Have you considered personal training

The industry is unregulated and service is arbitrary.

Trainers don’t have a prescribed scope. There are very good trainers and very bad trainers. What you may not know is that anybody can create educational platforms and designate trainers as “certified” but, as you’ll soon see, certification ≠ qualification.

When you decide to invest in a trainer you’re making a decision that has the potential to change your life. Yet, most who hire trainers put little-to-no thought into it. Would you walk into a car dealership on a whim and buy a car? Likely not, you’d do your research and make an informed decision.

This article will give you all of the tools you need to help you make the most informed decision possible. Here’s how to decide what personal trainer is best for you.

Note: For reading comprehension I switch back and forth between genders. All points apply to men and women equally.

1. Check references.

It’s not enough to rely on the reviews online or posted in a gym. Ask any potential trainer for two previous or current clients that you can call. There have been too many examples of unscrupulous “professionals” who fabricate or steal before-and-after pictures and testimonials.

Aside from making sure that the testimonial is real, you should attempt to learn how the trainer really is in his day-to-day practice. When on the phone with a reference ask about the temperament of the trainer; get a feel for their desire to continually improve; and ask if they are honest and dependable.

2. Leave your wallet at home.

Not having a credit card on hand ensures that you don’t make any rash, emotional decisions that you may regret. Gyms have become really good at convincing people to sign up right away after a tour and short sales meeting.

Don’t take this decision lightly. When you hire a personal trainer it has the potential to change your life but also it could also leave a bitter taste in your mouth and hole in your wallet.

The turnover in the fitness industry is high. If you blindly walk into a club, do a tour, and sign up for sessions then there’s a good chance that you’ll end up with the least busy and/or brand new trainer. The odds that she is right for you are low. In addition, because turnover is so high for inexperienced trainers, there’s a good chance that your new coach won’t stick around and you’ll be bounced around different trainers.

Spend two weeks walking on a treadmill watching trainers work with their clients. Get a feel for the types of clientele each trainer works with, their differing training styles (drill sergeant, passive-aggressive, laissez faire, etc.), and pay special attention to your intuition.

Finding a personal trainer can be done by checking out your local gyms, through word of mouth, or by getting in touch with bloggers and fitness professionals that you trust that don’t live in your area and asking if they have any recommendations.

3. Decide how important convenience is.

A great trainer is worth traveling for but you’ve got to be honest and determine what’s important for you. New exercisers should spend at least a month seeing a coach 2-3x/wk to get a strong baseline and establish good habits. In this case having somebody close to where you work or live might be warranted.

For more experienced trainees who don’t want to see a trainer multiple times a week, location becomes less of a factor. I used to have clients come in once every 2-4 weeks for form checks. I managed their programs and provided online personal training services at a monthly rate. My clients lived anywhere from 30 minutes to 3hrs away and trained in a gym close to them.

4. When to become immediately skeptical.

If your trainer tries to sell you supplements or advertises that they are a “rep” for a company, become an immediate skeptic. While not bad 100% of the time, the trainer is legally responsible for disclosing anything that might affect a recommendation.

Multi-tier marketing schemes are rampant in gyms. In almost all cases the supplement is lackluster quality, overpriced, or both.

If the trainer doesn’t take the time to help you attain strong diet and work with you on establishing healthy lifestyle and eating habits with real foods before trying to sell you some type of powder, run. Fast.

5. How much you want to pay.

I’m biased, but I believe that a good personal trainer’s value is priceless. In an attempt to become more realistic I’ll provide you with some thoughts on pricing.

First – there is no precedent or regulation on pricing. It’s not like buying chicken where you know how much a pound costs and any variation from the mean is immediately noticeable. Price ranges wildly – from $25/hr to $300+/hr.

Location will determine price. A trainer in Manhattan will cost exponentially more than a trainer in small town Michigan.

A trainer who specializes will likely be in-demand amongst that population and therefore charge more for their services. If you have a special need, say you’ve just had a baby and you want a post-natal fitness specialist because you have diastasis recti, then you can expect to pay a little more. It’s the same idea as hiring a general mechanic vs. a dude who specializes in Harley Davidson bikes to fix your motorcycle.

Finally, price will be dependent on experience. Hiring a cheaper, less experienced trainer might be fine if you have adequate resolve and prior weightlifting experience.

To be a great trainer takes a significant amount of nuanced knowledge. The job is not just instructing sets and reps or understanding the physiology of adaptation – a fair amount of psychology gained both from study and on-the-job experience is required.

Look for a trainer who understands the importance of coaching. She should be able to meet you where you’re at and challenge you to grow both mentally and physically. She’ll know when you’re having an on day, and when you’re off.

Corollary – Be careful when signing contracts

Don’t commit to a large package of sessions at a club without an iron-clad refund policy signed by management. Read the fine print and if you want something changed always get it signed and in writing.

6. Mention any special needs.

Before hiring a personal trainer you should be 100% confident that he can effectively manage all aspects of your program.

If you mention a chronic problem a great trainer should show that she’s experienced, knowledgeable, and able to work with it or around it (whatever is most appropriate). In addition, a trainer should be willing to work with your primary care physician or other health providers (physios, chiros, osteos etc.) if necessary.

7. What qualifications to look for.

Notice I didn’t say “what certifications to look for.” Education for trainers almost everywhere in the World is un-regulated. While good resources exist for trainers, the overall picture is not bright. Anybody can call himself or herself a personal trainer, even without a certification and anybody can create a course and “certify” trainers.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind while assessing whether or not your trainer is educated appropriately for you. The first thing to notice is whether he’s got a University or college degree in exercise science, kinesiology, or something similar. If so, rest assured that he’s at least got a good baseline of theoretical knowledge.

Next is to look at the certification that she holds. Massive variation exists in cost and training. If you’re in the United States your trainer should hold an NCCA-approved cert. For more information here are two charts that compare the: best personal training certifications in the United States and the top personal training certifications in Canada.

In terms of qualification, do you have a special need or way that you like to train? If you love using kettlebells, for example, you’ll want somebody who is RKC of SFG certified.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, get an idea of how much time and effort your potential trainer puts into her continuing development. Ask her what the last 3 courses she attended or personal training books that she read were and when she read them. You want somebody who is going to get better with time and never be satisfied stagnating.

8. How to tell if your trainer got educated on YouTube.

You’re hiring a personal trainer because she presumably knows more than you. You need somebody who educates herself with books, text, books, and research studies and that thinks for herself.

Ask her to tell you about things like muscle confusion and whether you need to be sore each workout? If she isn’t able to explain something similar to the following, it’s a pretty good sign that she’s a YouTube trainer.

“No you don’t need to feel sore after each workout.

Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) is the result of unaccustomed exercise and is modulated due to type, intensity, and duration or training. What this means is that anything different will make you sore. Muscle confusion is a buzzword that doesn’t really mean much. Muscles don’t get confused. They don’t think. They respond to stimulus and the mechanisms to adaption are pretty well understood.

It’s possible that the same things that make you sore also signal the body to build more muscle but powerful mechanisms exist in the body in the absence of soreness.

The three primary mechanisms for hypertrophy (muscle gain) are

1. mechanical stress,
2. metabolic stress,
3. muscle damage.

All of these occur in the absence of soreness.

Making you sore is not the purpose for training; making the muscles grow is. Even if you’re looking to lose fat or inches the added muscle will help speed up the process.

So, yes: I will see how you’re feeling and want to know if you’re sore. But I won’t pump my fist in jubilation when you tell me you can’t feel your legs.

Soreness tells me how you’re adapting to the workouts and how well your recovery mechanisms are working. It allows me to adapt the training as I learn how your body functions (yes, it’s different than mine). If you continue to get sore, something is awry. And my aim is to fix it.

You will get stronger, look better, and function better in the absence of soreness. You can also train more frequently and be less miserable.

I’ll save my fist pumps for when you put on muscle, not when you suffer.”

9. Take shortcuts to figure out what you need to know.

You may not have the wealth of experience to know all of the questions to ask a potential personal trainer so shortcuts are necessary. The easiest way to figure out whether or not a trainer is unconfident, inexperienced, and unqualified is by analyzing not what he says, but how he says it.

As a general rule, people boast about stuff that they lack confidence in. When interviewing a trainer, pay attention to what he’s boasting about – the easiest way to do this is to pay attention to whether or not he uses needless jargon. An unconfident trainer will overcome his lack of confidence by throwing in a bunch of scientificy-sounding words. A confident trainer will explain a concept clearly, succinctly, and in a way that you can understand using appropriate metaphors. This seems like a small difference, but it says a lot.

Next, when you meet with a trainer he should keep the conversation focused on you and only speak about himself as it pertains to helping you. It doesn’t matter if he’s trained Olympic athletes if you’re brand new to training and have some lower back pain, for example. A sign of a trainer who lacks focus and confidence will feel that he needs to impress you with everything that he knows. A great trainer will ask questions about you and then, and only then, speak about how specific aspects of his education and experience make her perfectly suited to help you.

Finally, in the words of Tim Arndt, “fitness is simple, it’s just not easy”. Great coaches know that programs need to be as simple as possible, and as complicated as necessary. For most clients this means that programming is basic. No fancy loading schemes or periodization is often necessary. And bouncy, wobbly, uneven widgets and “whathaveits” are almost never needed. If the program sounds too simple, it’s a good sign. If it sounds too good to be true, it is.

10. What your trainer should look like.

The first thing that you’ll do is unconsciously judge a potential trainer based on his or her appearance.

In a 1967 study a researcher named Alfred Yarbus put eye trackers on participants. He first asked them to look at a painting and observed their eyes darting haphazardly. He then asked how old the people in the painting were, and the eyes darted back and forth from face to face. He then asked how much money the people in the painting had, and their eyes darted up and down the clothing.

Our brains cannot possible process the breadth of information that it encounters at any given moment. It takes shortcuts based on preconceived truisms.

I tell you this to make you aware of the conclusions that you might inadvertently jump to. Does a trainer need to be in great shape? Maybe.

Judging a personal trainer solely on appearance is not the way to choose a personal training coach. First off, if she is ripped then whatever she did to attain her physique probably took years of trial and error or protocols that you likely don’t want to follow. Getting and staying shredded is a lifestyle choice. This means ardent focus on diet and exercise. I’m not saying don’t do it, I’m just saying that you need to be cognizant of what it actually takes to achieve and maintain it.

Next, just because a trainer is in good shape doesn’t mean she knows how to help you. You’re different in everything from your daily commitments to body type.  Even genetics has been shown to have a large effect on adaptation to exercise. In one study, subjects followed the same protocol. Some subjects gained as much as 10cm in their biceps and doubled their strength, while others showed little to no gain.

If you have very specific physique goals than training with somebody who has achieved what you want to achieve may be warranted. What matters is that the coach has experience in helping people with whatever it is that you want to achieve. She doesn’t necessarily need to be better than you in that one specific thing (Tiger Woods has a golf coach who I feel confident in assuming is a worse golfer than Tiger), but she should be able to tell you what you need to do in order to achieve and what it takes to get through each step.

This is an important decision.

An investment to hire the best personal trainer for you can change your life but navigating the murky waters to find the right one can be rife with challenges. If you’re serious that now is the time to make a change, take your time. There are great trainers out there, you’ve just got to find us.

The Author

Jonathan Goodman is the founder of the Personal Trainer Development Center and author of multiple bestselling books for personal trainers. In addition, Jon founded the first-ever certification for online fitness trainers, the Online Trainer Academy. Originally from Toronto, Jon and his wife Alison spend their winters traveling the world with their baby boy, Calvin.