What should you look for in a personal trainer?

by Rosi Sexton

First, a disclaimer. I’m not a personal trainer, although I’ve worked closely with plenty over the years. On the other hand, I do spend a lot of time talking to people about what kind of physical activity and exercise they do; usually because part of their body has become painful and they’d like it not to be.

This gives me a certain perspective on what you should be looking for in a trainer.  There are plenty of excellent PTs out there, but unfortunately there are also quite a few who are…less good. This blog will hopefully help you to sift the former from the latter!

The first question to ask is why? Why are you thinking about hiring a PT in the first place? For some people it’s because they want to start an exercise plan, but aren’t sure what to do or how to do it and lack confidence in doing it by themselves. For others, it’s motivation and accountability. Many of us sometimes struggle to make time for exercise, unless we have an appointment in our diary with someone else. Having someone else there can help you find the drive to push yourself a bit harder than you might on your own. Or maybe you’ve been training a while and you’ve got stuck in a bit of a rut; you want someone who can change things up and make them interesting for you without you having to think too hard about what you’re doing – you can just turn up and do the workout.

All of these are perfectly good reasons. From my perspective, another less obvious (but perhaps even more important) benefit of having a personal trainer is because they can help you with load management.

What do I mean by this? Most of us, when we go to the gym, tend to judge how fast to go or how much weight to lift based on how things feel. Too easy? Throw some more weight on the bar. Falling off the back of the treadmill? Slow it down a bit. A lot of the time, this works pretty well. But sometimes, especially if you’re starting something new or returning after an injury, it can be quite hard to judge how hard to push yourself. AS HARD AS YOU POSSIBLY CAN, ALL OF THE TIME is a recipe for injury, burnout, or just not wanting to go very often – especially if you also have other things going on in your life. It’s unsustainable.

Finding the sweet spot, in between “too much” and “not enough to make progress” can be tricky. Even (maybe especially) for high level athletes with a lot of experience, having someone else keeping an eye on what they’re doing and giving them some guidance as to when to try harder, and when to reduce the weight or the number of reps can be invaluable.

Knows that more is not always better

A lot of the injuries I see in clinic are a result of having tried to do too much, too soon – whether that’s trying to squat too much weight in the gym, taking up running and doing 40 miles in your first week, or spending the weekend laying a patio when you haven’t done any heavy lifting in years. It’s why February often tends to be a busy month for people in my line of work!

Progressing both the intensity (difficulty) and the volume (amount of time you spend doing it) of your training at just the right pace so that you’re improving without getting injured or burned out is quite an art. In fact, I’d argue that the primary job of a personal trainer is getting this right. At the other extreme, someone who (for example) randomly gets you to do dozens of chin ups in a workout when you’ve never trained chin ups before might make your sessions “interesting”, but is more likely to give you a shoulder problem than do much good. A close corollary of this is that a good PT will never make you feel bad because you find something difficult. If you’re not able to do the workout they planned for you this is a reflection on them, not on you.

So, to return to the original question: you can immediately screen out anyone who has a “go hard or go home” mentality. While trainers like this can often be charismatic and motivating, it’s the polar opposite of what you need in order to lay a solid foundation. If you’re someone who really likes the pushing-yourself-until-you-throw-up-in-a-bucket kind of training, there can be a place for that; but it should be a small proportion of your overall training.

The higher intensity work should be balanced carefully on top of a much larger pyramid of less-sexy-but-absolutely-crucial fundamentals. (If that’s not your idea of a good time, that’s fine too. Most people don’t need to be going anywhere near vomit-inducing intensity in order to get health benefits and make progress.)

As a coach I once worked with used to say, “any idiot can make someone tired; it takes skill to make people fitter”.

Focuses on progress, not just entertainment

The second thing to look for is someone who can make training interesting while still keeping to a consistent plan. In order to improve  you need a regular training stimulus. Whether your focus is on strength, cardiovascular fitness, flexibility, or any other attribute, too much variety with too little consistency will (at best) slow down your progress. That doesn’t mean you need to do exactly the same thing every time you step through the door, but it does mean there needs to be enough repetition to drive the adaptations we’re looking for. You want someone who has a plan, and who will change things up as you progress; but not someone who bombards you with different random flashy exercises every week. Good training should be fun, but it’s not all about entertainment.

This also means that if you’ve been training for a while then you should be noticing some improvement – whether that’s lifting more weight, being able to do the same exercise for longer, or even just the same things feeling easier. If you’re not seeing that progress, then a good PT will reassess the plan and make changes; a bad PT keeps doing the same thing and blames the client.

Listens and acts on feedback

The third thing to look out for is someone who listens to what you say, and adjusts your training based on that feedback. For that to happen, it’s crucial that you feel comfortable being honest with them. If your back is feeling a bit grumbly and you had a terrible night’s sleep, you need to be able to let your PT know. Equally importantly you need them to listen and act on that information.

This means that any PT needs to know a little bit about sports injuries, but most importantly, they should also know what they don’t know and when to signpost you to a doctor or sports injury professional. Ideally a good trainer will help you to recognise the difference between a bit of soreness that represents a normal response to training, something that could be a sign that you need to change what you’re doing, and things that need professional advice. That’s not easy; so if someone seems overconfident in telling you “just push through it, it’ll be fine” that’s always a bad sign.

You also want someone who can adjust your training plan based on your level of fitness and experience, and also your lifestyle and goals. What works for a young person without too many work or family commitments won’t work in the same way for someone in their 50s with a hectic job who has never set foot in a gym before. The principles remain the same, but how to apply them can differ dramatically. A really skilled trainer is someone who can tailor a plan for your needs regardless of your background. If you have specific health conditions, then always look for someone who has both experience and training in working with those conditions.

Why these three?

This isn’t a complete list, and there’s plenty of other things I could have listed here, so why did I pick these three to focus on in particular? There are lots of skills and attributes that can make a trainer more effective at what they do – and that’s certainly nice to have. You want to make sure that the time and effort you’re putting in is giving you as good results as possible.

Here’s the thing. In clinic I’ve seen so many injuries caused by badly judged or poorly executed training programmes that I’ve started abbreviating this to SPTS (S*** Personal Trainer Syndrome). Nowadays, if I’m going to recommend a Personal Trainer, my most important, basic requirement is that regardless of your age, experience, level of strength or fitness or anything else, they won’t break you. If you do almost anything consistently over time, you’ll get better at it; it’s quite hard not to make progress in fact. But in order to keep doing that, you need the exercise programme to be sustainable – which on the most fundamental level means not getting injured while you’re doing it. The attributes I’ve picked can’t 100% guarantee that, but they’re certainly a good place to start!

(Featured image by lawrence wilcox on Unsplash)