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May 10, 2000
Want to Get Personal Fitness Results?
How to choose a good trainer
By Daniel McGarrity

illustration: Jason Stout

The late fitness guru George Sheehan, M.D., once said, "Everyone is an athlete. The difference is that some of us are in training and some are not." If he's right, chances are you have a fabulous body sculpted to perfection, from rippling biceps and thighs to a washboard stomach that would put U.S. women's soccer team midfielder Brandi Chastain to shame. There's just one problem: Your god- or goddess-like physique is surrounded by a protective layer of fat, of varying degrees of thickness. Maybe you toy with idea of hiring a personal trainer to help you reach that goddess or god within. But is a personal trainer right for you? And if so, how do you find the one who will help you achieve your goals?

For the last 14 years I have taught various forms of fitness -- from aerobics and martial arts to swimming and weight training. Along the way I have studied biology and nutrition. And for those seeking physical betterment, I have sometimes been a focus for ire. The question "How about one more set?" doesn't win me any popularity contests. But for all the miraculous feats I may be able to get your muscles to perform, I'll never be able to get into your brain.

That said, it's important to ask yourself why you want a personal trainer in the first place. Defining your goals beforehand is essential to finding the right trainer. Do you want to be more comfortable at the gym, or is your goal to fit into clothes you haven't worn since college? Perhaps you have a specific fitness goal, such as completing a 10K, performing 25 push-ups, or competing in a triathlon. Whatever your goals, you will want to find someone who is knowledgeable enough to keep you safe and motivated.

No pain, no gain

A cliché, but so true. While you are defining your goals, it is equally important to remember your own role in the fitness process. There are things you must bring to the table in order to achieve success, and these things are not easy. Patience, for instance, is essential, because the best results take time. You might think, "Oprah looks great, and she uses a trainer!" But how long has Oprah been working with the trainer, getting up at 5 a.m. each morning, and how long does she spend every day working out? Most real success stories involve more than six months of continuous training, and time taxes both motivation and bank accounts. This type of commitment can only come from you. View your prospective trainer as a tool that works best when used with realistic expectations and definable goals.

I have always trained people with the idea that fitness levels don't match what our society views as aesthetic perfection. The U.S. women's soccer team is populated by incredible athletes, able to run for 120 minutes in 100 degree heat. But not all the players have Chastain's "six pack" abdominals. I would bet you that some of them still complain of cellulite and that most wouldn't make it into a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. They are athletes, with athletic builds that support the demands presented by a two-hour run in incredible heat, not pinup models whose tiny frames couldn't handle 15 push-ups.

Initially you will be sore, and that alone could deter you. Your trainer will help you work through that pain, mostly by ensuring that you don't dive into the deep end, so to speak, right away. Depending on your current fitness level, you should prepare to spend at least 2-3 weeks getting used to the new demands placed on your body. Perseverance pays off, but it does so in small increments over a long period of time. Remembering that will help you stick to your workout.

If you are still interested in hiring a trainer after you've defined your goals and commitment level, here are some guidelines to help you find someone who is right for you:

Figure out your budget. Trainers can be extremely costly, and you should find one that you can afford until you can perform the workout on your own. Expect to pay anywhere from $30 an hour on up. I charge from $30 to $40 an hour, depending on how often I meet with a client. In big cities, the baseline will be higher. Know what you are willing to spend on a trainer before you start contacting prospects.

Search in the right places. If you belong to a gym, you may want to start there. Most gyms have a list of trainers who use their facility to train in. If there is a university nearby, you may be able to get a good deal on a student trainer, and of course you can always look in the Yellow Pages. Additionally, the websites of most certifying organizations (links below) include a search engine for trainers in your area. Also keep in mind that good reputations spread by word of mouth. So if you know people who have worked with a trainer, ask them about their experiences. Be sure to ask them how long it took for them to be able to do the workout on their own.

Learn how to examine a trainer's credentials. Look for study in the areas of kinesiology, physiology, nutrition, biology, and sports medicine. Most gyms require the trainers who work there to be certified. Look for certification from the following organizations:

  • ACSM -- American College of Sports Medicine (This is the most difficult certification to obtain; many of the ACSM's advanced certifications require advanced degrees as well as years of experience.)
  • ACE -- American Council on Exercise
  • ISSA -- The International Sports Science Association
  • AAAI -- American Aerobics Association International

Most trainers are very conscientious and will do their best for you at all times. Unfortunately, some may overstep their education and provide advice that they aren't qualified to dispense. If you inspect your prospective trainer's resume for education, certification, and experience, you'll have the best luck.

Interview prospective trainers before you hire them. Trainers are business people, and they generally respond well to questions about their qualifications. Try to avoid those who are critical of all training techniques besides their own - people like this probably are not very flexible. Sit down and talk with the trainer about your hopes for a new lifestyle, and come up with a realistic timetable. Then haggle over price. Trainers' fees are often negotiable -- generally, the more frequently you work out with the trainer, the bigger the break in the price you will get. Treat this purchase as you would buying a car -- you may even want to take your trainer for a "test drive" before you sign on for any length of time.

Never judge a trainer by his or her body. The most important organ your trainer possesses is his or her brain. Don't assume that just because someone is "ripped" that his level of expertise follows suit. It's likely you wouldn't hire someone who appeared grossly out of shape, but keep in mind that genetics plays a large part in appearance and in the way an individual reacts to training.

Reiterate your goals. Make sure your prospective trainer knows what you want to accomplish most: muscle toning, strength training, cardiovascular exercise for weight loss, or all of the above. If diet and nutrition are separate concerns, make sure you discuss those matters too. Bodies are built like Rome -- not in a day, but slowly. A realistic trainer will tell you not to expect visible results for at least eight weeks. You must prepare to dedicate time and energy for this duration, and beyond, in order to achieve your fitness objectives.

Don't forget that your trainer is a human being, not a superhero. Your trainer is only one person experienced and educated in a fairly narrow field. He or she will help you as much as you allow, but keep in mind that you will be doing almost all of the work yourself. If you consider it a challenge, then your trainer can serve as a motivating factor toward reaching your goals.

Related links:

Rx.magazine feature story: Making Exercise Work for You

Rx.magazine feature story: A Daily Dose of Sweat

Outside link: American College of Sports Medicine

Outside link: American Council on Exercise

Outside link: The International Sports Science Association