Good Trainers vs Bad Trainers – How to Know the Difference

When you walk into a gym, how do you know if the guy with “Trainer” or “Coach” on his shirt actually knows what he’s doing? As a member of the lay public, it may never even have occurred to you that there are differences in the level of experience and expertise among the people in these shirts. But, it’s a very important question to ask, because the right answer makes the difference between wasted time and money and a productive experience – or between potential injury and the improvement you’re looking for.

And it is a problem in the industry.

There are plenty of good coaches available. This isn’t necessarily the problem.

The problem is that the gym industry has resorted to the cheapest source of labor possible to fill their employment vacancies for “Personal Trainers.” It’s no surprise that most commercial gym trainers are very young and do not have sufficient experience to be coaching the general public. It’s no surprise that young people without college degrees will work for far less money than someone who has achieved a higher level of education or professional training and has no real hands on experience working with the general public.

It’s not uncommon for many commercial gyms to charge $65-85 an hour for personal training, with only about $15-20 of that session going to the trainer. Again – it goes back to cheap labor for the gym. A good coach or trainer with education and experience simply isn’t going work for a gym with that kind of payout.

But, the problem with the industry goes beyond the big gyms looking for trainers who will work for cheap. The heart of the problem lies within the certification process of personal trainers – if you can even call it that.

There are dozens of “certifying bodies” in the fitness industry. A cursory Google search will give you a quick education of just how easy it is to become a “Certified Personal Trainer” with a few letters after your name. It’s a completely unregulated industry, and just about anyone with a little bit of experience in the gym can take an easy online multiple choice exam, submit a nominal fee, and voila….you are now a Certified Personal Trainer.

The mainstream fitness industry subsists on membership dues and personal training fees. Enrollment fees and monthly dues pay the bills, and the club’s share of the personal training is the gravy. This can work because the mainstream fitness industry relies on simple to use machine-based exercise programs and, more recently, “boot-camp” calisthenics, not barbell-based strength training. In other words, the industry relies on low-quality exercise that can be administered by minimally-qualified personnel.

Good coaches know that barbell and dumbbells (free weights) are better. They involve more muscle mass and more joints operating over longer ranges of motion using heavier weights. The loads you can lift with them can increase over many years, and they involve balance, flexibility, and skill when they are performed correctly. Barbells make you stronger than machines, so they work better for strength training.

Barbells also involve a specific skill set in their coaching. A competent barbell coach knows how to solve the problems associated with weighted human movement – the mistakes commonly made. A good coach made these mistakes himself, and that’s why personal experience under the bar is an important aspect of effective barbell coaching.

But, machines are easier to use and easier to teach, as are calisthenics and boot-camp exercises. You just sit down, wiggle the pads around, and count to 10, or move really fast and hard until you’re hot, sweaty, and tired – which means that the people available to teach them are easier to find and cheaper to pay. Their experience has been obtained much more cheaply than a barbell coach’s.

So, the problem boils down to this: How do you find a trainer who is qualified to help you in a mainstream fitness industry club?

You probably can’t. There are exceptions, of course, but people who start working for machine-based clubs and “boxes” will later outgrow that restrictive environment and will leave for a better situation – a gym where they can practice what they have learned about training, where they can more effectively train their clients and themselves. They will probably open their own gym when they can.

A good trainer will be found in a good gym. A good gym is usually owned by an individual, not a corporation, because of the personal nature of this type of practice. A good gym will have good equipment: quality bars and plates, useful racks for squats, presses, and bench presses, perhaps a decent rack of dumbbells for certain types of assistance work, and the obligatory chalk box that always accompanies a serious approach to strength training.

This year, when you finally decide to get serious and get some help with your strength training, do not fail to make the important distinction between qualified and unqualified coaching. Find a place that is more likely to employ the people you need. Competent employees are unlikely to be found at your corporate commercial health club.