When does personal training become too personal and crosses boundaries?

There are boundaries that are seen and unseen.

Obvious ones are the boundaries on the sporting field when the ball is out, or the play is dead. Not so obvious are personal boundaries that exist between people. For example, we all have personal space and if someone violates it, they’ve crossed our boundary.

Boundaries exist so we can all play nice and to stay in our lane.

In my profession, I need to be careful not to cross any client’s personal boundaries.  So, I try to stay away from subjects like sex, politics, religion or whether you like (or hate) Chuck Norris. Because you know the way I feel about Chuck, correct?

However, this goes against my nature because I’m a real sticky nose, to the point where it gets annoying. Just ask my wife. I don’t really mean to pry and annoy; I have an inquisitive nature, which rubs some people the wrong way, so I need to be careful.

There have been a few instances in my career where I have grown close to clients and the professional personal boundaries get blurry.

Here’s An Example

A few years ago, I was hired by a husband to train his wife in their home.

She exercised regularly and loved to work in their garden but her low back pain slowed her down. Because of this, her program concentrated on core strength and series of movements to help reduce her pain.

Nothing to drastic and totally in my wheelhouse

During our sessions we’d often swap stories, gossip, and laugh a lot. We quickly became friends with a professional relationship. When it was time for her to squat, lunge, or plank, (all the stuff she didn’t like) she didn’t put up much of a fight.

Around six months into our relationship, she started to develop some discomfort around her ribcage.

I thought it was a muscle strain, possibly from one of the exercises she performed. We joked around that it was my fault and in time it would heal. However, her pain persisted, and she went to her local GP.

Her local GP came up with a similar diagnosis and we continued to work around her pain.

When her pain persisted, her doctor scheduled a CT scan, and this discovered an irregularity requiring further investigation. Then a follow-up MRI was scheduled.

To cut a long story short, the MRI revealed she had developed stage 4 pancreatic cancer which has only a 10% survival rate. She was in the fight of her life….

Crossing Boundaries Between Coach And Client

She was lucky the cancer was located on a spot on her pancreas where chemo could attack it. However, the tumor was near a blood vessel and this needed to shrink to allow for surgery.

While she was undergoing chemo to shrink the tumor, I’d often check in with text messages, phone calls or visits in hospital or her home. If you’ve ever seen a person undergo chemo, it’s not a pretty sight. The weakness, the weight loss, nausea and looking ghost like.

Her skin was a different shade of grey. Being around her, I wasn’t her trainer as exercise was the furthest thing from her mind. I was her friend, and I was there to support her. You could say the boundary between trainer and client was close to being crossed.  

But for a good reason, don’t you think?

Often during my visits, she was too weak to converse for long.  However, during one of these visits she said something that will stay with me until the day I die.


‘Yes, what is it?’

‘Shane, if it weren’t for exercising with you, I would never have had this checked out. I would’ve put up with the pain, so thank you.’

 I replied, ‘I’m happy I was in the right place at the right time.’

Her love of our sessions lead to a faster diagnosis and a better chance of survival. While enduring several rounds of chemo, radiation treatment and surgery she beat the odds and has now been cancer free for several years.

In this case. crossing personal boundaries that exist between trainer and client arguably led to her survival.  

But Wait, There’s More

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only time I faced this situation with clients. Two have died from Pancreatic cancer, one from complications of a stroke and one from an infection after his leg was amputated below the knee.

Each of them was tough to go through as it hurts to lose someone you worked closely with. I still think of them often, the good times training together and the not so good times when they were suffering.

There’s another visit with a sick client I’ll always remember. He was getting his life in order, before the unenviable happened. He was donating clothes to charity and I was helping him out.

While we were driving there he said

‘Shane, I don’t know how I’m going to go from feeling this good to dead.’

I wasn’t quite sure how to answer this without getting personal. He died a few months later and to this day I miss him.

When these clients were staring at death and me having a professional relationship with them, it was difficult not to get personal. After all that’s why it’s called personal training.

Wrapping Up

Personal boundaries exist between trainer and client, parents, and kids and even between friends. There are subjects we don’t want to talk about because of some things that are too personal.

But there is nothing more personal than death and if it means crossing professional boundaries to help a client, I’m good with that.

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