The relationship of a client and their trainer is a very serious matter. As the client, you’re entrusting your physical health and your goals to whomever you sign on with and as such it’s your right to thoroughly vet any fitness professional you consult.
Let me be clear- once you commit to a trainer or coach your “job” as the client is to follow directions and trust the process. After all, they’re the expert and it was you who came to them. But prior to signing on the dotted line, it’s perfectly appropriate to ask questions and dig deep to learn exactly what and who you are about to commit to. Be respectful but don’t be afraid to ask whatever will help you make a confident decision. The real professional won’t mind, they have nothing to hide. And, in fact, they will appreciate that you take the process seriously and don’t do things on a whim.
Let’s put aside the obvious questions like how long they’ve been coaching and where did they learn about training; I suggest reading my article "What Really Makes a Good Trainer" to understand the broad aspects of identifying a quality coach.
In this one, I’ll give you the incisive questions that will help you read between the lines and find out what they’re really all about!
“Do you specialize in any particular type of training or goal?”
With any decent amount of experience, at least five years, every trainer will naturally gravitate to certain methods and become more adept at serving certain client needs. While to the customer all aspects of fitness (strength, endurance, physique, etc.) may seem like one big thing, the training of each of these components is very different, at times even totally opposite (think powerlifting versus marathon running).
While a training professional will have at least a little knowledge of each area and be somewhat helpful to any client, they will always have that one thing they are most passionate about and more versed in.
With that in mind, this question works on two levels:
1) You find out if their specialty is complimentary to your goal, and
2) It’s a test of their integrity.
Seem strange? Let me explain:
Be wary of the “yes man” who claims that for any goal he is just the right guy. It’s a story I’ve seen play out so many times that it borders on being a crisis in the industry; the twig who works out with pink 3lb dumbbells tells you she can get you big and strong - the dude who does nothing but bench press and bicep curl swears he’ll have you killin’ it in a Spartan Race. But what does the honest trainer say? “I have helped people with [X] goal, but I’m best for people interested in [Y].”
For my part, I have helped many people lose weight and improve conditioning, but I’m most skilled at coaching beginner to intermediate strength training. Want to get ready for an Ironman tri? Don’t ask me, I’m not qualified.
“Have you ever personally been injured from training?”
This may come as a surprise but trust me, you want to be trained by someone who’s experienced training injuries. There’s no better catalyst for a trainer to learn about technique and programming than getting hurt.
From first-hand experience, I absolutely hate anything that gets in the way of my progress in the gym so my back injury forced me to learn the deadlift on a much more advanced level. Chronic rotator cuff pain made me rethink my pressing movements and how to strategically place them in a program to avoid overuse.
I owe a vast amount of the knowledge I now have to making mistakes, getting hurt, then learning how to come back better than before.
As a final point on this question, imagine in the middle of your workout something doesn’t feel right- you feel a building pain in your lower back with every squat. In this moment do you want the trainer who knows what you’re feeling and has learned how to correct it or the one with no similar experience who says “just push through it”?
“What’s changed about how you train people now versus when you started?”
There is a multitude of answers they might give as to how they’ve changed their training strategies, the important thing (what you’re really getting at) is that they are in fact developing and are doing so with intention.