How To Pick A Trainer
written by Sean Hyson
I sent out a newsletter to subscribers of this site last week, asking what they wanted to see on here. One of the many helpful responses I got came from Pasquale, who asked what to look for when you’re considering hiring a personal trainer or nutritionist.
As a fitness editor who’s had to deal with many of these professionals over the past decade, I’ve developed my own set of criteria for picking a good one. Granted, I’m coming from the perspective of looking for sources for magazine articles, not one-on-one coaching over the long-term, but I’ll give you my best advice.
PICK SOMEONE LIKE YOU.
Ideally, your trainer was at one time standing in the shoes you are now. If your goal is to be a jacked-up, 250-pound bad ass (a noble one, indeed), don’t settle for a guy who looks like he teaches the Pilates class at the gym. I’m not saying that skinny guys don’t know how to build muscle, but you’re going to be more motivated working with a bigger guy who also provides a constant visual reminder of where you want to go. Unless he’s on steroids, you can be sure he knows something about building muscle and strength—quite possibly more than the trainer with the master’s degree in exercise who’s also offering his services. Appearance isn’t everything, but let’s be honest, is does tell us a lot.
By the same token, if you’re shy, self-conscious, and completely new to this whole “gym thing”, you want to find a trainer who was at one time overweight, super skinny, or in some way shared that mindset. You’ll develop a closer relationship working with a trainer like that than somebody who just sees you as another client on his schedule. And relationships in fitness, just as in business, make things happen. It’s all about who you know.
LOOK FOR CERTIFICATIONS, BUT LOOK CLOSER AT EXPERIENCE.
I’ve always found that trainers who are certified by groups like the NSCA, NASM, ACSM, and ISSA offer better information than those who are certified by ACE, NESTA, or some other body. (No offense to these certs or anyone who has them—that’s just my experience.)
But the truth of it is that getting certified rarely requires training anybody, or demonstrating any hands-on skill with a client. You usually just have to study and pass a test, which proves that you’ve gained some knowledge and you’re serious about the training profession, but it doesn’t ensure that you can be a fitness problem-solver with real people in the real world. When I look at trainers who want to write for the magazines, I’m much more interested in how long they’ve been training people, who they’ve worked with (either athletes or folks who have made staggering transformations), and what kind of results they can point to.
If you want to test a trainer’s knowledge, ask he/she about how your workouts should be periodized—how will you make progress over the long haul? Anybody can hand you a routine that’s good for four weeks, but then where will you go from there? It’s not that there’s a clear right or wrong answer to this question, but the trainer’s attempt to answer it will likely demonstrate how well he knows his craft. If he gives you a sciency, B.S.-sounding answer… that’s the kind of service you’re going to get.
I think to get some assurance of quality, a trainer has to have certain influences. He should have read Supertraining by Siff and Verkoshansky. He should know what elitefts.com is and visit it from time to time. He should know how to bench press without flaring the elbows, and offer more options for ab training than just crunch and situp variations. If he thinks Swiss balls and balance-board training are cool, he’s a decade out of date.
Also, pay attention to what kind of shape the trainer is in, apart from how much muscle mass he has. Does he limp a bit? Is his posture like an ape? Does he complain of injuries or look at you with a blank stare when you ask him about assessments or movement screening? Although they’re not supposed to, trainers almost always can’t help but train their clients like they train themselves. At least a little bit. Just like you’re apt to raise your children the way you were raised—it’s unconscious. If your guy is killing himself, he’s probably going to end up killing you. If he’s always injured, you will be too.
AS FOR NUTRITIONISTS, MAKE SURE YOU CAN LIVE WITH HIS/HER PLAN.
A lot of the same reasoning applies when selecting nutrition coaching, but there are a million and one successful diet strategies—more than there are workout methods, as far as I’m concerned. If finding the “true path” to fitness with training is like walking through a jungle, finding the answers in nutrition is like going through outer space looking for the end of the universe. You’ll be lost forever.
My advice: just find something you like and can stick with. Unless it’s insane—like some chocolate chip cookie diet you see on TV when you should be sleeping—you’ll make progress.
I’m continuously amazed by the trenches of difference between nutritionists like Mike Roussell, Kiefer, John Meadows, Martin Berkhan, and Chris Mohr. They contradict each other on so many topics and yet they all get great results for their clients. They can’t all be right but they’re not dead wrong either.
If you love carbs and can’t stand to cut them, find a coach who advocates a diet that lets you eat some bread and pasta regularly. I don’t like that approach, and I believe it won’t work as well for MOST people as other methods, but it can be made to work, and if you commit to it, it will for you. If you need to eat junk food regularly to feel human but don’t mind skipping breakfast and even fasting a few hours every day, then maybe the Renegade Diet or CBL are right for you. To each his own.
Just be wary of anything that has you going to extremes immediately or over the long haul. Some very effective and healthy diets can seem crazy, but no responsible nutritionists will ask you make a huge change overnight. The way to succeed with any program is to ease into it and establish new habits first, so more important than the particular nutrition philosophy in play is the coaching that implements it. Find a nutritionist that moves at the speed you want to and lets you eat what you want to (although maybe not in the same amounts!).
I wrote more about what to look for in a trainer and a gym for Schwarzenegger.com, where I’m proud to say I’m on the advisory board. Check it out HERE.