What to Look for in a Personal Trainer [from a Trainer]

Spot the right personal trainer for you (without becoming an expert in fitness yourself). Learn what to look for in a personal trainer.

A woman sitting in a field cross legged wearing a mask and headphones looking off into the distance

What to Look for in a Personal Trainer

Most articles about finding a good trainer use words that imply you know a lot about fitness.

If you knew fitness, you might not be in the market for a trainer yourself.

We're not going to do that here today.

Let's talk about the principles of good training (so you know how to spot the right trainer).

Everyone uses different methods but, sound principles are all the same.

What are the Qualities of a Good Personal Trainer?

A good personal trainer knows the difference between solid training principles and fads.

An inexperienced trainer might believe that you need to perform new exercises or techniques that you haven't seen before. There are no secret exercises in strength training.

Smart training shares these underlying principles:

  • Specific goals - Ex. running a 5k on a specific date, at a specific pace, or lifting an amount.
  • Sound exercise selection - Based on your fitness goals and individual structural differences.
  • Progressive overload - Making training harder to keep up with the gains in fitness that you should be making.
  • Variation - Avoiding boredom and overuse, making changes to continue on the path to progress.

You know the exercises that you should be performing (or you've heard of them):

  • Squats
  • Lunges
  • Upper-Body Pushing
  • Upper-Body Pulling
  • Bridges
  • Hip Hinges

You may not have heard of hip hinges but you've likely been scared off by the word "deadlift".

(Don't panic, we're bad at naming things).

Start from a place of moving well before adding a challenge to a movement.

The methods that work to get one person's results might not work for another. Trainers consider principles and then come up with ways to adapt them to each client.

To be safe, make sure that your trainer is certified.

Look for a trainer with a certification from these quality organizations:

  • The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)
  • The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA)
  • The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)

It might also be helpful to double-check and makes sure that your trainer holds a current CPR-AED certification. (Most certifications require this to renew so you're likely good here)

For more strength training best practices, read this article covering strength training for beginners.

What Makes a Successful Trainer?

What makes a trainer successful is not only knowledge around fitness but also the ability to get you to follow through.

A great trainer will learn from you and practice autonomous supportive coaching:

  • You're on the same page about your fitness goals.
  • You're using sound principles as a foundation for working on your fitness.
  • You're being supported in a way that gives you choice.
  • You're being challenged but not in a way that you can't succeed.

You are the expert on your body. If something feels too hard for you to perform well, let your trainer know. Tracking macros consistently feel unrealistic? There are more ways to lose weight.

No one wants to spend all day feeling frustrated at things they feel they suck at.

A successful trainer keeps consistent expectations, asks good questions, and collaborates solutions with you.

(Often the advice you would give a best friend helps you objectively coach yourself on what you should try next)

Your experience will help educate your trainer on which direction you need to go next.

What Skills Should a Personal Trainer Have?

Every business model is different so you may not get to "try out" a trainer for a couple of sessions. Even if you did that, how would you know that you're judging your trial accurately?

You probably shouldn't pick a trainer based on a single workout. Soreness isn't a good judge of your training. Neither is sweating.

You probably wouldn't ask someone to marry you on a first date either? (Yolo?)

That being said, there are some skills that you can look for in a trainer:

  • The tact of combining a training system with the flexibility of life.
  • An evidence-based approach to motivating you towards achieving fitness goals.
  • The ability to teach lifelong strategies to approach strength training and nutrition.
  • A knack for getting you to focus on changing the right behaviors associated with your goals.
  • Balancing pushing you further with knowing when to back off.
  • Expertise in coaching the exercises clients are asked to perform.

It's not enough for your trainer to have one way to cue an exercise, everyone learns differently.

Take your time when looking. Watch for these things after you start building a relationship. Just because these skills are basic, it doesn't mean that they're obvious.

What Makes a Bad Trainer?

A bad trainer may not be obvious to you on the surface.

Most articles on bad trainers mention things like:

  • Staring at themselves in the mirror.
  • Repeating movements, sets, and reps from week to week (because you need to constantly change things?).
  • Not having before and after pictures or testimonials (do you want your bikini pics shown to random strangers?).
  • Not "seeing results" in other clients (why are we still assuming that everyone wants visible results?).

You want to keep things pretty consistent to know that you're getting better at something. Random training leads to random results, at best.

Your "bad" trainers are one's who:

  • Are inconsistent in their logic or even logistics (never on time, rescheduling)
  • Have unreasonable expectations for you and your goals.
  • Force exercises upon you as opposed to finding movements that you can perform successfully.
  • Don't ask what your goals are (or listen and act when you mention them).
  • Always have an answer to a question (even when they don't know).

There is absolutely nothing worse than a trainer not knowing their scope or skillset.

Trainers can't provide meal plans, dietitians can. Trainers should avoid giving clients massages. If a client mentions joint pain when performing an exercise, that might be a sign that you need to refer them to a physical therapist.

The right trainer for you will rarely talk over your head.

Knowing what to do is a different skill than being able to communicate in an understandable format.

You're ready, let's talk about how you can spot a good trainer.

Here are 10 things that you should look for in a potential trainer:

What to Look for in a Personal Trainer (10 Things, from a Trainer)

  1. A good listener - Your trainer should ask you what your goals are and then walk you through how you're going to get there.
  2. Authenticity - In the sense that they're being real with you about expectations.
  3. Making promises and keeping them - If you both hold up your end, you should meet your expectations.
  4. Professionalism -We're all human. Professionals show up for you even when they don't feel like it.
  5. An ability to think outside of the box - there are many methods to achieve your fitness goals. What works for one person might not work for you.
  6. Learning from you - You're the expert on your body. Your collaboration will help educate your trainer on which direction they need to go next.
  7. Someone who knows when to refer out - Trainers can't diagnose pain. A physical therapist can help you figure out what you're aiming at.
  8. Patience - Your trainer may have other things to do but, so do you. It may have taken you months to work up the courage to hire them. They should be listening to your concerns.
  9. A focus on bright spots - A good trainer knows how to point out your strengths and build on them.
  10. Flexibility - Equipment breaks, you'll run into traffic, and you'll get a poor night's sleep. A good trainer knows how to adapt to changing conditions and apply principles.

Published: 2/10/21

Last updated: 8/19/22

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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.