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How to Choose the Best Personal Trainer for You

To find your match made in gym heaven (and guarantee you get the results you want), start by answering these 8 questions.
How to Choose a Personal Trainer
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How to Choose a Personal Trainer

There’s no doubt about it; exercising regularly with an expert running the show is good for you. Research shows working with a personal trainer who can show you exactly how to deadlift, pull-up, and plank while also offering encouragement can improve strength and fitness gains as well as help you stick to an exercise routine. [1] [2]. But with more than 200,000 personal trainers currently practicing in the U.S., all of whom represent a variety of certifications, specializations, and approaches to fitness, where does one begin when it comes to finding a trainer who’s the kettle to your bell, the tread to your mill, the master to your stair? Right here, that's where. Before you choose your match made in gym heaven, answer these eight questions:

1. Are they credentialed?
Whether you want to improve your speed, build strength, or shed a few pounds, you’ll want to work with someone who’s been certified by an organization you can trust. The National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) is in charge of making sure organizations that certify trainers meet the NCCA’s own standards of professionalism and competence. There are a few different certifications that are NCCA-approved, but one of the most well-known and respected is the American Council on Exercise (ACE). Just ask your trainer where their cert comes from (or do a little Google stalking research). You can check out the NCCA’s full list of accredited fitness and wellness organizations here. And if you want to go one step further, check out this handy dandy chart that breaks down the difference between ACE, NASM, and ACSM certifications.

How to Choose a Personal Trainer: Weightlifting spot

2. What kind of (and how much) experience do they have?
We used to believe that mastery of a skill came after 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. However the popular “practice-makes-perfect” theory has been debunked in favor of the more nuanced idea that “smart practice makes perfect.” In other words, when it comes to learning a skill, it’s the quality of time spent practicing, not the number of hours logged, that transform a novice into a virtuoso. One building block of high-quality practice is swift recognition and correction of mistakes. How is this relevant to your prospective personal fitness coach? Trainers learn whether or not their methodologies work in real time, making adjustments along the way to help clients reach their goals. In this way, the more experience your trainer has, the better. Plus, studies show that teaching is a great way to learn [3]. A trainer who has been teaching proper technique for a long time has likely gotten better and better at providing the right cues to help you get the most out of every single rep.

Once you’ve gotten a handle on how long a trainer has been in the fitness game, don’t forget to ask what kind of experience they have. Whether you’re brand new to working out or an experienced athlete looking for sports-specific training, you’ll want a trainer who knows how to work with someone just like you. A few things to consider: fitness level, age, health status, fitness interests, or any other particulars you think might be important.

Choosing a Personal Trainer: Dealing with Injury

3. What is their strategy for preventing and dealing with injuries?
Many of us deal with nagging aches and pains or recurring injuries and we’re unsure how to get a great workout without causing a flare-up. If you're nursing an old injury, your trainer should be capable of adjusting your training to work around it. For any new injuries, they'll recommend seeing a physician before going back into beast mode.

Choosing a Personal Trainer: Fitness Specialties

4. Do they specialize in any training styles?
The NCCA stamp of approval might be enough to make you feel comfortable, confident, and ready to book your first session, but if you have specific goals (conquering a handstand, getting in shape for surfing, swinging a kettlebell like a pro) or have always been curious about a particular kind of workout (suspension training, anyone?), you might want to make sure your trainer is someone who can lead the way. Find out if they’ve been formally instructed in a given area and are certified to teach it. Maybe you’d like someone with a YogaFit credential, a CrossFit Level I cert, or a certificate in kettlebell lifts, TRX, Pilates, mind-body training, and so on. Many trainers pursue continuing education in dizzying array of other areas, from plyometrics and nutrition for marathoners to glutes and low-back pain! (Click here to see some lesser-known certifications offered by ACE you might want to seek out.)

Finally, if you like the idea of working out with someone who has studied health and fitness in an academic setting, look for trainers who hold degrees in exercise science, physical education, or kinesiology (a combination of physiology and health science).

5. What's the fine print re: cost and availability?
A great trainer is worth his or her weight in gold. But for many people, the trainer we choose has more to do with the amount of gold we have to spend. Do some comparison shopping to find out average rates in your city. Although personal trainers made an average of $35 per hour in 2013, prices vary depending on location. In New York City, for example, personal training can cost as little as the national average or as much as $300 per session.

If a personal trainer seems out of your budget, you have a couple of options. Some trainers offer lower rates for semi-private workouts, which are something between one-on-one training and a group class. You can also inquire about discounts for buying sessions in bulk. Alternatively, consider looking at working with a trainer as an added bonus to your workout routine (as opposed to the only time you exercise). For example, ask your prospective trainer about possible arrangements where you might meet in-person less frequently but follow their program between sessions. 

It’s also a good idea to inquire about their schedule—if they tend to meet clients at the same time each week, how far in advance they book appointments, their cancellation policy, and whether it’s possible to make up missed sessions.

Choosing a Personal Trainer: Motivation

6. What is their coaching style?
When it comes to client-coach compatibility, personality and training style are crucial. Consider your own learning style first. If you’re someone who picks up a movement by having it broken down into its smallest components and demonstrated repeatedly, be sure to choose a trainer who is interested in the minutiae of exercise and has the patience to go through the details.

Next up: the personality of your ideal personal trainer. Do you want a cheerleader who will remind you of how awesome you are for making the effort, or do you need a stern, drill sergeant-type who is more likely to tell you to go harder, faster, and heavier than congratulate you on each small victory? Either one (and anything in between) is fine! One study found that trainees were more successful when they received ongoing social support from their trainers [4]. On the other hand, some clients might be self-sufficient when it comes to motivation and gel with a trainer who encourages autonomy [5].

Although you can get plenty of answers by asking your maybe-future-trainer all about their methodologies and how they see their own styles and attitudes, checking in with someone who trains with them could offer additional insight. Ask for references to get the inside scoop on what it's like to be the trainer’s client—like their pet peeve about punctuality or how adept they are at explaining and instruction.

Choosing a Personal Trainer: Tracking and Programming

7. How do they program and track progress?
Your trainer should not only be able to make a personalized training program based on your goals and fitness level, but also help you track your progress to see how your hard work is paying off. This might mean workouts to help you PR at your next 5K, a program to help you drop a few pounds, or a step-by-step plan to master the handstand. Whatever you want to achieve, working out under supervision while following a program has been shown to be more effective than flying solo at the gym [6]. That said, if you're working with a trainer but aren't seeing results or notice any more of these red flags, it might be smart to break ties. 

8. Do they stay on top of fitness trends and related research?
Extensive fitness knowledge and expertise is a main reason why people want to work with personal trainers. Your trainer should be able to speak about a variety of training styles and the advantages and drawbacks of each. Most trainers have their own opinion about what gets results, but the best ones aren't so married to one particular modality that they won’t be versatile in their programming. According to ACE expert Jessica Matthews, if you happen to catch your trainer using the same exercises and routines with other clients, it could be that he or she might not understand the “why” behind your workout and how specific exercises will help you to reach your goals. The best trainers are the ones who love what they do (same is true for any profession). And loving what you do often translates into always wanting to improve and expand your knowledge so you can keep getting better at your job. If your prospective trainer seems less than passionate about continuing his or her education—or thinks that he or she already knows all there is to know about fitness—it's probably a good idea to consider working with someone else, Matthews says

Have you ever worked with a personal trainer? Share in the comments below, or get in touch with us on Twitter!  Or if you're interested in learning more about personal training in your city, use this simple tool to find an ACE-certified trainer near you.

ACE LogoThe American Council on Exercise® (ACE ®) is the largest nonprofit health and fitness organization in the world. In addition to providing NCCA-accredited certifications for Personal Trainers, Group Fitness Instructors, Health Coaches, and Advanced Health and Fitness Specialists, ACE serves as ‘America’s Authority on Fitness’ and protects the public from unsafe and ineffective products, programs and trends.

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Works Cited +

  1. The influence of direct supervision of resistance training on strength performance. Mazzetti SA1, Kraemer WJ, Volek JS, et al. Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise. 2000 Jun;32(6):1175-84.
  2. Effect of certified personal trainer services on stage of exercise behavior and exercise mediators in female college students. Fischer DV, Bryant J. Journal of American College Health. 2008 Jan-Feb;56(4):369-76.
  3. Graduate students' teaching experiences improve their methodological research skills. Feldon DF, Peugh J, Timmerman BE, et al. Science 2011 Aug 19;333(6045):1037-9.
  4. Exercise facilitators and barriers from adoption to maintenance in the diabetes aerobic and resistance exercise trial. Tulloch H1, Sweet SN, Fortier M, et al. Canadian Journal of Diabetes, 2013 Dec;37(6):367-74.
  5. Effects of an autonomy-supportive exercise instructing style on exercise motivation, psychological well-being, and exercise attendance in middle-age women. Moustaka FC, Vlachopoulos SP, Kabitsis C, et al. Journal of Physical Activity and Health. 2012 Jan;9(1):138-50.
  6. Effect of Supervised, Periodized Exercise Training versus Self-Directed Training on Lean Body Mass and other Fitness Variables in Health Club Members. Storer TW, Dolezal BA, Berenc M, et al. Journal of Strength and Conditioning. 2014 Jan 3

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