Sometimes we can all benefit from professional help. No, I'm not suggesting you've gone loco and need a shrink (though it is a danger of strict dieting) but a Personal Trainer. Those who have read my articles in the past know my standing recommendation of seeing a PT at least once a year to make sure your once strict form has not mutated into a potential back-breaker. But how do you find the right one?
There is a myriad of PT licensing organizations out there, and there are no federal regulations about who can or cannot call himself a Personal Trainer. An unskilled PT can cause as much damage as an unskilled chiropractor, but while the chiropractor must go to school for many years and remains under scrutiny through his career, the PT can basically write out his own license on the back of a piece of cardboard and get started. Make sense? Nope. But that's the way it is.
To protect yourself, and to make sure you're getting your money's worth, there are a few guidelines to observe. There's also a couple of litmus tests you can throw at your prospective trainer -- which he should pass in order to count you among his clients.
Credentials & Skills
Since there is no central governing authority, certification requirements vary a lot. For example, National Personal Training Institute has schools from California to New York and require all students to successfully complete 500 hours of intense classroom and hands-on training.
The National Association for Fitness Training works entirely by correspondence.
That is not to say that an NPTI-certified trainer is by default better than an NATF-certified trainer, only that it's harder to BS your way through 500 in-person hours than taking a correspondence course.
So which certifications do I consider respectable, you ask? American Council on Exercise (ACE), International Weightlifting Association (IWA), American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the Canadian Association of Fitness Professionals (CanPro) are examples of certifying bodies that require hands-on training (and in some cases, health-related college degrees).
Needless to say, a PT with a masters degree in physiology can have a crummy certification and still be a good choice - skill is always more important than a piece of paper. There's a lot more to a good trainer than a certificate.
Credentials Litmus Test:
Ask the PT how many hours of hands-on training he or she took to get the certification. That does not count practicing with a buddy for fun, but required hands-on hours under instructor supervision. Zero is not a good number, especially if the PT is a newbie with little client experience.
Skill Litmus Test:
Ask the PT to take a look at an exercise you're performing. Pick something complex, like seated cable rows or lat pulldowns to the front. Make a conscious mistake, such as rounding your lower back or tensing and shrugging up your shoulders, and see if he catches the mistake. If she waves it through without noticing, you've got a dud.
You want a friendly, attentive person who listens to your concerns and shows interest in helping you. Avoid the PT who won't let you talk because he wants to describe all the great things he's going to help you achieve. Odds are he'll assume you want to be the next Mr. Olympia just like him, and by golly he'll prod you accordingly even if you just wanted to learn how to train around your injured knee.
Also be wary of the huge steroid-monsters who have problems putting a sentence together. Sure, he may have achieved some success (with a bit of help from his pharmacist friend in Mexico) but a muscular body does not automatically make that person a good teacher and coach. It is also important that your PT is honest and realistic. Wild promises are rarely the trademark of a serious professional.
Personality Litmus Test 1:
Ask a tricky question, such as where the Fibularis Longus muscle ties in. Look up the answer in advance (Hint: look below the knee!) If your PT can answer the right question off the top of his head, that's a very good sign. If he doesn't know, that's perfectly Ok as long as he offers to find out -- and actually does it. However, if he plays you for a novice and makes something up, walk away.
Personality Litmus Test 2:
Throw a curveball -- ask what he or she doesn't like about the job. Or ask what type of customer they just hate. They do this all the time in regular job interviews to see how applicants react to unforeseen questions - you should do the same. You can learn a lot about your potential coach this way, and a good PT will not get angry at you for asking.
References, Fees And Other Stuff
You don't want to be anyone's Guinea pig, so make sure to get someone with a solid list of references. Be attentive to who's on the list (if half the names have the same last name as the PT, that's a red flag right there) and don't make the mistake of not calling them.
They are on that list because they have explicitly agreed to be contacted, so they won't mind you calling. Really. When you talk to them, don't just ask if the PT was "good". Ask what his or her strengths and weaknesses were. What exactly did the PT help the reference achieve?
|WHAT'S YOUR GOAL|
If all references were middle-aged ladies who lost 50 lbs of fat then that's great for an overweight woman but not too helpful to a 20 something bodybuilder looking to enter his first contest. As for fees, good PTs range from $40 to $200 an hour or more if your PT is either a celebrity-trainer or a highly-specialized expert in some aspect of training.
Be cautious about lowball-offers -- a professional won't give away his services for next to nothing. It is Ok to negotiate a discount if you intend to be a faithful customer. Offer to pre-pay a decent number of sessions if you do, since this shows you're serious (many PTs will offer this type of discounts on their own -- ask!)
Reference Litmus Test:
Ask the reference why she picked this particular PT. Did she compare several different ones? What was her criteria? Sometimes it's like insurance companies -- people pick one at random and keeps giving them business for years without bothering to make a comparison. For a reference to be useful -- as far as you're concerned -- that person should have done her homework and made an informed decision, not just picked a PT at random.
Fee Litmus Test:
Throw another curveball -- ask why they're charging more or less than another PT at that gym. If mud-slinging ensues ("Joe can't charge as much as me because he found his certification in a cereal box!") you may want to consider another PT. If the PT politely declines to discuss fellow trainers, or if he can give a matter-of-fact explanation ("I charge more because I am also a certified dietician.") he's Ok.
If your prospective PT passed the tests and seems to like a knowledgable person that you can get along with, go ahead and hire him. Be sure to get a written road map with the goals you're trying to achieve and a timeline with partial goals on your way there. Discuss the dieting aspect of your goals and make a gut check to see if the plan sounds realistic. Remember: A good Personal Trainer guides you towards your goals, but you still have to do all the work yourself.