What Your Personal Trainer Isn’t Telling You

by Charles Platkin, PhD

What Your Isn’t Telling You

“The majority of personal trainers are not qualified to give expert advice,” says Dr. Walter Thompson, Ph.D., professor of kinesiology and health at Georgia State University. Unfortunately, there is no regulation for the personal training industry — so it’s basically a free-for-all. “A high school dropout can study for one hour and pass an exam and call himself a personal trainer — not very comforting,” adds Dr. Thompson.

Research shows that using a “qualified” personal trainer affords a significantly greater chance of getting into better shape than exercising on your own. The trick is finding someone who will really help you get in shape — not just keep you company for an hour.

Considering that personal training is a multibillion-dollar business I wondered — what should you look for in a personal trainer? What should you expect? And how can you make sure the trainer is really qualified?

The Job Interview: “It’s really like any other major purchase — you have to put in the effort and research to become an informed consumer when looking for someone to help you transform your body and life,” says Dr. Thompson.

The typical consumer may know to ask about certification, but you shouldn’t stop there. You cannot be shy or intimidated — investigating is critical. Experts suggest that the first thing you should do is look through the resumes of various trainers who work at your club. After you select a few from the stack of resumes, interview them.

The interview is a crucial first step to beginning your relationship with your personal trainer and cannot be overlooked. “If I walk into a club and I’m lifting weights or running during the first session — I know I have the wrong personal trainer,” warns Dr. Thompson.

What should you ask during the interview?

  • Qualifications, including certifications and college degrees ( Science)
  • Specific fees, payment options, cancellation policy (Get them in writing.)
  • Training approach and strategy — how will it work and does it work for you?
  • Availability — are the trainer’s hours convenient for you?
  • What kind of evaluation will you undergo — a physical performance test? A medical history form?
  • Will you be developing short- and long-term goals?

This is also the time to find out if you feel comfortable with the trainer. Does he/she listen to you? Let the personal trainer talk — you should find out plenty of information.

Certification: There are no state or federal licensing requirements for trainers, and with more than 200 certifications available, how do you know who is a “qualified” personal trainer?

In a recent study, researchers found that a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and accreditation from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) or the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) were strong predictors of a trainer’s knowledge and expertise, as opposed to other certifications. “One of the biggest surprises researchers found was that having years of experience did not translate to having expert knowledge as a personal trainer,” says David P. Nalbone, Ph.D., one of the authors of the study and assistant professor of psychology at Purdue University.

If the trainer doesn’t have one of these two certifications (ACSM or NSCA), make sure he or she has at least a bachelor’s degree in exercise science. Oh, and one other thing — if the trainer does have a certification, make sure to check that it is up-to-date.

More Than a Babysitter: Make sure your goals for working with your trainer go beyond “making” yourself get to the gym. Inspiring or motivating someone to exercise is one of the many ways in which personal trainers can help, but effective trainers should aim to work themselves out of a job. “Yes, extrinsic motivation is great, but in order to have long-term success and create a real lifestyle change — your personal trainer should help you adopt a new mode of thinking so you learn to create your own motivation and commit yourself to regular physical activity. The trainer should work with you to find out what will push you to work out,” advises Dr. Thompson.

“Success is if the client calls back in a year and says he or she is exercising more than in the past,” says Steven R. McClaran, Ph.D., professor of health promotion at the University of Wisconsin.

Also, steer clear of trainers who look to waste time. After several weeks of instruction, you don’t need someone to stand by the treadmill to make small talk — especially not someone you are paying.

Trainers Are Not Nutritionists: Although the top trainers (ACSM and NSCA) have had some nutritional training, be wary of taking nutrition advice from a trainer. If your trainer tells you to take any supplements and/or recommends a product that doesn’t sound as if it fits with generally accepted nutritional principles, check with your healthcare provider first. In fact, you should make sure that any eating regimen your trainer advises is in accordance with the recommendations of the American Dietetic Association.

Reference This: Get testimonials from the trainer. Again, don’t be shy; ask for the names and phone numbers of other clients with goals similar to yours. Call to see if they were pleased with their workouts, if the trainer was punctual and prepared, and if they felt their individual needs were addressed.

Practice What You Preach: Although it’s not a requirement and certainly not the most important quality to look for, you shouldn’t overlook the appearance of your personal trainer. After all, you want someone who lives the lifestyle toward which you aspire. The trainer doesn’t need bulging muscles, just a decent physical appearance.

How Long? Again, most experts agree that personal trainers should be good enough to work themselves out of a job. “Although it’s difficult to generalize, you should use a personal trainer for a minimum of 10 weeks and up to about 6 months. At some point the training will start to get repetitive,” explains Dr. McClaran.

Is It Really Personal? Does it seem like your trainer is “just going through the motions” or giving all clients the same routine? Your trainer should work with you to understand your body and its needs and use that information to develop an individualized program. I often see personal trainers spending more time chatting about a date they had the night before than on techniques and strategies.

Are You Insured? Many personal trainers operate as independent contractors and are not employees of a fitness facility. You should find out if the trainer you want to hire carries professional liability insurance.

There Should Be No Pain: “No one should feel intense pain or discomfort after a personal training session. Yes, there is pain associated with first time usage, but it should be minor. The expression, ‘No pain, no gain’ is nonsense,” says Dr. Thompson.

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