How to choose + work with a personal trainer

April 11, 2014
Rob in black

Meet my trainer, Robin. Yes, he is 6’4″ tall.  If you live anywhere near Hamilton/Bascom in San Jose, you might want to train with him.

If you’re like me, and I think a lot of people are, you work out in fits and starts. There are times when I’m really into the gym and then, if I fall out of the habit it’s difficult to get back into it.  There are so many things I’d rather do–like read, write, see friends, watch a movie, cook–none of which support physical health.

Enter a personal trainer.  Finding the right fitness professional — someone to guide you and set out a program to help you meet your goals–is a luxury I’ve given myself on and off for years.  Most gyms employ personal trainer, but not all trainers are good ones and not all trainers are good for those of us at midlife or beyond. That’s why I’m talking about how to choose and work with a personal trainer.


I’ve been lucky. In Tampa, I worked with Trainer Tom. He’s exactly my age and not only fit, himself, but knowledgeable about how older bodies work. His training is efficient, practical and got me doing my very first push-up ever.  But then, I  moved back to California and fell out with exercise. I begged Tom to come live in California. He was deaf to my entreaties.  It was time to find a new personal trainer.

Meet Robin, whose photo is up top of this page. He was my assigned trainer when I joined my neighborhood gym–a lucky break because other members confided he was one of the top trainers there. And they were right.

Ok, let’s handle the elephant in the room.  He’s a bodybuilder. This photo doesn’t do him justice. He’s got amazing size and presence. He moves with grace and is not at all muscle-bound, like many body builders.

When I look at him, and I do, three or four times a week as he puts me through my paces, I see the discipline and commitment it takes to look that good.  He’s not so much aspirational for me–I don’t want to be a body builder–as he is INspirational. He’s a constant reminder that fitness is a 24-hour a day commitment. And we talk a lot about that as I train.

He’s also a consummate fitness professional. He keeps me from injuring myself, understands and explains how the body works and he listens to my feedback. And when I do strain something (which happened more when I first started than it does now) he puts me on the training table and in five minutes the pain is gone.  Or he takes a big wooden roller and rolls it out. It’s some kind of magic thing–I don’t look at it too closely–but I think its source is a deep understanding of how muscles and tissues respond. This really is a first–straining a muscle and leaving pain-free–and after the first couple times this happened last year I knew for certain I was in good hands.

But all trainers are not created equal. No, they aren’t.


So — how to find and work with a good personal trainer:

1. If it’s more convenient for you to use a gym trainer, ask other members at your gym. If they’ve been active members, chances are they know the reputations of various gym trainers. And tell the gym manager what you want to achieve and he or she will usually do their best to assign a trainer with that expertise. Maybe. Some managers are better than others. So, have an introductory session or two. They’re usually free at a gym. If you’re not getting what you want, don’t be afraid to ask the manager for a different trainer.  You’re paying, you choose.

2.  If you don’t mind a studio  (I had a great trainer with a studio when I first moved back to California) do a web search, ask friends, check Yelp. I’ve done that.

3. Interview every trainer-candidate in person to get a feel for their style and how much they know about clients like you.  Some trainers like to work only with already-fit clients. Others, like mine, enjoy helping clients achieve their goals.  Some have specialties. You won’t know until you sit down and talk with them. Ask how many clients your age or fitness level they have. Because if they don’t have very many clients like you, they may not give you what you want.

4. Certifications don’t mean as much as you’d think Watch how the trainer works with other clients–you can usually do that at  a gym while on a treadmill or Stairmaster. You can ask a studio trainer if you can sit in.  Listen to how he talks about the mechanisms of the body. A real fitness professional gets how the body works and references it during training. And be sure he or she is paying attention and gives  plenty of feedback, including encouragement. When Robin says “that’s great” or “perfect form” I feel great and it  keeps me motivated.

Weights5. Robin says that a lot of our achievements in the gym are psychological and he illustrated it for me one day.  He gave me some heavy weights to bench press, heavier than I’d ever done.

Then he started talking: “Come on, I’ve got you. I’m right here and I’ll help. Do it. You can do it. Come on!”  I did it. He barely helped.

When we finished, he said, “See what I mean? A lot of it is psychological.”

Later, he picked something I’d been completely unable to do and said he wanted me to learn.  He pushed me through reps by telling me I could do them. To my surprise, I could.

As I was resting on my laurels (ha!) he brought over a 25-lb. weight. “Now we’ll do them weighted.”

I protested. “This is the first time I’ve done them, period, and you’re putting a 25-lb weight on me?”

“Yes, you can do it. Just do five.”  When I got to five, he said “Continue! Come on! You can do it.”

And I could.  Again, he said “it’s all in what you believe you can do.”  And that, my friends, is why a good trainer is invaluable. Not only did he know I could do it, he knew HOW MUCH I could do and he was there to spot me. Because I easily could’ve dropped that bar or weight and hurt myself. As I always say, you do not leave me to my own devices in a gym because you’ll be calling an ambulance at some point. And of course, Robin’s been training me long enough to know that as much as I complain, I really do love a challenge. And so does he. <evil grin>

6. A trainer’s age has nothing to do with it. Listening is much more important.  Trainer Tom is my age and that helped,  but Trainer Robin is more than 30 years younger and he is just as good. They’re both good listeners. If I tell Trainer Robin I can’t do something, he knows it’s because I’m either not strong enough yet or my balance isn’t what it used to be. For me, it’s all about preventing injury and I want a trainer who listens and won’t push unwisely. Sometimes, I’m just afraid.  Pushing itself is not a bad thing–Robin will never push me if I think I’ll be injured. He also watches carefully and knows when I’m at my limit. Don’t be afraid to speak up. Better you do that in the gym and not from a hospital room.

7.  Tell your trainer what you want to achieve. If you’re midlife or older, your friend are getting knee or hip replacements.   I want to avoid that. An aging body benefits from working out with a professional. Moving regularly keeps fluids active in the joints. Building muscle around weak knees helps prevent future injury. And everyone knows cardio is good for the heart.  I’ve got a wonky knee–but there’s nothing wrong with it that building the muscles around it won’t fix.  While we’re doing that, I baby it, because I do not want to tear anything. But Trainer Robin knows I’m interested in building that muscle group and we work with that in mind.

8. Your trainer should recommend a mix of weight training and cardio. I do weights three or four times a week and I try to do cardio almost every day.  Progress is quantitative–you can feel it in the ease with which you do things you couldn’t do, by the number of reps you build to or the increase in weights your trainer recommends. And that’s also why I like a trainer–he or she knows the optimum weight for your level of fitness and how to increase it.  Back in the day I used to read women’s fitness magazines that all recommend three-pound weights for tricep overhead extensions. They had no effect. But with trainers, I’ve never seen a three-pound weight for tricep work and the only time I saw five pounds at all was when I came in hung over. Once.  Unless you’ve studied fitness, it’s better to let a professional who has help you decide how to progress with weights without injury. Because injury means time out of the gym and it can become hard to get back in the habit.

9. Make sure your trainer laughs. This may sound silly, but here’s the thing: if training is not fun, you’re not going to go. Trainer Robin and I laugh a lot in our sessions, usually when he tells me to do something and I give him that look-that-could-curdle-milk. We’ll go back and forth a few seconds with a little snarky banter and then I’ll do whatever he asks.  (Wouldn’t you?) And back in the day, Trainer Tom and I had so many interesting talks while I trained that we became close friends.

10. Let’s talk about the expense. Most gyms give you a couple free sessions at the front end. Often, gym trainers offer discount packages to members–check it out. Some trainers will allow you to share a session–two of you train simultaneously for a little bit more–your half of that is more affordable than a regular rate.  It’s also possible to engage a trainer to set up a program  you work independently and then check in with him or her every so often to check your progress. But if you are out of shape, I wouldn’t recommend going it alone at first. A few training sessions make a great gift, too–why not ask for them for an upcoming birthday or holiday?  There are a number of ways to get this kind of expertise without breaking the bank.

You’re probably wondering what Trainer Tom in Tampa looks like. Tom is a really good friend and I never miss seeing him for (healthy) dinner when I’m visiting. If you’re in Tampa, you want to train with him. Oh, and Tampa girls? He’s single. Yes he is.  He’s one of the nicest human beings I know. And he shows what a Baby Boomer can look like if they pay attention to fitness.  I present my Tampa Hot Trainer–Tom. THIS is what 62 looks like:

Trainer tomIf you want to talk to either of these trainers about their services, let me know and I’ll put you in touch.

27 comments on “How to choose + work with a personal trainer
  1. Funny you should bring this up- I’m on the hunt right now. I’ve been ‘watching’ the PT’s at my gym- seeing how they interact- or don’t. SO many check their iphones as their clients are concentrating. And the look on their faces is of pure apathy. Your check list is helpful.

  2. Haralee says:

    What a comprehensive list. Thanks for sharing some great info here. Too bad reading about exercise doesn’t count as a work-out. What hunks!

    • admin says:

      I know, right? I’d like to have burned calories while writing it, too. And yes, those men are hunks n& know their business– but they are also super nice guys and way fun to train with.

  3. Pamela Mason says:

    Now if only Trainer Tom could move up here to the ATL…
    Wait, that wasn’t your point was it?

    Actually, I’ve been working out at the Y and taking classes. There is a huge difference between the younger and older leaders – the older ones have all had joint replacements and encourage modification, the younger ones have had babies and encourage pushing it.

    They’ll get theirs… heheheh…

  4. Karen @BakingInATornado says:

    Comprehensive advice and some points I hadn’t thought of. Great analogy: picking a trainer is like picking a therapist, being good and being good for you are two different things.

  5. I’m not much a a gym person but you’ve done a good job changing my mind 🙂

  6. Great tips!! I have worked out on my own for 23 years. I signed up for my first gym membership last year mostly for the classes. I know strength training is important as we get older. Your post has me thinking that a trainer might be just what I need in going forward.

  7. Lisa Froman says:

    Loved this. Lots of good information plus eye candy! I’m really fortunate to work for a company that has a gym in the building. I work out at lunch a few times a week, but there’s no one there who looks like your guys. LOL.

  8. Well, you know I started working with a trainer one week before turning 60! We found a fabulous looking woman and said WHO IS YOUR TRAINER?? He was willing to work with a group of us fab over 50 ladies and we have been together since last june…if I did not have their accountability I would have quit by now. I HIGHLY recommend it…believe me if I can do this ANYONE can do this.

  9. Great info. I had a personal trainer once in my 30s, and I wish I’d had your advice!

  10. CheriO says:

    Only 11 comments? This post should go viral!!

  11. Thanks for the nudge to do more, do better at the gym.

  12. This is a very helpful post, and you’ve gotten me motivated to try and see if I can find a good trainer in the area. It’s so impressive that you work out all the time, I’m impressed!

  13. Tamara says:

    As a personal trainer myself, I couldn’t love this post more. I wish that all potential clients thought this much about why they were hiring a trainer and what they needed from the relationship.

    And I agree. Laughter is so important!

    • admin says:

      I’m so glad you agree! I’ll bet you’re a great trainer. My favorite gym day is Saturday, because that’s when the figure models come in. I try not to stare, but I find them inspirational for sure. HT says “stare! that’s why we do this, we WANT you to stare!” LOL

  14. So interesting to hear these tips from the consumer/ client as I usually read such advice from fitness professional publications (industry/ trade journals). You summed up some insightful criteria here!

  15. Kathy says:

    Great tips. I had a great trainer and she moved to a management job and no longer trains. I had the best results when I used a trainer and have been thinking about doing it again. Thanks for the nudge.

  16. I’ve had trainers before that said they knew about MS but obviously didn’t. I always paid the price for their mistakes.

    A good trainer would be welcome. But, alas, I don’t live anywhere near you or I’d give Tom a call. And not because he’s incredible looking (I am a happily married woman after all!) but because you say he’s knowledgeable. Darn.

    But your tips are useful, and I definitely appreciate them.

    Not to sound sexist (but this will) thanks for the, ahem, great photos.

  17. Jennifer Steck says:

    Carol, Thank you for motivating me. After I read your post, I went online to check out the trainers at my gym. It was so expensive $70 an hour. So I checked out some alternatives and found a small gym nearby where each workout is different and focused on whole body fitness. The classes are group classes, but very focused and the trainers are available to help with form, etc. It’s the Orange Theory gym. I took my first class yesterday and am sore today. I couldn’t do everything, but I gave it a good shot. The best news? It’s $99 a month for two classes a week. I think it’s going to be perfect. 🙂

  18. Barbara says:

    Well, I wasn’t on the hunt – but Trainer Tom could change my mind. Wowza.
    Those eyes!
    That challenging smirk.
    Those arms!
    Okay, I’ll stop.

    I think I could use a T-Rex to chase me every morning too. I’d move a little faster.

  19. mary says:

    Thanks for sharing this informative article. I am very bad in workouts and your thoughts really change my mind to start again training.

  20. Gabriel Ancu says:

    Hi Carol, thanks for your insights. I totally agree with what you say when choosing a personal trainer.

  21. Rose says:

    This is very helpful article. Thanks

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  1. […] up, I’d like to introduce you to this excellent post by Carol Cassara, who knows whereof she speaks when it comes to finding the right trainer. Including a hot, single […]

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