My friend V, who I haven’t seen in five years, got a new job and one of the perks was that she would be coming to Atlanta for meetings in June. We made arrangements to meet for dinner.
I hired a sitter because D was out-of-town for work. I made reservations at a restaurant that was sufficiently Southern with loads of locally-sourced fare and gluten free options.
I was really, really excited to see V and enjoy a night out.
Her flight was cancelled and so was our evening.
But, I was dressed (this is an unusual occurrence of late), had a sitter, and those reservations. So I went to dinner alone.
The spot I’d picked was in between home and her hotel, so I had about a twenty-minute drive. On said drive, I was waiting for a light to turn when I looked into the huge windows of a condo complex and saw the property’s gym which was pretty busy with the after work crowd.
The light was long and accordingly, I bore witness to a spectacle I see all too often these days – a friend training a friend.
Granted, from my vantage point, I could have misconstrued the interaction. But if this woman is a professional trainer, she’d best be looking for another gig because iPhones don’t need much exercise and that’s where her attention was drawn.
It was almost too stereotypical – Trainer Friend was toned and bouncy, Trainee Friend looked like she was struggling. Trainer Friend would do a move to show Trainee and then obsess on her iPhone while Trainee struggled with the exercise.
And OMG, the move I witnessed made me want to run for the hills screaming. Even if Trainee had been well-prepared physically for it, it was neither safe nor beneficial (the two criteria I was trained to use when evaluating a move.)
Now, to be clear, I have absolutely no trouble with the adult version of “parallel play,” where friends hit the gym together, spot each other, encourage each other, etc.
(Shout out to my long time running and walking buddy, J!)
It’s when one of the friends – always the “fitter” i.e., leaner friend – assumes the role of advising the other friend that I get squeamish. Here are a few reasons why:
Just because a person is thin, it does not follow that she is fit.
We each get a body when we land on this earth, and some people’s bodies are just naturally long and lean. It’s easy to look at someone like that and presume that she must know some secret or have some regimen that got her that way. And it’s easy to think you too can look that way if you just had a little bit of what she’s having.
Except it doesn’t work like that. There are plenty of people walking around the planet in lean, lithe bodies who wouldn’t know a barbell if it hit them on the head. And there are scads of people who fall into other body-type categories who can run, lift, crawl, and move like a kid.
But, let’s just assume for argument’s sake that she is extremely fit. I still counsel against friends training friends because …
Even if a person is fit, there is a big difference in exercising and training another person.
“But she played soccer in college.”
“But she does triathlons.”
“But she’s read every issue of [insert name of fitness mag here] there ever was.”
And. Yet. Still.
Each of those pursuits is self-focused. Your friend may well be fantastic at the pursuit that she has chosen. That doesn’t mean that you should rely on her to design an exercise program or to prescribe exercise for you.
A well-trained, credentialed, experienced trainer has been educated in skills like body assessment, prescriptive exercise, contraindications, goal-setting and more. She has learned the muscle and skeletal systems of the body, studied metabolism, and explored the different ways in which people learn.
But even if your friend is a total fitness wonk and has read everything there ever was on the subject of the human body …
Stepping out of one’s own body remains exquisitely challenging.
My husband, D, has awful, awful vision. Fact is, he didn’t know he had awful vision until he was in high school. He loves to tell the kids the story of the first time he put on a pair of glasses. He looked out at the world and said to his mom, “What are those things on the trees?”
“What things?” she asked.
“Those things? Those things that hang?”
Well, they were leaves.
We each experience the world through this one body we’ve been given. Our body and our experiences therein are impacted by genetics, the forces that we apply to it, the food and air and water we take in, etc. It’s our “normal,” but normal is different for every person.
It can be extremely challenging to move past the experiences of our own bodies to assess and judge others’ movements. That’s why physical therapists study for years and years and movement specialists pretty much never stop learning. Each new client presents a new normal.
But, if you’re getting advice from a friend without any professional training at all, she may not even know that this is an issue, much less understand the need to step outside herself.
You deserve the expertise, wisdom and humility that can come from a well-trained professional.
Liability, liability, liability.
OMG, I’ve seen friends training injured friends! And pregnant friends! And I may run out of exclamation points soon if I keep going with this!
In a past life, I went to law school and the thing about having a J.D. and a background in fitness is that you see liability everywhere.
(Watch me before class. I pick up every possible obstacle on the floor. No one’s tripping in my aerobics room!)
Listen, I carry personal liability insurance to the tune of a few million dollars to do what I do. I work for two separate companies, both of which carry additional insurance to protect us. One of the companies for which I work actively discourages fitness instructors from touching clients, for fear of lawsuits. (If you manipulate their body into a position and they get hurt, you could be on the hook. Then there’s a whole host of just “touching” issues. I always ask permission.)
You may think, “She’s my friend. I would never sue her.” And that may well be, but your health insurer may not look so kindly on her if she is seen to have contributed to your injury. Especially if she lacks sufficient training, expertise and credentialing to be training someone.
A Final Word
Times are tough and well-trained professionals are expensive. I get why people turn to their fit friends.
But there are other options:
- Small group training allows you to work out with friends under the guidance of a trainer and share the costs.
- Online workout support is becoming more and more robust. Have you seen the Everyday Paleo Life Fit community, for example?
- Hire a trainer for a few sessions, with the understanding that she will design a program that you can implement on your own. Maybe you will need to check in quarterly or so, but it can help reduce costs.
A Final, Final Word
V is coming back to Atlanta sometime soon and we’re going to get a do-over on our dinner.
No heavy lifting required.