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The 7 Biggest Mistakes to Avoid When Hiring a Personal Trainer

First off, you don't necessarily need a personal trainer, even when you're just getting started.

After all, regular readers of Super Fit Dads have a better understanding of what works and what doesn't than most of the personal trainers out there.

There's a ton of great information about fat loss, exercise and training programs, exercise technique, and more.

But if you've made up your mind and decided to hire one, this article is for you.

Now, when you hire a personal trainer, you're basically making an investment.

You invest your money to get a return that exceeds what you would otherwise achieve on your own over the same time frame.

So it makes perfect sense to have some idea of the return on investment (ROI) you’re going to get before you commit, right?

After all, you wouldn’t buy shares in a company without doing a bit of research first.

Well, hiring a personal trainer works pretty much the same way.

But the reality is very few people actually do this, and they risk spending valuable time and money on something that may not live up to expectations.

So here are the 7 biggest mistakes to avoid when hiring a personal trainer.

1. Not being specific about what you want to achieve

Imagine going to a travel agent and telling them you'd like to "go somewhere awesome".

They'd look at you like you were crazy!

After all, that could mean anything from relaxing on a tropical island beach to heli-skiing in Siberia.

And guess what?

Telling a personal trainer that you want to “get fit, lose weight, and tone up” is pretty much the same thing.

“Getting fit” could mean anything from deadlifting 315 lbs to simply being able to climb a flight of stairs without getting out of breath.

"Losing weight” could mean shedding 100 lbs of body fat, 1 lb of body fat, or anything in between.

So we need to be a lot more specific.

Do you want to get stronger than most folks would believe possible?

Do you want to run a half marathon within 12 weeks?

Do you want to to lose 61 lbs in only 27 weeks?

You do? Then tell the personal trainer exactly that!

Don’t be embarrassed about sharing your goals with them, no matter how extreme they may seem to you.

The trainer has to know exactly where you want to end up before they can figure out if your goal is:

• Realistic

• Achievable in the given timescale

• At the center of their circle of competence

2. Not checking whether they’ve lived what they preach

Thanks to the circle of competence, many personal trainers claim expertise that they simply don't have.

Now, a big part of being a good coach is that you should have at least gone through the process yourself.

Whether that means losing body fat, getting stronger, training for a triathlon or doing a 10-mile trail run.

You can't effectively coach beginners if you've never been a beginner yourself.

To the personal trainer that’s always been slightly overweight, getting lean is all just theory - they haven't experienced it firsthand.

So how can they understand and appreciate what their fat-loss clients are going through?

They can't. 

That's why a 275-lb powerlifter is unlikely to be the best guy to help prepare you for a 100-mile endurance run.

And a sub-3 hour marathoner who can’t squat 135 is unlikely to be the guy to coach you to a 315-lb squat.

Always keep in mind that success leaves clues.

So if a personal trainer has helped a number of clients lose weight/get strong/complete their first 5-mile run, it’s likely he has expertise in that area.

Of course, that doesn’t mean he has all the answers, but his clients' results show that he’s doing at least something right.

And the personal trainer that claims to be able to do everything?

More than likely they're either just inexperienced or mediocre across the board.

3. You haven't talked with their clients

OK, let’s say you want to get strong.

You’ve found a personal trainer who looks the part (he squats, deadlifts, and standing presses some decent weights) and has an impressive pair of shoulders.

Do you throw a bunch of money his way and hire him on the spot?

Hell, no!

Put it this way, if you were thinking about buying a Ferrari 308 GTS, wouldn’t you contact a bunch of people who’ve owned that car and ask them about it first?

Sure you would.

So talk to people who’ve been trained by that guy.

Maybe you find out that he’s an incredible coach and has helped a whole range of folks (men and women, young and old) get measurably stronger.

See that 62 year-old guy squatting 225 lbs? Well, 6 months back he could barely squat the empty 45-lb bar.

Hear a few stories like that and you can be pretty confident that this trainer knows how to get folks like you stronger.

Or maybe you find out that, while he’s strong himself, he’s simply unable to get anything like the same results for his clients.

And they just stick with him, hoping that some of his awesomeness will rub off on them.

Unfortunately, that happens all the time.

4. Assumption of expertise

Some personal trainers believe in the most nonsensical of things.

Not that they're misleading clients intentionally, they simply don't know any better - that's the circle of competence in action.

Here are a few key phrases that should act as early warnings of impending BS:

• "Functional" this, that or the other

• "The problem is insulin/grains"

• "Core strength/stability"

• "Fat doesn't make you fat"

• "Muscles not firing” (in the absence of a neurological problem)

• "Corrective exercises"

• "Toxins"

• "Imbalances"

Here's an example of something that's pretty standard practice in the health & fitness industry.

1. Diagnose a problem/issue using some supposedly cutting-edge test that the client unquestioningly accepts as valid and correct 

2. Provide the "solution" for this problem/issue 

3. Some weeks later, find that the problem/issue is now magically "resolved" - again using some supposedly cutting-edge test that the client unquestioningly accepts as valid and correct

Sounds almost unbelievable, right?

But here's an actual example courtesy of 10-year NFL veteran John Welbourn.

Now in spite of being a professional athlete, John failed the much-vaunted Functional Movement Screen (FMS) test.

But instead of doing “corrective exercises” and working on his “imbalances” for a few weeks, then retaking the test, he did something a little different.

For a few minutes afterwards, he merely practiced the movements he’d just performed in the test, then asked to be retested.

And guess what?

He passed.

The bottom line is it’s easy to feel awed by a person’s expertise when we're faced with stuff like:

With the recent increase in interest in mobility, stability, corrective exercises, functional movement, and the subsequent relationship between these modalities and strength, a few more substantial concepts need to be fleshed out and commented upon within training and fitness circles during extemporaneous, contiguous and/or recurring delineations. All efforts should be made to greatly expand understanding with respect to all multi-modal and trans-temporal difficulties and relational strategies.

(In case you're wondering, that's an excerpt from a deliberately nonsensical article about BS in the health & fitness industry)

Ultimately, if the personal trainer making the claim is unable to explain using simple, easy-to-understand language, they’re likely just parroting something they like the sound of but don't actually understand.

Let’s be honest, this isn't rocket science - people nowhere near as smart as you have been getting strong, lean, fast and in shape long before the Internet came into existence.

So don't be afraid to ask really basic questions and always demand intelligible answers.

Like Einstein said:

If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough

And remember to keep your sledgehammer question “where does the fat go?” in your back pocket.

5. Not asking the right questions

The most important questions we can ask are “how?” and “why?”

So, if the personal trainer tells you that “the most important body parts are the legs and core” (I actually overheard a trainer say this), you’ve got to put him on the spot.

What do you mean by "important", and how exactly is "important" being measured?

After all, it's kind of like saying "the most important parts of the aircraft are the fuselage and engines".

I mean, does Boeing add stuff like the landing gear, tail planes and rudder just to make it look cool?

Obviously, the body (like an airplane) is a system, and every part of the system needs to be able to handle its share of the work.

Not just the legs, not just the core.

Put it this way, leg and core strength alone is never going to lift your suitcase into the overhead luggage compartment.

Every part of your body - from toes to fingertips - needs to be up to the job.


So ask questions.

“Why are we doing three sets instead of two or four”

“Why does a high protein intake help weight loss?”

“How will doing this make me stronger/leaner/faster?”

“How will doing this exercise take me closer to my goal?”

Never be embarrassed about asking questions - a good trainer is always happy and able to answer them in a way that’s easy to understand.

Keep in mind that answering questions also benefits him as it helps to make him both a better communicator and a better coach.

And if he isn’t happy being asked a bunch of questions (or can’t answer them clearly), it probably means he doesn’t know the answers and is reluctant to admit it.

A good coach is always comfortable saying “I don’t know”.

6. Not using numbers

OK, try going for a week - or even a day - without using numbers, and see how you get on.

How can you get to work on time, pay bills, drive at a legal speed, use the ATM or tell who's winning the big game?

Numbers are that important.

They’re also essential for any effective coach or personal trainer.

• Want to improve your 5-mile time?

You’ll need a way to accurately measure both time and distance.

• Want to get stronger?

You’ll need to know what kind of weights you can lift now, and increase them in small, measurable increments.

If a trainer doesn’t record his clients’ workouts in terms of real, actual numbers, how the hell does anyone know if progress has really been made?

After all, progress has to be planned for, not just hoped for, left to chance or assumed to be taking place.

So let's say you want to increase your endurance on a stationary bicycle or rower - how would that work?

Well, there are a ton of different ways, but here are three possible approaches:

1. Cover more distance in the same time

2. Cover the same distance in less time

3. Cover the same distance in the same time but at a lower average heart rate

Any one of these can provide hard numbers as evidence of the progress that's been made.

And guess what? A good coach or personal trainer will fall over himself to share those numbers with you.

After all, they're undeniable proof that you're getting a return on your investment.

Plus, being so familiar with different people’s measurable progress will allow him to almost have a crystal ball.

That means he'll be able to tell you that a guy of your build, age, and so on will typically be able to get to an x-lb squat, a y-lb deadlift, and lose z-lbs of body fat over the next 4, 8 or 12 weeks.

Sure, it won’t be 100 % accurate, 100 % of the time but it shows that he understands the importance of measuring.

Unfortunately, many personal trainers simply overlook this.

7. Is this training or entertaining?

A good personal trainer will be committed to getting you the results you want in the most time-efficient and effective ways possible.

Of course, he should also be approachable, friendly and cool to spend time with.

But if your training sessions are more about chatting and having fun, you’ve got to ask yourself whether that’s the ROI you originally had in mind.

The bottom line is working with a personal trainer can make you feel really special - you’ve got someone that listens to and focuses on you with undivided attention.

You seldom get that at work or at home so it makes you feel appreciated and important.

And that’s absolutely fine if feeling appreciated and important was the main reason for hiring them in the first place.

So be on your guard for "mission creep" entering your training sessions.

It's a lot more common than you may think.

Wrapping it up

Like we said at the beginning, you don't necessarily need a personal trainer - countless guys just like you have gotten strong and in shape without one.

So it's completely possible.

That said, if you do decide to hire one, always keep your return on investment in mind and make sure you avoid these 7 mistakes.

That will save you a bunch of time, money and frustration.

You have my word on that.

- Tim

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USAF E3 Sentry By U.S. Air Force photo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Reference: Cognitive Impairment

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