How to Choose the Right Trainer for You

Choose the Right Trainer

(Photo by Christiana Basso)

I engaged in some serious eavesdropping and borderline stalking last year when I decided to start working with a trainer. If I was going to shell out that kind of cash, I wanted to know what I was getting into. As I surreptitiously set my mat near a session in progress or lunged conveniently closer to a trainer-client pair, I felt like the Goldilocks of my gym. That trainer was too chatty; the other wasn’t chatty enough. One trainer was passive aggressive, while another was just passive. This one looked bored; that one’s enthusiasm seemed forced.

But all my spying eventually paid off. I found the right trainer for me, and you can do the same with a little reconnaissance. Or skip the sneaking around and bring this list directly to the source. Set up a meeting with your potential trainer to dig into their motivational techniques, training methods and client perks.

What Motivates You?

Put yourself in this scenario. You’re doing burpees. Your legs feel like jelly. Your arms are burning. It seems impossible that you aren’t done yet. To get through the set, which of these mantras are you most likely to squeeze out between your clenched teeth?

A: “Don’t you dare even think about giving up!”

B: “You’ve got this! Just ten more!”

C: “Hmm, I wonder if I left those clothes in the washing machine.”

If you picked A, you might benefit from a trainer whose motivational style tends toward drill sergeant. This type of trainer will totally tap into your inner toughness and mental strength to push you to your limit. For those who chose B, look for a trainer with an irrepressible positive vibe. Even on your worst days, he or she will help you find the confidence to believe in yourself. Did you go for C? You may like working with a trainer who employs subtle distraction techniques to get your mind off the pain at hand. That minute will be over before you can say finish line.

Of course, these are not hard-and-fast categories. Sometimes you might need that confidence boost while other sessions call for a double dose of Jimmy Dugan (“There’s no crying in baseball!”). But assessing what typically keeps you going when you’re at the edge will go a long way toward finding a trainer whose primary motivational style matches your own.

Training Methods

I recently found an old notebook filled with workouts prescribed by a trainer I met with a few times four years ago. Looking at it now, I’m horrified. This trainer put me through the same six exercises for six sessions in a row: squats, lunges, push-ups, planks, rows, bicep curls. Don’t get me wrong – those are great muscle strengtheners. But mentally? I was bored out of my mind.

With my current trainer, I never know what brand of torture he’ll concoct next. I’ve pulled him on a conditioning sled, frog-jumped down the entire length of the gym, spun around a medicine ball in plank position, thrown heavy balls toward the ceiling and so on. Look for a trainer who can give you the variety or consistency you crave, depending what works best for you.

Similarly, find out whether the trainer prefers to focus on one body part (arms, back, legs, chest, etc.) per session versus a whole body workout. Since I only meet with my trainer once per month, I like to target as many areas as possible, but if we met more frequently, I might feel differently.

You may also want to get a sense of the trainer’s regimen particularities. For example, there’s one trainer at my gym who always uses a stopwatch to time his clients. I find the constant beeping incredibly annoying, but I understand how that method could be motivating for others.

How hands-on is your potential trainer? While you certainly want a trainer who will correct your form as needed, you might feel more or less comfortable with physical adjustments. I appreciate that my trainer uses verbal cues first – “keep the elbows up,” “do you feel that in your upper back?” – before taking a hands-on approach.

Pace is another consideration. Some trainers seem to hang out for a while in one area, giving their clients plenty of rest between sets. Not my trainer. I’m perpetually three steps behind him as he hustles me to the next exercise like time is money. Oh wait – it is! And considering how much these sessions cost, I’m glad he crams in as much as possible for each session.

Bonus Points

Back in my trainer observation stage, I noticed that one trainer displayed a sign-up sheet for his monthly newsletter, which promised workout tips, meal recommendations, myth debunking and more. Spoiler alert: He’s the trainer I chose. As discussed earlier, committing to a trainer can be a financial stretch, so if you find one who goes above and beyond, so much the better.

Different trainers offer different perks. Some review their clients’ food diaries or even create sample menus. Others offer referral bonuses or reduced rates for buying multiple sessions. Your trainer might provide copies of each workout or share workouts for the days you don’t meet. In addition to his electronic newsletters, my trainer likes to text motivational quotes to his clients. Don’t be afraid to ask a potential trainer what makes him or her stand out from the rest of the pack.

Finally, it goes without saying that your trainer should be certified (a few common accreditations include ACE, ISSA, NSCA, NASM), but taking a closer look at those acronyms can be enlightening. For example, my trainer recently earned the CES (Corrective Exercise Specialist) certification, which meant he knew exactly which injury prevention and muscle rebalancing exercises to put me through when I was experiencing back and knee pain.

Committing to a trainer is a big step, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. Whether you meet with a trainer three times a week or just once a month, make sure you find one whose personality and fitness style correspond with your needs. After all, you’re looking for a personal trainer – at the end of the day, working with a trainer is a deeply personal process, so take the time to find the right match and you’ll be that much closer to achieving your fitness goals.

What tips do you have for choosing a personal trainer? Share them below!

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About Kelsey Schagemann

Kelsey is a former NCAA Division III cross country and track athlete who exchanged sneakers for spin shoes in her twenties. Hailing from the great state of Oregon (by way of St. Louis, where she spent her childhood), Kelsey has made Chicago her home since 2006. She can often be found at the helm of her daughter’s stroller, walking miles throughout the city. Her other favorite fitness activities include spinning, yoga, lifting weights and biking. As a freelance writer, Kelsey works with universities, nonprofits, websites and magazines (visit for more information). In her spare time, she enjoys trying new recipes, traveling with her family and keeping the library in business. Kelsey holds a BA in English from Kenyon College and an MA in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

1 thought on “How to Choose the Right Trainer for You

  1. i love this! especially at small places like hard pressed (or even in group training classes), finding someone who motivates you without intimidating you is so important

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