Would you pick an accountant, a doctor, or a hairdresser randomly? Just walk in off the street and go with the first one you see? I’m gonna say probably not. But personal trainers are sometimes selected at random – the first fit-looking guy or woman who approached you in a gym, or the one the gym staff assigns you. This is a Very Bad Idea. The best personal trainer is more than a person who tells you how to exercise. They can become a curious hybrid of therapist, confidant, antagonist, friend, and more. With their knowledge and experience – or lack of – you can safely push your limits, or you can injure yourself. In a healthy relationship you can grow stronger, fitter, and become a better you. In a dysfunctional relationship you can become miserable, dependent, and lose track of why you’re even there.
There’s a world of fantastic trainers out there. I’ve had the great luck to meet and learn from many. But it only takes one to turn you off of fitness — or worse. In particular for some women there’s risk involved in the relationship itself. I spoke with sport psychology consultant Kristen Dieffenbach, Ph.D., an assistant professor of Athletic Coaching Education at Western Virginia University, and a former weightlifting coach herself after I endured a train wreck of a trainer relationship. “With a personal training relationship, it can be hard to clarify and hold to important boundaries,” she says. “There is the potential for dysfunction to occur… more likely in someone with lower self esteem, less experience, who hasn’t received the kind of approval they needed in other areas of life. Women are more likely to fall into this area, particularly when we are talking about a physical activity realm, an area that many women don’t get a lot of support or encouragement in.”
She went on to say, “Athletes will put up with emotional abuse that in any other setting they wouldn’t tolerate,” she says, “because the coach holds the key to elite performance and achievement.”
“People coming in with low self esteem looking for surrogate confidence and approval … it’s a dysfunctional place for the athlete because the center of confidence is coming from an external motivator,” she says. “The athlete loses the ability to listen to that little internal voice. When the coach … doesn’t understand the impact [he has] and the potential for damage, and you have an athlete who has low self confidence and puts the coach’s thoughts above their and own relinquishes control, you have a recipe for disaster.”
So we’re not just talking about finding the trainer that will get you in your best shape, but about choosing a professional who will respect you as a client, guide you in achieving your goals, and put your well-being above everything else.
Give your search for the best personal trainer the same care and thought you would any professional that can affect your health and welfare. After learning the hard way, I am fortunate now to work with a competent, experienced professional. I want to share with you the things I wish I’d known when I first embarked on working with a trainer so you can avoid some possible pitfalls.
First, you are in charge. Your trainer works for you. I interviewed several candidates before selecting my current trainer. You’re likely committing a chunk of money to training – treat the selection process accordingly. It should feel like a cross between a job interview and a compatibility assessment. Red flag: Get out and don’t look back if he or she doesn’t want to answer your questions or dislikes having their authority questioned.
Some questions to ask:
- What is your education and experience? How do you keep up to date with research?
- Describe your training methods. How do you develop a training program?
- How do you get the best results from your client and help them stay motivated?
And if you’re interested in weight training as a woman (I hope!) ask specific questions to gauge their attitude about women and heavy weights.
Note: they should be asking you questions too, like “what’s your athletic background?” and “what are your goals?”
Age isn’t everything but it counts. It’s no accident that my current trainer is 40. I’m not saying that a younger trainer isn’t knowledgeable – my husband had good results working with one in his early 20s. But for me, after working with a 25-year-old, I only want to train with someone who can say he’s worked consistently for 10-20 years in the field.
Look for meaningful education. Sure, someone can take a test on the internet and call themselves a certified personal trainer, but there are so few true guidelines out there that you don’t know which letters after a name to look for. I picked a trainer with a degree in exercise physiology this time. His years of study, working out, and training clients make me confident that I can train safely.
Ask for references, especially from women they’ve worked with for a year or more. In the early days, when a client is making significant improvements, they may be more inclined to overlook serious flaws. My biggest peeve with my trainer is that he cancels too often. But that’s not a dealbreaker like, say, coming in to a session with bourbon on his breath should be (not with my current trainer, but yes, it’s happened).
Bonus: ask if you can observe a workout session with a client. What do you think – does his or her style mesh with yours?
Once you’ve chosen, give it a few sessions. If it’s working, that’s great! A good trainer is worth their weight in iron. If not, if any part of you tells you something is not right, do not hesitate to leave. And take what you’ve learned to make a better decision next time.
Photo: flickr user istolethetv