Question 1: Education and Certification (10 Questions To Ask Before Hiring A Personal Trainer)

10 Questions To Ask Before Hiring A Personal Trainer

Kindra Reid, CPT, CSCS, FMS

Question 1: Education and Certification

This should go without saying: education and certification are critical when hiring a trainer. After all, exercise is an inherently dangerous activity. The person to whom you are entrusting the health and safety of your body must have demonstrative proof that they are knowledgeable, competent, and qualified to do the job. Moreover, a personal trainer should be a fitness professional, and true professionals, regardless of their field, have credentials. Credentials not only establish that some certifying body has deemed an individual competent and capable by the standards of their profession; they also demonstrate a professional’s commitment to their industry.

Consider the following : You probably wouldn’t get a haircut from someone whose hair you admired unless you also knew they had graduated from beauty or barber school  — and had passed their licensing or certification exam. You also wouldn’t likely submit to an operation at the hands of someone who had spent so much time in the OR as a patient that they figured they had mastered the basics by default. This is to say nothing of the inadvisability of hiring a jail-house lawyer to handle your divorce or entrusting your teeth to a guy who may have gone to dental school, at least for awhile, but “didn’t have time” for the “unimportant red tape” or “annoying alphabet soup” of passing his state boards and remaining in good standing with the American Dental Association.

“But he or she has the body I want!”

It isn’t enough that a potential trainer appears to be in good shape or “has spent a lot of time in the gym” themselves.  Even if this “trainer” possesses an adequate understanding of how to safely and successfully exercise their own body, what guarantee do you have that they can do the same for yours? What if your body type or movement quality is different than theirs? What if you have an injury or illness history they aren’t familiar with? What if you don’t share their fitness goals or their motivation for hitting the gym? A certified trainer understands how to properly train virtually any client, not just a client who is a reflection of themselves.

“But the law doesn’t require that a trainer be certified!”

In many cases this is true, but this is also changing for both practical and liability reasons. While many states do not require that a “trainer” be licensed, nearly every gym requires a certification before they will employ a trainer, and the more elite clubs and gyms require advanced certifications. If the gym down the street won’t employ a trainer who hasn’t made the commitment to educating themselves about exercise science and safety before training clients AND to enhancing that level of knowledge throughout their career, why would you? (More on continuing education later.)

“But how can I tell if their certification is a good one, or an appropriate match for my needs?”

Good questions. Unlike the American Bar Association for lawyers or the American Medical Association for doctors, there is yet to be one trusted umbrella organization responsible for certifying all personal trainers. This is due in part to the variety of respectable approaches to personal and fitness training. That said, some credentials are acknowledged, industry wide, as better than others. Certification through NSCA, NASM, and ACSM represent the current industry “gold standard” of personal training certifications. Look for these credentials when hiring a trainer, and if a trainer doesn’t have at least one of them, ask why.

As for the differences between certifications and how to match a certified trainer to your own goals and needs, know this: NSCA (the National Strength Conditioning Association) produces trainers who specialize in training athletes, ACSM (the American College of Sports Medicine) has a more rehabilitative focus and excellent certification programs on training special populations (diabetics, cancer patients, etc), and NASM (the National Academy of Sports Medicine) produces top-quality generalists with a unique ability to keeping clients safe. Each of these organizations (and others) award niche or specialty certifications as well. Typically, a trainer who has taken the time to pursue a specialty certification will be happy to explain why, as well as what the additional certification allows them to do or offer.

“What else should I know when evaluating a trainer’s certification?”

Above all, be prepared to do some basic research and apply some common sense. Beware the trainer with a list of certifications a mile long. Is this trainer so truly dedicated to his or her field that he or she felt it necessary to be certified in everything under the sun? Is there a pattern or logical cohesion to the selection of certifications they have pursued? Or could this be a trainer from the era when gyms paid trainers hourly based on the number of certifications they’d been awarded?

You should also beware the trainer who obtained his or her only or primary certification after attending a week or weekend long training. Even if their certification is “all the rage” or the fitness movement du jour, how much can a trainer have really learned about properly training something as complex as the human body in just a few short hours? Add-on certifications and niche specialties are fantastic – but typically only when they are built upon a solid foundation.

Additionally, consider your goals and what a particular certification allows a trainer to do. A “trainer” who is certified to teach group fitness or spin classes, for example, is probably not qualified to design a safe and effective strength training program.

And as for the “trainer” with an online education? Don’t walk. Run. The only way to learn to safely move the body is to pursue an education that includes moving people’s bodies – real bodies, which can sustain real injuries. No one has ever had to send an Avatar to physical therapy.

Finally, don’t forget to ask a potential trainer whether he or she is current with their first aid and CPR certifications. Literally, your life could depend on it.

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About alpine integrated medicine

AIM is based on the idea that when we martial our collective expertise, we can achieve great health outcomes for our patients. A truly integrated clinic, AIM's practitioners work together to provide an experience tailored to each individual. We believe in the power of natural healing, combined with the most current medical science available.
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