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If I’m Gonna Hire a Trainer, How Do I Know They’re the Right One?

There are a bunch of questions you should ask, but the most important question might be the one you ask yourself first

The numbers would seem to indicate that there’s a good chance you’re among the 43 percent of people whose New Year’s fitness resolutions died an ignominious death in less than a month. Even after you bought all of that top-of-the-line training attire and even after you uploaded all of those cute first-day-at-the-gym photos to Instagram (#thisisthenewme), you find yourself seated in the same recliner roughly a year later covered in the same amount of gingerbread cookie dust.

“What I need is someone to hold me accountable!” you proudly proclaim, as if the secret to unlocking your #hotbod had finally been revealed to you. “I need a personal trainer!”

Kudos to you for making the realization that you can’t summit that peak as a solo act, but now you have another challenge on your hands: How do you pick out the personal trainer that’s right for you?

Have no fear, because I asked trainer-to-the-stars Gunnar Peterson for his advice when it comes to trainer selection, and how to distinguish between trainers who will prioritize your workouts, trainers who will prioritize their own workouts and trainers who will prioritize their bank accounts.

Where do you even start with the questions you should be asking a trainer to determine if they’re right for you?

I would first ask you, “What are you looking to do?” If you’re trying to drop 10 pounds, there might be a number of trainers who could get you there in a relatively painless way, so you might not need someone who’s top-of-the-line. But you need to consider if this pairing with your trainer is going to be more of a marriage.

I had someone yesterday who said, “My boss would like to train for six weeks.” From my perspective, do I want to put everything I’ve studied, learned and honed into somebody for just six weeks? I’m not just trying to fill hours, but a lot of trainers are trying to fill hours — and there’s nothing wrong with that either. Sometimes you want fast food, and sometimes you want a long, drawn-out gourmet meal. 

So you have to think about what you’re looking for. Is this a quick fix? Is this something to jumpstart your fitness? Or is this a relationship that you’re looking to take on long-term? Know your end goal first, and then decide if you want a trainer who’s a career trainer or a job trainer. I make that distinction all the time. One isn’t necessarily better than the other; they’re just different. Is this just a job to that person, or are they still going to be a trainer in 15 to 20 years?

How do you differentiate between the two?

Ask them. Here’s a big red flag I certainly see here in Los Angeles: Is the person an actor? I had a woman who just recommended a trainer to me as someone who could cover some of our overflow. I said, “I’ve seen you come into the gym with that guy before. Isn’t he an actor?” And she said, “He is, but he’s also a trainer.” That’s not the vibe I want in my gym. He’s a great guy, but he’s not trying to do this full-time. 

There’s nothing wrong with that, but I think you end up with people like that who have other things going on in their lives and sometimes they can’t make it or they need to cancel on their clients. There are too many things that are pulling them in different directions, and as their new client, you may end up low on their list of priorities. 

What are some other warning signs to look for?

I’m not a fan of when the trainer is on the phone the whole time. I don’t take my phone out on the floor. Some trainers run their training programs off of their phones, but I’m an old-school guy. I’m a paper guy. I don’t like having phones out on the gym floor. I don’t want the text to come in, and I don’t want to see anything on my phone’s screen. 

I watched a guy once at a gym in New York. He had a woman doing push-ups, and she was on his right side. He pulled his phone out of his cargo shorts’ pocket on his left side. It was easy access to him. He was counting for her while looking back-and-forth between her and the phone. Then his thumbs started working, so I knew he was texting somebody. Meanwhile, he told his client to go into a plank. So he went from push-ups to plank — and he was still texting. When she collapsed from the plank, he said, “Supermans.” There is no way this dude programmed that for his client. He’s thinking of how many movements he can do with her face down so that she doesn’t see him texting. Maybe I’d do the same if I had my phone out there on the gym floor. But we’ll never know, because I will never have my phone out there.

How about the other questions you should ask?

You could look at their certifications if you want. That’s never a bad way to go. But I know some great trainers who aren’t certified, and I know some terrible trainers who are certified. So that’s not always a guarantee. I’d ask how long they’ve been doing it, but you may find someone who’s been doing it for a year and they’re great. Were they ever out-of-shape? Have they ever done it themselves? Are they primarily strength-oriented? Are they primarily cardio? Are they HIIT-based? Are they circuit-based? Are they powerlifting-based? Are they pilates-based?

Also, find someone who’s pleasant to be around. Not to mention, training can become intimate — you’re under duress, you’re sometimes in vulnerable clothing and you may share things that you may not share with other people. My people know I don’t share secrets. But does your trainer talk? You may want to share something, and then if they speak to someone else about it, that could be a trust issue. As a trainer you have to be able to hear the information and not judge it — and never share it.

How much should a personal trainer know about nutrition?

I feel like I know a fair amount about nutrition, and I’m happy to answer in broad strokes. However, if a client is looking for something more specific, I don’t do meal plans. I will give them broad-stroke information that I’ve gleaned from articles or books, or I’ll paraphrase what I know from a nutritionist. If someone wants to dig deeper, I’ll say, “You sound like you’re getting pretty serious about nutrition. It might be worth talking to a nutritionist. I have a couple people I can send you to.” Then I’ll pass it downstream.

I know other trainers who will tell their clients, “Only eat this. Eat this amount, or prepare it this way.” That’s just not what I do. I also know trainers who are massage therapists on the side. Some are good, and some are not so good. I know some who will attempt to crack or adjust you while they’re stretching you. I always say to my clients, “If you feel a crack, or if something moves while I’m stretching you, just know that’s your body moving. I’m not going for the crack or the noise. I’m not trained for that.” Sometimes I’ll do a leg-over stretch, and they’ll say, “My whole back opened up!” and I’ll tell them, “That’s a byproduct of the stretch; I’m not going for that.” Other trainers will hook their client’s leg over and drive it down, intentionally going for that. If you’re not trained in that, you should probably shy away from it.

Our industry is very specialized now. If you’re going to get serious about it, get a trainer who’s a career trainer. Get a nutritionist who’s a career nutritionist, not someone who’s into fly-by-night, unproven, fad-of-the-moment stuff. And get a massage therapist or someone who you can help with your recovery protocol.

How much should someone expect to pay for a trainer? I remember Bally Total Fitness using a system in which level-four trainers were paid far more than level-one trainers, and the members could also be charged more for a level-four trainer’s services.

So the level was how the club rated the trainer. Isn’t that funny? What if it’s my 80-year-old dad? He doesn’t need some fire-and-brimstone, sports-specific workout. He doesn’t need all of that, and he wants it to be a pleasant experience. I would tell him, “If you want someone with basic knowledge, dad, and you enjoy their company, that’s half the battle.” 

Why are you going to pay more for someone the club says is better if you don’t need to utilize everything they supposedly offer? It’s like getting the condo that has all the amenities, like the pool, the gym or the sauna, but you don’t go to the pool, gym or sauna. You’re paying huge homeowner’s association fees every month for stuff you don’t use. 

The club is trying to give you the guy who’s a level-four trainer, but he might also be a grade-A asshole. You’d be better off with the level-one trainer who’s also a great guy. I don’t think everybody needs a level-four trainer in the same way that I don’t think everybody needs the car that can do 180 miles per hour.

I recall the club once moving somebody from level two to level four in the space of just a few weeks because he signed up so many clients, and moving him to level four meant the club could charge his clients even more money for his services.

Of course. Years ago I worked for a gym that had “Trainer of the Month” on the wall, and it was based on hours. I was on the wall all the time because I had the most training hours month after month. One day, though, they didn’t put me on the wall and a different trainer was up there. I said, “Hey, why is that guy on the wall?” and they said, “Because he signed up so many new clients.” I said, “Right, because he doesn’t have any hours filled! I can’t add new people because I’m already training people so many hours every week. If you’re going to make it about getting new people, I’ll start dumping clients and I’ll get all new people. I can play this game, too!”

At the end of the day, a good trainer isn’t selling fitness; they’re selling energy. I can see that and feel that when I’m in the gym. I’ll walk by my co-trainer sometimes and tell him to pump it up a bit, and boost his energy. If he says, “I’m tired,” I’ll say, “Come on, man! Nobody wants to hear you’re tired!” I’ll be kidding with him, but I’m really not. As a trainer, people are buying your energy. Your energy is infectious. That’s important. You can never lose sight of that.