How to Choose a Personal Trainer

July 30, 2008

A qualified trainer can assess individual fitness, create goals based on the status of that assessment, and motivate the client to adhere to the program as outlined. A proper program should address both the exercise and nutritional components of the client’s lifestyle. This article describes the credentials you should consider when seeking a personal trainer. Professionalism, experience, and a personality compatible with that of the client are also important and can be assessed with a few simple questions.

Academic Degrees

The basic requirement should be an accredited degree in exercise science, kinesiology, exercise physiology, physical education, sport management, or similar field, from a reputable college or university. An exercise-science-related degree requires between 2,000 and 3,000 hours of in-class instruction, many exams, research papers, laboratory courses, and much outside studying and writing—in short, a high level of dedication and comprehensive educational prowess. A normal time frame for completion is four to six years that provide a solid background in human anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, motor learning techniques, exercise leadership, and exercise prescription techniques.

Many community colleges offer a one-year, non-degree exercise science program that provides another pathway to becoming a personal trainer. The courses usually include kinesiology, exercise physiology, sports nutrition, sport injury prevention, exercise for special populations, weight training techniques, fitness assessment, exercise leadership, and sometimes an actual internship. General education courses are usually not included, because the programs are strictly for a certificate. While not nearly as comprehensive as a four-year degree, these programs are taught by qualified instructors and can be considered satisfactory preparation when combined with a recognized personal trainer certification. 


Certification is another important element in choosing a trainer. The main organizations that are attempting to create viable credentialing and industry standards are:

  • NOCA (National Organization for Competency Assurance)
  • Idea Health and Fitness Association
  • NBFE (National Board of Fitness Examiners)
  • IHRSA (International Health Racquet and Sports Club Association)

NOCA, which is the most prominent, has been certifying many types of allied health professionals since 1987 through National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA). The NCCA Web site states:

NCCA uses a peer reviewed process to: establish accreditation standards; evaluate compliance with the standards; recognize organizations/programs which demonstrate compliance; and serve as a resource on quality certification. Certification organizations that submit their programs for accreditation are evaluated based on the process and products, not the content, and are therefore applicable to all professions and industries.

It is the responsibility of each respective organization to pursue NCCA accreditation. So far, ten fitness organizations have achieved NCCA status for at least one or more of their fitness related certifications. It is a time-consuming, expensive, and most likely, tedious process. Those that have achieved status are all long-standing organizations that were already respected in the fitness field. You can be sure the educational content contained within their exams is valid, up to date, and challenging. So check your trainer’s standard personal fitness certification and additional certifications to ensure that they are from one or more of the following:

Two more tenured certification organizations deserve an honorable mention but are currently not NCCA certified:

There are various reasons why a trainer would choose one of these organizations over another. Prior education and possibly influence from a particular professor; suggestion of a colleague, desire to specialize in a particular area; ie: nutrition, strength and conditioning, corrective exercise, boot camp instructing, child or geriatric fitness; or desire to pursue advanced or master fitness certifications. The bottom line is that if the certification is issued by one of the above organizations, it can be considered a quality gauge of a trainer’s knowledge, skills, and abilities. One final note: as many of these organizations conduct research into human performance and exercise physiology related topics, they may teach differing methodologies and avenues for professional success of their graduates.

Nutrition Credentials

No personal training program is complete without proper nutrition. The quantity and types of nutrients consumed weigh heavily on the outcome of your program. Trainers with a Registered Dietitian (RD) credential from the American Dietetic Association should be able to provide in-depth nutrition advice. However, a Registered Dietetic Technician (DTR) credential or an associate or bachelor’s degree in nutrition from an accredited institution of higher learning may be sufficient for providing basic dietary guidelines. Work experience in the field of nutrition is also a plus. These additional credentials in nutrition should be considered as an adjunct to, but not in place of, the aforementioned exercise science degree and personal trainer certification. Dietitians with proper experience may obtain a specialized sports nutrition certification from the American Dietetic Association, but most personal trainers, and even RD’s and DTR’s, will need to explore sports dietetics options within the organizations listed above. If their goal is to work with athletes and improve performance in a particular sport, this point becomes even more important.

Exercise Standards

In 1995 the ACSM and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a consensus statement that, “Every U.S. adult should accumulate 30 minutes or more of moderate-intensity physical activity on most, preferably all, days of the week.” This level can be met with activity, such as a 2-mile walk, that expends approximately 200 calories per day. This recommendation was intended to complement rather than replace the guidelines for higher-intensity exercise to develop aerobic fitness. It also acknowledged that most of the disease-prevention benefits of physical activity will occur with moderate-intensity activities outside of formal exercise programs. Similar recommendations have been issued by the U.S. Surgeon General and the American Heart Association. The latest U.S. government advice was published in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005, which recommended:

  • At least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity, above usual activity, on most days of the week.
  • For most people, greater health benefits can be obtained by engaging in physical activity of more vigorous intensity or longer duration.
  • To help manage body weight and prevent gradual gain in adulthood, engage in approximately 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity activity on most days of the week.
  • To sustain weight loss in adulthood, participate in at least 60 to 90 minutes of daily moderate-intensity physical activity while not exceeding caloric intake.
  • Achieve physical fitness by including cardiovascular conditioning, stretching exercises for flexibility, and resistance exercises or calisthenics for muscle strength and endurance.
  • Children and adolescents should engage in at least 60 minutes of physical activity on most, preferably all, days of the week.
  • Pregnant women, in the absence of medical or obstetric complications, should incorporate 30 minutes or more of moderate-intensity physical activity on most, if not all, days of the week but should avoid activities with a high risk of falling or abdominal trauma.
  • Older adults should participate in regular physical activity to reduce functional declines associated with aging and to achieve the other benefits of physical activity identified for all adults.

What You Should Expect

The first step in developing a fitness regimen will be an exploration of your health history, fitness goals, and exercise preferences. In addition, there will be several important forms to be filled out:

  • Health history form. This will contain questions about past and current medical problems, family history of disease, and possible risk factors which are contraindicated with exercise. Truthful responses are crucial in maintaining client safety.
  • Physical activity readiness (PAR-Q) form. This additional document will assist the trainer in gauging whether the participant should seek physician approval before beginning a program of progressive exercise
  • Informed consent. This should outline the benefits and risks of engaging in an exercise program and states that the client accepts the said conditions without any undue deceit or coercion. It is required by law where program participants may be exposed to some type of harm, be it physical, psychological, or other. Potential clients are advised to read it carefully. Signing the document renders it legally binding.
  • Physician approval. Although not absolutely required for apparently healthy individuals, it is prudent for many people to discuss their training plans with a knowledgeable physician. A conscientious, safety-first trainer will require written approval from the client’s physician prior to commencing with an exercise program.
  • Periodic re-evaluations. Trainers should periodically re-perform diagnostic tests, re-examine client goals, and either maintain or reformulate program goals based on participant responses. Important in maintaining continuous optimal program design.

Once clearance has been secured, the trainer may ask the client to perform several tests to provide baseline information about their level of flexibility, muscular strength, muscular endurance, and cardiorespiratory endurance. The tests utilized will vary depending on available equipment at the trainer’s disposal and whether or not the client will be training at home or in a health club environment. They can include stretching, lifting weights, walking on the treadmill, using the stationary bicycle, and taking a bodyfat percentage using skinfold calipers. The initial interview and tests will govern the type of exercise, equipment, and initial level of intensity that are used.

Warning signs

The majority of reputable trainers will abide by the professional code of ethics of their certifying organization. Professionalism is highly stressed by all respected organizations listed in this article. You should be skeptical if a trainer:

  • Insists on an actual workout during the first meeting. Most personal training sessions last either 30 or 60 minutes. This initial meeting should be used to explore what you need and process necessary paperwork.
  • Tries to sell you dietary supplements. Most people who not need dietary supplements. If supplements are advisable, it is generally best to buy them from a retail or mail-order outlet that has low prices.
  • Says that his or her style of training is the only way to get results. Although self-confidence is a positive attribute, different organizations teach different methods for client success. There is no single correct method to train.
  • Is hesitant to provide you with proof of credentials or references. This can be a sign that the trainer’s credentials may be less than credible.
  • Is uninsured. Liability insurance is a must for every personal trainer.
  • Is not punctual about appointments, or is unavailable via telephone or email: A professional trainer should be punctual and ready for appointments, and reasonably available to answer client questions after hours.
  • Is unclear about the cancellation policy. Clients have a right to know how much time they have to cancel a session in advance without being obligated to pay the fee.
  • Does not keep up with current developments in the field of exercise science: It is important to keep abreast of any advances or new developments in this ever-changing profession. This can be done by taking accredited continuing education courses offered by the 12 certifying organizations, and reading professional publications such as the JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association), Journal of the American Dietetic Association, The Physician and Sports Medicine, and The Journal of Sports Medicine.
  • Does not maintain current CPR certification. Every trainer must maintain current CPR certification and be trained in basic lifesaving skills. Do not hire a trainer until you have verified this certification. Common certifying organizations are the American Red Cross and the American Heart Association.
  • Does not practice what he/she preaches. Those who do not train their own body may lack the dedication and motivation needed to inspire their clients.

Mr. Evans holds an Associate in Science degree in nutrition from San Diego Mesa College; a Bachelor of Science degree in kinesiology with a specialization in fitness, nutrition, and health, from San Diego State University; and certification as a Master Fitness Trainer by the National Federation of Professional Trainers.

This article was revised on July 30, 2008.