How to Choose a Personal Trainer: Myth Versus Reality

In this article I highlight the two biggest myths about how to identify a good trainer, discuss the qualities that make for a good trainer, and share ten questions you should ask to be sure a trainer is right for you.

Before we talk shop, I wanted to announce my upcoming course dates and locations:

Two Myths About What Makes a Good Personal Trainer

If you’re looking for a personal trainer, make sure you don’t fall prey to these two common myths.

Myth #1: Might Makes Right!

One of the most prolific training myths is that the biggest, strongest, or leanest people in the gym or on social media are always the most qualified to give smart, safe, and reliable training advice and information. Sometimes they are, but often they are not!

First off, this idea that one must have personally achieved a certain level of success in a sport in order to be a reliable source of technical information (i.e., the intellectual aspects of training), demonstrably fails. For proof, look no further than professional sports. Many of the best players turnout to be terrible coaches, while others who never even played the game end up as top-notch coaches helping many athletes realize their potential. These coaches excel because they not only possess a deep knowledge of the technical and tactical aspects of the game (i.e., the X’s and O’s), but they have the ability to simplify and communicate that knowledge in a way athletes can use to their advantage. The same thing can be said for trainers and coaches.

Heck, none of Michael Jordan’s coaches were nearly as good as he was at playing basketball, but they were able to help him realize his potential. Not to mention, saying that you’re not qualified to coach someone unless you’ve had similar personal experience is to say that male trainers can’t effectively train female clients because they don’t have any personal experience having a menstrual cycle, exercising while pregnant, being constantly ogled at by creepy dudes in the gym, etc. Males absolutely can train females on the technical and tactical aspects of exercise programming (i.e., the intellectual aspects of training), but it’s the emotional and psychological aspects of training and competing that can be better related to from another female with similar experience.

Secondly, the biggest, leanest and fittest people have often achieved their results despite what they thinkthey know, not because of it. They are gym rats who organize their lives around gyms and kitchens. Although they might be a great resource on the emotional and psychological aspects of disciplined training and dieting and can share their experiences, they’re often not so great to rely on for the intellectual aspects of training. For example, they don’t have an understanding of the principles of biomechanics, physiology, and current research that determines how to best individualize a training program based on your individual goals, abilities, and medical profile.

It’s important to consider that the more time someone spends in gyms and kitchens in order to maintain their own “gym rat card,” the less time they’re able to spend on learning the technical and tactical aspects of programming necessary to make that person qualified to provide reliable advice and information to other people.

The reality is that there are trainers who act as fitness professionals and others who act as fitness hobbyists. Fitness hobbyists tend to spend most of their educational time and money learning about the training concepts and techniques that they themselves think are aligned with their own training goals instead of learning better and more effective ways to help clients achieve their goals. Because of this, they usually do something to the client instead of doing something for the client by providing a training direction based mostly on their own chosen training philosophy (i.e. bias) rather than delivering a true “personalized” workout program. In other words, these trainers often end up giving their clients private lessons on what they like to do instead of using the best modalities for the client to achieve their goals.

Myth #2: A Trainer Can Be Judged by How Their Clients Look

This idea is so detached from the reality that I don’t know whether to call it laughable or delusional.

The reality is that the majority of people most trainers will work with are recreational exercisers. Although many of these folks may say that they’re looking to lose some fat, they’re really after weight-management and general fitness; most aren’t genuinely interested in becoming gym rats who organize their entire lives around gyms and kitchens. Others will openly state that they’re not at all interested in changing their eating habits and are exercising as defense to offset all the foods they love to eat. Not to mention, you can’t blame a trainer for someone not experiencing drastic physical changes if they only work with the trainer once or twice a week and go home and eat like a lazy teenager and do absolutely nothing the rest of the time.

Generally speaking, most people are exercising for general health and fitness purposes and will often say things like, “I don’t want to think when I’m working out.” These folks just want a great workout experience that challenges them but doesn’t hurt them. They often gauge their training success by how much they’ve enjoyed each workout, how they feel at the end of the workout, and by the fact that they’ve completed a certain number of workouts per week. Though these clients become fitter, feel better, and are more confident, these general fitness expectations explain why so many competent fitness professionals (including yours truly) have long-term clients who don’t look much different or don’t have impressive increases in their lifting numbers than when they started.

That said, many personal trainers have this elitist idea that you’re basically wasting your time working out unless you’re training with a specific focus on physique or performance measures while ignoring the numerous well-evidenced physical and mental health benefits of regular exercise including disease prevention, preservation of bone mass, improved mood (even in those with depression), anxiety/stress reduction, improved sleep, an enhanced feeling of energy and well-being, the delay of all-cause mortality, and even brain growth.

Many confused trainers look down on people who exercise for fitness and health, pro- claiming that these people are “satisfied with being mediocre,” as if those not interested in organizing their entire lives around gyms and food are somehow inferior.

These same trainers continue to be frustrated, wondering why some people “don’t get it” or “don’t care” as much as they do and ultimately stop training with them. But it’s usually not that these people don’t care; it’s that they don’t care about what the trainer wants them to care about. These trainers are the ones who just don’t get it.

These personal trainers fail to realize that to most people, “getting results” from exercising isn’t about achieving impressive deadlift numbers or building a wider back—those are gym rat goals. It simply means staying active, overcoming physical challenges, and enjoying each workout. Those are respectable and reasonable goals that personal trainers should encourage and be proud to facilitate.

Defining What Makes a Good Personal Trainer

Now that I’ve clarified two common myths about what qualifies as a good personal trainer, we can discuss the qualities that define a good personal trainer.

Before we can get into what qualities make for a good personal trainer, we must first define what it means to be a fitness professional. Sure, you might want to say that a personal trainer provides motivation and inspiration for people to exercise; they won’t be very successful unless they are likeable, relatable, a good communicator and provide an enjoyable environment and experience.

That said, just having a relatable personality is not simply what makes for a good personal trainer. It’s not just about how they motivate people; it’s also about what they’re motivating their clients to do in the first place. This is where the technical aspect of exercise prescription plays a critical role. The technical side of being a fitness professional seems to be the most misunderstood and under-recognized.

Put simply, from the technical side of the profession, a fitness professional is (supposed to be) an exercise prescription expert. Let’s unpack this a bit.

Many people, including many fitness professionals, think that simply knowing a wide variety of exercise variations and how to properly perform/coach them is what makes for a great personal trainer. Those elements are certainly part of the job, but if that is all a fitness professional brings to the table, there’s nothing that separates them from the everyday exercise enthusiast who has memorized how to perform a variety of exercises because they’ve spent a great deal of time watching exercise videos online and reading exercise articles, magazines, and books. A personal trainer must possess more expertise to provide real value beyond the advice of an experienced exercise enthusiast.

Put simply, being an exercise prescription expertinvolves having expertise in:

  • The individualization of exercises
  • The application of exercises
  • The organization and prioritization of exercises

In other words, what separates a great trainer from a not-so-great one is:

  1. Knowing what exercises not to do based on their client’s individual ability, physiological framework, medical profile, etc.
  2. Knowing how to utilize, prioritize, and organize exercises to design a program that maximizes the specific goals their client wants to achieve.

Although training trends come and go like clothing styles, a great personal trainertoday will have the same qualities as a great trainer will have 10, 20, 50 and 100+ years from now because the universal principles of training and biomechanics never go out-of-date.

The Three Circles of Personal Trainers

With the above in mind, what separates fitness professionals from one another, and makes some trainers more competent and qualified is how often they’re investing in and pursuing their continuing education. What I call the Three Concentric Circles of Personal Trainer’s Continuing Education described below, illustrates how fitness professionals generally fall into one of three categories (i.e., circles) based on their interest and efforts in pursing their continued education.

Each circle represents a much smaller population of fitness professionals who fit the corresponding criteria than the one preceding it.

Circle #1

This circle consists of the largest population of trainers and describes those who get much of their information from predominantly mainstream, commercialized names (e.g., pro athletes, fitness celebrities, etc.) that are notoriously unreliable sources who promote pseudoscience, while remaining uninformed of the more reliable sources that are scientifically-founded information within their field.

Trainers in this circle often find the quickest and easiest method of acquiring Continuing Education Credits (CECs/CEUs) to keep their certification current. They are also the ones whose primary method and view of getting their continued education is using mainstream media simply to find new, trending exercises and workout ideas they can use to “push” their clients.

Circle #2

Trainers in this category spend more time, energy and resources on their continuing education than those in the previous category. Because of this, these individuals tend to have a much better idea of what is relevant in their field and know the reliable sources of scientifically-founded training information.

These trainers are often attending live events and purchase informational products – whenever they can afford them – purely for the education provided, not simply for the CECs. They are often reading a wide variety of training-related books, articles, blogs and research studies.

Circle #3

These are the rare trainers who aren’t just passionate and dedicated to regularly pursuing their continued education; they’re obsessed with it. They are the ones who spend just about all of their free time and expendable income on their continuing education; constantly reading articles and research, buying books and video courses/products and attending as many live events as they can afford. Although these are work-related, to the trainers in this circle, engaging in their continuing education is enjoyable and exciting to them.

This is the type of trainer you want to hire! Unfortunately, this category consists of a much smaller portion of the trainer population than those in the previous categories. This explains why many gyms with a staff of 20 or more trainers don’t have a single trainer in this category. If they do, it is usually just one trainer, maybe two. On the other hand, there are some smaller, more private training facilities whose entire staff of trainers fall in this category. Those places are special!

It’s important to note that, in many cases, the most educated and competent trainers aren’t the strongest, fittest or leanest people in the gym because they’re often not fitness hobbyists as I described earlier. Although they certainly workout, these top-flight trainers spend far more time learning the technical and tactical aspects of programming necessary to make them more qualified to provide reliable advice and information than time spent on keeping their “gym rat card.”

How to Identify a Good Trainer: Ask These 10 Important Questions

As established above, the smaller the population circle of trainers, the more time and effort is made towards pursuing their professional growth and improvement through continued education.

Sure, just about everyone training clients shares a passion for helping people, but passion alone doesn’t make one a skilled trainer. That skill comes from regular investment in continuing education to improve and refine one’s craft. The same can be said for training experience. Despite having accumulated years of training experience, one could be repeating the same mistakes and holding the same false beliefs.

When you’re looking for a personal trainer, arm yourself with the following set of ten informed questions you can ask before you work with them. Their answers will give insight into whether they are just a fitness hobbyist or a fitness professional and you will be able to see which of the three circles they fall into.

  1. Where do you get most of your information from?
  2. How often do you pursue your continued education?
  3. How many hours a week do you spend on learning; how many on thinking about programming for your clients?
  4. What’s the last thing you did for your continued education?
  5. What do you plan on doing next for your continued education?
  6. Here’s my goal. What’s the best way to achieve it?
  7. Why is your training method better than other fitness training methods for helping me achieve my goal?
  8. Do you use the same basic training method for everyone you work with? Why or why not?
  9. Have you ever worked with others like me (similar age, sex, body-type, medical history, etc.) who have the same goals?
  10. If so, could I talk to them about their experience working with you and learn what to expect?

Do You Need Personal Trainer or Group Training?

Now that you know how to identify a great trainer from the rest, it’s important for you to also determine if you’re better off working with a trainer doing private or semi-private training or if group training is a better fit.

Put simply, group training is for those who mainly need motivation to exercise and get easily bored. It’s more about having an instructor to motivate and provide an interesting workout experience. It’s basically PE class for adults.

On the other hand, private and semi-private training is for those who are already motivated to exercise, but mainly looking for more individualized exercise prescription based on needs and goals. It’s more about the trainer providing you with a tailored programming direction.

Of course, the two aren’t mutually exclusive, but by nature, group training is more about the class as a whole (hence, why it’s less costly), whereas private and semi-private training is about you, the individual. So, choose the right training situation for what you’re looking for.

Check out my new book, Your Workout PERFECTED

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