Fit to teach: do personal trainers make a difference?

There are 30,000 of them qualified to crack the whip at gyms and parks around the country but are the clients paying up to $100 an hour for personal training actually getting any fitter?

Or has the PT become the new millennium addition to the personal services pantheon (slotting in snugly alongside 'my accountant' or 'my masseuse') – a low cost agony aunt and highly paid personal cheer squad for those who don't want to try too hard?

Hardcore gym rat and PT sceptic Jeff Roberts thinks so. The Sydney based insurance underwriter spends an hour doing weights training and high intensity cardio circuits in the gym, six days a week. Self taught, through trial and error and extensive research on the internet, he says PTs are a waste for the majority.

“People go to them and don't take on board the stuff they need to,” Roberts said.

“Motivation and discipline aren't learnt through PTs. It's an easy answer, quick fix thing – lay down your money and get a solution. Everything is geared towards making life easier these days. It doesn't happen that way with health. If you want results, you have to go back to basics.”

Not included on the basics list are flirting, getting neck rubs and hearing a full run down of each other's weekends, Roberts said.

“If you look around at commercial gyms, you will see a lot of PTs wasting people's time. I'm working my guts out and they [the client] barely break a sweat. They're doing goofy stuff and having random gossip.”

Once the preserve of the famous and well heeled, PTs have become a fixture of the local fitness scene, and a $500 million sub-industry of their own over the past 10 years, according to Fitness Australia.

National fitness director at the Goodlife gym chain Lance Williams said Roberts' attitude is common among heavy lifters, who don't fit the profile of the typical client.

“Hardcore guys generally do it themselves,” Williams said.

“There's a perception in the industry that unless you're throwing up in a bucket afterwards, you haven't worked hard enough.”

The majority of people who took on a PT were newbies who didn't know their way around the machines, Williams said, and the 'go hard or go home' approach was unlikely to resonate.

Given the rich source of ongoing revenue PTs can provide, having them send clients home exhausted and ready to cancel their membership makes poor business sense for the gyms that employ them. Good PTs have the opposite effect. As well as continuing to pay their subs, their clients tend to feel more connected with their gyms and are more likely to rope in family and friends, Williams said.

Churning out PTs has become a profitable business in itself, for TAFEs and training organisations. Credentials which took two years to obtain in the nineties can now be had, in the form of Certificates 3 and 4 in fitness, after as little as 12 weeks full time study. Fitness Australia has 30,000 exercise professionals registered; the bulk of them Gen Ys, along with the occasional later-life code hopper. It's an odd-hours, high-churn occupation, with around 10 per cent throwing in the sweat towel each year.

Despite a regular influx of new entrants to the market, demand still outstrips supply, particularly for female trainers. Women comprise 60 per cent of the clientele for PTs and most prefer to work out with a woman trainer.

Besides knowing their barbells from their burpees, the best operators were 'people's people' who made friends with their regulars and kept up with them through social media, Williams said.

Perth based oil and gas executive Karen Spencer is testament to the lock-in effect of a personable PT. She joined a gym to lose weight initially and has been working out up to three times a week for the past five years with the same trainer.

“The commitment with the trainer links you to the club and makes you feel part of it,” Spencer said.

I find the motivation of meeting someone there, them relying on you to turn up, is enough to keep me going. I was never a gym person before but I found with the trainer there was a connection; she made it pleasurable to go.”

The PT market has proved reasonably recession proof, with clients like Spencer continuing to pay their $50-100 an hour to be put through their paces, global credit crunch or no.

“Post GFC we thought the market would start hurting but it seems people even in the midst of financial turmoil are still investing in themselves,” Williams said.

Ibis senior analyst Craig Shulman said growing health consciousness and the trend towards outsourcing of personal services had boosted the popularity of PTs.

The Australian fitness market is worth $2.9 billion a year and is expected to continue growing at 3.6 per cent, as the boomer population turns to exercise to combat aches and pains and stave off the ageing process, Shulman added.

Tell us about your experiences with personal trainers? Did they know their stuff, or waste your time and money?