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Is Personal Training Worth it?

by Bill Calberry

25-30 years ago going to a gym to lift weights and exercise was an activity largely dominated by high-school and university aged males, competitive athletes and a small portion of the general adult population. The average Canadian did not have a gym membership. In fact, most had never even set foot inside a gym and saw no reason to.

In those days there was very little demand or need for personal trainers. Most gyms were small tightly-knit communities, and most members had an athletic background of some sort. That meant the average gym member had a far greater knowledge of how to exercise effectively than is common today.

Consequently most of us that did train others either did it as a hobby, or as a part-time job to make a little extra money. You really couldn't make a living at it, because there just weren't enough people that needed professional help.

With a general population that's been growing increasingly sedentary and obese over the past few decades, and the rapid expansion of commercial gyms eager to capitalize on that trend, all that has changed. Today somewhere in the neighborhood of 20% of all Canadians have a fitness membership of some kind, and the vast majority have little or no athletic background and just as little idea how exercise effectively.

As a result there's now a huge demand for qualified trainers to show them how, and personal training has become a multi-million dollar industry. The question however, is whether or not it's worth it, and if the millions of people that pay for training each year are actually getting what they're paying for.

My answer might surprise you, especially since I'm a trainer myself. Truthfully though, I really don't think the average person does get good value for the money that personal training costs them, and here's why.

First of all, I'm sad to say that the vast majority of personal trainers actually have very little idea how to help the average person achieve their goals, which are typically to lose a significant amount of bodyfat and build a strong healthy body they can maintain.

To be fair though, most trainers are young athletic people that are barely out of their teens, and still active in one or more sports. They also genuinely enjoy working out, and have plenty of free time and energy to do so. As a result they typically have no idea what its even like to be overweight and out of shape, or how to train someone that is; particularly someone that's considerably older than they are with a full-time job or career, a family and a household to take care of while they're trying to get in shape.

The majority also have little or no background in nutritional science, and very limited knowledge of any training methods other than those they've used themselves; methods that would be wildly inappropriate for someone that isn't athletic and doesn't possess the basic training skills or conditioning necessary to use them effectively and safely.

Given all that, it's really no wonder that most trainers struggle to provide the help the average person needs and produce the results they want. Certainly the weekend course most of them take to become certified doesn't help all that much. Nor does the fact that most of the other trainers they work alongside in commercial fitness clubs have no more experience than they do, and therefore cannot help or guide them effectively when they are struggling.

Second, most people that seek the help of a trainer to lose weight and get in shape don't fully understand what it's going to take, and therefore aren't ready to commit to doing everything that's required. Not that they aren't serious about changing their body. Most people simply come into the process with no appreciation for how much work they'll actually have to do or what a trainer can and should do to help them.

The one thing no trainer can do is alter the fact that significantly changing your body takes a lot of hard work both in and out of the gym on a more frequent basis and for much longer than most expect. It also requires most people to make fairly significant changes in their daily schedule and how they live their lives; changes that to some degree must become permanent at some point if the results they get are going to last. It can also require changes and accommodations on the part of other family members, depending on the dynamic within the household.

When people come into the process without a clear awareness and understanding of these facts, and they're paired with an inexperienced trainer that may not understand either and therefore can't possibly prepare them properly, let alone create and deliver appropriate and effective programs, success is extremely unlikely.

In fact based on my observations, I'd have to say that very few of the people that hire a trainer ever do achieve their stated goals. Most make some progress for the first several weeks, simply because any exercise and attention to diet is better than what they've been doing. Shortly thereafter however, the faults and shortcomings in programming, preparation, commitment, degree of effort and follow-through begin to catch up to them and they start to falter; ultimately ceasing to make any improvements at all long before ever achieving what they set out to.

Based on that, I'm forced to conclude that most people would actually be better off trying to lose weight on their own and saving the money they would've spent on a trainer to take a nice vacation, pay off their car earlier, or top up their RRSP.

In my opinion you should only hire a personal trainer when there is good reason to believe that they have the specific knowledge and experience it will take to help you reach your goals given your particular objectives, circumstances and needs; and they can speed up the process for you significantly.

That after all, is what most people are really looking for when they consider hiring a fitness professional in the first place. They want someone that will be able to tell them exactly what to expect and do every step of the way, keep them on-track throughout the entire process, help them to avoid and overcome plateaus and obstacles, and get them the results they want as quickly as possible.

Although ensuring they diet and exercise safely is also a secondary consideration for many, the prospect of getting results faster without the need to learn how on their own is what really drives most people to seek professional help.

Although that's perfectly understandable, you really have to weigh all the pros and cons of hiring a trainer, taking into consideration not only your fitness goals and impatience to achieve them, but also your financial resources and objectives, the time commitment it will require, and the whether or not you've found the right trainer before moving ahead with hiring them.

If you don't have a lot of weight to lose, or hiring a trainer would put a significant strain on your finances and delay something else that's more important to you and your family than getting quick results, then I'd definitely advise against it. In addition, if you honestly can't fully commit to doing the work, making the changes or putting in the time a trainer is going to require of you on a weekly basis, then don't even think about it.

With that said, if you can afford it, you're ready and able to do the work, and getting in shape as quickly as possible is important to you, then it definitely can be worth your while; provided you can find a trainer that can deliver the goods for you.

The really difficult part is determining whether or not a particular trainer does have the ability to deliver the results you want, and the only way to do that is to consider their relevant experience.

Let me say that again: the ONLY way to judge a trainer's worth to YOU is to determine if they have experience that pertains to your particular situation. So don't let yourself get sucked in by a trainer that boasts a laundry list of degrees, certifications and courses, or tries to dazzle you with the results they produced for people that weren't like you with regard to their goals, current condition and circumstances when they started training.

Although there are many different courses a trainer can take to become "certified", and many more that allow them to add to the list of credentials and accreditations they can boast, the overwhelming majority of these are nothing more than one-day workshops and online seminars that provide no practical experience in applying the information or techniques presented; and like most professions personal training is something that absolutely must be learned on the job in real world situations.

Certifications and accreditations on their own, while impressive to those without inside industry knowledge and awareness, are no indication of a trainer's ability to effectively use the knowledge and techniques they've been exposed to in order to help real people get real results. More importantly, they are no indication of whether or not they'll be able to help you specifically.

In addition, although a trainer may actually be quite skilled and accomplished at producing results for a particular type of client, if that type isn't similar to you at all then the knowledge and skills they have may be of no use whatsoever in accomplishing what you want.

What you need to know when you sit down with a trainer is whether or not they've had success helping people like you to reach the same kind of goals you want to achieve under similar circumstances.

For example, if you're a 40-year woman with 50lbs to lose and you have a full-time job, a husband or partner, school-aged children and you've never followed a structured diet or exercise program before, you'd better make sure your Trainer has successfully worked with someone else in your situation previously.

If most of their clients have been twenty-something single males that want to get bigger and stronger, or younger single women that have an athletic background and plenty of spare time and energy to train, then they may not understand what you need or what kind of problems you'll run into.

Experience becomes particularly important if the trainer you're considering is very dissimilar to you themselves, because chances are that without relevant experience they'll have absolutely no clue what your life is like or how to help you balance everything that's going on within it in order to be able to do what's necessary to reach your goals. They'll also have no idea what you can and cannot do when you start training, or how fast you can be expected to progress and be able to handle more.

Not that the right trainer has to be in exactly the same place in life as you are to be able to understand what to do to help you either. When you sit down to talk with them however, you need to listen carefully for signs and signals that they understand what your life is like, what kind of challenges you'll face, and how to overcome them.

Don't get swayed by talk of cutting-edge custom programs either. Although a Trainer needs to know how to customize or adjust their programming to accommodate any difficulties you might have when it comes to performing certain exercises, or scale the degree of difficulty up or down depending on your level of conditioning and ability, you want to know that your trainer isn't just flying by the seat of their pants when it comes to programming.

A good trainer will have developed a number of proven programs and approaches for various categories of clients with varying ability levels and objectives based on their experience working with a large number of people over a long period of time. They'll also want to evaluate you and your specific abilities to fine-tune that programming and optimize it according to your individual strengths, weaknesses and objectives before you even get started.

Therefore when you speak to a potential trainer you want to know that they'll be able to customize their programming for you, but you also want to get a strong sense that you're not going to be a guinea-pig for what they just learned at a workshop last weekend; that after they've had a chance to listen to you, evaluate you physically and gather a lot of other information about you, they really seem to have a clear understanding of what you want, what you need and how they're going to get you from A to B, because they've done it before.

Pay close attention when the trainer is making his or her recommendations regarding what you'll need to do, and how often and long they think you'll need to train in order to achieve your goals as well. A good trainer will always begin with the best plan for you based on how often they think you can reasonably be expected to train hard in a given week and how much you're going to have to change about your diet and lifestyle.

If the cost of that program or the commitment required simply doesn't work for you, they should be able to suggest a different and/or more affordable approach. They should also make a point of letting you know however, that fewer weekly sessions and/or a more gradual approach to making diet and lifestyle changes will negatively impact the time it takes to reach your goals.

If for whatever reason the commitment you're willing and/or able to make in terms of time or effort simply isn't going to be enough to make personal training worthwhile, an experienced trainer will also have no problem telling you that you're probably not ready for training.

The trainer you want to work with will not only know what to do to help you reach your goals, they'll also be brutally honest and forthcoming about what you need to do to make the whole thing work, as well as whether or not they can help you based on what you're willing or able to do.

If you're truly ready and can find the right trainer, the money you invest in personal training just might be the best investment you'll ever make, because there really is nothing more valuable than a strong, healthy, athletic body that will allow you to live a long, happy and full life.

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