When I first thought about becoming a personal trainer, I dismissed it because of the stereotype. To that point, I hadn't worked with any half-decent strength and conditioning professionals, so my notions of personal trainers were a bit naïve. I thought all trainers were either:
A) fitness-crazed, protein-addicted meatheads who couldn’t spell.
B) group exercise instructors afraid they’d enter cardiac arrest if they ever stopped moving.
C) some weird hybrid of the two, mixed with a dash of CrossFit.
Safe to say, I didn’t fall neatly into any camp.
It was only when I stepped halfway into the industry that I realized how wrong I was, and started to understand the differences between great and sub-par personal trainers. And the more I learned, the more I realized it was just like any other industry - the top 5% are exponentially better than the bottom 50% in knowledge, skills, communication, and experience.
But unfortunately, most people don’t have the time, interest, or energy to learn about the differences. The industry also has low barriers to entry and all a prospective trainer needs to do is a pass a test from one of the 30+ certifying organizations. Many employers will just look to see if someone is certified, regardless of the organization it's with. So when someone passes their test it means only that – they can pass a test. It says nothing about their ability to coach, interact, and help a diverse population.
That means all most people can rely on is word of mouth, reputation, marketing, and of course, Instagram accounts (#fitfam). In fact, it makes finding a good personal trainer seem like the Wild West. But it doesn't have to be.
Whether you’re looking to hire a personal trainer, or you just want to assess your current trainer, consider the following four tips. After all, you shouldn't trust just anyone with your health - you should be picky.
1. The Assessment Process
In your initial meeting with a trainer, they should put you through some form of assessment. It doesn’t need to be all that complicated, but it should be enough to give them more information about your body, your limitations, and your health history. It helps you both determine Point A so that you can safely and successfully map the way towards Point B. The industry standards in an assessment tend to be weight and body fat (only when someone is comfortable), health and exercise history, as well as general mobility and stability screens. These help determine what exercises are appropriate and if any modifications need to be made to help you succeed.
But the most important part of the assessment is the time it allows you and a trainer to discuss goals, expectations, training history, and training philosophy. These conversations set the stage for your training, and I often say that trainers have “two eyes, two ears, and one mouth for a reason.” The focus should be on you and your goals, with a trainer asking you plenty of questions.
If a trainer is not asking you enough questions, or worse, is trying to steamroll through your responses, that's a red flag. I’ve seen this occur and it tends to happen from a trainer that’s only interested in selling their services. I joke that modern day politics has taught us that listening is a lost art. It shouldn't be, and especially not in your first session.
On the other end, there's no need for a trainer to get too technical on day one. You're there to get stronger, leaner, or faster - not to have your femoral internal rotation measured with a goniometer. With any test or assessment you perform, ask them what they're measuring, then ask why. If they can't convey how that test will help you, proceed with skepticism.
2. Continuing Education
To be blunt, continuing education is a litmus test for how a trainer feels about their occupation. Those that continually seek professional development are those that view their job as a career. Those that don’t? They tend to see it as a job. Nothing is inherently right or wrong with either approach, but if I'm paying someone money, I know what I'd prefer.
Why? Because the best trainers are those that keep an open mind and aren’t afraid to change as they learn. While some of the nuts and bolts of training haven’t changed in decades, we now know much more about the biomechanics and the physiology of training. I constantly look back at what I was doing 6-12 months ago and ask myself "what was I thinking!?" And it's no coincidence that the more continuing education I've attended, the better results my clients have seen.
How can you tell if someone prioritizes continuing education? Ask them. If you’re worried about being too direct, start by talking about any conferences or meetings you've recently attended. Then innocently ask them the same.
It's one thing for someone to claim they have 10 years of experience. But it’s another to have lived the same year, 10 times.
3. Exercise Selection
It's natural to seek variety in our training. “Normal” people aren’t going to want to play with heavy kettlebells each session.* But there’s a fine line between getting better and being entertained, and the road to progress is often less flashy than we think.
(*And yes, that was a dig at myself.)
The X's and O's of training can vary widely based on someone’s injury history, goals, and experience. But each person’s program should include some combination of a deadlift, squat, push-up and a “core” exercise. These “big four” are central to any program and properly executing the basics will give you more return than party tricks you see on Instagram.
From a physiological point of view, you also need to stick with the same exercises for at least 4-6 weeks. This is where I tell people to “embrace the mundane,” because the most successful training involves punching the clock and perfecting your technique. Your body and brain need time to learn a specific exercise, and the science has shown that "muscle confusion" makes about as much sense as a Caribbean Igloo company.
If your trainer is having you constantly change exercises, they're actually impeding your progress. Odds are they're not even aware of the downfalls of this approach - they're just trying to keep you entertained. It'll ensure you become "jack of all trades, master of none."
4. Do they Practice what they Preach?
Everyone has a story. All great trainers have specific reasons as to why they chose this industry as their field of choice. And it’s much more than “I like to work out.”
But many of them are still trying to figure it all out, just like everyone else.
Not every trainer needs to be able to deadlift 500 pounds, run a 5 minute mile, and be absolutely shredded. That’s an unrealistic expectation for anyone besides The Rock. But trainers do need to practice what they preach because it all falls under the umbrella of continuing education. I can’t tell you how many lessons I’ve learned from my own training sessions, and how I’ve been able to apply them to make me a better coach. There's something to be said about having “been there, done that.”
At the same time, I've known trainers that have skipped their own workouts for the better part of a year. As well as those who binge on junk food while maligning their clients that do the same. The best trainers walk the walk.
It's perfectly acceptable to ask a trainer about what type of workouts they do, their schedule, and what they typically eat for meals. Most people can identify good nutrition and exercise habits, even if we lack the execution of it. If your BS alarm starts ringing, listen to it.