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The Approach

October 3, 2011

As I’m beginning this article, I’m sitting at my community pool. I realize already this will be a piece with more questions than answers, but this article is about to write itself. Here it goes . . .
It’s beautiful in South Florida, moving away from insanely hot days and I appreciate the long awaited cool breeze blowing by. My daughter is playing in the pool with two of her friends, and I seized the opportunity to catch up on some work. The scene playing out in front of me is prompting a spark, or nausea, or both. In earshot, a personal trainer is training a client, a resident of the community.

Realize that, at least for the moment, I’m writing this in real time. I’m going to let you in on the conversation:

One more lap (walking lunges around the perimeter of the very large lagoon pool).


Sweat is rolling down the forehead of the client and her face says submission, but the trainer pushes on.

Slower steps. C’mon, keep that butt tight. Muscle muscle, not momentum.”

I’m all for aggressive exercise intervention, but I must admit, I’m having trouble sitting here witnessing this client being beaten to a sweaty pulp. She’s moaning and huffing and the trainer is yelling and bullying.

The client stops to catch her breath and the trainer, who clearly has Drill Sergeant Complex (a pseudo psychological term I just coined) threatens, “if you don’t start again in 10 seconds I need you to drop and give me 10.”

I can’t see the client’s face right now, but her body language says “defeated.” The client reluctantly starts lunging again. Her arms are struggling to reach with the medicine ball he’s placed between her hands.

Is it my place to say something? This is a tough call. I have some expertise in this area and she’s showing signs that say, “back off,” but he’s pushing like a pitbull. The only way I can restrain myself is by typing faster. Am I witnessing abuse or inspiration? I’m not 100% sure.

She’s rounding the last turn and heading for the spot where her towel and water bottle sit. I assume that’s the finish. It reminds me of one of those video clips where the marathon runner stumbles over the line only to collapse. “Six more steps Janet. Six more. C’mon, you can do it.”

Janet drops to the ground about two steps short. She’s conscious, but appears to have just run out of glycogen. Her ATP reserves have been exhausted. I’m ready to leap to my feet, but remain at my keyboard accessing my own “ready” state.

End of scene: The client survives, the trainer gets paid.

I am left with an introduction and a theme for an article. I want to address the issue of “stepping in.” I chose not to this time, and I believe it was the right choice, but where are the lines of “what is right” drawn in this regard? Should I have asked the trainer for his credential? Nah, that’s rude and inappropriate. Isn’t it? Should I trust that this trainer knows this client and trains her within her known capacity? Difficult questions, questions that are rarely addressed and I’d guess, most personal trainers see many opportunities for “approach” that they let pass by.

From here forward, I’d like to address whether or not it’s appropriate to “step in” when you see a chance for rescue. I’ll share a few real-world scenarios, and at the end, ask you to submit your thoughts and opinions. As I told you, more questions than answers . . . . let’s go . . .


She confidently pushes away the menu after a single glance. “I’ll have the spinach salad,” she announces with pride. Her tableside friend quips, “you always eat so healthy, it’s a wonder you’re not thin.” Ouch. You, sitting at the next table, glance at the menu and note that the spinach salad has gorgonzola cheese, glazed walnuts, bacon, croutons, and a creamy roasted pepper dressing. Do you tell her that her salad likely has over 1500 calories, likely three times as much as the grilled chicken platter, or is it rude? After all, she never actually said she’s looking for a healthy meal.


I’m going to guess, based on the toddler in the cart, that she isn’t buying the Pop Tarts for a late night adult snack. She clearly believes she’s making a “healthy” choice, prompted by the word “organic.” Dare you approach and share what should be obvious . . . .that until you see a Pop Tart tree, it’s clear that the label is deceptive and a glance at her cart reveals she’s feeding her kids excesses of hydrogenated oils and high fructose corn syrup?


You overhear her on her cell phone which she has pressed against her ear with a one-sided shoulder shrug, both hands attached to the pages of the magazine. “It says she drinks the juice of fresh lemons with a tablespoon of maple syrup and a generous sprinkling of cayenne pepper and avoids food for 14 days at a time.” Dare you grab a copy of the magazine and explain how very low calorie diets can only lead to metabolic slowdown and short term weight loss? Dare you suggest she’d get better nutrition eating the magazine and following with a healthy lunch?


He grunts like a frenzied farm animal as he rocks back and forth, yanking the bar down behind his head, clearly practicing destructive external rotation at the shoulder joint. You know he’s a textbook example of injury waiting to happen, yet he’s a regular and attacks each set with a vengeance. Is it in your (or his) best interest to begin your sentence with “excuse me, Sir . . . ?” or do you just leave the nutty guy alone?


You don’t know her well, but she knows you’re into fitness and she tells you of her decision with pride. Do you nod with a smile, full knowing she’s about to embark upon a path of long term frustration? Do you simply hope that after she gets this fad out of her system she comes to you for advice? Do you invite her in and give her a 20 minute talk about how to lose fat healthfully and permanently? Do you encourage her to learn more about the use of HcG and the perils of “500 calories a day?”

ARE THERE GUIDELINES? Is there a judgment of what type of interruptions would be appropriate for a certified competent personal fitness trainer?

All I have right now are my opinions, but I invite you to contribute to the discussion. Go to and share your thoughts. I’ll share the opinions and thoughts I receive in a future article.
For now, here are my perspectives:

• Never embarrass another individual unless you feel there is a genuine risk beyond what is ordinary or expected. Opportunities may emerge to confront and question situations in private.

• The grocery store is an open forum for attempting tactful rescue. Many of us believe our interruptions will be viewed as offensive, but if our mission involves helping people, doesn’t the grocery store offer us a chance to correct destructive behaviors that people aren’t even aware they’re engaging in?

• Whenever you hear of someone about to begin what you believe to be a flawed program, share your professional opinion and follow it up with research or documented fact, but never reprimand anyone for making a bad fitness decision. The fact that they’re making a decision at all needs to be applauded. Guidance through the process of eradicating long held false beliefs may be the greatest gift you can offer, especially when an open mind shows up.

• Finally, there’s the familiar issue of “correcting” form. I’ve heard it said that “can I show you a different way,” is better than “you’re doing that incorrectly,” and better it may be, but we’ve all met the wall of “I know what I’m doing, I’ve been doing it this way for years.” After years of meeting this man over and over and over again (always with a different face and different name but clearly the same guy), I’d have to say, incorrect form warrants an approach. If advice or direction is refused, let it go, at least for the moment. Future conversations that appear social in nature may, over time, knock down the “I know what I’m doing” monster and perhaps open the door for a long term client.

I look forward to YOUR opinions! (send them to

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 3, 2011 5:27 pm

    Hey Phi,

    As another fitness professional i “grew up” around observing for the last 15 years or so, I’ve seen this myself a lot. Killing a client in a workout isn’t to hard to do theses days when many people are out of shape,uninformed and impatient. Which makes them vulnerable to the next, latest and greatest “magic carpet ride” to fitness results.

    It’s actually easier than most think, just confusing due to the powers that drive the fitness world economy.

    Keep up the solid insights Phil…you’re among the very few voices I hear.

    Emile Jarreau

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