Personal training is a business of proximity. It's personal, physical, and driven by relationships. Not only are people sweaty and often wearing little clothing, but the gym is about as democratic a place as any other in modern life.
By this I mean that lines of demarcation in status are nonexistent, and often turned on their head. I can't think of any other place where a 50-year-old stockbroker might approach an 18-year-old bartender, ask to "work in," and then worry about how the 18-year-old might respond. Or where a man or woman asks a total stranger to spot their max-effort lift, putting them squarely inside the lifter's physical space.
On one hand, this is what makes the gym such a wonderful, even utopian place. On the other, it also opens the gym and its trainers to a host of sexual harassment issues.
Some of this is inevitable. Trainers touch clients, clients reveal intimate life details between sets, and the conversation often turns to what, in any other context, could be uncomfortable truths about both the trainer and client's physical appearance. It's hard not to talk about bodies when that's usually the reason trainers have clients to begin with.
But it's also too easy to exploit that proximity—for both the client and the trainer.
So let's tackle the issue head-on: At a time when all of us are more aware than ever of the lines between appropriate and inappropriate sexual behavior, are personal trainers in the crosshairs? How do you even draw lines in a profession that seems designed to obliterate them?
"I don't think I've ever worked at a gym where that hasn't happened"
Daniel Freedman, a veteran public-relations executive who now runs a business mentorship for personal trainers, recently asked members of his Facebook group if they've ever worked at a gym where a coworker slept with a client. One trainer replied, "I don't think I've ever worked at a gym where that hasn't happened."
This may not be surprising at first glance, but it's a huge no-no for other "helping" professions where practitioners are put in a position of authority over their clients' health or personal goals.
"A doctor or shrink who dates and/or sleeps with clients is pretty much drummed out," Freedman says. "He can lose his license. There have even been a few recent cases of university professors having their tenure revoked and getting fired."
Lacking any official regulations—and, as a result, no official code of conduct that personal trainers must abide by—the line is hard to draw.
Consider this story from a male trainer, who asked to remain anonymous:
"I was training a recently divorced female client. She made a few compliments about my appearance, and seemed like she was flirting with me throughout our sessions. I politely thanked her for her compliments.
"The inappropriate part was what my manager said after she left: 'I don't know if you've been told, but you get one per year. There are lots of single and divorced women at our gym, but you only get one per year.'"
When the trainer said he wasn't planning on pursuing the woman, the manager replied, "Suit yourself. I tell this to all our male trainers. Keep it in mind."
Believe it or not, this was one of the milder stories I heard when I started asking around the personal training community. Others ranged from the kind that used to appear in Penthouse Forum to clients or trainers who should've been prosecuted for sexual assault.
But this is important: Unlike the onslaught of power-abuse stories coming out the entertainment industry in recent months, there was no clear-cut pattern of who was the aggressor, or the victim.
Many of the scariest stories involved young, entry-level trainers—of all genders and sexual orientations—being taken advantage of by predatory clients.
The sleaziest stories, conversely, had something very different in common: gym owners, managers, and veteran trainers treating their clients as a bottomless dating pool.
Do Anti-Harassment Policies Help?
Ken Reinig has been in the insurance industry for 35 years, and for the last three decades he's specialized in selling liability insurance to gyms and fitness pros. He says the goal, as with any kind of insurance, is to make sure your clients never make a claim.
"Insurance companies knew many years ago that this was an environment where sexual harassment can be a potential problem," he says.
That's why Reinig and his fellow insurance brokers provide their clients with a risk-management manual, which includes a substantial section on sexual harassment.
Moreover, he insists that every employee signs a form showing they understand and agree to the anti-harassment policies of the gyms he insures.
"I can probably count on one hand the number of big [lawsuits] we've had, with thousands of clients who have millions of members," Reinig says. "Which surprises me, to be honest, because trainers have to touch their clients. There's a lot of physical contact, and it surprises me that it hasn't been a problem yet."
It's not that trainers don't cross lines. They do. Reinig estimates that 50 percent of gym owners receive complaints about their employees and have to take action.
"It usually ends there, because it's in the manual," he says. "If a trainer or an aerobics instructor crosses the line, they're gone. Usually the member who was being harassed is happy it's dealt with, and there's no litigation."
But here's the really surprising part: When someone does get sued, it's the trainers who typically bring the charges.
"The biggest problems are the gym owners, not the staff," he says, noting that it's more likely to happen in single-owner gyms. "The few cases we have seen have been employees accusing the owner of crossing the line."
So while some familiar power dymanics may definitely be present in fitness workplaces, it's quite always easy to typecast who the "aggressor" and "victim" are going to be. Client, trainer, and manager all need to be prepared to discuss what's right or wrong, appropriate or inappropriate. Let's try to define those limits more clearly.
The Right and Wrong Way to Touch a Client
Now we get to the part about you. If you're a current or aspiring trainer, or the client of a trainer, or someone who employs trainers, what do you need to know?
For that, I checked in with Mark Fisher, cofounder of Mark Fisher Fitness, which identifies itself as "New York City's Enchanted Ninja Clubhouse of Glory and Dreams." At his original location near Times Square, Fisher catered to a Broadway crowd, and both costumes and foul language have been near-constant elements as they help clients chase "health and hotness." So yeah, there could be plenty of room for error, but Fisher says the solution can be summed up in a single word: consent.
"For us, it always comes down to consent," he says. "We've always been pretty good at asking for permission before we do hands-on cueing, but I think we're even more aware of it these days."
Cueing, of course, is pretty important for a trainer; it helps clients understand which muscles they're supposed to use, and what proper alignment feels like. But as Fisher points out, "something as innocuous as touching the mid-back during rows could be uncomfortable for some people, let alone hands-on glute activation."
In the personal training world, we have a lot of jargon for "touching." It ranges from "palpation" to "kinesthetic activation." Touching a client could be as benign as using the back of a hand to track the movement of the scapula on a row, or as intimate as tapping the glute medius while a client lies on the ground and thrusts, asking her to pause and squeeze at the top for 5 seconds—while still tapping the butt.
Both can be appropriate. But both can also be done wrong. Fisher tells a story of a trainer at another gym "who would put his hands on his clients' glutes during machine assisted pull-ups." We'll never know what the trainer's clients thought about it, but that type of behavior is a pretty long step over the line.
"Trainers who don't take consent seriously are going to risk finding themselves in hot water," Fisher says. "The way I see it, our first job is to make our clients feel safe, so I think it's appropriate for trainers to take their cues from their clients."
That's probably as good a standard as you'll find these days.
Crucial Takeaways for Clients and Trainers
- Like Fisher said: Your first job is to make your client feel safe. Respect and establish that before you move on to the other parts of the job.
- If you're a trainer, ask before you touch a client for the first time. And even if you've established that consent with a client in the past, it can be good to ask again, or let them know "I'm going to touch you, if that's alright" to demonstrate something.
- If you're going to "take your cues from your client," as Fisher suggests, you need to be an attentive, caring trainer. That means ignoring your cell phone, not mindlessly putting someone through a workout, and respecting the authority you have.
- If you're a client, be very clear about what you're comfortable with, and what you're not. This can change over time, but be open about it from the start.
- If you're a trainer who's attracted to a client, or a client who's attracted to a trainer, and both of you are available and open to dating each other, sever your professional relationship before you dive into a sexual relationship.
That last point may seem like overkill. But the alternative, trying to navigate multiple levels of relationship at the same time, is fraught with potential problems. You might be able to "do it right," but it's highly unlikely.
Listen: You can still work out together on your own time. Lots of couples do. But if money continues to change hands, you're beyond the ethical boundaries of any profession.
Instead of pushing limits, stay respectful, and stay focused on the goals that brought you into the gym in the first place.