Monday 23 October 2017

What to look for in a personal trainer or strength coach

            At the start of every year many people make resolutions to lose weight, start exercising, and improve their health & lifestyle. Some people may hire a trainer or coach to help them with their exercise & nutrition routines.
            Spending the vast majority of my time in the physical therapy world I am quite often given the task of recommending good gyms/trainers to some of the people whom I work with.
            As someone who’s trained myself for a lot of years I believe having a knowledgeable trainer or coach can save you a lot of time & hassle. At the same time personal trainers aren’t regulated like doctors or physiotherapists are and as such it’s difficult to know who to trust.
            In this article I give you a (non-exhaustive) list of what you should look for in a trainer or strength coach before hiring. For the sake of not making this a long article I’m not including some of the more basic “common sense” ones such as trainers showing up on time, not texting on their phone, and being professional.

Disclaimer: Some may argue that trainers & strength coaches are different professions. I’m just overlapping them for simplicity purposes. I’m not including coaches of specific strength sports (i.e. powerlifting, olympic lifting, strongman) or coaches of physique sports (i.e. bodybuilding, bikini, figure) in this article.

With that out of the way here are some of the traits you should look for in a fitness professional…

1) They should ask you about your medical history

This is the biggest thing right here. If you go in for an initial session and your trainer doesn’t ask you about your medical history, your injury history and your medications than you should immediately ask for a refund and head out the door.

With the rise of obesity and other health conditions it’s more and more common that trainers encounter clients who have various medical conditions and are taking medications. Some medications and medical conditions require special adjustments to the exercise program to be done safely. If your trainer doesn’t ask you these questions they’re just playing with fire.

Side note: I may get flack for this but I believe that training diseased populations (i.e. heart disease, osteoporosis, cancer, hypertension) should be left to people who have the requisite training (i.e. CSEP – CEP, CSPS, Kin or Physical Therapy degree) AND have worked with these populations AND keep up to date on the research.

2) They should ask you what your goals are and tailor the program towards your goals

The fitness industry is full of trends ranging from aerobics to bodybuilding to functional movement to kettlebells to CrossFit to powerlifting. While these all have a time & a place when done and programmed correctly I’ve seen too many trainers force their goals and their philosophy on clients. Your trainer should ask you what your goals are. If you ask your trainer “how is this helping my achieve my goal” and the trainer doesn’t have an answer than that’s a problem.

Side note: sometimes to achieve specific goals your trainer/coach may ask you to do things that you may not like to achieve your goals. For example if your goal is to lose weight your coach may recommend reducing soda consumption.

3) They should give you an individualized program

The major principles of training – specificity (SAID), overload, and fatigue management apply to everyone and almost every training program will include some squatting, hip hinging, pushing, and pulling (short of any medical or injury issues). That said training still needs to be individualized in terms of training volume, training frequency, exercise technique and exercise selection.

Training needs to be individualized to provide the most effective program with the lowest risk of harm. Some people can’t do certain exercises properly or painfree. Some people are really deconditioned and won’t tolerate a lot of training volume right off the bat.

As such a trainer or coach should be able to develop a program that’s customized to your needs, not a cookiecutter program or even worse the exact workout that your coach uses for him/herself.
Along with this a trainer should be able to modify your program if you’re tired, sick, sore, get injured, have pain with a certain exercise etc. Your trainer should be asking you questions like “How do you feel today?”, “How did you feel after the last workout?”, and “Did you get a good sleep last night?”

4) When performing exercises the trainer should be walking around, observing from different angles and coaching you to perform the exercise effectively

One of the important lessons I learned from Stu McGill is to observe an exercise from all angles and put the work into coaching. A trainer should be doing the same – not just counting reps or cheerleading.

Side note: some exercises and some people require more coaching than others. If you’re doing a simple exercise (i.e. seated calf raise) and/or you’re someone with good body awareness than you may not need as much coaching as someone else doing a more advanced exercise.

5) Your workouts should be progressive and have a direction. They shouldn’t be random.

A concern that I have with some training plans is that the workouts are incredibly random from day to day and don’t have a planned direction. The training principle of SAID – Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand and the principle of Directed Adaptation state that training needs to be geared in a specific direction to achieve a specific goal.

For instance fat loss training needs to be built around maintaining a calorie deficit and preserving (or potentially increasing in some cases) lean muscle mass.

In another example building strength in certain lifts requires low rep training (for the most part, not all the time) in those lifts to build neural efficiency & technique and also requires higher repetition training to build hypertrophy in the muscles that support those lifts.

As such workouts can (and should) have some variety in terms of set & rep ranges and exercises but they should all be tailored a specific goal. If your training consists of 3x15 one week, hitting a 1 rep max the next week, and doing 5x5 the next week than chances are your training is so random that you aren’t going to be able to spend enough time to achieve one goal.

Following with that your trainer should be tracking your workouts to make sure that you’re progressing appropriately.

6) Your trainer shouldn’t be basing the effectiveness of your workouts based on how much you puked or how tired you are.

A concern that I have with the popularity of extreme workouts is that people base their effectiveness off of how tired they are or whether they puke or not. I am of the belief that the occasional *ss-kicking session is OK as long as it’s done safely – but if you leave each workout super sore, in a pool of sweat, and/or feeling like you’re going to puke than you need to consider working with someone different.

I hope this article gives you an idea of what to look for when hiring (or referring to) a trainer or strength coach. If you are having a hard time finding one in your area message me on Facebook or at my email and I’ll do my best to help you to find one.


  1. Hey,
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  2. Hello,

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  3. Good information.Simple and easy to understand,well written. Enjoyed reading it. This is so true. Thank you for writing this article, keep blogging! I am reading your post from the beginning, it was so interesting to read & I feel thanks to you for posting such a good blog, keep updates regularly.

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  5. Great Post. Many of us confuse in the difference between Dietician and Gym trainers. One of the possible reason might be both of the professional have alike qualities and both help us in maintaining our physique.

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