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What to look for (and avoid) in a personal trainer

The questions you need to ask to find a personal trainer who will help you get the results you want.
Trainer observing cross training athlete doing squats with barbell in gym
Make sure that any trainer who offers to coach you is certified and qualified to train.Corey Jenkins / Getty Images

It’s well understood that exercise is integral to health, but all exercise is not created equal, and depending on numerous factors such as body type, age and fitness goals, one person’s preferred workout regimen may look very different from the next person’s.

How does one make sense of it all and figure out what works best for them?

If you can afford it, a personal fitness trainer could be your best bet. The problem? There just so many personal trainers out there and more coming on board every day.

The Bureau of Labor and Statistics projected a growth of 10 percent from 2016 to 2026 in the employment of fitness trainers and instructors, while IBISWorld determined industry revenue growth of nearly three percent in 2018 in the category of personal trainers.

To help you find the right fit, we consulted exercise experts and fitness junkies to compile an expert list of what to look for — as well as what to avoid — in a personal trainer.

Look for certifications over Instagram hype

In the age of social media, anybody can identify as an “expert” and promote themselves as such without necessarily backing it up. You want to make sure that your trainer is certified and qualified to train.

“You need to make sure that your trainer has the education to back up the workouts they're leading you through,” says Juliette Walle, a personal trainer and education director for modelFIT. “Whether they studied athletic training or exercise science in university, or they have a certification (NASM, ACE, and ACSM are the most common), this means there will be a method to their workout plans and coaching style, as well as a level of safety for you as the client. Similarly, make sure your trainer has their CPR-AED certification. This is so important for your safety in any exercise program.”

Walle notes, “this doesn't mean they have a ton of Instagram followers or that they look really fit.”

Set clear expectations and make sure they’re on the same page

“Before you even interview a personal trainer, you will want to make sure you are very clear about your own expectations,” says Darleen Barnard, a NASM-certified personal trainer, ACE-certified health coach and the owner of Fit4Health. “If you want someone to hold you accountable between sessions, make sure you let them know and ask them if it is okay to contact them between sessions.”

Start with one session to see if you’re compatible

Ultimately, you want a trainer with whom you have good professional chemistry. You should be able to tell if you can work well together after just one session.

“It is best to only purchase one session instead of a package at the beginning, [to tell if] that trainer work well with your personality,” says Cary Williams, a boxing coach and CEO of Boxing & Barbells. “Some people love to be pushed really hard, some like to be dealt with delicately. Be sure the trainer fits well with how you learn and respond to training.”

Make checklists of positives to refer to after sessions

Once you find a trainer you like and have done three sessions with them, Nicole Glor of NikkiFitness and the author of “The Slimnastics Workout: The Intense, No-Equipment Routine Combining Gymnastics, Plyometrics, and Advanced Yoga” recommends checking off the following questions:

  • Did they remember what you did last week and how you [for instance,] didn’t want to do those triceps dips because ithurt your wrist?
  • Do you look forward to seeing them or dread it?
  • Did they push you hard enough?
  • Were you at least a little sore?
  • Did they ask about your goals?
  • Did they combine muscle, cardio and flexibility?
  • Did they get down in the floor with you or stand above (trainers should move down to the level of the move that is taking place)?
  • Did they correct your form?
  • Did they make the workout a little fun?

Ideally, you’ll answer “yes” to all of the above.

Check for these red flags...

Walle provides the following checklist of behaviors that are red flags. These are indicators that you should dump your personal trainer.

  • They don't listen or seem to care when you're experiencing pain or discomfort.
  • They can't or won't explain how their workouts will help you reach your goal.
  • They lean on body-shaming for motivational purposes.
  • They utilize the exact same workout format, number of repetitions/sets or the exact same exercises every session.
  • They spend more of the session looking at themselves in the mirror than coaching you
  • They aren't asking you how things are feeling, checking in with you or coaching you through the exercises.

They understand the difference between 'pain' and 'burn'

We’re all familiar with the phrase “no pain no gain.” While this is partly true (you do want to feel challenged), your personal trainer should be sensitive to your body’s limitations.

“The ‘no pain no gain’ quote everyone has heard is only partly true and your trainer shouldn’t believe this to an extreme,” says Vince Sant, an ISSA-certified trainer behind the online fitness platform, V Shred. “There’s a difference between feeling a burn while doing squats and feeling actual pain in your hips or knees. Understanding the difference between pain and soreness is something your trainer has to be able to listen to you about. Making you push through pain could be seriously threatening to your body.”

They don’t stick you on a treadmill for 20 minutes

Your personal trainer should advise you on cardio workouts if you have questions, but they shouldn’t instruct you to do cardio (which eats up time) during your session.

“The time you’re spending with your trainer should be spent doing exercises that you need them for,” says Sant. “Spending half your time on a cardio machine is nonsense because that’s not what you’re paying for. You’re paying to learn methods to build strength, lose fat and be and feel healthy.”

A trainer should be able to teach you a variety of new exercises that you wouldn't be able to figure out just by watching other people.

They teach you techniques you couldn’t master through observation alone

Sant underscores that part of what you’re paying for with a personal trainer is an education. Make sure your personal trainer is teaching you new workout techniques.

“A trainer should be able to teach you a variety of new exercises that you wouldn't be able to figure out just by watching other people,” says Zack Taylor of Torrance, California, who started working with a trainer after physical therapy for hip and shoulder pain. “Working with [my] trainer I learned an impressive new set of exercises that I can do anywhere without machines or weights.”

They have educated insights on nutrition

Getting fit is only partly about exercise; it’s also about eating right. A trainer should have some nutrition knowledge to help you meet your goals and feel your best.

Sant says that a personal trainer should assess your diet and make suggestions for what to add and/or reduce in terms of foods and drinks, while taking into consideration your lifestyle.

It should be noted that while some personal trainers may be knowledgeable about nutrition, registered dietitians have the training and education to provide specific nutrition advice tailored to your goals and health conditions.

“[My trainer] helped me to adjust some of my eating habits to maintain better energy levels with less sugar spikes,” says Taylor. “This helped me to lose a little weight while also feeling better throughout the day.”

If they’re on their phone or tuned out in session, ditch them

Williams has seen plenty of trainers engaging in distractions while in session with a client. This is a major red flag, and one that Sylvia Nasser, a certified personal trainer with Equinox says calls for terminating the relationship, pronto.

“Dump your trainer immediately if they are on their phone while training,” says Nasser, a certified personal trainer. “It’s rude and unprofessional. A text or an email can wait 45 minutes to an hour and is distracting to the client.”

Don’t be tricked into thinking you need more sessions if results are lacking

If you’re putting in the work and not seeing results over time, Sant says it’s not uncommon for subpar trainers to insist you need to double down by booking more sessions with them. Don’t fall for this.

“That’s them taking the easy way out rather than diving into you as a person and what you’re eating, what you’re stressing about in life, or whatever else may be holding you back,” says Sant. “If you get a trainer whose [solution] is always to work out more, that’s them being lazy. They need to take the time to know why you’re not getting the results rather than just telling you to book more sessions.”


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