How to Choose a Personal Trainer

Donald Evans, A.S., B.Sc., NFPT-MT

A qualified trainer can assess individual fitness, create goals based on the status of that assessment, and motivate the client to adhere to the program as outlined. A proper program should address both the exercise and nutritional components of the client's lifestyle. This article describes the credentials you should consider when seeking a personal trainer. Professionalism, experience, and a personality compatible with that of the client are also important and can be assessed with a few simple questions.

Academic Degrees

The basic requirement should be an accredited degree in exercise science, kinesiology, exercise physiology, physical education, sport management, or similar field, from a reputable college or university. An exercise-science-related degree requires between 2,000 and 3,000 hours of in-class instruction, many exams, research papers, laboratory courses, and much outside studying and writing—in short, a high level of dedication and comprehensive educational prowess. A normal time frame for completion is four to six years that provide a solid background in human anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, motor learning techniques, exercise leadership, and exercise prescription techniques.

Many community colleges offer a one-year, non-degree exercise science program that provides another pathway to becoming a personal trainer. The courses usually include kinesiology, exercise physiology, sports nutrition, sport injury prevention, exercise for special populations, weight training techniques, fitness assessment, exercise leadership, and sometimes an actual internship. General education courses are usually not included, because the programs are strictly for a certificate. While not nearly as comprehensive as a four-year degree, these programs are taught by qualified instructors and can be considered satisfactory preparation when combined with a recognized personal trainer certification. 


Certification is another important element in choosing a trainer. The main organizations that are attempting to create viable credentialing and industry standards are:

NOCA, which is the most prominent, has been certifying many types of allied health professionals since 1987 through National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA). The NCCA Web site states:

NCCA uses a peer reviewed process to: establish accreditation standards; evaluate compliance with the standards; recognize organizations/programs which demonstrate compliance; and serve as a resource on quality certification. Certification organizations that submit their programs for accreditation are evaluated based on the process and products, not the content, and are therefore applicable to all professions and industries.

It is the responsibility of each respective organization to pursue NCCA accreditation. So far, ten fitness organizations have achieved NCCA status for at least one or more of their fitness related certifications. It is a time-consuming, expensive, and most likely, tedious process. Those that have achieved status are all long-standing organizations that were already respected in the fitness field. You can be sure the educational content contained within their exams is valid, up to date, and challenging. So check your trainer’s standard personal fitness certification and additional certifications to ensure that they are from one or more of the following:

Two more tenured certification organizations deserve an honorable mention but are currently not NCCA certified:

There are various reasons why a trainer would choose one of these organizations over another. Prior education and possibly influence from a particular professor; suggestion of a colleague, desire to specialize in a particular area; ie: nutrition, strength and conditioning, corrective exercise, boot camp instructing, child or geriatric fitness; or desire to pursue advanced or master fitness certifications. The bottom line is that if the certification is issued by one of the above organizations, it can be considered a quality gauge of a trainer's knowledge, skills, and abilities. One final note: as many of these organizations conduct research into human performance and exercise physiology related topics, they may teach differing methodologies and avenues for professional success of their graduates.

Nutrition Credentials

No personal training program is complete without proper nutrition. The quantity and types of nutrients consumed weigh heavily on the outcome of your program. Trainers with a Registered Dietitian (RD) credential from the American Dietetic Association should be able to provide in-depth nutrition advice. However, a Registered Dietetic Technician (DTR) credential or an associate or bachelor's degree in nutrition from an accredited institution of higher learning may be sufficient for providing basic dietary guidelines. Work experience in the field of nutrition is also a plus. These additional credentials in nutrition should be considered as an adjunct to, but not in place of, the aforementioned exercise science degree and personal trainer certification. Dietitians with proper experience may obtain a specialized sports nutrition certification from the American Dietetic Association, but most personal trainers, and even RD’s and DTR’s, will need to explore sports dietetics options within the organizations listed above. If their goal is to work with athletes and improve performance in a particular sport, this point becomes even more important.

Exercise Standards

In 1995 the ACSM and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a consensus statement that, “Every U.S. adult should accumulate 30 minutes or more of moderate-intensity physical activity on most, preferably all, days of the week.” This level can be met with activity, such as a 2-mile walk, that expends approximately 200 calories per day. This recommendation was intended to complement rather than replace the guidelines for higher-intensity exercise to develop aerobic fitness. It also acknowledged that most of the disease-prevention benefits of physical activity will occur with moderate-intensity activities outside of formal exercise programs. Similar recommendations have been issued by the U.S. Surgeon General and the American Heart Association. The latest U.S. government advice was published in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005, which recommended:

What You Should Expect

The first step in developing a fitness regimen will be an exploration of your health history, fitness goals, and exercise preferences. In addition, there will be several important forms to be filled out:

Once clearance has been secured, the trainer may ask the client to perform several tests to provide baseline information about their level of flexibility, muscular strength, muscular endurance, and cardiorespiratory endurance. The tests utilized will vary depending on available equipment at the trainer’s disposal and whether or not the client will be training at home or in a health club environment. They can include stretching, lifting weights, walking on the treadmill, using the stationary bicycle, and taking a bodyfat percentage using skinfold calipers. The initial interview and tests will govern the type of exercise, equipment, and initial level of intensity that are used.

Warning signs

The majority of reputable trainers will abide by the professional code of ethics of their certifying organization. Professionalism is highly stressed by all respected organizations listed in this article. You should be skeptical if a trainer:

Mr. Evans holds an Associate in Science degree in nutrition from San Diego Mesa College; a Bachelor of Science degree in kinesiology with a specialization in fitness, nutrition, and health, from San Diego State University; and certification as a Master Fitness Trainer by the National Federation of Professional Trainers.

This article was revised on July 30, 2008.

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