4 Counterintuitive Questions to Ask a Personal Trainer - Before hiring them

The best questions to ask when evaluating a personal trainer have nothing to do with certifications. A better question might be "why should I not work with you?". Let's give you some solid answers to a question you may find yourself googling " what should I look for when hiring a personal trainer?".

Most people looking for a personal trainer think to ask, "what certifications do you hold?". Unfortunately, being "certified" doesn't carry as much weight as you think.

You can get a level one CrossFit certification with no prequalification in a single weekend (really).

For comparison, it would take you two and a half full workdays to marathon all 8 Harry Potter movies.

(some organizations even brag about their open book, untimed, online tests).

As busy as you are - you need to pick the right trainer the first time.

Skip the obvious, let's talk about counterintuitive questions you might not have considered.

Bonus: If you stick around to the end, you'll find some thought-provoking questions that a trainer should ask you. After that, you'll find a thorough list of common questions to ask.

Laptop open to google search on a bench

The Best Questions to Ask When Looking For a Personal Trainer.

1. Why should I not work with you?

People often ask - what certifications do you have? What's your fitness specialty?

The worst trainer is the one who thinks that they can help everyone with everything.

Sometimes people seek out trainers when they'd be better off with:

  • A registered dietitian
  • A counselor or therapist
  • Physical Therapy

While Trainers can speak on fitness, diet, and lifestyle, they should have some limits. Your trainer can't keep up with all the details of psychology, movement, and nutrition.

If you're confused by trainers who seem to boast about their meal plans, it's not your fault.

In states that allow it, you don't need a degree or credentials to be a nutritionist. You simply need an "interest in the field". Nutritionists often provide clients with meal plans.

You see the problem there...

The best trainers gather enough information to know when to refer to experts.

At Simple Solutions Fitness, we refer out to:

The Human Performance Program is a special program run by the University of Missouri in Columbia. In this training, physiologists fill a gap between physical therapy and going back to the gym.

Reach out to Elena Doctor, MS, CSCS, CSPS. Emd7m9 [at] health.missouri.edu

(To be clear, your trainer should encourage you to learn the basics of nutrition. Meal plans and specific recs are the huge red flags.)

2. Do you have clients who aren't focused on changing their appearance?

The fitness industry glorifies transformation photos that might leave you feeling uncomfortable. You're not a piece of meat. A focus on scale results and measurements might make you feel that way.

We tend to put our goals in boxes but everyone knows exercise has benefits that you can't "see" including:

  • Improved mood
  • Increased low and high-speed strength
  • Improved coordination and balance
  • Greater bone mineral density
  • Decreased joint stress during physical activity
  • Reduced lower back pain
  • Lowered risk of injury
  • Slowed age-related losses in muscle and bone
  • Increased insulin sensitivity
  • Decreased bad cholesterol
  • Improved aerobic capacity

Putting on strength and muscle relate but aren't the same. If your trainer's sole focus is how you look, you can be assured that they haven't read up on the science of motivation.

3. Do you encourage clients to get out of the gym?

While it may benefit your trainer to sell you sessions, to keep the habit you should stay active outside of the gym.

The minimum number of times that you want to work a muscle group is about twice per week. That leaves you plenty of time to focus on other aspects of your health.

On top of strength training, your trainer should encourage you to:

  • Stretch regularly - think 20-60 second stretches for 15 minutes.
  • Perform cardio - spanning from 20-40 minutes 2-3 times per week to start.
  • Rest - you build fitness when you balance your relationship with fitness and fatigue

Your trainer may have options or refer you to a supplementary service. Know that time outside of a session can also be a service in itself. Trainers get paid differently at various gyms.

4. Have you ever had to fire any of your clients?

You would assume that clients fire trainers and not the other way around. Most of the time that's true.

Trainers will talk about helping you while also communicating their boundaries.

Find out how your trainer feels about:

  • Texts, emails, phone calls, and other forms of communication outside sessions.
  • "Following" or "friending" each other on social media.
  • Exchanging gifts around milestones or holidays.
  • Physical touch within sessions (with consent to teach an exercise)

Chemistry is important here. You both want to be clear about your roles and responsibilities. Some trainers offer extra support outside of your session time while others do not.

Find out what the transition process looks like if the two of you aren't comfy with continuing.

What questions should a personal trainer ask?

Most of the questions and prompts that your trainer will ask of you will cover exercise and getting to know you.

Here is a version of the questions that we ask new clients at SSF:

  • Tell me a little bit about yourself and your fitness goals. What brings you in today? What are the reasons you’d like to make a change?
  • Why are your goals important to you? What motivated you to make this appointment?
  • How committed are you to achieving your goals, on a scale from 1 to 10?
  • What makes you say (that number)?
  • What concerns, if any, do you have about your eating habits?
  • Do you have any other additional health concerns or medical issues that I need to be aware of?
  • How long did it take you to get to this point (the reason why you're here)?
  • In the past, how have you tried to (solve this problem or achieve this goal)? And how many times have you tried?
  • What does success look like to you? (super important)
  • If anything, what are you not looking forward to? What’s something that you don’t want to do? (important to know as well)
  • Why do you think you haven't reached your goals on your own?

These questions cover a wide range of things for us in a consultation.

What your trainer asks you in your first meeting will depend on their scope and the services they offer.

20 common questions to ask a personal trainer before hiring them.

  • How much does personal training cost? (my answer here)
  • What is your cancellation policy?
  • What certifications do you have?
  • How long have you been a trainer?
  • What's your fitness specialty?
  • What motivated you to become a personal trainer?
  • Have you ever worked with someone like me?
  • How do you assess new clients?
  • Do you create meal plans? (Hopefully not)
  • Will I need to take any supplements? Nah.
  • How do you track progress?
  • How do you motivate your clients?
  • What's your coaching style like?
  • What does a session look like?
  • How will you customize my program?
  • How long should I plan on coming in for training? (at least three months)
  • How quickly will I see results? It depends.
  • What if I don't see results?
  • What should I do outside of our sessions?
  • What should I do to prepare for my first session?

Make this relationship your own. If you get a rec from a friend, you may have a different set of questions to ask before hiring a personal trainer.

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Steven Mack is founder and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist at the private training studio, Simple Solutions Fitness. He consults for Stronger by Science, a leader in fitness research dissemination, and is a former Mizzou football walk-on. Steven dedicates his professional life to helping people through his writing, speaking, and role as a personal trainer.