How to Find a Good Personal Trainer

As the holiday season approaches, some of you are probably thinking about your New Year’s resolutions. If you’re like the rest of the world, getting into better shape probably falls somewhere on that list of goals you have (who are we kidding,  I know it’s on your list). Maybe you want to drop some belly fat, get stronger, or just take care of your health. Whatever the reason may be, hiring a personal trainer may cross your mind at some point, and it’s important that you understand how to find a good personal trainer.

Hiring a personal trainer or fitness coach is one of the best investments you can make. A good trainer will make sure your program is 100% tailored to your and your goals, ensure you are using proper form and staying injury-free, help you with nutrition, and constantly be assessing and adjusting along the way. A good trainer will push you, hold you accountable, and ultimately show you the most efficient way to reach your goals.

After spending six years full involved in this industry, as a trainer, online coach, rehab specialist, and author, I’ve seen it all. I’ve helped run a fitness department, hiring and teaching new trainers and interns, and I’ve seen the good and the bad.

After six years of doing this, and working with hundreds of clients, literally two have done any research into me ahead of time. The rest blindly assume I’m a great trainer. I want people to be able to assume this about all trainers, and have it be true, but sadly this isn’t the case. Let me explain.

Story Time with Matt

The second time I ever stepped foot in the gym (obviously not the first, because I had to sign up and what have you), I was sixteen or seventeen I believe. I was busting my ass to just barely make my high school basketball team, and I thought getting in better shape would help me.

This is literally how the session went. I walked in, terrified, and this big, bearded, behemoth of a man introduced himself to me. For this story, let’s call him, oh I don’t know, Ramsey Bolton*. Anyways, I told him my goals. I was 6’2″, about 160, severely lacking in the athletic department, and my fitness wasn’t great, and insecurities were everywhere. This is a situation I know many people can relate to when they first walk into a gym. I just wanted to be better at basketball, so I could one day start a game.

What did we do? Well, this guy decided that I should spend the entire session doing pushups.

I didn’t see how this pertained to basketball, but he was the expert. So, off we go to the middle of the gym floor, surrounded by jacked bros and fit girls. I felt terrible. He sat on a bench press, and had me get into the pushup position (he didn’t show me, just said, get in the position).

We proceeded to play a game that I still remember to this day. He had a deck of cards in his hand, and he said:

“Okay Mark (yes, he forgot my name, not sure how with such a unique name like Matt Dustin), here’s what we’re going to do. You’re going to guess what card I’m about to flip over. If you get it right, we throw that card away. If you get it wrong, you have to do however many pushups the number says. Face cards are worth ten pushups.”

Over the next hour, we sat in that one spot, doing endless pushups. I think I guessed correctly on one card – a three. By the end, I was literally doing pushups on my knees, and barely able to move an inch off the floor.

Needless to say, I didn’t go back to the gym for a long time. Partly due to being embarassed in the middle of the gym floor, but also due to having crippling chest soreness for over a week. 

The kicker? A few weeks later, when I finally decided to give this fitness thing another go, I saw the same trainer, doing the exact same deck of cards torture to a new client. This guy had a big playbook, apparently.

So, yeah, let’s avoid that happening to you.

For every good trainer out there, there’s at least ten bad ones, probably doing more harm than good. 

Let that sink in. Now, these “bad” trainers probably aren’t trying to hurt anyone. They just don’t know any better.

These days, my in-person training is now done at a private place here in San Diego, but I’ve seen it all during my years in the commercial gyms. I’ve seen trainers cut and paste the same exact nutrition plan to all of their clients, and those same trainers take every single client through the exact same workout on a given day, without any consideration for individual needs and goals. I’ve seen trainers tell clients to push through pain and injuries, leading to bigger problems down the road. I’ve seen trainers spend the entire session with their phone out, barking out orders to their clients, only to go right back to texting. Seems safe, right?

Here’s a secret the fitness industry doesn’t tell you – the barrier to entry for personal training is very, very low.

There are some very intensive certifications you can get to become a trainer. Most certifications take several months at the minimum, or if you’re really into this stuff, you can do what I did, and get a Bachelor’s degree in Exercise Science. That’s a real major, I promise.

You can also buy a certification course on Groupon, spend a weekend studying, pass an online exam, and boom, you’re a trainer. There are even one-day certifications, where anyone over the age of 18 can register, attend, and leave as a personal trainer.

That’s a scary thought.

I’m not saying anyone who did a weekend certification is a bad trainer. Some of the best trainers I know have zero credentials, and I’ve seen some people come out of college programs, and have very respected credentials, who are absolutely awful trainers. I just want you to understand the range of education you’ll find when you walk into your local Gold’s or 24-Hour Fitness.

On top of this, every trainer specializes in something different. Sports performance, fat loss, nutrition, post-natal training, corrective exercise, bodybuilding, etc… Sure, you might get someone who’s really good in more than one area, but nobody can be the best at everything. I want you to find the best. You might get lucky if the gym you join pairs you with a good trainer, but more often than not, you’ll get an asessment with a fitness director or new trainer who needs business, so it’s up to you to do some digging.

To help you sort through this mess and show you how to find a good personal trainer, one who will take care of you and help you reach your goals, here are five qualifying questions you should ask your trainer before hiring them. 

 

1. What is your background / what are your credentials?

As mentioned above, this does not make or break a trainer. But it’s still good to know. If they tell you that they’ve completed an internship with a local trainer or program, or have a few credentials, or have a mentor, those are good signs. Ideally, you want to find someone who’s been doing this a few years. If they don’t have a training certification, or are brand new trainers, this doesn’t mean they’ll be bad, but you do want to do a bit more digging.

How long have you been training yourself? Why did you become a trainer?

Listen to their answers, and make sure they align with you and your goals.

On certifications: Without going into detail on each one, if your trainer mentions any of the following credentials, you’re on the right track. NASM, NSCA, ACSM, CSCS, Precision Nutrition, NPTI. Anything else, and you should probably do a little research into what exactly that credential is.

2. Who is your ideal client? Or, who do you feel the most comfortable working with?

See what they say. Every good trainer will know when they are a good fit, and when they aren’t. As an example, I feel very comfortable and experienced with nutrition coaching, weight loss, and training for aesthetics, AKA, pure vanity training. If your primary goal is sports performance, I know a thing or two, but I’d probably refer you to someone like Eric Bach, as I know he’s much more qualified. Or if you want to compete in a bodybuilding show, I might send you to Paul Revelia, or Team 3DMJ.

If you find a trainer who is very experienced with whatever your goals are, then you should be good to go. However, if you ask your trainer what they specialize in, and they say “weight loss, muscle building, sports performance, functional training, and corrective exercise,” this is a big red flag. Yeah, they might know about each, but no trainer can be a jack of all trades, without being mediocre at most of those areas. Find someone who straight crushes it with whatever your goal may be.

3. What sort of things will we be measuring and assessing, and how often will we be re-checking to make sure we keep progressing?

The literal worst thing you can do is have a trainer who gives you a random workout of the day, with no end goal in sight. A good trainer will take a lot of assessments, spend a lot of time getting to know you – your goals, background, preferences, schedule, training history, and more, and then develop a plan.

If you aren’t assessing progress as you go, you have absolutely no idea if you’re on the right path. You don’t want to get six weeks in and realize you’ve only lost half a pound.

Make sure your trainer has a good baseline for where you’re starting your fitness journey, and is going to be assessing and adjusting your program as you go.

4. Have you ever trained someone with my goals, and if so, what was your approach, and what were the results?

This is semi-related to the second question. After you’ve told the trainer your goals, ask them if they’ve worked with clients like you in the past. If they say no, it’s okay, but it’s something you’ll want to know.

If they say yes, dig in a little. What sort of results have you achieved with clients like me in the past? How long dit it take to see those results? What were the biggest obstacles to overcome?

Questions like this will allow you to quickly see if you’re trainer actually knows what they are doing and has experience, or if they just lied to you. If someone has actually worked with clients like you in the past, those questions will be a breeze to answer.

5. What sort of communication will we have throughout the week?

Lastly, if you feel you need a lot of support, make sure they are cool with it. There are 168 hours in a week. If you see a trainer for 2 of those hours, you’ll need to be 100% confident you’re doing the right things for your goals during the other 166 hours.

You may find a personal trainer who’s cool with you reaching out to them with fitness questions throughout the week. If you do, just be sure not to blur the lines between a professional relationship and a personal relationship.

If you feel you need daily support, and want someone who’s easy to access every day, you may want to consider working with an online coach who specializes in whatever your goals may be. If you want recommendations for a good online coach, besides yours truly, just ask me, and I’ll do my best to point you in the right direction.


Hopefully this didn’t scare you away from any sort of personal training. I want to help you find a good trainer, and after so long in the industry, I’ve come to realize those can be hard to find.

If you’ve decided you want to work with a trainer, I really hope this helps you find a good one. If you’re interested in working with me online or in-person in San Diego, you can apply for my private coaching program and we’ll schedule a free call to discuss your goals and a plan.

*Obviously, the bad trainer’s name wasn’t really Ramsay Bolton. That’s just the first person I thought of with, shall we say, a slightly negative perception. If you don’t know who Ramsay Bolton is, I’m truly sorry.

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