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Perfect Match: How to Hire the Right Personal Trainer

By Devin Wicks

Whether you’re new to fitness and looking to learn the ropes, or an experienced gym-rat who just wants to get off a plateau, you may find a personal trainer can get you to your goals. But you need the right trainer—someone you can work with for the long haul, and trust to take good care of you. How do you find the right person? And how can you know whether you’ve found a winner?

I’ve got some tips to help you find the ideal trainer. Your job is to find some likely candidates (more on that below) and set up meetings to feel them out. Don’t be embarrassed about this, or about telling them that you’re trying out other candidates. When you are searching for a trainer, you are an employer, hiring an employee. The meeting is really a job interview—and you should expect your potential employee to be on point for that interview. You, in turn, should be prepared with questions, and plan on taking notes.

Why all the fuss? This is potentially a long-term relationship you’re establishing. And, within that relationship, you’re planning on handing over custody of your physical well-being, aspects of your health, and the hoped-for goals that you’d like to reach. It’s a big deal. And you’re looking for someone who recognizes that.

So, with that in mind, here are the key things to look for in a trainer:

Get in the Know
You want a trained professional, who is up to date on the latest info and qualified to look out for your health and well-being. First, make sure that your trainer is certified by an NCCA-accredited institution. There are a lot of certifications out there, but NCCA effectively certifies the other certifiers (such as ACE, or ACSM, or NASM). An NCCA accreditation means that other certifications have been evaluated and accepted by a reputable body. On a more basic (but no less important) level, does this person have CPR training, and is that certification current?

As to education, a degree or educational background in an exercise-related field is definitely a bonus—but its absence doesn’t preclude someone from being a great trainer. In particular, find out if your potential trainer has any certifications or areas of specialization that may pertain to you. For instance, a medical exercise certification is a great thing if you’re recovering from an injury or surgery. Or, if you’re big into running, someone who has coached track may have a special insight. Many trainers have specialty certifications, or sports backgrounds—and they may just be in areas you care about.

Finally, make sure your new trainer understands the scope of his or her practice. A trainer is not a dietician, and should not be prescribing food for you. Trainers can talk about parameters, but as to giving you a specific diet, that is outside their expertise. Your guy should know that.

Is There a Spark?
Training by its nature is a very personal kind of relationship. This is someone you’re going to need to spend a lot of time with, and whom you need to be able to trust. So you need to feel out that relationship. Is the person engaged in conversation with you? Does he or she listen well, and remember what you say? Do you feel at ease with him or her, and that you would be able to be honest? A very important point—does he or she talk over your head, or make you feel stupid? If so, that’s really not going to work. A good trainer should be able to explain complex things in ways that you can understand, no matter what your experience level.

Also talk about your interests and background. Do you have common interests with your potential trainer? Similar backgrounds? That may help forge a connection. Some of this is chemistry, of course—but chemistry is important. A trainer you can resonate with makes for better training, and better training leads to better outcomes. It matters.

Know Your Rights
The beginning of the relationship is the time to get clear about the logistics of how things will work between you and your new trainer. For instance, you need to be sure that anyone you would work with has liability insurance, or is covered by the facility they train in. Bear in mind that some trainers are employees of the gyms they train in, but others are private contractors who carry their own insurance. Ask about it.

You also want to know about cancellation policies—for both of you. How much notice do you need to give, or should you expect to get, in case one of you needs to cancel? What is the refund policy for pre-paid sessions? Your trainer should have a clearly laid-out pricing structure, so that you know what sessions cost and how often and when you pay. Finally, you need to know how to pay (by check? Cash?). Getting all of this laid out in advance both avoids mishaps and helps give you a sense of how organized your new trainer is likely to be.

Dress to Impress
Before you even meet your new trainer, you may learn a lot about him. As you’re setting up the interview, does he or she return emails or phone calls promptly and courteously? If you’re not getting that now, it’s unlikely to come later. And, sloppiness in communication tends to indicate a trainer who is either irresponsible or over-burdened. You want to be a priority to your trainer. And, personal training is a profession that is all about details. So if someone is dropping this kind of detail at the beginning, odds are they are not going to be able to be on top of the details of your training for the long haul.

Furthermore, personal training may be a fitness profession, but that’s no reason for a trainer to wear a mesh shirt and short-shorts. Your trainer should dress in appropriate professional attire, leaving the focus of your workouts on you. That means clean-cut clothing that does not draw unnecessary attention. As a test: could you introduce this person to your boss or your mother? Your trainer, in short, should be presentable.

What to Expect
Your trainer should begin by taking a complete health history. He or she should also have you do a PAR-Q (Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire), which helps determine whether a medical professional’s input is warranted. If you do need a physician’s consent or advice, the trainer should have the appropriate forms for you to take to your doctor. All of this is part of a comprehensive intake process, wherein your trainer asks you to describe your goals and assesses them with you, and takes measurements to develop your baselines (including strength and flexibility tests, perhaps blood pressure or body-fat measurements where appropriate). There should also be a clear sense of how you and your trainer will evaluate your progress. That “how” will vary depending on your goals, and may involve both objective measurements and relation to your baselines, but you should know what that “how” is up front.

It is also important that your trainer behave in a professionally responsible way with regard to your overall choices. Your trainer should not tell you that his is the only way to achieve results, nor be resistant to your working elsewhere with appropriate professionals. Beware of a trainer preaching absolutes: your training is about your goals, not your trainer’s ego. Nor should your trainer be pushing supplements. Often, they are getting paid to do this, and do not have your best interests at heart. At best, a trainer who tells you “drink a protein shake”, even without offering a particular brand or product, is speaking outside his or her knowledge base. Again, your trainer is not a dietician, and does not know how much protein you need, nor how much is too much.

Where to Begin
To find a personal trainer in your area, start by checking with the major certifying organizations for trainers: American College of Sports Medicine, National Strength and Conditioning Association, National Academy of Sports Medicine, American Council on Exercise, IDEA Health and Fitness Association. Cross-reference the people you find with CitySearch or Yelp to learn about others’ experiences and narrow down—but definitely make sure you start with a certified professional!

With all of these points in mind, you can find a trainer that you can work with for a long time—perhaps years. With the right trainer, you can achieve more than you imagined possible. So it’s worth investing time and energy in finding the right person. I wish you every success!

About Devin Wicks: Devin Wicks (ACSM-HFI, USAW Club Coach) is creator of the RealJock Strength Foundation 12-Week Workout program and the fitness operations director at the University of California, Berkeley, where he acts as specialty strength coach for some of the university's premier sports teams, and is coordinating a pioneering new campus employee wellness program.