Your own private fitness guru

A good personal trainer is experienced, careful and knows the human body — and not just his own.

Despite their sometimes lofty rates and most clients’ inability to offset the cost through employer benefits, personal trainers are increasingly popular. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the profession to grow rapidly, driven by baby boomers’ desire to stay healthy. But a 53-year-old insurance salesman with a bad back will have different needs than a 19-year-old hoping to make the football team — and he will seek different qualities in a trainer.

To start your search, compose a list of your objectives, then interview at least three candidates. “Question them as if you want that person to be your employee,” advises Michael Bracko, a veteran sports physiologist and director of the Institute for Hockey Research in Calgary. Look for a degree in anatomy, kinesiology, physiology, physical education or a related field. “The trainer should have more education and experience than just having been a ‘weightlifter,’ a ‘bodybuilder’ or ‘active in fitness,'” suggests the American College of Sports Medicine.

You should also scrutinize trainers’ professional credentials. There are hundreds of certification schemes across North America, ranging from ones requiring university degrees to others obtained over a weekend or over the Internet. (Two of the more rigorous certifying bodies are the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology and the National Strength and Conditioning Association.) Professional development is also vital. “Make sure they’re going to conferences and reading [journals] to keep current,” says Kathee Davis, executive director of the IDEA Health & Fitness Association in San Diego.

Since any new fitness regimen comes with the risk of injury, trainers should be qualified to perform first aid and CPR, as well as have liability insurance. They should ask you specific questions about your medical history, including previous injuries and surgeries and current medications. You, in turn, should probe their experience: Do they have clients in your age group, with your medical condition or involved in your sport?

Once you’ve found a promising candidate, take a session or two and look for evidence that she understands your goals and is designing a custom program to meet them. “You want to make sure they’re not throwing something together 10 minutes before your session,” Davis says. The trainer should explain each exercise in detail, including what it accomplishes. She should correct your posture and stop you if your technique is improper. If you find your trainer indifferent to such issues, or if she works you so hard that you’re unable to lift your arms for a week, don’t go back. And be particularly suspicious of anyone hawking dietary supplements or fad diets.

Most important, you’re going to have to spend many hours together, so make sure your personalities are compatible. Get a written copy of the trainer’s policies governing scheduling, cancellations and billing. Fees vary widely — generally between $50 and $250 an hour — but you can always cut down on frequency or organize group sessions.

To evaluate your progress, ask the trainer to test you periodically; IDEA suggests tracking weight, body measurements, strength, endurance, body fat and cardiovascular condition. If you’re not reaching your goals, assess whether it’s your fault or the trainer’s. Or you may feel it’s time to go it alone. “The altruistic goal of a personal trainer should be to help this person help themselves,” says Jonathon Fowles, a professor with Acadia University’s kinesiology department. For most people, it should take you about six months to develop the skills to work out on your own. After that, says Fowles, “you’d meet [the trainer] once a year, just like you would your doctor.”