Hiring a personal trainer is a serious undertaking. The trainer you pick can either make or break your experience. Let’s face it; a person is usually hiring a trainer because they need the support and professional guidance for specific goals.
Looking at specific traits will help you make an informed choice. Below is a comprehensive, but not an all-encompassing list of skills, qualities, and traits that a good trainer should possess.
1. Client Centered Training
I once evaluated a trainer’s exercise prescriptions and found them to remarkably similar. So much that I could not match needs and goals for each of his clients. In this case, it turned out during a discussion that he was too busy to focus on program personalization and started simply providing basic programs to all clients.
For whatever reason, some trainers offer “cookie cutter” services. The programs provided are one-dimensional and do not reflect the desires and the needs of the client. Too many times people complain that they do not feel listened to or attended to. The client and trainer never develop a good working relationship.
You are the client so your personal trainer should be working with you for your best interest. However “client-centered” practice goes well beyond providing a “program”. It is a philosophy developed by Carl Rogers and used in psychotherapy it stresses developing a “therapeutic alliance” with the client.
Being client centered includes the practitioner having qualities that include congruence, the willingness to genuinely relate to you, not based on a professional façade. Unconditional positive regard where the practitioner offers an acceptance of you for who you are without assigning critical feelings, actions or characteristics and demonstrating a willingness to actively listen without interruption, judgment or continually giving advice. Finally, empathy, the practitioner communicates their desire to understand and appreciate your perspective in regards to goals.
2. Evidence-based practice
Your trainer should be able to provide you with the rationale for any recommendation based on solid evidence. Evidence-based practice (EBP) is an interdisciplinary approach to clinical practice that has been gaining ground following its formal introduction in 1992. It started in medicine as evidence-based medicine (EBM) and spread to other fields such as dentistry, nursing, exercise physiology, health, counseling, psychology, education, library and information science and other fields.
Its basic principles are that all practical decisions made should:
a) be based on research studies and
b) that these research studies are selected and interpreted according to some specific norms characteristic for EBP. Typically such norms disregard theoretical studies and qualitative studies and consider quantitative studies according to a narrow set of criteria of what counts as evidence. If such a narrow set of methodological criteria are not applied, it is better instead just to speak of research-based practice.
Professionalism is not merely holding an advanced degree or certification; it encompasses a wide range of issues. It includes but not limited to, doing what is best for you the client and not the business, engaging in appropriate behavior and maintaining good boundaries with clients and significant others, staying current in the field, maintaining professional memberships, being non-discriminatory, being honest and transparent including providing you with a complete resume, providing safe and effective services, referring clients to more qualified health or medical professionals when appropriate, maintaining the confidentiality of all client information and carrying insurance.
4. Does not have all the answers
Years ago as a health and fitness director, I overheard one of my experienced trainers talking with a client and saying “I don’t think your symptoms are heart-related it’s probably something else”. When I inquired about specifics regarding her symptoms I immediately called her physician and he recommended that she go to the emergency room. She eventually had an angioplasty with stent placement. Even though the trainer was experienced he was not well versed on the intricacies of coronary heart disease and atypical symptoms.
No one knows everything and this certainly includes personal trainers. Over the years I have witnessed personal trainers respond to questions that they do not have the knowledge or training to provide an answer. They may answer because they feel the client expects them to know. The most professional thing a trainer can do is indicate they do not know the answer but they can find out or refer the person to the correct resource. It could be a matter of life and death.
5. Understands behavioral change process, not just exercise.
No longer is the day that personal training involves physical activity alone. I have work with clients that are already taking action with exercising but are still struggling with diet. As a professional that looks at personal training as a holistic process, I cannot ignore the dietary changes that must be made for goals such as weight control. It is my job to help my client move through the change process and reach personal goals.
Whether you are engaging a trainer in losing weight or improve marathon times it is a behavioral change process. It involves new ways of thinking and doing. People vary in their readiness for change (stages of change). The trainer you hire should be versed in some behavioral theory in order to be able to help you through this change process.
6. Good communication skills
Communication is more than speaking. It involves active listening, body language, reflection on your statements to ensure understanding. Communication is an active process that is bidirectional and dynamic, meaning it has a specific purpose that will change over time and requires participation by both people. The trainer should be able to listen and understand your goals and needs. The trainer should be able to communicate complex information and concepts that are easy to understand. Communication should also be done in writing with contracts, consents, policies, rates and more.
Education and training are critical. Would you hire a contractor to build your home addition who liked to build things has a degree in English and took a weekend certification in contracting? Or would you hire a contractor who has extensive training in various methods, materials, and principles of construction? Even though not required for many certifications, a degree related to exercise science demonstrates solid training. Certifications are important to demonstrate basic knowledge, but it does not take the place of an academic preparation.
8. Personality / Traits
Most personal trainers are people persons, they are outgoing. Most personal trainers want to help people for many reasons. But what personality and traits should a good trainer have? The fact of the matter is that trainers come in many shapes and sizes with different demeanors. The right one for you depends on your personality and what personality type you feel at ease with.
As a director managing personal trainers, I had very qualified individuals that had a hard time helping people. By being qualified I mean that they were degreed and certified. However, that was not enough. Given any two trainers and basically the same credentials the one who was the best match for a client was the one who was able to work successfully and reach significant goals.
The take home message is to interview the trainer and look for a trainer you feel comfortable working with. Do you need someone to push you, someone to help you problem solve, a trainer that is compassionate and caring because you have medical problems, funny, serious or creative? The list can go on. You should look for several trainers and get on the phone with them and see how willing they are to talk. Don’t simply contract with the trainer because they are really “fit” thinking this will help you, some of my best trainers are slightly overweight but healthy.
How flexible is the trainer? Do they have a hard time scheduling with you because they have too many clients? What is their refund policy? What about cancellation policies – are they reasonable? Ask if you miss or cancel an appointment after the allotted time before you are charged for the session does the trainer still work for you given you have now been charged for the hour. This is important in the sense that even though you are not present for the session you are still paying for it, should the trainer go exercise because he or she has an extra hour? The answer should be that the trainer will do something for you in that time to help you in the future. Your money should never be “wasted”.
10. Results driven
This is fairly simple. Your trainer is working with you to help you reach goals. However, some trainers lose sight of goals. Your goals and progress should be evaluated each session in addition to setting periodic formal fitness assessments. Your trainer is charged with assessing and monitoring progress. All of the recommendations that your trainer makes should be based on careful evaluation of your progress. If this is done you are more likely to make significant progress.
Choosing a personal trainer in order to obtain good results takes time and some knowledge. It is a process that has many variables. One of the most important items is the ability to connect and create a good client-trainer working relationship, without this it makes it hard to accomplish anything. Other important items such as knowledge, training, professionalism, policies, fees, and philosophy are also critical.