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Can you find me a great Personal Trainer?

It’s a terrible thing to admit but sometimes I am embarrassed to say that I am in the personal training industry. This is a particularly strange and complex feeling for me as I very rarely, if ever, meet anyone who communicates quite the same passion and zeal that I possess for all things related to health, fitness, and helping people get into the best possible shape. In fact I usually fudge the issue when asked and mumble something about being a coach and having a training business of my own. Both of which are true, but this doesn’t exonerate me from the reality that I am also by any definition a “personal trainer”. So why do I resist the sobriquet so stubbornly?

Two main reasons spring instantly to mind. Firstly the barrier to entry for becoming a PT (personal trainer) can be so ridiculously low that my pet chimp could get his certification. OK, I don’t actually have a pet chimp, but if I did I think he would do a better job than a full 50% of the chumps in most mainstream commercial gyms whom I see purporting to be professional trainers. A chimp or a chump – one you can get for a banana, the other £50/hour. The chimp wins hands down. The fact that the chimp also probably carries more lean muscle mass, and has a better IQ should also be a sign that most personal training certifications are zero guarantee of credibility and education.

The second reason as to why I am not especially enamoured of the personal trainer name is that it sells the best trainers way too short. Any client who says goodbye to his personal trainer at the gym door and then only next has any interaction with him when he arrives back at the gym for his next session is being sold short. A great personal trainer should always recognise the simple and unmitigated fact that progress (and you can define progress however you want, in the end it comes down to achieving the results the client is aiming for) occurs outside the gym and that the 23 hours of the day the client isn’t exercising are just as crucial to their results as the 1 hour they spent exercising. A professional personal trainer wears many hats, and the in the gym trainer role is only one piece of a whole that should consist of being a teacher, a trainer, a guide, and an inspiration on the subject matter of exercise, nutrition, supplementation, regeneration and recovery techniques, and sundry other factors that can be classified as lifestyle related. A client carries his/her body around all the time, and what they do with it, both mentally and physically, should in part become the good trainer’s responsibility. The best and most accurate analogy I can draw is that a great personal trainer / client relationship should be akin to that of the coach and his elite athlete. A great personal trainer should want to take accountability for his client, not merely be someone who gets shepherded around the gym for an hour at a time and then forgotten about until next time. To be blunt, I have never understood why some people pay their hard earned money just to have someone count “1,2,3,4,5…” whilst they exercise. Where is the value in that?

So now that I have completed my one man demolition of my chosen industry, do we just throw our gym bag into the spare room, switch the TV on, put our feet up and order a takeaway? As tempting as that sounds, there is hope. Just as there are bad lawyers, bad accountants and bad doctors, there are bad personal trainers. Luckily a bad personal trainer should only waste your time and money, and not pull a Harold Shipman or embezzle the family fortune. But where there is bad, there is also good. The smartest man I have ever had the fortune to meet is a trainer (for the sake of this argument a coach to Olympic athletes also qualifies as a trainer), and before any reader thinks this is because I have been stuck for eternity in my narrow world of gym rats, in previous career incarnations I have practised law as a barrister and worked for a major US investment bank. So what makes a good trainer? And what makes a good trainer great?

Any great personal trainer whose services any potential client should be prepared to invest in should possess the following:

Academic credentials – yes, I know that I have previously said that most personal trainer certifications are hopeless, and I meant it. However there are numerous qualifications that a good trainer can strive for, be they an academic degree or a certification with a credible organisation such as the ACSM, NSCA or PICP. My own experience tells me that any personal trainers who have the NSCA CSCS or are PICP Level 2 and above, know their stuff.

Real world, in the gym experience – all the academic book learning in the world will come to naught if the trainer has limited experience of working and training in the gym. It’s a cliché, but nevertheless very true to say that there is no substitute for learning “on the job”. Until and unless a trainer has trained both himself and a number of clients to a high level, then they are just beginners and you should save your money. At my firm we have younger trainers shadow the more experienced personal trainers and we insist that every PT takes their own training very seriously indeed. If you don’t have the control, discipline and knowledge to get yourself in fantastic shape how can you ever be expected to coach another human being whose daily life you have no control of whatsoever.

Then there a host of “soft qualities” that every great personal trainer worth his / her salt should possess. These are the same qualities that should be readily apparent in any client facing profession where someone adopts the role of being a trusted advisor. They include integrity, honesty, empathy, humour, consistency, an open mind, humility and self confidence. A great trainer should have these qualities in abundance; a good trainer will have a reasonable amount of each; and inadequate personal trainers, no matter what their academic and real world experience, will always come up short if two or more of these key qualities are missing.

So how does the unsuspecting potential client sort the personal training wheat from the chaff? It’s simple really – use the same standard of care that you would when choosing your doctor or lawyer. First of all ask for references, and look at who they have worked with. They say a man is judged by the company that he keeps. Well so too should a personal trainer be judged by the clients that he works with. If you want to drop 2 dress sizes, you don’t necessarily go to a personal trainer who only works with bodybuilders. Conversely, if you want to put on some muscle you should avoid the personal trainer who looks like a jogger and only trains housewives. The bottom line is that you must seek a trainer who can get the results you want. My own personal take on this is that you should find someone whose style gels well with you. For example, my own approach is that although I do have the occasional laugh and a joke with my clients, when we are training in the gym it’s a serious business and everything we do is focused and has the intensity required that guarantees a continuous level of progress. Other trainers are sometimes like agony aunts and spend an hour gossiping whilst the client does a few exercises here and there, and if that is what the client wants then that is what the client should get. And when I consult on health and fitness matters, my style is straight to the point, no BS, no flim flam. I want to earn my clients trust, and the only way to do that is by being direct, honest, and effective with all my advice and opinions.

When you first meet your potential personal trainer, it is crucial check out if what you say is genuinely listened to. This is not a job where you want someone telling you what your goals are. Rather a personal trainer’s role is to tell you how to achieve the goals that you want. Anything less is unacceptable. Focus should always be on your needs and getting you the results in the most efficient and effective manner possible.

And when all this is said and done and the client has engaged a great personal trainer of his/ her choice, what next? Only one thing counts really. Results. If your PT is getting you a consistent rate of results, has a clearly defined strategy for getting past plateaus and sticking points, and you are having an enjoyable experience and feel as though you are in a safe pair of hands, then you have chosen wisely. Finding a great personal trainer may be hard, but when you do so it can be a very positive, life changing experience.

By Nick Mitchell, “London’s Best Personal Trainer” (Time Out London 2010)

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