make it more flamboyant aren’t advisable or safe,’ explains Kibble.
Are they giving adequate virtual instruction?
Alongside marketing their service, the goal of a trainer’s social media platform should be to benefit their followers and help keep them safe – even remotely.
‘I wouldn’t recommend people trying what they see online unless it’s got proper instruction and it’s being done for a specific reason’, says Kibble.
‘As well as being sufficiently qualified, you want a trainer to be encouraging, focus on your goals and what you enjoy, take it slowly and build up, and always give pointers and tips,’ Parker concludes.
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