As I get ready to head to the gym — for a WAY overdue workout, lazy me! — my mind fills once again with the sights and sounds I’m about to encounter. I’m a member of a local Max Fitness, which means it’s your typical corporate chain gym atmosphere. Clanking of weights, pop music over the sound system, the shuffling of feet on the alarming number of treadmills. You get the picture.
Also of note are the people you encounter in such an environment. You have your teenage first-timers, “problem area” moms, weekend warriors, “gun show” fanatics, and all other sorts. Some you can learn from. Some are a little questionable in their methods. And others you should avoid like the plague! For a person new to exercise, it can be quite intimidating and confusing. Whom do you turn to if you have questions? If there’s one group that should be safe to listen to, it’s the trainers. Right? RIGHT???
Well… maybe not.
You see, the problem here is that the term “personal trainer” or “fitness trainer” carries a LOT of latitude. There’s no single, official, government-sanctioned definition of the term. Furthermore, there’s virtually no legal oversight given to the field to enforce standards regarding what does or does not constitute a personal trainer. The only specifics exist in terms of legal boundaries that protect the scope of OTHER professions (for instance, a personal trainer cannot legally dispense medical or dietary prescriptions, as those privileges are preserved for specific professions that require a license). Since the U.S. government does nothing to define most fitness professions, the fitness industry is left to regulate itself from within. It does this rather poorly.
If you’ve been around for any length of time, you’ve almost certainly encountered people who are “certified” personal trainers or something similar. Most of the time, it’s held up as something that needs to be pointed out. A badge of pride, a sort of “quality seal” for the individual that lets you know that they’re the real deal. But what does it really mean? Unfortunately, not much.
A certification process really just establishes a sort of minimum standard. You study the material, you take an exam (usually just a multiple choice test on a computer these days), and if you get the required 70% or so, you’re now a “Certified Personal Trainer” or something similar. There are a variety of organizations that offer certifications — ACE, AFAA, ACSM, NASM, NSCA, NFPT, etc. — and they have varying levels of quality in terms of the accuracy and depth of their training materials and the rigor of their testing processes. Having said that, none of them are really THAT hard. I would say that, with rare exception, none of the major fitness organizations have tests that a reasonably intelligent person couldn’t pass with 3-4 months of study (and that’s WITHOUT an exercise-related education/background).
As hinted at in that last sentence, there are also no educational requirements beyond a high school diploma and generally a CPR certification. What this means is that, based on the requirements for certification alone, the piece of paper that someone holds doesn’t stand as any real indication that that individual is QUALIFIED to train you. It only shows that they passed a test.
Now this is by no means a condemnation of personal trainers. It merely shows weaknesses in the process by which people obtain certifications in the first place. I felt it was important to explain this before getting into what you might want to look for in a trainer (if you are seeking the advice of one). There’s a big difference between having a piece of paper that says you know something (certification) and having the knowledge and thought process to perform the job at hand (qualification).
Good question, Jackie!
There are quite a number of attributes that I would ascribe to a “good” trainer. While not exhaustive, the list below contains a few major qualifications trainers should have:
1. – A solid fundamental understanding of exercise science. This includes sound knowledge of biomechanics (body structure and how it works mechanically), exercise physiology (underlying biological processes related to nutrition, energy, how we adapt to exercise, etc.), and exercise/sport psychology (including understanding of motivation, adherence, and how people can develop good habits for health). This DOES NOT mean the person goes spouting off jargon every chance they get. It’s not about trying to show off book knowledge. But if a trainer is afraid to talk about some of the more technical aspects of why he/she is having a client do something a certain way, then that’s a big red flag.
2. – An openness to using a variety of tools to get the job done. By this, I mean that the trainer should not be “married” to any particular exercise method or rigid philosophy. He/she should be willing to apply whatever method is most appropriate for the particular person and situation for which exercise is being designed. If a person doesn’t “believe in” machines, bands, free weights, yoga, etc., then there’s probably an issue with that person’s understanding of how those different tools might be applied to serve someone’s capabilities and needs the best.
3. – An ability to justify the approach that is used (NOT be random). As an important counterbalance to the previous point, an effective trainer knows that variety is only as effective as our ability to temper it with good judgment. Someone who haphazardly throws a new method or exercise at a client every set or every day is likely to cause injury or, at the very least, impede their progress through a lack of specificity in terms of how the workouts are approached. The trainer MUST have a good reason for every tool or method that is used. Do you want to use whole-body barbell movements today and nothing but isometric work with resistance bands tomorrow? GREAT! Just know why you’re doing it. There must always be a justification!
4. – An ability and willingness to communicate effectively with a client. This includes things like explaining the long-term goals of a particular exercise plan, conveying information about nutrition and lifestyle, and helping the client to develop realistic expectations for progress. It also means the trainer is able to teach/coach effective techniques for exercise and — now this is a BIG one — knows how to cue a person effectively between and during every repetition if needed so every moment of the workout is used effectively. This communication will likely be a combination of verbal and nonverbal, and it will strike a healthy balance between too stoic and overly wordy.
5. – Honesty and integrity at all times. A trainer has an enormous responsibility to the client. A fitness professional must recognize that someone is putting their health and well being in their hands. As such, it’s irresponsible to lie or withhold any information that might have any bearing on that person’s health. If a client is not holding up their end of the agreement (let’s say not eating well or showing motivation), the trainer should take them to task on it. Likewise, a trainer should hold him/herself responsible for mistakes or oversights AT ALL TIMES. In addition, the trainer should n0t pressure a client into paying for something he/she doesn’t need. This includes questionable nutritional supplements or other “secondary income” avenues for the trainer (as well as gym services that the client does not want or need). I understand that trainers at many gyms are required to try to sell additional services, but there’s a way to handle this that is classy and not overly pushy.
^^^ EVERY good trainer should fit these characteristics pretty well ^^^
You’ll notice that in that list, I didn’t once mention a certification of particular educational background. That’s because they aren’t necessary to develop the attributes above. Sure, studying for an exam will probably teach you a few things. Maybe a lot of things. But it’s not enough to make you the trainer you need to be. I’ve met many people with certifications who are great, and many who are terrible. I’ve also met many without any such credential who are ALSO at both ends of the spectrum.
So when making a decision about whether a person is qualified for the job as a fitness professional, it’s important to look beyond the certification. Look at the person who earned it. Because at the end of the day, it’s what you DO with that piece of paper that determines its worth :)