So you want to find yourself a personal trainer. If there’s one thing to remember in your search, let it be this: Not all trainers are created equal.
While some trainers might just be the wrong fit for you, others might push products you don’t need, or even lack a legitimate certification. In today’s world full of Instagram trainers, doing your research has never been more important. Not only does this ensure you’re listening to someone qualified to dole out fitness advice, but also that you’re paying for someone who understands your body, drive, and personality.
When shopping for a personal trainer, follow these seven steps to ensure they’re the real deal—and a good match for you.
1. Make Sure They’re Certified By A Trusted Program
“There are many ways someone can become a certified personal trainer, but only a handful of them are trustworthy, nationally-accredited programs,” says Joe Rodonis, an ACE-certified personal trainer (C.P.T.), health coach, and head coach at Tone House in New York City.
First, make sure a trainer has some sort of certification. They should have the letters C.P.T. (certified personal trainer), C.S.C.S. (certified strength and conditioning specialist), or P.E.S. (performance enhancement specialist) after their names.
Then, don’t hesitate to ask where exactly your potential trainer got certified. The American Council on Exercise (ACE) and the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) are arguably the most popular certifying organizations. However, the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA), the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), and the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) are reputable as well.
2. Learn More About Their Area Of Expertise
Just because a coach helped you hit a marathon PR doesn’t mean they’ll be so hot at helping you put on muscle mass.
While personal trainer certifications cover all of the basics of health and fitness for the general population, they don’t dive deep into specific modalities. That’s why George Bristow, an NSCA-certified C.S.C.S. and NASM-certified P.E.S. at Platform Strength in Denver, suggests asking about a potential trainer’s work history and career experience. You should also analyze how they personally achieved whatever goal you’re interested in.
“I always say, if the trainer doesn’t look the part, then you [probably] don’t want to be with them,” Bristow explains. “Because if they can’t do it for themselves, they [likely can’t] do it for you.” If you want to pack on muscle mass, a trainer that’s spent their career running long distances wouldn’t likely be your best bet.
If you’re serious about a certain goal—like, say, blowing your power clean PR out of the water—finding a personal trainer with expertise in that area is crucial, Rodonis says. (In this case, a C.S.C.S.or trainer with a USA weight-lifting certification could be especially helpful.)
3. Consider A C.S.C.S.
Another reason to invest in someone with C.S.C.S. after their name: They have a more advanced certification. Gaining a C.S.C.S. certification requires a greater time investment, a bachelor’s degree, and a current CPR/AED certification.
In 2030, the prerequisites will become even stricter. C.S.C.S. candidates will have to hold an approved bachelor’s degree focused on strength and conditioning.
Plus, those with a C.S.C.S. certification tend to have more hands-on experience up front, Bristow says. “A lot of times you’ll see people doing an internship along with their certification,” he explains. This level of involvement from the get-go helps ensure your coach has both the knowledge and real-life experience needed to help you reach your goals.
4. Look Deeper Than Instagram
When someone touts their fitness expertise all over social media, it can be tempting to fall into their camp of thousands (maybe even millions) of followers. But just because you enjoy their Instagram presence doesn’t mean they’ll be the best trainer for you.
“Instagram can be a great way to learn about someone’s training philosophy and to get a glimpse of how they work, but it can also be deceiving,” Rodonis says. “Some are better at creating hype than they are at designing programs and helping clients.”
That’s why Rodonis recommends digging around on other platforms to see how your trainer is rated and reviewed. Websites like Find Your Trainer allow you to plug in your zip code and browse vetted trainers in your area. This way, you can learn more about their personal styles and training philosophies, as well as read reviews from past clients. You can also look for trainers directly on personal trainer certification websites, including ACE and NASM.
If you can, Rodonis also suggests talking to past and existing clients. “Ask what their take is on the coach, and about the results they’ve seen,” he says.
Remember: Instagram is a marketing platform for lots of trainers. “Think about it this way: Nick Saban, head coach for the University of Alabama, doesn’t have an Instagram account,” Rodonis says. “But I’d hire him over The Rock to teach me how to become a better football player.”
Do your homework and prioritize integrity, expertise, and methodology over flash, hype, and cool content.
5. Test Out Their Group Classes
With group fitness classes hotter than ever, your prospective trainer might just teach a class you can pop into.
Consider it a trial run, says Rodonis. You’ll be able to get a solid sense of their training style, the way they talk to clients, and whether or not they’ll motivate you in a lower-pressure environment. After a few classes, you can decide whether they’re enough of a match to pursue a private training conversation with.
6. Ask The Right Questions
Once you’ve decided to have that conversation with a trainer, make sure you get the details from them that really matter.
“I’d want to understand their background and what they are passionate about in fitness,” Rodonis says. “Ask them what type of training they love to do personally, why they got into training and coaching, and what their training routine looks like.” These things usually translate into what they will work on with you, so their answers can be very telling.
From there, ask how they develop workouts and programs for each client, along with what their philosophy is on recovery within a program, Rodonis suggests. “It’s very easy to put together a hard workout; almost anyone can do that for a single session,” Rodonis says. “But when you’re looking for a trainer, you want someone who knows how to string together workouts in a progressive manner throughout a quarter or year.”
Also, don’t shy away from questions about injuries. Knowing whether a trainer has (or has had) any injuries—and how they handled them—helps you judge their ability to work with you in a less-than-ideal scenario, says Bristow.
Another dead giveaway of a quality trainer: “A good coach will start with your annual goal and work backwards,” Rodonis says. “A bad one will give you a tough workout today and hope it adds up to something in a year.” Anyone who’s wishy-washy with their plans—and unable to outline a weekly or monthly progression—isn’t worth your investment.
7. Watch Out For Red Flags
In addition to asking plenty of questions, be hyper-aware of any major warning signs before handing your credit card over to a new trainer. A few things to be leery of:
A quick-fix sell. “Anytime someone promises or focuses on a quick outcome, like a 30- or 60-day program or ’30-minute abs,’ it’s a huge red flag,” Rodonis says. “True training is about quality hours of work and consistency, not just quantity. There truly is no shortcut for this.”
A trainer who prescribes a meal plan. Unless a trainer is also a registered dietitian or certified nutritionist, nutrition planning is outside their area of expertise, Rodonis says. It’s common for trainers to candidly share suggestions regarding what’s worked well for them, but they should by no means create actual plans or directions for you.
Someone who immediately throws you into an advanced program. “Every coach should give you an assessment period,” says Rodonis. “Everyone needs a solid foundation before jumping into advanced lifting or performance techniques.” If a trainer doesn’t take adequate time to evaluate you—usually at least one full session—then think twice.