Fitness coaches: The good, the bad and the ugly

We have all seen that guy - that hulk of a man with biceps bigger than your head, who routinely grunts and growls the rhetorical: "Don't give up!" and "You can do this!", as you fight your way through sweat and (sometimes) tears.

Hiring a fitness coach can be great, especially if you are a fitness novice who is new to exercise. But the lack of clear direction in the regulations governing our fitness industry means that just about anybody can claim that they can teach in the health and fitness field.

At some gyms, and even in popular global health chains, all you need is an SPM certificate to get hired. To be fair, most of these fitness centres do provide some form of "in-house" training courses for their staff, but that usually just means a two-week crash-course on some basic exercise science, how to operate the gym's various machines, as well as on business-related aspects.

Most of these sessions can range from RM80 (S$33) to RM150. Home sessions can cost even more. Engaging the services of an under-educated fitness operative is akin to paying the price of a Mercedes for a Kancil!

Worse, an ill-informed fitness operative could potentially cause physical injuries to their clients.

As a consumer, it is important to know what to look for in a personal trainer or coach before you sign that dotted line.

First things first - these fitness operatives or fitness professionals go by many names. They range from personal trainers, to fitness coaches or fitness instructors, and group fitness instructors. Usually, it is their scope of knowledge, experience and field of expertise that separate them from one another.

For instance, many personal trainers usually start off as fitness instructors, whose roles are usually to introduce a complete beginner to the gym. Meanwhile, a personal trainer's task is more focused on drawing out a sustainable exercise routine for their clients.

Group fitness instructors are typically the energiser-bunny types with the proclivity to shake what their momma gave them (like crazy!) during dance classes like Zumba.

Whatever they are called, the end goal of these fitness professionals is to help the average Jane or Joe get healthier and fitter.

Over the years, I have come across fitness coaches and personal trainers who are genuinely interested in helping people live better, as well as those who are, well, not so helpful. How many times have I caught a personal trainer teaching their client how to squat with their weight on their knees? Or that trainer who is perpetually on his phone, or on a lookout for "T and A" while their clients huff and puff on a treadmill.

Then there is that urban legend of personal trainers who peddle steroids, slimming pills, and other magical potions that promise either to boost performance, enhance one's appearance, or turn you into the next Mr Olympia. There are also trainers who are more interested in getting your number, than actually attempting to get you in shape.

Unfortunately, these practices continue to plague the local health and fitness industry. One of the reasons why I decided to take up a professional fitness certification was to educate myself on the proper methods and techniques of exercise and programme design.

Above all, it is important to identify the general level of training these fitness professionals have received, and to understand the constraints of what they are qualified, or not qualified to do.

Generally, much of their job revolves around designing exercise programmes for apparently healthy adults. However, it is not within their scope to treat, diagnose or prescribe. That's what your doctor is for. A personal trainer should not be trying to coax you into buying any products either.

Now that you have a better understanding on the scope of a personal trainer, here are a few points to consider before you make your pick.


The next time a fitness coach or a personal trainer approaches you, get to know where he or she went to school, or what certification programme they have completed. There are several certifying personal training programmes that are available in Malaysia.

They include programmes by the American Council on Exercise (ACE), the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) and the The Federation of International Sports, Aerobics and Fitness (FISAF).

All personal trainers should also be CPR certified. They should know how (and when) to use basic medical tools like the puffer, as well as what to do should you pass out, experience low blood sugar or have heart palpitations.

Currently, it's unclear how many certified fitness instructors or personal trainers there are in Malaysia, says Jerrican Tan, the managing director at Fitness Innovations Malaysia (FiT Malaysia), a Kuala Lumpur-based fitness education provider.

But while he agrees it is important for fitness professionals to acquire professional certification, Tan stresses that having a cert is no guarantee that one can actually translate their knowledge into actual practice. "It's just like how graduating from medical school does not make you a great doctor," he says.

However, having a professional certification is a good sign that one takes the profession seriously enough to get certified. "I think the combination of paper qualification, experience, people-skills and current knowledge are crucial to enable one to practice efficiently in the fitness industry," Tan concludes.

Knowledge and experience

When you are training for a specific goal, you want to work with someone who is knowledgeable in the areas you want to focus on. For example, if you are interested in bodybuilding, you should look for someone who specialises in muscle hypertrophy, instead of someone who is an expert in postpartum health.

If you are into rock climbing, you may want to train with a fitness professional who has also been a rock climber.

Watch out for personal trainers who put all their clients through a cookie-cutter routine. If your trainer does the same thing with an overweight 50-year-old and a nimble 20-year-old, then he's basically just on repeat-mode all day, every day!

The fundamentals of fitness may be the same, but you cannot duplicate workouts for everyone simply because different individuals have different needs and areas that need correction.

Different individuals will also have different sets of likes and dislikes. I know I would like to shoot the next person who tells me I should run a marathon. So if your trainer does the same thing with everyone, you might want to move on to someone who actually gives a hoot about tailoring a programme that suits your needs.

Communication skills

So after some digging, you find out that he has a cert, and appears to know what he's talking about. The only problem? You notice he has a tyrannical streak and the manners of a Viking. Not to mention that he finds playing Candy Crush on his phone way more appealing than monitoring your reps.

Some argue that good people-skills are the first thing that a personal trainer should have, and I believe this to be true, especially when you are in the business of helping people feel more confident and comfortable about themselves.

A good trainer will encourage you, help you meet your goals, and work with you to overcome whatever challenges you may face, while taking your limitations into account.

I personally know of fitness coaches who treat their clients and other gym members like anger management tools. Worse, they roll their eyes at you when you fail to master a new exercise movement over the next two minutes.

There are also trainers who insist on assisting their clients on every single rep, if only to reinstate their validity and to promote client-dependancy.

Steer clear of these bossy, irate characters. Remember, the ultimate objective of any personal trainer or fitness coach is to promote self-efficacy and programme ownership to their clients, not crush their self-esteem.

Track progress

Okay, so personal trainers are not accountants, but a good one will keep track of the progress you are making and keep you informed on ways to improve. These stellar folks will perform periodical assessments, and address areas and techniques that need work.

More important, they will recognise your successes and act as a positive force in helping you achieve your fitness goals.

To do that, he should be monitoring your rep count, tempo pace, and exercise techniques throughout your session. If he talks to you about random stuff like how much he adores cats, or worse, ask you out for dates, ditch him.

Outside of hellos and goodbyes, conservations during a paid session should be centred around your fitness progress and performance. Period.

Practice what you preach

If someone looks like they've never set foot in a gym and have developed quite a pair of love handles, then they obviously will not come across as a solid fitness professional who knows his game.

Now, before you start throwing stones at me, let me get this straight - you do NOT have to look like a fitness model or have 6 per cent body fat to be considered a good role model, but if you do not have more muscle, less fat, or at least, have a better health profile than the average person, then why should anyone go to you for health and fitness advice?

Of course, not everyone with a solid set of six pack abs will make a good trainer. And not everyone who is a few pounds overweight will make a lousy one. After all, genetics do play a rather huge role in determining how we look, regardless of how much we eat or work out.

When it comes to looking for the right personal trainer, the saying, "look before you leap" goes a long way. So do your research and never be afraid to ask questions. At the end of the day, it is your body and your money. Take charge.

Fiona Ho is a certified personal trainer who continues to hit the weights, despite being told that she is looking manlier by the day.