Your first task: Go to the gym and do a bit of spy work. Watch how a trainer acts with his or her clients, suggests Marta Montenegro, a certified personal trainer and adjunct professor of exercise physiology at Florida International University. Do they talk too much? Not enough? Are they really pushing their clients when you like a softer approach? Or are they too light when you want more of a hard ass? Your goal is to find two or three trainers that you’d be interested in doing an intro session with (from there, you’ll narrow it down). It also helps to go to the gym at different times, otherwise you may miss out on really great trainers that would be perfect for you, she says. (Torch fat, get fit, and look and feel great with Women's Health's All in 18 DVD!)
Get to know their certifications and specialties. The American Council on Exercise, American College of Sports Medicine, and the National Strength and Conditioning Association are just a few that certify professionals. These organizations all offer certifications that are all accredited, officially recognized, by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies, meaning they require trainers to pass a test proving they really know exercise science. Make sure yours has the proper cred.
Don't hestitate to ask about a potential candidate's training philosophies, too, to see if you feel like they actually do know enough, even if they're certified at a high level. And, also ask if they specialize in anything—prenatal or postnatal fitness, weight management, sports conditioning, fitness nutrition, etc., to ensure they’re the best person to help you. One more question: Ask them what they do during their free time, says Montenegro. It should be something active—you want to make sure they walk their talk, too.
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Ask yourself what you hope to get from your sessions. Do you find lifting weights intimidating but want to learn how? Do you need to up your endurance to train for a half-marathon? Or are you looking to lose weight? Bust a plateau? By clearly communicating with a potential trainer why you’re there and what you’re looking to get out of it (even if it is just “I wanted to see what this whole PT thing is about!”), you can make sure they’re a fit.
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Make sure the trainer is looking at you—not just slapping everyone with a one-sized-fits-all plan. At the beginning, you might see results just by doing anything, says Montenegro. “But later on, you need a clear vision for what you want to accomplish,” she says. They should also ask if you have any health or medical conditions, and if you’re taking any medication (some can affect your heart rate). Before you start, they should also check your flexibility, strength, and endurance before hopping into formal sessions.
Don’t necessarily rely on staff recommendations at the gym. They’re running a business and the reality is they may need to help trainers who don’t have many clients. Instead, ask the trainer for client referrals. When you talk to their clients, ask as many questions as you can think of: How long have you been with them? What are sessions like? Are you getting closer to your goals? How do they make you feel when you’re working out?
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If after all that you found a trainer you like but don’t want to do the solo training thing, ask if they offer partner sessions (where you bring a friend or partner). They may also offer small group training that you can jump into. Both approaches up the accountability factor, which is great, as research shows that can help you stick with your workouts. Plus, group rates are often less expensive.