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How to Choose the Right Personal Trainer

How to Choose the Right Personal Trainer

Thinking about working with a personal trainer? You have reason to be selective when deciding whom to trust. Most trainers look fit, talk a good game and project confidence. Many also have a few letters after their name, representing certifications earned by passing an exam or two. Though that is commendable, avoid letting it sway you. Some trainers lack an important foundation of knowledge — the science that is vital to understanding the musculoskeletal system. Without this, how can a trainer make the right choices for you? How will your program meet your specific needs and progress safely? How will the money you invest in your workouts also arm you with education that will allow you to work out independently with confidence?

I understand the impetus for hiring the workout police. For some, having an appointment and knowing the cost is motivation enough to get them to the gym. For others, the incentive is having someone push them a bit once there. Many simply want someone more knowledgeable to direct the traffic. These are all good reasons to hire a trainer. So, who is the right person for the job?

Though personal recommendations from friends and colleagues generally count for something, recognize that most people really like their trainer or they would have made a change. Also, those less educated in the art and science of fitness will undoubtedly be impressed by the self-assured presentation a trainer makes, any trainer — where does that leave you?

Your best bet is to ask a good physical therapist for a recommendation. Another option is to interview candidates. Here are a few questions that I believe a knowledgeable professional should be able to answer, along with the way that I personally would respond to them.

Q: What is RPE and why is it important?
A: RPE is the Rate of Perceived Exertion. Both you and your trainer should listen to your body and not push beyond your limits.

Q: How do you determine the sequence of exercises in a workout?
A: Begin with the more central muscles of the upper or lower body, which generally have a more stabilizing function; progress to the smaller, peripheral ones, which are known more as mobilizers.

Q: What are some exercises and faults in form that many consider to be high risk, low reward? (Variation: You can also ask what the trainer thinks about several of these exercises, mixing in others that are recommended to throw him/her off.)
A: “Thumbs Down” exercises include: seated leg extensions (cause undue patello-femoral stress), straight leg dead lifts (put the lumbar spine at risk), behind the neck pull-downs (strain the shoulder), hurdler stretches (stress the medial/inner compartment of the knee) and “empty can” arm lifts (put the shoulder in an impingement position). Common form errors include: low dips, squats with the knees moving forward of the toes, lunges or wall slides with the knee forward of the ankle, bench presses or chest presses with the shoulders in extension and hiking the shoulders with any upper body exercises.

Q: Which important muscles of the upper body tend to be disproportionately weak?
A: The scapular stabilizers: the middle traps, lower traps and rhomboids. Others that also tend toward weakness are the lats and serratus. Your trainer should know these names, the action of each muscle and the role each plays in shoulder mechanics.

Q: What is the role of the external rotators in shoulder mechanics?
A: In addition to outwardly rotating the shoulder, the external rotator muscles depress the head of the humerus and centralize it in the socket, allowing for better clearance with elevation. Weak rotators contribute to impingement.

Q: Your client has a history of shoulder injury, some shoulder soreness, is just beginning a strengthening program or has demonstrated weakness. What should be avoided with an upper body program?
A: Discomfort or pain with any exercise is one obvious answer. Also key, is avoiding exercises that require lifting higher than the height of the shoulders until strength of the scapular stabilizers and external rotators is established, and the client is strong and pain-free in the lower ranges. Hiking the shoulders with exercise should also be avoided to prevent compensation with stronger muscles (the upper traps).

Q: What is the difference between range of motion and flexibility?
A: Range of motion is the full motion accessible to a joint (with the muscles that cross it relaxed). Flexibility is the degree to which a muscle can be stretched over all joints that it spans.

There are many such examples. Take a look at literature online to come up with some questions of your own. Entrust your body to someone good at more than counting to ten or making you sweat. By selecting the right trainer you can set yourself up for fitness — not injury!


Abby Sims, MS, PT Abby Sims is a Ortho/Sports Physical Therapist, & wife of sportscaster, Dave Sims. She has a Masters degree in Physical Therapy from Duke University and a Bachelors in Physical Education from Rutgers University. She owned and operated orthopedic and sports physical therapy practices in New York City for more than 30 years. During that time Abby has had the pleasure of working with many professional and recreational athletes, dancers and other performers. In addition to her clinical work and speaking at conferences, Abby regularly provides analysis of injuries in the world of pro sports. You can reach Abby at abbycorsun.sims@gmail.com.