Mountain Tactical Institute offers fitness guidance for police, the military, and similar organizations. Recently it posed this question to its followers: Can you respect a tactical leader who is out of shape? Responses poured in, and the verdict was clear: It's difficult to follow someone who cannot lead by example.
If you're someone who leads a team with lives on the line, consider this your wake-up call. But does the same attitude transfer over into the fitness world? Can you respect a personal trainer whose physique or athleticism isn't exactly impressive?
You'll find both sides of this opinion being argued heatedly online, and in my career as a trainer and coach, I've definitely seen both sides play out in real life.
Appearances Are Deceiving
Trainers, it's often said, are their own best advertisement, and many strive to maintain a fit and healthy physique for this exact reason. But despite what keyboard warriors may say underneath your videos or posts, you don't need to be ripped to be physically capable. A shredded exterior is not an indication of peak fitness since many other factors contribute to performance and functionality.
Just as importantly, someone who has impressive muscular development and single-digit body fat may be totally unable to transfer those results to your physique. Every individual is unique, and a well-rounded trainer must have the tools to train beyond their own physical characteristics. Jon Goodman, the creator of the Personal Trainer Development Center, put it this way in his article The 8 Secrets of Personal Trainers: "Tiger Woods has a golf coach, and I assume he's a worse golfer than Tiger."
Skilled coaches incorporate fundamentals often overlooked by the casual novice. A comprehensive strength-and-conditioning program includes mobility and flexibility training—neither of which develops chiseled abs or massive quad sweeps, but both are essential for better fitness. These imperceptible aspects of fitness are on the mind of every good trainer, but it probably won't manifest in their appearance—and that's OK.
Put another way, just as a muscular appearance by itself is not an indication of fitness, your coach's strength does not dictate his or her capabilities. A qualified strength coach doesn't have to be a strongman to help you get results. Many of the best trainers have superior knowledge, but average abilities. The difference is they excel at teaching others, which is exactly what you want in a coach.
Weak Trainers, Weak Results?
On the other hand, personal trainers do not have mandatory PT tests. The only physical requirement most gyms demand of their employees upon hiring is the ability to lift a minimum of 45 pounds—the equivalent of one unloaded Olympic barbell. And that's by no means an industry-wide standard. This means your average big-gym trainer has the strength to load up a squat rack, but anything beyond that is dependent on their own extracurricular training efforts.
If your trainer can't lift much more than the bar, you'd be right to wonder if you'll one day find yourself on the wrong end of a PR attempt gone bad. But a good trainer knows your limitations as well as their own, and they will never put you in a dangerous lifting position if they themselves are not prepared to jump in and help. A bad trainer, well, is just a bad trainer.
No, trainers don't have to look like fitness models, but if they are blatantly out of shape and don't seem concerned about it, take that as a huge red flag. Find someone who takes fitness seriously and practices what they preach. They don't need to be obsessed with their own reflection—in fact, there's nothing more annoying than a trainer more concerned about their reflection in the mirror than about your form during a set. But if a personal trainer lives the life and genuinely loves training, there's a better chance they'll help make the most of yours.
This is About You, Not Your Trainer
Trainers aren't born, they're made. The best trainers have gone through their own fitness journey, which hopefully gives them added insight into yours. In addition to earning various certifications, they have learned what works—and what doesn't—through personal trial and error. They understand not just biomechanics and anatomy but also psychology, meaning they know what motivates and discourages people. As Danny Kavadlo notes in his article One Gym, Many Roles: Be a Better Trainer, a trainer is a workout buddy, a motivator, and a psychologist as much as—or more than—they're a squat coach.
As someone who has both competed and been a contest prep coach, I'll say that there is a point in every serious physique athlete's progression where a specialist's perspective is necessary. But until you reach that point—and ask yourself the hard questions to determine if you really are at that point—you're better served by considering your trainer a teacher, not an example.
Many roads lead to the same destination, and the best person to lead you there is someone who knows how to navigate as many of them as possible. An experienced trainer recognizes your path to fitness is unique and challenging, and provides you with the plan and motivation to help you succeed.
What do you think? Can a trainer who isn't huge and shredded be worth your hard-earned dollars? Let us know in the comments.