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“Picking a Personal Trainer”: Let’s get past the generic advice

If you’re in the process of “picking a personal trainer”, you need more than a typical list of generic advice. After all, picking a personal trainer is not like choosing an auto mechanic or a CPA. Why? Simply because there’s more inherent ambiguity and delay in the results that typical fitness trainers provide than the results provided by most other professions. Think about it: As long as a trainer acts assertively while producing in you bodily fatigue and tightness you hadn’t felt before, you’ll assume the trainer knows what he or she is doing. Moreover, if the trainer is next to clueless and you ask a question to determine if the person does knows what they’re doing, you’ll likely get this answer:

“This stuff takes time; you’ve got to give it at least six months before you really see results.”


'Personal Fitness Trainer': A good one will always keep meticulous records in order to monitor feedback and make insightful adjustments.


Not many professions have that kind of leeway. By the time you realize the trainer provided little more than you could have done for yourself, you’ll have already transferred a big chunk of your hard-earned money to this person. That’s why picking a personal trainer warrants a bit more diligence than, say… picking a landscaper.

Having said that, let’s take a look at the very generic and usual advice you’ll find for picking a personal trainer. In doing so, we’ll acknowledge what’s valuable and worth keeping within that advice – what’s nearly worthless in that advice – and what about it would be more valuable if a caveat or two were added.

‘Picking a Personal Trainer’: The usual list of pointers

Here’s a bullet list of typical pointers to follow when picking a personal trainer. It’s a sort of synopsis taken from several online sources:

  • Verify Education of Trainer: Degrees and/or accredited certifications in exercise physiology, exercise program design, and nutrition.


  • Verify Professional Liability Insurance and Business Policies: When considering an independent contractor who’s not an employee of a facility, make sure the trainer carries liability insurance. In addition, be sure the trainer’s business practices, including billing procedures and cancellation policies, are clear and in writing. 


  • Verify CPR Certification: Make sure the trainer has updated certifications in CPR and first aid. 


  • Verify Experience and Specializations: Be sure the trainer has experience working with clients that have had similar goals and specific limitations as you might have.  


  • Check References: Just as with hiring any professional, the practice of checking personal references is invaluable. Don’t be afraid to ask for them.


  • Be sure there’s Personal Chemistry: Interact with a prospective personal trainer before hiring them. Be sure there’s rapport and chemistry between you so the sessions are more enjoyable and likely to be successful. When monitoring this, pay close attention to the prospective trainer’s listening skills; this person should be focused intently on your needs and concerns.


Although these are all important tips to follow, I have some special pointers and caveats to add to the topic of picking a personal trainer.

‘Picking a Personal Trainer’: The #1 factor before anything else

Before even being concerned with the details of that list, there’s one factor of importance that precedes all others in picking a personal trainer.  In fact, it precedes all else in the successful accomplishment of any important goal. Here it is in a single sentence:

‘Know Your Outcome.’

That’s right. In order to be successful in picking a personal trainer, you need to know EXACTLY HOW you want to improve your body and you need to know EXACTLY from where you’re starting. In other words, you need to specifically identify the gap between where you are and where you want to be. If you can visualize it, that’s even better. The more specificity you have in identifying that gap, the more keenly you can determine whether a potential trainer will help you reach your goals.

In contrast, many people seeking personal fitness training only have a vague idea of what they want. They just want to “get into better shape” or “lose a bit of fat and tone up.”  These types of ambiguous goals only raise the chance of a mismatch between client and trainer and increase the odds of falling short of a truly desired outcome.

Before even approaching prospective trainers, decide what you want with as much specificity as possible. For example, you could come up with something like the following:

'Progressive_Resistance'“I want to lose 30 pounds of fat and gain 10 pounds of muscle with special muscle gaining emphasis being focused on my chest, back, and shoulders.”

… or…

“I want to build at least 20% more upper body strength in the muscles that will improve my tennis playing.”

… or…

“I want to improve my cardiovascular condition by at least 30% without worsening the nerve damage I have in my feet caused by diabetes.”

While the first example would necessitate hiring a trainer with effective bodybuilding experience, the second example would require one who’s good at developing strength programs for improved sport’s performance. The third example would call for a trainer who can create a good cardiovascular conditioning program while safely working around the symptoms of a serious and complex bodily condition.

The point is this: Your ability to identify the ideal person when picking a personal trainer is only as good as your willingness to precisely define your outcome and accurately assess your current position in relation to that outcome. The rest is much easier after this initial step.


 ‘Picking a Personal Trainer’: What constitutes “education” in this field?

 As of this writing, there are no national standards for fitness trainer degrees or certifications. Adding more vagueness to existing qualification standards is the fact that well over a hundred certifying bodies exist. Some require nothing more for certification than online self-study curriculums combined with a few hundred exam questions. On the other end of the spectrum, there are trainers with degrees in nutrition and kinesiology.

Generally speaking, a formal education in nutrition and exercise physiology will likely improve odds that a trainer will provide an effective program and avoid practices that are potentially injurious to clients. In the real world, however, educational credentials don’t guarantee these things and an absence of them doesn’t mean a trainer can’t be phenomenally good. Practical experience has its value. In fact, if I were in the market for a trainer, I’d personally choose one with a lot of practical experience combined with less theoretical knowledge over a highly schooled trainer with little practical experience. But maybe that’s just me. I see it as being similar to the business world; I’ve seen people with MBAs from top schools who admit to having terrible business sense. Conversely, there are entrepreneurs with no formal education in business but whose real-world accomplishments make them bastions of vocational insight. This caveat, as it exists among personal trainers, can probably best be discovered through thorough investigation of personal references.

As a rule, be sure a trainer you’re thinking of hiring is at least certified by an NCCA accredited organization. The NCCA (National Commission for Certifying Agencies) has existed for over 25 years and uses a peer review process to accredit allied health professionals such as nurses, therapists, dieticians, and athletic trainers. In 2003, they added fitness training certifiers to their clientele. There are currently only a handful of fitness certifications that are NCCA accredited. The following is a list of nine of such certifications:


American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)

American Council on Exercise (ACE)

International Fitness Professionals Association (IFPA)

National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)

National Council on Strength and Fitness (NCSF)

National Exercise and Strength Trainer’s Association (NESTA)

National Exercise Trainer’s Association (NETA)

National Federation of Professional Trainers (NFPT)

National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA)


To reiterate my earlier point about formal education, let me share this: I’ve got nearly thirty years of experience in fitness. I’ve met trainers with degrees in kinesiology and certifications from the American College of Sports Medicine whose instruction I would not seek in a gym setting. On the other hand, I’ve known “uneducated” bodybuilders who’ve forgotten more about effective exercise technique than many college-trained trainers will ever know. This occasional dichotomy, though not a generalization to live by, is something to consider when picking a personal trainer.

‘Picking a Personal Trainer’: Some Unorthodox Tips

If education can’t always be trusted when picking a personal trainer, what’s one to do in an industry that inherently combines ambiguous outcomes, random and esoteric practices, and slick-talking practitioners? Here’s my own personal list of red flags to steer clear of in order to prevent wasting your hard-earned money.

1. If they don’t record anything – don’t hand them your money: Watch a trainer for at least a week as he or she trains other clients. If the “trainer” is merely instructing and counting repetitions without recording anything either on paper or digitally, I’d recommend looking elsewhere. This is the epitome of laziness. They might be fooling their current clients, but they’re not fooling you and me. Effective training requires constant, pinpoint feedback and adjustment. That requires RECORDS. If they tell you they’re keeping it all by memory, get out of the gym ‘coz the “you-know-what” is getting deep in there.

2. Determine if there’s an “exit strategy”: A good trainer should have the objective of making you an independent trainee. They should have YOUR self-interest in mind, and that interest should not be in gaining a life-time, costly gym companion who counts repetitions. It should be in becoming a confident, dynamic, lean, strong, and in-shape person who knows your own body better than ever before.  



Good fitness trainers are sticklers for proper form and purveyors of focus and motivation. 


When picking a personal trainer, don’t be afraid to ask for a birds-eye view of the entire strategy the trainer has planned before you begin. The first session should be a free consultation. This is where information is gathered from you and the prospective trainer should be listening intently. It’s also the point I’d recommend you ask for a written layout of their entire plan, including an unambiguous explanation of how it will help you toward the outcome you seek. The trainer might need to email it to you after mapping it out. Whatever… if they won’t provide it, hold onto your money and look for someone who will.

3. Steer clear of lack-of-instruction: There must be a hundred ways to use workout equipment ineffectively or only marginally effectively. Contrastingly, there’s an optimal way to perform each exercise so that it maximally ‘works your muscles’ rather than just ‘moves some weights.’ Despite this, I’ve seen countless personal trainers allowing or instructing their clients to perform exercises in a sloppy manner. This is not easy to spot for the beginner who’s stepping into the gym for the first time or hasn’t worked out in years.

Again, my suggestion is to watch a prospective trainer interact with other clients. If the trainer engages in a lot of instruction on how to use proper form, that’s a good sign. Conversely, if the trainer seems to provide minimal instruction while the trainee is obviously using sloppy and uncontrolled form, hold onto your money; there are a lot of good trainers from whom to select.

4. Beware of anything that doesn’t make sense: When you see a “trainer” who’s putting a client with a hundred pounds of excess body fat through a set of ‘triceps kickbacks’, a red flag should go up. At the least, this trainer has his or her priorities mixed up – the exact opposite of a major quality you should seek in a personal trainer. There’s no reason for a person carrying that much cellulite to be doing resistance training. In that situation, all mental and physical resources should be devoted to getting body fat under control.

A trainer might argue that the muscle being built will help the overweight client lose body fat. Don’t buy it. When body fat is majorly out of control, the endocrine system is so out-of-whack that muscle gains would come at a snail’s pace (if at all).

If you witness this kind of ‘dufus activity’ in a prospective trainer, my recommendation is to hold onto your wallet ‘til you see a better one.

5. Steer clear of perpetual esotericism: If tip number one (above) is followed, there should be no reason for a trainer to put you through “mystery activity.” But this is exactly what many will do in order to project the impression that “they’re the expert” and that you’ll likely need them indefinitely or, at least, for a very long time.

Beware of personal trainers who constantly require a balancing act with nearly every exercise instructed. This should especially be the case if your goal is building muscle and strength while losing body fat. A trainer’s tendency to steer clients toward difficult exercises, even when balance improvement was not a client request, often arises from the desire to build trainer/client dependency. Don’t fall for this one if you want maximum results for your money.

Additionally, I recommend looking elsewhere if a trainer attempts to make it all sound especially complicated. Yes… there’s quite a bit to know about exercise performance, workout design, strength enhancement for sports, nutrition, etc… At the same time, none of it is exactly rocket science and much of it is intuitive. Making progress in physique improvement is ultimately about incremental experimentation with sensitivity to feedback. Above all, any effective routine, regardless of specific goal, needs to follow a pattern of overload and progression. If these two combined elements are missing from ANY routine, the results will be disappointing.

A successful trainer/client relationship is really one of mutual dependence; you rely on them for expertise and guidance while they rely on you for commitment, discipline, and willingness to follow detailed recommendations. It should be a balanced relationship. If it seems out-of-balance during the initial consultation, don’t be afraid to balk and keep your options open.

To read my opinion on trainers and steroids, just visit this page when you get the chance.


Happy Training!


Scott Abbett

Hi Robert,

Terrific point! In order for someone to continue inspiring us, we need to actually enjoy that person's company. 'Chemistry', or rapport between two people, is the accurate label to put on that. I'm sure a lot of people have given up on sessions with trainers simply because they weren't feeling that chemistry.

Conversely, I've seen trainer/client relationships in which the chemistry between the two people eventually just over-rode either person's desire to actually get fitness results for the client. In those cases, the client appeared to need someone in whom to vent personal problems and the "trainer" became a better make-shift psychologist than your average bartender. Funny! I guess if both parties are finding fulfillment in the transaction and professional relationship, no harm done.

Thank you for visiting and commenting.



I guess references and experience are the core skills a personal trainer should possess - that for the expert part. But if there is no Personal Chemistry then it makes little sense to waste money and time on such trainer. Very useful, thank you.

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