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Talent Scout: How to Find a Great Personal Trainer

By Billy Polson

Your body is a machine—it needs consistent maintenance to perform at its best. So when your car is not running well, you take it to an expert mechanic to tune it up, right? Likewise, when your body is not at its peak, you should consider taking it to an expert personal trainer.

Yes, money is tight these days, but even hiring a trainer once or twice a month can give you huge long-term benefits. This isn't just about burning calories on the spot—a good trainer will give you a host of new ideas that you can then use on your own for the rest of your life. It's money in the fitness bank.

The problem, of course, is finding the right personal trainer. The search for a great personal trainer can be a long one; you need that special mixture of expertise and trust. To help you find the right trainer in the least amount of time possible, follow these tried-and-true guidelines:

  1. Internet Searches: Use the Internet as a good resource to find trainer options in your area. Of course, do Google searches for "personal trainer" in your city to get some names—but then search for those trainers on sites like Yelp and CitySearch, where people post reviews. You may be able to get tips on which trainers people have liked—and who they've learned to avoid. Let the community do some of the trial-and-error for you.
  2. Education and Certifications: It's crucial that your new trainer have the right background. If you can, try to find a trainer with a college degree in Exercise Physiology or a similar subject. But there are nonetheless lots of great trainers who do not have a degree, but hold a national certification instead. The top personal training certifications in the US are the following: NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine), ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine), NATA (National Athletic Trainers Assoc), and NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Assoc). Any of these certifications have rigorous standards, so you can trust that your trainer has done his or her homework. Also look for trainers who have taken some specialized areas of training (for example, Paul Chek coursework, postural analysis, knee/back issues, and so on). This doesn't just make them experts in that area—it also shows commitment beyond the minimum expectations.
  3. Years of Experience: No education can beat being in the trenches and working with all types and levels of clients day after day. Look for a trainer who has been certified and training clients for a minimum of three years. You want a problem-solver who has seen a lot of different kinds of people in many different situations.
  4. Personality: All the years of education and experience in the world do not necessarily make someone a good teacher. Make sure you find a trainer that you will enjoy being around and learning from. You need to be comfortable opening up all your weaknesses and issues to this person and trust that he or she will always have your benefit in mind.
  5. Staff Trainers in Public Gyms vs. Independent Trainers: When trainers first begin training, they tend to work on staff at training facilities in order to help build their clientele. That doesn't make them bad trainers—but they don't necessarily have a lot of experience. Often these trainers will graduate to training independently in these gyms or in trainer-only facilities. Either way, ask for a list of current clients as references so that you can ask them more about the trainer's style and dependability (for example, are they generally on time, do they regularly use new material, are they safety focused, and so on).
  6. Assessments: Good and experienced trainers will always carry every client through a very detailed assessment of their bodies—including strengths, weaknesses, posture issues, body measurements, and so on. And all of that is before starting any type of workout program. Always ask a potential trainer about the details of his or her assessment before starting to work with together. If your trainer does not appear willing and able to do an upfront assessment of your entire body, this should be a big red flag.
  7. Documentation of Workouts/Progress: Good and experienced trainers will always document every client's workouts in terms of the exercises and weights they are lifting in order to accurately track their progress and results from week to week. If your trainer does not show up to your workouts with a written plan of what he or she wants to accomplish on that day, then this is another red flag. Your trainer should also be prepared to give you copies of your workouts so that you can do them on your own—the documentation of these workouts should be exact and accurate and easy for you to understand.
About Billy Polson: Billy Polson is the founder and co-owner of DIAKADI Body training gym, which was voted the best personal training gym in San Francisco by CitySearch in 2006 and 2007. He also developed the RealJock Strong and Lean 12-Week Workout and leads RealJock's weeklong Atlantis Bootcamp Training program. A competitive swimmer and triathlete in his own right, Polson has over 15 years of experience working as a coach and trainer, and was recently named by Men's Journal Magazine (December 2005) as one of the Top 100 Trainers in America.