Caution: that young, well-built friendly guy at your health club wearing a shirt emblazoned with the word "Trainer" on the back may be hazardous to your health. Whether your goal is losing body fat, selectively strengthening weaker areas of your body, rehabbing from injuries, or avoiding the debilitating loss of muscle tissue that far too many adults experience between ages 30 and 70, hiring a professional personal trainer can help you get there safely and usually faster than you could on your own. The key is the word "professional." Even though anyone, and I mean anyone, can claim to be a "personal trainer" not every "personal trainer" is a genuine professional. How can you find that special, knowledgeable person? First, let's examine the question of why it matters.
Back to that fit, lean "trainer" at your health club. He may be in shape himself, but if he's what I like to call a "size 3 hat, size 17 shirt," letting him tell you what exercises to do and how to do them could be very dangerous. Here's why: nearly every adult over 35 years old has some issue with his back, his shoulders, or his knees. Often it's all three. That's because the body is a mechanic system of pulleys and levers, and over time it experiences wear and tear like any other machine. In addition, most adults don't have perfect posture and alignment. The result of these two facts is that the average unconditioned adult is often an injury waiting to happen, especially if he attempts a new form of exercise. If the person advising a flabby guy, who hasn't been off the couch in years, doesn't know a rotator cuff from a pant cuff, that injury is a virtual certainty.
A professional personal trainer knows what exercises people with certain musculoskeletal conditions need to avoid, or how to modify them so that they can be done safely. He knows how quickly to increase the intensity of his client's program, which he will have custom designed with the particular client's goals and limitations in mind. He's not there just to sneak glances of himself in the mirror, look built and count repetitions. Working with the right person can make a huge difference in your life. It's a decision about whether you will retain functional mobility, or in plain English, the ability to get out of a chair or get across the street before the light changes in 25 or 30 years.
To make sure you're going to entrust your precious body to a genuine pro, look for education, certification, and experience.
While I am not someone who thinks that a degree from a university is the be-all and end-all of knowledge, the one thing that you can say about someone who has a degree in exercise science, exercise physiology or kinesiology is that he has demonstrated sufficient knowledge of anatomy, physiology, nutrition and biomechanics to pass those courses. It's not that someone can't be self-taught in those disciplines, just like any others, but if he doesn't have a degree, how do you know that the trainer you want to hire knows about these essential areas? You don't.
Many high-end health clubs and gyms refuse to hire anyone as a personal trainer who doesn't have at least an associate's degree in a health-related field. A bachelor's degree is often preferred. Your standards should be at least as high as those better gyms. If you are lucky enough to find a personal trainer with a master's degree in a health-related field, that is the best of all.
In addition to education, truly professional personal trainers have another credential, a certification from an accredited organization. The gold standard of certification is the one offered by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), which has been certifying fitness professionals since 1954. Their exam is one of the more technical and difficult to pass, so if your trainer is ACSM-certified, you know that he knows his stuff. The other very well-regarded certifying organization is the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). Their personal trainer certification was the only one recognized by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) until the ACSM was also recognized by NCCA. In addtion to their personal trainer certification, NSCA also offers a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist certifcation, which requires passing an even more rigorous exam and requires that candidates have a bachelors degree.
There are several other second-tier certifications, including the one offered by the American Council on Exercise (ACE), which is widely recognized, albeit not as highly regarded as the ACSM or NSCA certification. The ACE exam is easier, which allows its critics to characterize it as less serious or impressive, however it's definitely better than nothing.
The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) also offers a personal trainer certification, which is considered less scientific than ACSM but more substantive than ACE. They also have a unique feature, a 14-day free trial to try their online course to use to prepare for the exam. The practice exam is excluded from the free trial, but it does allow prospective candidates to learn a lot of what it will take to pass the test.
Bottom line for you: when you are hiring a personal trainer, ask prospects what certification (or certifications) they have. If it's not one of the ones listed here, or even worse, if he gives you a blank look and says "what is this "certification" that you speak of?" I recommend that you keep looking.
Like medicine, personal training is an art and science. It's great for a personal trainer to be able to list all the muscles in the rotator cuff, and a professional should be able to do that. In addition, though, there are the intangibles that make the difference between a fabulous personal training experience, and a mediocre one. Does she engage in active listening? Is he empathetic? Do you feel positive energy and a motivational style when she speaks? And, in addition to these people skills, fitness pros practice time management so that you can get the most out of your session. They know how many exercises you can complete in a one hour session, something that will differ client to client. That's the "personal" aspect of personal training.
So, look for a trainer with several years of experience working with clients like you. Most professional personal trainers offer a free consultation, during which you can meet and discuss your goals and see if you click. Ask for testimonials, too. Great trainers love to tell people to call their clients so that the clients will praise them to the skies.
One More Thing, A Word About Hourly Rates
While everyone likes to pay as little as possible for products and services, remember that you are seeking a knowledgeable professional and entrusting him with your future health and conditioning. If you think that you are going to hire a genuine pro for the hourly rate that the guys who asks "do you want fries with that?" think again, especially if your training is going to take place in your home. An extremely low hourly rate for any professional is a red flag. Resist the temptation to go with the low ball trainer. Your body will thank you.