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Phys Ed

How to Hire a Personal Trainer Who Actually Knows What They're Doing

Having lots of Instagram followers doesn't make someone an expert.

Trevor Thieme, CSCS

Neustock/Getty Images

Maybe you've been stuck in a fitness plateau for months—or even years. Perhaps you're bouncing back from an injury and don't want to get sidelined again. Or maybe you've just finally realized that you don't know jack shit about designing an effective workout—let alone an entire program—and you want to work with someone who does. Whatever reason you have for wanting to hire a personal trainer, I commend you. Aside from deciding to get in shape in the first place, it's the best fitness decision you can make.

In addition to the whole knowing how to design a workout thing, there's the accountability factor: When you schedule a workout with someone, you're more likely to show up—especially if you're paying that someone to be there. A trainer can also help you navigate unfamiliar gym equipment, avoid injury (e.g., by using proper form and not overtraining), create a program that helps you reach your goals as quickly as possible, and (perhaps most important) motivate you to keep showing up and maybe even enjoy working out. That last point is key—if you don't enjoy what you're doing, you're not going to do it for long.

But you likely also have some hesitations. Trainers cost money—sometimes a lot of money if they're well established or have large social media followings. And just because someone calls himself a personal trainer (or fancies himself one thanks to a large social media following), it doesn't mean that he knows much more than you do about getting in shape. Indeed, it can simply mean that he knows how to market himself. After more than 14 years as a fitness professional and certified strength and conditioning specialist, I've found that asking these seven questions will help ensure you get your money's worth out of every session.

What's his or her certification?
Personal training isn't regulated like other health and wellness professions. With dietitians, doctors, and physical therapists, for example, you can be certain of a few things: They had to complete years of academic coursework, perform hundreds (if not thousands) of internship or residency hours, and pass a national exam. They also likely have to perform continuing education. With personal trainers, you can't take any of that for granted.

There are no laws governing the practice of personal training. Literally anyone can call himself or herself a personal trainer and dispense fitness advice. And if you have a couple hundred dollars and a free weekend, there are plenty of online certification programs that will be more than happy to make you "official." But that doesn't mean that hiring a personal trainer has to be a crapshoot.

While there are hundreds of certifying organizations for personal training, only 13 are accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies. Some of the standouts in that elite group are the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), the American Council on Exercise (ACE), the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), and the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). As long as a trainer is credentialed by one of those NCCA-recognized institutions, you can be sure that they had to pass a rigorous exam that proves a deep knowledge of exercise science and practice. (The pass rate for the NSCA's Certified Strength and Conditioning test was only 55 percent in 2016, for example.) In fact, a study at UCLA found that a certification from either of the latter two organizations (ACSM or NSCA) is a better predictor of knowledge than years of experience (although in the interest of full disclosure, the study was published in the NSCA's very own Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research).

Does that mean that all certified trainers are effective trainers? Not at all. Some of the best trainers in the world haven't a single initial appended to their names. But if you see CSCS, NSCA-CPT, NASM-CPT, ACSM-CPT, or ACE-CPT on their CV, they're worth keeping on your short list.

Can he or she provide evidence?
Don't be afraid to ask for the trainer's certification. It's not only a proof of knowledge, it's a badge of honor, and most trainers are only too happy to show it off. When it's presented, check out the date. Every trainer has to start somewhere, but unless you enjoy being a test subject, you want to make sure the trainer has had the opportunity to put his or her academic knowledge into practice for more than a few months. That might seem to contradict the study mentioned above, but ideally, you want it all: A trainer that is both certified by an NCCA-accredited institution, and one with several years of experience applying their knowledge in the real world.

Of course, you also want to make sure they're effective at applying that knowledge, and you won't get that from a framed certificate. Ask for referrals (and actually talk to them). Request before and after photos of clients. And pay attention to how quickly and easily the trainer can produce such information. You're looking for passion as well as competence—someone who is not only effective at producing results, but also takes pride in them, and cares enough to record them.

What are his or her specialties?
You also want to see yourself in those photos. Not literally (that would be weird), but you should be able to identify with the kind of clients (age, sex, fitness level, and goals) with whom the trainer tends to work.

Do you have more than 50 pounds to lose? Then you want to see before and after photos showing dramatic weight loss—not scrawny to brawny success stories. Alternatively, if you're already lean and you're looking to build muscle, you don't want to want to see Biggest Loser-type transformations. You want to see before and after photos showing weight gain (in the form of muscle mass). And if you're looking to break the 40-minute barrier in a 10K, you likely don't want to waste your time with someone who primarily trains powerlifters. Bottom line: Whether your goal is to lose fat, gain muscle, or achieve a new PR in your sport, you want to see proof that a trainer knows how to achieve that.


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Do you vibe?
People tend to underestimate the importance of liking their trainer on a personal level. Don't be one of them. A trainer might be the guy or gal in your area for weight loss (or muscle building, or marathon training, or adventure race conditioning), but if you don't enjoy spending time with that person, you're not going to enjoy working out. And as previously mentioned, if you don't enjoy working out, you likely won't do it for long, so make sure your personalities click.

A little recon can also go a long way here. Ask if you can sit in on a training session, or observe from afar if the trainer works in your gym. Is he or she someone who motivates through positive reinforcement and encouragement, or do they take more of a drill sergeant approach? Do they provide moment-to-moment feedback, or do they wait until the end of the session to critique performance and suggest improvements? Whatever his or her training style is, make sure it works for you.

Do your schedules jive?
Consistency is critical for achieving any fitness goal, so you want to make sure that the trainer's schedule works with yours. How many clients is the trainer juggling? Will he or she be available consistently at your preferred workout time? How far in advance do you need to book appointments? How easily can you make up missed ones? What is his or her cancellation policy? Get answers to all of these questions before you book your first appointment.

Can you afford that trainer?
It doesn't matter how good a trainer is or how perfectly matched he or she is to your personality and goals if you can't afford the sessions. The average hourly rate for a trainer in the United States is around $50, but that can vary depending on everything from geographic area (Midwest vs. Northeast) to popularity (think: Instagram fitness influencer). Other factors include level of education or expertise, years in the business, whether or not they are independent, and the length of their client list (the longer it is, the more expensive they're likely to be).

There are also several ways to potentially reduce the cost, such as training in a gym (where a trainer can meet several clients in succession) rather than at your home, using a commercial gym's on-site trainer rather than an independent one, and purchasing a training package (i.e., multiple sessions at once). You can also ask the trainer if he or she offers discounted "semi-private" sessions, which simply means sharing their time with someone else. Your health is important, but getting fit should never break the bank, and it's almost always possible to find a solution that works with your budget.

What's the trainer's plan?
It's not hard for a trainer to look like a superstar if you're new to exercise, as just about anything you do will yield results. But to achieve (and maintain) your fitness goal, your trainer needs to play the long game, and develop a program that's customized to you. Ask him how he intends to do that. If his plan doesn't begin with an assessment of your mobility, strength, balance, cardiovascular fitness, and body composition, walk away. The trainer should also inquire about your medical history and medications, some of which can affect heart rate. Every body is different, and any trainer that doesn't acknowledge that by creating a program that's tailored to yours and your specific fitness goals doesn't deserve your time or money.

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