Personal trainers are a dime a dozen. There are nearly 270,000 of them in the US. Unfortunately, many of them suck. Seriously. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of great trainers out there, but sometimes it’s hard to find them among the crappy ones. A good trainer is worth much more than the average session’s rates, while a bad trainer is worth less than nothing, because worse than not helping you get results, they can get you hurt.
So, how do you know if you have a good trainer or a crappy one? Sometimes it’s difficult for someone who doesn’t have the benefit of training and nutrition knowledge to tell, but there are some signs to watch for. Not all of the following are guarantees that you have a bad trainer, but some are. I’ve noted the ones that are guarantees you’ve got a crappy trainer. If your trainer is doing any of those things, fire them immediately, and find someone who knows what they’re doing. Your body and your bank account will thank you.
1) They do workouts, not a program – They haven’t designed a program for you with long term objectives or short term objectives and training focuses for several weeks at a time. Every training session is completely different and feels random with no overall purpose. This isn’t to say there’s not variety from session to session. A great trainer will mix it up a little for you to keep it interesting, but there will still be a structure to your workouts.
2) They don’t keep a log of your sessions – If you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it. If your trainer doesn’t keep logs of your sessions, they’re not tracking your progress. If they’re not tracking your progress, they’re certainly not managing your training to ensure you get the results you want.
3) They try to force specific technique without allowances for your individual biomechanics – There’s textbook perfect technique for most exercises, then there’s the way most people have to do them, because most of us don’t have perfect muscular and skeletal structures. Consider squats (weighted or body weight) for example. Many people do not possess adequate hip and ankle mobility to perform them with perfect textbook technique, plus different ratios of femur (thigh) to tibia/fibula (shin) lengths also impact joint angles. Trying to force specific technique without adjusting for an individual’s biomechanics can result in less than desirable results, frustration on the part of the client, and in the worst case, injury. Common adjustments in the example of squats are narrower or wider stances, turning the toes farther out or in, and reduced range of motion. Bonus points go to the best trainers who will explain that some of these adjustments are temporary, because they’re incorporating corrective exercise into your program to help your movement quality, and help reduce your injury risk long term.
4) They don’t do a Consultation and Assessment plus complete a Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire (PAR-Q) before training you. If they haven’t done these things, you’re not getting personal training, you’re getting generic training that may or may not be appropriate for you. All three of these are among the minimum standards for any competent trainer. Without a consultation, they don’t know about your current lifestyle, nutrition habits, or goals. Without an assessment, they don’t know what your fitness starting point is. Without a PAR-Q they don’t know if you have any medical conditions that may indicate or contraindicate certain types of exercise. Not doing these should be a deal breaker for you. If you’re talking to potential trainers, and these are not part of their process, walk the other way. If your current trainer didn’t do them, fire them immediately. If they did do all of these, and the assessment included things like your posture, arches while standing barefoot, and an assessment for movement dysfunctions, your trainer gets bonus points for being exceptional.
5) They don’t have an answer when you ask “why are we doing this exercise”. Every workout, and every exercise in that workout should have a purpose. Lazy or inexperienced trainers will throw in “filler” exercises. Sometimes the reason is just because it’s something you enjoy, but it’s still a valid reason. Afterall, if your program is nothing but what your body needs without consideration of whether you enjoy it or not, it’s going to be more challenging for you to stick with the program, and your chances of success decline.
6) Body Shaming to Motivate or focusing exclusively on the physical. There are many ways to inspire a person to exercise but the most emotionally unhealthy way is by shaming someone into action. Body shaming or focusing only on physical results with no consideration for emotional wellbeing can lead to disordered thinking, and feelings of guilt and inadequacy. If a trainer uses these types of tactics to push clients to physical results they are not looking out for your best interests for long term health and wellbeing. If a trainer belittles your physical appearance to try to get you to exercise or to adhere to a specific diet then drop them and look for a trainer that inspires you by encouraging you to think more positively about yourself, your body and your physical ability.
7) They think making you vomit or really sore means they gave you a good workout. The objective of most training programs should be to provide the amount of training that stresses your body enough to result in the maximum amount of fitness gains. There’s a sweet spot where this occurs. Too little work, and you won’t improve much. Too much work, and you won’t improve as much as you could have, plus you won’t be able to use stairs or raise your arms high enough to brush your hair for three days. Good trainers understand this concept, and aim for the sweet spot, not your breaking point.
8) They don’t ask you how you felt after the last session and how you feel today. This is related to #7. Fitness training is a science, but it’s not always an exact one. We make our best educated guesses about how hard and in what way to train you, but sometimes we miss the mark. After most sessions, we want you to feel like you did something, but not feel like you got hit by a truck. We ask how you felt after the last session, and how you feel today, because if you felt nothing, we need to turn it up a little. If you felt wrecked, we need to dial it back. This feedback is essential to providing you with the best results.
9) They don’t adjust sessions based on how you’re feeling that day, physically or emotionally. This is a variation of #8. We can’t be “on” all the time. Sometimes we don’t get enough sleep, have worries about family or work, or our car broke down on the way to work that morning. In those types of situations, that challenging workout that was planned may not be the best idea. A session to help you unwind, blow off some steam, or a recovery session of warm up and dynamic stretching is likely a better option than trying to focus your attention on the original planned session with an agility exercise with 14 different complex movements or technical Olympic lifting.
If you already work with a trainer, I hope they’re a rock star trainer who doesn’t do any of these things and does many great things above and beyond expectations. If you don’t have one, be sure to ask potential trainers these questions before hiring them.
– Don Larkin