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When Should a Fitness Instructor Touch You?

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  • Post last modified:September 26, 2023

While exercising at a nearby gym a few weeks ago, Morit Summers, an NSCA-certified personal trainer and the owner of Form Fitness Brooklyn, witnessed an incident that immediately angered her: A fitness coach placed their hands on their female client’s waist, then guided her body through a lateral lunge, she says.

This kind of interaction may appear insignificant to the average observer, but personal trainers or fitness class instructors touching clients — especially in lingering, potentially suggestive manners — should not be the usual practice, says Summers. “I would never, ever — even if they may never understand how to do the exercise properly — put my hands on the client’s waist,” says Summers. “We don’t need to put our hands on our clients in that manner.”

What she saw, unfortunately, is not an isolated incident, either. Both Summers and her business partner Francine Delgado-Lugo, an NCSF-certified personal trainer, say inappropriate touching between trainers and clients can be common within fitness spaces. The issue is that individuals new to personal training may come to believe physical contact is expected and necessary. “Once you’re introduced to a personal trainer, you’re meeting that person with the assumption — and mostly rightly so — that person knows what they’re doing, and you’re entrusting your experience to them,” says Delgado-Lugo. “If that person hasn’t been trained or guided in terms of what appropriate behavior ought to be, that for sure might taint or tarnish your expectation of what a personal trainer should be doing forever.”

Why Some Personal Trainers Turn to Physical Contact

Some trainers’ inclination to touch their clients may simply come down to a lack of guidance on what physical contact is appropriate — and when — by certifying organizations, according to the trainers. To obtain a personal training certification through prominent organizations such as the American Council on Exercise, the National Academy of Sports Medicine, and the American College of Sports Medicine, aspiring coaches must have a CPR/AED certification and pass a personal training exam. However, in-person coaching lessons are typically not required. “There are very few trainers who actually get the opportunity to have hands-on training experience from other teachers,” says Delgado-Lugo. “The majority of CPTs are not getting that experience, so they’re going off into the gyms or on their own, starting to train clients, and they’re sort of doing what they want.” Consequently, some trainers may not have learned how to teach clients through touch in a professional, respectful manner, says Summers.

“I believe there exist instructors who are unaware of the correct approach,” she states.

The objectification of women’s bodies that already occurs within fitness spaces may also contribute to the issue, says Summers. “There are trainers who are simply present for the objectification of it, and that’s a significant problem in the fitness industry,” she explains. “I believe many individuals don’t even want to work with a trainer or enter a gym because of that.” In fact, approximately 28 percent of women have encountered sexual harassment at gyms, and almost 73 percent of those individuals altered their gym routine (consider: spending less time working out, avoiding specific machines or exercises) as a result, according to a survey of 890 women published by FitRated, a site that reviews fitness equipment. Likewise, over 15 percent of survey participants reported experiencing unwelcome physical contact at gyms.

Whether it stems from fellow gym-goers or fitness professionals themselves, however, experiencing sexual harassment (which encompasses unwanted physical contact or touching) can heighten the likelihood of anxiety and depression, as well as diminish self-esteem, self-confidence, and psychological well-being, according to the journal Society and Mental Health. “You are there to become stronger. You are there to feel better in your body — not worse,” says Summers.

Morit Summers, C.P.T.

You are there to become stronger. You are there to feel better in your body — not worse.

When Is Touching By Trainers Actually Appropriate?

The phrase “keep your hands to yourself” is the primary principle of professional personal training, and using tactile cues should be a last-resort teaching technique, says Delgado-Lugo. In order to help a client comprehend how to perform a movement properly, both Summers and Delgado-Lugo state that they rely on verbal cues (consider: “brace your core as if someone’s about to strike your gut”), and if they feel the client needs further guidance, a trainer can demonstrate the exercise themselves. “What I have truly aspired to do is utilize both my ability to explain and my ability to demonstrate movement, and I really rely on those first and foremost,” says Delgado-Lugo. “We’re attempting to teach clients to be able to move with autonomy and strength in their own bodies, so they need to be able to do that without being touched.”

If the client is still struggling to comprehend the movement pattern, a quick tactile cue — such as tapping a muscle that should be activating or gently touching the person’s rounding back — may be beneficial. But this should only be done if consent is clearly given before every touch, says Delgado-Lugo. “If you’re going to be touching your clients, you’re doing so with care, caution, and permission, and ultimately, the individual in front of you should be moving with body autonomy,” she adds.”

Translation: Your trainer should refrain from guiding your midsection while lunging, wrapping their arms around your torso during squats, or gripping your wrists during a bench press. “Those actions all fall into the category of inappropriate behavior,” says Delgado-Lugo.

Establishing Personal Boundaries with Your Trainer

Whether you’ve had uncomfortable experiences with trainers in the past or you’re new to this and want to clearly communicate your boundaries from the start, Delgado-Lugo suggests having a conversation with your trainer about their preferred teaching methods before beginning your workouts. “That’s when you have the advantage to take charge and assert your own agency,” she explains. You might inquire, “How do you prefer to educate clients on proper exercise execution?” Or, you could be direct and say, “I am not comfortable with physical contact, so if your teaching relies on that, it may be an issue for me.”

However, most people aren’t aware of their preferred learning style or their comfort level with physical contact right away, so these conversations often happen in the heat of the moment, says Summers. If your trainer is physically touching you in a way that makes you uneasy during a session, don’t hesitate to say, “I would prefer if you didn’t touch my body” or “Is there a way you can verbally guide me or demonstrate the correct form instead?”

The same advice applies if this unwelcome physical contact occurs in a group fitness class. In such a situation, you can simply tell the instructor, “I’m fine, thank you,” as suggested by Summers. Alternatively, you can approach them after the class and say, “I felt uncomfortable when you touched me during today’s class. I appreciate your effort to show me, but I personally respond better to verbal instruction,” adds Delgado-Lugo. If directly addressing your concerns with the trainer feels too intimidating, consider discussing the matter with the gym or studio manager instead, according to Summers.

Initiating these conversations is not always easy, especially for female clients, but it is important to learn how to advocate for yourself, says Summers. “It’s similar to other aspects of life for women — we often worry about being perceived negatively,” she explains. “But in reality, you are simply asserting control over your own body.”

Francine Delgado-Lugo, C.P.T.

Our goal is to empower clients to move independently and with strength in their own bodies, so they should be able to achieve that without physical contact.

— Francine Delgado-Lugo, C.P.T.

If there is no improvement after voicing your concerns or if you encounter resistance from the trainer, you may want to escalate the issue to the gym’s or studio’s administrator or consider finding a new coach, as advised by the experts.

This is your moment – you’re compensating for it – and you’re the customer, so if you’re not acquiring your requirements fulfilled, you’re not obtaining your assistance dispensed in the manner that suits you, then what is it specifically that you’re actually compensating for?” expresses Delgado-Lugo.

Still, the responsibility of creating a secure, comfortable fitness learning experience should not solely rest on the client; trainers should also know how to effectively coach without physical contact in the first instance, asserts Summers. “If trainers struggle to coach without touching, they should seek out more education and improve their skills,” she explains. “In-person coaching – simply observing the client and providing cues – is sufficient hands-on interaction.”

That implies coaches should enhance their ability to utilize language to describe movements since demonstrating the movement may not be entirely effective, according to Delgado-Lugo. “Bodies are diverse – your body may not move like others, so it may not effectively convey the message,” she explains. “Therefore, apply your knowledge about the specific movement you want them to repeat, and consider how you can effectively use words to assist them in figuring out how to do it independently.”

More importantly, fitness trainers, particularly when they are starting their career, should reflect on the impression they are making on their clients and how they are utilizing – or unintentionally misusing – their authority as an expert and service provider, states Delgado-Lugo. “It is a challenging question to ask oneself,” she says. “However, if you begin with that endpoint in mind and focus on delivering your services with professionalism, you are unlikely to engage in inappropriate actions.