When I first started working with a personal trainer, I had no idea what to expect. As a naïve college student, I got suckered into a contract through a big box gym (it was a pickle to get out of, let me tell ya) and got assigned to a trainer with very little experience. He had only a high school degree and no fitness-related certifications. He did teach me about muscle groups and how to strength train in the first couple of weeks, but it went south very quickly from there. For example, he told me to get a bagel with cream cheese after each training session, but also said I should only eat 1000 calories per day (never ever do this).
Now that I’ve been in the fitness industry and have been certified as a personal trainer for 10 years, I thought I’d share some red flags I wish I would have known as a client. There are so many incredible trainers out there, but unfortunately, there are some jokers in the mix.
Here are some red flags to look out for when you’re working with a personal trainer:
They don’t do any type of movement assessment before training you. A good trainer should determine your strengths, weaknesses, and body composition, and they should use this information to develop your training plan. You should also complete a physical readiness questionnaire (called a Par-Q, which determines your readiness for exercises), a health history form, and a form that indicates your exercise experience and goals. The first meeting should be lots of paperwork and movement assessments – and very little actual training. Movement assessments usually include activities like a 3-minute walk or jog, both an upper and lower body strength and agility test, overhead squat assessment, and a push and pull assessment.
They don’t help you with proper form. As a gym-goer, it’s surprising for me to see trainers not actively watching their clients during the session. Your trainer should be correcting you along the way to make sure you’re executing the moves safely and with proper form. If they’re daydreaming, or looking at someone else, that’s a red flag.
They tell you what and how much to eat. This is a huge NO. It’s outside the scope of trainers’ expertise to tell clients what and how much to eat. Sharing healthy meal ideas is fine, but we cannot give specific eating plans. If your trainer writes you a meal plan without any background training (like an RD or reputable nutrition certification), "bye, Felicia." This also holds true for supplements and medical advice. The only person who should consult you on the types of supplements to use or give any kind of diagnostic or treatment advice is a medical professional. A good trainer will always refer you to a medical professional if you need specialized care.
They spend the whole time talking about themselves. Yes, friendly banter is important (and makes sessions more fun), but the focus should be on YOU: your goals, your family, your jobs. But only if you want to talk about it! If you want to be silent while your trainer counts reps and corrects form for you, totally cool.
They don’t create a plan for you, and seem to “wing it” each time. Your trainer should be tailoring each training session to fit into a larger plan aimed toward your overall goal. They should have a file for you where they're tracking weight progressions (how much you’re squatting, etc.) so they know how to build up. They should also phase your training (an endurance phase, a max strength phase, and a hypertrophy phase) so you don’t hit a plateau.
If you notice these red flags, it’s probably time for a new trainer. Make sure to look for certifications like NASM, ACE, ACSM, and NCSA.