Choosing a personal trainer
One common misconception is that personal trainers, like cab drivers, are interchangeable – they are all equally capable of helping you reach your goals…
The reality is that there is a huge disparity in expertise and education in the health and fitness industry. According to the Register of Exercise Professionals (REPs), statistically, most personal trainers have limited experienced and qualifications (fig. 2). The number of personal trainers has increased by 50% over the last decade. There are now more than 16,000 personal trainers in the UK, and more qualifying every week. With a gym or personal training studio on practically every corner in Liverpool Street, what qualities should a discerning client look for when choosing a personal trainer to help them achieve their goals?
In an industry full of unsubstantiated claims, what constitutes an “expert”, fat loss or otherwise? Gladwell wrote a seminal book on skill acquisition in 2008 elaborating on the research of psychologist Ericsson et al. conducted 15 years previously. By citing various examples, Gladwell suggests it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert at your craft.
Historically, I capped my diary at 30 sessions per week. So using Gladwell’s work as a benchmark, it took me seven years before I had delivered the prerequisite 10,000 hours to even consider referring to myself as an “expert” (fig. 1). This was also coincidently the year I was named Virgin Active’s top personal trainer, out of over 1,000 personal trainers nationwide.
Ask For Evidence
According to REPs, the mean number of sessions delivered by personal trainers is 20 per week. So, at that rate it would take 10.4 years for the average personal trainer to become an expert. Yet one in four personal trainers have been in the industry for less than a year. And two thirds have been in their role for less than five years.
However, just turning up and delivering sessions is not enough. To become an expert, you need what Ericsson describes as “dedicated time focusing on improvement”. Experts consider “deliberate practice” essential. Without it they believe further improvements in performance impossible. To become an expert requires specialist resources beyond filtered social media gurus and unreferenced online articles. Experts need access to teachers, training materials and research facilities. Without structured feedback from teachers, Trowbridge and Cason (1932) believe improvements will be minimal, even amongst highly-motivated individuals.
Some personal trainers became “qualified” in just four-weeks with a fast-track certification. According to REPs, 63% of all personal trainers only have the minimum qualifications to legally do their job. And depressingly, 21% of these have no plans to study in the future. At the other end of the scale, the top 8% of the fitness industry are educated to an undergraduate level or above (fig. 2). Overall, this suggests that the entry level and subsequent standard of coaching within the fitness industry is low. In my opinion this should raise serious concerns for those seeking guidance on training and nutrition.
Is it essential to hire a personal trainer with an academic background? That depends entirely on your goal. If you just want to improve your general fitness, then no. If anyone spends long enough on a treadmill they’ll get fitter. And any personal trainer can give you a beasting in the gym – they don’t need to have significant technical knowledge at this stage.
You’d be paying someone to provide accountability to get to you to the gym, and then motivation once you get there. But this is very different from hiring a coach.
How should I choose?
If you want to get stronger then I’d recommend someone who understands training program design, anatomy, biomechanics and can identify the inevitable weak links in your physique. Someone who knows how to manipulate reps, rest and tempo to get results. But importantly, won’t let you sacrifice technique or range-of-movement to increase the weight. If you’re training for a skiing holiday, marathon, 10k, triathlon, Ironman, etc. you’re going to need a better calibre of personal trainer. They will need to mitigate your risk of injury through creating a balanced physique and understand the energy and nutrition demands of your sport. If you have athletic ambitions then a strength and conditioning coach will be best placed to help you.
But if fat loss is your goal it is essential that you work with a personal trainer that knows what they’re talking about. They need to have a solid grasp of nutrition. Nutrition strategy needs to be a bit more in depth than simply “cutting out carbs”. Excessive carbohydrate or calorie restriction is outdated and counterproductive. Ill-informed advice can lead to rebounding weight-gain and imbalanced hormones.
Before scheduling a consultation with a personal trainer, my advice would be to take a quick look at their LinkedIn profile and find out how long they’ve been a personal trainer, and where. And more importantly, the extent of their education and qualifications. What on-going development have they pursued? What accreditations do they have?
With so many personal trainers to choose from, you want to hire one that has paid their dues, been in the industry a respectable length of time and educated to at least degree level. By spending some time researching a personal trainer’s background, just like you would with any other type of professional, should ensure you receive a good return on your investment and achieve the results you desire.
Coyle, D., 2010. The talent code: Greatness isn’t born, it’s grown. Random House.
Ericsson, K.A., Krampe, R.T. and Tesch-Römer, C., 1993. The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological review, 100(3), p.363.
Gladwell, M., 2008. Outliers: The story of success. Hatchette UK.
Trowbridge, M.H. and Cason, H., 1932. An experimental study of Thorndike’s theory of learning. The Journal of General Psychology, 7(2), pp.245-260.