Benefits of a personal trainer… with a few caveats
Reprinted from the Nourishing and Moving Our Bodies issue of Visions Journal, 2023, 19 (1), pp. 32-34
Personal training is a popular way to build physical activity habits, develop skills and find motivation. Hiring a personal trainer is one way to learn from someone else and develop a plan based on your unique needs.
- Personal training can be a great option when you:
- are starting a new fitness journey, setting a goal or want a new skill
- are unfamiliar with fitness spaces (like gyms) or feel intimidated going on your own
- learn best in person or prefer feedback
- do your best with motivation or accountability from someone else
What should you look for in a personal trainer?
The personal training industry is unregulated in Canada, which means that anyone can call themselves a trainer. However, there are a number of certification programs (see below). Certification involves a number of hours of study, followed by an exam with a practical assessment component, but it varies significantly between programs. Regardless of which designation fits your goals best, it’s important to make sure your personal trainer has liability insurance.
Finding the right personal trainer for you
The best personal trainer for you is the one who meets your needs and goals. Certification is a good general guide, but each trainer will have their own strengths and interests. If you want to learn how to lift, you’ll likely feel more satisfied with a trainer who has expertise in lifting compared to a trainer with an endurance-training focus. Think about what you need to succeed before you start looking for a trainer. Ask yourself about:
- your overall goals: Are you working towards general fitness? A specific skillset? Participation in a sport?
- what type of structure you want: Is one-on-one training for you? Or would you prefer training with a friend or family member, or in a group?
- what level of support you need: Do you prefer a trainer to set you up with a program you’ll continue independently? Or do you need someone several times a week?
- what personality you like: Do you prefer a super positive, upbeat cheerleader? A drill sergeant? Or minimal conversation with space to get in the zone?
Once you have a defined idea of what you’re looking for, it’s time to start looking! You can:
- ask about trainers at your gym, rec centre or other facility
- look up the directory of trainers from the certification programs listed in the sidebar
- ask friends and family for recommendations
- search online
Once you’ve found a potential trainer, you will set up an introductory session. This is an opportunity to get a feel for their approach, discuss goals and decide how well you might work together. If you meet the trainer and aren’t completely happy, it’s OK to move on. Any professional understands that fit matters.
The line between personal training and medical advice
It’s important to be clear about the role of a trainer or fitness professional. They are there to provide an exercise plan and support your progress. But medical information, including health monitoring, diagnosis, diet and supplementation, should come from a medical professional, like your doctor, nurse practitioner, physiotherapist or dietitian.
Trainers must screen clients for health conditions affected by new exercise demands and may require a doctor’s clearance to continue. A trainer may also recommend that you speak to a doctor, and they can help you execute a physiotherapist’s exercise plan as part of injury treatment, but they cannot diagnose you or develop their own treatment plan unless they have medical qualifications.
Training and bodies
The fitness industry generally represents one body type: thin. But that isn’t a body type everyone has or wants to achieve. Especially for people who present as feminine, there is significant pressure to measure fitness “success” in terms of weight loss. Even strength goals are often viewed through a lens of having the “right” look, like muscle definition, but not too muscled, because that isn’t conventionally feminine.
This can take precedence over your aims, what you can actually lift or other achievements. If you are beginning your fitness journey in a larger body, you may find that some trainers simply don’t provide exercises that feel good. Unfortunately, some trainers blame your body rather than their lack of education in working with diverse bodies. That can be hurtful, or even prevent people from going back to the gym. Some tips:
- when looking for a trainer, look for messages around size inclusivity
- notice whether they state up front that they welcome everyone
- check if their social media presence shows different body types being strong and confident, or whether photos of larger bodies are only used as “before” images
A small directory of trainers are now certified through the Size Inclusive Training Academy (see: www.sizeinclusivetraining.com). You can find additional professionals with search terms like “body-positive personal training.”
Be especially on the lookout for the following issues:
The trainer doesn’t listen to you. If you request a new approach and the trainer never seems to take that into account, it may be a sign that you and your trainer are not a good fit.
The trainer isn’t realistic. Training, skills mastery, strength, endurance and body appearance are all built over time. If a trainer makes fantastic claims about changing your body shape or making incredible progress in a very short time, proceed with caution.
The trainer makes you feel bad about your body or ability, or they use shame as motivation. Every single person in a gym, pool or rink, or on a track or trail started from the bottom and learned to get to the point you see them at today. If you are made to feel bad over the way you move or look, you need a new trainer. You can also consider making a complaint with the organization your trainer belongs to.
The trainer isn’t engaged during your sessions. You are paying for a trainer to help you. If your trainer spends much of your sessions disengaged, they aren’t actually helping you.
The trainer pushes you to perform at “RPE 11” (a high rate of perceived exertion), even if you’re injured or feeling unwell. Training should challenge you and may feel hard, but it shouldn’t destroy you. Adjusting programming when needed helps keep you healthy and reduces the risk of injury.
The trainer uses fatigue as a measure of an effective session. If you are just starting to work out, coming back from a long break or increasing training intensity or volume, you should expect to feel sorer or more tired than usual for a short time. But fatigue doesn’t mean you’re actually working towards your goal. Two hours on the elliptical won’t teach you how to lift heavier weights, and a thousand bicep curls won’t get you to your “A Goal” (or personal best) marathon time.
The trainer relies on outdated knowledge. Exercise science constantly evolves. What was considered general knowledge 20 years ago may be out-of-date today. For example, you will not die if your knees go past your toes when you squat, unless there is a legitimate reason to limit knee travel. This may be a sign the trainer either isn’t staying on top of their continuing education or subscribes to dogmatic training philosophies.
Personal training can be an incredibly rewarding tool in your active lifestyle. However, it isn’t accessible for everyone. It can be very expensive. It can also be difficult to find a safe place if you belong to a group traditionally excluded in gym culture, such a queer and trans people, women and racialized community members. The politicization of trans bodies in particular is worsening and harming gender-diverse folks who just want the same opportunities to participate as everyone else. Ultimately, the most important part of finding a personal trainer is finding someone who treats you and your goals with respect.
Common certification programs for BC professionals who support the general active population include:
- BC Recreation and Parks Association (BCRPA)
- Canadian Fitness Education Services (CFES)
- National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)
- International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA)
- Your gym may also have its own trainer certification program.
Two certification organizations are geared towards people pursuing a degree in exercise-related fields like kinesiology or sports medicine:
- Canadian Society of Exercise Physiology (CSEP)
- National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA)
Sports associations may also offer training specific to that sport. Look for coaching certification from the National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP).
About the author
Sam is a strength athlete and writer in Vancouver, BC