A Look Behind the Curtain: The Line and Relationships We Have With Clients

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In today’s guest post by Shane McLean he touches on a topic that affects every fitness professional: the “line” or boundary that exists between trainer and client.

What the boundary is and how far a coach/trainer is willing to go to cross it is every individual’s personal choice. It’s an important topic and I’m glad Shane took the initiative to discuss his own experiences.


A Look Behind the Curtain

I’m going to pull back the curtain on training clients in a one-on-one environment. There’s a lot more to personal training than designing programs, counting sets and reps and wearing tracksuit pants. Sometimes the professional/personal line that exists between coach and client gets crossed.

Let me explain. Since being a personal trainer, I’ve had

  • Three clients pass away
  • Three who have beaten cancer
  • One who’s got dementia
  • Several clients who have had their joints replaced and gone through painful rehabilitation

When studying to become a trainer, these situations never came up in any of my textbooks because nothing prepares you for things like that.

Only life can.

When dealing one-on-one with these clients while they’re suffering, the professional boundaries that trainers should have with their clients gets blurry.

How can it not? Trainers are not robots.


Although my (and most) personal training clients come to the gym to forget their problems, sometimes the burden they carry is too heavy and they need someone to talk to. All a trainer can do is lend a sympathetic ear much like your hairdresser or local bartender.

And for most personal trainers (myself included), personal training is much more than a pay check or a business transaction. It’s a real opportunity to make a difference in the lives of their clients whether they’re fighting fit or not.

Trainers share in their clients’ successes, failures and heart aches. Often exercise is the easy part of the equation during a session but the mindset or ‘getting into the mood’ can be more difficult.

Trying to get clients into the right frame of mind when they are in pain takes this mindset thing to a different level. Because let’s face it, exercise can be hard enough even when we’re healthy, let alone sick.

Over two years ago I was hired to work privately with an elderly couple in their home. Both had their share of health problems but the male was in bad shape. He was unable to perform simple self-care duties and found walking extremely difficult.

He and his wife performed simple balance and mobility exercises and fundamental human movements once or twice a week. Even at their advanced age, they were looking to improve their quality of life.

Both were so sweet to me that it was difficult not to get close to them. I would often stay after our sessions to hear their stories and join them for lunch. They welcomed me into their home like I was a part of their family.

However, the male’s health took a turn for the worst a few months into our time together and a few weeks later he passed away peacefully.

It was one of the saddest situations I’ve ever witnessed and made me feel very fortunate that I got to spend time sometime with him and his wife. I’ll cherish the stories they told me forever.

Earlier this year, I was rocked by the death of former client who was taken from this earth because of pancreatic cancer. When we worked together, over two years ago now, he had turned his life and health around.

He was fit, strong and full of life and then cancer robbed him of this. He fought to the end with humor, grace and dignity. I still miss him to this day.

Both of these situations provided a challenging conundrum for one who’s business is personal. When does professional become personal? When is it ever okay for professional/personal boundaries to be crossed?

Most of us know it’s not okay for a trainer to sleep with their client and for a teacher to get sexually involved with a student.

That’s clearly crossing the line.

However, on the other hand, is it okay to visit a client who’s on life support in hospital and to be there for support? Is it crossing the line to go out to lunch with a client and share personal stories?

Like some laws are meant to be broken, some boundaries (I think) need to be crossed, especially when it’s a matter of life and death. However, there is some inherent risk involved here.

When putting yourself out there and crossing boundaries your feelings or the client’s feelings may get hurt. Your wallet may suffer, and if you ever witness sickness or death it’s going to be painful for all involved.

I made a judgement call (and will continue to make it) that I’m going to be there for clients when it comes to life, death and sickness. Am I crossing the line?

You can be the judge.

However, I feel in matters of the heart, you should follow the heart more often than not and the boundaries that exist between a service provider/client should be tossed away.

Wrapping Up

Personal and professional boundaries exist for a reason. It can stop laws and feelings from being broken. However, when suffering and death happens and you’re in the middle of it, lines will get crossed.

About the Author

Shane “The Balance Guy” McLean, is an A.C.E Certified Personal Trainer working deep in the heart of Texas. Shane believes in balancing exercise with life while putting the fun back into both.

After all, we’re only human.

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