How to Choose a Personal Trainer

With the demand for personal trainers on the rise, consumers should know that not all are created equal.

Personal training, once thought of as a service only the wealthy could afford, has become a cornerstone of the health and fitness industry. As more people become concerned with their health and appearance, the use of personal trainers has increased.

Some 5.3 million Americans enlisted the help of a personal trainer in 2000, up from 4 million in 1999, according to Bill Howland, director of research for the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association.

Unfortunately, there are currently no federal or state laws regulating who can, and cannot, practice as a personal trainer. So it is important to do your own detective work before turning your body over to a trainer's care.

"There is no universally accepted certification out there," acknowledges Cedric X. Bryant, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise, a San Diego-based nonprofit organization that certifies fitness professionals.

Certified Doesn't Always Mean Qualified

An overwhelming 250 certification programs exist throughout the United States, yet all have different requirements, ranging in depth from "heavy" to "feather" weight.

While some programs require a college degree in a health-related field, along with the passing of written and practical exams to qualify for certification, others can be completed with little preparation by taking a simple test in an afternoon.

And just because a personal trainer is "certified" does not necessarily mean that he or she is qualified to work with people in all different areas of fitness.

"I've seen trainers do things that they shouldn't," says Nancy L. Campbell, a Boston-based certified personal trainer with both a bachelor's and master's degree in exercise physiology. "For example, personal trainers are not qualified to give nutrition recommendations. We are trained in the basics, but this does not make us registered dietitians."

Daniel S. Rooks, an instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of the Be Well! Tanger Center for Health Management at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, has been involved with exercise-based research studies for 20 years. He says he has seen a number of patients who have been hurt by personal trainers who don't understand the correct approach to working with people who have special considerations, such as chronic pain sufferers.

"I've seen people end up in bed for three days after working with an unskilled personal trainer," says Rooks. "They've recommended exercises appropriate for healthy adults that are inappropriate for someone in pain."

Finding a Qualified Trainer

Experts agree: If you want to start working with a personal trainer, you should do your homework before making your final choice.

According to Rooks, at a minimum a good trainer should have a certification by a reputable organization, such as the American College of Sports Medicine, National Strength and Conditioning Association, and the American Council on Exercise.

And while a college degree can be one indication of expertise, schooling alone does not guarantee a good personal trainer. "A person who stays on top of their field by reading the current literature is more well-versed than someone with a degree who never looks at the new research," says Rooks.

Many experts advise clients to stay away from trainers who subscribe to a "one-size-fits-all" mentality. Trainers who treat every client as an athlete may put you at risk for injury and may not help you reach your goals in a safe and effective manner.

And don't be fooled by appearances. Experts say that the least important factor when choosing a trainer is his or her appearance.

"Historically, people have tended to choose a trainer based on their physique," says Bryant. "They will walk into a gym and say 'I want to work with that person because I want to look like them' and that may set them up for a disaster. It never occurs to them that the trainer may be blessed with good genetics."

Tips on Choosing Trainers

If you are shopping for a personal trainer, the following tips can help you find one right for you:

Ask a health professional you trust to refer you to a good trainer. Health professionals who recommend exercise may have a network of personal trainers that they routinely refer people to.

Arrange to meet with the trainer before making your final decision. Be sure to ask about his/her background and any relevant training.

Ask to speak to some current and former clients. They can give you a good picture of the trainer's style.

Make sure you are comfortable talking openly and honestly with the trainer about your needs and goals. Do not choose someone who intimidates you or someone with whom you feel uncomfortable.

Once you've found a trainer you like, here are some tips to get the most out of your sessions:

Be prepared to discuss your full medical history with the trainer. Certain exercises may not be appropriate for everyone, so it's important the trainer knows your health status and any possible limitations.

Determine your goals. A good trainer will design a program that can help you attain these objectives.

Always ask questions. Trainers should always be able to give you the reasons why they've selected certain exercises for you.

Working with a personal trainer can be invaluable in helping you reach your fitness goals. Doing a little bit of research beforehand can help to enhance the experience.