Choosing a Reliable Personal Trainer

A question I get from time to time is how to choose a personal trainer.  And while many are happy to work it out on their own and train by themselves, the simple fact is that many people do benefit from personal trainers.  Whether it’s from a motivational/accountability standpoint or simply having an ‘expert’ teach them how to train, there are benefits to be had.

Of course, this is actually predicated on being able to find a personal trainer who’s any good.  And, the reality, and I base this on being in and out of commercial gyms for nearly two decades (and working as a coach/trainer myself during tha time), is that most personal trainers aren’t a whole lot more than glorified rep counters.

Please note, I know that this is not universal, I know that there are gyms in existence that do a far better job in terms of how they approach hands-on personal training than what I’m going to describe.  If you’re one of the good trainers, please don’t leave me nasty comments; I’m talking about the general state of the industry (at least in the United States) and odds are you agree with me.  Sure there are exceptions but, by definition, most won’t be an exception to what I’m going to describe: that’s not what the word ‘exception’ means.

In any case, they can usually count to 8 (sometimes 10) and this is usually done in-between looking around the gym at hot chicks on the Stairmaster and/or talking on their cell phone (I’ve seen it repeatedly in gyms).  They are usually pretty good at flirting with their clients, semi-ensuring that the client shows up, reminding them to write a check once per month and pushing them towards the supplement pro shop to buy more useless products when they aren’t getting any results.

Realistically, at most commercial gym chains, the primary purpose of the personal trainer is not actually to train people, they are there to act as salesmen and sell personal training packages (which often make the clubs a lot of revenue).  Quite in fact, one gym I worked at in Austin had monthly trainers meetings where all of the personal trainers would listen to the chain’s ‘expert’ for about an hour.

Were we being kept up to date on the cutting edge of fitness and exercise science?  No, the meetings invariably revolved only around how to close the sale and get more people into the program along with how to keep them signing that check every 4-6 weeks when the big package ran out.

Of course, another reality is that, to some degree, personal trainers do need to be salesmen, especially when they are getting started out.  I guess the point of the above discussion is that I think trainers should be both competent at their job in addition to any skills they may have in terms of being good salespeople.  Unfortunately, my general experience is invariably that good trainers tend to be poor salesmen and good salesmen tend to be poor trainers.  Again, I’m sure there are exceptions.

But ignoring that aspect of the industry (which is just reality), what are things that I think folks should look at in terms of determining if a personal trainer is going to be right for them (I’d note tangentially that an athlete seeking a coach would look for similar things).

A Few Words About Certification

In my experience and in my opinion, most personal trainer certifications in the US are basically a joke. Generally requiring no more than a three-hour test (the NSCA CSCS exam is six hours) with no testing of hands-on competency in the weight room, it simply isn’t that tough to get certified.  Quite in fact, in recent years, there is a tendency for people to simply invent their own certifications so that they can list them after their names.

While there are differences between them to be sure, the letters after someones name would be one of the last things I’d look at in terms of determining if a trainer were any good.   At the end of the day, all of the letters in the world after someones name don’t mean jack squat. You can carry every national certification in existence and still not known a damn thing about how to train people in the weight room and you can be uncertified and be a true expert on weight training technique (an example of this would be my first mentor who prefers to remain unnamed).

Honestly, having been out of that aspect of the field for quite some time, I don’t have much more to say about certification, I’m simply not up to date on what the individual groups are doing (although a quick glace at the websites tells me that not much has changed).

I would note that apparently the US approach to certification is not held in other parts of the world.  A friend went through one of the top Australian certification programs and not only did it involve 4-6 weeks of intensive classwork, including hands-on gym training, they strongly suggested that beginning trainers intern under and expert trainer for at least six months prior to going out on their own.

But in the US that is simply not the case.   At least not with any certification program I am aware of (again, I haven’t looked into the issue in a while).  If folks out there are aware of such certifications, please let me know in the comments section.

But if certification per se doesn’t tell you anything, what can you use to select a decent trainer?

What About Physique?

A lot of people pick their trainer based on the trainer’s physique. The logic seems to go that if the trainer is in shape, that they can get the client into shape.  Sometimes true, all too often not.  I have also known extremely hot/in-shape female trainees to get male clients simply because the male wanted attention from a hot chick.

I have even joked that it’s far better for a budding personal trainer to simply be big and buff (if male) or hot (if female) than worrying about education or even competency.  Simply looking awesome will get you more clients in most places than actually knowing what you’re doing.

But there is often a huge problem here.  In my experience, and again this is based on about 20 years in the gym and working as a personal trainer, big male bodybuilders usually know how to train one person one way and that’s themselves for bodybuilding.  If they use anabolics or other drugs, they may not even know that since steroids can cause muscle growth without training at all.

I have repeatedly seen such trainers put a beginner/general fitness client straight into hardcore advanced bodybuilding training on day 1.  I mean, that’s how they train, right; that’s how everyone should train.

True story: I had a client one time, older female who had had a double mastectomy. Had gotten a personal trainer at Gold’s gym prior to working with me who put her through a 20 set chest workout on her first day; she couldn’t lift her arms for like a week. Cuz, you know, you gotta bomb and blitz those pecs. This happens far more often than it should.

I have also run into exceedingly in-shape females who literally never worked out.  Or just did a little bit of cardio.  I’m not trying to play the genetics card here but the assumption that an in-shape person actually knows how they got into that level of shape is not a safe assumption. Sometimes it’s true, as often as not, it’s not.

And don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here; I’m not saying that if someone has an awesome physique that you should automatically dismiss them as a trainer.  They may very well be absolutely excellent, they may not be.  I’m simply saying not to use that as the only metric in choosing who to hire.

So Now What?

So if certifications don’t tell you what you need to know and buffitude doesn’t, what can you use? One of the single biggest indicators that I personally pay attention to is what kind of form and technique a trainer has their client using.

Is it good, horrible, a little bit sloppy or what?

The reality is this: in over 15 years in commercial gyms, I can honestly count the number of trainers I’ve seen teaching proper form on anything on maybe one hand.  Maybe not even that.  Of course, when I see most of these guys train themselves, I see why: they don’t know what good form is in the first place. Much less how to teach it to someone else.

And I’d note that these are very different things.  Folks who can do things correctly may not be able to teach it at all; there is actually a phenomenon called motor amnesia where the better folks get at doing something themselves, the less aware of what they are doing they become.

Basically, in becoming experts at something, they lose the ability to effectively communicate or teach.  Essentially, this is evidence to the idea that great athletes often make terrible coaches; they are so good at what they do athletically that they are horrible at teaching it.  Once again, this isn’t universal, I’m simply making the point that demonstrating expert form yourself doesn’t mean you can teach it worth a damn.

And that’s the reality: even when I’ve seen trainers who used proper form themselves, watching their clients it’s clear that they either don’t know how to teach proper form or simply don’t care enough to try.  The stuff I’ve seen personal trainers put their clients through (in terms of technique used) makes me cringe.

But that single thing would tend to be my primary metric in deciding if a given personal trainer had their head up their ass or not: I’d look at what kind of form they are teaching their trainees on key exercises.  Certainly other aspects of the training (program design, motivation, etc.) is important but if the form being taught is not correct, I don’t think the rest of it matters that much.

Unfortunately, that nugget of information doesn’t really help out beginners, who may or may not know what proper form is in the first place. Telling them ‘judge a potential trainer by the form they teach’ when they don’t know what proper form looks like is not a very useful piece of advice.

Now, there are endless sources of information on the web about exercise technique.  Some of it is good but a lot of what I see is still utter shit (most of what’s on Youtube comes to mind and exrx.net has some good and some bad).   I do my regular exercise technique articles of course and, at least for the movements I’ve covered, that’s a good place to start.

One thing I’ve suggested to folks before is to get ahold of the book The Insider’s Tell-All Guide to Weight Training Technique by Stuart McRobert.   It is truly an excellent book and examines in great detail proper technique on a bunch of the most productive weight training movements (squats, deadlifts, bench presses, and a host of others).

Another excellent book in this regards is Mark Rippetoes Starting Strength now in it’s Second edition.  The first edition examined technique on only five major movements (bench, squat, deadlift, powerclean and shoulder press) but the second edition addressed a bunch of beneficial assistance movements.  It’s simply an excellent resource that I cannot too highly recommend.

A client looking for a trainer would be well advised to become familiar with proper form through one of those two books and then see if their potential trainer is teaching something that at least approximates it.  It may not be exactly the same as in either book (there are differences in teaching philosophy and style) but, at the very least, any trainer coming close to what’s in those book probably doesn’t have their head too far up their ass.  They might not be good at any other aspect of training but at least they probably won’t get you hurt with bad form.

What About Results?

Of course, all of the above sort of pales with the real end metric: does the trainer get results with their clients?  That is, if the client wants to get bigger, is he doing so?  If the goal is fat loss, is the client leaning out?  If the client wants to get stronger, are weights on the bar going up?  At the end of the day, that’s what really matters.

Now, before continuing, I’d note that sometimes a lack of results in a client has nothing to do with the trainer.  I can’t count the number of clients I had who wouldn’t do any real work.  Many personal training clients seem to think that once they’ve signed their check for the month their responsibility is done.  The trainers job is now to wave their magic wand and ‘Shazaam’, things happen.  I wish.

Of course, we might hold this against the trainer for not being able to get  the client to change their habits but that isn’t always the case. I had clients who simply weren’t going to do anything I asked and they’d just make excuses for why they couldn’t do something that I asked of them.

Why didn’t I just fire them?  Often when starting out, you can’t afford to turn anybody away, even if they are complete screwups so you end up training people who simply aren’t going to do more than show up twice a week for an hour and goof off. They won’t change diet, won’t do extra cardio and then, without fail, 8 weeks later they bitch at you for a lack of results.  At least I’m not bitter.

The basic point I’m making is that I think it’s unrealistic for a trainer to have 100% success rate with their clients.  It’s always nice to get to the point where all you have is super motivated perfect clients but the reality is that some percentage of personal training clients will be screwups.

But at the same time, if none of the trainer’s clients are seeing any progress at all, odds are they are doing something very wrong.  Essentially, if the trainer is competent, at least some percentage of their clientele should be moving towards their goals.  If the trainer has literally a zero percent success rate, odds are that you’re looking at an expensive rep counter.

I’d note that any competent trainer, unless they are just starting out, should be able to provide evidence of their success.  Many trainers keep before and after pictures to show the results they’ve got and anyone you approach about hiring should be willing and able to produce that information on at least some level. If they can’t, or more importantly, won’t until you sign the check, I’d say you should pick someone else.

Different Clients Need Different Training

On a related note, something else to pay attention to (and this is often hard to tell unless you can watch the trainer for a long time) is whether a given trainer actually trains people with different goals differently.  Or is everyone simply put on an identical training program (usually a high-volume bodybuilding oriented split routine)?

This ties in with my comments above about a lot of trainers only knowing how to train themselves; if they are bodybuilders, they may be in great shape but only know how to train for bodybuilding.  I’ve seen powerlifters do the personal training thing and everyone, regardless of goal, gets a powerlifting type of program (I saw one powerlifter train a fitness competitor with a Westside variant for example).  That’s simply asinine.

What if the trainer is working with a 35 year-old female with no previous exercise background?   How about a 16 year-old male who needs to get big for football? Or a 50 year-old male with a back problem.  Watching trainers over the years, the typical personal trainer is likely to give all three of them the identical program.

As a quick note on this, I would mention that beginners almost always get and need extremely similar workouts (unless there is some specific injury or conditioning issue that has to be dealt with). Yeah, when I was a trainer, everybody got the spiel about getting an individualized workout. But the reality is that beginners need basic training in a bunch of things and their workouts will look more alike than not.  But even there there has to be differences in approach.

When I had clients that were more advanced, or who had previous movement experience (e.g. years of dance or gymnastics), I often did things very differently compared to the typical terrified housewife who had never done anything at all.  There may not have been massive individuality between programs but I did take it into account.

Beginners Are, Well, Beginners

Related to the above, one very serious consideration is whether the trainer has any experience with beginners in the first place. A lot of people who have been training for many years forget about what they did themselves when they started. So they take brand new clients and just put them through the ringer.

I already told the story above about my female double mastectomy client who got put through a 20 set chest workout on her first day with another trainer but that’s not the worst I’ve seen.  Many trainers really want to ‘show the client their stuff’ and just wreck them on Day 1.  The person is then too sore to move for about a week and, more often than not, never comes back to the gym.  There’s worse.

An hour of intense exercise on Day 1 and the person is too sore to move. I’ve heard horror stories. At one gym I lifted at in Austin, they killed a guy.  I don’t mean metaphorically, they literally killed him.  They didn’t do the proper intake paperwork (where you’re supposed to check for various health risks), put him through an hour of hellish training and the guy dropped dead from a heart attack. I’m not saying this is common, mind you, but it does happen.

The point I’m trying to make is that, unless someone has a previous training background, throwing them straight into heavy training is a huge mistake.  It’s not a good way to learn proper technique as I discussed in What’s the Best Way to Teach/Learn a New Exercise nor is it the best way to keep the client coming back.

But, trainers argue, that’s what the clients want.  Well, tough.  At the end of the day the trainer is in charge of the training and if the client knew what they needed, they could train themselves without hiring anybody.  Most trainees don’t know what they need in the first place and pandering to ‘what they want’ when you should be teaching them the proper way to lift and train is not the right way to go about it.

They may complain that you’re not nuking them in the gym from day 1 but in the long-run, they’ll learn that training properly is about more than just being exhausted all the time.  Training hard is not the same as training smart.

Other Stuff

Related to the above, something else to consider is whether the trainer is going to explain to you why certain things are being done (assuming they can in the first place) or just going to tell you ‘Do this’.  My goal as a trainer was always to get my clients to be independent of me as soon as possible. I wanted them to be able to continue training (by knowing not only what to do and also why they did it) if I left, went out of town, changed jobs, they moved, etc.

To me, training was as much about teaching them about proper exercise as it was training them effectively.  I tried to do both.  Of course, not all trainees want to learn the whys of what they are doing, some just want to be told what to do.  But, if as a client you trainer tells you something and you ask them why and their either won’t or can’t give you a good reason, I’d say move on.

Related to that, will the trainer actually adjust the program if it’s not working? Or does he have the right program and if it doesn’t work, it’s your fault?  Admittedly, this is usually more of a problem with a coach and athletes than personal trainers and clients but it is a consideration.  If you’re doing everything he asks and nothing is happening and you bring it up, what is the trainers response?  Does he accuse you of cheating or will he consider changing the program to get things working?  If the form, it’s time to move on.

There’s other stuff of course and I could probably go on about this forever.  Do you mesh with the trainer personality wise or is there a conflict?  Some clients need a more coddling hand-holding approach, others want to be screamed at for motivation. If your trainer only knows the one way of working with you and it doesn’t fit your psychological profile, they may not be a good choice for you.  Even if they are technically brilliant, if they can’t convey that in a way that works for you, you may need to find someone else.

Of course, most of the above occurs after you have actually hired the trainer but, in my mind, a trainer/client (or athlete/coach) relationship is always in flux.  You may have disagreements or what have you and how the trainer responds to your concerns after you’ve hired them is as important as how you choose them in the first place.  There’s nothing that says that trainer is right for you even if they meet technical or other requirements.  You may simply not work well together in which case you shake hands and move on.

Like I said, I could probably keep going on forever in this regards and there’s stuff that I might personally take into account (e.g. I grilled my current speed skating coach for about 3 hours prior to hiring him to make sure we were on the same page) that might not be relevant to everyone.

But the above should hopefully give you somewhat of a start if you’re considering hiring a trainer and don’t know what to look for.

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