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Picking the Pro: Finding the Right Personal Trainer For You

You may have some nagging injuries, or maybe you just put on some extra weight over the years that your primary physician is telling you to lose. Either way, it sounds like you may need some help in the health and fitness department. It actually takes some courage and confidence to admit you need help, so congratulations on making the choice to hire a personal trainer. When it comes to your exercise routine, you can go it alone or you can hire someone who knows how to get you to your goal. But you don’t want just anyone taking your health and wellbeing into their hands, do you? Let’s discuss what you need to be aware of before you make that next step of hiring a coach or personal trainer — so you don’t spend money in vain or set yourself up for failure with someone who’s unqualified to train you.

WHY GET A PERSONAL TRAINER TO BEGIN WITH?
While there are many reasons why you might want to hire a personal trainer, the broadest reason is to get in better shape. Now, this can mean anything from losing weight to building muscle and anything in between, but the better question to ask is why you need a personal trainer rather than attempting to reach your goals without assistance.

The question may sound the same, but you can certainly go to the gym and work out on your own; plenty of people do it. A personal trainer, however, has many advantages over working out by yourself. Education, safety, and accountability are among the most important. Education is a big one (assuming you hired the right person) as they’ll know effective ways to get you from your starting point to your goal in, ideally, the shortest amount of time possible. This is a big deal as the attention span of most people is short, and they’re motivated by continual progress.

Safety can be taken two ways — both safety during the actual session by spotting you and by designing a program that’s good for you given your physiological status (everyone’s capabilities are different). Exercise selection and choosing the appropriate weight, if you’re weight training, is vitally important. If you haven’t searched “gym fails” videos on YouTube, you need to. It’ll give you some idea of how things can go awry at a gym without proper guidance, and it’s a bit of a wakeup call about how easily mistakes can be made

Accountability may seem insignificant, but it can be critical for a lot of people who struggle to make it to the gym regularly. When you have someone waiting for you at the gym expecting you to be there, and you’re going to be charged if you don’t show up, it’s much more likely that you won’t bail. There’s a saying in fitness that a mediocre program completed 100 percent is far better than a fantastic program completed 50 percent. Showing up consistently is one of the most critical aspects of improving fitness-related goals.
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PICK THE RIGHT SETTING
So, let’s say you’ve decided to hire a personal trainer. The next step is to determine where you should go. There are tons of gyms out there, and there are always more popping up all the time. In a situation with so many options, it helps to break it down into small pieces. Let’s divide the possibilities into a bigger gym, such as Lifetime Fitness or Gold’s Gym, and smaller independent studios.

Bigger gyms tend to have an advantage over smaller studios when it comes to resources available and cost to join. This typically means bigger gyms have more equipment to choose from and more space, which can be a massive advantage for you depending on your needs. If you’re looking for a place to go to use the equipment outside of personal training sessions, you can do that as you’ll be paying a membership fee. Because the gyms are much bigger, you’ll also usually have more of a selection of personal trainers to choose from, which can increase the odds of you finding someone you like.

A studio, on the other hand, has many advantages over gyms. For one, they often have more specialty equipment, such as a better selection of kettlebells, a turf section for things like pushing a sled, and other things you may have never heard of like a mace, battle ropes, and TRX Suspension Trainers. That’s not to say gyms don’t have these items, but it’s much more likely that small studios will have them. This can be great for people who like to spice up their training and tend to get bored quickly. Studios also tend to have better quality, albeit fewer, services to choose from. Take a personal training studio, for instance. It’s much more likely that a place specializing in personal training will have a better service if that’s all they’re focused on.

HOW ABOUT EDUCATION?
Excellent education and quality credentials are good to have in any job, and personal training is no different. A college degree in an exercise-related field is always a great first start and something a lot of businesses set as their minimum qualification. Degrees in areas such as exercise science, exercise physiology, biomechanics, kinesiology, athletic training, and physiology are all ideal. Don’t worry too much about where they got their degree as school is really the starting point of education in this field. Continuing education is what separates the good from the bad.

Aside from that, look for a quality general personal training or strength and conditioning certification. Some of these include the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), American Council on Exercise (ACE), Certified Functional Strength Coach (CFSC), and the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). While there are plenty of other certifications, these are generally the most well-known depending on the area of expertise.

Additionally, other certifications focus more on specific styles of training, equipment, or services such as TRX, StrongFirst (SFG), Russian Kettlebell Challenge (RKC), Functional Movement Screen Level 1 or 2 (FMS), Functional Range Conditioning (FRC), Precision Nutrition Level 1 or 2 (Pn1 or Pn2), Postural Restoration Trained (PRT), and so on. Finding a trainer or coach with an additional certification, such as one of these, is an excellent way to know that he or she stays up to date with current concepts and is interested in bettering themselves. This is very important as the field of exercise is continually changing.

Most places require a CPR/AED certification for employment; this is a crucial certification for all fitness and health professionals to have. You never know when you’ll need it.

IS EXPERIENCE THE MOST IMPORTANT VARIABLE?
Experience in any job is typically a positive, but the fitness industry is one where experience is not always the be-all-end-all. When you have a field that’s continually changing, having more experience can be fantastic, assuming the trainer you’re working with continues to learn and get better; this is true of so many professions from doctors to physical therapists. It’s also more likely that they know the ins and outs of the job itself very well and are good at establishing a rapport with people.

New personal trainers do sometimes have an advantage in that they have learned more modern methods and information that can be key to pushing you to your goals or reducing injury risk. For instance, crunches and sit-ups were the go-to core exercise for a long time, and many trainers still do them very frequently. It wasn’t until recently that research from Dr. Stuart McGill pointed out that they’re awful for your spine. Over time, repeated motion from the lumbar spine, like bending and twisting, can severely injure the discs.

Your ideal circumstance will be someone that has a mix of the two. Look for someone who has a decent amount of experience, which demonstrated motivation to continually get better. You can find this out by simply asking what areas of the fitness field they tend to research or what the last conference they attended was. Questions like this make it very easy to tell if they’re truly invested in getting better, or they just sit at home reading Bodybuilding.com. Aside from this, you can generally tell by the certifications a personal trainer has. Oftentimes, multiple certifications is indicative of someone willing to spend their own money on improving, definitely a step in the right direction.

COST OF ADMISSION
The price of a personal trainer entirely depends on the location. It’s likely that areas like Los Angeles or New York City will have somewhat higher rates, while a more suburban or rural area will have lower rates. The key is to find someone in that sweet spot — not out of your budget, but also not dirt cheap. Personal training is most commonly sold as a bundle of sessions, but the industry is shifting toward lumping it into a monthly price. For one-on-one personal training, it can range anywhere from $50 to as high as $100, or even higher depending on the area they’re located. Semi-private training is less expensive at a range anywhere between $20 and $50, but again, it totally depends on the area and who’s setting the prices. Personal training is much like other products and services — you typically get what you pay for. So, your best bet is to hit the review sites like Google and Yelp to see what other people are saying. Word of mouth is often how gyms grow, so a good gym or trainer is likely to have multiple five-star reviews.

Within the broad topic of personal training, there are also different types of services that affect cost. The two that are the most common are one-on-one and small group (often called semi-private). While one-on-one training is probably still the most common service, small group training offers a mix of group training and one-on-one. At a lower price than one-on-one, small group personal training is likely to have three to six clients in it. You get more of the group feel, without sacrificing coaching and attention.

CONCLUSION
Picking the right person to help you achieve your health and fitness goals can mean the difference between success and failure (and significant personal injury). You always have the option to make a switch, but it’s much better (and less expensive) to get it right the first time. Do your homework to ensure you’re setting yourself up for success.

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Additional Reading:
QUESTIONS TO ASK A PERSONAL TRAINER:

1) HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN A PERSONAL TRAINER?
Remember, there are positives and negatives to their specific experience. Just find out who you’re dealing with and what you can expect.

2) DO YOU ASSESS PEOPLE BEFORE YOU TRAIN THEM? IF SO, WHAT IS YOUR ASSESSMENT?
Make sure someone is evaluating you to see what’s safe and unsafe for you to do before training together. A treadmill test is OK, but make sure there’s some kind of movement component to test your mobility and stability. Arguably, the most common pre-exercise assessment is called the Functional Movement Screen (FMS), which takes clients through a short screen to get baseline scores for gross movements like the squat, lunge, and shoulder mobility. If it’s not the FMS, there should be some sort of movement-based measurements done prior to training to determine what exercises are safe and unsafe for you to do. This isn’t an area you want someone to guess at.

3) WHAT IS INCLUDED IN THE PROGRAM? DO YOU HAVE A NUTRITIONAL DEGREE OR CERTIFICATION?
Make sure you know what you’re getting up front before you sign up for anything. Nutrition is a huge piece of the puzzle, so if someone is going to be giving you nutritional advice, they should at least be certified. One of the most common nutrition certifications is through Precision Nutrition (Pn1 or Pn2), but there are others through companies like the American Fitness Professionals & Associates Nutrition & Wellness Consultant Certification as well as the National Exercise & Sports Trainers Association (FNC). Basically, you’re just looking for someone who has gone through some kind of training specifically designed for them to give nutritional advice to their clients.

4) HOW LONG CAN I EXPECT TO TAKE TO REACH MY GOAL?
While this isn’t so easy to answer, there is a ballpark amount of time that fitness goals generally take. Understand that you’re an integral part of the process, and often, merely showing up to your sessions isn’t enough. There’ll be work that you have to do outside of the gym.

5) WHAT DO YOU EXPECT FROM ME DURING THIS PROCESS?
This is an excellent follow-up to the previous question as what you’re willing to do in the process will ultimately be the determining factor to your timeframe and success.

6) WHAT’S YOUR CANCELLATION POLICY?
Most personal trainers and gyms have a 24-hour cancellation policy. Just make sure you know what the policy is before committing to anything.


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