Finding the Best Personal Trainer

How to choose the best personal trainer for your needs and assess trainer compatibility/competency during a consultation.

Sam Stephens

Updated July 2019

TLDR

Finding a great trainer takes a little work but a few simple steps can make the search process much easier. 

To start, clearly define your goals and limitations. Research gyms you want to attend before looking at potential trainers. Inquire about trainers that work in the facilities you’ve selected. Reach out to multiple trainers initially through short phone conversations/emails then narrow the list down to 2-3 final candidates for full consults. Decide which trainer will be best for you after considering their perceived level of competency and personality compatibility. 

Become all that is fit… 

There’s seriously way too much stuff here to summarize and this attempt doesn’t really do any of it justice. If you’re serious about working with a trainer, just read the article. It’s helpful.

Now That’s Good Trainin’

Learning new things can be difficult and potentially anxiety inducing regardless of a subject’s complexity.  For those who are more self-conscious of their novice abilities, being required to perform a new hobby on day one in front of much more experienced enthusiasts might as well be death by public embarrassment. Even if you don’t mind feeling a little awkward at the beginning of the education process, the mountain of information you have yet to scale can still be a bit overwhelming. However, a great teacher can completely erase these issues by inspiring self-confidence and transforming a seemingly insurmountable mass of new material into easily traversable segments.

Wherever you are in your fitness journey, working with a great personal trainer can have a significant impact on your progress and program success. The demonstrations, corrections, and accountability provided in a live training session are unmatched by any video or online article. A talented instructor will help you easily and quickly learn proper form, avoid injury, and program for specific goals with less time and financial investment than you may think.    

Conversely, a bad trainer can have an equally detrimental effect on your exercise experience and ruin an otherwise deeply rewarding and healthy hobby. At best, a bad trainer will just take your money and not deliver any results. At worst, you’ll be out a few hundred (or thousand) dollars, still be out of shape, plagued by an avoidable injury, and left with an impressive collection of bad habits.

With a simple self-assessment, some quick research, and by being critical of your options, you can easily eliminate the underqualified and confidently pick from the best personal trainers in your area. Don’t get stuck with a certified dud. Make sure your fitness professional really is a pro.

This guide is written to help the average person who has little to no exercise knowledge accurately decide if a particular trainer will be right for them based on easily identifiable characteristics and behaviors. This is not an in depth trainer qualification analysis of program design or the legitimacy of different certifications. 

Defining 'Personal Trainer'

This article focuses heavily on assessing personal trainers that work either one-on-one with clients or in small groups (2-5) but the information covered below is not limited to any one training style. Classes like CrossFit, Pilates, yoga, MMA, and other large group activities all rely on the knowledge and experience of talented teachers. While you may not get the same individual instruction time in a yoga class that you would in a personal training session, the overall quality of your experience will be greater if your teacher is better. This guide is meant to help you evaluate the skill level of all fitness professionals so you can feel confident about trusting their advice.

Self-Assessing Your Goals, Needs, & Lifestyle

Before you even begin to look up local trainers, you need to do some self-reflecting and assessing to determine exactly what your goals are, what type of support system you require to be successful, and how your current lifestyle could possibly hinder future progress. If you know who you are, what you want, and can communicate these things clearly, your trainer will thank you and you’ll see results much faster due to a much more individualized approach.

Goal specificity is key when designing a personalized exercise program. The targets set by outlining healthy and realistic goals help to establish a feasible timeline for results, necessary training frequency, and an estimated duration of commitment. For example, if you’re interested in losing 30 lbs of fat and your trainer develops a plan that could help you safely lose about 1 lb per week, a 6-8 month program would be typical for most individuals. Entering a client/trainer relationship with appropriate expectations can improve program adherence and increase your appreciation for all of the minor victories along the way.

Knowing what kind of support system serves you best is another critical variable to determine. Do you need hands on instruction and accountability for every session or are you a fast learner and independent enough to carry on by yourself after covering the basics? Will a one-on-one session provide you with the best setting to ensure progress or does the dynamic energy and social structure of a small group environment sound more like your style? Are you generally pretty accepting of change or will your inherent stubbornness require some tough love to change? You won’t have all of the answers to every question on day one and that’s OK. Just be mindful of your preferences, scenarios that seem most enjoyable, and the type of encouragement you’ll need to keep going.

Finally, how will your lifestyle affect training? The main points to consider here are daily schedule, diet, and disposable income. Schedules are pretty rigid for most people with work usually determining when a trip to the gym can occur. If you work normal hours, will you be most consistent early in the morning or after the day is done? Scheduling 5am workouts when you know you’re not an early riser isn’t smart. Regarding diet, will you be able to eliminate certain foods and limit others along with excessive alcohol consumption? If self control is a weakness, keep in mind that a weight loss program might take longer and require a larger investment. Your disposable income will also heavily influence session style and frequency. With hourly rates for most trainers ranging between $60-125, meeting with your trainer multiple times per week can add up fast. 

With all of that said, neither your limitations or any less than helpful personality traits are set in stone. You can change bad habits and easily learn to love new experiences. Knowing who you are and what you want doesn’t mean you’re inflexible or incapable of adapting, but effectively communicating your preferences and characteristics will give any future trainer the best opportunity to keep you on track.

Researching Gym Options

Now that you’ve done a little soul searching, know what you want to accomplish in the gym, and have come to terms with the fact that those few beers on the weekend aren’t going anywhere, the search for your new exercise educator can commence. However, without a smart and systematic approach to researching your training options, you’ll be left with more frustrations than choices. With more and more people becoming certified and entering the fitness industry every year, the total number of available trainers to sift through on any one listing site can be incredibly overwhelming and an attempt to thoroughly vet each one would be ridiculously time consuming. Instead, shifting your initial search priorities away from trainers to focus on finding great gyms/studios can take this potentially monstrous task and turn it into a much more manageable endeavor.

It’s not uncommon for thriving businesses to have garage or spare bedroom origins. And while there are definitely some great trainers that operate out of their own homes, it will be best to avoid these situations. You want to attend a publicly accessible gym or training studio that’s clean, properly maintained, and allows you to come in and train on your own during normal business hours. Personal training should supplement your own exercise routine, not leave you completely dependent on the trainer for each workout. Slangin’ plates with Jeff in his cramped garage when he gets off from his day job doesn’t quite make the cut. Identifying quality facilities as a first step will cut down your search time and provide you with much safer options.

By combining Google web results (“Best gyms in Houston” or “Top personal training studios in Houston”) with map pin data for each search, you should start to form a decent list of locations in your area. As that list grows, be sure to compare ratings and reviews on Google, Facebook, and Yelp and feel out the business’s online vibe through Instagram and their website. While a large number of followers and post likes are not necessarily signs of quality exercise environments and great instructors, enthusiastic community engagement, genuine smiling faces, and original content depicting a healthy balance of fun and hard work typically are. When you combine all of these qualities and criteria, you should be left with locations that are reviewed well, have a nice facility, appear to have a healthy community of happy participants, and just give you a good gut feeling.

With your list of potential training locations ready to go, you can now attempt to explore available trainers. Unfortunately, a significant percentage of gyms and training studios don’t invest much time or money into helpful or well designed websites. Informative trainer bios and credentials are often times nowhere to be found, forcing customers to either look elsewhere or hope Instagram has the answers. However, because most of your evaluations and assessments of trainers will be done during face to face interactions, this really isn’t a problem. If you are lucky enough to find some information online, the main details to focus on are degrees, certifications, and years of experience as these are objective qualifications.

Now that you’ve got some great gyms picked out, you can start the process of meeting trainers and scheduling consultations.

Scheduling Consultations & Establishing Desired Qualifications

There are quite a few different ways to go about setting up exercise consultations and learning more about a training staff but all of them are based on respecting a trainer’s time, being upfront about your expectations, exploring a variety of options, and maintaining your ability to choose who you work with. The fitness industry is full of incredibly smart and educated professionals but there are too many underqualified instructors to blindly trust that any particular certification or X years of experience will equal competence. The following methods to help ensure you end up with an excellent teacher are applicable in both large cities with multiple gym considerations and small towns with only a few.

Possibly the most effective way to start the consultation process is just to email the personal training director/gym manager and ask for their recommendations based on your situation. The more details you can provide in this message regarding your goals, preferences, and limitations, the better experience you will most likely have. In the email (or phone call), equally emphasize what you want to accomplish as well as the minimum qualifications you need in a trainer. Because degrees, certifications, program design, and experience all vary among fitness professionals, there is no universally accepted list of qualities that guarantees exercise professionalism. However, requesting certified personal trainers that have at least 2 years of experience and train clients full time will be a smart baseline to establish.

Along with explaining your fitness aspirations and necessary instructor qualifications, be sure to request multiple trainer options. Clearly communicate that you are going to work with a trainer (not undecided about the purchase) but would like to meet with a few different individuals to determine personality compatibility. This is one of the most important details to convey. Far too often, new clients are assigned to either rookie trainers that need the extra business to stay on staff or personal friends of the gym manager. Don’t let department performance and/or work politics take priority over the best solution for your individual needs. Stay in control of who you work with.

Different trainers and gyms will have varying preferences on how they like to connect with new clients but suggesting a phone call of less than 15 minutes with each one should be totally fine. If you have the ability to do a few brief face to face meetings, even better. The objective for both outreach methods is to introduce yourself, bullet point your goals, inquire about their consultation policy (many trainers will do them for free for new clients), and request a very generalized explanation of what their exercise plan for you would be in the context of personal training. Before hanging up, ask the trainer if they have a website, social media account, or any other online content you can look at to learn more about them. Make sure you’re having a conversation and not just aggressively interviewing a faceless voice on the other end of the phone. Be human. These short conversations should give you a helpful glimpse into their knowledge set and personality to help you decide if they’re a good fit.

If you have the ability to exercise at the gym where you plan to train, you can do your own independent research prior to reaching out to the department head. As you’re working out, observe the body language and overall session interactions between trainers and clients. Great trainers are engaged with their clients, inspire effort, and frequently correct form by demonstrating movements and adjusting a customer’s body position. Is the instructor you’re watching actively working to make someone better or are they just counting reps?  You may not be a fitness expert, but you should be able to conclude whether or not the level of instruction, learning, and motivation taking place is worth $X/hr.

Many trainers also teach group exercise classes in addition to their one-on-one sessions. This more populated format can be a great way to meet the trainer and demo their services before scheduling a consultation. Class attendance policies will vary from trainer to trainer, but many will have no problem with you joining a beginner/intermediate level class as a one time free occurrence as long as it’s not a small group personal training session. Just be sure to ask the trainer if your participation is allowed and explain why you’re interested. Unless the workout requires high levels of skill and conditioning or you have serious injury concerns, they will most likely be happy to have you.

In some exercise environments, a number of the personal trainers will be independent business owners and not employed by the gym. This is common in privately owned facilities and can occasionally provide you with less expensive options. Most of the time, gyms with independent trainers will have an bulletin board full of business cards and flyers for each instructor. Grab a few cards from the trainers you’re interested in and check out their online content before setting up the first call. Many independents also rely on listing sites (Thumbtack, FindYourTrainer, etc) for new business and successful trainers should have a decent number of online reviews for you to browse through. If a gym has both in house trainers and independents, management will most likely want to promote their people as a priority and this should be kept in mind when considering their personnel suggestions.

Take your time when researching and meeting with trainers. If they have online reviews, comb through them. Be equally curious about successful trainers that are loud flashes of energy and quiet ones that are less noticeable yet have consistent business and repeat clients. Don’t rush this process and only move forward when you feel satisfied with your choices. Do your best to not waste anyone’s time but if you plan on spending hundreds or even thousands on training, don’t be afraid to ask as many questions as needed. Have strict standards for quality. A good fitness professional will understand the process and most likely appreciate your consideration of their services as one of the best options. A few hours of homework at the beginning can save you from a ton of headaches down the line.

Once you’ve chosen your final candidates (ideally no more than 2-3), reach out to those trainers and set up the consultations. Be sure to also thank the trainers you won’t be working with for their time and inform them that you plan to pursue other options.

Interviewing the Trainer (Consultation)

An effective consultation simultaneously accomplishes two things – it allows a client to assess a trainer’s competency and personality compatibility and it also provides the fitness pro with an opportunity to properly evaluate a client’s goals, baseline movement abilities, training preferences, and injury limitations. This meeting is valuable to clients interested in researching a service but it’s critical to a trainer’s ability to effectively design an individualized program and should be taken seriously.

While you are ultimately basing a purchase on your perception of another’s level of proficiency, it’s incredibly important that from the onset of the meeting you are genuinely seeking a real conversation and not fixated on interrogating an unsuspecting victim – that’s not fun for anyone.  When judging another person for any job related reason, it can be easy to slowly become standoffish and less open as you analyze their responses. Avoid that. Be human, attentive, and honest. Treat the consult as if your success depends on how effectively you communicate and listen to ideas. Your final decision will be much easier if you put real effort into connecting with and learning about the person on the other side of the table.

With that said, there are garbage trainers out there and you need to know how to spot them. Let’s talk about a few major red flags to watch for during the consultation process and some points of general advice for the meeting.

A good personal trainer follows a basic consultation template that typically includes a goals/lifestyle/limitations questionnaire, measurements of height/weight/body composition, and a very basic assessment of physical capabilities. Great trainers will take this monotonous process of discovery and turn it into an enjoyable experience where organic, flowing conversation masks the formulaic structure of the interview. There are endless ways to evaluate the needs and baseline abilities of a client but some form of investigation is absolutely necessary. Along with the obvious safety issues created by skipping this step, failing to establish a starting point makes it impossible to gauge progress. If your trainer wants to begin the first meeting with an intense workout while having no knowledge of your limitations, have concerns.

Because your needs and preferences are the main focus points of this initial interaction, you should find yourself talking the majority of the time as you respond to direct and open ended questions. The trainer should be genuinely interested in your unique position as they inquire more about you. However, if you notice a greater emphasis is placed on the advertisement of products and services than on you, have concerns. In larger corporate and chain gyms, it’s common for consultations to be used primarily as sales delivery platforms. We all need to make a living in this industry but you want to work with an exercise professional whose high quality services are purchasable – not a pushy salesperson with a fitness certification. Great trainers passively influence a client’s decision to buy a product by showcasing value and demonstrating real knowledge. Persuasion isn’t required.

As the consult moves along, make sure that assessment curiosity goes both ways by asking plenty of your own questions. If increasing muscular size is your main focus, ask the trainer to outline a basic plan of attack and then dive into the ‘why’ and ‘how’ behind their suggested programming. A smart and educated fitness pro will be able to answer all of your questions with straightforward explanations and use language that’s easy to follow. If your eyes glaze over due to complicated anatomical terms and metabolic processes you’ve never heard of, be concerned. Reciting textbook definitions of concepts often implies a lack of true comprehension or that someone’s trying to impress you with all the big words they just learned. Either way, not ideal. Meeting with an excellent trainer won’t give you with a PhD level grasp on exercise physiology in an hour, but you should be left with a simple understanding of the proposed program.

The topic of nutrition will inevitably arise as you cover the lifestyle portion of the consultation and is an incredibly important part of the session. Good trainers will make general dietary recommendations based on available research and the advice of trusted health organizations without attempting to give detailed meal plans or precise macronutrient quantities. Great trainers have extensive nutrition knowledge and make the same general intake recommendations, but will ultimately urge their clients to utilize the professional services of registered dietitians for all things food related. If your trainer refers to themselves as a ‘nutritionist,’ be slightly concerned. While comprehensive nutrition certifications do exist and there are plenty of knowledgeable trainers that have these credentials, anyone (in the US) can use the label Nutritionist to describe their dietary services with absolutely no minimum level of education or certification needed. Registered dietitians, on the other hand, must have at least a bachelor’s degree, are required to complete a dietetic internship program, and must pass a state regulated exam to obtain their license. Great personal trainers can teach you a lot about nutrition but will always acknowledge their credential limitations and recommend you seek out a dietitian for the best educational services on food, supplements, and nutrient deficiencies.

Along with being incredibly knowledgeable, your trainer should also be fit. This lifestyle and appearance requirement is necessary but probably not for the reasons you’re imagining. An overweight, weak, and deconditioned trainer with minimal personal exercise experience could design a really effective weight loss exercise program simply by studying available research and other popular programs. Exercise professionals don’t have to have perfect abs to help someone else sculpt theirs. However, a trainer that exercises intensely, sticks to a smart diet, and is consistent with their habits will have a level of empathy and insight far greater than that of someone who just understands concepts and theories. Too many trainers don’t practice what they preach and eventually lose an appreciation for the mental and physical effort clients are required to exert in order to be successful. Some days are fun and swell our bodies and egos with confidence while others absolutely suck. A great trainer knows the difference between hard work and punishment because they define each end of the spectrum daily in their own programming. With that said, don’t immediately assume that the person with the superhero physique is as smart as they are fit – genetics and worth ethic are far too often more significant contributing factors to someone’s appearance than exercise knowledge and smart program design. Look for a combination of smarts and strength. 

A thorough consultation will also include some form of a movement component. Simple exercises like bodyweight squats require a low level of effort but allow the trainer to gauge basic physical capabilities. A great trainer will typically explain the exercise you are about to perform, show you how it’s done, then ask you to copy. This Tell-Show-Do method of instruction should be easy to follow and accompanied by hands on form correction and verbal cues for movement. If you’re thrown into an exercise with minimal explanation and feel completely lost, that’s not a great sign – maybe you were just daydreaming. If you ask for clarification and are given the same unhelpful directions, have concerns. Not all exercises are easy to learn and perform well, but a great trainer will always be able to effectively communicate what they want you to do. If your teacher can’t teach, you’ve got a problem.

Unfortunately, evaluating program design and the overall effectiveness of a personal trainer’s plan will be difficult for anyone that isn’t already pretty knowledgeable in fitness. Goals focused on strength, hypertrophy, and weight loss have well established general methods, but details will vary from trainer to trainer, and that’s totally fine. If you’re working within the parameters of smart research based program design, there are plenty of ways to become fit. We would need to cover too many things here for you accurately assess if a proposed exercise plan was structured in a way that targeted your goals effectively. Instead, trust that if your trainer is well educated and has a record of client success, they’re most likely qualified to also help you. But if you want a second opinion on a program, shoot me an email. I’ll give you an unbiased opinion and help you make a smart decision.

Finally, don’t be pressured into a same day purchase and if possible, avoid contracts with a minimum required time commitment. Unless you’re meeting with the last trainer on your list who’s obviously the best choice, wait until you’ve had some time to consider your options before pulling the trigger. Do your best to distinguish between a persuasive sales pitch and a conversation with a great trainer who’s inspiring you to better yourself. They’ll both have you reaching for your wallet but there’s clearly a preferred option. Regarding contracts, only pay month to month if possible. It may cost a little more, but your power to cancel every 30 days puts extra pressure on the instructor to keep the quality high and consistent.

There are so many different characteristics and personality traits in good and bad personal trainers that it’s impossible to cover them all. Hopefully the few covered here will make it easier for you to separate the good from the bad. Keep in mind that training styles vary and the presence of one red flag isn’t necessarily a deal breaker, but be wary if they start to add up. Ultimately, the best trainer for you will be the one you believe to be most competent and get along with best. This final decision is subjective and has no real right answer. Use your best judgement but try not to overthink it. Trust your gut and continue taking its advice even if it disappears after a few months of hard work.

Contact your final pick to set up payment and a start date, and as before with the first round, let the others know you’ve decided to go with another option and thank them for their time.

Evaluating Product Satisfaction & Ending Services

After the first session, it’s important to continuously evaluate your overall training satisfaction and assess your progress. Are you moving towards your goals and learning more each session? Is your trainer consistently on time and prepared for the workout? Does your trainer add positivity to your life? If you train twice a week, has your trainer given you a detailed plan to follow for the other 5 days? Are you happy with your purchase? Do you trust that you’re working with a true fitness professional? If you can answer ‘yes’ to all of these questions every month that you train, you’ve found a really great trainer. Depending on your goals and financial limitations, you may plan to work together for 3-6 months to simply learn the basics or meet for years to ensure you stay fit. As long as you’re progressing and value the service, keep going.  

In the unfortunate scenario that you answered ‘no’ to all or a majority of the questions above, it’s probably best that you end the service. If you’re comfortable with being direct and discussing your complaints, voice them. It’s possible there was a miscommunication and simply addressing your issues will fix them. Honest constructive criticism will benefit any trainer. However, if you just want to sever ties as easily as possible and don’t mind being a dirty liar, here’s an easy excuse to use:

“I’ve learned so much from you that I now feel comfortable working out on my own! Thanks for all of your help.”

End the service however you like, but don’t feel pressured to continue paying someone because you’ve formed a friendship or are attempting to avoid a small confrontation. Even the best trainers experience regular occurrences of client turnover. People move, clients reach a point of autonomy, and enthusiasm fades. It’s all an expected part of the job and you won’t hurt anyone’s feelings if you decide to stop.  

Wrapping It Up

I know this wasn’t exactly the quick and easy summary some of you may have wanted, but there’s not any one definition or list of qualifications that defines the perfect fitness professional. 

A great trainer will be highly educated, empathetic, inspiring, an excellent teacher, and will design effective research supported programs tailored to the individual needs of each client. The absolute best trainer for you will have some combination of these qualities and a personality that you enjoy being around. If you continue to learn/progress, stay injury free, and enjoy the service, you’ve picked the right one.

Take your time and do your homework on each candidate. Don’t rush into an exercise relationship you aren’t fully interested in. Trust your instincts and only work with someone you’re comfortable with. Don’t get sold, make a choice.

If you still feel overwhelmed with this process and need help, let me know. I’d love to help you research and pick from the best local options.

Have fun.

Reference Disclaimer

Unlike the other science/evidence supported guides, this is an opinion piece based on my own personal experiences in the fitness industry.

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