What to Look For (and Avoid) in a Personal Trainer: 11 Questions to Ask Before You Commit

March 19, 2020
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The benefits of a personal trainer (PT) can go a long way and last a long time, but it can be extremely difficult, time-consuming, and costly to find the right fitness coach.

Sticker name tag that says "Hello I'm an Expert" illustrating that anyone can call themselves a personal trainer and not all certifications are created equal

How come?

Because anyone can claim they’re a “personal trainer” when a national standard with clearly-defined prerequisites doesn’t exist. Even “certified” trainers aren’t created equal because, believe it or not, there are programs that make it possible for amateur coaches to earn the title in a single weekend.

Although exceptional, qualified trainers are out there, they can be difficult to find in a sea of self-proclamations among Instagram-famous fitness models, celebrity coaches, and self-taught experts.

So, how can you make sure that you choose the right trainer and get your money’s worth?

If you’re on the market for a new PT, you’ve come to the right place. Regardless of whether you decide to find your PT through an app or through a local gym, this guide will help you understand what makes a personal trainer qualified so you know what credentials and qualities to look for and avoid on your quest to find a great fit.

Along the way, we’ll give you 11 specific questions to ask potential in-person trainers. You can ask remote coaches these questions, too, but you likely won't need to if an online personal training platform or marketplace has handpicked qualified personal trainers and surfaced their credentials and bios for you so you have all the info you need up front to make an educated decision. Which brings us to our next point ...

Should You Train Face-to-Face or in Cyberspace?

A female personal trainer assists her client doing a sit up while another woman follows an instructional workout video on her phone at home

When you picture a personal training session, most people imagine a trainer and client side-by-side in a gym. But recently, a new approach has emerged: virtual personal training (also known as online personal training). Which approach is better? It depends on your specific needs and preferences.

Reasons to Find an In-Person Trainer

Sometimes people prefer face-to-face guidance if they have an injury or limited fitness experience, but that doesn't mean trainers can't successfully coach people with injuries or limited experience remotely. It really boils down to having a preference for immediate feedback for form correction and real-time motivation to push yourself harder during a work out. With remote training, guidance from your coach typically happens before and after the actual workout itself: They tell you what workouts to do, you tell them how it went afterward, and you adjust together from there. Since online trainers typically communicate through smartphone apps using text, audio, or video messaging, those who aren't super tech-savvy tend to opt for in-person.

Keep in mind that in-person trainers tend to be more expensive (usually between $50 - $75 an hour with some costing upwards of $100), and while some trainers work for themselves and may offer in-home training, meeting with them in person might be tricky to fit into your schedule since they’re often busiest before and after normal business hours when most of their clients are done with a day's work and available to exercise.

Reasons to Find a Virtual Trainer

A happy senior woman works out at home per instruction from her online personal trainer through her smartphone

Online trainers are a great option for people with smaller budgets, busier or more inflexible schedules, a preference for a diverse fitness routine, or a preference to work out in a solo environment (like home). Online trainers usually cost less: Training with a PT through Trainiac, for example, costs $79.99 per month, whereas training in-person for a month at a big box gym can cost anywhere between $500 - $680 (this means online training can be nearly one-tenth the in-person cost!).

Training virtually doesn’t mean a sacrifice in training quality; in fact, online trainers offer a level of flexibility and accessibility that in-person trainers can’t. Virtual training offers the flexibility of anytime, anywhere workouts that can fit into even the craziest schedules. And because online training isn’t restricted by your geographic location, you’ll have many more trainers to choose from — and a greater chance of finding a great fit. 

If you go with an online trainer, it’s best to have some previous exercise experience; online trainers usually use video instruction rather than hands-on demonstrations, which may not be ideal for absolute beginners.

Interested in finding an online personal trainer? Trainiac helps you find the right coach without the long search by doing the heavy lifting with our rigorous vetting process, proprietary online training curriculum, and ongoing quality assurance with all trainers on our platform. Download the app, complete your fitness intake, and find a certified personal trainer who’s perfectly qualified to help you develop an effective exercise routine and crush your goals.

11 Attributes Every Personal Trainer Should Have

A PT should certainly be certified to do their job, but that’s just the beginning. To find a trainer who will steer you towards success, you’ll also want to check out their educational background, experience level, coaching style, and even their hobbies.

But first, you’ll need to start with the most important component: You. Before you begin your search for a suitable PT, determine what your fitness goals are. Getting clear on your goals will help you to define the specific traits and skills of your ideal PT, so that you’ll know what to look for.

Let's break down the 11 most important attributes to look for in a PT, one by one. As you make your way through this list, keep your specific fitness goal in mind. This will help you paint a mental picture of your ideal trainer’s education, experience, and personality.

1) A Reputable Trainer Certification

Reputable national certifying personal trainer agencies accepted by Trainiac: ACE, ACSM, NASM, NSCA

At the very least, your PT should be certified. However, “certified” can have many meanings. Some certifications are one-weekend courses with no prerequisites; others require a four-year degree and involve at least 100 hours of rigorous study and hands-on practice. You can probably guess which of these is more valuable.

A prospective trainer should be happy to discuss u their specific certification with you. Look for trainers certified by well-respected and prestigious programs — ACE, NSCA, ACSM or NASM are all great examples. This way you can rest assured that your potential trainer has the basic training needed to help you achieve your goals safely and effectively.

Ask This: What program did you use for your trainer certification? What was the program like?

2) A Relevant Bachelor's Degree

Your PT should have an educational background that pertains to your specific fitness goals. Although a bachelor’s degree is not necessary, it can definitely be a plus — especially if your PT has a degree related to exercise. A degree in sports medicine, exercise science, physical education, or kinesiology (the study of human movement) will add to your PT’s depth of knowledge and allow them to make more educated and diverse recommendations.

Ask This: Do you have a bachelor’s degree? What did you study?

3) Complementary Credentials or Specializations

A personal trainer studying kinesiology as part of her credentials to train others in exercise

If you’re lucky, you might find a PT with specialties that relate to your interests and goals. Some trainers have credentials in specific wellness-related topics. Examples include nutrition, corrective exercise, athletic conditioning, stress management, weight loss, and pre- and post-natal fitness.

Think about what sort of additional expertise you’d like your PT to have. A PT with special expertise will have a more multifaceted background and a broader skill set. For you, this means that your trainer won’t just help you accomplish your goals by suggesting exercises — they’ll also be able to teach you related wellness skills.

Ask This: Do you have any additional specialties or certifications that are related to wellness?

4) Demonstrated Expertise

It’s one thing to have degrees and certifications. It’s another to be able to put knowledge to work and provide clear explanations of complex concepts. Your PT should be able to speak with authority on the subject of fitness, explain the reasoning behind the exercises they’ve chosen for you, and map out the path they’ve designed to get to your goal (and beyond). An ideal trainer will also continue to educate themselves about new research and discoveries in the field of exercise science and share this knowledge with you.

If your trainer is a true fitness expert, they’ll provide a broad vision of what both short-term and long-term success will look like for you — and this vision should be modified when necessary. For example, while your initial fitness goal might be to start exercising regularly, your trainer might help you define more specific weight loss or muscle gain goals once you’re feeling more capable.

Ask This: If my goal is X and I reach that goal, what new goal would you recommend for me? Why?

Trainiac makes it easy to find a trainer with the right specializations and credentials to suit your needs. Every personal trainer on Trainiac has been certified by either ACE, NSCA, ACSM or NASM — plus, they each have a bachelor’s degree and at least one additional wellness-related credential. Once you download the app and complete your intake, you can peruse through a handful of our vetted trainer profiles to find one you can relate to. Finding a qualified personal trainer has never been easier.

5) Real-World Training Experience

A male personal trainer guides a senior man at the gym earning real world experience as a fitness coach

More experience is always better. Ideally, your PT will have at least one year of experience under their belt. If your PT has trained people with goals and interests that are similar to yours, that’s even better.

Some PTs will provide you with references of previous clients, so that you can speak with people who they’ve trained and ask them about their journey with that specific PT. If a PT is experienced, you may also be able to read some reviews and testimonials from their previous clients.

Ask This: Do you have any testimonials I can read from your previous clients?

At Trainiac, we don’t just rigorously screen trainers before they join our team — we set the standard for what it means to be top personal trainer in today’s connected world with our rigorous vetting process, proprietary online personal training curriculum, and ongoing quality assurance for client service. Having high standards is how we built a remarkable and diverse team of trainers who are deeply invested in and incentivized by your success, and why 95% of existing clients have given their personal trainer a 5-star review.

6) A Personal Commitment to Fitness

If you want to make fitness a habit, your PT should have a fitness habit. If you want to achieve your fitness goals, your PT should be progressing towards their own fitness goals. This doesn’t mean that your PT must have rock-hard muscles or walls lined with trophies. You just want some assurance that they walk the talk and follow their own fitness advice before you apply that same advice to your life. 

You can ask PTs about their fitness habits directly, or check out their website and social media accounts to get a sense of how they present themselves and their (hopefully active) lifestyle.

Ask This: What are some fitness goals that you’ve personally achieved in the last year?

Every Trainiac trainer is nationally certified, with a demonstrated understanding of exercise science and at least one year of in-person training experience. Trainiac only hires personal trainers who practice what they preach, so you can rest assured that your trainer’s guidance will stem from professional training and personal experience.

7) A Vested Interest in Your Success

A new client sits down at a desk to discuss their fitness goals with their personal trainer

Your relationship with your personal trainer should be … well, personal. During your first few conversations with a new PT, they should show a genuine interest in your fitness goals and helping you achieve those goals in a personalized way. Otherwise, they’re likely to provide you with a one-size-fits-all approach that’s not catered to you.

As you get acquainted with PT candidates, expect them to dig deep and ask you all sorts of questions about your life. To get a complete picture of your specific needs, they may ask you about your short-term goals, long-term goals, schedule, family, diet, stress level, sleep habits, and hobbies. All of this information will be useful for them when they build out a custom-fit workout plan that’s based on your needs.

Essentially, you should expect to be interrogated by a new PT. It’s a sign that they want to understand you as a person — and treat you like one — rather than a scheduled obligation. 

Ask This: What kind of information will you take into account when creating my workout plan?

8) Honesty

Your PT should be completely truthful with you. They should be honest about their qualifications, remain true to their promised availability, help you set goals that you can actually achieve, and give you straightforward feedback on your progress. 

A PT is someone you choose as a long-term fitness partner. As with any good partnership, your relationship with your PT should be built on authenticity. And this authenticity should go both ways — you should feel comfortable being completely honest with your trainer, especially when you’re having a hard time or feeling frustrated with a lack of progress.

Ask This: How do you make sure that your clients set realistic goals? How do you give your clients feedback on their progress?

9) Patience

A close up of male personal trainer holding the hands of his female client to show genuine support and patience

Find a PT who will patiently address any questions you have about your training plan or the reasoning behind specific exercises. Part of a PT’s job is to educate you, so they should welcome any questions you have, and take the time to answer them fully.

Ask This: During my training sessions with you, how much time will there be for me to ask you specific questions I have?

10) Excellent Communication Skills

If your PT tells you how to do a dumbbell thruster and you end up thrusting your dumbbells through the closest window, there might be a gap in communication. You should be able to understand your trainer’s exercise explanations without difficulty, especially if you’re not training in person. Instructional videos can be an effective tool for this. 

Ask This: Can you explain a couple of specific exercises you’d have me do to reach my goal of X?

11) A Coaching Style You Click With

A woman shaking hands with her male personal trainer in between push ups

It’s important to choose a PT who you can easily talk to and confide in. But beyond basic likeability, you’ll want to make sure that their coaching style is a good fit for you.

Think about what kind of coaching style you’d like your trainer to have. Some people want their trainer to play the role of a drill sergeant to keep them off the couch and in motion, while others might respond better to a softer, more nurturing approach (or anything in between). What kind of motivation do you need to get up and moving?

Once you’ve decided on your preferred coaching style, you’ll be able to ask your trainer if they can accommodate your preference. Keep in mind that this preference might change over time; make sure that your trainer will be able to adapt if you need them to be harder on you.

By being clear about your communication preferences from the start, you’ll ensure that your PT can keep you focused and motivated to succeed in the long-term.

Ask This: How would you describe the coaching style you use with your current clients? Do you take different approaches with different clients?

Trainiac allows you to specify your coaching style before we recommend a handful of personal trainers who we think are perfectly suited to your personality, lifestyle, and goals. You’ll be able to view trainer profiles and get to know the one you choose through an intro call. If at any point you feel like your trainer is not a good fit, we’ll help you switch to someone who is.

10 Misconceptions & Red Flags to Watch Out For

Knowing what to look for in a PT is important, but it’s equally important to know what to avoid so you don't get led astray. 

1) Chiseled Muscles (Let Us Explain ... )

PTs should certainly lead by example by living a healthy lifestyle. However, a rockin’ bod isn’t the only indication of personal training knowledge or skill level. "Healthy" looks different on everyone, so it's best to refrain from making a judgement call based solely on ballooning biceps and washboard abs without considering the qualifications outlined above.

2) A Big Social Media Following

Sure, a great trainer can have a high follower count, but so can a terrible trainer. As with the sexy (shirtless) selfies, social media popularity should take a backseat in comparison to relevant experience, a hard-earned certification, professionalism, and personality match. Just because someone can grow a strong following doesn't mean they have what it takes to keep you accountable, encouraged, and challenged.

3) Requiring Fancy or Expensive Workout Gadgets

A blue yoga mat and two dumbbells are some basic home gym equipment essentials

Exercise equipment is definitely helpful, but a good PT can help you to get into an effective routine using just your body weight or whatever select equipment you already have on hand. You shouldn't need anything beyond some simple essentials that fit your budget.

4) Inflated Promises

“Lose 30 pounds in 2 weeks with my method!” Nope. Your personal training plan should be individualized, which means your trainer shouldn't force you to follow a singular method to accomplish your goals. Promises like this typically lead to unsustainable fitness plans and a high probability of rebounding.

5) They’re in it for Their Goals, Not Yours

Constructive criticism is a good thing, and your trainer should help you to define realistic goals, but those goals should be your own. The “why” behind your fitness plan should come from you.

Whether in-person or virtual, you're looking for a two-way relationship, not radio silence. If your trainer isn't attentive to your questions, doesn't consider how the rest of your life impacts your training regimen, or can't remember simple details about your workout or feedback preferences, it could be a sign they're not in this to help you succeed. You're better off finding a new one.

6) They Aren’t Knowledgeable About Your Specific Injuries or Chronic Condition(s)

The last thing you want from your PT is a workout plan that leads to re-injury or exacerbates existing health problems.

7) Inappropriate Behavior

Requesting progress pics in your underwear? Red flag. Progress photos can be a good tool for you to track your progress, but they should be kept to yourself. Oh, and your trainer should keep their clothes on, too.

8) Getting Too Comfortable

Even as you become close with your trainer, they should always maintain a high level of professionalism. This means that your valuable training time shouldn’t be sucked up by endless storytelling, and your trainer should never go easier on you just because you’ve become pals.

9) Lack of Flexibility

A woman adding personal training appointments to her calendar on her tablet

Your PT should have availability that works with your schedule and adapts to changes in your schedule over time. If your trainer charges cancellation fees for missed sessions and you’ve got an erratic schedule, those fees will add up quickly. This is where an online fitness trainer can come in handy with workouts you can do anywhere, anytime.

10) Low Job Satisfaction

If your PT doesn’t seem to like their job, or if their employer doesn’t treat them well, they probably won’t be cheering you on for very long. Big box gyms are breeding grounds for underpaid PTs who are likely to provide a cookie-cutter approach to every client. You’ll find more reliable trainers in smaller, local studios or on reputable trainer apps.

All Trainiac trainers are screened for professionalism and have built amazing reputations for themselves. By carefully selecting every trainer before they join our team, Trainiac saves you time and trouble — and allows you to rest assured that you’re being paired with a top-tier trainer you can trust to have your best interest in mind. When our clients succeed, our trainers succeed.

Go Forth & Choose Your Trainer Wisely

When you choose a PT, you’re choosing someone to be your partner through a challenging journey. Your PT will become familiar with your biggest flaws, your BMI, and your reddest, sweatiest self. They’ll be there to support you through every inevitable setback and celebrate every success along the way. 

The right trainer won’t just help you to achieve your fitness goals. The right trainer will become a constant source of inspiration and encouragement for you, and they’ll have a lasting impact on your well-being. Use the tips above to choose wisely, and you’ll be on your way to a healthier, happier life.

Not sure where to start looking for your perfect personal trainer? Great news: We’ve already done the heavy lifting for you.

Trainiac customers love their trainers. In a recent survey, 95% of Trainiac clients gave their trainer a 5-star review. Trainiac makes it easy to find an educated, effective and affordable physical trainer you love.

Choosing a personal trainer can be a high-stakes decision. Choose the right trainer, and you’ll end up with a lasting fitness habit that will improve your mood, energy level, sleep, intelligence, and more.

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