What to Look For
As common as it is for personal trainers to come in different shapes, sizes, and ages, it is equally common for them to have very different experiential, academic, and certification backgrounds. Finding a good fit will not only help you feel more comfortable, but will also set you up for success. Taking the time to research a personal trainer who will provide a safe and effective program is as important as taking the time to research a new car that will provide you with the safest and smoothest ride.
Believe it or not, due to lack of national regulations, there are personal trainers working without any academic degree or certification at all. Would you hire a lawyer that never went to law school or a doctor who didn't pass his boards? Chances are, you answered no, but if you didn't, call me -- I have a bridge to sell you!
There are numerous personal trainer certifications available for individuals who wish to enter the field. Some are better than others -- much better. Not only do you want to hire a trainer who is certified, but also one certified by an accredited organization. Currently, there are fewer than 20 certifications available that have been accredited by either the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) or the Distance Education Training Council (DETC), both third party accreditors.
Examples of popular accredited personal trainer certifications include (partial list):
Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA)
American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)
American Council on Exercise (ACE)
International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA)
National Academy or Sports Medicine (NASM)
National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA)
Earning an accredited certification requires the personal trainer to show proof of a current CPR/AED certification. Like most credentialed professionals, in order to stay certified, the trainer must complete ongoing, pre-approved continuing education courses, and show proof of completion to maintain their certification. Chances are if they were certified back when leotards, leggings, and sweatbands were en vogue, industry standards have changed. Make sure the trainer has been doing their continuing education and that their certifications are current.
Is a Degree Required?
Although not required, it is even better if your personal trainer holds a degree in a health sciences field such as exercise science. As part of their studies, most students will have completed coursework in human anatomy and physiology, kinesiology and often times exercise testing, prescription and programming, etc.
Though experience can sometimes equate to knowledge, research has shown that it doesn't necessarily hold true in the weight room. According to a 2002 study published by the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, years of experience were not predictive of personal trainer knowledge. In fact, the study recommended that personal trainers have a degree in exercise science along with a certification. To sum it up: Be on the lookout for brains before brawn.
Where to Start
You're ready to do it. You're going to hire a personal trainer and make all of your health and fitness goals a reality! Maybe the only personal trainer you know is Jillian Michaels. I could be wrong, but chances are she's not currently taking on new clients due to her busy schedule. So now what? Here are three ways to begin:
Referrals -- One of the most common ways to find a trainer is by asking friends if they are happy with theirs. Having a referral from someone you trust is an excellent way to get real perspective on what a session will be like.
Online Search -- Looking at different personal trainers' websites and online reviews can help you narrow the search.
Your Local Gym -- Next time you are at the gym, take a look at some of the personal trainers on the floor. Take note of who looks like they are interacting with their clients the way you would want to be attended to.
Questions to Ask
Before you pick up the phone, consider writing down some questions to ask your prospective trainer. Gathering this information ahead of time will help to identify whether the trainer is going to be the right fit.
Do you hold a degree in a health sciences field?
Are you currently certified as a personal trainer?
What are some ways that you continue your education to stay certified?
Do you have references of current and past clients whom I may contact?
What does a typical session consist of?
How will you help to keep me accountable during my program?
What are your payment, session, and cancellation policies?
In addition to questions, bring up any specific conditions or concerns you may have. For instance, if you have a special health condition such as osteoporosis or high blood pressure, ask the trainer if he or she has experience working with clients with the same diagnosis. If you know you are the type of person who rallies through the first six weeks of the year exercising consistently but simply cannot maintain the drive long term, ask how he or she can help. Remember, you want to find the trainer who will inspire, motivate, and effectively train you while keeping you safe. Like a new pair of shoes, there are many options out there; you may have to try a few on before making a purchase.
What to Watch Out For
In addition to recognizing the qualities of a good personal trainer, you need to be aware of the warning signs of a not-so-good one. Choosing a personal trainer who possesses some of the qualities below may be hazardous to your health or at the very least, not very much fun or inspiring to train with. Proceed with caution.
Prescribing Supplements/Diet -- Be wary of any trainer that attempts to sell you supplements or gives you a specific diet. Unless your trainer is also a doctor or a registered dietician, these recommendations are not within their scope of practice. While general tips about food choices, eating habits, and helping you to research supplements can be OK, specific diet and supplement recommendations are not.
Diagnosing -- Although personal trainers have a greater knowledge of the human body and musculoskeletal system than most, diagnosing an injury is not part of their job. Leave that to the medical professionals. If you present an injury or complaint to your trainer, they should tell you to have your doctor assess you.
Easily Distracted -- Be wary of trainers who take phone calls, chat it up with other trainers or members of the gym, or simply seem disinterested in you during your session. Remember, this is your time and the focus should be on you, your safety, and your fitness goals.
Questions -- If you have a question, ask it! A knowledgeable trainer should be able to answer most questions regarding your exercise program. If for some reason they are unable to do so on the spot, expect them to research it and get back to you.
Positive Encouragement -- If you find that your trainer is constantly putting you down, telling you that you aren't strong enough or good enough... like any abusive relationship, it may be time to move on.
Listening Skills -- Although trainers are there to motivate and push you further than you normally would on your own, speak up if it hurts or is truly too much! A good trainer should listen to your needs and feedback and modify or stop an exercise if necessary.
Fitness is an investment of your time and energy, and personal trainers can help us maximize that investment. Whether you work with a personal trainer for a short or long period of time, sometimes the individualized attention and personal cheerleading can be just what the doctor ordered! At the end of the day, what's more important than you and your health? Maybe it's time to start investing.
Ryan Baylor, CSCS, holds a B.S. in Exercise Science and is a fitness educator and certified personal trainer in Los Angeles, CA.