Mar 8, 2011

How to Choose a Good Personal Trainer/Strength Coach

By Chris Ecklund, MA, CSCS, USAW

Personal Trainers and Strength & Conditioning professionals are common place in the fitness/performance industry. Set foot inside any health club or private training facility and you’re bound to find a long list of trainers promoting themselves as weight loss, biomechanics, post rehab, back health, or performance specialists.

It was not always thus. Exercise, performance and therapy science is still relatively young. Step back a just a few decades to the 1970’s and you’ll find the beginnings of the formal “personal training” industry. Back then, trainers were often those with backgrounds such as bodybuilding or former coaches/athletes. As such, the industry was highly unregulated and was led primarily by those who “looked the part” as opposed to those who had a particular background in education.

The unfortunate news is that while the industry has made some great strides, it is still relatively unregulated. The problem for the consumer?...

To distinguish between a “trainer” who paid $50 for an online certification a week ago (if you think I’m kidding…google it) and one who has 20 years in the industry, holds a Bachelor’s and/or Master’s in a Kinesiology related discipline and/or advanced certifications.

Choosing a Personal Trainer or Strength and Conditioning professional is unfortunately quite different than choosing a good Physical Therapist, Physician or Dentist. The road to physical therapy, medicine or dentistry not only requires an undergrad degree as well as graduate degree, but also a degree of experience/clinical hours and finally passing a nationally recognized exam (often called a board exam). A process that oft takes 7+ years. This is compared to the Personal Training/Strength & Conditioning industry that can legally and legitimately be entered into with that aforementioned $50 online certification. Quite a disparity…and one that ought to leave the consumer with some concerns. By the way, if that’s not enough to raise concerned eyebrow, I can tell you that time and time again we have clients who come to us because they’ve been hurt by or have other horror stories from trainers they’ve been to in the past. What’s more, there are instances reported (with more frequency than should be) in professional journals of clients (both fitness and athletes alike) literally being trained to the point of death.

Thankfully, though no national boards are required for personal training/strength & conditioning, discussions about passing such legislation do exist. Further, there are now certifications that are nationally recognized and accredited by third party organizations which are held to a higher standard and more stringent in requirements to pass (i.e. NASM, NSCA, ISSA to name a few). Some even require an undergraduate degree in order to be able to sit for the exam.

To gain some further insight I interviewed local experts Amy Jameison, NASM-CPT and Doug Holt, MFS, CSCS. Amy is a Lecturer and Student Adviser at UCSB in the Exercise and Sport Studies Program as well as a certified personal and group trainer with over 20 years experience. Doug owns and operates a local Private Fitness Gym called Conditioning Specialists, and is himself extensively certified including certifications in personal training and strength & conditioning.

1. What type of qualifications should a personal trainer have?

AJ: Certifications are essential but NEED to be through an accredited organization such as NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine), ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine), or ACE (American Council on Exericse).

DH: I think experience trumps any degree or certification. I think it's more important for a trainer to go through some hands-on type training via school, an apprenticeship, or as a low entry instructor. It's easy to list the big five certifications as being the most credible, but most certifications have essentially the same info with a little twist. Experience is the key.

2. Is a degree in exercise necessary? If so, what kind?

AJ: There is an industry shift toward trainers with degrees.

DH: I don't think so.

3. What other qualities/characteristics do good personal trainers have that extend beyond their education?

AJ: Trainers need to practice what they preach!! They should also be positive, motivating, and up-to-date on information as well as lead by example.

DH: Integrity, people skills, compassion, empathy, honesty, motivating, an interest in the field other than just liking to workout themselves, and being dependable.

4. Should a personal trainer have any other degrees or certification outside exercise?

AJ: Depends on specialization. But more is always better and being well-rounded is a good.

DH: No.

6. Do you have any further thoughts?

DH: I think it's important for the public to realize that most trainers only spend 1-2 days getting "certified", while trainers such as yourself view it as a career. The human body is so complex, yet people don't invest in hiring a knowledgeable attendee.

Even among experts in the profession, opinions vary. It’s fair and important to point out the fact that while nationally recognized certifications (and possibly degrees) are a mandatory jumping off point, experience it extremely important. Finally, Personal Training and Strength & Conditioning professionals should be evaluated and judged as you would any other professional whose services and advice you seek. Would you go to a doctor who was in poor health?...A dentist who had bad teeth?..Or a financial planner whose finances were a mess?

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