Finding a personal trainer, like any other interpersonal interaction, is a matchmaking process. Investing in a good trainer will pay dividends over the years by adding health and vitality to your life. It is an investment, however, so make sure you choose the right trainer to maximize your benefit.
There are currently no legal requirements to be a personal trainer in the United States. Anybody can do it. Anybody. Scary, right? Estheticians and manicurists have more legal and health rules than personal trainers do. For this reason, it is extremely important to do research, and find the right trainer for you.
By knowing what to look for, you can increase your chances of finding a great working partnership and reaching your goals quickly and safely.
There are millions of personal trainers with thousands of specialties out there. You can find trainers who specialize in pre- and post-natal fitness, fitness and cancer, bodybuilding, martial arts, weight loss, and many more specialties.
How do you know who is right for you? In an industry full of big talkers and charlatans, you have to do a bit of research. It might sound overwhelming, but it is manageable and worth it. Let me help!
What Do You Want from Your Personal Trainer?
A large determining factor in who will be a good match for you is, well, YOU. What are your goals?
Do you have a physique goal to reach, like losing 15 pounds before a beach trip, or gaining 20 pounds of muscle?
Do you have a performance goal like reaching a 405 deadlift?
Do you want short or long term training? Do you want your trainer to coach you on how to get started with the goal for you to continue on your own, or do you want someone working with you continuously over a long period of time?
Are you just interested in learning how to lift safely for health and injury prevention?
Take some time to think about what you are really looking to gain from training. These goals can always change. I encourage you to THINK BIG.
You can do so much more than you think you can. Humans are almost always limited by our imagination or mental drive. Need proof? Look around! Someone with fewer resources and more limitations has most likely done what you are seeking. Let that be motivation!
Where to Start Looking for a Personal Trainer
Choose your priority goal in a few words. For example, “lose weight”.
Google "your goal" + where you live. See what pops up. Do any particular gyms or individuals stand out to you?
You can also try adding “personal trainer” in your search query. For example, “lose weight in Austin with personal trainer” or “Austin Texas personal trainer weight loss”.
A good gym is worth driving for, but if you can find a good gym close to your home, that is even better.
You will likely find a facility you would like to look into, or an independent trainer you are interested in. If you find an independent personal trainer, or find a trainer’s website, please feel free to contact that person directly.
If you find a facility you like, check out their trainer bios and see who stands out to you. Use the guidelines below to filter them. From there, you can call or drop by, and ask to speak to a training manager. Ask this person if you can have a quick conversation about finding a trainer. Gyms often have an owner or manager who is excellent at match making trainers and clients for compatibility.
If you find a facility you are interested in, check out their training policies. Are their trainers self-employed or employed by the gym?
Self Employed vs Employed Trainers
What is the difference? Trainers employed by big box gyms like Gold’s, 24 Hour Fitness or Bally’s, require clients to pay the gym, and they pay the trainer as little as 30-50% of that. This is where many trainers start, which allows them to work with a wide variety of people and learn the business of training.
You can sometimes find good trainers in these gyms, but there is very high turnover. These gyms often put more emphasis on reaching sales quotas than continuous learning, and require their trainers to work pretty awful hours. It behooves the gym to have more trainers aka salesmen, so they aren’t often stringent on the quality of hires. Like I said, you can sometimes find good trainers here because they are starting out or haven’t realized they can work on their own, but be very careful about who you trust to train you.
I prefer trainers who are self-employed working out of a gym. Usually they are contract with a facility and run their own business. Their rates are not set by the gym, they are not forced to fulfill others quotas, and they are free to take time off to go to continuing education clinics and conferences. (This is very expensive, so I budget all year to do this, but it is worth every bit.)
Besides learning from experts, I have a blast at conferences. Check out the Tactical Strength and Conditioning Conference here and here, and The University of Texas Athletic Performance Clinic. I go to these every year, and there are more I haven't written about yet, but this will give you an idea why it's so important that your trainer networks and continues to educate him/herself.
This sounds a bit Darwinist, but I like the fact that independent trainers fail if they don’t keep providing value. There is no boss or manager to prop them up if their clients aren’t satisfied. This is better for you, and better for me. I don’t want bad trainers out there giving a bad name to my industry! I don’t want you to find a bad trainer, either!
True story, I worked in a gym that sold metabolic tests that they knew were faulty, therefore a complete waste of money. I was made to sit in unpaid remedial sales meetings because they noticed I didn’t sell any of these. It wasn’t because I couldn’t; I have a master’s degree in clinical exercise physiology, and I understand the value of metabolic tests when the hoses aren’t broken. I didn't last long there, and it was the final push for me to work for myself.
One thing to note about paying independent trainers is that payment is directly between the two of you. This is nothing to be scared of because it is the same way you would probably pay your hairdresser, house cleaner, tutor or guitar teacher. However, ask how long they've been a trainer, how long they have been working at their particular facility, and about their refund policy.
Contact two or three of the most promising trainers and ask if they will do a consult. They should. From here, pay attention to the general feel you get from your interaction. Consider response times and thoroughness, friendliness and aptitude. Note: most trainers will do a free consultation, but some cost a small fee for the time. If the trainer provides some sort of value like an assessment, or credit toward training, that might be OK with you.
Use this template if you are stuck on what to say:
I found your information on _____ and would like to talk to you about personal training. I would like to (goal, ie, lose 15 pounds, gain 20 pounds muscle, get a 405 deadlift) and would like to meet you for a consult. Can we discuss my goals and your background to see if we are a good match?
The best way to reach me is _____.
Easy peasy! You can share more information if you would like. Most trainers will get right back to you to schedule, but don’t be put off if a trainer suggests referring you. This can happen if a trainer thinks he or she is not the right trainer for you, in which case, trust that! It can also happen if a trainer is booked. If he or she doesn’t provide a referral, feel free to ask.
Questions to ask your Personal Trainer
The best case trainer is a person who values education, experiences, communicates clearly and empathetically, and does his or her own training.
Personal Trainer's Education
Look for a trainer who values education. Look for a college degree in kinesiology, exercise physiology, biology, pre-med, or a related field. There is absolutely no substitute for the investment of time, money, and energy of going to college to learn from professors, in labs. Degrees take years to earn, and certs usually require a few weeks of study.
Unfortunately, there are trainers with degrees who aren’t good at being a trainer or aren’t good people. Likewise, there are competent, good hearted trainers out there without degrees. In this case, AND in the case of trainers with a degree, you want to see a certification or multiple certifications from NSCA, ACSM, ACE, or The Cooper Institute. There are many many other certifications out there (hundreds!) but these are the best.
Personal Trainer's Experience
This is going to be one of the most important determinators in whether you want to work with a trainer. How long has this person been training? Does he or she have experience with people in similar situations with similar goals? If not, is he upfront about that? Yes, everybody has to start somewhere. Brand new trainers should work at a gym where they can learn from and with others, or at university where they are guided.
I mean no disrespect, but please be wary of training with someone who just “found their passion” and jumped in. It takes more than just getting their own body in shape to be able to help others. Being a good trainer also means learning things you aren’t passionate about (hello, chemistry, accounting, statistics, so I can filter out bad research!) and sticking it out.
And yes, I was a beginner too. But I was a beginner at a university with a graduate assistant guiding me, and a training manager guiding her.
Does this trainer have testimonials from happy clients? Is there a variety of success in their testimonials? Look for people to not only see physical transformation, but also mention that they learned how to lift, or developed a greater faith in themselves through their time with this trainer. Your trainer should not only have tactical knowledge, but should also give you tools for life, too. I am a much much better trainer in year 13 of training instead of year 1, not only for what I’ve learned in another decade, but also because I communicate better.
Does this trainer have a website? Does she have a blog? Social media presence? Does he or she offer a community on Facebook or forums? Does she offer any information or other resources? Does she offer training programs beyond he work out you do together? None of the above are necessary to be a competent trainer, but they are make or break for some people.
For example, I have a website and a blog that I am continuously updating. I have over 200 exercise video tutorials, and provide my clients individually written training programs through an app called Train Heroic. My clients love Train Heroic, and I love that it helps them learn.
I do not have a community meet up or Facebook group. For some people, this is a deal breaker. If the community is important to you, seek out trainers who seem to have built that up with teams, group classes, or meet up events.
Do your schedules match up? Does he or she have availability when you need, and how will you accommodate travel schedules, etc.?
Does he or she listen and hear you? Do you like this person? You won’t be BFFs, but you’ll be spending time together so compatibility matters!
The Super Expert
Trainers who say they can do/are experts in everything. NO ONE has time to be an expert in everything. No, instafmous trainer, you are NOT an expert in weight loss, muscle gain, botty gaining, powerlifting, Olympic lifting, running, training older clients, teen development, athletic development, youth sports, group training and yoga. You think I’m kidding? I wish I was. Sadly, people this delusional are out there.
If you trainer insists you must buy sessions otherwise you are neglecting yourself making a bad decision, or otherwise makes you feel bad about yourself, thank them for their time and leave.
If a trainer pushes you to pay for 20 sessions up front and you do not want to, consider if you want to continue. This is not an inherently bad situation; you might want to pay for sessions up front to create a commitment. Trainers should ask for prepayment, too. However, if you want to pay monthly and push for an excessively large prepayment, stick to your guns.
The Bottom Line
After you have talked to the trainers you are interested in, do a truthful gut check. Do you have a good feeling about this trainer? Does this person seem like a professional in his or her chosen field, or someone who jumped into training following a whimsical passion or because he or she was all out of other options? The bottom line is, passion is ok, but education, experience, and professionalism are better.
When you have decided, contact the trainer you would like to work with and schedule a first session. Drop the others a quick email to update them.
If you are stuck here, try this template:
Thank you for meeting me to discuss my training goals. I have decided to go another route with training, so I won’t be scheduling with you at this time. I appreciate your time, and wish you the best.
Professional trainers will completely understand, and appreciate your discerning nature. Remember it is your right to pick a trainer best for you, and you are under no obligation to anyone.
Training can be the best decision you ever made! You can stop training at any point you would like, or seek another trainer if one just doesn’t work out. You have nothing to lose! I encourage you to try it.
If you have more questions, or are local and would like to set up a consult, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.