Personal trainers: The zero BS guide to getting the right training advice

To PT or not to PT? That is the question… (answers include less expensive alternatives)
Personal Trainers: The zero BS guide

We all want to be our best when it comes to fitness. Whether that looks like squatting your bodyweight, running a PB, losing fat or strengthening your weak spots, it's safe to say that it's best to do it with a helping hand from a personal trainer for a number of reasons.

They'll be able to give you a heads up on any problems with your form, advise on any mental blocks and help reduce the risk of injury. But let's be honest – personal training sessions don't come cheap and they can be one hell of an investment if you're not earning big money.

So, should you get a personal trainer? This guide will answer all your big questions about PTs, what they do, how they're qualified and what you should look out for in a potential trainer. If you decide not to go down the PT route, we've got a couple of suggestions on alternatives that could help too. Get ready to brush up your PT knowledge and make the big decision on whether it's the road you should take to help you hit your goals.

What are the benefits of getting a personal trainer?

Should you get a personal trainer? A guide

Put simply, a personal trainer provides a workout with one-to-one guidance, supervision and motivation. "Group exercise classes and solo gym work can absolutely be hugely beneficial, but there is a small margin for injuries and for movements to be performed incorrectly or ineffectively," says Hannah Lewin, a personal trainer based in the City of London. "Hiring a PT offers you the opportunity of tailored workouts, specifically designed to your fitness levels and goals."

That means if you find your standard bootcamp class a total slog or you struggle in weights classes because you don't quite get the moves, your PT can adjust your training and tweak your technique so you get the absolute best out of your session.

If you want to work on Olympic lifts and your PT has no experience in that area, it's a waste of money

When a trainer is dealing with a full – which can include up to 40 people in major studios – it's just not possible for them to give every participant individual attention. A PT, though, is there for exactly that – to provide workouts designed to spur you on and challenge your personal fitness level.

If you struggle to make it out of bed for a 6.30am gym session, same. But that's where personal trainers help again. "Accountability is something that a PT also provides – it's much harder to cancel a planned movement session if someone is waiting for you!" says Lewin. "A caveat here though – you shouldn’t ever dread your sessions, or be made to feel guilty if a genuine diary change does arise."

What should I know about my personal trainer before I book in with them?

Personal trainers

Think about what you want to get from your session and find someone who you think will be able to provide that. Lewis says: "Ensure that they are the right fit for your goals. For example, if you are looking for some help with power-lifting it is important to ensure that your PT has specific experience in that area – a good PT will happily tell you if it isn’t their bag!

"It is also so important to ensure that the personality fit is there." Lewin continues. "Will you feel comfortable with them, and have they taken the time to understand exactly what your requirements are?" It can't be understated how important this is. If you want to work on Olympic lifts and your PT has no experience in that area, it's a waste of money and potentially putting you at risk of injury.

It's worth considering practical issues too. "Basic admin such as ensuring that their diary availability matches yours and what their fees, booking and cancellation policies are, are also vital to know upfront." Remember that PTs tend to work outside the average office hours to fit in clients, usually pre-9am and post-5pm. If you can squeeze in a session mid-morning or mid-afternoon, it's possible your trainer will have better availability.

How do I know my PT is qualified?

Personal trainers

Thanks to the internet, everyone and their mum is an expert on fitness. You can find workout guides all over social media, some of which are very expensive and not created by qualified personal trainers. It's safe to say you're best off avoiding those to preserve your health/fitness/bank balance. Don't be afraid to ask a personal trainer what their qualifications are and where they got them before you start working together.

Lewin says: "Qualifications should be readily available should you request them. You can also search the Register of Exercise Professionals database online if your PT is registered – REPs is the register for exercise professionals and is the largest independent public register for the health and fitness industry in the UK.

"The minimum qualification that a PT in the UK requires is Level 2 Gym Instructor and Level 3 Personal Trainer. Handy (and for me, essential) additional qualifications include pre/postnatal fitness, but I also learned a lot from the boxing, kettlebell and indoor cycling courses I completed. Level 4 PT is also invaluable for progressing your career as a PT."

In the USA, PTs are typically certified through the American Council on Exercise (ACE) or the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM).

Wherever you train, it's important your PT is fully qualified – not least because if they're not, they almost certainly won't have insurance in case something were to go wrong.

What can I expect from my first PT session?

Personal trainers

While this can vary based on the sort of training you want to do, some things tend to be standard in your first PT session. "Each first session will vary depending on the client, but my first sessions with new clients always involve a basic initial posture and movement assessment and some exercises that allow me to see where a client’s cardio fitness levels and strength currently lie.

"I also value this first session as a chance to learn a little more about my client on a personalised level, and to ensure that they feel completely at ease working with me – a comfortable working relationship is so important," says Lewin.

Are there any red flags I should look out for?

"If a PT is unable to provide you with qualifications when asked (or testimonials to back up any claims of previous client successes), continue your search!" says Lewin. Another warning flag may come if a PT is particularly aggressive when asked about their qualifications – it's perfectly reasonable for you to ask.

Lewin says: "If during sessions a PT is unable to explain the benefits of the movement you are performing or what muscle groups are being used, you feel forced into performing exercises you hate or find unachievable or you feel uncomfortable with your trainer, it’s time to find a new one."

Hiring a PT offers you the opportunity of tailored workouts, specifically designed to your fitness levels and goals

This isn't to say you should bin off every PT who tries to make you do the dreaded burpees, but if you genuinely struggle with a particular move and feel you can't do it safely but they won't take no for an answer, or if they refuse to acknowledge particular preferences of yours (for example, not wanting to have your weight measured) then it's worth taking a step back.

Why are PT sessions so expensive?

The big one. Yes, PT sessions can be pricey, ranging from $50 for an hour or even over $100 if your trainer is highly qualified and established. But this money doesn't all go straight to your PT's pocket – they'll have to pay rent to the gym they're training you in, cover insurance, fund professional development courses and even pay off their initial qualification costs, which can run into the thousands.

You're not just paying for the hour, but for the location and all the experience your PT has built up as they've trained – which is exactly what you're benefiting from.

Should you get a personal trainer? A guide

What are the alternatives to PT sessions?

If a one-to-one personal training session is out of your price range or you're not quite sure it's for you, there are a number of other options you can take.

Personal training is too expensive for me: Consider having a small group PT session or sharing it with a friend. You'll get less individual attention, but splitting the cost across a couple of people or more will bring the fee down for each of you and you'll still have a more personalised experience than a class.

I don't like the gym: If you're not that keen on classic strength training, weight lifting or intervals, you might be better off with a trainer outside the typical gym environment. Coaches and instructors in many areas offer one-to-one sessions in disciplines like dance, Strongman training, yoga, Pilates, gymnastics and even Animal Flow. Don't be afraid to experiment with different options to find a kind of fitness you truly love.

I want to train for an event: If your end goal is something like a marathon, triathlon or long-distance swim or cycle event, you may be better off with a coach who specifically works with those sports. Adult swimming lessons are offered at most pools and can bring a big improvement to your strokes in just a few sessions. Triathlon and running coaches can help boost your performance by programming all-round training routines encompassing running, cross-training and strength work to help you achieve your race goals.

I want personalised sessions but I don't want to regularly train with someone: When it comes to personal training, it's not all or nothing. If you're generally physically fit and competent in the area you want to train, some PTs will be happy to write up a few weeks of a programme for you to work through in your own time.

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