The Ultimate Guide to Finding a Personal Trainer – Part I

When it comes to your personal health & fitness, there is a good chance that you’re dissatisfied in one way or another. Maybe you don’t like the way you look. Maybe you don’t like the way you feel. You feel tired when you get up in the morning and can hardly get out of bed. Perhaps you’ve had enough of feeling winded at the top of a staircase. Your joints ache and you feel weak more times than you can count.

Whether your goal is to fat loss, weight loss, or muscle gain, I can assure you that you’re not alone. At its core, health & fitness is about training your mind and your body to enhance your lifestyle in anything you do. It goes far beyond lifting weights in the confines of the gym, or getting better at your sport of choice; it’s about happiness and feeling good. That’s what being able to do the things that you couldn’t do before or progressing towards the look that you want does for you.

Whatever your problems are, you’ve determined that improving your body, health, or fitness can help. Now, you just need to go to the gym and get after it, right?

Unfortunately, it’s hardly that easy. What are you supposed to do with that machine? How long should you run on the treadmill? What exercises should you even be doing with those kettlebells? How many sets and reps?

You have no idea where to start. You’ve seen countless workouts in fitness magazines, all sorts of products in informercials, and tons of free articles on health & fitness websites. Furthermore, people do all kinds of different things at the gym, and it’s hard to figure out exactly what works and what doesn’t. All of this pulls you in different directions when it comes to what YOU should be doing about your health & fitness.

Wouldn’t it be nice to work with someone who actually understands your unique qualities, what exactly you’re looking for, and knows what you should be doing and most importantly, what actually works? This is exactly where a personal trainer or fitness coach comes in. Your time is the most valuable resource in your life, and you shouldn’t waste it trying to figure everything out by yourself. But how do you go about finding the right personal trainer for you?

According to an article on CityLab, New York State has 18,000 fitness instructors, trailing behind only California’s 30,000. Most of the state’s fitness instructors are concentrated in New York City. It’s no surprise that when it comes to health & fitness, NYC has so much to offer. There are plenty of commercial gyms like Equinox or Crunch, boutique fitness studios like SoulCycle or Barry’s Bootcamp, trainers, coaches, and instructors. By location quotient, the greater NYC metro area has 1.5 times the national share of fitness professionals. NYC is a saturated market and it’s almost as if we have too many options at our fingertips.

We’re here to help you find a personal trainer out of those 18,000. This Ultimate Guide will teach you exactly what to look for: how to know if someone is qualified as a personal trainer, and how to know if that trainer is doing his/her job and getting you results.

To keep things simple, there are 4 E’s to finding a personal trainer:

  1. Expert
  2. Evidence-based
  3. Efficient
  4. Effective

Without further ado, let’s dive right in.

The First 2 E’s: How to Know Someone is Qualified as a Personal Trainer

The first 2 E’s to finding a personal trainer are Expert and Evidence-based. They both relate to the qualifications that you should be seeking out in anyone you’re looking to hire as a trainer or a coach.

The fitness industry has traditionally had a very low barrier to entry. Surely, the most good-looking person in the gym knows exactly how to help everyone else at the gym, right? Unfortunately it’s not that simple and there’s more that meets the eye. Anyone can call him or herself a fitness instructor these days, which makes it even more important to seek out qualifications that actually make someone an expert, especially to consult on your individual health & fitness needs.

In order to determine if a personal trainer is an expert, you should look at both the trainer’s academic pedigree and certifications.

When it comes to certifications, it is easy to be misled by all the titles and acronyms that personal trainers use in their resumes or LinkedIn profiles. In addition to general fitness training certifications, like those offered by the NSCA (National Strength & Conditioning Association), NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine), or ACE (American Council on Exercise), many companies also offer certifications in their own training system and methodologies. Your bootcamp instructor might’ve received a certification from that specific bootcamp company. However, she doesn’t necessarily need a training/coaching certification to teach it, nor is she legally obligated to have a general training/coaching certification to work as a bootcamp instructor in the first place!

This is all to say that certifications are a mixed bag, which makes it confusing for us general consumers. A personal trainer definitely should have a general certification, but there are many of them; some are easier to obtain, and less stringent to maintain.

Perhaps the most well-known and highly-regarded general certification in the industry is the NSCA-CSCS, the National Strength & Conditioning Association – Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist. One of the pre-requisites for this certification is a bachelor’s degree. As you can see, the barrier of entry for this prestigious certification is also very high. Furthermore, as part of their recertification process, CSCS trainers must attend continuing education opportunities in the fitness field and provide proof to earn enough credits to recertify.

Meanwhile, some certifications allow anyone to sit for their respective certification exams, and as long as someone passes, they can call themself a personal trainer, without proof or any prior experience actually coaching other people. This is why some organizations have practical components in their certification exams; candidates actually need to demonstrate that they know what they’re doing. One notable example of a certification that does this is the CSCCa-SCCC (Collegiate Strength & Conditioning Coaches Association – Strength & Conditioning Coach Certified).

With so many certifications out there in the health & fitness industry, one simple way to vet them is to see if they are accredited through the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA). If a personal trainer has an accredited certification, then we are on the right track so far.

With all this confusion surrounding certifications, academic pedigree is perhaps even more important than certification when it comes to qualifications for a personal trainer. Someone who has a master’s degree in exercise science, kinesiology, human performance, or other similar fields, has likely gone through 6 extra years of education to be a fitness professional; the 6 weeks someone might spend studying for a certification pales in comparison to this.

We all know that you don’t have to work in what you majored in to be successful at your job; at its core, a bachelor’s degree is proof that someone knows how to think critically about big problems. However, going beyond and obtaining a post-graduate degree in exercise-related subjects indicates one’s commitment and passion to the field and the coaching profession. This qualification is so important, that it’s required for all our coaches here at Halevy Life.

Finally, prior experience in the industry should also be considered of the personal trainer you’re looking to hire. Where did the trainer work beforehand, and how many years has s/he been working as a trainer? What kind of people did s/he work with? Youth athletes, professional athletes, and/or general population clients? Years of experience might just be a number, but it’s still one of many indicators of a trainer’s passion, professionalism, and track record—many trainers quit the fitness industry within a year.

All of these factors can also indicate whether a trainer/coach is evidence-based. The personal trainer you’re looking to hire should have a strong foundation in science and using published scientific journals and to guide his/her practice. S/he should keep up to date with the latest peer-reviewed research and should be a proponent of training methodologies backed by scientific principles.

This is why having a degree in exercise science is important. It demonstrates an appreciation for proper exercise and training techniques that can actually help you; not hurt you. Furthermore, keeping up with the latest research or training methodologies through seminars and third-party certifications is paramount. These avenues for learning qualify as continuing education for trainer and coaches, and the one you’re looking to hire should stay on top of this. It indicates that the trainer has a growth mindset and is constantly looking to get better results for his/her clients.

More to come…

There’s more to come of this guide, in which we will go through the next 2 E’s to finding a personal trainer in New York City (or anywhere else). These E’s will focus on results, and how you know whether or not you’re getting them. Stay tuned!

by Jeremy Lau

Jeremy Lau is a Senior Staff Coach and Metabolic Lab Manager at Halevy Life.

Jeremy graduated cum laude from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a BSc. in Biomedical Engineering and received his Master’s in Exercise Physiology at Columbia University. In addition to his academic accolades, Jeremy is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).

Prior to joining the team at Halevy Life, Jeremy completed a coaching internship at Cressey Sports Performance, where he coached both amateur and professional athletes, among whom were many professional MLB baseball players.

As an athlete, Jeremy has played baseball competitively for most of his life.