Finding a Personal Fitness Trainer

They're popular and they get results, but making a good match takes effort.

From the WebMD Archives

It once was that personal fitness trainers were exclusively for the super rich, sighted by us normal folks only in paparazzi photographs of a celebrity's entourage. But as fitness centers have spread throughout the country and the number of personal fitness trainers has increased, getting your own has become a real possibility for the average person, says Patrick Hagerman, EdD, a professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Tulsa.

"They're really much more affordable than people would think," says Hagerman, who is also a board member of the National Strength and Conditioning Association and owns Quest Personal Training in Oklahoma City.

Nor are personal fitness trainers just for the buff, spandex-sporting crowd, says Fred Klinge, chairman of the Health and Registry Board at the American College of Sports Medicine. Klinge emphasizes that the scope of personal fitness trainers has broadened. "It's not just about weight lifting and cardio work anymore," he tells WebMD. "It's more about assistance in developing a healthy and fit lifestyle."

Although there haven't been too many, some studies have shown that personal trainers can help people stick to their exercise routines more effectively than they would on their own, according to Cedric Bryant, PhD, chief exercise physiologist at the American Council on Exercise (ACE). But for someone who hasn't had any experience with personal trainers, figuring out how to get one can be daunting.

Who Needs a Personal Trainer?

You may ask yourself why you would benefit from a personal trainer. After all, why should you pay for somebody to tell you to exercise when you can just go and exercise for free?

But for some, having a person to answer to really helps provide motivation. After all, if we never got scolded by our teachers and parents for not doing our homework when we were kids, a lot of us would still be in the second grade. Knowing that you have someone who will take you to task can make a difference.

Hagerman sees a lot of practical advantages to having a personal fitness trainer. "It saves time and it reduces injuries," he says. "You have someone who can help you figure out what exercises you need to do and how the equipment works rather than wasting time figuring it out on your own.

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"A lot of people in the gym learn exercises by watching other people do them," Hagerman continues. "But the person they're watching probably learned by watching someone else, and whoever started the chain probably didn't know what they were doing to begin with."

The expense of hiring a personal trainer can be motivation in itself, according to Klinge, who is also general manager of the North Little Rock Athletic Club in Arkansas. For the same reason that some people will clear their plate at a restaurant so that they get their money's worth, others get fit simply because they hate to see the money they paid for a gym membership and a trainer go to waste.

The Costs

The National Strength and Conditioning Association conducted a recent survey of prices and found an average of $50 per hour with a range of $15 to $100 per hour. Prices do vary depending on region, according to Hagerman, and naturally, they will be higher in urban areas than in rural ones.

Hagerman and Klinge both agree that getting a trainer at a commercial health club is probably the cheapest way, since a personal fitness trainer in a private studio will inevitably have to charge more. The number of sessions a person needs can vary, but both Hagerman and Klinge recommend at least two a week. Although sessions are typically an hour, Hagerman says that some people opt for half-hour sessions, both to save time and money.

Hagerman emphasizes that money isn't everything when it comes to choosing a personal fitness trainer. "Don't just shop for the lowest price," he tells WebMD. "Cheaper trainers aren't necessarily better trainers. They may not be worse either, but there are other things to consider."

Checking Credentials

Just about any trainer you find is likely to have an impressive-looking diploma or certificate indicating that he or she has been certified as a personal trainer; in fact, the lobby of your fitness center may be lined with them. But don't be dazzled by just any degree. Instead, it's very important to find out just what organization performed the certification.

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According to Hagerman, there are about 400 organizations in the U.S. that purport to certify personal fitness trainers. Of that number, about a handful are considered legitimate by most professionals. Among the most respected are the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), and the American Council on Exercise (ACE). The better organizations have specific requirements based on tested and practical knowledge, mandatory retesting at renewal periods, and continuing education. The ACSM has recently begun to require that its certified trainers have a formal educational degree in exercise science or a related field.

The requirements for other organizations may not be so strict. Some award certification after an Internet correspondence course or as little as a weekend retreat, according to Hagerman.

"Unfortunately, all you need to become a certifying organization is an acronym, advertising, and employees," Bryant tells WebMD.

And be sure to read those acronyms closely, since many dubious organizations have chosen names and initials that are very close to the well-known and legitimate groups. If you're not sure about them, Klinge recommends writing down the names of the organizations that certified your trainer and looking up their requirements on the Internet.

"A lot of these organizations like to throw in words like 'national' or 'international' in their names even though it doesn't mean anything," says Hagerman. "There's a 'national' one in Oklahoma City that nobody outside of the city recognizes. In fact, I'm in Oklahoma City and even I don't recognize it."

Hagerman also suggests that you make sure your personal fitness trainer's certification hasn't expired by phoning the certifying organization.

Other Qualifications

Certification isn't the only thing you need to check on. According to Klinge and Hagerman, you should ask your trainer about his or her educational background. The more formal education he or she has in an appropriate field, the better; one recent study has shown that the most knowledgeable personal trainers are typically better educated. In addition, Hagerman and Klinge say that you should make sure that your trainer is trained in CPR.

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It is also crucial that your personal fitness trainer have liability insurance. While many trainers are actual employees of gyms and get coverage through their employers, others are independent contractors who are responsible for getting their own insurance. According to Hagerman, Klinge, and Bryant, you should not work with a personal fitness trainer who does not have liability insurance.

There are other things to consider. One qualification that many of us tend to look for in a personal trainer is objectively superficial: do they look fit themselves? But is that a legitimate way of evaluating anybody?

Hagerman thinks so, up to a point. "I have no respect for a trainer who's out of shape," he says. "But that doesn't mean that a male trainer has to be big and muscular or a female has to wear a size zero. Good trainers come in all shapes and sizes. They just have to practice what they preach."

He also suggests that you don't get seduced by the appearance of personal fitness trainers who dress in muscle shirts and spandex. After all, why should they be dressed in work out clothes when they're just instructing you? "It's one of my pet peeves, but a trainer should really dress professionally," he says.

Knowing the Limits

A great personal fitness trainer should offer more than just recommendations about how many reps to do on a weight machine or how to press buttons on the treadmill -- he or she will give you a general picture of how to live a healthy life, according to Klinge.

But it's important to resist the temptation to treat a session with your trainer as one-stop shopping for all of your exercise, nutritional, psychological, and medical needs. Bryant, Hagerman, and Klinge say that overly relying on personal fitness trainers is pretty common and that it is the trainer's job to establish the correct boundaries of the relationship.

"A properly trained personal trainer will know how to deal with that and how to establish the scope of their practice," Klinge tells WebMD. "They'll know when to hand off a client to a registered dietitian, physician, or physical therapist."

By the same token, be careful if you feel your personal fitness trainer is offering suggestions on topics that he or she isn't trained in.

"If a trainer starts giving specific diet prescriptions or a lot of advice on ways of treating medical conditions, that's a problem," says Klinge. "That sort of information should only come from a medical professional."

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Exercising With Special Conditions

"For people with special needs, exercise can be tremendously beneficial," says Bryant. "We're finding that exercise has a positive role in helping many medical conditions. But it has to be given in the proper doses, if you will. A trainer has to make modifications to a typical exercise program to make sure that he or she is not putting someone at risk."

According to all three experts, the number of people with special medical conditions who are getting personal fitness trainers is increasing. One reason is that as insurance companies have decreased the number of physical rehabilitation sessions they cover, people who have recently had a heart attack or a stroke are coming to the gym sooner, says Hagerman.

The trend also has to do with demographics, says Klinge, as baby boomers get older and start developing medical problems.

Klinge, Hagerman, and Bryant report seeing clients with all sorts of medical conditions: cardiovascular problems, arthritis, hypertension, fibromyalgia, and obesity. Klinge has even treated two clients with recent heart transplants. For any of these conditions, finding a personal fitness trainer with expertise in treating people with the specific condition is crucial, and getting someone with formal education is highly recommended.

Clients with medical conditions should always check with their doctor before starting a program, and your personal fitness trainer may collaborate with him or her to develop a workout routine.

It's not only people with medical conditions who require expertise. Klinge reports seeing an increase in the number of adolescents and children he sees in the gym, some of whom are brought by parents who are concerned for their health. "We try to help kids stay active as a way of replacing the physical education that has been cut in a lot of school systems," says Klinge.

Similarly, both Klinge and Hagerman see an increasing number of seniors who are seeking out personal fitness trainers in order to stay agile and limber and as a way of staying active and preventing falls. Again, you should seek out a trainer with expertise in treating those with your particular needs.

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Asking Questions

Before you even meet with a prospective personal fitness trainer, you need to have a good sense of just what you want to achieve, says Klinge. Do you want to lose 10 pounds or 50? What kind of exercise do you want to do? How many sessions per week can you reasonably fit in or afford?

Bryant urges that you get the business policies of any prospective trainer in writing, so that you clearly understand his or her charges, cancellation policies, and liability insurance. You may also want to ask for references, although some trainers may be reluctant to give them in order to protect their clients' privacy, says Hagerman.

One of the most important things to consider is whether you and your trainer are a good match, according to Klinge and Hagerman. The relationship between a personal fitness trainer and a client is not a friendship, but since you'll be spending a few hours a week with a person, make sure it's someone you like.

"People should really take their time in choosing a personal trainer," says Hagerman. "You should make sure that you feel comfortable with him or her and that you're not afraid to ask questions. Because if there isn't a good rapport there, you're just not going to want to go back to the gym. And that ruins the whole point."

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson Mathis, MD on August 22, 2006

Sources

SOURCES: Cedric Bryant, PhD, vice president of education services and chief exercise physiologist, American Council on Exercise. Patrick Hagerman, EdD, professor of exercise and sports science, University of Tulsa; board of directors, National Strength and Conditioning Association. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2002; vol 16. Fred Klinge, chairman, Health and Fitness Track, Certification and Registry Board, American College of Sports Medicine. Medicine and Science in Sports, 2000; vol 32.

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