How to Find a Good Personal Trainer

Finding a good personal trainer is hard. Most of them are young, reasonably fit, and poorly paid. Wait, what? Poorly paid? Personal training, for most aspiring young trainers, is most certainly not a lucrative profession. It's not unusual for corporate gyms and private personal training studios pocket the overwhelming majority of trainer pay—somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters—and trainers have virtually no guarantee of a steady clientele. It shouldn't be surprising that long-term retention in the industry is very low; plenty of young trainers decide, after scraping by for a few years, that it's time to get a 'real job'.

Well-qualified, experienced trainers are generally a bit older and believe their time to be worth more than the meager wages offered by corporate gyms. It's highly likely that experienced trainers decide that they're rather not work under draconian sales quotas and, if they're lucky, a 50% split on client fees. That's precisely why, when you go to most commercial gyms and franchise training studios, the trainers are young and inexperienced: they cost less to the club, and most prospective clients are none the wiser. It's easier to get away with the promise of a robust career to a naive but optimistic young person than to actually pay a well-qualified trainer. 

Ironically, it may actually be less expensive to connect with an experienced freelance trainer, because they only have to cover their overhead. That's not to say personal training is ever cheap—as a rule, expect to budget the value of an extra car payment each month, somewhere in the $400-$600 range—but when you hire a trainer at your neighborhood corporate gym, you are paying the gym; when a trainer is freelance, you are paying your trainer directly. Often, small gyms will offer trainers a booth-rental type situation or simply skim a small fee from each session. Either situation allows the trainer to take home a much higher percentage of their session fee, which may allow them to pass those savings onto their clientele. 

Becoming a personal trainer is not difficult

Prospective clients often fail to realize that becoming a "certified personal trainer" is not particularly difficult. The trainer may or may not have a degree in the field, but even if they do it's unlikely to have much practical value. They may have a nationally accredited certification such as NASM, NSCA, ACE, or ACSM; but attaining those certifications requires little more than a few months of textbook reading and passing a multiple-choice exam. Better certifications, like the various StrongFirst specialilties, MovNat, or Starting Strength, require trainers to demonstrate proficiency in real-world movements, and they are often assessed on their ability to coach as well. But it's unlikely that anyone outside of the fitness industry has heard of these certifications, and there are many excellent trainers who do not have them.

At the bottom of the barrel are the endless array of cheap online certifications. The American Sports and Fitness Association offers a wide variety of unaccredited online courses for which the trainer does not pay unless they pass. Given that the ASFA needs to make money, how often do you think that trainers fail these online tests? Some trainers may have worthless "in house" certifications from their place of employment. 

Separating the wheat from the chaff

So, experienced trainers are hard to come by. Personal training credentials are relatively easy to obtain. And unless you know exactly what you're looking for, you probably have no idea what the various personal training certifications even mean. Onnit, for example, offers a $1,000 certification course for a Battle Ropes Instructor. Are you, the prospective client, really holding out for someone who's super knowledgeable about battle ropes? 

One of the simplest ways to find a good trainer is to avoid corporate gyms. Few trainers who are well-qualified will be paid what they are worth at such a facility, and if they are it will likely come at a tremendous upfront cost since the club wants to make money, too. Always look toward smaller, locally owned gyms (like Styrka, of course!). This is absolutely not to suggest that well-qualified trainers cannot be found at corporate gyms, but you are most likely going to be stuck paying $600 a month to work under the guidance of someone who is barely out of college and probably doesn't know a whole lot more about exercise than you do. 

Start by asking around small, locally owned gyms. Do some web searching and read up on trainers in your area to narrow it down. Once you've contacted a personal trainer, there are some worthwhile questions to ask:

  • What is your education and experience?
  • Do you have any specializations? 
  • What types of clients do you typically work with?
  • Do you have experience working with clients with limitations similar to mine?
  • What would a typical 1-month program look like? What about 3-month? (This is a valuable question to ask so the trainer demonstrates that they understand structured programming, and won't just throw random workouts at you.)
  • What can I expect out of our sessions?

If you feel like the trainer is a good fit for you, it's time to talk about money. Regardless of the trainer's rates, you should never feel pressured to spend a lot of money right off the bat. Ask if they will provide an introductory session either free or for a discounted rate. Keep in mind that if the trainer understands good programming, this may not be a particularly grueling workout; it's really just a chance for you to get to see them in action—a good trainer should be patient, offer encouragement, explain the rationale behind their instructions, give you their undivided attention, and promptly offer correction or alternatives if a movement causes pain. 

Do not be afraid to ask around and try free sessions with a few different trainers. Personal training partnerships can last months, years, or even lifetimes—so it's worth finding someone with whom you feel comfortable. Once you've decided, I recommend a three-month initial commitment, at no fewer than three sessions per week. The trainer may be happy to let you divide the payment in monthly intervals, but committing to three months shows that you are fully invested in your health and are willing to trust the trainer enough to let them guide you toward lasting results. 

Transitioning from personal training

Because personal training is expensive, for many clients it is not a financially viable long-term commitment. Perhaps three months is all you can afford. That's okay! There are lots of other options. At Styrka, we offer Individual Coaching, which is one-on-one remote personal training. Alternately, your trainer may be able to write a program for you and just meet occasionally for a check-in and reassessment. It's always difficult for a trainer and client to part ways, but ceasing private sessions need not mean the end of the partnership. 

Of course, we have a wide array of experienced, independent personal trainers here at Stykra, encompassing a wide variety of specializations. Feel free to get to know our trainers, and contact us for a consultation.