Choosing a personal trainer

Cheerleader or taskmaster—just be sure to choose your personal trainer wisely

Training ground
Cheerleader or taskmaster—just be sure to choose your personal trainer wisely

After years of dance and Spinning classes, Karen* finally decided to hire a personal trainer and start lifting weights. “I was very specific about telling him what my issues were: that I had a bad neck and lower back and that he had to be really careful because I had never lifted weights,” she says. At her first session, they went through a variety of exercises. “My arms felt tired, but I didn’t want to be a wimp.” However, the next day, she was “in agony.” Karen says, without exaggeration that she couldn’t sleep for a week. “I couldn’t put my arms down on the bed. I couldn’t turn over. He hurt me. He really hurt me.”

Karen’s no-pain-no-gain session is not your typical workout scenario with a personal trainer. Most people have great experiences. Yet, in a field without an official governing or licensing body, screening trainers is the client’s responsibility. Here’s what you need to know about hiring, firing and benefiting from your fitness professional.

Who Needs One?

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Timing Is Everything

Frequently Asked Questions

*Name has been changed

Who Needs One?

Whether you’re a clueless new exerciser, a regular exerciser who has hit a plateau, a weekend warrior trying a new activity or a competitive athlete looking for an edge, personal training can be key, says Agnes Grabowski, specialized personal trainer and athletic therapist with Kinetic Form in Toronto. In addition to providing exercisers with long- and short-term plans, motivation, increased safety and reduction of injuries, she says, trainers help exercisers optimize their time.

Training can be anything from “a telephone call to a kick in the pants [to] ‘I need you to hold my hand,’ ” says Katherine MacKeigan, director of the provincial fitness unit for the University of Alberta. Some clients, she says, approach it as, “I need you to help me here. I need you to tell me exactly what to do, how much weight to put on this piece of equipment.’ It really depends on the individual.”


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Don’t hire just anybody who refers to themselves as a personal trainer. Some gyms actually take on trainers and give them up to a year—while they are working with you—to get certified, warns Grabowski. Watch for the following:

1) Accreditation: A college diploma in fitness or a university degree in exercise science, kinesiology or physical education.
2) Certification: Through a reputable association such as Can-Fit-Pro, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) or the Canadian Society of Exercise Physiology (CSEP), among others. Your trainer should provide you with a copy of his certification.

3) Continuing education: Trainers should keep up their knowledge through professional development and specialized training for programs such as Pilates and yoga.

4) Compatibility: “It’s just like in any type of profession: you’re going to hit people who have tons of experience and tons of credentials, but they may not hit the mark,” says MacKeigan.

5) Insurance: For your safety and theirs, an independent trainer should be insured privately for both of your protection. If you’re training at a gym, the trainer is automatically insured by the gym.

6) Affordability: A typical training session costs anywhere from $30 per hour (for group training) to $75 per hour (for one-on-one), depending on the trainers’ experience, qualifications, their expenses, whether they come to you or whether you go to a gym (the fee should cover the gym, too).

7) Screenings: Trainers should send all clients for health screenings (medical and allergy) and a needs assessment, says MacKeigan. Grabowski performs a PAR Q (physical activity readiness questionnaire) that asks what type of activities you do, your nutritional and medical history, etc.


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Timing Is Everything

You’ve hired. Now consider the following:

1) Your target. Need to lose 20 pounds? It may take longer to reach your goal than someone gearing up for ski season. Working toward squeezing into that new dress within a few weeks? Your sessions may be hard and fast. Either way, the ultimate aim should be lifestyle change. Celebrity trainer Harley Pasternak (who has trained the likes of Halle Berry and Orlando Bloom) is a “big fan of having [training] fit your lifestyle. It’s just part of your everyday [routine], like brushing your teeth.”

2) Your program. At the start, you may train three times a week, then slow to once or twice with your trainer as you begin working out solo. Eventually, working out with your trainer once a month is enough to monitor progress and modify your program. Be wary of trainers who keep you hanging on once you’ve reached your goals and are maintaining, cautions Grabowski. “They want to keep you dependent, give you a little bit of information, but not too much—so you never leave.”

Know Thyself

Some clients are motivated by being weighed on a weekly basis while, for others, “success is, did you have your workouts this week? Did you try hard in all your workouts?” says Pasternak. “As a byproduct of achieving those goals, you will lose body fat and you will look better and feel better.” Remember to discuss with your trainer the best ways to motivate you.


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Dos and Don’ts

Trainers have their own style, but keep this checklist in mind. Good trainers should: lunderstand your goals and explain how to reach them ltrack your progress by taking notes loffer constructive criticism lchallenge you They shouldn’t: lbully you or put you down lignore injuries or cause you pain ltry to sell you products lhave roving hands lbe continually late for your sessions You should: lbe prompt lgive 24 hours’ cancellation notice lspeak up if something does not feel right lask questions, but remember you hired them for their expertise.


Where can I find a trainer?
At your gym and community centre and through reputable organizations such as the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) or the Canadian Society of Exercise Physiology (CSEP). Be sure to ask potential trainers for references and call them before you make your decision.

Do I have to belong to a gym?
No, says Pasternak, author of the bestselling book 5-Factor Fitness. In fact, his program is based on having a bench and a set of dumbbells at home. Personal training can be home-based, online or over the phone.

Can a personal trainer prescribe a diet?
Only if she is a registered dietitian or clinical nutritionist. Otherwise your trainer should refer you to one.

Can a trainer rehabilitate injuries?
Trainers should not work with ill clients or rehabilitate injuries unless they have specific qualifications. And even in that case, they should be talking to your doctors.

When should I move on?
“If you don’t look forward to them coming; if they’ve injured you; if you realize they’re not paying attention to you; if there’s a lack of focus; if you feel like you’re not getting your money’s worth; if you feel like you’re not seeing results,” says Pasternak.


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