We’ve all seen him or her, cherubic cheeks and muffin-top on display. You know who I’m talking about: the pleasantly plump, slightly-too-festive personal trainer working at your local gym.
Or pick a different poison if you like—the fitness-enthusiast who looks like he or she may have been diagnosed with cancer due to being a tad too scrawny, with ribs that can be seen through their t-shirt.
The question: does it matter? Is this a reflection on the person’s intelligence, knowledge base, efficacy as a trainer?
I’ve been guilty of this myself. Having been a fat kid my entire life, there has been many an offseason where the body fat climbed to the higher end of “acceptable”. Alright, scrap that—I have spent at least half of my personal training career waddling up and down the aisle, carrying more than my share of the spare tire (i.e., you could have mistaken me for the Michelin Man).
I even had the pleasure of hearing other trainer’s clients question my sanity—“Man, David looked so good a few months ago, why is he getting all fat again?”
Call it a rationalization if you must, but at least my “getting fat” phases always had purpose behind them: I was a superheavyweight bodybuilder in the making, and I was on a quest to pack on mass. It wasn’t always pretty, or even probably healthy for that matter, fluctuating up and down between 230lbs and 300lbs over the years. But here we stand, a decade in the making—I have now slapped on enough bulbous muscle to make a legitimate run at the national level next year. I have brought up my delts, my arms, my back, my chest (everything but those pesky hamstrings; just wasn’t meant to be, I suppose).
But does it matter? Does a trainer have to look the part, in order to be good at their craft?
Technically, no. Maybe they were incredibly fit back in the day, and simply let Father Time catch up with them. Maybe they lost the drive and passion to eat bland meals relentlessly, year after year after year.
But that does tell you something about the trainer. It speaks to how invested they currently are in this lifestyle, and if they are at least willing to walk through hell, by your side, as you endure your own boring meals and wake up every day feeling like you got hit by a truck.
My first long stint at a gym was at Lifetime Fitness back in Chicago. When I started there, it was just me and one other bodybuilder. The personal training department head didn’t feel that trainers had to “look the part”, and in fact, went the opposite direction, often hiring people who looked “not too fit, but approachable”, so as to not scare off the soccer moms and dad-bods in the club.
But a funny thing happened: since I was clearly committed to being a bodybuilder, with a maniacal 24/7 obsessiveness, my own book of business exploded quickly. And then, we hired another bodybuilder, and their book of business exploded. Rinse, wash, repeat, and by the time I left that gym, our staff was 50% bodybuilding trainers. And, imagine the insanity, our revenue numbers as a training staff were setting all-time records.
Which is precisely why my wife Nikki and I got the invite to move to the Baltimore area: the Lifetime Fitness out here was doing horrible numbers, and they wanted us to help fix it up. The original personal training department head refused on principle to hire anybody bodybuilder-ish (imagine that), and hired nothing but skinny, and/or skinny-fat, “functional trainers”. And their numbers (in terms of revenue generated), to put it delicately, sucked ass.
So we repeat history: we got out here, the first “bodybuilders” on staff. And what happened? In a short period of time, we started setting records in terms of revenue generated. Turns out people wanted their personal trainers to look like personal trainers!!! Crazy, I know.
Lo and behold, a short 1.5 years later, our staff was about 50% bodybuilding trainers. And our club, once again, was setting revenue records left and right.
Today, at my current gym, we were PACKED (which is very odd for early August), with gobs of muscular individuals occupying every free space. And I glanced out on the floor, and all of my TEAM Warrior Within trainers were busy training their clients and hustling their asses off—IFBB pro Donna McGinn, NPC competitor Joe Bender, NPC competitor and former WBFF pro Dave Shutler, NPC competitor Sabrina Clever, NPC competitor Jim Driskell, IFBB pro Stacy Wig, my wife and NPC competitor Nikki Johnston, and myself, NPC superheavy David “Is a Motherfucker” Johnston. All of us were swamped with clients.
Then I glanced up at the desk. And there stood the other three trainers in the building—none of them competitors, none of them you would even know worked out unless they told you in confidence—folding towels.
SO—do you need to be fit to be a trainer? Do you need to look the part? Again, in theory, no. You might have a wealth of knowledge trapped in your skull, just waiting to impart it to the next eager client. Unfortunately, they will probably never come up and ask you for said knowledge, because they would have no reason to think you know anything whatsoever about building muscle and/or stripping fat. Why? Because you certainly didn’t put yourself through the process. Whether via a lack of knowledge, or just a lack of passion, you are not walking the walk.
It’s your call. If you trust the bald barber, give him a whirl. Me, I’m going to err on the side of somebody who knows what it feels like to walk through hell, before I take my own first steps.
-David A. Johnston