How to spot a good personal trainer
The personal training industry has no standard. You can be a fully qualified level 3 personal trainer in 6 weeks. After that, you can train pretty much anyone.That’s a scary thing.
When I qualified I thought I knew everything. I knew a tiny little bit more than nothing. It took me years of reading, and training people incorrectly (they weren’t going to injure themselves, it just wasn’t very optimal, and the programming was poor at best), to realise I needed to actually read even more, and learn even more, as that course taught me next to nothing. I’m still learning.
Nowadays it’s much easier to learn more. There’s no excuses. The fitness industry has increased ten-fold. There’s more than enough literature, podcasts, YouTube videos (that are decent) and plenty of other learning platforms.
But, as with any industry, there are good and bad professionals within it. This post is hopefully going to help newer PTs understand that they have a lot more learning to do, and perhaps give ideas for more experienced PTs to help train their clients better, and maybe give them a little kick up the butt.
What I often question is; how is the client supposed to know who is good and who is bad?
They could have their REPS membership, but that means nothing. You just pay them a sum of money yearly and get your CPD points through courses. It sounds good, but half these courses are there to make money off the personal trainer without providing much in the way of further education. There used to be courses for the BOSU. You don’t see that anymore. The courses just follow the fads and don’t necessarily get the trainer to genuinely be any ‘better’ or ‘smarter’ with their training.
So, with that in mind, I’ve written a list of what I think makes a good trainer. As well as what makes a poor trainer. This is not me on top of my high horse. This is me wishing I knew this stuff when I qualified. This is me creating a standard which I think all personal trainers SHOULD hit, and more importantly CAN hit.
Some of these things won’t necessarily be ‘taught’. But, are important for clients to reach their goals, enjoy their workouts, and stay as injury free as possible during their time with a trainer.
1. Everything they do for the trainee should be goal orientated. Most of the general public’s goals will be vague. Despite new PTs being taught SMARTER goals on the course, it’s hard to force the general public into such specific goals and most likely, they’ll stay pretty vague.
You can put a lot of money on most of the public simply wanting fat loss and muscle gain. If they state they are worried about being bulky, I never worry about that. No one accidentally got bulky. With that in mind though, everything done in any session should have some level of reasoning to the end goal, or some sort of short/medium term goal.
Exercising for the sake of exercising is good and all, but every exercise should be there for some sort of reason. Even with a vague goal of fat loss, and muscle gain, you can put together a very goal orientated workout. If your trainer can’t name a better reason than ‘it’s hard’, or ‘it gets your heart rate up’, and you’re just flapping your arms about in some sort of made up exercise, chances are they don’t really know why you’re doing it. Because, trust me, I see that shit on Instagram daily, and it grinds my gears to no end.
2. They should stay in their lane. A personal trainer is a personal trainer. Not a physio. A physio has a degree for starters. So, if your PT starts taking you through a rehab programme, they are outside of their field, they should be referring you on. Don’t get me wrong, we’ll all have a bit of knowledge around some injuries, but my disclaimer statement is always; ‘I’m not a physio, I haven’t diagnosed the issue (because I can’t), but this is a generic movement that I find can often help with a shoulder/knee/hip issue’.
If your programme is purely rehab and physio based given to you by a very under qualified personal trainer (some personal trainers might be actual physios too, I’m obviously not talking to them), then they have stepped out of their lane. Get a physio for physio work. The PT might have you do a lower intensity workout that day and avoid some things; that’s fine.
3. Your trainer should be noting down your workout. This is basic. Your trainer is getting paid a lot per hour to see you on a one to one basis. If that’s not getting noted down in some form (digitally or with a pen), you can get a better trainer. Progression is the biggest and most powerful measure to get you to a goal. Knowing what you’ve done from week to week means that your workout can slowly, and steadily be progressed.
4. Your trainer shouldn't force their bias nutritional opinion upon you. This becomes very apparent when the trainer starts guiding every one of their trainees down the path of [insert diet]. Nutrition, just like workouts, should never be cookie-cutter. Just because it ‘worked’ for them, doesn’t mean it’ll work for you. Food is even MORE complicated than exercise. Way more complicated.
Fat loss and/or muscle gain can be achieved via a manipulation of calories. What those calories consist of, will be down to the preference of the trainee, rather than the trainer. Following some basic guidelines, like minimum amount of protein required for muscle building, don’t go below certain percentages of fat for females/males etc. After that, preference will most likely take the lead.
Until you talk to a nutritionist, your PT shouldn’t be putting together meal plans, or advising you on what vitamins you’re deficient in or anything as specific as that. Refer to point 2; your PT needs to stay in their lane.
5. The same can be said for exercise bias. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a strength and powerlifting coach, I recognise I have a bias towards getting people to do barbell work. In that same breath, because I recognise it, I will talk to my clients about it. Depending on their goals and abilities, I will take it all into account, some clients of mine do none, or nearly no barbell work. Some will not do back squats because the necessity is simply not there for your average gym goers. Others will do plenty of barbell work. It depends on the individual.
This essentially leads me back to my point, what I’m getting at is, no client should have a cookie cutter programme. Too often a poor trainer will get every client doing the same movement just because it’s ‘good’. No movement is good or bad. A movement is a movement done badly or well.
Does this movement meet the following checklist:
Does it meet their goal, or help them meet it? It should, or at least the majority of their programming should.
Did the client choose that exercise because they like it? Cool, so long as it meets the next point, I can dig it.
Does it meet their ability in both strength and mobility? If not, then they shouldn’t do it. They need a regression so they can actually do it, or a different one entirely.
A poor trainer will just give that same movement to everyone, without a second thought.
6. They should be personable. This one can be harsh, but it’s true. A 6 week course isn’t ever going to teach this. Some people are simply not cut for a service industry, and that’s absolutely fine. I am not cut for jobs outside of the service industry.
When I worked as a waiter, it definitely helped me talk to members of the public and be friendly. I owe a lot for that. It’s a service industry, just like personal training.
7. Carrying on from the previous point, as much as it is about building rapport and being chatty, open and friendly, it’s also not a social hour spent with the trainee. Interject the chat with ‘Right, that’s enough rest, next set’. They are there to get goals. Some will want to talk and are happy to for longer than others (and might need a bit of prodding to get into their next set!). Their achievements are mine too at the end of the day. If I don’t get them results, I don’t get results either. A full conversation can still be had with work done in between and results being gotten.
8. A good personal trainer will pay attention to their clients’ movement patterns. If they are moving poorly in a given exercise, cues may be required. Some cues don’t work for others, so bear in mind other cues may be needed. If you have tried telling them a few cues, maybe try some video feedback. Maybe tactile cues for some individuals. Maybe demonstrate again. Maybe try demonstrating a derivative of that movement. Some, if not all, will need a combination of all of these.
If your trainer can’t correct your movements without a myriad of feedback, then your trainer should recognise that perhaps you aren’t ready for that exercise. They should suggest a regression for that exercise. Or failing that, suggest that you’re not ready for that particular exercise yet, and find an alternative exercise that hits a similar muscle group or movement pattern. If any of that isn’t concluded, you need a new trainer.
9. A good trainer will have good spatial awareness and gym etiquette. This one goes under the radar a lot. If your trainer plonks you in front of equipment and doesn’t recognise this, that is frustrating for others in the gym. Not only that, but this will be teaching the client, and anyone watching, that it’s ok to do this.
If the gym is rammed and you have nowhere to go, no problem. However, still recognise that others might want the equipment behind you. Keep your eyes peeled and hand the equipment to them so that no one is disturbed, and your client can carry on working out. Spatial awareness and gym etiquette go hand-in-hand.
Get your client out of the squat rack if they are not squatting, overhead pressing, doing pullups (if that’s the only place to do pull-ups available). If they are doing bicep curls, bent over row (if you can’t pick it up off the floor, you can’t row it), or basically not needing the rack, then you don’t belong in the squat rack.
Again, this will be teaching the client and others, to be out of the squat rack when not requiring it. If the gym is rammed and it’s the only space and no one needs it, then that’ll be a free pass for you as you have no choice. If you think I’m being petty on that point about the squat rack, set yourself up for KB swings on the treadmills, and planks in the doorway.
10. If they try to sell you Herbalife or anything similar, get as far away from them as you can.
11. A great coach doesn’t have to look the part, but it helps. The reason I say it helps is, the general public will judge. The fitness industry is, and always will be, somewhat based on what you look like. In my opinion, this should not be the case, as it doesn’t reflect the knowledge of the PT, which I’m sure you’ll agree.
Look at Boris Sheiko. He is arguably the best powerlifting coach out there. He doesn’t exactly look in ‘shape’.
Joe Wicks is in 'shape'. Everyone thinks Joe Wicks is some sort of fitness God. He’s done a fantastic job and please, don’t get me wrong, he’s helped way more people than I ever will. But, he’s also said a lot of bullshit and his workouts are poor (calories don’t count, and HIIT 24/7).
9 out of 10 times, the general public will look at you as a trainer and say ‘I want to train with them because I want to look like them’.
Social media has a lot to answer for on this, although I think this would have always been the case, it’s just much more prevalent because of it.
12. A good trainer will admit what they don’t know. We don’t have all the answers, and we never will. To admit you don’t know can feel like you’re admitting defeat, when really, you’re just being human.
This one was the toughest (and still is) pill for me to swallow. Nowadays I’ve learnt to say ‘I don’t actually know, but I can try and find out for you if you wish?’ if there’s a question I don’t know.
Even in one of my latest videos I shot, doing research for it, I didn’t know nuts weren’t a source of complete protein. That’s pretty basic and I was wrong on that. But I’ll hold my hands up and admit that I was wrong.
13. Similar point to 12- A good trainer will be open to new ideas. New science is proving us right some of the time, and wrong the rest of the time. I’ve often thought one thing, then read a paper (not always a new one, either) and realised, oh wow, I didn’t know that! That’s when a change of tact may be necessary. It shouldn’t necessarily overhaul someone’s approach, it’s not like new science will tell us we’ve all been doing it completely wrong, but it will probably mean a couple tweaks here and there to some of the advice and programming given.
14. Military boot camp shouting works, quietly counting reps works, encouraging with a few positives works, saying a few cues works... but find what works for each client. Personally, I’ll never be a shouty trainer, because it’s just not in my nature. I’ve gotten results for all my clients without doing that. If the need arises I will do some shouting (like when Alastair was at his powerlifting competition, I don’t think I could’ve shouted louder).
My point is, some people’s style works for some people. Other people’s style works for other people.
Sometimes the client trainer-relationship was just never meant to be. This one wasn’t really much of a point was it? But it’s staying in. I guess I’m trying to tell trainers to find your style that works for you, and your clients.
15. If your trainer doesn’t give you some sort of deload session of some description, move on. If they get you to work at 100% every workout, week in, week out, then you should expect to get either injured, be prone to frequent illness, plateau or maybe even decrease in performance. If they don’t realise to give you a week off, or a lower intensity routine for a short duration, find another trainer. Not everyone will need periodisation per se, but recognising someone might be having a very stressful week at work, in their relationship, or just in life, is very important. See the signs and drop the intensity.
Anyone can make anyone ache, but that shouldn’t be the goal or be used as a tracking tool EVER. Some people love the ache, and a small degree of ache is fine. As you start climbing the scale of ache, not only is it detrimental to progress, but it will increase the chance of injury.
It’s almost a rite of passage that when a trainer gets a new client, they prove their worth by just ruining the client. The no pain, no gain mentality runs rife. Getting a novice to extreme fatigue is a stupid idea. Not only will they ache so much they won’t be able to workout for the rest of the week, but they won’t come back to you because they expect the same degree of pain again (which they probably will get). Find a new trainer.
In that same vein, a good trainer should recognise when to use certain protocol, and when not to. For example, cheat reps are fine for intermediate/advanced trainees, but not for novices. If you've just started with your trainer and they are getting you doing dropsets, and you're new to the gym, that trainer needs to be fired.
16. You should be healthier and less prone to injury by working out with your trainer. This is more for the trainer with the average client wanting the vague goal of losing fat and gaining muscle.
As true as this point is, it also depends on the goal of the client. Let me explain. Competing in bodybuilding isn’t healthy. Competing in powerlifting isn’t healthy. Competing in triathlons isn’t healthy. The goals of these clients don’t necessarily get them to be ‘healthy’. The necessity to get to such extremes is not there.
For the average gym goer, moderation is key. So this point is for them, and their trainers.
17. A good trainer will know that doing some things are just plain stupid. Leaning on someone during a plank to create resistance? Stupid. Pushing a kettlebell down when swinging to create more resistance? Stupid. This is a great way to introduce injury to the client. Oh, and I've seen both these things in person, by a trainer who has been in the industry for years, by the way.
18. A good trainer will do some level of experimentation on themselves. Now this point is one where I’m a bit more open to criticism. But, I do believe a good trainer should have done some sort of experimenting in the ways of nutrition, lifestyle and exercise. Even if it’s quite minor. Such as intermittent fasting for a week.
It helps to be able to talk about your own experience of certain methods of exercise or nutrition. Not only because then you can go in from your own perspective, but you will also figure out a way that it worked for you.****
****Be careful of falling into the trap of ‘it worked for me, so it will work for you’. That’s another point of a poor personal trainer in itself. This can be point 18A.
This is why I like to try things out. It doesn’t mean I’ve done everything on myself. I am not interested in physique/bodybuilding, for example. If someone came to me with that goal in mind, they are getting referred to someone with better knowledge. How can you coach someone to step on stage if you’ve never been on stage, not even once? It’s fine to have been on only once, you have some experience then, and know the general process, from actually preparing for it, to on the day, where to go, how to register, what federation, where the competitions happen, all of that is really important.
The same can be said for nutrition. For example, intermittent fasting is a handy tool. It’s one that is not a guarantee to get into a calorie deficit to achieve fat loss, but it’s a convenient one for PERHAPS getting someone into fat loss. It’s one I used for around 4-5 months. I can talk in detail about it because of that.
19. Finally, the client should enjoy their workouts. Everything could be goal-orientated, near-perfect movement patterns, the best methods for nutrition for their goals, but if they can't adhere to it because they enjoy none of it, then the trainer has failed the final hurdle. This goes against a fair few things I have made points in through this blog post, but that's because it is probably one of the most important points.
This can be related back to points 4 and 5, where a trainer may have a bit of a bias towards certain types of exercise and diets.
Perhaps the trainer loves barbells, and that's all their clients do. But, what if that client hates barbells for whatever reason, and just doesn't do the workouts in between? The client has to get their say too. This is where there should be a level of compromise between the trainer and the trainee.
If that same client of requests the BOSU because they enjoy it so much and they feel it gets them results, It's hard to argue with them. I will suggest why that is perhaps not the best, most optimal way to go about their gym time for their goals. However, if they still insist on doing their BOSU work, what I'd suggest is; in the last 10 minutes of the session, here you go, bicep curls on the BOSU, just like you requested. The first 50 minutes of the session though will be useful, optimised for their goal exercises. Perhaps with only a couple barbell exercises in just because the client really doesn't want to do them, but for the most part kettlebell, dumbbell and bodyweight exercises will be utilised.
Well holy shit I talked a lot there didn’t I?! If you made it down to here, you can give yourself a pat on the back.
Had I not been in the industry for as long as I have done today, I wouldn’t have known half of those points.
Thanks for reading!