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Why and How to Trust Your Personal Trainer

Why and How to Trust Your Personal Trainer
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This post was written by Michael R. Mantell, Ph.D., the Senior Fitness Consultant for Behavioral Sciences for the American Council on Exercise, faculty member at Equinox Fitness Training Institute, and Psych Coach. The views expressed herein are his and his alone. 

Here are some striking research findings: Children as young as 14 months can differentiate between a credible person and a deceitful one. And even as we get older, all it takes is 100 milliseconds of exposure to a person’s face for many people to judge trustworthiness or deception.

In the key relationships in our lives, trust influences whether we feel comfortable being our vulnerable, genuine selves or whether we feel defensive and guarded, anticipating harm. Trust is tricky and all-powerful, as it determines how we feel while making all kinds of decisions — accepting a dinner date, riding in a cab, heeding a doctor’s advice, hiring a babysitter, buying a certain product, or signing on with a personal trainer. We can perform these actions with ease and comfort, or with stress, fear, and anxiety — and trust makes all the difference.

In this article, we’ll focus on the importance of establishing trust in the relationship between a client and their certified personal fitness trainer. We’ll establish why trust matters, what trust looks like, and how you can look for and create trust in your own relationships. Though this info is geared specifically toward the trainer-client relationship, the same principles can be applied to all relationships — friendships, family, co-workers — in which rapport matters.

Why Trust Matters — The Need-to-Know

The importance of trust in rapport-based relationships has been acknowledged by experts across a wide variety of fields. The American Council on Exercise, which has certified more than 55,000 personal trainers and health coaches to date, uses rapport as the foundation for all exercise science. Great coaches and fitness trainers understand that relationship trust is the key to a successful outcome in personal training.

Of course, trust is important even beyond the gym. Brand mavens such as Jim Stengel, author of Grow: How Ideals Power Growth and Profit at the World’s Greatest Companies, maintain that brands that create trustworthiness through an emotional, visceral response garner much stronger financial results. Ken Blanchard, a well-known management expert, notes that “the high cost of low trust” in business results in increased employee turnover, low productivity, and low morale.

In other words, trust is the fundamental way we work with each other, communicate with each other, hear each other, learn from and with each other, and get into the same bed with each other. Without trust, relationships simply don’t work.

In my work counseling couples, coaching senior executives and C-suite teams, doing mental performance training with elite athletes, and teaching doctors, health coaches, and personal trainers how to establish rapport, one thing is clear: The symptoms of a lack of trust — including low morale, low productivity, and a failure to show up completely — can all lead to the end of a relationship.

The Criteria: What Trust Looks Like

Through my work, I’ve discovered that the definition of trust is contained in the word itself. Use these criteria to determine whether or not a given relationship in your life is marked by trust.

1. T = Timeliness

Each member of the relationship needs to be there, on time, every time, with no excuses. Availability is so important that it’s one of the three primary tenants (dubbed “The Three A’s”) of establishing a successful relationship as a health care provider.

2. R = Rapport

Merriam Webster defines rapport as “a relation marked by harmony, conformity, accord, or affinity”. We might call rapport “affability,” which is the second of the “Three A’s”.

3. U = Understanding

To understand someone, it takes being willing and able to “stand UNDER” them. In other words, it’s important to make the relationship about the other person, not your own ego. I always chuckle when I speak to fitness trainers who aspire to be “celebrity trainers.” The most successful trainers know that to be a celebrity trainer, one has to make the client the celebrity. The best trainers inspire their clients to leave a session thinking, “Wow, I’m great,” as opposed to “Wow, my trainer is great.”

4. S = Support

It is essential that trainers and clients work together to create a collaborative, non-judgmental, respectful relationship in which the trainer explores and uncovers what the clients’ needs and wants are and what internal and external obstacles they face. By sharing united conversation, in which the trainer maps out a plan tailored specifically to the client, the trainer supports the clients’ intrinsic motivation and commitment to adopting healthier lifestyle habits. In this way, the trainer and client will develop a successful, trusting relationship.

5. T = Truthfulness

When I first began work in television, a famed news anchor gave me this advice: “Michael, once you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made.” If this is true, I guess I’ve never “got it made.” Remember those 14-month-old infants? They can spot disingenuous people, and in 100 milliseconds, and so can many adults, simply by looking at the complexities of a person’s face. What this tells us is that truthfulness — straight talk, creating transparency, righting wrongs, and showing loyalty — can’t be faked.

The Final “A”

You may notice that the third of the “Three A’s” — Ability — is missing from the discussions above. This is because relationships must first and foremost be about trust, being there, being comfortably connected, being dependable, and being believable. Then, and only then, does skill or ability come into play.

Do You Trust Your Trainer? Questions to Ask

Do you trust your own personal trainer? Try asking yourself these questions and see if they uncover any areas of concern.

  1. Does your trainer make each session about you, or is s/he busy talking about her/himself?
  2. Do you and your trainer collaboratively work on your goal setting, or does the trainer tell you what your goals should be?
  3. Do you feel validated, heard, listened to, and understood?
  4. Does your trainer show up in a timely way?
  5. Do you feel comfortable with the gender of your trainer and the professional boundaries that are set? Trainers touch, work closely, and get to see you in what are, quite frankly, awkward poses and movements. For some, having a trainer of the opposite sex may lead to discomfort.  The certifying agencies, such as ACE, establish appropriate professional boundaries and safeguards.

With a few modifications, these questions can also be asked of any personal relationships. If these questions raise any issues, talk them out with your trainer (or partner, family member, etc.). If the person responds with defensiveness, criticism, avoidance of the discussion, or contempt for you, then it may be time to find another trainer.

Trust — The Takeaway

Trust is based on the chemical oxytocin, which makes us feel good, creates pleasure, and prompts us to connect to one another. Without it, we’d never be ourselves and we’d never have fulfilling relationships. But even when our brain releases this comfort fuel, we aren’t blinded to frank deception. We know when we aren’t a trainer’s focus, we don’t count, something creepy is going on, or a relationship lacks honesty. Ultimately, dishonesty, a lack of communication, or betrayal (which even oxytocin can’t hide) will send people on your way.

If a given relationship doesn’t work out, don’t take it as a sign that you should never trust again. Simply look for the criteria of trust with someone new. After all, in the words of Former U.K. Prime Minister Harold MacMillan, “A person who trusts nobody is apt to be the kind of person nobody trusts.”

How do you determine whether a person is trustworthy? Share in the comments below!

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