How to Pick a Personal Trainer

This is a fairly long, comprehensive guide to picking out a trainer.  It's over 2,000 words - but worth a read if you're considering getting a little help on your fitness journey.  Bookmark it and save it for when you're investigating a trainer or facility.

In many online fitness groups I'm a part of, the question of how to pick a personal trainer and how to go about doing so comes up a lot.  And sadly, as I'm sure many of my readers know, trying to figure out if someone is a good trainer or not is about as easy as figuring out if you're getting ripped off at the mechanic.  (...it's not just me who is always paranoid about that, is it?)

PersonalTrainerMistakes

Immediate red flags: 1) Checking self out in mirror during session. 2) Gratuitous use of Bosu Balls. 3) Being Tracy Anderson

But, today I want to use my industry know-how for good, and provide you with a comprehensive guide that you can use immediately.  So bring up the website of that trainer you're looking at and let's figure out if they're worth the investment.

When should I hire a personal trainer?

This is a question I don't think enough fitness-hopefuls ask themselves. It's not that there isn't all the information you could ever want to know about how to squat properly or eat right for free online.  Because it's there.  It's all at your fingertips.

But slashing through all of it and figuring out what exactly applies to you and what you need to do with that information - if anything - is going to take a damn long time and no small amount of effort.  And what are you supposed to Google first? "How to get fit"?  "How to lose weight"?  Because there are literally more than half a billion webpages looking to tell you how.

So, with all that in mind, is it still necessary to drop some big bucks on a trainer?  Here are some usual indications it may be worth your time:

  • You have absolutely no idea where to start.  Do you really need a gym membership?  Do you have to run?  You hate running.  Do those exercise DVDs work or not?  What's your first step?
  • You have a general idea of what you want to do.  You've got a strength routine, and you want to make sure that your form is correct.  (Good idea!)
  • You've been cleared to exercise by your doctor or physical therapist following an injury or procedure, but you want to make sure you don't hurt yourself again with bad form or incorrect exercises.
  • You have a specific condition such as high blood pressure, cardiac disease or diabetes and want to work out safely.  (For these, you may need to see a specialist.  Ask your doctor if you're clear to exercise or if there is a specialist facility he'd recommend instead)
  • You need accountability until exercise becomes a habit.  You want the comfort and stability of having exercise be an appointment in your schedule until you feel you'll definitely keep up with it on your own.
  • You want someone else to structure your workouts so you don't have to think about it.  (I've hired online trainers to write my workouts for me before for this very reason, and I'm a trainer myself!)
  • You want a small-group environment to push you, but don't want to be lost in the crowd like at a Zumba or spin class.

Finding a personal trainer that fits your needs

So, for whatever reason, you've decided you'd like to hire a trainer.  How do you begin to try and find one in your area or online? Essentially you have two options:

  1. Are you already a member of a gym?  If so, you may want to start your search there.  As with anything, you'll want to be cautious and not impulsively hire the first person you see.  Possibly ask to see the manager, tell them your goals and ask them to match you with a trainer.  From there, move on to the next section to see if they're a good fit.
  2. If you don't belong to a gym, decide if you want to do in-home training or travel to a facility.  Bear in mind, in-home training is typically going to cost a lot more.  To find trainers outside of the typical gym setting, use:

Google (Personal Trainers + Your Area.  Alternatively, you could search for online personal trainers) 

Thumbtack

Craigslist (typically under the 'beauty' services section)

:(

🙁

If you have specific goals, you can refine your search a bit.  I am a bit biased towards strength training, if you couldn't tell already.  So if I was to offer advice to someone looking to learn how to use free weights, I'd try something a little unorthodox:

  • Search for a facility with "Barbell" or "Strength & Conditioning" in the name.
  • Search for local strength events in your area - powerlifting competitions, Olympic lifting seminars, strongman competitions, etc.  Find whoever is running those events and ask them if they know of any good trainers for your needs.
  • If you want a coach for triathalons or endurance events, do something similar to the above.

Of course these strategies don't guarantee success, but you'll find somebody who walks the walk, as well as talks the talk.  That's one important component of a trainer - the others we'll go over a little further down.

What the hell are all these acronyms?*

*I am writing this from the perspective of someone in the United States.  The following may not apply to all countries.

There are roughly a billion certifications one could get to be technically considered a personal trainer.  There is no national certifying body - becoming a certified trainer with impressive-looking credentials isn't half as difficult as it is to become a doctor, or taxi driver.

"They said stability training was important during my certification course..." (Always looking for an excuse to post this photo.)

To be clear, a trainer is not in any way required by any sort of regulation to actually be certified.  Most gyms will require some type of certification, but you may find a contractor who either isn't certified or let their certification expire. (Not necessarily a bad thing) But, if you're wondering what some of the more 'reputable' certifications are, here is a short list:

  • ACSM - American College of Sports Medicine
  • NSCA - National Strength & Conditioning Association
  • ACE - American Council on Exercise
  • NASM - National Academy of Sports Medicine (yours truly has these four letters on her business card)
  • AFAA - Aerobics and Fitness Association of America
  • ISSA - International Sport Science Association

And there are many others.  The ACE website has a handy table comparing the features of many different popular certifications.  Here's are some other letters you might see:

  • CSCS - Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist, a specialty certification from the NSCA.  Generally considered one of the better certifications to get, but I've seen terrible trainers with one and good trainers without, so take it with a grain of salt.
  • IFBB - International Federation of Bodybuilding.  Some trainers will tout that they have competed in an IFBB competition. (Basically saying they compete in bodybuilding or figure competitions)  Some may have an "IFBB pro card", which is pretty difficult to obtain.
  • ATC / LAT - Certified Athletic Trainer / Licensed Athletic Trainer.  I've known many athletic trainers who have gone on to become personal trainers.  Athletic trainers are trained in helping athletes rehabilitate injuries or prevent them from happening, among a myriad of other tasks.  If you see a trainer with this certification, they may know a bit more about anatomy and rehab than your typical trainer.

And a few additional fancy-looking words:

(I know, it's bad to hate on Crossfit, I just really really wanted to show those two videos)

Which personal training certification is the best?

There's no good answer to that question - there really isn't one.  No certification prepares a trainer completely.  I can say personally, my NASM certification (considered one of the higher-quality certifications) took minimal effort to pass, and encompasses maybe 1% of the things I do on a daily basis.

A certification I suppose shows a dedication to the craft.  They are a significant financial investment to obtain, even more so keep up with your continuing education credits.  Most private facilities require one on top of a degree in the field.

Regarding a degree in the field, I can also say personally my Bachelor's in Exercise and Sport Science in no way prepared me fully to be a trainer.  Contrary to what you would think, the degree covered very little about ACTUAL exercises or training.  While I can't speak for every school's program, I learned mostly about anatomy, physiology and biomechanics.  All of which are important, to be sure.  I value my knowledge in those areas.  But you're not taught how to coach a squat or what a lat pull-down is or how to regress a push-up.

So if certifications are meaningless, how can you tell if your trainer knows what they're talking about?  Glad you asked!

Schedule a Consultation

Most trainers, online or off, will have some sort of free consultation to get to know you a bit more before recommending a package.  While technically I'm supposed to let you, the potential client, do all the talking, you're going to want to use this time to interview your potential trainer!

"Please don't hurt me." (taken from nvmefitness.com)

In my entire career as a personal trainer, I have only ever had ONE client ask me questions about my credentials and why I would be qualified to train her.  It really ought to be more.

If I was looking hire a mechanic or a graphic designer, I would have no idea what kinds of questions to ask.  But I do know what I would ask a personal trainer.  For clients who have moved to other areas of the country, I've called up their potential new trainer and asked them some of these questions myself:

    1. Why are you qualified to be a trainer?
      If your potential new trainer isn't confident enough in their own abilities to answer this question, why should you be?  Ideally your trainer takes enough pride in their job to be able to rack off reasons why they're good at it.
    2. How did you get into personal training?
      This is a good opportunity to see how enthused your potential hire is about their job.  Do they answer with a dull "oh...well, I was an athlete in high school so...." or with a, "I loved the confidence I got from learning how to master my own body.  It changed my life and I've used that knowledge to help change the lives of my clients...it's a very rewarding experience"?  Get a sense for your trainer's real motivations.
    3. What's your training philosophy?
      There isn't a right or wrong answer to this question.  You'll just want to figure out if your trainer's style matches with your goals.  If you want to be a monster powerlifter, would you hire a trainer believes that distance running is the key to a clear head and happy life, or vice versa?
    4. How do you train yourself?
      If you're training for something specific, you'll want a trainer who has personal experience with that.  Want to get good a weightlifting?  Find a trainer who trains for powerlifting, bodybuilding, strongman, olympic lifting or just loves to hit the iron for fun.  Want to run triathalons?  Find a trainer who knows how to bike, swim and run well themselves.  They need to walk the walk, not just talk the talk!
    5. What is your biggest strength and biggest weakness as a trainer?
      This is a fun surprise question!  A trainer who takes their profession seriously will already know the answer to these questions, while a trainer who is just going through the motions will never have critically thought about how they can continue learning and progressing.
    6. I have <insert injury, medical condition, random condition here>.  What kind of exercises would you avoid having me do?  What kinds of exercises would you emphasize?
      Another great question to ask ahead of time.  You don't even have to know what the correct answers to this are to get a sense of if your trainer knows what they're talking about.  Turn on that BS detector and see if they're just rambling or if they're precisely answering your question.  Another acceptable answer is "I don't know, but I'm going to find out for you."
    7. If I can't do a squat/push-up/deadlift properly, how would you regress it so I could?
      Same as above.  Any trainer worth their salt should be able to answer this question.
    8. Do you have any current or past clients that I can talk to?
      One of the best things you can do to get an idea of what it will be like to work with your potential trainer.  Preferably ask for someone who worked with them for 6+ months.  Ask about attitude, results, injuries, enjoyment of sessions, etc.

Notice that this doesn't touch much on paper credentials.  This is all about if they practice what they preach, can answer questions with certainty and if they're confident enough in their abilities to let you speak to past clients.

So far, so good.  Your trainer has answered these questions to your satisfaction.  Even if you're not sure if they answered them correctly, you'll get a much better idea of their personality, background, and professionalism.

You pick a package, lay down that credit card info and get started on your quest to a bangin' body, 5 billion pound squat, being able to touch your toes, or whatever your goal is.  What's next?

After You Pick a Personal Trainer

Personal trainers never stop assessing and evaluating their clients.  Sure, there's usually an initial assessment to see if you can squeeze your butt cheeks together, but it doesn't end there.  Every session we're looking to see if your back stays relatively flat even as we keep adding the weight onto that deadlift, or if your ankle mobility is improving, or how you're handling the latest exercise we just threw at you.

In a similar vein, you should never stop evaluating your trainer.  Don't think that once you've bought a package you're committed to that trainer forever.  Ask yourself these questions during your sessions:

  1. Is my trainer attentive to my form during exercises?
  2. Does my trainer really listen to my questions and concerns?  Do they address them to my satisfaction?
  3. Do I ever feel brushed off, or not taken seriously?
  4. If I am unable to perform a certain exercise, does my trainer have an appropriate alternative ready, or am I forced to continue with bad form?
  5. Does my trainer push me when necessary but ease up when I really need it?
  6. Is my trainer pushing supplements or unwanted dietary dogma onto me?
  7. Am I making progress and seeing results?
  8. Am I enjoying the process?
  9. Do our personalities mix well?
  10. Is their cellphone very, very far away?  (I actually don't follow this one because I use it as a clock and timer...but you get the idea)

After ALL OF THAT, if you're satisfied, it sounds like you got yourself a kick-ass trainer.  You should probably shout their name from the rooftops, write a glowing testimonial and refer friends, family and complete strangers to them.

Seriously, finding a good trainer is hard.  Save your loved ones the time and effort.  At the very least, send them this comprehensive guide so they can find one that matches their goals and personality as well!

Did I leave anything out?  Have some other points you'd like me to address?  Let me know in the comments and I'll add it in.

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