Choosing a Personal Trainer or Strength Coach
What to Look For
Personal trainers and strength-and-conditioning professionals are commonplace in the fitness industry. Set foot inside any health club or private training facility and you’re bound to find a long list of trainers promoting themselves as specialists in weight loss, biomechanics, post-rehab, back health, or performance.
It was not always thus. Exercise, performance, and therapy science is still relatively young. Step back a just a few decades to the 1970s and you’ll find the beginnings of the formal “personal training” industry. Back then, trainers often were former athletes or athletic coaches or had backgrounds in bodybuilding. The industry was thus led by people who, while they may have looked the part, had no particular background in personal fitness training and education. And it was highly unregulated.
While the industry has made some great strides, the bad news is that it is still relatively unregulated. The problem for the consumer is distinguishing between a “trainer” who paid $50 for online certification a week ago (if you think I’m kidding, Google it) and one who has 20 years in the industry and holds a bachelor’s or master’s degree or advanced certifications in a kinesiology-related discipline.
Choosing a personal trainer or strength-and-conditioning specialist is unfortunately quite different than choosing a good physical therapist, physician, or dentist. The road to physical therapy, medicine, or dentistry requires an undergraduate degree, a graduate degree, a degree of experience in the form of clinical hours, and, finally, passing a nationally recognized exam (often called a board exam). This is a process that often takes seven-plus years.
Compare that to the personal training/strength-and-conditioning industry, which can legally be entered into with that aforementioned $50 online certification. Quite a disparity. If that’s not enough to raise a concerned eyebrow, I can tell you that time and time again we have had clients come to us because they’ve been injured by working with trainers they’ve been to in the past, or have other horror stories about them. There are even instances reported in professional journals, with disturbing frequency, of clients—both athletes and regular fitness clients—being literally trained to death.
There has been discussion about passing legislation to require national boards for personal trainers/strength-and-conditioning professionals. Also, there are now certifications, nationally recognized and accredited by third-party organizations, that adhere to a high standard—the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), and the International Sports Science Association (ISSA), to name a few. Some even require an undergraduate degree in order to be able to sit for the exam.
To gain some further insight I interviewed local experts Amy Jamieson, NASM-CPT and Doug Holt, MFS, CSCS. Jamieson is a lecturer and student adviser at UCSB, in the Exercise and Sport Studies Program, as well as a certified personal and group trainer with over 20 years experience. Holt owns and operates a local private fitness studio called Conditioning Specialists, and is extensively certified.
What type of qualifications should a personal trainer have?
AJ: Certifications are essential but need to be through an accredited organization such as NASM, ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine), or ACE (American Council on Exercise).
DH: I think experience trumps any degree or certification. I think it’s more important for a trainer to go through some hands-on type training via school, or an apprenticeship, or as a low-entry instructor. It’s easy to list the big five certifications as being the most credible, but most certifications have essentially the same info with a little twist. Experience is the key.
Is a degree in exercise necessary? If so, what kind?
AJ: There is an industry shift toward trainers with degrees.
DH: I don’t think so.
What other qualities or characteristics do good personal trainers have that extend beyond their education?
AJ: Trainers need to practice what they preach!! They should also be positive, motivating, and up-to-date on information as well as lead by example.
DH: Integrity, people skills, compassion, empathy, honesty, motivating, an interest in the field other than just liking to workout themselves, and being dependable.
Should a personal trainer have any other degrees or certification outside exercise?
AJ: Depends on specialization. But more is always better and being well-rounded is a good.
Do you have any further thoughts?
DH: I think it’s important for the public to realize that most trainers only spend one to two days getting “certified,” while trainers such as yourself view it as a career. The human body is so complex, yet people don’t invest in hiring a knowledgeable attendee.
Even among recognized experts in the profession, opinions vary, but it’s fair to say that both education and experience are important. Evaluate personal training and strength-and-conditioning professionals as you would any other professional whose services and advice you seek on important matters. And finally, the point can stand re-emphasizing that fitness professionals should practice what they preach: Would you go to financial planner, say, whose own finances were a mess?