11 Secrets of Backup Dancers

Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images
Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images

What would "Thriller" have looked like without Michael Jackson's army of dancing zombies? What if Madonna had to preen and pose her way through "Vogue" alone? And how could the hype of Hammertime ever be conveyed without the high-kicking energy of those parachute pants-clad b-boys?

Backup dancers add depth and dimension to live performances and music videos, and though you might not always know their names, chances are you've practiced quite a few of their moves. But what is it really like to work in the industry? From the audition circuit to backing superstars on tour and in music videos, we got the answers for anyone who thinks they can dance.

1. THEY DON'T NEED FORMAL DANCE TRAINING, BUT THEY DO NEED TO CONSTANTLY BE LEARNING.

"I was late to the game," says Lori Sommer, a dancer who has worked with Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, and Eve, of her start in the dancing world. "I was a martial artist, and that discipline and training gave me the ability to pick up choreography." Sommer says she was out dancing with friends at a New York club in the mid-'90s when she was scouted and encouraged to audition to be a club dancer at the popular house music venue Sound Factory Bar. There she befriended resident DJ Louie Vega, house music legend Barbara Tucker, choreographers, and others who could help her get her name in with bookers. Based on those connections, she landed her first tour with Reel 2 Real (best known for their dance track "I Like to Move It"). "That club really opened the door for me, but dancers have to constantly take classes and learn new things," she tells Mental Floss. "There's always a new style or move that will help us improve our abilities."

Dancer Mark Romain, who also had no formal training beyond joining college dance teams but has built a career dancing with Britney Spears, Katy Perry, and Ke$ha, agrees. "You have to work your craft. Like going to the gym to maintain your strength, you have to work out your creative muscles and skills regularly," he told BuzzFeed in 2013. "There is a big difference between doing well in dance class and being able to perform on a stage; it's important to get performance experience. If you start late, that's okay, but train, train, train."

2. SOME WILL CHANGE THEIR LOOK TO BLEND IN BETTER.

Though backup dancers need to have enough personality and style to stand out at auditions, they often learn they can't draw too much attention away from the main performer or the theme of a shoot. When Sommer was working on Whitney Houston's 1999 video for "It's Not Right But It's Okay," she realized her blonde curls stood out too much for the video's dark set. "We were all dressed in these army fatigues, and once we started shooting, the director was like 'she's standing out,'" Sommer remembers. They pulled her hair back and tried again, but the director wanted it toned down even more. "They ended up putting hats on all of us to cover my hair, which is how we look in the final video. After that, a friend recommended I darken my hair, and I realized if I wanted to work more consistently, I needed to make that change to be more uniform. That was the last video I did as a blonde."

3. THEY LEARN HOW TO ADJUST TO AUDITIONS TO AVOID GETTING CUT.

Often, dancers will show up to auditions with only a vague idea of what the artist really needs. So they learn to read a room. Dancer Pam Chu, who has done everything from being a Radio City Rockette to Cirque du Soleil to touring with Demi Lovato, told Cosmopolitan that when she went to audition for Britney Spears's Las Vegas residency, she was apprehensive because she didn't know any of the people involved. So she psyched herself up and figured it out as the day went on. "From the way the choreographers were teaching, I knew they wanted people who had technique, style, and would dance full out—all the time," Chu says. "I knew not to sit down in the audition—ever. We were there for nine hours." After a round of callbacks, Chu got a contract.

4. THEY OFTEN HAVE TO MAKE LIFE-ALTERING DECISIONS ON THE ROAD.

Because their lives are often dictated by demanding tour schedules and opportunities that feel impossible to turn down, dancers regularly have to miss family events and other personal milestones. "I sacrificed a gig and a tour once because I didn't want to miss my goddaughter's birthday," Sommer recalls. "I'd missed her first birthday because I was in Europe, and I said I couldn't miss her second. It's hard because you put yourself at risk of being replaced."

And for others, an opportunity can change their whole trajectory. Ashley Everett, Beyonce's longtime dance captain, was just 17 when she made the cut for her first-ever tour. The timing seemed impeccable—The Beyonce Experience tour would wrap up the week before she was supposed to start classes at her dream school, Juilliard. But then, the tour was extended. "I had to make a decision," Everett told Refinery29. "Go after the lifelong dream that had been on my bucket list my entire life, or stick it out with a legend, with no idea of what would happen next. I took a leap of faith and stayed on the tour. Obviously, it paid off!"

5. IT'S NOT A PARTICULARLY LUCRATIVE CAREER.

Despite the jetsetting lifestyle and getting to work with superstars, most dancers are essentially independent contractors. That means booking gigs piecemeal, working long hours, and, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, making roughly $14 an hour on average, or $34,000 a year.

"Yes, longer-term jobs like a tour or a TV show or a movie might keep us busy for months straight, but the reality of the situation is that eventually that job will end and we have to start back over—gigging or auditioning for something else," Everett wrote in a 2016 HuffPost piece. "I'll be in 12-hour rehearsals for two months straight, then on other days I'm left not knowing when my next job will come. It's the business. We always have to stay on our toes and stay grinding."

Sommer agrees. "It can be a struggle," she says. During their time between shoots or tours, dancers frequently have more steady side jobs. Sommer worked as a dancer-for-hire for entertainment companies, where she would go to bar mitzvahs or weddings along with the band or DJ and encourage guests to come out on the dance floor. Many others do projects as choreographers and teachers, and look for commercial work, which is usually short on hours but long on pay (think dancing in Gap, Target, or car commercials). "You gotta work when work is available," Sommer says. "There's a lot of eating on a budget, a lot of ramen noodles. But every dancer I know wouldn't change it for the world."

6. THEY HAVE TO KNOW HOW TO GO WITH THE FLOW.

While many artists are known to tweak routines between tour stops or switch up sets or transitions to keep things fresh, sometimes a dancer's hard work will get sidelined because the artist just isn't feeling it. That can be devastating, especially for major award shows like the Grammys or the VMAs, which are extremely sought-after roles with multiple auditions and rehearsals that can last for 10 hours a day.

Sommer recalled that at her first VMAs in 1999, she snagged a spot dancing for Jay-Z, who was also making his first VMA appearance with a medley of his recent hits like "Can I Get A…" and "Hard Knock Life." "My friend Ray [dancer and promoter Voodoo Ray] had choreographed this great piece, and it was a huge opportunity for him," Sommer says. "And on the day of the VMAs as we were rehearsing, all of a sudden Jay said he didn't want anyone dancing backup." Instead, he wanted his crew, which included DJ Clue, Amil, and 15 or so other friends, to hang on stage where the dancers were meant to be. The dozen backup dancers were moved to the side stages and were allowed to dance there, but it didn't have the same effect as the choreographed routine they were preparing for. "I mean, I got paid for my time," Sommer says. "But not to do what I'd practiced and really, really wanted to do."

7. THEY'LL SOMETIMES WEAR IN-EAR MONITORS ON STAGE.

It's common to see singers use earpieces during live shows in order to hear themselves or their band better. But dancers will often wear in-ear monitors as well, especially for large arena shows when the roar of the crowd can drown out any chance of staying in sync with the music. "It's an interesting experience … because we can't hear the audience," dancer David Shreibman told W Magazine about wearing "ears" while touring with Justin Bieber. "All you're hearing is Bieber's voice and the choreographer talking to us throughout the show. I took my ears out last night … and it was SO loud. When he goes into 'Baby,' it's crazy. I had to cover my ears."

8. TWO CAN SOMETIMES BE BETTER THAN ONE.

Sometimes having a built-in dance partner can help get dancers noticed and book gigs. French dancers Laurent and Larry Bourgeois, already known in their home country as "Les Twins," made a splash in the States when they started working with Beyonce in 2011; they've since toured with her multiple times, appeared in numerous videos, and recently won Jennifer Lopez's new competition show, World of Dance. Mark and Donald Romain often appear together as dancers at awards shows and have been in videos like Britney Spears’s "Till the World Ends." And up-and-coming Korean twins Kwon Young Deuk and Kwon Young Don, who have backed Psy and other KPop acts, are getting plenty of fan attention and calls to upgrade them to "idols" in their industry.

But for Canadian sisters Jenny and Jayme Rae Dailey, who have done music videos, TV shows like Smash and X Factor, and movies like the Step Up franchise, sometimes working together just isn't in the cards. "For us, it's not really competing because we go in together as twins. We are a team when we audition," Jenny told the Montreal Gazette in 2013. "Our mentality is, 'If it's not both of us, it's none of us,' although it doesn't always work out that way."

9. EVEN WITHOUT A SIBLING, DANCERS CAN FEEL LIKE FAMILY.

For all of the stories of artists who date their backup dancers (Mariah Carey and Bryan Tanaka, Jennifer Lopez with Cris Judd and Casper Smart, Prince and Mayte Garcia, Britney Spears and Kevin Federline, etc.), those long hours rehearsing and traveling together can really cement a familial bond. "I became very close to those who danced with me, but even closer with [those] who danced on tour with me," Janet Jackson told an audience in October 2017 before she brought out a number of those dancers to perform "Rhythm Nation," a staple at her shows since the song and its iconic video took the world by storm in 1989. One those dancers who returned was Jenna Dewan-Tatum, who got her big break touring with Jackson in 2001-02.

"Janet asked her 'kids' to come back and perform rhythm nation at the Hollywood Bowl," Dewan-Tatum posted on Instagram. "I dreamt of dancing with her since I was a kid and literally pinched myself every night of the All for You tour. And here I am pinching myself again last night. She created a legacy for her dancers and she personally began my career! It all begins with Jan. Thank you for this my love!!!"

(Another person who worked as a backup dancer for Janet before making it big on her own? Jennifer Lopez, who was in the 1993 video for "That's the Way Love Goes.")

10. FOR DECADES, DANCERS HAD NO UNION OR HEALTH CARE ASSURANCES.

The lack of health coverage and union benefits for dancers was widespread until very recently. Dancers Alliance, a group working to negotiate equitable rates, healthcare options, and ensure dancer safety, launched campaigns in 2011 to get contracts for work on music videos and in 2013 to unionize tours. "I believe dancers who have trained themselves to a professional level should be treated—and compensated—as professionals," Dancers Alliance board member Dana Wilson told Dance Magazine in 2015. The group had worked out a contract with SAG-AFTRA for music video shoots in 2011, but Wilson, who was dancing with Justin Timberlake at the time, pushed for a union tour contract so that the dancers would be eligible for health care and other benefits while on the road. It worked. In 2014, Timberlake became the first artist to protect his backup dancers under a SAG-AFTRA contract.

11. THEY ALWAYS HAVE A BACKUP PLAN.

As with most athletic careers, dancers know that eventually they'll have to back away from their sport. Injuries, from muscle strains and spasms to various tears and sprains, can take their toll. Many performers, like Paula Abdul and Lady Gaga, have discussed their issues with chronic pain.

"The wear and tear on body is tremendous," Sommer says. She would know—a herniated disc sidelined her dancing career in 2002. "Most dancers are going to find ways to work through injuries. A lot of Epsom salt, Bengay. It's a beautiful life that enables you to travel and see the world, but there was the point in time when I couldn't walk."

Many dancers find ways to stay active by teaching or going into the fitness industry, developing exercise and training careers. Some, like much of the staff of New York's Westside Dance Physical Therapy, were professional dancers who turned their specified knowledge of dancers' bodies into careers in the medical field.

In fact, the variety of post-dance careers can be as varied as those of non-dancers. Sommer went into comedy, becoming a mainstay stand-up in New York City and now managing the West Side Comedy Club. And at least one former '90s dancer became a football coach: One of M.C. Hammer's original "U Can’t Touch This" dancers, Alonzo Carter, is currently the running backs coach at San Jose State.

11 Secrets of Perfumers

Orlando/Three Lions/Getty Images
Orlando/Three Lions/Getty Images

Perfumers are a rare breed. These half-artist, half-scientist hybrids undergo rigorous training, memorize the smells of hundreds of ingredients, and spend decades honing their craft—which might explain why there are reportedly more astronauts than perfumers in the world, according to the BBC.

For many, the job isn't merely about peddling bottles of sweet-smelling stuff to consumers; the goal is to convey an emotion, create a beautiful moment, or jog a childhood memory. To find out what it takes to create top-notch fragrances, Mental Floss spoke with three perfumers who broke into the industry through very different paths.

1. Perfumers can identify hundreds of ingredients by smell alone.

A large perfume organ with hundreds of fragrance bottles
Mandy Aftel's perfume organ
By Joel Bernstein // Courtesy of Mandy Aftel

Master perfumers are sometimes called a nez—the French word for "nose"—for good reason. They commit hundreds of scents to memory and can distinguish between ingredients that would smell identical to the untrained nose. Many perfumers can also tell an essential oil from a synthetic material, which is no small feat. “You’re talking maybe 200 essential oils and about 1500 synthetic materials,” Jodi Wilson, a classically trained perfumer who now works as a fragrance sales manager for Orchidia Fragrances in Chicago, says of the ingredients perfumers typically employ.

The trick, she says, is to associate each smell with a distinct memory. “The more experiences you have in your life, the more memories you create, and that’s really how you remember these raw materials when you first start studying, because it reminds you of your grandmother or a flower shop or a bakery or a certain gum,” Wilson tells Mental Floss. (The link between smell and memory has actually been proven by science—one 2018 study by neurobiologists at the University of Toronto revealed that the brain not only stores information about certain scents, but also memories of when and where you first encountered them.)

2. Having a good sense of smell isn't enough to make a good perfumer.

Many perfumers have a heightened sense of smell. Jersey City-based perfumer Christopher Brosius, who founded the rebellious fragrance brand CB I Hate Perfume (a reference to his distaste for most commercial fragrances) is one of them. He realized just how strong his nose was while working briefly as a New York City cab driver—he had to roll the window down every time an “offensive” perfume wafted in his direction and made his stomach churn.

However, many aspiring perfumers mistakenly believe that a “good nose” will get them far. “That’s like saying that if you have 20/20 vision you’re the next Picasso,” Brosius tells Mental Floss. “A keen nose is very useful, but at the end of the day I have met perfumers who were extremely talented who didn’t smell anything more sharply than anybody else. They just had the capacity to think in a different way about what they were doing with scent and combining it in unique and interesting ways.” More important than a good sense of smell is creativity, a natural talent for recognizing scents that work well together, and the “dedication to building a very particular base of knowledge and skill,” Brosius says.

3. France's Givaudan Perfumery School is the goal for many would-be top perfumers.

Jodi Wilson picks roses
Jodi Wilson picks roses for distillation while studying at the Roure Perfumery School (now called the Givaudan Perfumery School) in Grasse, France, during the 1991-92 academic year.
Courtesy of Jodi Wilson

Like many professional perfumers, Wilson was educated at what's now the Givaudan Perfumery School in France. Founded in 1946, it only accepts one or two promising students each year out of thousands of applicants—and sometimes none at all, if that year’s crop of candidates don’t live up to the school’s high standards. Former director Jean Guichard has said he hand-selected students based on their personality, talent, and motivations. “The perfumer should be a mixture between a scientist and a poet,” Guichard told the BBC. “When I meet people, I know if they have talent or not. I don’t want to have people who say, ‘I’m going to be a perfumer because they make a lot of money.’ That doesn’t interest me at all.” (And speaking of pay, Wilson says the starting salary for entry-level perfumers is about $45,000, but perfumers in New York City tend to start off a bit higher. It's not unheard of for the world's top perfumers to make six figures.)

The now-four-year Givaudan program is rigorous. First, students have to memorize about 1500 raw materials, Wilson says. Next, they learn how to build accords, which are the fragrance notes (like rose or jasmine) that form the heart of a perfume. They move on to perfume schemas (the “skeleton” of a fine fragrance, which contains 10 to 12 materials) and also learn about the culture and history of perfume. “It takes a long time to learn all of that, and that’s what you’re doing all day from 9 a.m. till 4 p.m. It’s intense,” Wilson says. If and when they graduate, they’ll have a job waiting for them at the Givaudan fragrance company, which is where they’ll learn how to make perfumes under the guidance of a seasoned professional.

4. perfume school isn’t the only way to break into the industry.

Mandy Aftel holding perfume blotters
Perfumer Mandy Aftel at work
By Foster Curry // Courtesy of Mandy Aftel

Brosius says “99.9 percent” of aspiring perfumers would benefit from attending a perfume school. However, he personally did things a little differently and learned the fundamentals of perfume-making by landing a job at Kiehl’s and completing the company’s in-house training program.

It’s even less common for a perfumer to be self-taught, but it’s not impossible. The latter camp includes Mandy Aftel, a perfumer in Berkeley, California, who dropped a fulfilling career in psychotherapy to pursue a budding passion for perfume-making. For information about natural materials, she turned to fragrance books from the early 1900s, before synthetic materials started to saturate the market. Now, her Aftelier Perfumes business uses hundreds of natural ingredients—no synthetics—to create unique fragrances, and she has a loyal clientele. Regardless of the career paths they took, all of the perfumers agreed that this career is “a continuous learning process,” as Aftel tells Mental Floss. Both Brosius and Wilson said it takes 20 to 25 years to truly master the art of perfume-making, and Aftel still calls herself a “beginner” after 30 years of working in this field.

5. Not all perfumers work with fine fragrances.

Fragrance is used in many different ways, some of which we encounter on a daily basis without realizing it. Some perfumers specialize in creating scents for “industrial application,” which could include anything from children’s toys to paint to fabric, Brosius says. In the case of toilet-bowl cleaners, cat litter, and asphalt, the goal is not necessarily to create a pleasant aroma; instead, the challenge is to mask an unpleasant one. However, many of the perfumers working on the industrial side have scientific backgrounds and tend to work for a chemical company rather than a perfume label, Wilson says.

6. Some of the materials perfumers work with are hazardous.

Some undiluted ingredients—such as cinnamon—can cause severe chemical burns if they get on one's skin. Brosius wears gloves and goggles while blending materials and says some ingredients in his studio come with a "do not open without authorization" label attached. He says, “We have a protocol here that if anything new comes in, it’s opened in specific parts of the building or even sometimes outside on the terrace so that we don’t have an accident where it’s like, ‘Oops I just spilled one single drop of aldehyde [an organic compound] and now the entire building is uninhabitable, although next week it will smell like ginger ale!”

7. They want you to know your aromatherapy lotion might not be made of rose, jasmine, or whatever the bottle claims it contains.

Labels can be deceptive. If you’re buying an “aromatherapy” lotion or shower gel that claims to have rose, sandalwood, or jasmine in it but costs $15, that’s a red flag. According to Wilson, these ingredients can cost many thousands of dollars per pound. Wilson says it’s far more likely that cheaper products contain just a drop or two of the natural oils advertised—for the sake of being able to list them on the label—plus a host of synthetic ingredients that mimic the smell.

8. They're not always working on fragrances they like.

Marketing is a huge part of the cost of the perfume, especially on the higher end; the perfume industry spent around $800 million on marketing in 2016, according to Bloomberg. “Ninety percent of the time, the cost of the juice in that bottle is fractional,” Brosius says.

Marketing demands are also one reason why perfumers don't always get to follow their nose—and their creativity. “Most perfumers who work at large houses are not so happy with their job all the time,” Brosius says. “For every fine fragrance they get to work on, they’re compelled to work on a ton of crap fragrances as well. Much of it is entirely dependent on the whim of the marketing company.”

Companies are also more risk-averse, Wilson says—and the perfumes themselves now aren’t always built to last. “It used to be that a ‘classic’ was considered to last for 20 years—so your Chanel 5 and things of that nature,” Wilson says. “Now, it’s very rare to have a perfume that stays around for even 10 years.”

9. The smell of puppies is impossible to replicate—but perfumers are trying.

A bottle of Soaked Earth accord from CB I Hate Perfume
Kevin O'Mara, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Brosius has taken on some ambitious projects over the years, including fragrances imitating the smells of snow and wet earth, but some scents are harder to capture than others. That’s because the aroma chemicals needed to replicate certain smells haven't been created yet. This can be said of gasoline, champagne and certain wines, and some animal smells. “Particularly with puppies and kittens, the molecules needed to accurately reproduce those smells don’t exist in the perfumer’s palette. You can’t solvent extract puppies and kittens for their smell," Brosius says, describing a method that involves applying a chemical solvent to a raw material—such as a flower—to extract its aroma.

However, he’s had success creating "a context that’s so strong that people are convinced that they’re smelling something that isn’t there," he says. For instance, his roast beef fragrance doesn’t contain roast beef or anything like it, but it does contain notes of parsley and black pepper. That scent in particular, and a few others like it, aren't meant to be worn on the body. Brosius says some of his fragrances are more like modern-day "smelling salts," where the goal is to revive you, in a sense, by relieving stress. "All you have to do is open the bottle, breathe in, and your system will automatically reset to calm," he says.

10. Perfumers sometimes work with whale poop.

A small bowl with ambergris in it
Peter Kaminski, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Perfume-makers work with some unusual ingredients, and ambergris is certainly at the top of the list. This rock-like material comes from the excrement of sperm whales and occasionally washes up on shore. Aftel is fortunate enough to have some on display at the olfactory history museum she operates, called the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents. To convert the solid mass of crushed up squid and cuttlefish bits into an aromatic oil, she had to mash it up with a mortar and pestle, then add alcohol, heat it, and let it age. So what does it smell like in liquid form? “Heaven,” Aftel says. “It’s just ambery and shimmery. It’s a miracle of transformation.” Besides, Herman Melville mentioned it in Moby Dick and it used to be a 17th-century ice cream flavor, so you know it has to be good.

11. They keep wool nearby to combat nose fatigue.

Wool is the olfactory equivalent of eating sorbet in between courses. If you’re smelling the same scent for a prolonged period of time, or sniffing too many perfumes in a row, your odor receptors will habituate and stop sending those signals to your brain. This is officially called olfactory fatigue, and it explains why you might stop noticing a smell after a couple of minutes.

“If you smell a lot of scented materials, a lot of times your nose will just kind of conk out,” Aftel says. She keeps some wool nearby to help reset her sense of smell, and three big whiffs does the trick. So why does this work? Aftel says one theory is that the lanolin in wool absorbs and neutralizes odors, giving the brain a rest from sensory overload. As for those coffee beans you might see in some perfume shops? Those "definitely don't work," Aftel says.

16 Secrets of Personal Trainers

iStock.com/franckreporter
iStock.com/franckreporter

At the beginning of each year, people flock to gyms to finally tackle their New Year's resolutions to get in shape, be healthier, and/or achieve the six-pack abs of their dreams. For some, that means hiring the services of a personal trainer who can give them the one-on-one attention they need to achieve their fitness goals. But personal trainers do more than just supervise your push-ups and ask you to do more reps: They talk to you about your eating and sleeping habits, sometimes see you cry, and might even end up earning an invite to your wedding. Here are a few insider secrets personal trainers shared with Mental Floss about their jobs.

1. Personal trainers really don’t like it when you’re late.

Several of the trainers Mental Floss spoke to said their biggest pet peeve is when clients show up late to their session. After all, the trainer has created a plan for the workout, and it’s frustrating to have to adjust that plan to accommodate the shorter workout.

“You’re kind of wasting your money,” says Ackeem Emmons, a personal trainer who began his career at Equinox, later started his own training business, and now works with Aaptiv, an audio-based workout app. “It’s so funny, because [clients] think they’re getting over on me—when you’re just short-changing yourself.”

2. Their hours aren’t as flexible as you think.

“They tell you [that] you can make your own hours,” Emmons explains. “That’s a lie. I wake up at 4 or 5 every day, because people either want to train before work or after work.” That means busy mornings and evenings, and inevitable afternoon downtime for trainers.

3. The salary for personal trainers varies widely ...

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median income for fitness trainers and instructors across the U.S. is a little more than $39,000 a year, or roughly $18.85 an hour. But that’s just the median: The pay can vary quite a bit between location (in California, the average fitness salary is closer to $50,000), clientele (celebrity trainers can command hundreds of dollars per hour), the facility (a trainer at a private gym typically makes more than someone working at a local rec center), and certification levels.

4. ... and so do the qualifications.

There are numerous certifications available, which can boost earning power and add to a trainer’s potential client base. Organizations such as the American Council on Exercise (ACE), the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), and the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) all offer training manuals and certifications designed to make sure that anyone who calls themselves a personal trainer is well-versed in how the body works, nutrition, and injury prevention. In addition to general athletic certifications, there are specific courses for different exercise techniques, like using barbells, and for training specific populations, like people with chronic diseases or disabilities.

Some certifications are more rigorous than others, and some gyms are more stringent than others about the exact certifications their trainers hold, but in general, most trainers are always working on new certifications to add to their depth of knowledge. “I like to do it at least every couple of months to just learn something new,” Emmons says.

5. Personal trainers know when you’re not bringing your A-game.

Trainers can tell when you’re not totally focused on your workout, and they may pause the session to figure out why. “You have to figure out the reason why their mind is somewhere else,” explains Karyn Toffolo, a trainer who provides nutrition and fitness coaching through her company Happy Belly Strong as well as working at several New York City-area gyms. Solving that mental puzzle can be more important in the long run than it is to "kick their ass and give them this hard workout.”

Sometimes, however, the reason someone is distracted is much more simple. “I’ve had people come in drunk before,” Toffolo says. “You can just tell they’re not paying attention. So I have sent people home.”

6. Many clients come in with unrealistic expectations.

“A lot of people come in and say this actor put on 20 pounds of muscle in three months and I want the same result,” says Sean Collins, the co-owner and head powerlifting coach at Murder of Crows Barbell Club in Brooklyn. Goals like that are not in reach for the vast majority of the population—certainly not without performance-enhancing drugs—and he has to be the one to explain that. As Emmons puts it, “I’m a trainer, not a magician.”

They get a lot of very stereotypical requests, too.“Men all want huge arms, a big chest, and six-pack abs. And they need it by the 14th, because they’re going on vacation in two weeks,” Emmons says. “And women always want the triceps, the glutes, the inner thighs, and a six-pack—those are always the main things.”

7. Personal trainers also want to know about your diet.

Though most personal trainers aren’t nutritionists (Toffolo is an exception), helping clients eat right is still a big part of most fitness plans, according to Lacey Stone, a bi-coastal fitness expert who offers private training, group classes, boot camps, and virtual training, in addition to appearing as a celebrity trainer on E!’s Revenge Body With Khloe Kardashian. "I make certain that they have some kind of a higher protein/carbohydrate fuel before they work out," she says, because their body needs that fuel to perform.

Some of the education is just the basics. Stone says her clients often ask things like, "'Should I do keto? Should I fast? Should I do paleo?' I'm like, let's not worry about that until you even get like, what a vegetable is." (Stone is currently helping to launch a new line of milk-based protein shakes, called Core Power high protein milk shakes, so she likes to recommend those for an after-workout snack.)

“A lot of people come in with misconceptions about food—like someone will come in and say, ‘I haven’t eaten a carb in like four weeks,’” Collins says. “An important part of increasing muscle mass is increasing carb consumption. Sometimes they think fat will make you fat. They think too much protein will kill you, or too much carbohydrates will give you diabetes.” Part of the job of a personal trainer is to help re-educate clients on the role of food in their lives. That means not just telling people not to eat five slices of pizza in a row, but talking about what they're eating, when they're eating, and how that impacts their workout.

8. If they don’t ask about scheduling more sessions, it’s probably because they don’t want you to.

Not every client-trainer relationship works out, and sometimes trainers would prefer to let certain clients go. (Clients who are perpetually flaky or do nothing but complain throughout their sessions might not be asked back.) Of course, they try to be diplomatic about it. “I wouldn’t say I fired them,” Toffolo says of some former clients, “because they are paying me for sessions.” But if she doesn’t enjoy working with a client, when it comes time to schedule and pay for a new batch of sessions, “I just won’t ask if they want to renew.”

It’s not always personal, though. Toffolo works as a trainer at gyms like Brooklyn Boulders and Drive 495, and she occasionally hands her clients off to another trainer at the facility who might be better suited to helping them achieve their goals. For instance, if someone is rehabbing an injury, she is more likely to refer them to one of her colleagues with physical therapy experience.

9. Sometimes their sessions involve tears.

Stone says a fair amount of her clients end up crying at some point during the course of their training with her. “A big part of my program is getting people mentally and emotionally healthy before I can get them to do what I want physically,” she explains. Occasionally, that means tears—but “not sad tears. It's like, realization tears. It's like, finding your soul again tears.”

Collins deals with tears occasionally, too. “In power lifting, you can train for three to four months for one specific competition,” he says. So when people feel like they have fallen short of their goals when that big competition comes, it gets emotional. “I have had to manage a lot of tears,” he explains. “Any kind of fitness professional has to have a high level of empathy. I think the best ones out there are the ones who can completely understand why this is so upsetting to an individual.”

10. Personal trainers can get very close with their clients.

Personal training includes sharing a lot of intimate details about your life, like your diet, weight goals, sleep routine, and more, and as a result, trainers form tight bonds with many of their clients. Sometimes, "it can be more of a therapy session" than a workout session, Toffolo says. (That may happen whether the trainer likes it that way or not—"I’ve had a lot of people definitely share more than I wanted to," she adds.)

But Toffolo sees the client-trainer relationship as more of a friendship than a straight business relationship. She trains some clients for years on end, and has even been invited to some of their weddings. “It’s just nice to have that type of rapport with someone. It makes time go by quicker.”

11. They don’t need a big space to work …

Toffolo does house calls, and while some condo and apartment buildings feature high-end gyms, she doesn’t need a lot of space to work. “I can utilize a space as small as a closet,” she says. “I can manipulate [the program] so that it works with whatever the environment that I’m in.” That includes moves like stepping up onto benches, sprinting up stairs, and other moves that use the client's own weight as resistance.

12. … or fancy equipment.

Stone says that if there’s a few basic exercises she recommends to everyone, it’s squats, push-ups, and crunches—all things you don’t need a gym to do. “They've been around forever because they work,” she says. “I’m always like, ‘Get the basics down before you’re throwing a medicine ball around.’"

13. Personal trainers work with a lot of future brides.

Many personal trainers have a number of clients who are looking to get or stay fit for their wedding day. Stone and Toffolo both say they’ve had clients come on for just a few weeks or months prior to their wedding. “I had a lot of brides this summer,” Toffolo says, whose goal was “making sure they look good when they go down the aisle.”

While it may seem unrealistic to hope for dramatic changes just a few months before an event, with the right dedication, some of those pre-wedding workouts can yield impressive results. “I just had someone that lost 30 pounds with me in like seven months,” Stone says. “She looks unbelievable. She's been super inspiring.”

14. Yes, they heard you fart.

Everyone is human, and inevitably, a client will let a fart slip out during a workout. “It happens,” Toffolo says. “Most of my clients now I’m pretty close with, so I pretty much just laugh it off.”

15. Not all of them appreciate your New Year's resolution.

"The New Year’s resolutioners, they’re a little bit of my pet peeve," Toffolo says. "They take a lot of space at the gym for maybe one month," but aren't typically dedicated to sticking around for the rest of the year. "We make good money around this time of year, but usually, the New Year's resolutioners die down in February."

16. Personal trainers have to fit in their own workouts, too.

Personal trainers may spend a lot of time in the gym, but observing and coaching other people’s workouts isn’t the same as doing their own. In fact, Emmons says, “Not every personal trainer is in shape. As much as you’re training other people you have to train yourself.”

For Collins, being a trainer has actually made it harder for him to keep up with his own workouts. “Opening up a gym and coaching people has been the worst thing I’ve ever done for my own athletic endeavors,” he says. “There’s so much you have to get done as a business owner and a trainer, and so many things you have to do outside of client-facing hours.” That includes scheduling sessions, emailing clients, and coming up with new programs. As a result, he just doesn’t have the time he once did to focus on his own fitness goals.

But how much time a trainer spends on their own fitness depends on what training they’re doing, too. While Collins doesn’t get much of a workout coaching powerlifters, Stone leads classes at Flywheel, which specializes in indoor cycling. Though she may not be huffing and puffing as much as her students, she’s working out as she’s teaching. “When I’m working out, I can talk, because I'm at a high level of fitness,” she explains. “They're working out with me, so they get to actually see me doing what I'm telling them to do, five days a week.”

And though personal trainers love fitness, motivation can be as be as much of a problem for them as it is for you. “I’m just like everyone else,” Emmons explains. “I don’t want to work out every day—sometimes I just want to relax and catch up on my Netflix shows.” But he’s got to get himself to the gym anyway, because it’s his job.

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