Ask Dani – A Reformed Gym Avoider

Dear Dani,

I recently signed up for a gym membership and as a welcome they offered me a free session with a personal trainer. I’ve worked with a personal trainer from a gym before and wasn’t all that thrilled with her. She basically made me go from exercise to exercise until I felt like my heart was going to pop out of my chest. I felt embarrassed and defeated by my lack of fitness, and was so sore for days after that I never went back. Seriously, I could barely walk down the flight of stairs to leave the gym afterwards, my legs were so wobbly. I desperately need to lose 40 pounds and I realize now that I can’t avoid the gym forever because of one crazy trainer, but I really don’t want a repeat of last time, so basically I’m looking for some pointers from you on what to ask the trainer and what to look out for to make sure that I’m getting what I need out of the session.

A Reformed Gym Avoider

Dear Reformed Gym Avoider

Good for you for not letting an embarrassing session get in the way of your weight loss. And even more good for you for not making excuses for not losing the weight. You should never let a bad experience define what you can and cannot do. Here is my list of 5 important things to look out for:

1. Is the trainer certified? This is the most important question that you should ask. Most people don’t know this, but after years of working in a gym I can tell you that many of the “trainers” there are not certified. There is a high turnover rate at gyms, so they do a lot of “panic hiring” in order to not be understaffed. They hire these people with the understanding that they will do the orientations and will get their certification within the first few months, but many times new members are learning from people who don’t know proper progression, technique, form, science, etc. This isn’t to say that just because someone has a certification that they’re qualified, but you can be sure that if the trainer you’re working with took the time and money to study that they aren’t just some kid who worked in GNC for a summer thinking that being a trainer will be an easy job. Some of the best certifications are ACSM, NASM, and ACE.

2. Does she do a complete health history? Before you even begin to work out with a trainer they should take you to a quiet place where you can discuss your health history. They should know if you have any injuries, pain, illnesses, history of heart disease with yourself or in your family, or are on any medication that may affect your workout. In certain circumstances you may need to get medical clearance, so a trainer that doesn’t go into detail on these things can really be jeopardizing your health. Even if you don’t need medical clearance the trainer might need to know if any modifications to the workout need to be made.

3. Does she discuss your goals with you? One of the most important things for success is to have clearly definable and realistic goals. Without them you’ll have no motivation and the road will seem endless. If your trainer doesn’t discuss this with you she either isn’t competent enough to know that this is important or she is just going to treat you like a cash cow and string you along. Also, if she doesn’t know what your goals are then there is no way that she could possibly design a proper workout for you. It’s really important for the trainer to know what drives and motivates you, otherwise how can she help you succeed?

4. Does she take a baseline measurement? There has to be some sort of baseline to work off of, so that you can tell if you’re making progress. I don’t believe in asking a client who is coming in for weight loss to get on the scale, because one, it’s embarrassing, and two, you’ve already told me you need to lose weight, am I really going to subject you to staring at that number? Likewise, I don’t believe in body fat testing either at this point. Again, we’ve established that you have more body fat than is healthy. There’s no need to put you through that. Once you get to a healthier weight then we can look at body fat and see if that needs to be tweaked. For now, I like to take other measurements, such as a Step Test to see what your fitness level is according to your heart rate. This way, you have something else aside from your weight to base your fitness on. Fitness isn’t only about being a size 6, it’s about how quickly your heart rate can recover from activity too. It’s a good thing to put the focus on something else other than the thing that you’re most obsessed about.

5. Is the workout understandable? Your first workout should never be filled with anything too complicated. A lot of trainers at gyms want to give you the workout of your lifetime, because they think that if you walk out of the gym feeling like Jell-O that you’ll buy more sessions. This is ridiculous and can really set you up for injury, or at the very least turn you off from working out all together, because you’ll think it’s too hard. Make sure that your trainer is giving you things that will build the foundation for the future. Anything at this point will seem new to you and perhaps awkward, but at this point make sure they are focusing on building core strength and stability. Ask the trainer about this if you want and make sure that she can give you a reason for every exercise that she’s giving you. The workout should be something that challenges you, but also something that you can do on your own. After your session a good trainer will ask you how you feel, if you have any questions, and will send you on your way with the workout that you just did.

These things are just the beginning. Obviously there are many more things to look out for, especially if you’re going to hire the trainer long-term, but now you’re prepared for your orientation session. If you feel like something is off, don’t feel bad about asking for another trainer. You have the right to ask for someone else if you feel like your needs are not being met. Make sure that you walk out of that session feeling energized, invigorated, and excited about your new routine.

Have a question that needs answering? Send ‘em in! Every Thursday I’ll be answering a new question, and it might just be yours!