How to Tell If Your Personal Trainer Is a Dud

In an earlier post, I provided several reasons to consider hiring a personal trainer. If you’ve taken that step or are seriously considering it, here are some things to look for when working with a personal trainer.

As with anything, there are good trainers and there are bad ones. Sometimes, the maxim “you get what you pay for” is true. But in many cases, this isn’t an accurate indicator of a trainer’s skill or knowledge. There are some pricey trainers out there who aren’t worth their fees, just as there are some truly gifted trainers just starting their careers and earning far less than they’re worth. Certifications are certainly valuable, but not by themselves. A trainer can have an alphabet-soup list of certs (NASM, NCSF, ISSA, ACE . . .) but lack people skills and the ability to translate book knowledge into practical application. Likewise, you may find a trainer with enough passion and years spent “under the bar” to make fitness really resonate with clients.

So, then, how can you tell if your trainer is a gem or a dud? Here are a few ways to suss out a trainer not worth your time or money.

A Bad Trainer

  1. Doesn’t care. He is constantly checking his phone, checking out the other people in the gym, or just plain checking out. Watch prospective trainers with their clients—do you get the feeling that the trainer is actively engaged with his client? Or does he seem mostly bored or preoccupied? Is the client just dialing it in under this trainer’s eye? (A note of caution: just because a trainer is holding a cell phone doesn’t mean he or she is checking texts or posting selfies. Many trainers use mobile apps for timing or set counting.)
  2. Does not offer, or at least encourage, nutrition support. An exercise plan alone will not work to get you in shape. A negligent trainer won’t address nutrition or will give vague, sketchy suggestions that sound more like sound bites. Trainers don’t have to necessarily write you a diet plan, but they should be able to recommend someone who can. At a minimum, they should emphasize complementary nutrition and provide you with guidelines for healthy eating.
  3. Doesn’t walk the talk. Trainers aren’t usually fitness models, so they shouldn’t necessarily walk around jacked and cut. Neither, however, should they be overweight and under-fit. If a trainer can’t follow the training advice she’s giving to her clients, how will she successfully motivate clients to do so? “Do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t work in any other arena; it’s not going to work at the gym, either.
  4. Doesn’t answer questions. Trainers don’t know everything. That’s okay! But if you ask a trainer a question he can’t answer, he should prioritize finding the answer and sharing it as soon as he does. Trainers should be continually educating themselves beyond their original certification. The world of fitness and nutrition is constantly evolving; good trainers stay abreast of current knowledge and share it with their clients.
  5. Uses a one-size-fits-all approach. Clients are a wildly mixed population, with hundreds of variables impacting their health and fitness. Gender, age, mobility, goals, weight, athleticism, and injuries are just a handful of qualities that differentiate clients. If a trainer is putting a 40-year-old soccer mom through the same routine as a 20-year-old soccer star, that’s not going to work well. Training should be client-specific, and should begin with a thorough assessment of each client’s fitness level, body composition, and weaknesses or injuries. Training programs should be individualized to each client according to that assessment.
  6. Doesn’t continually assess and reevaluate. A bad trainer will hold the line, repeating the same exercises at the same resistance for months on end. A good trainer will reevaluate and accommodate every 6 to 8 weeks, to make sure a client isn’t hitting a plateau or even regressing. A good trainer recognizes that as a client’s fitness level changes, improving over time (as it should), programming should change accordingly, to keep the client sufficiently challenged and making progress.
  7. Goes too far. There is a huge difference between pushing a client out of her comfort zone and pushing her to the brink (or beyond) of injury. It’s part of a trainer’s job to challenge her clients, to apply just enough pressure to bring about improvements and progress. A bad trainer doesn’t know when to say when. She will push too hard, too far, without regard for client input. This is irresponsible and potentially harmful to the client.
  8. Doesn’t correct your form. If your trainer is just standing there, distractedly looking around while you struggle through a set, be wary. A good trainer keeps his eyes on your form, correcting and adjusting as necessary to make sure you’re doing the exercise as efficiently and safely as possible.
  9. Doesn’t care. If your trainer talks only about himself and doesn’t ask you questions about what’s happening in your life outside the gym, he’s not a star. If you meet with your trainer three times a week for an hour each time (and that’s a lot for training), that leaves 165 hours outside of your trainer’s company. A trainer who is truly invested in your progress will want to know what you’re doing during the rest of your week. What you eat, how often you work out, where your stress levels are . . . these things all impact your progress. A good trainer will want to see the big picture to know how best to help you achieve your goals.
  10. Doesn’t listen. A bad trainer is all talk and no listening. She will give orders, pronounce judgment, and possibly scold without giving you a chance to express what’s going on on your end. A good trainer asks the client questions, listens to the answers, and adapts her training program to work around the client’s specific needs. A bad trainer creates a uni-directional flow of information that ultimately fails because it discounts 50% of the trainer-client relationship; namely, the client.

For the best chance of hiring a personal trainer who can help you meet or even exceed your goals, do your homework before investing your time, money, and health.

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