Over the past 20 years, the definition of what a personal trainer is and does has changed drastically. As a result, many people don’t know what to look for, and expect, from a personal trainer.  Since the mid-1980s the fitness profession has evolved and the kinds of trainers – and personal training – that are available has changed.

Actually the term “personal trainer” has changed to the point where personal trainers in the year 2007 bear little resemblance to the trainers of 2 decades ago.  Unfortunately, in too many cases these changes and differences are not for the better.

The term personal trainer has been cheapened over the years as many people have tried to cash in on the growing popularity of personal trainers and as the fitness trend became more and more popular.  The title personal trainer is pretty much meaningless today, is usually indicative of a lower level of knowledge and – in my opinion – carries a negative connotation, as well. For this reason, I prefer the term strength and conditioning coach rather than the term personal trainer.

There are very few certifying organizations that have stringent standards when it comes to providing credentials to fitness professionals, and with the exception of the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), there aren’t any certifying organizations that I put much faith in.  Every staff member at my facility is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) as designated by the NSCA, and when we hire new staff the CSCS certification is a requirement. 

Furthermore, we have adopted the procedures and protocols designed by the NSCA with regard to testing and teaching. USA Weightlifting conducts a stringent educational process in order to certify coaches, and any coach who has undergone this training should be considered a serious strength and conditioning pro worthy of consideration.  Don’t make the mistake of thinking that only competitive athletes can benefit from working with this kind of high-level professional.

I am a USA Weightlifting Certified Coach and use the knowledge that I gained from this program every day with my regular, non-competitive athlete clients.  I have 60-year old grandmothers, 40-year old men, 70-year old retirees, high school kids and every other imaginable demographic taking advantage of the high-level knowledge and techniques promoted by USA Weightlifting. Ideally people should look for a fitness professional that is a performance based strength and conditioning coach and not just a “personal trainer.” 

In a perfect world, there would be more qualified fitness professionals and finding CSCS certified fitness pros would be easy, but this isn’t the case.  The NSCA offers a Certified Personal Trainer designation that is the best in the field, and a person holding this credential is really the only option to the CSCS. Find out if your gym – or potential gym – has as an overall training philosophy that their trainers must follow. 

A facility should make the effort to insist that their staff follow a proven program and take steps to ensure that their coach’s knowledge base is kept current.  Never become a member of a facility that has free-lance, independent trainers that do not follow a protocol, and do not work with a strength coach that does not have a discernable, coherent training philosophy.

To get the best idea of how a trainer works and what their philosophy is you should observe a session.  Stay away from any trainer that uses machines in lieu of ground-based exercises.  For instance, look for a coach that includes squats, step ups and lunges in their program, and avoids the Smith machine, leg extension, leg curl and leg press machines. And of course get references from any strength coach that you are considering working with. There’s no sure-fire way to guarantee that you will hire the best possible strength coach, but if you keep these tips in mind you will give yourself the best chance possible to find the coach that’s best for you.


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