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What to look for in a personal trainer

Finding the right personal trainer is kind of like buying a used car – there are plenty that look great at first, only to reveal that you’ve bought a lemon shortly after leaving the lot.  So what do you do?  Do you talk to the front desk person at your gym and say you want a new trainer?  Search online?  What about your friend who says her trainer is great, if only he would stop canceling on her.

Let’s start off by making one thing very clear:  personal trainers aren’t cheap, and you should have very high expectations.  Do not lower those expectations for any reason. Some trainers are in this for a quick buck.  Others like the fact that they can set their own hours.  Some think it’s an easy way to meet members of the opposite sex.  Know why your potential trainer is in this industry.

So where can you find a good trainer?  If you already belong to a gym, you can check out the trainers there.  There’s always a chance you’ll find a diamond in the rough, but most of the trainers I’ve seen that work in gyms lack basic knowledge, passion, regard for safety, or creativity – in many cases all of the above.  The good news is that if you’re a member of a gym already, you can observe the training staff there from afar without investing any of your own money.  Here are some things to watch for:

  1. If you can, watch the trainer as he/she works with another client (from a distance, and try not to be too stalker-ish about it).  Is the trainer paying attention?  Does he/she ever correct anything the client does?  Is the cell phone a constant distraction?  Is the trainer taking notes of any kind?  Are they talking while the client is performing the exercises, or does the trainer emphasize concentration?
  2. Similar to the above, what happens before and after the session?  Do they get right to work or is there a brief catch-up/check-in period?  Is the client dismissed immediately after the last rep?  What about a warm-up & cooldown?
  3. Does the trainer ever demonstrate anything?
  4. If you go to the same gym at the same time pretty regularly, you can get a very basic idea of which trainers are good and which may be a little…questionable.  Do you regularly see them with the same clients?  Do their clients look to be making any progress or changes?
  5. Does the trainer appear professional?  Gym attire is obviously appropriate, but what about the details?  I have seen trainers wearing earbuds during a session – no joke!
  6. If you’re lucky when hanging around the gym, you might get to observe a trainer do back-to-back sessions.  Does he or she have both clients doing the same things?  If so, that might not be a good sign.
  7. Does the trainer have their client attempting to perform ridiculously difficult or complex exercises that they can’t complete successfully?

If the trainers at your gym don’t look so great – or if you aren’t currently a gym member – what next?  Word-of-mouth is the most common way to hear about a trainer – good or bad.  Don’t be afraid to ask friends or co-workers who have recently dropped some weight to see if they have a recommendation.

Another thing to look for is a personal training studio.  These are typically small, private facilities that only offer personal training services.  Because the trainers in these facilities don’t have the large member base of a commercial gym that they can solicit their services to, they rely more on word-of-mouth advertising and positive referrals – which means that every session needs to be a positive experience for the client.

Your trainer should be completely focused on you

It comes down to this – you’re likely to pay $30-$100 and hour for a good personal trainer, depending on where you are.  If your trainer can’t at least make you the entire focus of their life for that one hour, you’re not getting what you paid for.

Your trainer shouldn’t be late.  Or cancel (neither should you, if you can help it).

Your trainer shouldn’t have outside conversations that take their eye off of you for more than 5-10 seconds, or leave you waiting for instruction.

Your trainer shouldn’t be distracted by his or her cell phone.

Your trainer should be striving to improve your knowledge base and self-sufficiency, not just striving to keep you as a lifetime client.

Your trainer should know about nutrition, and be curious about yours.

Your trainer should be able to answer your questions and respond to your concerns on the spot.  If you mention that an exercise is making your shoulder feel weird and your trainer doesn’t immediately have you stop and ask you some questions, they’re not doing their job.

Because no one has perfect form all the time, your trainer should correct you.

Your trainer should know your medical history.  If he or she doesn’t ask, walk away and don’t look back.

Your trainer should maintain a professional relationship with you at all times.  This seems obvious, but sexual harassment is the #1 source of lawsuits against personal trainers.

Your trainer shouldn’t be trying to sell you supplements that he or she makes a commission on.  Many gyms encourage this, I am 100% against it.  Again, this is in their best interest (and the gym’s), not yours.

Your trainer should be accessible outside of the gym.  At least a phone number so you have a way to reach them.  One of my prime areas of emphasis is on communication.  I want you, as one of my clients, to have access to answers, help, and motivation when you need it – not just when we’re face-to-face.  All of my clients are free to call, text, or e-mail me with questions at any time.

So as you begin the search for a trainer, keep these things in mind.  It’s not uncommon to go through several trainers before you find the right one.  Many trainers offer free initial sessions – take them up on it, but don’t be afraid to walk away if he or she doesn’t seem like a good fit.

About Darin Starr

Darin is an ACSM certified trainer in Asheville, North Carolina. He works with clients 1-on-1, with partners and small groups, and also teaches group fitness classes.
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