Education, Ability, Experience? What really makes a good trainer? (Part 1)
The field of fitness training is like the “Wild West”, and that’s just the way I like it. The relative freedom of the profession allows for creativity and rewards ambition. It allows for the many methods and theories of best training practices to be tested and in this free market of ideas, the true experts will set themselves apart from their contemporaries.
But there is a downside. With little regulation and many avenues to obtain the job of Personal Trainer (including simply declaring yourself a personal trainer), the fitness industry is ridden with posers, con artists, and the well-meaning but misinformed. Low industry standards and the ease with which an impressive looking person can fool the general population of consumers are two major reasons why finding a high-quality coach or trainer is such a painstaking task for clients. With this conundrum in mind, the purpose of this article is to equip you with the know-how to discern the career coaches from the hobbyists and the pros from the bros. Drawing on what I’ve learned from over 10 years in this field as a trainer, training manager, gym owner, and private coach I’m going to share with you the most important factors in what makes a good trainer and the nuances you need to know to make the best choice!
When the typical customer thinks of education, the tendency will be to think of formal academic learning in the college/university setting. But does having a degree in Kinesiology or Exercise Science necessarily denote real expertise as a trainer? In my experience, NO. As a holder of said degree, I can tell you that the majority of my peers are in no position to coach in the real world. As in any other field, classroom learning can only go so far and often fails to instill the practical, actionable knowledge necessary to succeed in training. While I sought outside mentorship and started my first personal training job while still in school to implement what I was learning, most students merely memorized whatever textbook information was needed to pass the current unit on the syllabus and following the exam, erased that file from their mental hard drive. Hell, I know people who have their Master’s degree but have never instructed a single person in the gym!
The Exercise Science degree obtained at any collegiate program is just that, a science degree. Not a coaching or training degree. Certainly the degree holder can give the technically correct scientific name of every muscle, but nowhere in the curriculum did they learn how to identify and correct errors in the deadlift and the multitude of other skills a trainer needs.
Now in case you think I’m telling you to avoid the Ex Sci graduate, timeout, that’s not true at all! You simply need to understand that the degree doesn’t automatically make them better than the next person. The B.S. or M.S. degree holder could very well have pursued other forms of education and found hands on experience to learn the application side in addition to the theoretical they obtained in class. The mentorship of a veteran coach, independent study, and getting hands-on practice training clients are what separates the serious trainer from the ivory tower academic. While having a degree doesn’t guarantee excellence as a trainer, it does tell you the person in question was serious enough about a profession in health or training to invest the time and money in going to school for it.
Final Takeaway: When comparing trainers, think of one or the other having a degree as a bonus or tiebreaker if they check all the other boxes on this list!
In Part 2 I'll cover what you need to know about certifications - they're not what you think they are!