How to hire a better class of personal trainer

Experts from the fitness world tell us what to watch out for when choosing a new coach

How do you spot a good personal trainer? Here’s a clue: it isn’t their six-pack. Just as even the worst money-manager can find themselves in possession of a fortune, genetics, youth and simply being in the gym all day can easily be enough to carve out a set of enviable abs that are no guarantee of competence behind the clipboard. And even if someone’s got themselves in good shape, it’s no guarantee they can do it for you.

So how do you pick the best trainer out of the usual suspects at your gym? Avoiding the type who’d leave a moist patch on the bench. Men’s Fitness editor-at-large Joel Snape asked a handful of PTs what to look for – and what to avoid. Spoilers: the whole thing starts and ends with you…

Be honest about what you want

To lose a bit of timber? To be able to beat your (currently theoretical) grandchildren at any given sport in a couple of decades? To build a Tom Hardy-like set of traps? Think about how to articulate this before you even start the search. The more honest you are with yourself about your goals, the more readily you’ll be able to find someone equipped to help you hit them. And yes, you want a specialist.

“I don’t offer anything except MMA training and body composition,” says Ash Grimshaw, a fat loss specialist and pro fighter who works with some of London’s most exclusive clientele. “If you’re thinking about training for a marathon or a powerlifting comp, you need someone else. And if you find a trainer who says they can do it all, that’s a bad sign – they’ll be spreading themselves too thin to be really excellent at any single thing.”

Remember: there’s nothing wrong with wanting a six-pack, but if that’s your goal, be upfront about it.  

Watch how they deal with other people

Before you approach, assess how they work with other clients. Are they engaged, friendly, and willing to give them a nudge when things get demanding? That’s a good sign. Do they leave them on a treadmill for 10 minutes “to warm up” while they check their phone? That’s less promising. “Some clients can be chatty during workouts, but a good trainer will be keeping them at least somewhat focused on not outstaying their rest periods,” says trainer Jess Wolny. “Also watch out for them giving form pointers – if a client’s doing every squat three inches high with their knees collapsing inwards and getting no feedback from their trainer, that’s not great.”

How to hire a better class of personal trainer

Ask about their results

Any decent trainer should have at least a couple of examples of satisfied clients, past or present, who’ve got results in the area you’re aiming to improve at. Ask for before-and-after pics or testimonials – preferably recent ones – and if possible, ask a few questions about what obstacles they faced with previous clients, to get a feel for their problem-solving abilities. And, yes, they should be in decent shape themselves.

“They don’t need to be ready to go on a magazine cover, but they should practice what they’re preaching,” says Grimshaw. “I want to be in the kind of shape my clients aspire to.”

... And their qualifications

Don’t be fooled by the REPS Level 3: that’s the bare minimum for getting a job in a UK gym. Other qualifications can be confusing – you can always Google them if you’re into due diligence – but the main thing is that they have them.

‘The best trainers are constantly learning,’ says Adamson. “You don’t just get your coach’s qualification and coach – you’re constantly expanding your knowledge base.” A degree in sports science or kinesiology can definitely be a plus – it’s a lot more demanding than a six-week REPS cert – but they still need to be able to translate that into real-world training plans that work for your goals. Look for someone who can talk about what they’ve been learning recently, and why it interests them.

How to hire a better class of personal trainer

Remember: communication is key

It’s not just about what they know, but how well they explain it. “I see a lot of trainers who’ll over-explain every movement, giving you ten things to remember while you’re trying to do a squat or a deadlift,” says Grimshaw. “That’s too many – you’re going to try to do them all at once and mess up. A good trainer should be able to assess your form and pick out the one or two cues – squeeze your glutes, keep your chest up, whatever – that you need to move more efficiently.”

How to hire a better class of personal trainer

Listen to what they ask you

In a first meetup with any new trainer, they should obviously ask about your goals, but should also ask about your previous injuries and training history – they’ll need it to create you a tailored programme, and if they aren’t interested it suggests you’ll be getting something off-the-peg. If you’re interested in body composition – fat loss or putting on muscle – they should probably also be asking you about nutrition: if they don’t even bring up diet it’s a sign that they’re more interested in your cash than your progress.

And don't expect them to do everything

Whatever your goal, no trainer’s going to be able to do the work for you, and anyone who promises he can shouldn’t be trusted. “As much as anything else, a good trainer will be one who knows as much about building buy-in as Bulgarian split squats,” says Wolny. “They should be willing to create a customised programme that includes stuff you’ll enjoy – but also one that works hard and takes you close to your limits.” That means you need to be ready to work hard too – and if you aren’t, high-level trainers won’t be interested. Want the best? Be prepared to invest more than just cash.

Want to hear more from Joel Snape? Here are the 15 things no gentleman should ever do in the gym

Further Reading