Choosing the Right Fitness Trainer: How to Take Out the Guesswork

How much thought you put into hiring a contractor for your house, a CPA for your taxes or a doctor for your health? You probably feel more peace of mind when you see diplomas, licenses and referrals from past clients, right?

So when you set out to hire a personal trainer or fitness coach to work your body - the only one you get this lifetime - wouldn't you want to make sure this person is well qualified and educated on the latest developments in the fitness field? IDEA Health & Fitness Association says you should put as much research, effort and thought into the fitness trainer you hire as you do into hiring a physician, attorney or nanny.

"There are many unqualified people out there who claim to be certified personal trainers but who may have only taken a weekend course for their training," warns Kathie Davis, executive director for IDEA Health & Fitness Association, the world's leading organization for fitness trade professionals. "It takes hundreds of hours of study and hands-on experience for personal trainers to be considered well-qualified. A person can't just achieve this overnight. There are a lot of phonies out there who can do more harm to you than good."

One day at a gym I teach at, a member came up to me and said, "Jill, I have a friend who took the personal trainer exam, " (I think he said it was from NASM - the National Academy of Sports Medicine), "and she failed by a point." He wanted to know what I thought of that. I didn't know where to begin. Would you hire an attorney who failed the bar by one point to represent you? Would you want an accountant who failed the CPA exam by a point to do your taxes? Furthermore, when given a choice, there's a reason why a firm's top pick for a job offer will often go to someone who graduated at the top of their class rather someone with mediocre grades (assuming nepotism is not a factor). I said to this guy, "would you really want someone to work your body who almost passed a test on private training or someone who passed with flying colors?" I had the last word.

Of course, like doctors, you can know your stuff inside and out but have a lousy bedside manner. That's another story. Private trainers don't get graded on their people skills and personalities. However, group fitness instructors and weight and lifestyle management consultants do get test questions on those issues when getting certified. Finding a trainer that's a good fit for you means they have the right knowledge and experience for your goals and physical issues as well as personality that you gel with.

Remember, exercise is a science that changes and evolves rapidly. If a trainer took a test 10 or more years ago and then never stayed up on their continuing education to keep their certification current, they may be behind the times. This is why I use the doctor reference as an analogy. When you go to a doctor who's really old or really young, don't your wonder if they're up to date on the latest developments and techniques or if they have enough hands on experience to make you feel at ease?

To help you navigate this giant field, IDEA launched a new site called IDEA FitnessConnect. Their database lists more than 130,000 fitness professionals and 30,000 health and fitness clubs. The site is meant to help people find credentialed fitness professionals in their area whether it be for for classes, private training, weight and lifestyle management coaching, etc. The site is located at and it's free.

If one of your new years resolutions is to start on a new fitness program and you're hiring either a personal trainer or joining a class at a gym or fitness studio, start by checking out their certifications and using this checklist:
1) Are they CPR certified?
2) Are they insured with a current liability policy for training?
3) Is their certification(s) current and is it from a nationally recognized organization?
4) Do they stay up on the latest research and developments in the field (i.e. by subscribing to professional industry journals and/or attending workshops and seminars)?
5) How many years of experience do they have and what are their specialties (i.e. working with the elderly, injuries, kids fitness, etc.)
6) What do others say about them? (This feature is also on FitnessConnect - it's kinda like Yelp for fitness trainers).