HOW TO CHOOSE A PERSONAL TRAINER

I feel that being a professional trainer is one of the hardest jobs in the world to do right, and one of the easiest job in the world to fake. Why? Because it is far easier to talk someone into believing you are a professional trainer than it is to show them that you are a professional trainer.

Professional personal training should be an hour long performance of attentiveness, professionalism, knowledge, and experience that’s worthy of the considerable sum of money you – the client – is paying.

I happen to know that being a personal trainer is extremely difficult because I have been doing it a very high level for the past 20 years. I know how difficult personal training is because I assess the level of the product that I put on the floor at the end of each day and rate whether it was excellent, good, or bad so that I can continue to improve. I know how difficult personal training is because even when I have a “bad day”, I know that my product is still better than most trainers on their “best day”.

Unfortunately, for the most part, the industry of personal training has turned into clients paying for “BFFs” who talk more than they train, collect new exercises or exercise ideologies with very little rhyme or reason as to their application, and generally try to expend as little energy as possible while trying to make you believe they are experts at personal training.

Professional personal training, when done right, is physically and mentally exhausting. It is wrought with so many subtle perils that can degrade the clients hourly investment and the trainers product that, even I, have to remind myself every day of how easy it is to go awry.

The parameters for professional personal trainers are necessary, and codependent on one another.  They are as follows:

  • Appearance
  • Knowledge
  • Professionalism
  • Experience

There are no short cuts, nor should you accept any excuses from your current or potential trainer if he/she deviates from any these tenets in any way.

APPEARANCE

Believe it or not, the hardest part about being a professional personal trainer is actually looking like one. The fitness industry has deftly made the general public believe that the merits of a personal trainer should be based on the certifications they have and not on the bodies they have. However, the truth of the matter is that no trainer earns the right academically to not look like a trainer physically. It takes years for most of us to actually look like trainers. It is by far the hardest part of the “paying-your-dues” process that all of us who wish to be called professional personal trainers must go through. There was a time that those who became trainers were the “gym rats” who, having already spent considerable time getting themselves into shape, chose the only job that could allow them to keep “feeding the rat”. Today it is hard to tell the out-of-shape clients from the individuals training them.

The same things that your current or potential trainer will ask of you in order to get you into “shape” – sweat, sacrifice, discipline, and adherence – they must first master themselves or they will not be worth one penny of the significant amount of money you will be asked to pay for their expertise.

The visual expectation of what being physically fit represents can be skewed by the training ideology that the trainer in question practices. A trainer who is a practitioner of bodybuilding is not going to look the same as the trainer who practices Pilates. However, the general public can tell that they are both physically fit regardless of their training methods. However, just because a personal trainer looks the part, does not mean that he or she knows how to do the job. Some of the trainers who I feel represent the worst of the worst, are the picture of fitness, yet they put some of the worst product on the floor, not because they don’t know any better, but because they are lazy and uninterested in working any harder than they feel they should. And, if they can train you to put up with their laziness, all the better. How does this happen? Through something I call “osmosis training”, which is when a trainer who spends every waking minute of his/her day working on their body, properly feeding their body, and, in some cases, injecting their body, believes that you, their client, can achieve your physical goals with minimal movement and just by standing next to them, basking in their physical superiority.

So why would someone hire a trainer that doesn’t look like a personal trainer? Usually it’s because they’re under pressure from their health club membership representative. You purchase a health club membership and the sales consultant sells you a personal training package. Not only do most of these trainers not look like trainers, but the consultant can assign you to anyone with a basic certification and the least amount of actual training experience. The onus falls to you, the client, to get the best trainer available by asking one question:

How do I know if my trainer is in shape? Simply look at them. If you saw them walking down the beach in a bathing suit would you be impressed? If your answer is no, request another trainer. I will let you in on a little secret. Most trainers who look like trainers will wear form-fitting clothes to reveal their physiques. They want you to know that they have a “six pack”, bulging arms, toned legs, or a great butt. Most who struggle as much as their clients trying to look fit, will gravitate toward loser fitting attire which hides their soft belly, sagging butt, and flabby arms.

KNOWLEDGE

To me, knowledge is one of the most interesting elements of personal training because its relevancy is contingent upon your trainer’s ability to transfer his or her knowledge to you and make what he knows about fitness relevant to helping you achieve your fitness goals. This is no easy task for the neophyte trainer, and can be a diminished tool for the older jaded trainer. I have taken and passed four national exercise/nutrition certification courses and have taken a plethora of other continuing education courses. The certifications generally provide a broad base of two types of information. The first type is broader in scope and more applicable to the biomechanics of the body, the spectrum of physical limitations trainers might contend with, safety precautions which need to be implemented for safe exercise progression, and the parameters of staying within the “scope of practice” per a trainer’s skills. There is a ton information in this category which can be broken down into layman’s terms and made exceedingly beneficial for the client if the trainer has the proper understanding of the information and is able to effectively convey it to his/her clients. If not, it becomes useful to the trainer in formulating his/her sales pitch, or what I call “trainer talk.”  Trainer talk is lingo that allows a trainer to sound like they know what they’re talking about when you sit down for that free complimentary session – which is actually their opportunity to sell you a personal training package at your health club, or butter you up for the BFF conversation that will hopefully keep you coming back.

The second type of information is generally more hands-on, and will usually teach some type of exercise ideology. These certifications have become popular in the past 10 or so years and they allow trainers to get applicable information from which to actually program exercises for their clients. However, a lot of trainers will pick up these skills by watching others unless their salary is directly affected by having the certificate that specifically states they are trained in a particular ideology.

The only true gauge of a trainer’s knowledge is his/her ability to implement an exercise program that is safe, progressive, and effective. Since 99% of the trainers are all implementing the same exercises, I gauge a trainer’s capability by his/her ability to not only know what proper exercise form actually is, but their willingness to demonstrate it themselves and get down on their hands and knees if necessary to fix your form. I rarely see this being done. I am a “form junkie”. I want each exercise performed to perfection and I am exhausted at the end of each day from teaching my client’s how to properly execute exercises. This is an important part of a personal trainer’s job. If your trainer is too lazy, incapable or unwilling to do this for you, get another trainer.

Another component of knowledge is your trainer’s ability to choose the right exercises to help you achieve your particular goals. This is, in my opinion, infinitely harder for a client who is looking to lose weight than it is for the one wishing to build additional muscle. Any trainer can help someone pack on muscle. Helping someone lose weight is as personal as it gets, and the tools needed by the trainer in order to succeed on any level, have much more to do with helping the client when they are away from the trainer than when they are with him/her. The work is exceedingly more mental than it is physical, and takes much more experience on the trainer’s part to be successful.

While most trainers will never admit it, they would much rather help a client pack on muscle as opposed to helping them lose weight. Why? Because helping a client lose weight requires a significant amount of work to delve into a client’s lifestyle and suggest changes. A trainer will need to take this type of client by the hand through all the challenges they are going to face while building the foundation one small step at a time that will ultimately lead them to sustainable, long-term success. It is time consuming work that will test every aspect of a trainer’s skills as well as possibly requiring that he/she bring in outside help in the form of a nutritionist, a nutritional therapist or other qualified professionals who may be needed to get the job done. Most trainers have neither the skills nor the desire to do this successfully. However, I think that this type of work is by far the most personally rewarding work a trainer can do.

How do you know if your trainer has the knowledge necessary to help you achieve your physical goals? Train with your trainer for an extended period of time (a minimum of three months). If you have realistic goals within the structure of your genetic potential, and if you do at least 75 percent of what your trainer outlines for you during your time together and your time apart, and you still don’t see any of the changes that you want, your trainer does not have the knowledge to get it done. Get a new trainer.

The personal training field is perfect for laying the blame of failure at the client’s feet. Because the clients come to the trainer with goals which they may have never attained or failed at attaining during previous attempts, the client takes sole responsibility for any further failures. Nothing can be further than the truth. If a client fails, then the trainer has failed plain and simple. As a personal trainer, nothing bothers me more than failing at delivering what I am paid to deliver. This is the main reason I have developed my own system of training and why I only train women. I know my system will not fail me if I do everything I’m supposed to do and my clients do everything they are supposed to do. One of the biggest mistakes novice trainers make is trying to be “a jack of all trades, a master of none”. They are so busy trying to master all of the different training ideologies at once that they rarely have a firm grasp on any. Older trainers are guilty of believing that their favorite ideology covers all the bases for all different types of bodies and individual goals.

EXPERIENCE

It is often said that “experience is the best teacher,” and this is very true when it comes to personal training. I spent 10 years training in a gym before I became a personal trainer. I read every Muscle and Fitness, Iron Man, and Natural Physique magazine I could get my hands on. I tried every type of body building ideology there was – super sets, muscle confusion, negatives, forced reps – and anything else that came down the pipe. I followed the exercise routines of “juiced-up” professional body builders and suffered the consequences, yet I learned what to do and what not to do by doing it not just reading about doing it. This gave me infinitely more knowledge than any certification I have taken.

Most trainers today don’t even have an understanding of basic body building. They want to juggle Kettle Bells before they even know how to do a basic bench press. I have a huge problem with this. While I think that Kettle Bells and TRX work are great, basic strength training is the foundation on which strengthening skeletal muscle is built. And yet, beginning trainers do not want to spend the time learning and understanding the rules before they expound upon them or break them all together.

I say that every trainer is as good as the exercise ideologies he/she acquires over time. However, he/she must have a firm grasp of the pros and cons of an ideology before they add it to their repertoire. Drawing from a variety of exercises and ideologies allows us to make the best choices possible to get our clients from point A to point B. It takes years for a trainer to get to the point that they can call themselves “informed” enough to be worth the money they charge. Of course a trainer can acquire enough information in a matter of months to make someone sweat, make them sore, and keep them coming back for more. All they have to do is spend a little time on YouTube and know how to count to ten. But the trainer that can draw from a variety of sources and information gleaned over a long period of time will consistently deliver results.

Before you agree to a personal training program with an individual trainer or through a health club, ask the following questions:

1. How many years of actual training experience does the trainer have? I would never recommend that anyone hire a trainer with less than two years of actual training experience. Since the amount of time they have been certified will be indicated on the “proof certification card” they receive upon completing any of the national certifications, you just need to look at their certification card to see how long they have been certified.

2. Can I try a workout with all/several of the trainers before I choose one? I cannot stress this point enough if you have made up your mind to purchase a training package from a facility that has a number of trainers on staff. Make sure that you try at least three trainers. If one in particular fits all of the criteria outlined in this document, go with that trainer. However, make sure you know that every trainer you meet will be in “audition mode” and on their best behavior. If the attentiveness, exercise cues, verbal feedback, and general professionalism that you see during your initial hour turns into small talk, indifference, lack of focus, or sincere disinterest at any point thereafter, get another trainer.

3. What should I do if I see a trainer that looks more capable than the one I have? Ask the sales consultant/fitness coordinator if you can switch trainers. The trainer that you feel is more capable may not have an opening in his/her schedule, but it never hurts to ask. Asking to switch trainers is probably one of the hardest things for clients with health club trainers to do because they worry that they will hurt the feelings of their current trainer if they switch to someone else in the facility. You need to remember that you are paying a huge sum of money to get in shape, not to make friends, and if the trainer in question did his/her job to your satisfaction in the first place, there would be no need for you to switch. You can possibly avoid this situation if you follow all the guidelines set forth in this document.

Note: I encourage anyone that has a trainer, whether a club trainer or an independent trainer, to try other trainers if you in any way feel that there might be a better trainer out there for you. I would never question my clients for trying out someone else. If they want to do crossfit training, I am not the trainer for them. If they want to do Pilates, I am not the trainer for them. I have 100% faith in my abilities to be better than the next trainer at my particular brand of what I do. However, it is not for everyone.

PROFESSIONALISM

No matter what business you’re in, a large part of your success or failure is dependent upon your level of professionalism. In an economy that sees more businesses fail than succeed, any self-employed individual looking to “make it” must follow the pertinent tenets of the corporate structure from which they came, not dump them in some rebellious act of freedom. However, you will see this form of rebellion in full force in the world of the independent personal trainer.

A lack of professionalism will degrade the value of your investment faster with an independent trainer than with a health club trainer because an independent has no boss. He/she is completely free to get away with as many indiscretions against your investment as you allow to them to. A club trainer has a boss. There is at least one other person for you to complain to if your trainer is always late, half asleep, constantly texting, smells like a barnyard animal, looks and acts uninterested in what you’re doing, talks incessantly about how tired they are from working all of these long hours, or sits on their ass while you’re sweating yours off. Does this mean that club trainers don’t try to get away with at half of the things I just described? No. However, there is some measure of accountability.

Most independent trainers dread rules more than anything else because most start out in a club that saddle them with a million rules to follow – some necessary and some not. They can’t wait to become an independent trainer, thinking you’ll be none the wiser about their behavior. However, I firmly believe that you, the current or future client, should be intimately aware of all the tenets of personal trainer professionalism that will either increase or degrade the value of your investment.

Punctuality. Lack of punctuality is the first thing a non-professional independent trainer will train you to accept. At first they will be the picture of punctuality (unless you really have a horrible one), and then – ever so subtly – they will start being five minutes late, ten minutes late, and so on. And, the worst thing is, you will accept it. Why? Because just as much as they might train you to exercise over time, they will train you to throw your money away by their tardiness. There are more subtle ways in which a trainer will subtly demonstrate that he/she doesn’t really care about the substantial amount of money you are paying them, but nothing is a bigger slap in the face to your investment in them than a trainer that shows up late on anything remotely resembling a regular basis. You are paying for ONE HOUR of training, not 55, 45 or 30 minutes. The trainer is never going to make up the lost minutes in the next hour, which, by the way, is the number one load of BS they will feed you after the first couple of transgressions. After you are “hooked”, they won’t even bother making that offer.

How do you get your trainer to show up on time? First of all, let’s define lateness. Lateness to me is anything more than five minutes after your appointed start time. If your trainer is late once a month and you think that they are really a fantastic trainer, live with it. If your trainer is late once a week, let him/her know that if they are not waiting for you on the floor and ready to start your session on time, you’ll find another trainer. I don’t care how good you think your trainer is, punctuality is by far one of the main components to a trainer being good at their job. There are hundreds of trainers just as good as yours – if not better – who are more than happy to show up on time for the amount of money you are paying them. If your trainer shows up consistently late because you show up consistently late, you should still find another trainer. If you the client wants to lose out on your investment, that’s your choice. Your trainer, however, should not use that as his/her excuse to be late – and if your trainer does have an ounce of professionalism and you are consistently late, he/she has the right to “fire” you.

Conversation. Talk, chatter, witty banter, verbal interaction, flirting – anything that stops movement has had more of a destructive effect on the investment of personal training in the past 20 years than any other topic I will cover. While verbal interaction is a necessary tool for any training to be effective, it is the second thing – after punctuality – that a trainer will use to degrade the value of your investment. And here’s the kicker…you might be just as guilty as your trainer of abusing that verbal interaction by getting off topic too often and for too long a period. It used to be that exercise/movement was the life blood of personal training, today it is conversation. Trainers use conversation to ingratiate themselves to you long before you can step back and really take a long hard look at the level of their appearance, knowledge, experience and professionalism. Once they know you are “hooked”, you become an ATM with benefits – a BFF who will let them get away with almost any transgression against your investment as long as they can work your “sympathy strings” and talk their way out of actually training you. Trainers also use conversation for what I call “the caffeine effect.” Trainers seem to use conversation to stop themselves from falling over with fatigue in front of you. There is something in the endless chatter – which has nothing to do with exercising – that gives them just enough juice to appear physically present while training you. Clients, on the other hand, use conversation to avoid movement. As long as they’re talking, they’re not exercising. And while some clients want nothing more than to work every minute of the hour they are paying for, some love nothing more than to talk the entire time. Combine conversation with the other transgressions trainers commit and you can easily see the creation of the “perfect storm” of financial waste.

Conversation is at the top of my personal list of elements that can turn a good hour of training into a bad one. While I am pretty much solely responsible for most of the other elements that can cause an hour to awry, my client can be just as guilty, if I don’t take control of the training session. It’s just as important for a trainer to quickly determine whether or not their client is a chatter box as it is for you to figure out whether the same is true of your trainer. If you’re chatting up your trainer to fill a social void in your life, there are cheaper – and more fulfilling – ways to fill that void. Pay your trainer to change your body, not your social life.

How do I stop conversation from eating away at my investment in personal training? The easy answer is to stop talking. Let me share a true story. I train models, they are young girls highly invested in their body’s appearance, and their sessions with me include very little time for banter. I chart each girl’s exercise program and noticed that one girl was completing, on average, 15-20 percent more exercises than the other girls. I figured out the reason for this was that she does not talk – at all! Nothing. She has been working with me long enough where I don’t have to cue her on the exercises. She remembers each sequence that I show her (rare for anyone), and goes into them without me having to say very much. Now I don’t talk much to my clients anyway, unless it’s necessary. However, even I was amazed at how much more she manages to do just by not talking at all. Granted, this is an extreme situation and not the average client/trainer relationship, but it does emphasize the point. Remember that you are in control of the conversation because you control the money. If you engage in unnecessary conversation, you lose exercise time, and therefore, you lose money. Ask your trainer for a written account of your exercise program – short term and long tern. All trainers should document their clients’ routines: what exercises you’re doing, how many repetitions, how many sets, how much rest time between sets, level of progress from one movement to the next, and so forth. This will show you how much time you are wasting. If you can see on paper that you are doing 12 exercises an hour with unrelated conversation taking place, and you do 24 exercises without the unnecessary chatter, you have increased the productivity – and your investment – by 50 percent. Don’t be surprised to find your trainer reluctant to document and share your program with you. Doing so makes more work for them and it takes you away from the conversation which they believe keeps them from falling on their face, strengthens their BFF status with you, and still keeps the money flowing into their pockets. When they are writing (and not talking), they are creating a visual accountability with which you the client can assess.

There are circumstances in which it will be difficult, if not impossible, for a trainer to document your workout, such as sparring or boxing with your trainer for an hour, or if your trainer actually does the entire workout with you – which is very rare and not recommended (you should not pay for your trainer’s workout unless their physical involvement is necessary for your training program, i.e. boxing, cycling, running). In all cases, the best way to avoid superfluous conversation is to be acutely aware of when your conversation goes from exercise related talk to personal chatter. Once you have gone from predominately exercise related conversation to predominately personal conversation, you can just sit and watch your money sail out the window. This is the point where some trainers will sit on their butts, toss a few exercises in here or there, and listen to you talk about your woes as they rest up to do the same thing again with their next client.

Body Language. Correct body language should promote motivation. If your trainer is leaning against the wall with his/her hands in their pockets trying to not fall asleep, or if they are sitting while you are standing, this would be negative trainer body language. Correct body language is the hardest thing to teach young trainers because the majority of the older trainers who might set an example have long stopped worrying about conveying themselves through body language. Of all the issues that irritate me about the current state of personal training, none gets my goat more than seeing trainers with horrible body language. Let me state for the record that a trainer’s job is to

  • motivate you;
  • give you constant verbal instruction to ensure that you perform the exercises correctly;
  • get on their hands and knees, if necessary, to give you physical cues in conjunction with the verbal ones if it is going to expedite your learning curve;
  • choose exercises that will work best for you, not the ones that will allow him/her the most opportunities to sit on their butt;
  • move their body as you move yours; and
  • dress and act like a professional personal trainer at all times.

Your trainer is not supposed to

  • yawn in your face from exhaustion or boredom;
  • do his/her hardest to resemble a “bump on a log”;
  • stand around with his/her hands in pockets leaning against a piece of exercise equipment or a wall as they desperately try to avoid falling asleep on you;
  • get on their cell phone at any time during the hour you are paying them for their undivided attention to text, talk, facetime, check their stock portfolio, admonish their kids, or check in with their spouse (unless it is an emergency)­­­­;
  • eat a meal while they are training you;
  • engage others in conversation while they are training you;
  • sit at any point during the hour in which you are training unless it is to “spot” you or get down on the ground with you in order to provide better ­­­­verbal/physical cues;
  • wax poetic about their financial woes in the hopes that you will purchase more training hours before your current package is finished; or
  • come to work intoxicated, sick or incapacitated in any way.

 

Proper professional personal training body language, at its core, is about two things only: having care and respect for the product of personal training that he/she puts on the floor, and respecting and honoring the clients who are paying them large sums of money to ensure that that product is worth their investment.

How do you ensure that your trainer maintains a level professional personal training worthy of the substantial fee you are paying? Simply keep in mind the previous descriptions of what your trainer is not supposed to do, and if your trainer is guilty of any of these, get another trainer. I’m not trying to simplify a serious matter, but it is hard for me to believe that I have to make people aware of something that should be so obvious. You are asking your trainer – who is essentially your employee – to maintain a level of professionalism befitting the money you are paying them for one hour a day. There are some trainers who I see on a regular basis who do maintain a level of professionalism with all of their clients – eight hours or more a day, everyday – but they are the minority not the majority.

Touching. Personal training is a hands-on business. If one were to watch it from afar, it might appear to be more intimate than some might find comfortable. Being a trainer, I can tell in one second whether a male trainer stretching a female client is being appropriate or inappropriate just by the way he touches her. For the record, only a licensed massage therapist should be massaging you. Now every trainer – myself included – has massaged a client’s strained muscle. However, there is appropriate touch, and inappropriate touch. If a trainer is rubbing your butt, your upper thigh, or your breast – that is inappropriate. I see this every day and am amazed that I have never seen these trainers rub the corresponding body parts on their male clients – unless the trainer also happens to be a licensed massage therapist. Now if you and your trainer have something going on outside of the gym and beyond the normal boundaries of a client/trainer business relationship and you are both consenting adults, than that’s your business. I will, however, offer one caution: if you are working out with your trainer just because you have the “hots” for him or her, you will fall victim to any and all of the transgressions I’ve mentioned. You should never use the fact that you are attracted to your trainer as a reason to utilize their services. You are much better off getting a qualified trainer who can take care of your fitness and physical needs and date the one you find attractive.