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How to Be the Worst Personal Trainer Ever!

Last week,  I witnessed a personal trainer at a commercial gym berating his client for utilizing poor form. It was clearly evident to me that the exercise was too difficult for the client’s current fitness abilities, and that the fault was on the trainer, not the client. However, the trainer was too ignorant to know any better. I’ve seen this same personal trainer try to “impress” his clients by using fancy terminology and informing them of all of their “dysfunction.”

jillian michaels

Enough With the Negative Labels!

As I’ve gained experience as a personal trainer, I’ve moved far away from labeling clients and informing them of their “weaknesses.” Instead, I focus entirely on their strengths and assure them that they’re healthy and able. The way I see it, clients are already insecure and lacking in confidence; they definitely don’t need some “know-it-all” trainer honing in on all of their flaws and poor movement patterns. With proper exercise prescription, proper instruction, and praise, clients will gain confidence and excitement for exercise and look forward to their next session in the gym.

Here’s a quote from Dan John, strength coach legend.

On the butt wink and all the rest: I don’t coach ANY of that stuff for a while. Let the person get a lot of reps in before I strive for perfection. Think about what goes through most people’s minds:

“I was told squats hurt your knees” (They don’t)
“Now, this guy is telling me to squat…okay.”
“Now, everything I do is wrong.”

So, I hold my mouth shut and encourage the exploration. Doing it this way and letting the person watch and learn from me and the others seems to work as well as over-coaching. Sorry to jump back in, but I can’t help it when I see people overcorrecting too early.

Thank you Dan for being the voice of reason.

The Nocebo Effect

It’s important for personal trainers (and physical therapists and strength coaches for that matter) to be aware of the nocebo effect. It’s basically the opposite of the placebo effect. If you tell a client that they have something wrong with them, even if  you’re wrong with your diagnosis (which you probably are – their TVA/multifidus/gluteus maximus/insert muscle of the year is probably firing just fine, they’re just weak and uncoordinated), you might end up being right in time.

The last thing that a new personal training client needs is a shallow personal trainer who would rather show off his diagnostic skills than keep the negative findings of the screen to himself and instead focus on the positive findings of the screen and compliment the clients.

Screen, dig, test, examine, and find all the information you can. The more information you can learn about your clients, the better. But when you report your findings to the client, butter it up and find ways to raise the clients’ self-esteem so they keep coming back to visit you.

It’s quite easy to show clients results as long as they’re consistent and they keep showing up. But if a client quits training because their trainer makes them feel bad about themselves, or because they suddenly develop fear, anxiety, humiliation, altered motor patterns, and/or pain associated with all the dysfunction they’ve just been made aware of, then progression is no longer possible.


You Get More With Honey than Vinegar

I honestly can’t remember the last time I uttered the following words to a client:

Your glutes aren’t firing properly

Your TVA/multifidus/psoas/glute max/glute med/diaphragm/pelvic floor/VMO (or whatever other muscle is popular at the moment) isn’t firing

You need serious work on your breathing

You have crappy posture

 Your ankle/hip/t-spine/shoulder mobility is horrendous

You have poor core stability

Instead, I always find a way to compliment the client and tell them what they’re good at or what their strengths are. I focus on their effort and progress rather than their current fitness level. I prescribe them appropriate exercises and progress gradually.

If they have some sort of dysfunction, I’ll prescribe corrective exercises to them without making a big deal about it or making them feel inferior. Moreover, a good trainer can figure out the proper exercises to allow even the weakest and most poorly conditioned clients to express their competency and demonstrate proper form and function.

Usually, my clients end up telling me things like, “my glutes are firing better,” “my posture is improving,” “my hamstrings aren’t as tight,” or “my core is getting stronger,” without me telling them that it was weak/deficient/dysfunctional in the first place. If you’re a good trainer, your clients will notice improvements in movement and function and be pleasantly surprised. And if you’re always positive as a trainer, clients will appreciate it and keep coming back for more (and they’ll achieve better results).

Like Dan John, I wait until the client has been training with me for quite some time and I’ve established a great rapport with them and demonstrated success before I start nit-picking their form to death and informing them of their weak points.

How to Be the Worst Personal Trainer Ever!

To further demonstrate the points in this article, my assistants and I made a video showing both what not to do as a trainer and what to do as a trainer. It ain’t rocket science!

As you can see, we had a lot of fun with this video!


  • Kim Ludeman says:

    I love this!! Such a good reminder!! It can be easy to point out weaknesses but so much more beneficial to point out strengths!! Thanks for the reminder!!

  • Joy says:

    Yes. Yes. And yes.

  • Peter Baker says:

    Bret, I don’t think you have a mean bone in your body.

  • John says:

    Pretty funny. I know a trainer who likes to intimidate his clients, but with a smile. He uses big terms, often incorrectly, to impress and confuse them. He watches your blog I’m sure and considers himself a glute expert. His version of the single leg deadlift is to have clients stand on one leg, bend over at the waist with the rearward leg for counterbalance with minimal glute activation.

    • Jonny says:

      Your knowledge is not that great either. The single leg RDL you discribe is for a combined glute pull with hamstring stretch. If you extend the other leg too, that stretch is turned off. You can learn more of this by reading classics like Ian King’s articles on T-Nation/T-Mag from the past and such.

  • ted says:

    can you imagine how bad this is for your body? (eyes rolling) 😀

  • John Buns says:

    Hilarious! The only thing missing was some staring at yourself in the mirror while your client trains.

  • Jonesy says:

    Good Job, enjoyed this one YESSSSSSSSSS

  • Eric says:

    You mean… I’m not supposed to verbally and physically abuse clients?
    Good stuff. Clients don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Even then, pick you battles and choose your words wisely.

  • Brendan says:

    That “you have glutes, use them!” line had me rooollllllllllllin hahaha

    I must say I love that you are ‘covering all the bases’ in the aspects of training for scientists, athletes, and personal trainers. Good subject, great video, and it was hilarious!

    Great work Bret!

  • I hate when I see a trainer being an a-hole! I hate when a trainer is negative. And I really hate when a trainer doesn’t understand proper pro/regressions… and I’m guessing doesn’t even consider them. I mean, why have a client perform a bulgarian SS only going down 1″ when they can’t even perform a body split squat!?!?!?!? (for example)

    • body WEIGHT split squat. 🙂

    • Bret says:

      Preaching to the choir Danny!

    • Jess says:

      I can’t believe these asshole trainers even exist! Or that clients would be willing to stay with them. Clients pay enough as is to work with a trainer, why would they spend money on somebody who is constantly talking down to them and is seemingly unsupportive of their fitness goals? I don’t get it. 😉 The biggest thing I see with other trainers is that the client always seems to be doing something totally random from one day to the next. This is just my observation, but it seems like the trainer is more concerned with just making these people move (and “burn calories”) rather than have them focus on building a solid foundation of proper movement and strength. When I worked at a commercial gym, I was forced to take people through totally random “make them work hard!” circuits in order to “sell” myself and I hated it. That was the mentality of that business, just make them feel like they did something and send them home. This is why personal trainers get a bad rap! We are more than that!

      By the way, can’t believe you guys didn’t burst out laughing during this. It was awesome!

  • Derrick Blanton says:

    Funny stuff, BC! Shades of Martin Rooney.

    I can only imagine what the poor, cowering students in your math class felt like when they botched an equation at the blackboard!

    Hey Sven, if you’re out there; 1:17-1:22 = the appropriate application of the “ribs down” cue!

    And BC, if I could channel my own “bad trainer” for a minute, I don’t think you were overarched at 3:10. You got the ROM at the T-spine, me thinks. You actually looked pretty organized and ready to explode.

    Now, for a true, HIDEOUS lumbar flexion on a kettle bell swing, just google Jillian Michaels, kettle bell.

    • Derrick Blanton says:

      Just watched again. Certainly your hips were too low, but that’s actually not a bad “set point” before extending the knees, and turning the hips loose.

      (I’m kind of completely missing the point of the vid, and going off an a random, and tedious tangent here, huh?:)

      • Arthur says:

        Yep, agree with your very last sentence (the one in round brackets) 🙂

        • Derrrick Blanton says:

          Sigh, I concur, Arthur!

          I was going for a little “meta” joke within a joke angle there, but poorly executed on my part. I give myself a thumbs down on that one as well…:)

      • Bret says:

        Hahaha! Great point Derrick, I just paused at 3:10 and my form looked very good indeed. Doh!

        I thought of Martin Rooney when I filmed this video too, but his vids were WAY better haha. He could be a freakin’ actor (or anything else for that matter)!

  • Brian says:

    If/when my players are doing lifts incorrectly…or for that matter, any of the basketball drills that we do, incorrectly…it’s MY fault….I didn’t verbalize it in such a way that they understood it and were able to do it properly. that’s my attitude…and I’ve found that I need to rephrase or restate in a different way…they eventually get it…so…to me…it’s on me not them.

  • Michelle says:

    Oh my god! That video is too funny. Awesome post!

  • Julie says:

    the thing is your ‘bad trainer’ impersonation showed a relatively informed trainer. Some PT’s out there wouldn’t even know what the multifidus is and kyphosis is probably just a term they learnt during their PT course.. yet they probably have no idea on how to correct it or which part of the spine it is affecting. There are a lot of trainers who can act like they ‘know it all’ but do they really?

  • Maria Bass says:

    Oh my! This is so funny but we can’t deny the fact that there are really incidents such as this with trainer-client relationship. Actually, this post made me smile because this reminds me of something that happened with me and my personal trainer a year ago. Thanks for posting.

  • Brandon R says:

    Awesome video as always!

  • Stew says:

    Can I just hit my clients with a stick when they do bad instead of verbal abuse?

  • Allison says:

    Bret, that was really funny and a great informative video! Awesome!! 🙂

  • Linzzz says:

    do you even lift?


    Great article!

  • love it! Couldn’t agree more. So much to say about how right on you’re but you and many others, except for the ‘idiot trainers’, know this already.

    What I loved the most…..the bloopers! haha

    Great article!

  • Chuck says:

    Frigging hilarious Bret! How did you guys keep a straight face long enough to shoot the video?
    I am not a trainer. But I am by far the most serious lifter at the gym I go to. And I get asked by others from time to time for help. I am ALWAYS positive and encouraging. New lifters ( especially women) are very easily intimidated and often totally unsure of themselves. One sure fire way to insure that they will quit lifting is to be arrogant, cocky and just generally be a dickhead with them. Encourage them, treat them with respect, AND start them with the basic lifts. Most will respond in a positive way. Quite rewarding for me when this happens!

  • Dan says:

    You should do a 2 hour hatchet job slamming the trainer in question, it’s all the rage these days apparently

  • Brian says:

    Great article and video. Unfortunately this the first part of the video is more common than you would ever think. The KISS principle is unfortunately overlooked in training as well as in life….

  • David says:

    This ranks up there with “How to be a Fitness Guru”!!! Love it!

  • Kim says:

    At my gym the personal trainers look like they need trainers. Pretty sure none of them regularly workout (some look like they’ve *never* worked out). So what they’re doing is prescribing exercises to clients that they themselves don’t do. That’s a big problem. Super hard to find a quality, knowledgeable trainer who practices what they preach. Why would I let someone tell me what to do, when they themselves don’t do it?

  • “Dude, your breathing is fucked” is one of the best cues I’ve ever heard!

    Definitely going to be using that one with my clients ASAP 🙂

  • Mark says:

    Absolutely hilarious. Great video Bret.

  • Scott says:

    Classic, best video ever! The only thing you left out is the trainer who is too busy watching TV and texting while their client is trapped under a bar during a bench press!:)

    Thanks for making this Bret!

  • BP says:

    As a person who is a personal trainer and beginning strength coach I loved this. I’m happy to know that I already do the things prescribed in the article. Really great and funny video also. Definitely have seen trainers like this before, pisses me off haha.

  • Graeme says:

    Nice job guys.
    Its so hard to believe some trainers could be so terrible.
    Im glad you included the correct way to coach as well.
    Love the last blooper.

  • Kelly Cap says:

    Great video and so true! I used to work with a trainer, actually they were my boss, that was very knowledgeable about the biological sciences, but lacked in the area of knowledge of behavioral sciences. They just simple did not know how to treat people. People would leave them and want to train with me because I always encouraged what they did good and we worked on improving what was “not so good” with the right sequencing of exercises.
    I now am on my own training and really building a good business. Still have a lot to learn about programming and such, and continue to read, go to hands on seminars and study under the best(that is who know how to treat people too):)
    But even being still “new” at this …3 years as a trainer, I do know that nothing is more important than encouraging, teaching and and Inspiring others to succeed. All the “biological knowledge” will come in due time. We never stop learning!

    Thank you for your post! I enjoy reading your material, your passion and enthusiasm for helping others! And all the best to you Brett!


    Kelly Cap
    FAFS – Gray Institute
    LPGA Teaching Professional

  • Jon Contos says:

    I am looking forward to all the shows in your new gym can’t wait for all the tips.
    However your audio does not give the fullness that it can,don’t know if you have a quality mic or not.When you watch any of mobility wod presentations audio is present and you get full voice with no hollow sound don’t know if the room could be improved. Remember 50% of a video presentation is the music or voice being presented. Keep up the great work!

  • Devin says:

    Wow, great read. I’m a younger trainer and have been getting better & better at not overcoaching. The tip of “keeping the assessment results always positive” is one I’ll be sure to use. I’m not mean or anything like that, but I’ll usually explain why we’re using a certain exercise in relation to a (possibly) weak muscle group. This will be a great shift in my coaching style. Nice work!

  • Reilly Edwards says:

    Great video!!!

  • Jessica says:

    This is hilarious and sad at the same time (head esploding…)

  • Bob says:

    Pretty funny video.

    When you hire a trainer (or consultant, mechanic, doctor, …) you do so because you don’t have the substantive expertise to do it yourself, and that means you don’t have the expertise to evaluate the trainer’s substantive knowledge. Therefore you evaluate the trainer or other consultant on other aspects like professional demeanor.

    You can’t be a successful doctor, no matter how brilliant, if your bedside manner is so off-putting that the patients won’t follow your advice. Bret’s point is exactly the same in the training arena.

  • Dj says:

    Good article. Although I don’t agree with all of it. In my humble opinion there is no one stop perfect solution for everyone. Niceness do work for some but not for everyone. Trainers are not there to give you praises all the time and make you feel good about you. If that’s what you need then get a personal coach or a shrink. Just come do the job, get better then you will feel better about yourself. About the over correcting of forms and bad mouthing… That is true in lot of trainers. At the end of the day good trainers know how to adjust their manners & attitude based on the clients personality.

  • Bert says:

    LOL, greatness on the video! Love it.
    Also think the advice is spot-on all the way, bro’

  • Dean Reed says:

    If you have a willing student that hasn’t learned it is because the teacher hasn’t taught correctly. Thanks for the video. Loved it!!!

  • Kelsey Nakanelua says:


    I have actually had the privilege of being personally trained by Bret this year. I would love to think of something funny to say, instead I’ll just tell the truth. It was great, I have been a personal trainer and coach and athlete, so it could not have been that easy dealing with me, but he handled it very well and I have a few new exercises that I have been using, along with the hip thrust, and my performance as an athlete has been great.

  • ggs says:

    LMGO…Its a great way to educate with humor. As usual you get the point to hit home.

  • Jessica Jane says:

    Haha, this was awesome! I just wrote a blog entry that connected to this piece as well. Oh, and a trainer at the gym the other day told me randomly after a conversation, “I don’t want to be weird or anything, but you seriously have one of the BEST asses I have ever seen, seriously good job.” I told him it’s all thanks to that smart glute guy, Bret Contreras!!!!

  • Joyce says:

    I cannot thank you enough for this. Negative, judgemental, unsupportive trainers are a force for exclusion at a time when it is more important than ever to welcome and care for people of every level of skill set and every size. Let’s be happy about having the privilege of helping people to get healthier no matter where they are right now–and let’s show clients that it is a pleasure to be there for them no matter what their challenges are!

  • Loved this video and your sense of humor!

  • Ani says:

    Ha ha ha! I was feeling a low and typed into google “Am I just a really bad trainer?” and that’s what it came up with. Reading and watching the video made me feel so much better about myself. Now I no longer have self doubts. Thanks for that :o)

  • Neil says:

    Good video demonstration showing the bad and good of personal training, things like this should help young trainers get better, clients make better investments. and of course limit any discrediting of good PTs.

    Like the funny part at the end BTW.

  • Jim says:

    My trainer constantly condescends me with nicknames like buddy, boss, bud, and my personal favorite “big guy”. If you are a trainer don’t do this, no matter how great and knowledgable you might be.
    My trainer initially seemed like a nice guy until we were around other people. At that point, he started being condescending. He would constantly look at the women and show off by being condescending towards me so that they could see and hear what an authority he is. The guy is completely concerned with how he looks and keeps trying to play the big shot.
    Now I can’t even stand to be around him.

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