What Others Are Saying...

  • " Not only is Sean a great nutritionist, but he's an excellent strength coach. I've coached athletes with him on multiple occasions. The most impressive attributes I've seen in him is his integrity, work ethic, ability to work with athletes and desire to be the best coach possible...."

-Luke Richesson. Head NFL Strength & Conditioning Coach for Denver Broncos


Where Art Thy Good Trainers?

Quick Hit Summary

For individuals new to the exercise/training field or those looking to refine their training techniques, a personal trainer (PT) can be a great asset to help you meet your training goals. Unfortunately, not all PT’s are created equal. In fact, some are outright incompetent and can easily hurt you. When picking trainers there are a few red flags to watch out for. These include trainers who immediately push supplements on you, have trouble performing an exercise or operating the equipment, and/or are not active in professional development. In order to ensure that you find a qualified trainer, look into who mentored them, the LONG TERM success of their clients, if they have a health science related college degree (ie- kinesiology, etc) and/or certified through the NSCA, NASM, ASCM or USA Weightlifting. Although I can't guarantee that the list is fool proof, it will help you find the best trainer to meet your needs.

New Year Resolution Series

This is the 1st part of our New Year Resolution Series. This collection of articles focuses in on popular topics which tend to get brought up at the start of every year as individuals pursue their newly minted health and performance goals. The other articles in this series are as follows:

Selecting Personal Trainers

Figure 1 "Now step up on the ball while still keeping your hands on your hips and chewing your bubble gum at a rate of 2 chomps per 5 seconds. Oh yeah, did I mention that I want you alternate blinks of the eye as well…."1

While attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison, earning degrees in Exercise Physiology as well as Nutritional Science, I completed the vast majority of my training in one of two places:

  • 1) The university athletic department’s training center (for the various sports teams)
  • 2) The university recreational center’s weightroom

Whenever my schedule would permit, I’d almost always choose the first of those two options. However, the reason for this choice might surprise you. It wasn’t because the athletic department’s facility was necessarily nicer or that I liked to train around athletes. In fact, never once did I train when student-athletes were scheduled to train… I was too busy trying to help them and refine my coaching skills!!! Furthermore, UW-Madison has a fantastic recreation center. The biggest reason I loved to train in the athletic center was that I didn’t have the fear of looking around to see some “personal trainer” (PT’s) wasting their client's money. Often, I found myself cringing at the exercise selection as well as the form some PT’s allowed their trainees to use while performing a given exercise. Often, I struggled to figure out what a PT was trying to accomplish with a given exercise. Other times I’d find myself thinking, "Are these PT’s in cahoots with a particular orthopedic surgeon and streamlining patients his/her way?!?"

Don’t get me wrong; there are some EXCELLENT PT’s out there who I’ve learned various exercise progressions and training tips from over the years. Unfortunately, there are also a lot who rank up there with used car salesmen with respect to the service they provide. For individuals without any prior experience, choosing a PT can be a daunting task. Therefore, I’ve listed some ideas that may help you find a PT capable of meeting your needs. By no means is this a perfect list. One PT may have a checkmark next to most categories in my “Signs of a Good Trainer” list, yet still wind up as a lousy trainer. On the flip side of things, another trainer may only have a check mark by only one of the boxes and be absolutely amazing. However, I believe that this will help weed out some posturing PT’s.

Signs of a Good Trainer

#1: Positive Reviews & Long Term Client Success

Positive reviews from friends about a particular trainer can be helpful. From my experience, trainers who have a history of building professional relationships and produce positive results for their clients tend to be the best (Yes, I know that I'm stating the obvious – but with instant "flash" trainers competing for your $, it's a point worth emphasizing.).

However, I must stress the importance of LONG TERM CLIENT SUCCESS. It's relatively easy to get positive results in clients with no previous training experience. This is often referred to as the "newbie" effect and is simply related to the nervous system getting used to training. In fact, if I was new to the exercise field, started working with a trainer and did NOT see/feel significant improvements in performance virtually right away (i.e. 3-5 weeks) I would immediately change to a new trainer.

On the flip side of things, as one's training age increases, the harder it is to make performance gains. Thus, I'm impressed with trainers whose clients are still making impressive improvements in performance despite having a high training age.

#2: Great Mentors

The best teachers produce the best students. As such, individuals who have well respected mentors tend to be pretty dang good coaches. I was fortunate, I completed internships with the UW-Madison Athletic Department, Athletes Performance and IMG Performance Institute. The former which routinely ranks near the top in most NCAA sports; The latter two which are recognized world wide for their coaching techniques. I studied under some amazing coaches during this time. Since then I've continued to study under a lot of great teachers, some of whom have been kind enough to share their thoughts on this site. With the intentions of being the best physical preparation coach I could be, these were some of the steps I have taken.

Please don't interpret any of this as me patting myself on the back. As discussed in The Guru I'm Not, there is a pile of stuff I must learn in the field.

For more information on selecting a good mentor, I refer you to Ian King's tips on finding one.

#3: Certification

There are numerous certifications out there. Unfortunately, certification doesn't necessarily guarantee that they are competent trainers. Typing in the search terms “Personal Training Certification” on google brought back 7,970,000 hits. As you can see there are numerous types of certification. Using those search terms, I clicked on various sites and was surprised how little it took to become certified. For example clicking on one site, I found that I could be certified as a personal trainer through the American Sport and Fitness Association. Going on name alone, this sounds like a legitimate organization. However, look at the rigorous testing procedure used to ensure that only the cream of the field earns this honor:

It will take a lot of discipline to achieve the distinction of being a certified personal trainer through this organization. All I had to do was pass an online test posted on their website. Luckily, if I fail it on the 1st, 2nd,…, 45th time, they’ll allow me to take the test again for free. Once I finally pass it, I’ll have to send $129 to their organization headquarters. Within a few weeks they'll send me a certificate with my name on it, proving to everyone how competent I am in this area.

Hopefully you picked up on the sarcasm of that last paragraph. If I was looking for a personal trainer, I’d make sure that they were certified through one of these organizations:

Please know that having any of the certifications listed below does not necessarily guarantee "hands on" training competency. Rather most of these certifications guarantees entry level "book smart" competency. Also, these are the most common ones in North America. I'm not as familiar with the various international certifications.

  • National Academy of Sports Medicine (*NASM*) – Specifically look for those certified as NASM-PES (performance enhancement specialist) or NASM-CES (corrective exercise specialist). Basic personal training is recognized as NASM-CPT.
  • USA Weightlifting. This organization focuses on training individuals who will be qualified to coach Olympic style weightlifting. This type of weightlifting focuses on explosive movements such as the clean & jerk, as well an the power snatch.

#4. College Education

Formal training in a health science related field can also be a useful tool when evaluating the quality of a prospective trainer. This ensures at least a baseline understanding of functional anatomy and physiology. According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine, this would include degrees such as:

"Exercise Science, Kinesiology, Exercise Physiology, Physiology, Physical Education, Human Performance, Movement Science, Kinesiotherapy, Athletic Training, Physical Therapy, Occupational Therapy.”

Although they did not list it, you can throw biomechanics in there as well.

Red Flags (when it's time for a change)

Flirtatious Trainers

This includes trainers who spend time flirting with either you or those around you. First off, this is EXTREMELY unprofessional. Besides, are they focused on helping you achieve your fitness goals or just getting a phone number?!?

Incompetent Trainers

This includes trainers who have trouble setting up various exercise machines (cardio or resistance based). I realize that all machines may operate a little different, such as different brands of ellipticals. However, even a trainer new to a particular gym should arrive early enough to familiarize himself/herself with any machine that they plan on using during the training session.

Also falling in this category are trainers who aren’t able to perform an exercise correctly on their own. How can you expect one to teach an exercise if they’re flailing like a fish while performing it? You’d be surprised how many times I’ve repeatedly seen PT’s lose their balance doing an exercise or simply say, "Just do it how the guy/gal in the power rack over there is doing it."

Figure 2. It's not always a good idea to replicate the exercises of the "buff" individual training to your left or right… You may hurt yourself!2

Trainers Lacking Professional Development

Trainers should be able to tell you what they’re doing to improve their coaching ability. What type of formal/informal coach education experiences are they taking part in? Are they attending professional development conferences or similar on a continual basis? Do they write/read research based exercise/nutrition related articles? I want a trainer who is striving to improve their coaching ability as much as I’m trying to improve my physical performance… Don’t you?

Trainers Who Like “Flashy” Exercises/Routines

I always get nervous about trainers who tell me that they’re going to try out an exercise (or exercise routine for that matter), that they saw on the TV, with some of their clients. For instance, I remember that during the summer of 2007, the big thing was the “300 Workout.” Supposedly this exercise routine was performed by the actors preparing for the movie 300 – or at least that's what many trainers will tell you (I encourage you to read Arnav Sarkar's great article on the true story behind the mythical "300 Workout"). It seemed like overnight, trainers had their clients trying to perform it. First off, how many of the trainers tried this on their own first? How many trainees had the capacity to perform the workouts without risking personal injury due to incorrect form? I observed various ones using this with clients who were obviously not ready for the workout. Regardless of the workout, one should NEVER sacrifice proper form, just to complete a set of exercises. I have great disdain for trainers, who allow their trainees to exercise with lousy form.

Trainers Who Immediately Push Supplements

Within the first 1-2 workouts, if the trainer says something along the lines of, "You're going to need to get supplements X,Y, and Z to achieve good results. Just give me the money and I'll get them for you at a discounted price." It's quite possible that the supplements that he will be getting you are of excellent quality. However, if he/she's able to get them at a discounted price, my guess is that he/she's getting something in return from the retailer. Thus, his/her underlying motive behind getting these supplements might be for his/her personal gain, not yours. Suggesting a product is one thing, but if you feel like he/she's pushing it on you is a completely different story.

Great Body = Great Trainer?

There is a common misconception that tends to float around …. That is, the biggest, strongest, fastest individual in the gym is always the best trainer. I'm sure you've either heard someone say or thought yourself, "Look how good they are; Surely they know their stuff and can help me achieve similar results." This is not always the case. Sometimes a little thing called genetics and/or chemical enhancers are the driving force behind someone's fitness level; not their ability to design and properly implement amazing training programs. For the record, I'm not bashing those who choose to use chemical enhancers or have amazing genetics. Rather I'm merely stating that having a great body DOES NOT ALWAYS equate to having great coaching skills.

An analogous situation can be found at institutions of higher learning across the world. How often have you ran into someone who was truly brilliant, yet, were absolutely horrible teachers/instructors? My guess is that all of us have at some point.

Bottom Line

Picking a personal trainer can be a daunting task. As with any profession, there are good ones and bad ones. However, listed above are some general rules I give to those asking my advice. Although I can't ensure that the list is fool proof, I do believe that it will help you find the best trainer to meet your needs.

Good Luck!

1 Accessed May 31, 2010 from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Personal_trainer_showing_a_client_how_to_exercise_the_right_way_and_educating_them_along_the_way.jpg . Original photo obtained from http://www.localfitness.com.au/

2 Accessed May 31, 2010 from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:EarlyBarbell.gif

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Written on October 06, 2009 by Sean Casey
Last Updated: January 03, 2014

This information is not intended to take the place of medical advice.Please check with your health care providers prior to starting any new dietary or exercise program. CasePerformance is not responsible for the outcome of any decision made based off the information presented in this article.

About the Author: Sean Casey is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison with degrees in both Nutritional Science-Dietetics and Kinesiology-Exercise Physiology. Sean graduated academically as one of the top students in both the Nutritional Science and Kinesiology departments.
Field Experience: During college, Sean was active with the UW-Badgers Strength and Conditioning Department. He has also spent time as an intern physical preparation coach at the International Performance Institute in Bradenton, FL. He also spent time as an intern and later worked at Athletes Performance in Tempe, AZ. While at these locations he had the opportunity to train football, soccer, baseball, golf and tennis athletes. Sean is also active in the field of sports nutrition where he has consulted with a wide variety of organizations including both elite (NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars) and amateur athletic teams. His nutrition consultation services are avalable by clicking on the Nutrition Consultation tab.