Finding a Personal Trainer

How to get the best match between your personal trainer and your fitness goals

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on December 15, 2009
6 min read

Sometimes going to the gym just isn’t enough. You may need to find a personal fitness trainer to help you develop the right exercise program, motivate you, and even ride you at times so that you don’t slack off.

But finding the right personal trainer is a kind of science. Some guys rely too much on first impressions. So if they’re looking to bulk up, they’ll simply pick the trainer with the biggest muscles. Often guys only have vague ideas of what they want from their exercise program and will expect their trainer to lead them by the nose. All too often, they’ll wind up with someone who isn’t the right kind of motivator for them. In the long run, trainers say, these kinds of relationships typically don’t work out.

Finding a good certified personal trainer is akin to finding a good gym — both require some research and good decision-making skills.

One of biggest mistakes guys make when choosing a personal fitness trainer is to approach the search with vague ideas of what to expect and without clearly defining what they hope to achieve from one-on-one training sessions. Trainers say that before you hit the mat (or the weight room) with a personal fitness trainer, you need to evaluate him or her, as well as your own fitness goals.

“Don’t go in expecting your trainer to tell you what you need to do,” says Gregory Florez, founder of First Fitness in Salt Lake City. “Go in understanding what you want to do, and have your trainer help guide you through the maze of what’s good and bad, what you should and shouldn’t do.”

Florez says it’s important to interview a trainer. ”Ask if they’ve worked with clients like you before. Find out what their training philosophy is.”

And if the personal trainer throws the ball back in your court right away, be wary. If the trainer immediately proposes jumping into some workout sessions, that’s a sign that he or she could regard you primarily as a revenue source. “There should be a process that starts with a consultation,” says Florez. “The trainer should go through a serious analysis of your goals and examine you physically in terms of body composition.”

A big question for some guys is whether or not they’ll be comfortable with a female certified personal trainer. While only a minority of male clients specifically ask for male trainers, trainers say that there are some reasons — primarily psychological — why a male trainer might be a better fit for a man.

Sometimes it’s a mindset issue. “I think men want to be challenged,” says Brian Schiff, who owns The Fitness Edge, a private fitness studio in Columbus, Ohio. “Some of the battles you fight with men are that they feel they don’t need any exercise help. So you need innovative ways to reach them.”

Some guys feel having another man training them removes any potential distractions, and a few have admitted to trainers that their wives would “freak out” if they had a woman working them into shape. But for the most part, personal trainers say that sex shouldn’t matter when it comes to finding the best trainer.

“Don’t pigeonhole yourself,” Florez says. “Female trainers are as good motivators as male trainers, so don’t discriminate by sex.” He notes that over the years of running his business, his most popular and best trainers have tended to be women.

Nor should you necessarily seek out a male trainer if you have men’s health issues. “There’s no reason a female trainer can’t understand things related to male health. It’s more important to find someone you can connect with,” says Jonathan Ross, the personal training director at the Sport Fit — Total Fitness Club in Bowie, Maryland.

If you have a good gym, that’s likely the best place to find a personal trainer. Trainers who work out of commercial health clubs tend also to have lower rates than those who have private studios. So get a list of your gym’s trainers and break the list down into specialties. For instance, one could be more of a weight trainer, and another might be more of a physical therapist for injured clients. Then read their biographies to get a sense of their history.

If private training appeals to you, it makes more sense to use the Internet than the Yellow Pages to find a personal trainer in your area. A lot of personal trainers are independent business owners with limited promotional budgets, so they tend not to buy ads in more traditional outlets such as phone books or newspapers.

Certification is critical — after all, anyone with a mat and a few weights could pose as a trainer. Make sure your personal fitness trainer has been certified by at least one of the major national organizations, such as the American College of Sports Medicine, the American Council on Exercise, the National Strength and Conditioning Association, or the National Academy of Sports Medicine.

But remember, a list of accreditations doesn’t automatically translate into superior training skills. “Too often people focus on education. But if you have a trainer with average knowledge but excellent people skills, you’ll get better results,” Ross says. ”The best trainer in the world can’t help someone unless they can effectively communicate their knowledge.”

And don’t neglect client recommendations. They’re often the best, most accurate way of determining whether the trainer will be the right fit for you. Potential personal trainers should be ready and able to provide a list of sources. “Any trainer doing a good job should have a long list of satisfied customers,” Ross says. “I periodically ask clients who’ve had good results if it’s okay if people contact them. If a trainer is iffy about doing that, that’s a big red flag.” It either means the trainer doesn’t have much experience or, worse, doesn’t have a good track record.

Last and not least, make sure your personalities click. Nothing will kill a trainer/client relationship faster than dislike or discomfort between you. “Make sure you hit it off,” Florez says. “Do they listen to you, or do they seem like robots who are going to program you?”

Having a personal fitness trainer can be a bit costly, especially if you want to use their services more than once a week. The National Strength and Conditioning Association’s survey of trainer prices found an average of $50 per hour, with a range of $15 to $100 per hour. Prices depend on region (urban areas are more expensive than rural areas), experience, and demand.

Even if you have a friendly relationship with your trainer, don’t lose sight of the fact that you’re paying for a service. If a trainer is flaky about scheduling, cuts sessions short, or seems indifferent to your needs, it’s simply not acceptable, trainers say. Would you put up with shoddy workmanship from a plumber or mechanic? You shouldn’t put up with anything less than professional quality work from your trainer either.

“I think it’s critical to have a set policy — both trainer and client should treat this as a business relationship,” Ross says. “If the trainer has a lax attitude about scheduling, that should be indicative that they’ll have a lax attitude about other things.” Make sure your prospective trainer has a clear-cut cancellation policy and has liability insurance, trainers say.

Ross says having set-in-stone policies helped improve his relationships with clients. “It makes people more serious about working with you, and it makes people follow through on your exercise program more because they recognize you’re a professional and they will want to get the most out of the money they’re spending,” he says.

One thing many successful personal fitness trainers say is that they don’t consider their role to be to remain by your side always. Rather, they see themselves as a temporary means for you to learn how to exercise well.

“My philosophy of training is to educate my clients so they can work out on their own,” Ross says. “Most people don’t hire a trainer with the belief it’s going to be three times a week for the rest of their life. Many of Ross’s longtime clients meet with him only occasionally, perhaps once a month or so, just to fine-tune their own exercise programs.

Your trainer should have a week-by-week progression mapped out, which includes types of exercises to be attempted and the goals you should attain. “If I’m going to show up and just get a hard workout every single time, I’m not going to learn anything,” Ross says. “I’m just getting a workout partner, and that shouldn’t cost anything.”