With or Without a Personal Trainer
Ali Othman, CPT
I often see people anxiously wandering around the gym looking at the different equipment and wondering if they’ve accidentally walked into a torture chamber. Some machines are too confusing to try, while others might be used improperly or inefficiently. For these people, a few sessions with a personal trainer might mean the difference between coming back next week or disappearing into the abyss where so many have gone before. Think about why they, or any of us, are at the gym. Maybe it was a commercial, a flier, or a guy on the corner in an inflatable T-Rex costume advertising the “Jurassic Membership Sale” that lured us in. While all of these are possible, it’s more likely there’s a personal reason. We were shocked by a weigh-in, or the last belt hole wasn’t as comfortable as it used to be, and we’re left to choose between getting the icepick and making a new hole or heading to a fitness center. There, a personal trainer can help you become familiar with the club, explain the equipment in detail, and hold you accountable so disappearing isn’t an option.
A trainer certified by an agency accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) will have an intimate knowledge of human anatomy, physiology, and how muscles interact. That knowledge is essential because knowing the correct form and position are vital to proper exercise. All joints have a limited range of motion and a built-in cushion to prevent injury from overextension, flexion, or rotation. Movement beyond this cushion can cause injury, and repetitive and continued pressure on the cushion can damage a joint and the surrounding connective tissue. Having a trainer watch your form throughout your workout can reduce your risk of injury. If you’re searching for a trainer, don’t be afraid to ask for their qualifications, education, work history, and reason behind their career choice. This will help determine if this particular client-trainer relationship is right for you.
Aside from fitness knowledge, a good trainer will also bring a sense of accountability to your overall health and wellness, as the relationship between client and trainer goes far beyond the two or three hours together each week. The first meeting can be intimidating. Typically, you’ve just joined the fitness center, and your name was passed along to the trainer who set up the appointment. This is an excellent opportunity to get some direction, if only for an hour. That hour is yours, and you’re entitled to spend it as you like. If you want a detailed explanation of the equipment or a list of exercises that work your target areas, ask for them. Take some notes so that you won’t be wandering around aimlessly on your next visit.
A well-qualified trainer will start with a conversation about your goals, exercise history, and family health history. You should feel comfortable responding to these questions like you would at your physician’s office. This is a no-judgment zone, and the accuracy of your information is important to giving you the proper advice. The trainer will recommend that you consult with a physician, then ask some questions about your current health situation, medications, surgeries, or conditions to help them determine which exercises or intensity levels to avoid.
Following this barrage of questions, the trainer will check your body composition. This used to involve several skinfold measurements where the trainer used one hand to pinch you and some handheld calipers to measure the amount of fat in the skinfold. Nowadays, the method is electronic and thus a lot less intrusive and embarrassing. After this measurement, you’re ready to hit the floor for some cardiovascular endurance, strength, and flexibility testing. This process is known as a fitness assessment, and it is the industry standard for beginning a workout program.
By this point, you’re tired and sweaty. If the trainer has done their job well, your confidence is boosted, your motivation has intensified, and you have some direction. While you are cooling down from the assessment, ask your trainer to walk the floor with you and go over some equipment. If you’re heading off on your own rather than committing to more sessions, you’ll want to find some good cardio equipment and a few machines that target different body parts. This will be your starting point for a total-body workout. Don’t forget to ask any questions about gym and locker room etiquette if you’re not familiar.
If you plan to continue working with a trainer, they should suggest a package that fits your needs based on your goals and current fitness level. Most gyms will have a tier system for their trainers. Sessions with a master trainer may cost twice as much as sessions with a novice, but the difference between the two services is evident. The typical training package, which varies by trainer, will be two to three sessions a week for a length of time to help you get to your goal. A trainer wants to see you through to that goal. After all, they helped you establish it based on a professional evaluation of your needs.
From this point on, a great trainer can be a guiding light that keeps you pointed towards your objective. You should expect them to provide reasonable flexibility in scheduling sessions, offer encouraging texts or calls, be a good listener, bring energy to your sessions, and give you a routine to do on days when the two of you don’t meet. For many people, exercising two or three days a week with their trainer doesn’t cover a full week’s worth of activity, so your trainer has helped you map out your time and energy for the days when you are on your own. That way, you can arrive with a plan.
Since you know your trainer will be there, even if they are with other clients, you have more motivation to show up. As you’re pounding the treadmill or moving with your group exercise classmates, your trainer will notice and come over to cheer you on. A top-notch trainer will sit down with you outside of your scheduled session time to go over your diet and sleep, ask about the sessions you did on your own and the progress you are making, and see what works for you and what exercises you’ve enjoyed. You’ll find later in the week that your routine with your personal trainer has changed based on these discussions.
The basic tenet behind personal training is the personalization. You can go online and find thousands of generic fitness routines, but a professional can craft a routine based on your individual goals, health condition, and preferences. Certified Personal Trainer and health coach Kifah Muhammad’s mantra says it all: “I get that health and fitness are not one-size-fits-all, and I’m here for each person’s individual journey.” This is the attitude you want your trainer to bring to your sessions because a routine that’s working for one of your friends may not be right for you. Think of your trainer as your fitness supplement. They’re there to lean on when you need the boost, but even with the most qualified trainer by your side, the bulk of the responsibility still rests on your shoulders.
If you decide to go it alone, be sure to cover all angles and drive your goals into the dirt like baseball cleats. First, you want to make sure your body is ready for exercise. Head to your physician for a once-over, and get clearance to exercise. Base your first workout session on your exercise history. If you’ve never exercised before, start by walking. “But I walk all the time!” you might say. This may be true, but walking for exercise is different than walking to a destination. Instead of walking at a particular pace, try walking at a certain intensity level. You can start at the pace of someone thinking “Hurry, let’s get out of this dark alleyway.” Then, when you’re ready for more, turn it up to “The ground is lava!” After a few weeks, your cardiovascular system will be primed for some resistance training.
This is the part where you want to get excited and stay interested. Think about what gets you energized. Listen to some great music, get some new fitness gear, join a fitness challenge, and stay away from the exercises you don’t like. Resistance training doesn’t have to be at the gym, and it doesn’t have to mean weightlifting. You can use resistance bands or the monkey bars at the park, and there are private studios, group exercise classes, and online platforms available everywhere. You can also find niche fitness centers like trampoline parks or rock-climbing gyms if that’s to your liking. The point is to find an activity you enjoy so much that you look forward to exercising.
Continue the lava walking two or three days a week, and start resistance training another two or three days a week. Pick a few compound exercises, or exercises that work more than one muscle group at a time, and go for it. According to Antonio Paoli et al. in their 2017 journal article for Frontiers in Physiology, “[T]raining with MJ [multiple joint] exercises provided higher gains in physical performance.” This is a very broad but accurate statement. The squat is a good example of a compound exercise that works multiple muscle groups across several joints. Exercises like these get your heart pumping, burn additional calories, and improve your intramuscular coordination. As these exercises become easier, mix in another exercise. Your squat can become a squat with a shoulder press, the lunge turns into a lunge with a bicep curl, and so on.
When you start an exercise program, your nutritional needs will change. The best way to address this change is with a three-day food and drink log. Understanding what you’re eating will help establish a baseline which you can adjust accordingly. Seeing your daily diet on paper will bring you a feeling of accountability, and you may think twice before your next fast food run. If you’re looking to lose weight, you can either cut calories from your diet or burn them during exercise like fuel in your gas tank. A food log is a great way to calculate what percentage of your calories come from fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. If you’re looking to increase muscle mass, change your protein-carbohydrate-fat ratio. Fitness apps and trackers can simplify this seemingly daunting task.
Stay away from the all-or-nothing attitude since it’s a destroyer of confidence and self-control. When you slip up and eat a cookie or a slice of pizza, don’t let it ruin your whole day. Instead, let it motivate you to find out what intensity comes after the lava. Slip, slide, and correct: it’s a part of the journey. Any exercises you didn’t do yesterday but are doing today will make tomorrow brighter.
Ali Othman has been an NSCA-certified personal trainer for the past fourteen years with specialization in weight loss, functional training, muscular hypertrophy, and human nutrition. He also works in the Technical Department at IFANCA and manages IFANCA business activities in South Korea.