(I wrote this article over a year ago. It is as true today as it was then, but with a few minor changes and updates.)
I find it quite remarkable how flippant people are about putting their body in the hands of someone they don’t know. I have seen people more cautious about the installation of an air conditioning unit. Before you think about hiring a trainer, you should know how vital it actually is.
Let’s be honest, the chance of finding a reputable trainer is small and finding one in your local area is even smaller. The population of your city can matter, but then Gray Cook lives in a small city in southern Virginia. There are crap trainers in New York City and extraordinary ones in Belmont, Massachusetts.
As far as where to look for a trainer, I recommend private trainers/local gym training over commercial gym trainers. While this is a generalization, most personal trainers in commercial gyms don’t take their job very seriously. Normally, they use personal training as a temporary job while in school. To them, it’s just a job, not much different than working in a restaurant. So your goal is to find a trainer who sees their job as their life and love. Private gyms and self-employed trainers are usually the best for this.
The phone book is a great place to start. Call around, talk to people, and see who makes you feel most comfortable. You can also look online—search for your area of interest and location. For example, if you live in Jacksonville and want to start kettlebell training, type in “Jacksonville kettlebell.”
If possible, get a referral. This way you can see their results and what kind of experience you could have with them. If you can’t do that, here are some tips on what to look for in a trainer about whom you have no prior knowledge.
The Right Certification
Let me preface this with the following, just because a trainer has a college degree, all kinds of certifications, and/or years of experience—they can still be inept. It doesn’t take much to memorize stuff from a book and take a test. All certifications have weak points. It is essential for your trainer to go beyond learning “what they have to” every two years. If you hear the phrase “continuing education” you know, at the very least, you are working with someone who cares.
All that being said, you up your chance of finding a better trainer if they have a valid certification education. Here is a list of acceptable certifications to trust: CSCS, NASM, ACSM, ACE, ISSA, and NSCA. I personally favor the NASM for the general population. It is the lead certification I carry.
The Right Price
If it’s too cheap, there may be a reason. If it is really expensive, it may be hype. Look for someone willing to work within your budget. You may pay more for your initial assessment versus your day-to-day session expenses.
For example, I charge the most at the beginning of working with a new client. The assessment (which we will discuss later) is the most important part of taking on a new client. This is the research portion and client understanding stage. Good trainers take the time to understand who and what they are working with. Yes, there is constant re-evaluation of progress, but for the most part your path should be obvious to a good trainer. If they have the nerve to act as if you become more costly as time goes on—it’s time to move on.
Right For Your Goals
You aren’t going to get proper training for bodybuilding by an aerobics instructor. The best trainers can cover a lot of ground, but if you have a specific goal you should find a specific trainer. If possible narrow it down even further. For example, I get a lot of fat loss clients because I am the “fat loss expert,” but I also get a lot of metabolic damage cases because that is an area on which I put significant research focus. I wouldn’t take on a client who wanted to get better at kettlebell training; you wouldn’t come to me for Olympic training either. However, if you want to make your weight class—I am your trainer.
A skilled trainer isn’t afraid to send you to the best. A skilled trainer knows when the best thing they can do for you is to provide you with a better option. An excellent trainer won’t let their ego get in the way.
This is by far the most valuable time you will be spending with your trainer. It takes truth on your part and listening on theirs. If the following topics aren’t discussed, say thank you, pay them for their time, and move on.
* Medical History – This includes surgeries, medications, injuries, and medical conditions. Not all trainers require a doctors approval, but it is a telling sign if they ask.
* Muscle Balance, Flexibility, and Postural Assessment – It doesn’t have to be a full screen, some people have a great eye and can determine what they need to from you just standing there. Still, it should be discussed because training should depend on your body.
* Strength and Aerobic Assessment – There should be some manner of strength testing and aerobic conditioning.
* Goals – Where you want to be and how they plan to get you there.
* Nutrition – Check with the laws in your state. Generally speaking, a trainer can help guide you in the right direction, discuss healthy habits, research, and more with you. They can not make claims about being a nutritionist or a dietitian without a degree and board certification. If they do, I would move on.
* Daily Habits – This involves understanding your daily routine, how fitness and having better health fits in your life, and what they can do to help you figure all that out.
* Timeline – Involves more detailed knowledge and communication of how far they think you can go and how long it will take.
When to Run
Find another trainer if they do any of the following:
1. Are negative or treat you rudely.
The last thing you need is a unhealthy attitude, especially when most of the time people don’t understand how hard training can get. It’s their job to provide you a service. That doesn’t mean you should walk all over them, but they are there to inspire and push you in positive ways. Being a jerk does not equal being good.
2. Tell you not to eat or suggest that you can only lose fat eating a “special diet” or using supplements.
At first you may lose weight, but you likely will not understand why and stall. The lack of education and supplements will leave you with an empty wallet and lackluster results. What do they care, they got your money. They will get more of it trying to help you “get back on track” or help you bust through plateaus. Avoid them the moment this presents itself.
3. If they don’t give you options or try to work within your schedule.
They don’t have to be at your beck and call, but they should be open to new ideas and ways to work training options in for you. If they seem like a prima donna and give you a trouble with scheduling, screw them and take your money elsewhere.
4. If they make it all about them.
An accomplished trainer should know that it isn’t about them—it’s about you. They are there to help you get something done, and they can only be as good as the team you are. Anything else is just cheap campaigning.
Now, on to the workout. Your goals should have been discussed and the plan laid out. Here is what you should look for when moving into training:
* Less Machine Work and More Freedom of Movement – Unless you have a specific goal with bodybuilding or rehab, for example, you want to avoid moving on a fixed axis.
* Compound Movements – Generally beginners should start with full body training and compound movements. Meaning you should be doing more planks than bicep curls.
* Proper Weight – You should be assessed for the proper weight for each movement. You should understand what percentage of your rep max you are working. You should understand why you are moving with the progression you are.
* Talking You Through Form – Their job is to instruct you on proper form and make the exercises safe and worthwhile. You should understand what the exercise benefits are and cues for proper form without their presence.
* Warm-Ups – The warm-up may not be with your trainer if you have limited time. For instance, after the initial session, all of my clients warm-up before we train unless we are focusing on something specific. This way I am there to push them through the hard stuff. If your trainer is just putting you on a treadmill for five minutes—next.
* Enthusiasm – Your trainer should make you feel good about yourself. They should remind you that you’re not doing all this work for nothing. We feed off the energy and intensity of others and it’s extremely important for a trainer to have that. Find the right kind of trainer for you.
When to Run
1. They put you on nothing but machines.
2. They aren’t paying attention to you while you are training.
3. They have you doing tons of “crunches” and isolation movements.
4. They have you using the wrong weight at the wrong times.
5. You don’t know why you are doing what you are doing.
How to Get the Most Out of a Trainer (Inexpensively)
Not everyone can afford a trainer full-time. Good trainers usually cost a decent amount of money. Still, there are plenty of options and things you can do to get the most out of your money if that’s an issue.
1. Group Training – Group training is tremendously popular right now. Trainers and clients love it because they can help more people at one time. Group training involves a few people training at one time. For example, if the fee for training is normally $50 an hour, perhaps one mom can’t afford that. But if four moms wanted to train together, the price would break down to be just $12.50 per person. The same can happen for a husband and wife or parents and their kids.
Obviously the more people, the less individualized attention you will get, but if they keep the group small with no more than five people, it really isn’t bad and can be a lot of fun. Trainers usually don’t have a problem with group training, but you should set up the group yourself if it is not something they provide.
2. Use Them for Their Eyes Only – If you know what you want to do, but you want to make sure you are doing it correctly, hire a trainer for instruction only. When I was starting out, I had quite a few clients I would meet just to provide simple instructions about their form and cues. They would buy a book like The New Rules Of Lifting and want to make sure they were doing the programs properly. A skilled trainer should have no problem helping you for a few sessions just to help you get from section-to-section.
3. Work on a Once-a-Month Schedule – A trainer can set up a program and plan for you. Then you can meet, run through the exercises, and make sure you thoroughly understand your program. Once that happens, you can do your workouts solo until the next phase which could be every four weeks. I have also done this with clients who needed programs, but couldn’t afford one-on-one training all the way through.
These are just a few ideas and options about finding a personal trainer. No matter what, please remember that this is your body and you should protect it well.