Do gyms lie?
April 15, 2008 8:00 AM   Subscribe

Do trainers at gyms lie to sell memberships or classes?

I have a friend who just joined a gym in NYC. A trainer there told her that she has 40 pounds of fat that she needs to turn into muscle. Now she is convinced that she has to work out like a beast. But the thing is... she's about 5'2 and weighs around 100 pounds. I have a sneaking suspicion that they are lying to her to make her get a personal trainer or something like that. Has anybody ever heard of this sort of thing? Is there any literature I can point her to so that she stops freaking out about this?
posted by timory to Health & Fitness (38 answers total)
Using this BMI calculator if she's 5'2" and 100 lbs., there's actually the chance she's underweight*.

*Note: Many people disagree with BMI.
posted by drezdn at 8:11 AM on April 15, 2008

If you're quoting without exaggeration, the trainer told her that she needs to weigh sixty pounds. Which is INSANE. If she weighs less than 100-110 pounds, there's already a problem (most likely).

This trainer is a salesman. He is selling his services and the services of the gym that employs him. Trust him as much as you would trust any other salesman. To be clear, DO NOT TRUST HIM.
posted by prefpara at 8:12 AM on April 15, 2008

i am quoting without exaggeration - however, he (she?) didn't tell my friend to LOSE 40 pounds, just that she needs to turn it into muscle. i suppose muscle weighs more than fat, but still.
posted by timory at 8:14 AM on April 15, 2008

Sorry, I missed your request for links.

The government's BMI calculator is here.

Harvard has a guide to calculating your BMI here (as well as a lot of other advice).

Another from Web MD.
posted by prefpara at 8:16 AM on April 15, 2008

The trainer isn't telling her friend she needs to LOSE 40 pounds. The trainer is saying that she needs to turn her fat into muscle which will actually make her weigh more.
posted by spec80 at 8:16 AM on April 15, 2008

Ah, should have previewed.

I think she should speak to another trainer. I had a great experience with my trainer and he was honest and straightforward. Then again, my gym wasn't into selling more, just getting memberships and retaining them. FWIW, I went to Equinox at Columbus Circle.
posted by spec80 at 8:19 AM on April 15, 2008

1) Some people lie. All trainers are people. Therefore, it's possible that some trainers lie. Some used car dealers lie. Some priests lie. The responsibility is usually with the consumer to sort out the lies from the truth.

2) You cannot turn 40 pounds of fat into muscle, the same way you cannot turn 40 pounds of rocks into gold, or 40 pounds of broccoli into ice cream.

3) A person's weight = muscle + fat + other stuff like bones and organs. You want to keep the muscle and other stuff, and lose the fat. However, some fat is essential for organ protection, hormone production and baby-making (for females).

4) Did the trainer run any tests on your friend, or did he/she just eyeball her? Research BMI and percent fat calculations. These are usually better indicators of how much someone should weigh than an quick estimate done during a health club sales pitch. What does your friend's doctor say about her weight?

5) I used to be a trainer/salesperson in a health club. I couldn't bring myself to lie to someone, which is one reason why I am not in that field anymore.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 8:20 AM on April 15, 2008

You can't turn fat into muscle!! You can burn off fat and you can build muscle, but they are two different things. Maybe I'm being pedantic. If you're burning off fat you're inevitably going to work on your muscles but you don't need to aim to convert all your fat into muscle, that's ludicrous.
However, the fitness advisor should be advising your friend to work to her own goals, asking her what she wants to achieve, not telling her she needs to lose weight. That doesn't sound like he's looking out for her best interests.
posted by Happycat79 at 8:21 AM on April 15, 2008

If she turned 40 lbs of fat into 40lbs of muscle, she wouldn't weigh more, she'd look the same but disturbingly thinner and full of toned muscles. As far as I'm concerned, if your friend was happy with her body before, then the trainer was totally out of place in telling her to work out. There's healthy and then there's rediculous. Also, women need a certain body fat percentage to actually MENSTRUATE, so this could do far more damage than good (although IANAD and I don't know your friend's body fat percentage, so I could be wrong here)
posted by Planet F at 8:21 AM on April 15, 2008

Literature? I don't know. Anecdotal evidence? Plenty.

Every gym I've joined throws in a "free" consultation with a personal trainer as a perk of joining. I went through this just recently when I switched gyms. I know a fair amount about personal fitness, but thought I would hear the guy out. He was trying to sell me on buying a block of training time, and hard. I was skeptical of a lot of what he had to say (gotta isolate, full body workouts are for shit, etc.), and the experience turned me off to the whole idea about hiring a trainer.

I don't think that he was lying, outright. I will say that based on reading and participating in some online fitness communities that people can be dogmatic about what "works" and what doesn't. And if you look at the diet and fitness industry, there's always some new workout or diet fad that gets pushed. And I think some of these trainers buy into that whole mentality. It preys on our insecurities and our desire to get the most benefit for our investment.

Another anecdote: the first time I joined a gym (a real gym, not one of the chains thats popped up), the trainer asked me what my goals were, where I wanted to be, and offered some suggestions for how to get there. He didnt push the sale, he listened, and I found him to be pretty knowledgeable. He certainly wasnt suggesting that I needed to be at 5% body fat or something ridiculous.

If your friend doesn't know how to workout, there may be some benefit in getting a trainer. And the fact is that if they work her into the ground she's less likely to continue with a workout program. I'd even say its in the trainer's best interest to take it easy.

And in the end, it's about your friend attaining her goals, whatever those are. She doesnt need to let some salesman set those goals for her.
posted by kableh at 8:22 AM on April 15, 2008

spec80: turns out equinox is her gym. crap.
posted by timory at 8:28 AM on April 15, 2008

Yes, he's lying. It's impossible for a person who's 5'2" and 100 lbs to be 40 lbs overweight.
posted by electroboy at 8:29 AM on April 15, 2008

Timory, what I was trying to say was that it's incredible to me that you could seriously have 40 pounds of totally unneccessary fat on your body and weigh 100 total pounds. The trainer wants her to, 1. lose 40 pounds of fat, 2. build muscle mass. Presumably she can walk around and lift her arms above her head, so she's already got a baseline amound of muscle mass. The additional muscle mass would be a bonus on top of that. So his claim is that she can weigh 60 total pounds and be fine, because she's apparently got 40 totaly extra pounds of fat. I mean, isn't it obvious that you can't be 5"2, weigh 60 pounds, and be alive?
posted by prefpara at 8:31 AM on April 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm going to go ahead and say it's impossible for a 5'2" 100 lb person to have 40 pounds of fat unless they're a quadruple amputee. The skeleton alone accounts for ~20% of body weight. Skin is another 16%. Her remaining organs and muscle would have to weigh only 24 pounds, which just isn't the case.
posted by 0xFCAF at 8:31 AM on April 15, 2008

timory: check your MefiMail
posted by spec80 at 8:34 AM on April 15, 2008

okay here are more details i am learning as we go along here:

- the trainer told her she is at risk of osteoperosis
- she failed the strength test that the trainer gave her
- the trainer pinched her fat and told her that she is obese (yes, really)
posted by timory at 8:38 AM on April 15, 2008

It should also be noted that timory didn't say what type of "muscles" the friend was supposed to build. In fact, I'd bet the trainer had sidestepped this deliberately, or would've said something about "toning". Unless the friend was planning to find work as a female corrections officer, or performed vigorous warehouse work, she probably wouldn't need to exchange body fat buildup into lifting/pulling strength. 60 lbs. of muscle buildup from a fitness spa will largely be gained for looks, not for strenuous daily activity. Though the friend may not end up looking like a pro weightlifter, she may get sucked into buying "supplements" (fructose, weight loss pills, powdered drinks and diet bars) from the store or the trainer's friends.
posted by Smart Dalek at 8:39 AM on April 15, 2008

Do trainers at gyms salespeople lie to sell memberships or classes their products?

All the time.
posted by mkultra at 8:49 AM on April 15, 2008

I'm pretty sure it's a sales tactic. Sounds pretty similar to what I was told last time I joined a gym - basically the trainer attempted to make me feel like a fat tub o' lard in order to sign up for a personal training program. It didn't work, though, since I already know from a medical standpoint that I'm right where I should be - sounds like your friend is, also.
posted by chez shoes at 8:51 AM on April 15, 2008

The claim that losing body fat and gaining muscle mass is "turning fat into muscle" is like claiming that if every week, you ate a steak before you worked out, your workouts were "turning steak into muscle." Your body can use stored fat as fuel for a workout in which you tax your muscles, increasing their mass, but that does not turn one thing into the other any more than eating food to fuel your body "changes the food into muscle." Anyone, including a trainer, who says otherwise, is either woefully uneducated or flat out lying to you.

Additionally, while it is possible for someone who weighs 100 pounds to be out of shape, it is virtually impossible, unless that person is also 3 feet tall, for her to have 40 pounds of excess adipose tissue. The body's organs, skeleton, and muscles weigh too much for that to be possible. Your friend might, as most of us might, benefit from more exercise and weight training. But it is exceedingly unlikely that she would be healthier if she lost 40 pounds of body fat. It is more likely that she would experience symptoms similar to those found in extreme anorexics.

The most charitable explanation is that the trainer doesn't know what he's talking about. His job is to understand how the gym works and how to exercise various muscles using weights, machines, and other techniques, safely and effectively. He is not a nutritionist, a physiologist, or a doctor. He has never been trained, likely, in diagnosing clinical obesity (in fact, most doctors have never received significant training in nutrition science or obesity research). So the easiest explanation is that he's speaking outside of his area of expertise, and that he may be a very good trainer even though he's an idiot about other things.

The uncharitable explanation is that he's willfully misleading your friend to sell his product.
posted by decathecting at 8:57 AM on April 15, 2008

Trainers are usually salespeople, first and foremost.

Keeping this in mind, there are salespeople who are ethical and those who are unethical. It is incorrect to say all trainers are going to lie and cheat you. Some will, some won't.

In your friend's case, if she weighs 100 pounds, then I think that this may be a sales tactic. However, I've also heard of the phenomenon of "skinny fat" people. These are folks who are skinny, but have little muscle mass. These people can develop more muscle mass, but there is no way to convert all 40 pounds of 'fat' into muscle.

I think your friend should go to a doctor and have a caliper test done. These are more accurate than BMI.
posted by reenum at 8:59 AM on April 15, 2008

Can I be the contrarian and ask ... are you sure your friend weighs only 100 pounds? Are you sure your friend isn't one of those "skinny fat" people that don't look fat, but in reality have zero muscle tone, like some famous celebrities (I'm looking at you, Mary-Kate and Ashley). models? Are you sure your friend understood the trainer (and didn't turn a speech about building muscle into "change 40 pounds of fat into muscle")?

In my experience, it's very easy to misjudge a person's weight just by looking at them (you can be off by 20 pounds simply because of clothing), it's impossible to see the "skinny fat" people without a caliper test, and people that don't have a sports or biology background can easily confuse colloquial terms like "turn fat into muscle."

5-2 and 100 pounds? That's Olympic-level gymnast proportions. You sure about that?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:00 AM on April 15, 2008

I'd consider listening to him, but getting a second opinion of course. If she's that small and is failing a stregth test at a young age she could very well be at risk for osteoporosis later on. It's very impotant to lay down bone in your 20s and 30s.

My motherhad absolutely zero muscle tone before joining Curves at the age of 56. She is petite and looked great in clothes but had a very high % body fat and was experiencing bone loss (which resulted in weight loss which made her look even smaller) and becoming frail. She's been working out three times a week for 10 years and she looks fantastic, reversed the bone loss, got actual muscles and.... gained weight. BMI didn't mean squat in her case.

Finally how do you really know what your firned weighs? Most people guess that I weigh 30-40 pounds less than I do.
posted by fshgrl at 9:02 AM on April 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

The easiest thing for her to do is talk to a doctor -- doctors know more than personal trainers, and don't have a conflict of interest.
posted by paultopia at 9:32 AM on April 15, 2008

Finally how do you really know what your firned weighs? Most people guess that I weigh 30-40 pounds less than I do.

She'd need to be over 160lbs to actually be obese as the trainer suggests.

Your friend should get herself a bodyfat monitor. The commercial ones might not be 100% accurate but they're more accurate than some trainer pinching her flab and telling her she's obese (20%-35% is good) BMI can be an indicator but its not accurate at the extremes of the scales, eg. very small frame and low muscle mass or large frame/high muscle mass. But if your friend is genuinely only 100lbs and 5ft 2 then its highly unlikely that she's overweight and I'd go so far as to say, impossible that she's obese.
posted by missmagenta at 9:43 AM on April 15, 2008

Its also worth remembering that trainers and people who spend all day at the gym have a different perspective on the 'ideal body' and what is attractive. They might be trying to push her to a more lean & muscular physique than she wants, not through maliciousness but purely because that is what they think a healthy body looks like.
posted by missmagenta at 9:51 AM on April 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

It also depends what they use to detect body fat. I had an initial consultation at LA Fitness, they had me use one of those handheld machines, which I found out are inaccurate and also depend on whether you are hydrated or not. I got the reading and literally, started crying.

I definitely felt they were using a tactic to try to shock me as much as possible, and then spend a lot of money on personal training sessions.
posted by hazyspring at 10:37 AM on April 15, 2008

cool papa bell: because she told me. and also because she looks absolutely tiny.
posted by timory at 10:38 AM on April 15, 2008

she looks absolutely tiny.

Enter "40 lbs" into google images and just keep clicking. You'll see a lot of things that weigh forty pounds -- sacks of grain, dogs, trout, pumpkins, kevlar vests, etc. This will give you a rough idea of what 40 lbs looks like.

Does it look like she has that much fat on her body? Not if she's "absolutely tiny."

If she is still "freaking out," go to the grocery store with her and find something vaguely fatlike (not super-dense or hard, maybe corn meal or flour or butter? or even beef?). Almost all food is labeled with its weight, and many grocery stores have scales. See what one pound looks like, or five pounds. This should help her see for herself that she does not have that amount of fat on her body.

If she has serious concerns about her health, a doctor is going to be a better source of information than a salesman who specializes in lifting things properly. Needless to say, a "diagnosis" that doesn't come from a doctor should be categorized as a guess at best. Obesity is a medical condition, as is osteoporosis. A personal trainer is not the last word on either.

(sorry to be commenting so much, I hope it doesn't break an unwritten rule... or bug you)
posted by prefpara at 11:39 AM on April 15, 2008

I think it was a Dave Barry line I read once, something to the effect of "Do not trust anyone who says they have your best interests at heart. Except possibly your mother."
posted by stevis23 at 11:48 AM on April 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

I've only recently met with a trainer at a personal training studio, rather than a conglomerate staff trainer (Gold's, 24 Hour Fitness, etc.) and the difference is substantial. The trainer at the studio took measurements, weighed me, talked about my daily routine, past fitness levels, goals, diet, and didn't pressure me to do anything. He helped to set up an initial routine for me to follow at the gym and he basically left it up to me to do the work and on how often I would like to meet with him.

The conglomerate trainers are all about pressure because they get paid more if you buy "blocks" and because the conglomerates are pressuring them. I would tell your friend (if it's an option) to find a trainer elsewhere to meet with once a week, and work out at a gym on her own the rest of the time. Some are as low as $40-$50 per session, and others are quite a bit more.
posted by nikksioux at 11:51 AM on April 15, 2008

Please do not use BMI when analyzing an individual. It is a tool for analyzing populations, and it makes absolutely no sense when trying to judge the health of a single person. I do not "disagree with BMI" - it's fine for its intended use. This is not its intended use.

Listen to the folks who told you to measure her body fat. Don't use a tape measure.
posted by yath at 11:53 AM on April 15, 2008

Um, even IF she could stand some muscle increase, I think the point here is that the trainer is being disingenuous and unethical.

She's not obese. No way no how, based on what you've said here. And to suggest as such is deplorable. Suggesting that someone who weighs 100 lbs should be converting 40 of those pounds to muscle is crazy.

Basically, I'm feeling rage about this trainer. Have her go to a non-profit like YMCA instead of a gym with a trainer who is being egregiously unethical. And if this asswipe made her think she's overweight, have her go to the doctor, as others have suggested, who should set her straight on where she is, fitness wise, and what her goals should be.
posted by Stewriffic at 12:39 PM on April 15, 2008

I used to be 106 pounds at five feet tall and had very untoned muscles and plenty of extra fat. So I think it's possible that the trainer is telling the truth.

I am a healthy fat gal with a lot of muscle mass. I am healthier now than I was then. Your friend probably needs to simply add muscle mass and get rid of some flab. Flab that you can actually still have at that weight.
posted by konolia at 1:59 PM on April 15, 2008

I mentioned this to the nutritionist I work with while we were taking a walk with some of our overweight patients, and she, too, was aghast. Yes, she might be out of shape and possibly have too high of body fat percentage, but at 100 lbs she's *underweight*.
posted by Stewriffic at 3:08 PM on April 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Enh, the Columbus circle branch is the one where I had someone on staff shove a towel in my face when it was obvious I didn't need one. I would take the doctor's opinion before I would the trainer's.
posted by brujita at 10:44 PM on April 15, 2008

Another data point -- I'm 5'3 and 102 lbs, and absolutely could stand to gain muscle and lose fat. Does your friend have tiny, tiny bones? If so, then like me, she may need to work on building muscle in order to prevent bone loss later on. Granted, it's more on the scale of 10 pounds, but failing the strength test is probably a warning sign (I passed all mine and am still on the upper range of "normal" fat distribution.)
posted by snickerdoodle at 6:51 PM on April 16, 2008

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