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Good Trainers vs. Bad Trainers: How Can You Tell the Difference?

When you walk into a gym, how do you know if the guy with “Trainer” or “Coach” on his shirt actually knows what he’s doing? As a member of the lay public, it may never even have occurred to you that there are differences in the level of experience and expertise among the people in these shirts. But it’s a very important question to ask, because the right answer makes the difference between wasted time and money and a productive experience -- or between potential injury and the improvement you’re looking for.

A friend of mine from years back once told me that he didn’t think he was going to stay in this business because of the problems associated with this question.

And it is a problem: you can train for many years and accumulate decades of valuable experience, educate yourself in all the important science, and develop the communications skills necessary to effectively coach complicated movement patterns. The kid has a weekend “trainer/coaching” certification from any of a large number of certification mills, so he has a piece of paper in his office that says he’s “certified” to coach, or train clients, or whatever the piece of paper says he can do.

You are an expert on human movement under the barbell. He is a college kid with one year of experience setting pins on the leg extension machine, or maybe three months of making people hot, sweaty, and tired -- and a piece of paper. How does a prospective client know the difference?

The American Sports and Fitness Association offers 26 different online certifications, none of which you pay for unless you pass -- the most expensive certificate is $249, and most are $99. Although it’s not an online product, CrossFit allows you to open a CrossFit affiliate with the successful completion of their $1000 “Level I” weekend course.

Believe it or not, the kid at the GloboGym may have a bachelor's degree in Exercise Science. They’re not very hard to get at most schools, and as a result there are lots of them awarded every year. With this degree, the graduate is qualified to work ... at the GloboGym. And that’s about it. Any additional expertise and experience he obtains will have to happen on the job and through his own efforts.

The fact that the trainer at the GloboGym is only slightly more qualified than your prospective client is not obvious to the client. The industry deliberately blurs this distinction for obvious reasons: the club doesn’t want to charge less money for the less-qualified kid, because that adversely affects the net. And they can’t hire the most qualified coaches because they can’t make any money if they have to pay them what they’re worth.