While working out at a local gym a few weeks ago, Morit Summers, an NSCA-certified personal trainer and the owner of Form Fitness Brooklyn, witnessed an incident that instantly made her blood boil: A fitness coach placed their hands on their female client’s waist, then guided her body through a lateral lunge, she says.
This type of interaction may seem like NBD to the average bystander, but personal trainers or fitness class instructors touching clients — especially in lingering, potentially suggestive manners — shouldn't be the norm, 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, isn’t an isolated instance, either. Both Summers and her business partner Francine Delgado-Lugo, an NCSF-certified personal trainer, say inappropriate touching between trainers and clients can be commonplace within fitness spaces. The problem: Folks 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’ tendency 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. In order to receive 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. In-person coaching lessons, however, typically aren’t a requirement. “There are very few trainers who actually get the opportunity to have hands-on training experience from other teachers,” says Delgado-Lugo. “The lion’s share 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 do think there are trainers that don’t know any better,” she adds.
The sexualization of women’s bodies that already occurs within fitness spaces may also contribute to the problem, says Summers. “There are trainers who are just there for the sexualization of it, and that’s a big issue in the fitness industry,” she explains. “I think a lot of people don’t even want to work with a trainer or walk into a gym because of that.” In fact, roughly 28 percent of women have experienced sexual harassment at gyms, and nearly 73 percent of those people changed their gym routine (think: spending less time working out, avoiding certain machines or exercises) due to it, according to a survey of 890 women published by FitRated, a fitness equipment review site. Similarly, more than 15 percent of survey participants reported experiencing unwanted physical contact at gyms.
Whether it comes from fellow gym-goers or fitness professionals themselves, though, experiencing sexual harassment (which includes unwanted physical contact or touching) can increase the risk of anxiety and depression, as well as reduce self-esteem, self-confidence, and psychological well-being, according to the journal Society and Mental Health. “You are there to get stronger. You are there to feel better in your body — not worse,” says Summers. (
Morit Summers, C.P.T.
You are there to get stronger. You are there to feel better in your body — not worse.
— Morit Summers, C.P.T.
When Is Touching By Trainers Actually Appropriate?
The expression “keep your hands to yourself” is the primary tenet of professional personal training, and using tactile cues should be a last-resort teaching technique, says Delgado-Lugo. In order to help a client understand how to perform a movement properly, both Summers and Delgado-Lugo say they rely on verbal cues (think: “brace your core as if someone’s about to punch your gut”), and if they feel the client needs more guidance, a trainer can demonstrate the exercise themselves. “What I have really aspired to do is use both my capacity to explain and my capacity to demonstrate movement, and I really rely on those first and foremost,” says Delgado-Lugo. “We’re trying to teach clients to be able to move with independence 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 grasp 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 useful. But this should be done only 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 at the end of the day, the individual in front of you should be moving with body autonomy," she adds.
Translation: Your coach shouldn’t be guiding your waist as you’re lunging, reaching their arms around your chest as you’re squatting, or holding your wrists as during a bench press. “Those are all kinds of things that fall kind of into that category of inappropriateness,” says Delgado-Lugo.
How to Set Boundaries with Your Trainer
Whether you’ve had uncomfortable experiences with trainers in the past or you’re a newbie wanting to make your boundaries clear right from the get-go, Delgado-Lugo recommends having a conversation with your coach about their preferred teaching methods before you start exercising. “That’s when the ball is best in your court and you have the true advantage to be able to claim your own agency,” she explains. You might ask them, “How do you prefer to teach clients how to execute an exercise properly?” Or, you may tell them straight up, “I’m someone who isn’t comfortable being touched, so if you rely on that to teach, that may be an issue for us.”
That said, most people don't know what type of learning style they prefer — and how comfortable they are with physical contact — right off the bat, so these conversations generally take place in the heat of the moment, says Summers. If your coach is touching you in ways that make you uneasy mid-session, don't be afraid to say, "I'd prefer if you didn't put your hands on my body" or "is there a way you can talk me through it or show me what I'm not doing correctly rather than touch me?"
The same recommendations apply if this unwanted physical contact is occurring during a group fitness class. When it happens, you might turn to the instructor and simply say, "I'm good, thank you," suggests Summers. Or, you can pull them aside after the class ends and say, "I felt a bit jarred when you touched me in class today. Thank you for wanting to show me, but I'm someone who does better when you tell me something," adds Delgado-Lugo. If directly approaching the trainer with your concerns feels too intimidating, consider speaking with the gym or studio manager instead, recommends Summers.
Having these conversations isn't always easy, particularly for female clients, but it's important to learn how to stand up for yourself, says Summers. "[It's just like] all sorts of things in life for women — we think we're coming across as b*tchy," she says. "But all you're doing is having control of your own body."
Francine Delgado-Lugo, C.P.T.
We're trying to teach clients to be able to move with independence and strength in their own bodies, so they need to be able to do that without being touched.
— Francine Delgado-Lugo, C.P.T.
If the situation doesn't improve after you've made your concerns clear or you're met with pushback from the trainer, you may want to raise the issue with the gym's or studio's administrator or even seek out a new coach, according to the experts. "This is your time — you're paying for it — and you're the client, so if you're not getting your needs met, you're not getting your service delivered in the way that suits you, then what is it that you're actually paying for?" says Delgado-Lugo.
Still, the burden of creating a safe, comfortable fitness learning experience shouldn't be placed entirely on the client; trainers should also know how to effectively coach without touching in the first place, says Summers. "I think if trainers have a hard time coaching without touching, they need to seek out more education and actually get better at their craft," she explains. "In-person coaching — just watching the client and cueing them — is hands-on enough." (
That means coaches should hone their ability to use language to explain movements, as demoing the move may not be totally effective, says Delgado-Lugo. "Bodies are different — your body may not move the way the other people may move, so it may not actually translate," she explains. "So take what you know about that movement you're trying to get them to repeat, [then think about] how you can really use words to help them figure out how to do it for themselves."
More importantly, fitness trainers, particularly when they're first kicking off their career, should reflect on the impression they're giving their clients and how they're using — or inadvertently abusing — their power as an expert and service provider, says Delgado-Lugo. "It's a tough question to ask yourself," she says. "But if you're starting at that endpoint and you're really thinking about how you can deliver your services with professionalism, you're probably not going to end up doing things that are inappropriate."