A female PT teaching her client to use the lat pull down

How to say no to a personal trainer: setting boundaries in the gym

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How to say ‘no’ to a personal trainer if you don’t think their plan is right for you – because boundaries in the gym are important. 

When Georgina* signed up to the gym and was offered a consultation with a personal trainer, she accepted. She told the trainer she wanted to build muscle and have some accountability in her workouts. She was offered a programme in which she had to weigh herself daily and track all of her food. “I kept telling her that it wouldn’t work for me, that I didn’t see it as necessary. She kept insisting it was her ‘process’ that she used with clients,” said Georgina. “So I told her that I didn’t think she’d be the right PT for me and walked away.”

Not every woman’s experience with trainers is the same as Georgina’s; many coaches on the gym floor genuinely want to listen and advise you. But many people who are faced with pushy PTs – those who are more interested in their agenda than your goals – don’t have the knowledge or confidence to say ‘no thank you’.

For me, the fear of saying ‘no’ to a PT ended with me standing on scales, despite telling the person weighing me that I actually wasn’t interested in my BMI. Yet his talk about the importance of tracking data somehow overrode my brain and there I was, finding out how lean I was. 

For Priya*, things went so far with her PT that it lead to serious health problems: “A young, inexperienced male PT told me to cut all my carbs and eat 900 calories a day. When I told him my period had stopped, he didn’t seem bothered. I then learned that carbs impact the female hormone cycle and that was when I had to walk away,” she says.

Why do we find it hard to say no to PTs?

The trainer-client relationship is a complex one. While you, the paying client, may expect to have the upper hand, we tend to feel vulnerable around people who have more authority and knowledge – the trainers. “It can be quite scary for some people to set boundaries in certain situations, particularly with relationships where they assume that this advice is part of the package. Many people don’t realise it might actually be outside of the trainer’s remit,” says psychologist Dr Kirstie Fleetwood Meade

A woman doing bicep curls in the gym with a personal trainer
How to say no to pushy PTs

“You have the right as the client to say you don’t agree, or that you want to see the research,” says Dottie Fildes, a coach at Sweat It and SWTC. That’s because no one knows your body like you do, and while most trainers probably have your best intentions at heart, Fildes does point out that “it’s easy to get complacent and walk people through the motions”.

The red flags

Personal trainer Andy Vincent recently did a post on Instagram highlighting some things that should be red flags for everyone when it comes to choosing a PT. They include: “Words based around body transformation – quick body transformations are always based on ultra-restrictive lifestyles.

“Any coach saying they have “developed a system” – when I hear the word “system”, I think – “you make everyone do the same program” with zero focus on individual specificity. There can be no one system because no two people are the same,” he adds.

Another important flag for him is a coach having a “social media based solely on transformation images - not to say you shouldn’t show off how amazing your clients perform; however, I do believe that it’s a more powerful image to show how strong your clients get, not how lean they become.”

For Dr Fleetwood Meade, the line between helpful and harmful advice comes when you are feeling pressured to do something. “Any rigid plans around exercise or eating are a concern in my eyes. Feeling like you have to follow something to the letter, to the point that it’s becoming stressful to you or your PT is making you feel guilty for not being ‘invested enough’,” she says. 

Working out your individual boundaries are important. But it’s hard to know what to expect or ask for from a PT, especially given that many people who are hiring coaches and looking for advice are those who are new to training. “It might be that you have a few sessions and feel like something didn’t sit right with you, or the information doesn’t feel like it’s going to fit with your lifestyle. My key takeaway with this is really to trust your gut, to trust your intuition. If something doesn’t feel quite right, trust your inner sensation,” says Dr Fleetwood Meade. 

Excepted, this is ultimately a relationship in which you’re meant to feel uncomfortable. After all, it is the job of a PT to push you out of your comfort zone.

Is it unreasonable of them to take you into the weights room if you don’t really don’t like it? How about if you don’t want to talk about weight loss, but the trainer keeps mentioning how good cardio is for losing fat?

“I think it comes down to whether a PT is understanding your insecurities and finding a solution to them,” says Fildes. “There’s a way to work with where you are while still helping you meet your goals. In this situation, I’d suggest that we build confidence with the weighted moves in a quieter space so that we can eventually build up to being in the weight section.” 

When (and how) to say ‘no’

If you’re being approached on the floor, make sure that you have a consultation before parting with any money, just to make sure that this person is right for you. “They should be asking what your goals are, what your obstacles are, or what your previous history has been. A large part of the conversation has to be about you,” says Fildes.

If you’re worried that the person you’re currently working with isn’t listening to you or doesn’t care about your progress, she has one crucial tip: “Ask questions,” she says. “If they want you to do something, ask why. If they have a legitimate reason that is in line with your goal, they’ll be able to tell you. If they say it’s to do with XYZ that you don’t want, or because it’s the latest trend rather than research based, you have an opening to say that that’s not aligned with what you’re paying them for. Another tell-tale sign is if they immediately change their mind on what they were asking you to do - they probably don’t have your best intentions at heart if they can’t admit the reason they were telling you to do something.”

For Dr Fleetwood Meade, her advice is to have confidence in your boundaries. “Remember that ‘no’ is a full sentence. You don’t need to qualify the reasons for not wanting advice, which is really important to remember if you find confrontation quite tricky,” she says. For example, if someone offers a service, you can just say ‘no, I’m not interested in that right now,’ rather than having to explain why you don’t want to be weighed or be given a meal plan. 

Ultimately, a PT may be someone you hire, but it’s one of the most intimate relationships you can have. Building trust is important, and while it’s easy to be swayed by their advice or strategy, it’s your body. “Remember it’s called personal training,” says Fildes. “That element has to be respected, and their training has to be tailored to you as an individual.”

Images: Getty

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Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).