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How to Choose a Personal Trainer

At some point during your journey to become healthier, you will come upon the question of whether or not to hire a personal trainer. The answer can be as easy or as difficult as you want to make it.  Similar to the task of deciding on and choosing a mate, you can pick the first warm body that comes along, or you can search and find the one that is just right for you.  And, just like choosing a mate, I recommend being a little picky.


The benefits of a personal trainer are vast, and if you find the right one their assistance can be priceless.  Personal trainers have knowledge, experience, and skills in the world of fitness that can help you realize your fitness goals.  They can keep you accountable and motivated to stick through the hard times and never give up.  However, if you pick the wrong one, you may not only not reach your goals, but also be severely set back in your health.


The first thing you want to consider is the reason you even want a personal trainer.  Do you need help losing that stubborn belly fat? Are you hitting a plateau in your training and have stopped seeing progress?  Do you want to run in the upcoming marathon and have no idea how to start training?  A personal trainer is a professional whose role is to carefully assess clients’ fitness levels, identify areas that require intervention and devise a training program that enables them to reach their personal goals.  You should come up with a specific goal and a reason why you need help before even approaching a personal trainer.


Once you have carefully devised your fitness goal and are ready to take the plunge and hire on a personal trainer, you want to consider their overall profile in relation to your specific goal.  Also, you need to take into account how much time and money you want to spend on your experience.  Think of yourself as your own health CEO looking to hire a new employee.


A personal trainer’s professional resume includes her credentials, experience in the industry, and reputation with other clients.  When evaluating credentials, number one: be sure the person is certified, and two: consider where the certification came from.  The more respectable and reputable certifying acronyms include the ACE, NSCA, NASM, and ACSM.  These programs hold high standards for certifying their trainers and utilize a wide educational body of research.  That being said, I have met personal trainers with barnacles of credentials dangling from their name but who are frankly horrible, and, on the flip side, trainers with poor credentials that are excellent.  But, in theory, the more education one has from an organization supported by research, the more knowledge he/she should have.


Next, you will want to evaluate a trainer’s work experience.  This can really make a trainer with poor credentials look more enticing.  Generally, hands-on smarts are much better than book smarts, but again it depends on what you are looking for.  Are you looking for someone who is fresh out of training and may have the latest and greatest fitness knowledge, or someone who has been around the fitness block and knows tried and true ways to achieve goals?


Once you have assessed a trainer’s credentials and experience, start to think about the trainer’s reputation. Ask around with other clients in the gym and see what they know about your prospective trainer. Also, watch them working with other clients.  Usually, businesses will have client success stories, explaining how they got from point A to point B, that can help you determine the reputation of the trainer.


After evaluating the trainer’s professional resume, you will want to look at his/her personal resume.  A personal trainer’s personal resume includes his/her personality, fitness specialty, and fitness philosophy. Again, think of this like a dating scenario—though it may be wise not to actually fall in love with your personal trainer.  But, just like dating, personality is crucial. If the two of you are not meshing together, then it is probably not going to work out.  If your trainer likes to make jokes to lighten the mood and you lack a sense of humor, then you will not enjoy working together.  If your trainer is not very encouraging and you require a lot of encouragement, then, again it is probably not going to work.  The best thing to do is to give them two or three sessions, and if you start to accumulate a bunch of red flags then it is time to move on. This doesn’t necessarily mean the trainer is bad, it just means you would just work better with someone else.  Most likely if you have reached this point you are both thinking the same thing.


One of the most important things to look at is the trainer’s specialty and philosophy of fitness. 

A trainer’s specialty includes what type of specific skill or client population she is most interested and experienced in.

This can include:

  • training powerlifters,
  • helping people lose weight, or
  • improving a client’s endurance.

A philosophy includes the trainer’s methodology for achieving those specific goals.  This includes how a trainer develops her program and how they evaluate your progress.  If your trainer primarily works with older individuals who haven’t been exercising for a while, and are just trying to start up a program, then you probably shouldn’t work with them if you are an avid runner who is trying to become an elite competitive runner.  In addition, if you go with a trainer whose specialty is to take an existing runner and make them a competitive athlete, ask yourself if you want the person who believes in training long hours with lots of strength training or the trainer who believes in high-intensity interval training in combination with moderate intensity endurance activities. There are many different philosophies about how to achieve certain goals and different people skilled in those specific methodologies.  Take some time to investigate what you believe seems like the best practice for achieving your goals before taking on a trainer.  Make sure the trainer seems like they know what they are talking about and aren’t asking you to do anything dangerous.  A trainer should listen to any concerns you have about exercise and take into account any physical disabilities, medical conditions, or ailments when constructing a program for you.  Use some common sense when evaluating a trainer’s methods.  If your trainer is asking you to add ten more pounds to your bench press when you failed to lift the previous weight, you should probably walk out the door.


Finally, you will want to decide how much time and money you want to spend on your training.  Generally, the more money you spend the more likely you are going to achieve your goals.  Think of all the Hollywood actors who pay big money to work with a personal trainer for hours a day so they can get ready for their next role.  Since you probably aren’t going to hire a live-in personal trainer, the most usual pay range is 50-500$/hour at 1-3 session/week.  That can get pretty expensive as time goes on, so you also want to consider the length of time the trainer wants to work with you.  If you just want to get setup with a program that will get you started on an exercise program, maybe you need two to three sessions.  If you want to be consistently evaluated and motivated in an intensive weight loss program, you may want months.


In addition to all this, there are some things you should expect from yourself when hiring a personal trainer.  Remember that diet is much more important when trying to achieve your fitness goals than exercise.  If you aren’t eating right, you can exercise all you want, but probably won’t hit that goal.  A trainer can give you the tools to eat right, but ultimately it is up to you to filter what goes in your mouth.  Also, don’t use a personal trainer as an excuse to exercise less or eat more.  If you are only working with a trainer one day per week and sitting on the couch and eating donuts the remaining six days, again you are not going to achieve your goals. You should also be ready and willing to work with a trainer on making personal change a reality. Finally, make sure you are open to constructive criticism and are willing to learn.


When making the move to hire a personal trainer, remember:


  • What is your specific goal?
  • What is the personal trainer’s professional resume including credentials, experience, and reputation?
  • What is the personal trainer’s personal resume including personality, fitness specialty, and philosophy of fitness?
  • How much time and money are you willing to commit?

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