It doesn’t take much training or education to become certified as a personal trainer. Anyone with a high school education can get a Can Fit Pro or ACE certification in as little as a month. Consequently there are many trainers that may be unqualified but the gym they work for still charges an arm and a leg in order to make good profit. Commercial fitness chains are famous for doing this because people are unaware and they don’t know what to look for when choosing to work with a trainer. This is not to say that all commercial gyms are filled with unqualified trainer (I’ve met some excellent trainers with basic certifications) but a certain percentage of trainers are people that chose to become trainers as a sudden career change and these people have insufficient fitness knowledge and experience to be offering professional services at industry prices. In some cases commercial gyms will hire trainers for their sales experience and people skills rather than their training skills which are vastly more important. After all you are hiring a personal trainer to get you to your fitness goals in the shortest possible time; not to talk to you about your personal life or the latest celebrity gossip.
An advanced certification or a college/university degree does not automatically make someone a great trainer. A degree in kinesiology, exercise science or an advanced post graduate fitness certification like NSCA’s certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) gives a person a sound theoretical foundation, however procedural knowledge (knowledge exercised in the performance of some task i.e., like riding a bike) accounts for about 60% of essential knowledge that a personal trainer should have.
So what makes a trainer great? A certification or degree isn’t necessary but more often than not great trainers will possess a degree or an advanced certification because it shows that they are committed to and serious about what they do. However, all the essential knowledge and training principles can be learned independently without having to take a course or pass an exam. The best indication if a trainer is great is their physical appearance and how fit they are. A great trainer usually looks the part. Being exceptionally fit is evidence that these trainers can apply what they know. A red flag is a trainer who is overweight or very skinny and out of shape. I’ve encountered a few of them when I worked at a commercial fitness club. Many great trainers are professional body builders and other athletes that have very little or no formal education- much like many great musicians and artists.
Exercise science is an open field where new things are constantly being discovered. A great trainer will have an original approach to training that has been learned through experimentation and experience- not from reading some textbook. Great trainers do not work from the book: they are creative and will invent their own exercises and workout routines and combine existing training principles in novel ways to yield faster results. A great trainer keeps learning, constantly updating their knowledge but also contributes and educates others on things they have discovered independently. This is one of the most important characteristics of a great trainer: they contribute new knowledge either in a publication, in seminars or online.
Here is a summary of the characteristics in order of importance that make a personal trainer great: 1) they are physically fit and have experience training themselves, 2) they contribute new knowledge in the form of articles, books, seminars, web pages or blogs, 3) they have their own unique approach to training that has been learned from practical experience, 4) they have a degree or an advanced certification. So now you know what to look for when hiring a personal trainer and I hope that you will put this knowledge to use.