Working with a personal trainer: The why and how

I have worked with several different personal trainers over a period of about 25 years, and I think my health and fitness are better because of this. Working with your own trainer requires a commitment of money and time. What can you hope to gain from working with a trainer, and how should you look for the trainer who will be the best fit for you?

A personal trainer is a specialist in exercise program design who works with you to help you attain your fitness goals. Many trainers also advise their clients about nutrition and generally function as a wellness coach. The trainer should have appropriate education, and hold certifications from respected accreditation agencies. A trainer might be the owner or an employee of a fitness facility, or might work as a freelancer who comes to your home or office. I interviewed four local personal trainers, who represent a broad sample of their profession, while preparing this article.

Why would you want to work with a personal trainer? You might want to get an individualized fitness assessment, get help in setting realistic and reachable goals, or get your own customized exercise program. Local trainer Kim Carnes sees goal setting as one of the most important services a trainer can provide. If goals are unattainable, she says, clients tend to give up in frustration and may well end up doing no exercise at all.

Some people will hire a personal trainer to acquire regularity and discipline in their exercise program, and to gain inspiration in pursuing their own fitness. For them, the trainer is a combination disciplinarian and exemplar. Others will use the trainer as an occasional consultant to answer some of the why and how questions that come up in their pursuit of fitness.

Local trainer Wendy Stoll feels that behavior or lifestyle change is the key to the success of many clients, especially those who wish to lose weight. In addition to the work that she does directly with clients, Stoll leads the Facebook group Exercise and Get Energized to provide tips and maintain contact with her clients between training sessions. Local trainer Justin Grinnell, co-owner of State of Fitness, also credits his facility’s Facebook page with contributing to the motivation of his clients.

One of the best ways to look for a personal trainer is to ask people you know. You might have a friend who already works with a personal trainer, or you could ask your doctor, a physical therapist, someone who teaches fitness classes, or the manager or owner of a fitness facility. You should read the articles and look at the ads in Healthy & Fit magazine, and you can look for local fitness blogs and Facebook pages on the internet. You can learn a lot about a trainer’s knowledge and orientation just by reading articles that trainer has written.

As you go about selecting your own personal trainer, remember that once the basic qualifications are met, the choice of a personal trainer becomes a simple matter of best fit between the trainer and the client. The most basic qualifications are having an appropriate educational background, certification as a trainer from a respectable source, and certification in CPR (Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation) and AED (Automated External Defibrillator). You will need to do some research and use your judgment to evaluate this. I have worked with trainers who had advanced degrees in exercise science, and with some who have no college degree, or whose degree was in accounting or marketing. On the whole I have preferred the ones who have not held a degree in exercise science, probably because their teaching methods and personalities happened to be well suited to me. But having a degree in exercise science is a nice plus for any trainer.

Evaluating certification agencies is more difficult, because there are so many of them, and a lot of them are quite respectable. It soon becomes a matter of opinion, but my advice is to go on the internet and find out what is required by an agency for certification as a personal trainer. They will all charge money to candidates, and this is reasonable because they are providing study guides, manuals, exams, an office staff, newsletters or magazines, a web site, and hopefully on site training for candidates and a practical exam administered at the on site training. When doing a little internet research recently, I was shocked to see that some agencies were offering personal trainer certification for nothing more than payment of a few hundred dollars, looking at printed training materials, and completing and mailing back an open book exam. That did not impress me.

A trainer should offer proof of carrying professional liability insurance, and should have experience in the fitness field as a participant, teacher of fitness classes, and trainer. It helps a lot when the trainer’s appearance indicates that the trainer has taken good care of their own body. Extra qualifications would include special certifications, such as nutrition, weight management, seniors, arthritis, and so forth. Some trainers own their own facility, write and publish in the field of fitness, and hold positions of leadership in the field. All these things are worthwhile for a potential client.

When you have narrowed down your search, you should contact the prospective trainer by phone or e-mail. Some will call back and offer you some of their time on the phone, while others may prefer to meet you in person at a coffee shop, gym, or your home. Trainers often offer a first in-person meeting free of charge, but you should ask about that. Good questions to ask at the first meeting include: Where do we meet to work out? (gym, pool, client’s office or home, trainer’s facility) How long is a training session, and what is your charge for it? Can you offer training at times when I can work out? How often do you recommend that I train with you? Is your practice centered on maintaining health, improving appearance, or both? In terms of exercise intensity, do you favor maximum burn or a more moderate approach? May I see your certifications as a trainer, in CPR/AED, and proof of professional liability insurance? Do you offer any discounts or package plans?

You will need to be careful if your trainer offers really big pricing packages. I have seen commercial gyms that offer a huge number of training hours for well over a thousand dollars paid in advance. This could actually be a good value if the gym doesn’t go out of business, if the trainer is good and the style of training fits you well, and if your own circumstances do not change. But I would not sign up for a deal like that. The advantage of package pricing is the motivation it provides you to hang in there when you don’t really feel like exercise. Local trainer Pat Hagen offers discounts on small training packages and feels that many clients need a stimulus like package pricing to actually get themselves to the gym on an otherwise busy day. Both Hagen and Grinnell point to the financial savings possible with partner or small group training, and add that members of a small group can work wonders at motivating each other.

If the trainer wants you to sign a written contract, you should have the option to take it home to study it and get an attorney to review it if you wish. Don’t be surprised if you are asked to sign a release and get your doctor’s OK before starting an exercise program. These practices are becoming standard in the fitness industry. If you follow these suggestions and make a good choice of trainer, you should be able to continue working with this person for years.

Al LeBlanc is a water-based personal trainer who works in the greater Lansing area and teaches classes in the Delta-Waverly Aquatics Program. Contact him at (517) 285-2215 or 655-6454 or send e-mail to


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