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How to find a good personal trainer: What to look for and mistakes to avoid

Have you ever set a goal for yourself only to come up short? Maybe you didn’t know how to get started… maybe it was lack of motivation… maybe you made some progress, but then got stuck. 

The best way to make sure that nothing gets in your way is to have another human being coaching you through it. Guiding you. Motivating you. Holding you accountable.

We’re talking someone who deeply understands your unique set of needs, goals, and life challenges. A personal trainer is what you need.  

A personal trainer will create a bespoke fitness program that gets you where you want to be. They’ll make sure you have everything you need to succeed and be in your ear to make sure you keep your eyes on the prize.

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Whiiiiiiich all sounds great in theory, but finding that match made in heaven, the peanut butter to your jelly, is easier said than done. 

Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be. This article should help demystify the process of finding the right personal trainer for you by dropping some knowledge on what to look for and what to avoid when making your selection. 

WHEN DO YOU KNOW IT’S TIME TO GET A TRAINER’S HELP? 

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Whether you’re just starting your fitness journey, or you’re already crushing squats and busting out a 10k twice a week, there’s no wrong time to get some help. 

They say the definition of crazy is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Habits are hard to break. Whether we prefer cardio to strength training, dumbbells to body-weight workouts, or laying on the couch instead of going for a walk, changing lanes and turning off cruise control can be a tough thing to do on our own. 

That’s where a trainer comes in. Maybe you just don’t know how to get started. Maybe you’re no longer making the fitness gains you once enjoyed. Maybe the physique you see in the mirror is simply not the one you’re looking for. Whatever the case, the right personal trainer can assess what isn’t working in your routine, then substitute new habits that will get you to where you want to be, all while keeping you motivated and accountable throughout the process. 

What are some signs you might be ignoring that are telling you it’s time to get some support? Here are some of the most common: 

1. You Don’t Know Where to Start 

While you might have identified some goals, knowing where to begin can be confusing, and sometimes intimidating. Stepping into a gym for the first time -- or the first time in years -- can make people feel out of their depths. The same thing can happen when we start a new sport, from running to cycling to power lifting. And feeling out of place, without a guide to show us the ropes, can quickly lead to discouragement. The same goes for our nutrition habits. 

2. You’re Inconsistent

Sticking with a nutrition or fitness plan can be tough. These one-size-fits-all plans are usually intense and rarely fit everyone’s lifestyle. While you might be able to manage the drudgery for a few weeks, the chances of overcommitting and burning out are high. By creating a plan that fits into your lifestyle, a trainer can keep you on track while also being that extra voice of motivation you need when you’re feeling weary and the junk food/couch are calling. 

3. You Have #GOALS

Got a 5k on the docket? Eager to lose a few pounds in time for summer? Goals are GREAT motivators, but the right path to success differs from person to person. By creating a training plan specifically tailored to you and your lifestyle, a personal trainer will help you optimize each workout on the road to reaching your goal. There’s a reason why amazing performers always have an equally amazing coach.  

4. Injury Plagues You 

There’s no point in working out if it’s only making you feel worse. Injury is a real thing, and often can be the result of poor form, inadequate recovery, or our tendency to push ourselves too hard. A good personal trainer can identify these problems and create a program that strengthens your weaknesses and keeps you fit and flexible rather than in a cycle of rehab.

Even if none of the above apply, you may just not know how to move forward -- should you build endurance and flexibility first, then strength, or the other way around? When do we start incorporating HIIT workouts into our routine to torch calories and develop power? How much recovery time should we factor in between sessions? What’s the best afternoon snack for your body type? A personal trainer can be your sensei through all of the above. 

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FIND A PERSONAL TRAINER SPECIFIC TO YOUR FITNESS GOALS 

Before you start shopping around for a personal trainer, the first thing you want to do is clearly identify your fitness goals. Are you trying to lose a certain amount of weight and/or body fat? Are you running your first half-marathon? Do you want to add muscle, or maybe just feel healthier and have more energy?

By determining your goals you’ll be able to identify the right type of trainer for you. 

Next, search for trainers who have specific expertise in the field you’re targeting. Just because someone is an amazing marathon coach doesn’t mean they can perfect your deadlift. Make sure their expertise matches your goals. 

In addition to finding a trainer with expertise in your specific goals, it’s also important to consider the type of relationship you’re looking to have with this person. Turn your gaze within to understand what you need to find the motivation to make a change.

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Here are some examples:

  • Do you need help on the basics, from technique to workouts? Maybe you need someone who will show you the ropes, front-loading your schedule now to jumpstart things and then tapering off down the road so that they are just checking in to make sure you’re still on track.

  • Do you lack discipline when it comes to nutrition or exercise? That’s ok, as long we’re honest about it. The right trainer can be that extra motivation you need to make sure you stay consistent.  

  • Psychologically, we respond differently to different types of coaching. Do you need constant pointers or space to try new things? A tough motivator or a compassionate listener?  

The ideal trainer has more than fitness or nutrition expertise. They have the ability to motivate you to make important improvements in many aspects of your life, from diet to sleep routine to even your day-to-day mindset. 

IT’S LIKE DATING: FIND A GOOD LISTENER 

Beyond finding a trainer with the right expertise and emotional intelligence, you really want to find someone who listens. 

Someone who’s receptive to your challenges and schedule and whatever else might have held you back in the past. A person who gets you. Who gets your needs. Who gets your goals.

Here are a few things THEY should be listening to… 

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Your Story

Who are you? Why are you here? What do you love? What are your challenges? 

Your Experience

Have you spent time in the gym before? Are you a lapsed runner? A former athlete? A never ever? Whatever the case, be honest and be detailed. 

Your Injuries 

There’s no point in neglecting to mention a previous injury that could flare up at any time. A good trainer will take your injury history into account to ensure they are crafting a workout routine that will get you stronger without risking the type of damage that can derail progress. 

…and a few things YOU should be looking for in them: 

Nutrition 

Are they asking you about diet? Diet can account for 90 percent of weight loss. The right trainer can create a daily meal plan, or -- if that sounds too rigid and stressful -- help you identify and build the best nutritional habits to help promote sustainable behavior change. If a trainer doesn’t mention diet, move on to someone who does.

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Look The Part

You want a trainer who appears to practice what they preach. If you’re training for a half-marathon, you probably want a trainer who’s run a few herself. 

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Case Studies 

Not only do you want to hear about their experience, but you want them to identify client success stories that pertain to your own fitness goals and needs. 

Keeping It Real(istic) 

No one is going to step into a gym for the first time and be ripped a month later, and no trainer should suggest this is possible. Look for someone levelheaded, who can outline a clear and methodical plan to progress with realistic benchmarks along the way. 

BUYER BEWARE: TELL TALE SIGNS OF A BAD PERSONAL TRAINER 

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So, you’re going to look for a good listener, a person who practices what they preach, etc. etc., but what are the things you DO NOT want to see in a personal trainer? 

Here are a few of the biggest red flags we continue to see and hear: 

Complexity isn’t always key 

Sure, muscle confusion can be an effective training stimulus, but not if you’re switching routines so much it comes at the expense of technique and progression. Beware the trainer who wants you to juggle empty energy drinks between busting out burpees on the BOSU ball. More often than not, the right answer is the simple one

Inflexible Routines 

You should demand the same flexibility out of your trainer that they demand from you. If they’ve got you on a program that clearly isn’t working, it’s time to switch up the plan. And if they can’t do that, then it’s time to switch up your trainer.  

Overtraining 

Torching calories isn’t rocket science, and there’s no point in a trainer putting their client so deep in the hurt locker that they don’t recover in time for the next workout. Look for a trainer who prioritizes a steady build over time that’ll get you to your goals.

Eager to schedule, not to please 

One of the saddest sights in the gym is seeing someone work with the same trainer for months on end and make zero improvement. These trainers don’t care about you achieving your goals, they only want to keep you locked in as a paying client. To avoid this, watch out for any trainer who expects you to make a long term commitment right away. Trying to lock you in as a client before they’ve proven themselves is a red flag. 

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From myths like, “squats are bad for your knees” to anecdotal evidence of what’s worked for them in the past to any kind of spot reduction exercises (hint: there are none!), tune these types of trainers out. 

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A personal trainer is someone who works for you. They shouldn’t be scrolling through their phone while you drudge through the same old cookie cutter workouts, all at the expense of perhaps further injuring yourself.  

You want a serious personal trainer willing to communicate with you every day. Someone who is just as excited about you achieving your goals as you are. 

CERTIFICATES VS. EXPERIENCE 

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Training certificates are never a bad thing, but in our book experience — especially experience specific to your fitness goals — always wins out. 

Beyond a degree in exercise science or kinesiology, there are six popular types of training certificates, all of which are outlined in depth here

TLDR: Beware of Crossfit certifications, which can be completed in a single weekend and might not grant your trainer with the degree of expertise you want. On the other hand, the National Personal Training Institute (NPTI) requires graduates to attend a full program. 

That said, you should never choose one trainer over another just because that trainer has an acronym next to their name. At the end of the day, the thing that matters most is EXPERIENCE. And not only experience, but experience training individuals with similar goals and needs to that of yourself. 

Go for someone with a proven track record who exhibits enthusiasm in helping you attain your goals. Credentials sound good, and might very well mean you’ve found the right trainer, but nothing can compete with a deep well of personal experience that they can prove. 

IS HIRING A PERSONAL TRAINER WORTH IT? 

Let’s discuss the cost. Like most things in life, the cost of a trainer is dependent on time, location, and expertise.

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On average, you’ll pay roughly $50 per hour for an in person training session. You can find trainers who charge as little as $30/hour, while others are $100+ for the same duration. 

The other (better?) option is an online trainer through a service like Kickoff, where you can have unlimited access to an expert, dedicated trainer for just $95/month

In our experience, paying for a personal trainer with years of experience is worth it. With the right personal trainer, you’re not just paying for that single hour, you’re paying for years, even decades, of that person’s experience. You’re getting access to someone who can answer all your fitness questions, fine tune your training, and dial in your diet. Motivate you, week to week, day to day. Someone who knows all the scenarios, all the success stories and pitfalls, and who can apply these lessons to your program. 

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If you want results, then working with a personal trainer is almost always worth it. 

ONLINE PERSONAL TRAINER VS IRL PERSONAL TRAINER 

While we love the flexibility and attention of an online trainer, there are of course benefits to doing your sessions in person, too. Let’s go over a few of the key pros and cons of having an online trainer. 

Pros 

24/7 Access

Got workout questions? Need a diet tip? Worried about your sleep schedule? Whereas IRL trainers are only there to help during one hour sessions, your online trainer is connected to you constantly and always available to guide you in the right direction. 

Scheduling Freedom 

Your online trainer will build a program that fits into your schedule, rather than forcing you to constantly try to find times to meet up in person.

Trainer Travels With You 

Whether you’ve got a business trip or a family vacation, your trainer stays right with you in your pocket. That means more consistency and better results.  

Value! Value! Value!

Online trainers are much more cost-effective. You can have unlimited monthly access to an expert trainer through Kickoff for roughly the same cost as 1-2 sessions with an IRL trainer.

Cons 

Form Check 

If you’re looking to improve your bench press max, perfect that burpee, or get your squat wide enough, having a trainer right there beside you can be important. Sure, with online trainers you can exchange video clips for an effective form check, or have them watch you over video, but for some fitness goals, nothing can replace the value of having a trainer present to assess technique and give tips in real-time. 

Harder to Ghost On

It’s much easier to blow off checking in with your trainer via text message or video chat than it is to actually blow off a person who is physically waiting for you at the gym. Knowing that you’ve already paid $ for a session, and that your trainer is expecting you to show up, can be the extra motivation some people need to get off the couch. 

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What this comes down to is you knowing you. Do you want to pay more for in-person motivation and real-time attention for a single hour, all at the expense of flexibility and the near constant access to a trainer’s expertise? Or would you prefer to work with someone who is with you virtually every step of the way for a more affordable price? 

TAKE A FEW TEST DRIVES, THEN MAKE THE HIRE

Before you drive a new car off the lot, you test a few makes and models first, right? The same philosophy should be applied when selecting a personal trainer

Consider five sessions with a trainer before making your decision to stick with them or to move onto the next candidate. This might seem counterintuitive, especially for people chomping at the bit to get fit, but it’s important to keep in mind that there are no shortcuts to getting in shape, and that a commitment to fitness is a lifelong journey. 

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