Friday, July 24, 2009

What do you want in a personal trainer?

As those of you who tuned in yesterday know, I took a break from blogging in order to do some more studying in my quest to become a certified personal trainer. Later, I started thinking about what sort of trainer I hope to be, and remembering some of the trainers I've had in the past.

Although I've been frequenting gyms on and off for twenty-some years, I've used the services of only three personal trainers. I have to laugh now when I think about my some of my experiences with them and how naive I was as a fitness consumer. Never once did I ask for references or credentials, because at the time, it simply didn't occur to me.

I know that one of the three trainers was certified through a well-known organization, because she advertised that fact on her business cards, but I'm pretty sure the other two had no certifications or exercise-related degrees.

These days, I would definitely ask a potential trainer about his or her certifications or degrees, as well as experience. Some certifications are completely bogus, as in you take a 15-minute online "test," pay your fee, and voilĂ !, you can call yourself a certified personal trainer, if you can keep a straight face at the same time. Among various sources that I've consulted in trying to determine the most respected certifications, three names consistently appear: the National Strength and Conditioning Association, the American College of Sports Medicine, and the American Council on Exercise. I'm sure there are some other good certifications out there, too.

Anyway, back to my experiences with trainers. The first one I had, who shall remain unnamed for obvious reasons (actually, they will all be unnamed, for a variety of reasons), used to occasionally show up for appointments with alcohol on his breath — and I'm talking late-morning appointments.

I'm not saying he was drunk. In fact, he was known to be the hard-partying type, so perhaps those odors I detected were the remnants of his previous night's activities. In any case, not very professional. But then he never claimed to be a professional, just a "personal trainer."

This trainer spent our sessions barking commands at me as I made the rounds of the usual equipment, counting my reps, and trying to sell me supplements of dubious value. A complete waste of money, in other words. We had maybe six or seven sessions together before I decided to go it on my own.

The second trainer I worked with, a couple of years later, was a woman whose body I admired. There's a saying in the business that your body is your best advertisement, and she definitely sported a bodybuilder's body, though not the "freakish" kind.

We had a few sessions that were productive, but I was completely turned off one day when I approached her in the gym with a question. Now she was not with a client at the time, but responded with something to the effect that if I didn't have an appointment, I shouldn't be asking a question.

In all fairness, she did apologize several days later, telling me that she sometimes gets a little "bitchy." Well, sorry, but I don't tolerate bitchiness very well, particularly when I'm paying good money for it. I may be a lot of things, but a masochist isn't one of them.

Now on to my last, and best, trainer, a man I worked with about ten years ago. He was, at the time, a fifty-something bodybuilder. When I look back, I'm kind of amazed that I trained with him, because he was one of those guys who, for no apparent reason, kind of gave me the creeps.

So what prompted me to hire him? I had seen him training other women in the gym, and was impressed with their strength and the innovative workouts he created for them. No rote repetitions at the usual machines for these women; they obviously wanted to improve their athletic performance at one sport or another, and he clearly was listening to them.

In my own sessions with this last trainer, he truly challenged me and seemed to genuinely share in my joy at my achievements. He was funny and energetic, definitely not bitchy, and he taught me some wonderful exercise tips that I remember to this day.

But I think the best lesson I learned from him is that truly good personal trainers listen to and respect their clients and do not try to push their own agendas. And there's really no certification or degree program that can teach you that.

So I'm curious, have any of you had experiences with personal trainers, good or bad, that you'd like to share? For those of you who have never had a personal trainer, would you ever consider hiring one? If so, or if not, why?

If you're shy about responding in the comments section below, you can e-mail me at

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