How Do You Hire a Trainer?

Bodybuilding Contest is held in Hangzhou, east China's Zhejiang Province. Bodybuilding Contest, Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province. China - 22 Oct 2017 (Rex Features via AP Images)

You walk into a large commercial gym to discuss a fitness program. You’ve been meaning to do this for years, and now you have the time, money, and commitment to finally see it through to the actual workout phase. The gym is staffed with a dozen people who wear a shirt that says “Trainer.” The ladies at the front desk, the sales manager, and the Trainers make a very good impression on a person who is out of shape — they all look fit. They are rather young, there are no pot-bellies in evidence, and their arms look nice. The trainers are all “certified” and the gym in which they work has a famous, recognizable name.

How do you decide which Trainer to hire? If you’re like most people, you haven’t given this part much thought. Your decision will probably be based on an assessment of your perceived problems and on which of these Trainers can help you correct them.

And, standing there in the front of the gym, most people will make the wrong decision about this very important question right about now.

If you’re fat, you’ll be tempted to hire the skinniest Trainer. If you’re arms are too small, you’ll be tempted to hire the Trainer with the biggest arms. If you want Abs, you’ll almost always hire the Trainer with the best Abs. If you’re weak, you’ll probably hire the strongest Trainer, the lifter who won the last weightlifting meet. You might even go so far as to hire a tall Trainer if you’re short, a well-tanned Trainer if you’re pale, or a good-looking female Trainer if you’re an ugly guy.

These illogical decisions are largely the basis of the Personal Training industry, the members of which happily participate in them. And they are illogical because of a faulty application of “pattern recognition” and a misunderstanding of the nature of the relationship between physical appearance, physical activity, and all the other factors that determine an individual’s aesthetic endowment.

A desire for fat loss, muscularity, strength, and conditioning are all valid reasons to hire some help in the gym. The layperson cannot be expected to know the details of the optimum approach to these quite laudable goals. A fitness professional is expected to know these details, and that’s why you write the check.

Here’s the hard part: some people are born with thin skin, a low bodyfat percentage, prominent muscle bellies, a higher-than-average VO2max, greater-than-average strength, and a 36-inch vertical jump — along with beautiful blond hair, symmetrical facial features, perfect body proportions, slightly-above-average height, above-average intelligence, and the willingness to put all these advantages to work in the Personal Training industry.

That a Trainer with Abs knows how to turn you into a client with Abs is a terribly faulty assumption. He may well know exactly what to do, but the fact that he has Abs himself is not proof of anything other than the fact that he has Abs. A different Trainer with lesser Abs may know quite a bit more about the solution to the Abs problem than the AbMaster himself. He probably had to figure out a way to turn a very bad genetic Abs package into a presentable midsection, while our friend the AbMaster cannot even manage to get a belly when he tries to at Thanksgiving.

Likewise, Herschel Walker quite famously “became” a premier NFL star by doing push-ups and situps and playing football. I’d submit that Herschel Walker became an NFL star because he was Herschel Walker, and while the push-ups and situps didn’t hurt anything, they were not the reason he was a football star. If they were, anybody in Army Basic Training could play in the NFL, since they do lots of push-ups and situps. It is sometimes hard to tease apart correlation from cause and effect.

As an aside, it is a True Fact that natural athletes make the worst coaches, and this is the case in all sports that I can think of. Coaching is about explaining how to do things physically, and if excellence in sports came naturally, then you didn’t have to learn it the way that makes explaining it easier. It is also a True Fact that the worst coaches are always found in sports that have the capacity to concentrate the best natural talent and genetics — sports with money and recruiters. Bad coaches have always been able to hide behind the abilities of talented athletes, because a team composed of genetic freaks will make you look like a good coach in spite of your bad coaching. Happens every year, as you well know if you’re paying attention to high school and college sports.

And it is also True that the best coaches (and amazingly enough, the best teachers as well) are often found where you’d least expect them to be: in smaller schools, gyms, private teams, places where they are accessible to us and where they are in a position to make a difference for lots of people — but where their work goes unnoticed by ESPN.

If you are going to be an effective consumer of Personal Training, you have to understand these things. If you hire a coach based on the coach’s physical appearance, or even on the coach’s physical ability, you are quite often hiring the coach’s genetics, not the coach’s knowledge, experience, or coaching ability. You are not a genetic freak. You would know if you were, and you wouldn’t be hiring a Personal Trainer. You need the best help you can get. This will usually be provided by someone who has had the same problems to solve as you have now.

This means that the best coaches in the Personal Training industry are quite likely not the finest examples of optimum human aesthetics standing in the front of the gym waiting on a poorly informed client to wander in the door. They may well be people that look like healthy versions of you, who can point to a list of people like you that they have helped grow into much better versions of themselves.

The Trainer’s resume is the best indicator of his ability to help you — his Abs are irrelevant. Google is your friend here: see who he has trained, what they have to say about the coaching, and what the trainer has written about the subject. Make sure it makes sense to you, and then see if it works for you as a client.