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How to Find the Perfect Fitness Trainer

Not all trainers are created equal. Find the one who will meet your needs.

Your health and fitness goals for this year may include hiring a trainer to help take your workouts to a whole new level. If you’re going to spend the money on yourself (and speaking as a Certified Personal Trainer, I think you should!), then you’ll want to find that trainer who’s a perfect fit for you.

Take a little time to shop around for one who will best meet your unique fitness abilities and goals. Think of it the same way you would select a financial planner — you wouldn’t entrust your financial wealth to just anyone with a certification, so why do something similar with your health?

Here are a few things to ask yourself and your prospective trainers as you go through the process:

What Are Your Specific Goals?

The best trainer in the world can’t help you reach your health and fitness goals if you don’t know what they are or if they are vague. To help you set attainable goals, adhere to the SMART strategy. (SMART is an acronym for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely.)

I would also encourage you to make your fitness goals habit-based rather than outcome-based. A habit-based goal would be something like, “I want to exercise for 30 minutes at least five days per week,” while an outcome-based goal would be something like, “I want to lose 15 pounds.”

Be a bit suspicious of the fitness professional who smiles and says you can do anything.

It is entirely possible that you may lose 15 pounds if you exercise for at least 30 minutes at least five days per week, but if you judge your success according to the numbers on the scale, you open yourself up to self-sabotage. By focusing on the healthy habits themselves, and not the desired outcomes of those habits, you’re much more likely to make those habits permanent. Trust me when I say that those desired outcomes will happen. You just have to be patient and persistent.

What Are Your Physical Limitations?

Once you know your goals, you can start looking at different trainers. One of the first things a trainer should do is ask you a series of questions about your personal and family health history, your history of injury and any other physical limitations you may have. Now is not the time to paint too rosy a picture of yourself. Be overly cautious here, and don’t hold back any information. Doing so could cause even a very good trainer to set you up with a program that puts you at physical risk.

Based on the information you provide, a good trainer will then be able give you an assessment of whether your stated goals are realistic within the time frame you’ve set. You may need to modify your goals or your time frame, and that wouldn’t be unusual.

A Good Balance

What you’re looking for from the trainer is the right mix of positivity and honesty. Most people over 50 have accumulated at least one or two physical limitations, so be a bit suspicious of the fitness professional who smiles and says you can do anything. Also be wary if he or she lacks confidence in your ability to reach your goals at all. Unless you have significant health or injury risk factors, this could be a sign that the trainer doubts his or her own abilities rather than yours.

What Is the Trainer’s Education and Experience?

It’s sad to say, but in most locales nearly anyone willing to pay the fee to an online organization can call himself or herself a personal trainer. Some states and municipalities are advancing efforts to require licensure of fitness professionals, but overwhelmingly, the industry is unregulated by government.

This does not mean, however, that the industry isn’t regulated at all. There are a number of certifying organizations accredited by the National Commission of Certifying Agencies. Certification means the organization meets established criteria and complies with best practices within the industry. A few of those organizations are also accredited by both the Coalition of the Registration of Health Professionals and the European Health and Fitness Association. You can use the American Council on Exercise’s online tool to view a comparison of different certification organizations. In addition to professional certification, many fitness professionals also have associate or bachelor’s degrees in fitness related fields, like exercise science, kinesiology or sports science.

Once you’ve determined that a trainer has met the education requirement, you’ll want to ask some questions about his or her experience. Because adults 50 and over have unique fitness and health concerns, it’s a good idea to find a trainer with some specialty training and experience in working with older adults. As part of a fitness professional’s recertification, he or she will need to complete continuing education courses. Look for a trainer who has selected courses relevant to your particular goals and needs or completed a round of specialization courses. A specialization in Senior Fitness, Functional Training or Orthopedic Exercise means the trainer has completed extensive additional study in areas that may be particularly relevant to your needs.

What’s the Chemistry Like?

Because I’ve been a trainer for so long, I can tell within a few minutes whether a client and I will have good chemistry. It’s surprising to me how many clients either can’t sense this, or don’t consider it important.

Early in my career, I would work with anyone, even if our personalities didn’t seem to mesh, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that doing so was a waste of the client’s money and my time. The chemistry between you and your trainer will have a huge impact on whether you end up being happy with the trainer’s services and ultimately reach your goals.

A great trainer will be professional but friendly, and possess the ability to communicate complex concepts and instructions in a way you can understand. He or she won’t waste time talking about personal things, but won’t give off an air of impersonality, either. Your sessions should be pleasant and professional and you should leave feeling like you learned something and got your money’s worth.

How Much Is This Going to Cost?

When shopping for a trainer, don’t merely compare prices based on the stated hourly rate. Find out whether a trainer offers package deals, discounts or lower-cost small group sessions. If you can talk your spouse or a friend into getting trained, too, you may be able to cut the cost per person by as much as half.

Also try to get a sense up front about how many times per week the trainer recommends seeing you and how many weeks it should take to reach your goals. This will depend in part on how diligent you are at working out on your own between sessions, but a trainer should ask you that before recommending that you meet three times a week.

Does the Trainer Earn Commissions, and If So, On What?

You’ll be hard pressed to find a trainer at a gym who isn’t under pressure from management to book more sessions, but some are better at balancing management’s wants and their client’s needs. If you feel like you’re always being hounded by your trainer to sign up for paid classes or book more sessions, that’s probably not a relationship that will last very long.

Be upfront in the beginning about how often you want to meet and whether you’re open to suggestions for other paid classes or services at the gym. A good trainer will respect your wishes and should treat you more like a person and less like a customer.

Finally, be very wary of trainers who derive a commission from sales of dietary supplements or food and beverage products. While there’s much debate over the long-term safety and efficacy of these products, there is no question that they are big business for the fitness industry. A good trainer will help you get results without a battery of pills and potions.

Finding the right trainer can take some time and work on your part, but when you do, it will be so worth it!

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