The Gender of Trainers and What It Means to Members

When it comes to choosing a personal trainer, people often decide before ever setting eyes on the trainer's experience or certification. They are more concerned with one simple, unchangeable characteristic—the trainer's gender.

Gender plays such a big role in choosing a trainer that it can far outweigh qualifications and experience. Helping members overcome gender stereotypes could lead to better decisions and, ultimately, better results.

"It really is all about communication and relationships," says Sandy Todd Webster, editor-in-chief for IDEA Health and Fitness. "It's a two-way street. Both trainer and client need to be comfortable with each other and confident that each will put forth maximum effort to meet the stated objectives of training."

A 2010 study published by The International Journal of Exercise Science reported qualitative results from university researchers who analyzed women's experiences with personal training. Several of the women in the study commented that a trainer's gender is an important factor of success, saying they might not bond as well personally with a male trainer and would find it harder to have an honest conversation about their goals and challenges. Many also said female trainers would know how to train a woman's body better. The authors of the study stated that four out of five women would prefer a female trainer.

According to the 2013 IDEA Programs and Equipment Survey, IDEA members reported that 69 percent of their personal training clients are female. Group exercise participants are much more likely to be female, as are group exercise instructors. This indicates a female-heavy client base, which could be a disadvantage to male personal trainers.

Some personal training studios cater exclusively to women. They market themselves as knowledgeable about female health issues, less intimidating and more supportive. These female-only fitness studios, Webster says, often appeal to women who are extremely self-conscious, pregnant or post-partum. Many women want to work with someone who has experienced these issues first-hand.

Negative gender stereotypes are strongest for female trainers who specialize in strength or athletic training and for male instructors who teach dance-based group exercise classes, Webster says.

Research has shown that male NCAA Division I athletes report a strong preference for a male strength training coach, regardless of whether female coaches are more qualified. Female athletes showed no bias and felt they would perform well with a strength coach of either gender. The study about Division I athletes' attitudes toward and preferences for male and female strength and conditioning coaches was published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2009.

Sue Matyas, fitness and wellness director for The Bellevue (WA) Club, says that she commonly sees members who prejudge personal trainers by physical appearance.

"If a male is really big, a bodybuilder type, they are perceived to be trainers that will make you lift heavy weights, bulk up, etc.," she says. "If a trainer is overweight, one might assume they aren't a good example of fitness."

These stereotypes motivate Matyas to hire a diverse group of personal trainers in hopes that all members will find someone to whom they can relate. For many people, the choice is less about gender and more about finding someone their own age, with ideal physical fitness and a great personality.

"I have young, old, women, men, super fit, a little overweight, energetic, serious," Matyas says about her trainers. "Everyone is looking for someone who fits his or her needs."

Another way to overcome gender-based stereotypes is to take time to educate and assist members so that they select a trainer carefully, based on their goals and the trainer's experience, Webster says. The Bellevue Club posts blogs that profile every trainer so members will learn about the trainers on a deeper level, Matyas says.

Dwayne Wimmer, owner of Vertex Fitness Personal Training Studio, Bryn Mawr, PA, rotates his clients through all of the trainers at his facility. This practice gives them a well-rounded experience with a wide variety of trainers. It also helps dispel stereotypes and helps clients learn and grow more quickly, he says.

"Over time, they get a better workout because each trainer has a different way of explaining things," Wimmer says. "Even though they are doing the same workout, they have different teachers."

The nature of the personal training business makes it difficult to quantify whether male or female trainers are paid more overall. Most health clubs report having a standard model of compensation based upon education and experience, but compensation varies widely. Many trainers are paid on commission, and therefore one gender may have an advantage over another if it easier for them to sell sessions.

"Anecdotally speaking, I don't think trainer gender matters for the general population," Webster says. "What matters is that a client finds a trainer he or she is comfortable with, who is well-educated and who understands the client's goals."