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The Three Most Idiotic Things I’ve Done as a Personal Trainer

By December 15, 2011January 10th, 2014Training Philosophy

Having been a personal trainer for 14 years now, I have done some pretty idiotic things. Since my readership contains a wide variety of individuals, including general athletes/lifters, personal trainers, strength coaches, and physical therapists, I figure that this post can benefit many individuals as it will enable them to learn from my mistakes. Considering I’ve already written a good post about idiotic things that strength coaches do HERE, I wanted to write a post more specific to personal trainers. Here are my top three dumbest mistakes as a personal trainer:

1. Box Squat Nightmare

Though I’ve gotten many clients unnecessarily sore or had them experience nagging pain that went away within a week or two, in all my years of training I’ve only injured 1 lifter. This mishap occurred around five years ago at my Scottsdale personal training studio Lifts. One of my best female clients was performing heavy high box squats (15″ height). I had her squatting with 155 lbs on the bar and during the set I felt that she wasn’t arching hard enough at the bottom of the lift. I noticed that she’d relax a bit and fail to keep a rigid lumbar extension moment while she was seated on the box. During her set I instructed for her to “arch the low back.” Unfortunately, she wasn’t thinking clearly and she confused “arch” with “flex” and rounded her low back. Heavy axial loading + rounded lumbar spine to end-range flexion = herniated disc. She couldn’t train for over a month.

Why was this so idiotic of me? Some trainers might shift the blame to the client and reassure themselves by saying that it was her fault since she misinterpreted my advice. This type of thinking is a copout as the fault was mine. As a personal trainer, you review proper form prior to the lift, you have them practice perfectly with lighter loads, you use simple phrases such as “chest up” so the advice cannot be misconstrued, and you make sure they know what “arch” means prior to having heavy loads on their back. “Arching” in the direction of lumbar extension results in a successful lift, while “arching” in the direction of lumbar flexion will likely have drastic consequences, so a good personal trainer doesn’t leave the client’s interpretation up to chance.

This was the biggest mistake I’ve made as a trainer and something that made me feel absolutely horrible about for years to come. Luckily I was very close with this client and she insisted that it was her fault and stayed my client for two more years until I left to New Zealand.

2. Blast Strap Fiasco

To this day I don’t know what exactly I did wrong in this instance. I was having a client perform inverted rows using blast straps. I did this a million times before and would simply loop the blast straps over the monkey-chin bar in the power rack and fasten the clip to the ring. On this particular occasion, I did something very stupid but for the life of me I can’t even guess as to what I did wrong. Obviously I looped them over the rack improperly because in the middle of my client’s set the blast straps failed, the client fell to the ground, and the metal clip nicked her in the nose and gave her a little scrape.

I felt so awful about this. I scared the hell out of her, produced a small cut on her nose that she’d have to explain to friends and coworkers, and embarrassed her all because of a stupid oversight. A good trainer is systematic and doesn’t make dangerous blunders like this. I was very lucky to have such an understanding client; she texted me later that day saying, “I’d much rather have a nice booty with a tiny scrape on my nose than a flat butt and unmarked face so don’t worry about it!”

3. “Good Workout” Mishap

Most trainers will be able to relate to this story. While the majority of clients will appreciate the first session, there will always be a certain proportion who feel that you’re either training them too hard or not hard enough. They’ll say things like, “I don’t want to be too sore tomorrow” if they think you’re working them too hard, or, “My last trainer worked me a lot harder than this” if they think you’re not pushing them hard enough.

In this case I was training a fit female who hadn’t trained in several months. In the middle of her workout she complained that she liked being pushed harder, so I gave her what she wanted. I improvised and had her do a 50/50/50 (50 box squats, 50 hip thrusts, and 50 45-degree hypers all with bodyweight). She was able to complete the 50/50/50 without any rest and even mentioned how much she liked the method. Two days later she texted me saying that she’s never been so sore and that she won’t be coming back.

As a trainer you’ll encounter this situation and it’s very important to stick to your guns. My first workout session (not considering screening) usually involves  a coaching-intensive workout that has the client doing one set of around ten different exercises to familiarize their bodies to the movements without inducing too much soreness. Most clients love the first workout but I’ve always replied to those who wish to be pushed harder by saying, “Trust me, you’ll be glad I didn’t push you too hard tomorrow when you’re able to get off the toilet seat without cringing. By next week I’ll be pushing you very hard but my goal for right now is to teach you perfect form and not get you too sore so you can train frequently. Excessive soreness is unnecessary and even counterproductive.” In this case I failed to stick to my guns, I prescribed a workout that was far too advanced for the client’s current level of fitness, and as a result I lost a client.


These are just three of the stupid things I’ve done, believe me there are plenty of other things I could have written about that would have you saying to yourself, “Why in the hell did he do that?” Over the years I’ve heard plenty of other idiotic stories involving personal trainers, from max benching and Swiss balls, to rhabdomyolysis-inducing circuits, to 1-lb dumbbell workouts, and to entire sessions conducted on whole-body vibration platforms. Be smart and don’t do these things!


  • Bret,

    Love the article. Reflecting back, I think there a lot of times in our careers when we could ask, “What was I thinking?”. The most important thing is that we learn and mature as fitness professionals.

  • JONESY says:

    Great read Bret, Big follower for a while STAY VIGOROUS!

  • John Izzo says:

    Great article. We all make mistakes–part of the learning process. Personally, I could have probably added another 5 to this list!

  • Matt says:

    it is way too common to smash a total beginner, or new or returning client, with devastating workouts to show how great you are as a trainer, and how “effective” your training is. Most people can get through the session and say , “Wow, that was hard!” and walk away. But the problem always comes over the next few days…DOMS is a bitch. Nice article, and luckily only a few small oversights for you, for others it isn’t so lucky. The last thing we ever want to do is hurt someone, but unfortunately sometimes it with poor judgement, or even just poor luck.

  • Love your keeping it real. I too have made mistake #1 and #3. I am quite convinced that implementing any WestSide methods with a non PL’er or even a novice PL’er is a fail. 🙂

  • fiona says:

    Good post Bret. A good reminder to keep things clear and simple for the client and be true to yourself as a PT.

  • Amanda Thomas-Harris says:

    Well at least your honest 🙂 Hey do you do online consultations? With diet and training?

  • Rob says:

    Excellent read Bret!

  • David Bluman says:

    I can say, I’ve not had these issues, but I can think of tubes being secured improperly snapping back and a client getting a “whip” effect across both arms and his chest Though no fault of my own, in a kettlebell cert I witnessed someone hit someone else in the head. I had just finished lecturing about space and safety, took a break for lunch and boom before we all were out of the room ‘smash’. Great of you to share these stories. We ALL have made mistakes and learned lessons that the next gen and current gen can learn from. Better to be honest and share them. Thanks for “outting” yourself and contributing to the betterment of the industry.

  • Very good. I wouldn’t ever use the box under them for a squat anyway, I just use a rack of some kind always. Still danger in that, but usually not compression injury. I like what you said about using clear language. I always train my trainers to use specific and clear direction and actual instruction. You’re not a cheerleader, you’re trying to convey a specific idea. We always clearly define our terms and use concise, but clear language in instruction. Things like “keep your back straight” are my pet peeves. It’s neither accurate or descriptive. And we do the same with initial workouts. I actually think it can take as long as 10 or 12 workouts before someone is ready to move quickly between exercises and yet stay calm and thinking clearly enough to do them well. There can be so much to educate them on. Even working out again on successive days initially can help relieve DOMS. Most don’t know that, so we have to specifically mention it or run the risk of having them never come back. I know I’ve had that happen to me before. It’s an art and a science.

  • Michael says:

    OL, I did that to myself deadlifting a few years back!

  • Shama says:

    welcome back bret, my mistakes would be to cop out of a training session, not plan properly beforehand, & a few more. now that i have become old & wise, i am keeping my mistakes down to a minimum. lucky you, the first 2 clients were very understanding.

  • Bret says:

    Thank you everybody for the kind words. I didn’t realize that this post would be so well-received. Had I known I could have easily made it “Top Ten Mistakes…”. Happy holidays to everyone, BC

  • Teresa M says:

    Good article, Bret! Before we had squat assessments, etc. one mistake I learned from was thinking that an older woman who said she did a lot of walking would be able to handle her body weight (including the footpad assembly) in a plate-loaded leg press (seated). I didn’t let her get stapled, but I was amazed at how she was struggling, even as I kept lightening the load. The leg press idea had worked quite well before for everyone to that point, but with this lady I started to realize how weak people truly were in simple sitting/rising from chairs (squatting). Now, I start with body weight box squats to see how well they can sit without falling and stand up without pushing off their arms.

  • Bob Blaschke says:

    Been there… #3 actually a couple of times…no mishaps with the blast straps. Thanks for the honest article = refreshing.

  • Michele says:

    Thanks for your honesty – that’s what I like about you and Marianne from MYOMYTV – you are real, not afraid to make mistakes, not afraid to admit them and learn from them, and humble enough to allow others to teach you! I appreciate your actual knowledge of mm, body mechanics and proper technique, and that you show us the WRONG way, in addition to the right way!!! You make sure to truly know what you are talking about before sharing with us! THanks sooo much!!!

  • Strini says:

    We have all been here . Thank you for sharing.

  • Peter says:

    Bret, this is a courageous post! Maybe the fact that you are able to look at yourself with a critically objective eye like that is one of the reasons you are as good as you are. When you can see fault in yourself, you are always open to learning. And being open to learning, no matter how advanced you get, is the key to it all, IMO.

  • timothy ahern says:

    good article . it is a learning experinces . made all them mistakes and more . getting qualified is only part of it . it is after you learn that everyone is different and not one way trains all. i am the same i train people at the start as my own fittness test see how they go when you putting to their paces and after the phone twos after how they are . them i taper more or less. enjoy reading your article . thank you . keep it fit timothy . ( Ahern personal training )

  • jo says:

    Mistakes are made and we learn from them. However, if you are truely taking the blame for the box squat nightmare you should probably omit the part “she wasn’t thinking clearly” and just leave it at “Unfortunately, she confused….” otherwise it is stated as placing the blame on her. Just making an observation.

  • Amy says:

    I’m always talking about getting off the toilet seat, too. Maybe we should come up with a new way of getting the message across….?

  • Shim says:

    Great Article.

  • Jodee says:

    I wish I could train with you and I can promise I wouldn’t complain about one thing!

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