How to choose a personal trainer

Often the first question people ask when starting out on a fitness program is, “Should I hire a trainer?” I should stress right now that you don’t need to hire a trainer. But, beginners and experienced trainers alike can indeed benefit from skilled coaching and motivation. If you know you’re someone who does better when someone is guiding you, if you would like some skills instruction and don’t feel you can learn yourself, if you would like specialized services like bodyfat assessment or the development of a training program, then you might consider finding a personal trainer.

If you decide you would like a trainer, the next question is invariably, “How do I find a good one?” Well now. That is a big ugly minefield. I work as a coach myself and I am shocked at the level of ignorance displayed by trainers. Approach the search for a trainer as you would a search for a used car: buyer beware. Some things to think about:

Certification. Because the training industry is unregulated, just about anyone can call themselves a trainer. There are a variety of certifications that one can get in North America and few of them really demand a high level of expertise, experience, and/or education. Many certifications can be obtained from certifying bodies that are years behind on current research, and will provide you with a shiny certificate after you write a short test. What you want to look for:

  • ASCM, CSCS or another NSCA certification, ISSA, CK (Certified Kinesiologist) (the OKA site explains what a CK is and who may call themselves one)
  • a university degree in an applicable field (Physical Education, Kinesiology, Exercise Physiology, etc.)

Experience. Many trainers are fly-by-night, students trying to make an extra buck, people filling time till they get a “real” job. There’s nothing wrong with working part time as a trainer but often it results in people with minimal hands-on experience. If possible, find someone who has experience working with various types of people, and if you get really lucky, someone who has powerlifting or Olympic lifting experience.

Adaptability to your needs. This is the big one. Lots of trainers have prefab plans that they hand out to everyone, regardless of who clients are, or what their needs are. A good trainer will consult you about your needs before you set foot in the gym. I personally sit down with clients for a 30-60 minute consultation before starting any activity. A trainer should ask you about:

  • Your medical history in detail, not just a cursory, “Are you healthy?” A trainer should ask about past medical history and current medical status. They don’t need to know about the yeast infection you had at age 14 or the time you had nose warts, but they should get a clear picture of things like any problems with heart, respiratory, and circulatory system, structural system (bones, joints, connective tissue), balance and coordination, fatigue and energy levels, chronic conditions, medications taken (including oral or injected contraceptives), injuries and surgeries you have had. I also ask about family history but that might be a little detailed for most folks. I just try to get a sense of what susceptibilities I’m working with (so for example, if I know that the trainee’s entire family has diabetes, I’m going to be on the lookout for possible blood sugar issues with the trainee).
  • Your past physical activity. Are you a fit person, formerly fit person, former competitive athlete, former couchwarmer, etc.?
  • Your daily activity, including work practices, day-to-day home tasks, etc. This often reveals naggy little injuries, owchies, and bad movement habits which I can help alleviate. I ask about caregiving (for children and older parents or people with disabilities), which typically means some lifting and moving awkward loads.
  • Other physical activities that you do. Do you play other sports? Do you engage in physical labour on the job, or around the house? Are you training for something else?
  • Current diet and eating habits; what do you eat in an average day, how do you eat it, and why? Some people have food issues and it’s wise to ferret them out before you go anywhere near putting them on a diet.
  • Workout goals, both short and long term. Of course everyone wants to lose fat and gain muscle (well, not entirely true; I do have people who want to lose muscle and gain fat). Your trainer should gather more specific information than that. S/he should also pay attention to how you frame your goals and talk about them. This will give clues about how to achieve those goals. For example, if someone says they just want to be fit and they say it in a way which indicates that they’re a little timid or a newbie, I don’t launch into being a drill sergeant because I know I’ll probably scare them away. On the other hand, if I have someone who says they want to get huger than Andre the Giant and they want to be hardcore, I get out the megaphone. Finally, the trainer should also be able to assist you in developing and refining your goals.
  • Workout availability and commitment. What facilities will the trainer/client be using: home, commercial gym, company fitness centre? What equipment is available? How much time does the client need/want? The trainer has to be able to train clients in everything from a super fancy loud gym to a home situation with two dumbbells and 4′ x 7′ of floor space (yes, I do have one client like this; we work out in his little apartment sandwiched between the TV and the couch).

Empathy and awareness of psychological state. This one is a hard one to quantify. Basically it means that the trainer has your number, behaviourally and psychologically speaking, and makes good choices about what things to do to motivate and encourage you. Sometimes I can figure this out right away. Other times it takes a few sessions to really get inside a client’s head. Not all clients will require the same teaching approach, and a good trainer should have a lot of hats that s/he wears in order to adapt him/herself to your psychological needs. Some clients want a shrink, some want a confessor, some want a mommy, some want a shoulder-punching workout buddy, some want a jackboot-wearing Ilsa of the SS, some don’t actually want to work out; they want to socialize and no amount of coaxing on the trainer’s part will change this. Some want all of these things! Within the workout a good trainer will know the precise moment to push and the moment to hold back or throw the client a doggie treat.

Ability to work with a diverse clientele. Sure, it’s a trainer’s dream to get a client who is a former athlete, super coordinated, jacked up on injected testosterone, super motivated, etc. They pretty much get results with nary a finger lifted by the trainer. But a good trainer can work with all kinds of people. I personally love working with “plain folks”. Watching a middle-aged woman do her first pullup, now that’s entertainment!

Ability to teach the exercises. First, this requires knowing good form for the exercises, which is sometimes a problem with trainers. If the trainer tells you that full squats are bad for the knees and deadlifts are bad for the back, find another trainer. If the trainer tells you the Smith machine is safer and s/he doesn’t see why anyone would ever want to squat, run screaming.

Second, this requires pedagogical techniques that communicate the exercise clearly and effectively. I like to try to give clients a conceptual understanding of why and how the exercise works, rather than just telling them to do something. Understanding is crucial to mastery. They don’t need to know the complicated stuff, but it’s helpful to comprehend things like why we put our back into a particular position before we lift heavy things, for example.

Third, this requires an ability to correct poor technique, and reinforce good technique. I use a multi-stage process of teaching in which I first briefly explain the exercise, and outline the conceptual basis behind it. Next, I demonstrate it, explaining throughout the movement what I am doing. Then, I take them through it slowly, with either no weight or light weight, giving verbal and touch cues (if required). Finally, I point out what they did well, and what needs correction. With difficult exercises, there may be many things to correct, so a good trainer should be able to focus on one improvement at a time instead of overwhelming you with new information.

You should also feel as if you are always learning within your limits. I had a trainer tell me that she had just tried to teach a client to squat (incorrectly, I might add). She was disappointed when she put the 45 lb. Olympic bar on the client’s back and the client couldn’t squat it. Well duh! You don’t teach someone a new movement then immediately load up some weight on them! You run the risk of hurting the client, plus the client feels like a loser when they can’t immediately execute the exercise perfectly under loading. All of my clients, from hulking young man to tiny old woman, get the same treatment: they learn a new movement with no weight first, master the movement, then add small amounts of weight, always working within their capabilities. There is plenty of time in future to push their limits. Learning a new skill is not the time to do it.

Knowledge about how to adapt a training program to special populations, and to work around injuries. Minor injuries such as low back, knee, and shoulder problems are quite common. A trainer should know how to make adaptations in the program to assist rehab and/or to work around them. A trainer shouldn’t take the place of a physiotherapist, but should have an awareness of common injuries, how they’re caused, and some modalities for treatment. If possible they should be able to speak with physiotherapists and doctors for guidance on how to proceed. A trainer should also know how to adapt programs for older people, adolescents, the disabled, and common chronic conditions such as high blood pressure (or at least they should know where to look to find that out).

Creativity and positivity. A trainer should be able to “think outside the box”, not give you a one-size-fits-all program. If you present your trainer with challenges, such as having to work around injuries or training for a particular activity, s/he should be able to solve them in productive, creative ways. They should also have a sense of fun about training. Sure, you can be serious in the gym, but there also a place for playfulness and enjoyment. Fartlek, for example, isn’t exactly always fun to do, but was developed as a playful counterpart to rigid, regimented training.

Professionalism and courtesy. This should be self-evident, but from the trainer stories I’ve heard, it’s not. The trainer should be presentable physically and personally, on time for sessions, and courteous and attentive while training. I’ve seen two different trainers talk on cell phones while they trained clients! Trainers should also not make you feel like crap. When I first signed up for a gym a few years ago, I politely declined the “free personal training session” (Translation: we show you the machines and then attempt to sell you more sessions) because I knew I didn’t need or want it. The manager of the gym took this as a personal insult. “You think you know everything?” he asked, rather aggressively. Then, he looked me up and down with a critical eye and said, “So, are you happy with the way you look?” (Translation: you fat ugly cow) At that moment I would not have cared if he had Ph.D.s in biomechanics and physiology and had trained Olympic gold medallists, he wasn’t training me. Lucky for him that his was the only decent gym in the area at that point, otherwise I would have torn up my membership in front of him and told him to jam it into his upper colon. There is no excuse for making any gym member feel shitty about themselves, and it is unacceptable business practice to sell people training sessions on the basis of their perceived physical inadequacies.

Availability. Ideally you can work out a good schedule with your trainer, and this depends on your needs. You might just need someone to set you up with a program, show you a few things, then wave bye-bye. You might wish to have periodic check-ins. Or you might need someone to meet you at every workout. You might want to work out first thing in the morning, at your lunch hour, or in the evening. Hopefully a trainer can accommodate your needs for availability, and not push anything on you that you don’t require.

Professional development. Does the trainer keep up with recent developments in the field? Reading muscle comics doesn’t count. Do they read research journals like the Journal of Applied Physiology? Do they attend instructional seminars, workshops, and other events? Do they have plans to consistently upgrade their skills and knowledge base?

Cost. Do some homework and find out what the going rate in your area is. Depending on your needs, this may vary. Active rehab programs (programs which are developed post-physiotherapy to incorporate previous injury needs) may be more costly than a basic program for a healthy person, for example. You may be able to get a deal by buying a few sessions as part of a package, but it’s wise to have one initial trial session before you commit. Don’t allow yourself to be pressured by hard sales tactics, and if a trainer insists on pushing stuff you don’t need or want, don’t hire them. You want a trainer, not a cult recruiter.

Personal connection and responsiveness. Sometimes you just don’t get along with people, regardless of how good they are. If you don’t hit it off with a trainer, then you won’t want to work with them. No harm, no foul. Ideally, find someone you like. You don’t have to be bosom buddies, but you should at least work well together.

Feedback and assessment. Trainers should give you regular feedback and “progress reports”. Feedback can range from moment-to-moment guidance on exercise performance, to postworkout “debriefings”, to periodic “state of the union addresses”. Assessment can include things like tape measurements, weigh-ins, bodyfat caliper measurements, taking 1RMs, etc. There is no universal standard for assessment; it will depend on your goals. Ask what kind of assessment protocol the trainer will provide for you.

Phew! And you thought you just wanted a hunk or hotty to talk you through some inner thigh machine work! Best of luck with finding your Mr. or Ms. Miyagi!


I want to share this job ad with you because personally it scares the crap out of me. This is an actual job ad that I stumbled across. I have omitted the company’s name, but it’s a well known fitness chain.

Job Advertisement
Title: Personal trainer
Terms of Employment: Permanent, Part Time, Weekend, Day, Evening
Salary: $13.00 to $35.00 Hourly for 10 hours per week, Bonus, Commission, Other Benefits

Skill Requirements:

Education: Completion of high school
Credentials (certificates, licences, memberships, courses, etc.): First Aid Certificate, CPR Certificate
Experience: 1 – 2 years
Languages: Speak English, Read English, Write English
Work Setting: Fitness centre
Clientele: Teens, Adults, Seniors
Specific Skills: Conduct fitness tests and assessments, Design, develop and deliver fitness counselling and exercise programs

Additional Skills: Answer requests, inquiries and complaints, Perform administrative tasks, Use computer applications
Essential Skills: Reading text, Document use, Numeracy, Writing, Oral communication, Working with others, Problem solving, Decision making, Critical thinking, Job task planning and organizing, Significant use of memory, Finding information, Computer use, Continuous learning
Other Information: Personal Trainers are responsible for providing new PT sales & ongoing service to clients. Can-Fit-Pro PTS certification an asset. Full-time also avail. High earning potential!

There you have it. All you need to be in charge of people’s bodies and health is a high school education, a good sales pitch, and a little CPR in case the old coots in the crowd croak during your Muscle and Fitness inspired training session.