Choosing a Personal Trainer


If you’ve decided to get fit (bravo), working with a personal trainer can help you get started. But how do you find someone who can make sure your workouts are both effective and safe? After all, not all personal trainers are qualified or skillful enough to design an appropriate fitness program that matches your needs. (Note that personal trainers shouldn’t be confused with athletic trainers; see end of article).

A good way to find a personal trainer is to ask someone you trust—a friend, relative, coworker, or your health care provider. And if you are considering a particular trainer, don’t be shy about getting references. Here’s what to ask a potential personal trainer before picking up the dumbbells:

What is your educational background, and are you certified? Whether employed at fitness and health club facilities or in private practice, personal trainers in the U.S. often have a fitness-related college (or higher) degree and some sort of certification. But more than 100 different organizations certify personal trainers—and there are no national standards. The level of knowledge needed to get certified varies widely among the organizations—from having a degree in exercise physiology and passing a comprehensive exam to simply laying out the cash and taking an online open-book test. According to a survey of trainers, done by researchers at Brown University and published in Orthopedic Reviews in 2016, “personal trainer fitness related knowledge improves with a bachelor’s degree and a more rigorous certification.”
Where is the certification from? Among the most respected certifying organizations are the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), which require personal trainers to pass an extensive exam, maintain continuing education credits once certified, and be certified in CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) and AED (automated external defibrillation). While many certifications, like NSCA, require a bachelor’s degree, others like ACSM and the American Council on Exercise (ACE) require only a high school diploma or equivalency diploma; some have no education prerequisites at all. A good resource for differentiating between the certifications (and all these confusing initials) is this article from Campus Rec Magazine.Whatever certification the trainer has, it should be accredited by a third-party agency, such as the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA, which is most reputable) or the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC).

Do you have a specialty area? Does the trainer mostly work with hard-core athletes (such as marathoners and bodybuilders), seniors, pregnant women, or people with biomechanical issues (such as knee and back problems)? If you have a medical condition that can affect your ability to exercise safely, such as osteoporosis, scoliosis, asthma, or a prior heart attack, make sure to tell the trainer and find out if he or she has experience in that area. Some certifying organizations give trainers the opportunity to attain a specialty certification or more education in a specialty area. For example, an ACSM trainer may become a “Certified Cancer Exercise Trainer,” while under ACE, a trainer may be further trained in such areas as fitness nutrition, senior fitness, and orthopedic exercise.
How long have you been a trainer? Look for a trainer who has at least a couple of years of hands-on experience (or at least someone not brand-new to the job). But other important factors to consider are if the trainer communicates well, is supportive and motivating, is suited to your personality, and can help you meet your fitness goals.
Do you provide dietary advice or recommend supplements? With few exceptions, personal trainers are not qualified to provide nutrition advice. Be especially wary if they promote or try to sell you any dietary supplements. And no trainer should advise about medical treatments, ever.

Personal trainers are sometimes confused with athletic trainers, who specialize in the evaluation, prevention, and rehabilitation of acute and chronic injuries and illnesses, and often provide emergency care at sports events. Working in health care settings or with sports teams (and not as commonly at gyms), athletic trainers have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree (though master’s degrees are common) and are certified through the national Board of Certification. They are also licensed in most states.

There’s a new elite class defined by cultural capital rather than by income bracket, people who practice inconspicuous consumption, finding value not in flashy cars but in buying organic food, taking yoga classes and investing in their children’s education. By making wise decisions about education, health, parenting and retirement, this aspirational class reproduces wealth and deepens an ever-widening class divide.

The performance of the fitness industry tends to be cyclical. That’s true for workouts, and it’s true for diets. This is a space where things may come and go, and trends may disappear entirely. You can probably think of examples: Jazzercise and Tae Bo and a continual stream of short-lived at-home fitness products—the kinds typically sold on infomercials. Some workouts just repeat the same thing again and again; fatigue, boredom, or distraction sets in, and people decide to try something new.

Smart studios don’t think of themselves as a fitness company; they’re a player in the broader experiential economy. The smartest decisions come from understanding and connecting with customers. The best testing ground for growth is within the walls of mirrored studios. Smart studios recruit and train their instructors quite differently from the way other fitness companies do, for one major reason: Their role is crucial to their riders’ experience. Their instructors are inspirational coaches who leave riders more empowered on their bikes and in their lives. Smart studios count on them to make every class unique, to localize the experience, and to connect with different demographic groups. Smart studios count on them to inspire in hundreds of thousands of riders every month.

Smart studios also differ from traditional fitness classes in the way people value the experience. At a gym you can take unlimited spinning classes as part of a basic membership. Smart studios don’t charge monthly fees, but each class costs around $30, and they ask their riders to book bikes in advance. Smart studios believe the pay-per-class model inspires a different level of energy and commitment that contributes to the overall experience.

Calories burned is just a piece of what smart studios deliver to their riders. Measurability matters, but we’ve heard repeatedly that their team is what keeps riders coming back. Smart studios use behavioral interviewing and on-the-job shadowing to ensure that our teams are motivated to make the time a rider spends at one of our studios the best part of the day. It’s simple but intuitive: Inspired people want to encourage inspiration in others.

Smart studios instructors are their greatest asset. They take riders on a 45-minute physical, emotional, and musical journey that’s similar to theater. You could take a class with the same instructor multiple times in a week, and each experience would be different. Autopilot isn’t an option. Lighting, playlists, words of encouragement—everything is customized in real time to the group of riders in the room. The one constant is the incredible physical challenge.

To recruit superstar instructors, smart studios prioritize great personality and individual expression—their training program will fill in any Spinning-specific gaps. To retain those stars, their model values career trajectory. Smart studios pay above-market wages, and 78% of their instructors work full-time, with health insurance, paid vacations, and continuing education, which is very unusual in this industry. They also have free access to on-staff physical therapists. Their retention rate over the past few years has exceeded 95%. They get about 20 applications for each opening in their training program. Instructors go through a rigorous 12-week training at headquarters, where they learn everything from the elements of the workout to musicality to anatomy and biomechanics. Once they’re on the podium, smart studios invest considerably in further training and development. Because smart studios are a growth company, they see how they can build careers by relocating to new markets, growing into regional development roles, or through promotion.

Some of the best lessons come from outside the industry. Smart studios consider how Disney trains its staff and how Starbucks keeps its stores community oriented. Smart studios watch how Airbnb adds digital products while remaining intuitive. Smart studio enthusiasts will tell you that it’s not just one or two things that make smart studios unique—it’s the combination of many. It’s the welcoming attitude of the staff, the charisma of their instructors on the podium, their clothing collection, and their attitude. It’s difficult for imitators to copy any of that, let alone all of it.

It’s never been part of their strategy, but they’ve attracted an influential clientele, especially in New York and Los Angeles. Some people think that relying on celebrities to create buzz is its own form of faddishness. There’s no question that celebrities have brought smart studios attention, but they don’t do anything special to bring them in. From what we hear, high-profile customers appreciate that they can ride in a community setting and that instructors will never draw attention to them.

Choosing the right location for a new studio is a science, and smart studios begin their research a year before they hope to break ground. There’s no substitute for spending time locally and hearing from future riders what matters to them. What do they do with their free time? Where do they exercise and when? What gets them out of bed early? By understanding their lifestyles, smart studios can build a studio around them—not the other way around. And, of course, smart studios consider which of their instructors can best help build community in a new market.

When it comes to innovation, smart studios do some things you might expect. They’re always looking to improve the design of their studios, which some people have compared to Apple stores. For instance, smart studios put iPhone chargers inside the lockers, because the charging stations they used to offer at the front desk were getting crowded. Smart studios have super-bikes, which use magnetic resistance and a carbon belt drivetrain. They’re superior to usual bikes, which use friction-style resistance: They ride more smoothly, and they last longer. Smart studios redesigned the handlebars to accommodate their choreography and to provide greater stability for the upper-body workouts they do on the bikes. And their workout continues to evolve as their riders become stronger. Today their instructors utilize more interval training in their classes, and their hand weights are heavier than they were a few years ago.

Smart studios are confident that they’ll keep growing, because people are looking for places to connect with one another and disconnect from technology. They want experiences more than they want stuff. The reason so many wellness categories are growing is that people recognize the importance of investing in their bodies and their minds. That’s why they believe that they are not as sensitive to the economy as some other premium brands are. Transitions have proved to be times when their brand is acutely relevant to their customers.

Simply put, they’re not a fad. Indoor cycling has been around for more than 30 years because it’s a safe and efficient way to get a cardio workout. It’s easier on the joints than many other forms of exercise, so riders can stay with us for years. Smart studios took this old form of exercise and reinvented it as a full-body workout with emotional and mental benefits that go far beyond fitness. Friendships and communities are enduring. Because smart studios have those elements at their core, their brand will endure too.

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