There's a notion that a good trainer is a like a field general: someone who will "whip you" into shape. But that's not the case. If you hire the person who most resembles a general, you may find yourself a casualty in the battle of the bulge. Here's what you should look for when choosing a good trainer.
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Knowledge Is Only The First Step
First, let's talk about the most important thing that you should look for in a trainer (which I'll use interchangeably with "coach" from here on out). The biggest mistake that people make is looking at a trainer's "domain knowledge" in order to gauge their ability. Everyone wants someone who will tell them what exercises are best, how to achieve perfect form, and what's best meal timing — down to the very second — for optimal post workout recovery.
But in reality, knowledge of such things is hardly a differentiator. In fact, it's a requirement to be a trainer. But knowledge will only go so far. After all, you already know that you need to eat less and move more, but that alone won't help you succeed. Trainers are no different.
In fact, allowing a prospective trainer to woo you with his or her knowledge of muscle protein synthesis optimization™ and fat-busting-low-glycemic-index foods may leave you vulnerable to a bad deal. Trainers are also salesmen by necessity, and mastering fitness jargon doesn't necessarily mean that they can help you. Compatibility, and not knowledge, is the top thing that you can look for in a prospective trainer.
How To Gauge A Trainer's Compatibility With You
To borrow a phrase from the study of motivational interviewing: successfully motivating someone towards success is more like dancing than wrestling. Coaching isn't merely handing out a set of marching orders and then making them to burpees if they fail to follow them. If a trainer's M.O. reeks of this, then you probably want to stay far away.
Instead, compatibility is perhaps the most important thing to look for in a trainer. Someone whose weight-related guilt is one of their main roadblocks in fitness will probably not work well with a trainer who acts like a field general that yells whenever you slip up. Similarly, if you have always enjoyed fitness and exercising, you probably find that a former fat kid like myself reminds you too much of a carebear when talking about self-compassion.
In order to achieve the best compatibility possible, here are a few things to think about.
Find Someone Similar To Your Ideal Future Self
The most important thing you can do is to find a trainer who has many of the same characteristics as you. This is the type of person who should just "click" and you can imagine your future self channelling. For example, if you are a new mother who is trying to lose your pregnancy weight despite running around all the time, you may do best with a woman with kids who understands the struggles of simultaneously parenting and getting fit.
That matters so much more than, say, having a professional coach that top athletes use. They just won't understand your struggle, and you won't be able to metaphorically "dance" with your trainer unless you're understood.
Find The Right Spot On The Kindness/Toughness Scale
Coaches have the tendency to be either kind or tough (or somewhere in between). Of course, they can be both in different contexts, but they generally lean to one side of that spectrum.
Those who truly enjoy fitness would do well with the tougher coach, as they already have a tendency towards self-efficacy. Similarly, if you are experienced with fitness and already have the mindfulness, knowledge, and self-compassion to succeed (be honest with yourself), you might just be in need of accountability. In this case, a tougher coach may be the way to go.
If you have struggled with exercise, weight, or anything in general, you'll want to err towards the kinder side. However:
- It's incredibly hard for beginners to have the self-awareness to realise they need a kind coach. Observe contestants on The Biggest Loser...they desperately need someone to help them master compassion, yet they have trainers who basically torture them for our amusement.
- Kind does not mean soft. A kind coach should not judge you or steamroll you with anger when you mess up. They do, however, still need to call you out on bullshit when they see it, and help you face harsh truths.
Be honest with yourself about what you need out of someone, and don't convince yourself that you can always just find a drill sergeant and "toughen up."
Vet Your Potential Trainers
Now that you know what you want, it's time to actually vet potential trainers. Have a chat with them in order to feel them out. Here are a few things you should consider:
- Do they immediately start hammering marketing tricks on you? (Remember folks, the sale always ends tomorrow) A pushy trainer that pressures you into becoming a client probably has other priorities in mind.
- Do they actually try to get to know you? A trainer doesn't have to be your drinking buddy, but they do have to know about your life for maximum efficacy. Let me put it this way: if the only thing that your trainer knows is what you're doing inside the gym, they're not going to be very effective, because you don't spend your life in the gym.
- Do you feel comfortable around them or an "affinity" of some sorts? You will quickly find out that sometimes you will need your trainer to act like your fitness therapist. No matter how great the coach may be, if you don't feel a level of comfort with them, you won't be able to open yourself up to be helped.
If you do decide that a trainer is right for you, realise that you're unlikely to have the same one for life. You'll outgrow some, find others that can teach you something new, or decide to train on your own either temporarily or the rest of your life. Compatibility is a fluid thing. But if they do their job, you will outgrow them, because you will be far different than your future self.
Lifehacker's Vitals column offers health and fitness advice based on solid research and real-world experience.