Personal Trainers: They Are Not All Created Equal
How to Choose One That Best Suits You and Your Needs
By Carrie Pepper
July/August 2005
For theWashington Running Report (LINK: Publication )

You've decided you want to hire a personal trainer. Perhaps you are training for a marathon, or you just need more variety in your workout. Maybe an injury has slowed you down and you need an expert to get you through it. Whatever your reason for finding and working with a personal trainer, here are some things you should know.

Where to start?

Many fitness facilities have personal trainers on staff, and offer their services to members. I found, in most cases, these services are extra and not included in the contracted membership fee. However, I had sustained an injury while playing tennis; working out had turned into drudgery. I needed professional help. For $50 an hour, this is what I got:

-- A trainer who completely missed our first appointment;

-- One who spent practically no time assessing my injury;

-- One who didn't listen. He assigned me a series of exercises, including lunges. I told him these hurt my knee. His response was, "trust me; I know what I'm doing."

The next day, I could barely walk. NEXT!

I was willing to give my club--and a different trainer--another chance. Same club, different location. We began with (very heavy) leg presses; there was little or no injury assessment. It didn't take long until I realized he wasn't listening to me either. NEXT!

I went outside my gym. I found a "Certified Personal Trainer & Nutritional Consultant" through my chiropractor's office. She charged $70 an hour, so I was sure I would be in the best of hands. She had experience dealing with injuries and I did notice some improvement. However, each visit, she would stroll in 15 to 20 minutes late, and offer no apology or reason. It was simply OK to make me wait. And, there was no nutritional dialogue. During my last session with her, she actually worked out at the same time! How can a trainer watch the client closely if he or she is working out? NEXT!

I went back to my club. Surely, there must be someone who could help me. I found a trainer I liked. He was studying exercise physiology; he seemed genuine. I did it again--I handed over money for a package of (non-refundable) sessions. In all honesty, his skills were quite good, but again, he missed more than one scheduled appointment. And, the gym was so crowded we could barely find space on the floor to work. NEXT!

OK, it was time to get serious. I sought out other athletes. I went to my favorite bicycle shop, then to my tried and true running store. I asked questions. I asked specific questions-- about trainers. I told them what I'd experienced and what I was looking for. I wanted personal experience from someone I knew and trusted. My networking paid off.

Once I had a solid lead, I scheduled an appointment. Not to workout, not to sign up, but to ask a lot of questions. At Better Fit Fitness Center, in Sacramento, California, not only did I find my ideal personal trainer, I learned something about the industry. I learned what to look for--and what to watch out for, when seeking out a personal trainer.

Mel Salada, owner and Certified Personal Trainer (CPT), helped educate me. I told him of my past experiences. I asked, "If you were looking, what would you look for, how would you judge?" "Don't come here; do your own research," he said. "Check into people's backgrounds." So I did.

Not only did Salada hold a Bachelor's degree in Exercise Science, he was certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist, a USA Weightlifting Coach, had experience in post- acute rehabilitation--and had 17 years experience in the industry. But that's not what convinced me.

I interviewed him. I asked for referrals from current members and got their feedback. I watched him work. He shared success stories with me of past and current clients. He wasn't pushy; he didn't run contacts. Everything felt right.

You've found someone you like. Check out their certifications!

According to the ACE (American Counsel on Exercise), these factors should be considered. How long the organizations have been certifying, whether they operate on a for-profit or a nonprofit basis, how their certification exam is developed and administered, and the level of respect and recognition they have within the industry.

Many large chains use in-house certifications. According to Salada, who worked as an athletic director and trainer in two of these facilities, questions on these tests can be as technical as: When you run on a treadmill, should you wear hiking boots or running shoes?

In these large chains, performance (selling) is generally the focus. "It's unfortunate when you do have a good trainer," says Salada. "Doctors look at these "personal trainers" with skepticism. When one of my clients goes to their doctor, I recommend they tell them they're working with an exercise physiologist, not a personal trainer."

Which Certifications are among the best?

-- American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) (This is a degree- required certification)

-- National Strength & Conditioning Specialist (also degree- required)

-- National Association of Sports Medicine (NASM)

-- International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA)

There are also college and university programs where a Certified Personal Training degree may be obtained. After these, there are many more organizations and many more certifications, but research shows that many:

-- Require no experience or prerequisites;

-- Offer at-home study courses with "self-administered" exams;

-- Boast certifications in "a matter of weeks" (wouldn't you like your trainer to have a little more experience?)

-- List the reason for getting a certification as "making big money," not health or fitness goals;

-- Showcase photos that resemble The Incredible Hulk
or worse.

Individualized programs--Can your trainer give you what you really need?

Finding a trainer who can assess your needs and design a program just for you is crucial. When you find this caliber of trainer, then you know you are on the right track. Two trainers share their thoughts on customized programs:

"I think about what somebody needs to do, and then I design a program," says Salada, who customizes programs for his clients, including those who have sustained injuries or have other limitations. He designs sport-specific programs (you name it-- running, soccer, tennis, skiing, etc.) "Yes, I have a background in competitive body building and Olympic weight lifting," he says, "but that doesn't fit most people."

Doug Murphy, a personal trainer and fitness consultant in the Washington, DC area, says, "hiring a personal trainer is right for anyone at any fitness level." Murphy stresses customized programs, noting that what works for your co-worker or friend may not be the best program for you.

Real world experience--Do they have it?

Even if your trainer has educational experience, does he/she have real world experience? No matter what your major, if you have just graduated with a degree, you need some real world experience before you dive into your selected field. This holds true with personal trainers as well.

Does your personal trainer do what he/she expects of you?

"Look to see whether they live their life as they preach," says Salada. If your trainer does not work out, if they don't practice, then they haven't done the things that they are asking you to do."

And, finally, chemistry.

Meet them. This is a personal, working relationship--just like any other. If the chemistry isn't there, it just isn't going to work.

So, if you are serious about hiring a personal trainer, do your homework, ask questions-- don't settle. Find someone who brings everything to the table that you need and want.

And finally: "If you hire someone, their job is to watch you, to be with you, and really make your program work," says Salada. "For that hour, they are your close coach. If they're not, then, so much for the personal in personal training."



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