If you’re considering hiring a personal trainer, you likely have your reasons. You may be searching for a little extra guidance and strategic advice to help you get to the next level, or you may be brand new to working out and unsure where to start. Perhaps you wish for someone to help keep you accountable, motivated, and working toward your goals.
Whatever your reason, you likely want to ensure your personal trainer is a good fit, and knows how to keep you engaged and on track. The art of personal training is more than just programming sets and reps. Great trainers know that behavior change and habit formation are much more crucial to success than workout design (although that’s important, too).
Below, you will hear more from me, a certified personal trainer, and some of my trusted personal trainer friends, on what makes a trainer stand out. What’s truly important when helping clients reach their goals is trust. If you believe the personal trainer will give you the right plan and support to help you reach your goals, you’ll be more likely to put in the consistent work needed to get there.
The Basics of Personal Training
While I won’t focus too much on the basics, it’s worth reviewing what a personal trainer should know to help you reach your goals. The basics include:
Assessments: Getting a picture of your health and fitness level, goals, and preferences.
Program design: Setting up a workout plan that suits your needs based on assessments.
Program progression: Tracking your progress and implementing changes to keep you advancing toward your goals.
Education: Helping you learn more about exercise form, why your program is set up the way it is, how to monitor your recovery, and how to make adjustments on your own. Some trainers hold multiple certifications or specialize in specific areas, such as running or postpartum needs or holistic nutrition, and can use this knowledge to customize your plan to suit your life stage or performance goal.
Referral: Recommending other professionals to help address issues outside our scope of practice, such as dietitians, physiotherapists, psychologists, or chiropractors.
Knowing what personal trainers can’t or shouldn’t do is equally vital. As Rachel Trotta, certified personal trainer and women’s fitness specialist says, it’s critical not to veer outside of our scope of practice.
“Yes, we can specialize, but we’re not physicians, psychologists, or dietitians. When trainers develop poor boundaries with clients and start trying to solve all their problems, they lose focus on the areas where they can really make an impact,” explains Trotta.
This means your trainer should not try to diagnose you with any physical or mental condition, and is not qualified to prescribe you any specific diet or act as a therapist. While we can coach, motivate, comfort, reassure, and empathize with you, we can’t help you solve emotional or mental issues that are best addressed by a therapist. But, we can certainly refer you to a professional or help you find one. Trainers often have a trusted network of other professionals who can help.
The glue that holds the personal trainer-client relationship together is trust. Without it, you won’t want to remain with your trainer, and sessions will be ineffective. “If you can build a high level of trust, there’s a better chance that clients can follow through on recommendations that are offered, which will give them results that they’re ultimately looking for,” says Mike Hamlin, certified personal trainer, strength and conditioning coach, and founder of EverFlex Fitness.
How the Best Trainers Help You Reach Your Goals
Trotta and I agree that, as personal trainers, two things will make you a true professional: deeply understanding the needs of your typical clients, and pursuing the specialized training that will make you an expert in helping them solve their problems.
Understanding Individual Client Needs
“So many personal trainers go into the field because they love working out and want to share this passion with others. But it’s easy to underestimate the obstacles that your clients are dealing with, like back pain, postpartum recovery, or perimenopausal symptoms,” explains Trotta.
Hamlin agrees, noting that he always tries to get to know each person as thoroughly as possible by asking them about their day, family, friends, and what’s going on in their life. “Each of these things helps build trust in your partnership and allows you leeway when you ask them to do certain fitness tasks that they may not want to do,” he explains.
According to my fellow NASM-certified personal trainer and colleague Kate Meier, the type of training and your approach to motivating a client should also be individualized. “The easy route may be to do similar training with multiple clients, but tailoring workouts and coaching styles to each person will make you stand out to clients,” she says.
Keep Learning and Teaching
To better understand client needs, trainers must educate themselves so they can team up with their clients to confront problems, get on the same page, and position themselves as accountability partners rather than nags. “You will become the go-to trainer for referral and will enjoy incredible word-of-mouth traffic,” adds Trotta.
According to Meier, teaching clients the benefits of good nutrition, adequate rest, and healthy lifestyle choices are all critical aspects of helping them change their behaviors and form good habits over time. “Emphasizing these aspects can help ensure a client’s progress in the gym isn’t negated by their lifestyle outside of training sessions,” she says.
Here are some ways that great personal trainers will stand out among the crowd.
The Power of Behavior Change
Behavior change is not just a concept, it’s a practice. To change ingrained behavior, you need to alter current habits and instill new ones, plus stop any behaviors that don’t align with your goals. Changing your behaviors around fitness starts with forming sustainable habits. Good personal trainers will help you with this.
Creating goals is more complex than you think. It can be confusing and overwhelming if you don’t know how to start. You may know your goal, but understanding why you want to achieve it and what you must do to get there is daunting. People are often over-ambitious and try to change too much at once. When this happens, you may be unable to sustain all of the changes, end up feeling like a failure, and lose motivation or give up.
Creating Sustainable Habits
To change behavior, a great personal trainer will help you create sustainable habits. They’ll help you uncover your deep reasons for wanting to achieve your goals. They can do this through motivational interviewing, something all trainers should have learned during certification. Next, they should inventory your available time and preferences, support system, and areas you can change.
For instance, if you lack the energy to work out as often as you would like or need to see results, taking a deeper look at your diet and sleep habits is a good idea. You can then work with your trainer to figure out ways of improving those areas.
A good trainer will have you start with small, manageable habits that you adapt one at a time until they become second nature. Once you’ve mastered one new healthy habit, you will start practicing another, and then another. You’ll see how much your energy, mood, sleep, and productivity improves with the changes. This is vital for staying motivated and achieving success.
As a trainer, you certainly need to know the basics about your new client, such as health history and fitness level. But Trotta says there are other topics that you should add to your first consultation, like clients’ working lifestyle, stress levels, relationship with food, and whether they live alone or with others. “These other questions can paint a picture of what’s realistic for someone in terms of training schedule, fitness and physique goals, and lifestyle recommendations,” she says.
This means a good trainer can take individual needs and life changes into account, making adjustments that not only keep clients progressing but also fit their lifestyle and current needs. Clients' needs, including family obligations, work commitments, and more, will change over time and even week to week. “Holding clients accountable and adjusting things as a client’s fitness level or goals change is also key — the entire process should be tailored to the client, not one-size-fits-all,” says Meier.
Good trainers will help clients adjust their programs to fit their lifestyle while keeping reasonable expectations. Some of life’s busier seasons mean you may not see much progress toward specific goals, but trainers will help you see the other benefits you’re getting from doing what you can.
It’s important to note that the best personal trainers will not promise you the moon, and you shouldn’t expect it. As Trotta explains, being an excellent personal trainer simply means giving someone the structure and support to improve their fitness, habits, and confidence.
“We’re so conditioned by social media to define success as a radical ‘before and after’ transformation. But if a client completes their package with you and has a healthier relationship with their body, that is successful, too,” she says.
A lot goes into being an excellent personal trainer, but the keyword here is “personal.”
“An effective personal trainer takes all of the contexts they have about a client into account while designing a program, and they will address the importance of the lifestyle changes that support a fitness program,” explains Meier.
Redefine your own version of success and understand that the journey is something to enjoy and celebrate every step of the way. To get matched with a good personal trainer for you, sign up for a free consultation with a certified personal trainer today.