21 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Mall Santas

THE NOERR PROGRAMS
THE NOERR PROGRAMS

Being a mall Santa might seem like a relatively easy job: Put a kid on your lap, ask them what they want for Christmas, pose for a quick photo, and send them on their merry way. But any Santa who’s done even one season at the mall will tell you the job takes dedication.

“There’s no harder job in all of Christmas than being the mall Santa,” says Paul Sheehan, who worked as a Santa at a mall in rural New Hampshire and is now in his 36th season as a professional Mr. Claus. “Between Black Friday and Christmas Eve at 3 pm, I had seen over 17,000 kids. Someone in a bigger city, they’re doing twice and three times that.”

But there’s a reason thousands of rotund, bearded men don the suit every year: While demanding, being Santa is also incredibly rewarding. We spoke with a few professional Kris Kringles about what it’s like being the season’s biggest celebrity.

1. THEY GO TO SANTA COLLEGE.

If you’ve ever perched on Santa’s knee at your local mall, there’s a good chance he was a graduate of Santa University, run by Noerr Programs Corporation, an events company that trains and distributes Santas to more than 278 major malls and shopping centers across the country. Each Noerr Santa has to pass a background check and undergo several rounds of interviews. And a real beard is required. “That’s part of the magic,” says Ruth Rosenquist, Noerr’s Director of PR.

Every August, Noerr hosts its Santa University in Arvada, Colorado, where hundreds of “gentlemen of great mirth and girth” gather for four days of training on everything from Santa ethics to how to ho-ho-ho. “It’s amazing to sit with all these guys in their red shirts and suspenders,” Rosenquist says. “You look up and you’re speaking to Santa. It’s the best audience in the world.” Watch a sneak peek below:

2. RULE #1: ALWAYS STAY IN CHARACTER.

If you’re wearing the red suit, you must behave like Santa at all times. This means having a jolly temperament and never snapping or yelling at a child, no matter how frustrated you may be.

“The most important thing they need to understand is that they are Santa and they always are to remain in character of Santa,” says Rosenquist. “They’re never to break that character.”

For some of the more professional St. Nicks, the white beard and big belly stays with them all year, so they have to be careful about how they’re representing the jolly old elf in public. This means being on one’s best behavior and fielding questions like, “Santa, what are you doing at the grocery store?”

Robert Hildreth, a professional Santa of 30 years, says he doesn’t drink when he goes out for dinner with his wife Carol Hildreth (a.k.a. Mrs. Claus), because he wants to be the model image of Santa for children. “You gotta watch what you say and do because the kids are looking at you,” he says.

But playing a convincing Santa all year round comes with its perks, like the occasional free meal. “We’ve had a couple incidents where we’ve gone into restaurants and the little ones notice us,” Carol explains. “He’ll go over and talk to them a bit and then when we go to pay the bill it’s already been taken care of.”

3. THEY KNOW WHERE THE MALL’S SECRET BATHROOMS ARE.

Santa shushing in the show.

“I refuse to go to the public restroom if it’s at all avoidable,” says RG Holland, one of Noerr’s men in red. “The whole deal of being Santa, particularly at the mall, is when you’re dressed as Santa you have to stay in character and it’s kinda hard to be in a Santa suit staying in character in front of a urinal.”

In some malls, Santas have their own designated dressing area complete with a bathroom. And if not, they improvise. “I find the restroom in the mall that is the most obscure and private,” Holland says. “If I have trouble finding those, I find the nearest department store and use one of their restrooms that’s out of the way.”

4. THEY SECRETLY SWAP.

If a Santa needs to take a lunch break or his shift is ending, sometimes another one will step in without anyone noticing. “In the busiest of malls, we often set it up so there are two Santas and we try to match in terms of physical appearance so it’s not that obvious in mid-day when we swap,” says Holland. “We don’t want anyone saying ‘That’s not Santa!’ A lot of times even parents and especially kids, if they didn’t see us together, they wouldn’t know which was which.”

5. THEY GET A BODYGUARD.

According to Rosenquist, every Noerr Santa gets an escort when he leaves the set. This is supposed to discourage the mobs of fans from attacking him.

6. THERE’S A RIGHT WAY AND A WRONG WAY TO BLEACH A BEARD.

While some naturally-bearded Santas are blessed with snowy white bristles, others aren’t so lucky. In that case, bleaching is the best option, but only when it’s done gradually and with great care. “It’s gotta be done in stages,” says Rosenquist. “If you try to go snowy white all at once, you’ll burn your hair and it gets yellow.” Smart Santas begin the coloring process in October in preparation for the holiday season.

7. THE MONEY’S PRETTY GOOD.

Santa holding lots of money

Noerr doesn’t disclose how much it pays its actors, but according to Rosenquist, it’s a salaried position, and the rate can vary by location. Ed Warchol, president of Cherry Hill Photo, another Santa distributor, says his Santas earn “well into the five-figure range for just six weeks of work.”

8. AND SENIORITY HELPS.

The more experience a Santa has under his belt, the bigger his paycheck. “We always look for experience,” says Rosenquist. One 18-year veteran St. Nick said he could make $30,000 in one season.

For some comparison: according to a cheeky report from insurance information site Insure.com, the real Santa Claus would earn roughly $140,000 a year if he were compensated for all the work he does, including overseeing the toy factory and piloting the sleigh on Christmas Eve.

9. THEY MIGHT KNOW SIGN LANGUAGE.

Noerr teaches Santas-in-training key ASL gestures so they can communicate with deaf children. They’re also advised to learn basic Spanish. Rosenquist says the demand for Santas of different races and backgrounds is growing. “We are in a lot of markets that are heavily Hispanic, so having bilingual Santas is of supreme importance,” she says.

10. THERE’S A SECRET SANTA GREETING.

In public, Santas speak in code to one another as a show of camaraderie. “I’ll go up and ask him if he’s being good this year,” says Holland. “That’s a giveaway.” Or, if a Santa lookalike answers to “Brother In Red,” you know you’re talking to a St. Nick.

11. A ROUND BELLY IS NOT REQUIRED.

“You don’t necessarily have to have the belly full of jelly,” Rosenquist says. “We don’t measure our Santas by their waist, we measure them by their hearts.” Noerr’s training program actually includes a session on how to eat properly and avoid the health risks that come with being Santa-sized, like diabetes and heart disease. If Santa needs a bigger belly to be convincing, he can be “enhanced” with padding.

Some Santas also wear makeup to maintain a rosy glow. “Number 30 rouge for the cheeks and maybe a little touch on the nose to give him a little bit of weathered look,” one actor told This American Life.

12. CONDIMENTS ARE TO BE AVOIDED.

“If he’s presenting that day, it’s pretty much just water and sandwiches with no ketchup or mustard in them,” says Carol Hildreth. “Otherwise the beard gets dirty.” And nobody wants Santa all up in their face if he’s got bad breath, so good Santas keep breath mints on them at all times. Robert adds an extra special touch: His beard oil is peppermint-scented.

13. THEY HAVE TO STUDY.

“One of the things you have to have at your fingertips at all times is all the culture that goes with Santa,” says Sheehan. This goes way beyond being able to recite the names of Santa’s reindeer. Sheehan tries to keep up with every new movie or TV show in which Santa makes an appearance and memorize the plot so he’s not caught off guard by an inquisitive child. “You could be blown away by a new movie out this season that you haven’t seen yet, but the kid has like six times,” Sheehan explains. “They’re asking details about what happened in the movie and you don’t know what’s going on.”

Santa also has to know all the latest toys—after all, he makes them. “I go through the toy catalogues every year,” says Sheehan. “In a nutshell, it’s staying current. Like any dentist or doctor has to read professional journals, it’s the same with us but we have to stay up on everything that has to do with Christmas.”

14. “I’LL ASK MRS. CLAUS” IS CODE FOR “I DON’T WANT TO ANSWER THAT.”

Kids say the darndest things on Santa’s knee, and no amount of studying can prepare a Kris Kringle impersonator for all the odd questions or bizarre requests. You know you’ve stumped Santa when he brings up the wife.

“I blame a lot on Mrs. Claus,” says Holland. “If anything comes up that’s questionable, I say ‘I’ll have to check with Mrs. Claus about that.’ It really defuses a lot of skepticism.”

But Mrs. Claus does more than just take the blame for Santa’s shortcomings. She often helps shy kids feel more comfortable. “Sometimes the little ones are afraid of the big guy in the red suit and the beard but they’ll come to someone who looks like grandma,” says Carol Hildreth. “So they’ll sit on my lap and then talk to Santa.”

15. THEY’RE NOT ALLOWED TO PROMISE.

One of the worst things a mall Santa can do is promise a child they’ll get what they want for Christmas. “If you promise stuff the parents can’t provide then it’s rough on them and it makes Santa look bad too,” says Holland.

Noerr coaches its Santas to deliver a message of hope, but to make no guarantees. “The most you can say is that you’ll try,” says Sheehan. “Even if I know you’ve bought it for them, I’m not gonna tell them that because god forbid the garage catches fire and the toys are gone.”

16. THEY HATE CRYING BABY PHOTOS.

But for some reason, parents love them. “Unfortunately some think that’s the thing to have,” Holland says. “I do everything I can to avoid them. Parents say it’s ok if they cry, but the crying picture is not any fun for the kid and it’s not any fun for Santa either.”

The best way to avoid a screaming, sobbing child is for parents to stay close, rather than shoving the kid in Santa’s lap and walking away. “Give the kids time to acclimate to Santa,” says Robert. “The child is scared and crying and screaming because they don’t know who you’re handing them off to. Please don’t throw your kids to us.”

“Some of these people slug their kids around like they’re 10 lb bags of potatoes,” says Sheehan. “I had a woman in the mall who almost tossed the child to me. She let go of the kid before I had a grip on the kid, then walked away and was wondering why the child was crying. Parents are the worst part of the whole thing of being Santa.”

17. THEY WISH YOU’D DO THE HEAVY LIFTING.

 Santa Claus napping

The constant up-and-down that comes with hoisting kids on and off your knees for 12 hours a day can cause all kinds of aches and pains. After their shifts, the older Santas are probably going home to ice their knees or put a heating pad on their backs.

“Like any business you go into there’s always something that wears out, some part of the anatomy that takes a beating,” says Sheehan. “For Santa it’s the knees and hips. By the end of the season, you’re really going to be hurting.”

If you want to make your local mall Santa happy, save him a little bit of effort by lifting your child onto his lap.

18. NOT EVERY SANTA CAN NAIL THE SIGNATURE LAUGH.

“Interestingly enough, there are some Santas who just can’t ho-ho-ho,” Rosenquist says. “We try to get them to do it but for some of them it’s just not their nature.”

19. KIDS’ TOY PREFERENCES ARE CHANGING.

The old standbys never change: Lots of boys want a fire truck and girls want an American Girl doll. But according to Sheehan, requests for gender-specific toys have fallen over the last two or three years. “So I will hear boys asking for an Easy Bake Oven and the girls will like LEGOs and the kinds of toys you can build something with,” he says. “There is a shift and transition there that’s happened in last couple years.”

20. THE PROFESSIONALS HAVE LIABILITY INSURANCE.

All it takes is one squirming child who falls off a knee and Santa could be liable for thousands of dollars in damages. As a precaution, the professionals carry their own insurance.

“We carry $2 million of liability insurance,” says Robert Hildreth. Luckily he’s a member of a Santa training and advocacy group called International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, which helps him get a group rate on insurance. “We’ve never had to use it, but it’s nice to have it there,” he says.

21. IT’S ALL ABOUT BEING A GOOD LISTENER.

The most important part of a mall Santa’s job, according to Sheehan, is to lend an ear to kids who might be feeling lost. “Being with Santa might be the best thing that’s gonna happen to that kid all day,” he says. “I try to make it warm and affirming and raise them up. Everyone needs affirmation.”

Some kids ask for the impossible, like the return of a deceased family member or a reunion between divorced parents. “There are some things Santa can’t do, but we’ll pray with them,” Holland says. “Another thing I like to do is tell them that as long as they remember the person who’s gone, they’re still with them. You have to really philosophize with some of them and tell them stuff in a way that makes sense and that they will come away feeling like it’s gonna be ok. The parents get the pictures, the kids get the experience.”

All images via iStock unless noted.

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, but students don’t make a single perfume until after graduation. 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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