A 6 Step Guide to Finding the Right Personal Trainer

Fitness regimens come in all shapes and sizes. Some guys go crazy for CrossFit, some spend hours lifting weights, and some like the challenge of running long distances. Even if you love your exercise of choice, the same routine starts to feel stale after so many years. Going through the same motions greatly increases the risk for overtraining or hitting a plateau. And some guys might find themselves so bored with the same schedule that they start losing the motivation to work out all. None of these scenarios leads to a good outcome, so something has to change. That’s where personal training comes in.

Trainers, at least good ones, are great resources for guys who might find themselves bored or feeling a bit lost in their workout plans. About Health said opting for sessions with one of these fitness professionals can help you achieve better results, work through injuries, push you when you might otherwise slack off, and help you train for specific events. That all sounds great, but how do you choose from so many different options? According the the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 267,000 personal trainers in the country in 2012, and that number is expected to keep rising.

Before you embark on a haphazard internet search of all the personal trainers in your area, consider going with a more strategic approach. We spoke to Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT, and creator of BuiltLean, about how you should make your selection. Follow this six-step guide to find a trainer who can give your fitness routine the boost it needs.

1. Know your purpose

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If thinking about where to begin your search has your head spinning, you can easily narrow your options by thinking about what you want to achieve. “I think the first step is to figure out what your goals are,” Perry said. It’ll also be a lot more helpful if you’re specific. Simply saying you want to be healthier isn’t going to help you much, so consider what you want to get out of your time with a trainer. It could be losing a certain amount of weight or training for a race. When you start to get a sense of what you’re after, Active.com said it’s a good idea to make sure your goal is specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and tied to a time-frame. It might seem like a lot, but this strategy will help you push yourself without setting unrealistic expectations.

From there, start searching for trainers who have experience in your area of interest. If you want to complete your first triathlon, look for fitness professionals who work regularly work with those types of athletes. Many trainers have testimonials on their websites, which can be a quick and easy way to determine if their clients’ interests match your own.

2. Look for experience

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While it might seem cruel to new trainers trying to break into the industry, going with someone who hasn’t worked with many people is a bad idea. “I wouldn’t consider a trainer unless they had a minimum of 1,000 hours of one-on-one personal training experience,” Perry said. Don’t be afraid to rule out someone who hasn’t put in the time, because Perry said, “It’s just not worth it working with someone who doesn’t have enough experience.” It’s your health and money on the line, so it really does pay to be picky.

3. Consider qualifications

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Things can get a little bit confusing when dealing with certifications, because there are just so many different ones. Perry recommended looking for trainers who have a certification from at least one of these agencies: the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), and the American Council on Exercise (ACE). A title alone doesn’t guarantee greatness, but it typically means the trainer has a pretty well-rounded education.

While specialty degrees abound, they aren’t necessarily indicative of a fitness professional’s skills. There is one that Perry recommended seeking out, though. “I would strongly prefer if someone was Functional Movement Screen certified,” he said. The Functional Movement Screen (FMS) is a system designed by injury-prevention specialist Gray Cook. It’s designed to evaluate your movements to detect muscle imbalances, or asymmetries, which often lead to injuries. The idea is to determine what sorts of limitations your body has in order to recognize potential aches and pains before they happen. A trainer who is knowledgeable in this technique is going to be a lot better at determining what exercises are best for you.

4. Ask the right questions

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When you go to an initial consultation, you want to get as much information as you can. Don’t feel sheepish if it seems like you’re interviewing the trainer for a job, because that’s exactly what you should be doing. Start by delving a little bit deeper into his or her background. Perry recommended asking about trainers’ typical clients, because you may find you don’t fit their usual criteria. If they only work with seasoned athletes while you’re just getting into biking, it’s probably not going to be a great match.

Next, Perry said you should determine “what method this trainer usually uses in terms of exercise method and philosophy.” Some will gravitate more toward body-weight training, while others might be completely devoted to kettlebells. As you’re getting a sense of the trainer’s method, be in tune to how you feel about them. “You don’t necessarily need to want to hang out with the person, but you want to think he or she is a good person with good values, and you can trust that person and their expertise,” Perry said. If you find yourself feeling at all repelled, it’s probably not going to be a good fit.

Most importantly, you want to have a good understanding of what you’ll do. Perry said you should ask, “What’s the process? How’s it going to work?” A good trainer will be able to explain to you exactly where you’ll start, and how the two of you will progress together. Don’t gamble with someone who doesn’t have a clear idea of how to proceed.

You should also factor in your schedule flexibility and your budget when you’re consulting. It’s not going to be very helpful if you find an awesome trainer who only has slots open when you’re at work or someone who charges more than you can reasonably afford. If the price of one-on-one sessions is prohibitive, you have other options. Perry said you can sometimes decrease the price by purchasing packages. If that’s still too much, Breaking Muscle suggested group personal training as a less expensive alternative. Some may actually prefer this method since it’s great for motivation and camaraderie.

5. Expect a thorough assessment

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Once you think you’ve nailed down the right person, you’ll move into the assessment phase. Perry said an in-depth questionnaire should be the next step. It should cover your medical history, exercise history, nutritional information, and it should also include a place for you to clearly spell out your expectations. Only then should you move on to the fitness assessment. It’s sort of like a bench test to show where you are now, so you can measure your progress as you continue working with your trainer. An article from Club Industry gave a good idea of everything the two of you will cover. Once you’ve gone over this initial groundwork, you’re ready to start planning your sessions.

6. Keep an eye out for red flags

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Unfortunately, some trainers just aren’t up to snuff. You should always be on the lookout for something that seems fishy. Again, if you don’t like being around the person, it’s unlikely the two of you will have a positive experience working together. Skipping either the questionnaire or the fitness assessment are also red flags. Perry said if a trainer opts out of either one, “that’s a clear indication there’s a serious problem.”

Other things to look out for? Life by Daily Burn shared a list of 10 warning signs, including offering too much nutrition advice. While trainers usually have a good understanding of healthy eating, most aren’t certified nutritionists. “A trainer is not allowed to give a client a nutritional prescription, and create a specific menu the client follows,” Perry said. If it’s just general advice, or a suggestion about something to look into, that’s perfectly fine.

You’re also completely within your rights to judge a fitness professional based on his or her appearance. Perry pointed out a trainer is essentially selling you health and wellness, so if they look run-down or out of shape, you’re better off looking elsewhere.

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