Paul Robinson: Here’s how you choose the right personal trainer

I conducted an interesting experiment awhile back as vice-president of health and fitness with a large recreation organization. The experiment turned into research, which morphed into best practices and many speaking engagements.

The premise was quite simple: What do exercisers need to make them successful?

It all started when a fellow VP — I’ll call her Jane — asked me to match her with one of our better personal trainers — we had more than 50 on staff. I contemplated my options and then asked if she was willing to participate in a case study.

We sent her profile to all of our trainers and supervisors and asked them to prescribe a program that best suited her needs. Jane was a beginner, not fond of exercise but wanted to lose weight for an upcoming trip.

As the submissions came in, I became concerned. Not a single program was similar. They ranged from a short paragraph to five pages, from functional training to yoga. We had people who refused to work with Jane because of a high school injury and people who thought stretching was the answer.

We invited all of the trainers to a half-day workshop in hopes of creating some consensus. Staff were divided into small work groups and asked to agree on a single prescription for Jane. Discussion was quite passionate. No one was happy with the outcome, except Jane. She was looking for a simple solution with a plan for support and motivation, not a battery of 12 exercises, 10 stretches and walking kettlebell lunges across a crowded gym.

In the end, we changed the way the organization interacted with customers, which dramatically increased usage and customer retention.

Over the years I’ve recruited, trained and developed hundreds of fitness professionals. Some have been exceptional, others not so much. To help you better understand what’s out there, I’ve created a guide. Based on my experience, most trainers fall into one of the five categories listed below:

The Athlete: Those who can, do …

Pros: The Athlete has a lot of experience in one or two modalities. They can often provide helpful sport-specific tips and strategies they’ve personally used to improve their performance.

Cons: With great genetics and an innate desire to dig deep, the Athlete may not understand that you aren’t looking to break land-speed records. You just want to drop a couple of pounds.

The Recent Grad: Lots o’ book learnin’.

Pros: Fresh out of school, the Recent Grad is usually keen to apply all their technical knowledge.

Cons: With a fast metabolism and limited real-world experience, the Grad is often unprepared to navigate the intersection between science and human behaviour. Physiology is only half the equation. Teaching is so more than dispensing information.

The Social Media Geek: Sorry I didn’t hear you — I was texting my peeps.

Pros: I don’t know any because I don’t get social media.

Cons: Over the years I’ve told more than one trainer to lose the phone and focus on their client. My doctor was texting in the emergency room while examining my torn retina. Soon there will be no need to talk at all. I’m old.

The Adonis: Dude, you’re blocking the mirror.

Pros: Buff people have spent a lot of time learning how to pack on muscle while consuming whole, skinless chickens.

Cons: Again, many hours in the gym, good genetics and ergogenic aids have fogged the lens of the Adonis. Most people want to be able to straighten their arms.

The Right Fit: The empathetic listener.

Pros: This is an active listener who understands the importance of motivation and learner-appropriate exercise.

Cons: They are few and far between.

All joking aside, you need to be picky when selecting a trainer. Sadly, over the years I’ve seen more bad than good. That doesn’t mean the good aren’t out there.

As we evolve into a less active society, hiring someone to teach you how to move has become a strange but unfortunate necessity. The average person simply doesn’t have the background or experience to locate the right combination of knowledge, personality, empathy and drive. To make things worse, exercise is intimidating.

Find your right fit and give it a chance. If it doesn’t work out, it’s not you, it’s the fit. Keep looking.

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