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A Beginner's Guide to Personal Trainers

Here's everything you need to know about hiring a personal trainer, from budgets to where to look.

Giselle Castro-Sloboda Fitness and Nutrition Writer
I'm a Fitness & Nutrition writer for CNET who enjoys reviewing the latest fitness gadgets, testing out activewear and sneakers, as well as debunking wellness myths. On my spare time I enjoy cooking new recipes, going for a scenic run, hitting the weight room, or binge-watching many TV shows at once. I am a former personal trainer and still enjoy learning and brushing up on my training knowledge from time to time. I've had my wellness and lifestyle content published in various online publications such as: Women's Health, Shape, Healthline, Popsugar and more.
Expertise Fitness and Wellness
Giselle Castro-Sloboda
9 min read
Gym trainer helps guide a client who's lifting a kettlebell.
Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

If one of your goals this year is to get stronger or to finally follow a consistent workout schedule, then hiring a personal trainer may be worth considering. Personal trainers take away the guesswork by creating a workout plan that is customized to fit your needs and fitness level. They're also able to teach you exercises with good form and modify them when necessary. As the fitness industry has evolved over time, so have the ways to find a personal trainer. Now, you can find one on social media, through apps and more. 

Choosing the right personal trainer is a lot like finding a good partner, friend or even medical provider. Like any relationship, ultimately you want to make sure that you're a compatible match and that you're being treated with respect and being heard. For example, if your exercise style tends to be low intensity, you wouldn't want to hire a trainer who conducts their sessions like a drill sergeant. 

To make the process of finding a personal trainer easier for you, we've broken down where to find them, what to look for and what to ask so you can find your perfect match.

Should you hire a personal trainer?

There are a lot of situations that are ideal for getting a personal trainer. Maybe you're looking for some guidance because you just got clearance to work out again after having a baby, or perhaps you're working on rebuilding strength after having knee surgery. A personal trainer can help build a workout program that's personalized to your needs and goals, which you can't find in group fitness. You'll also be held accountable to stick with a regular exercise routine and receive undivided attention that you usually can't get in busier fitness settings. 

Matthew Berenc, vice president of live 1:1 coach development and technology at Forme, says the personalization of your fitness program can vary. "This could be picking the right sets and reps and structure of your program or simply selecting the best starting point for exercises that acknowledges your level of ability, any prior injury or movement limitations, or what you feel comfortable doing," he told CNET. 

Over time, your body adapts to the reps and sets of exercises you've been doing, which is why people experience a plateau before reaching their goal. A trainer can help with this because they'll know how to progress your workouts in a way that's achievable for your abilities and fitness level. This will prevent you from getting discouraged or hitting a plateau, and it'll help you get stronger and closer to your goal. 

There are different ways a trainer can manipulate programming to work to your advantage. "They are able to tailor that increase in challenge by adding more weight to the exercise, increasing the number of reps, reducing how much rest you get, or making the exercises themselves more difficult," Berenc said. Ultimately the idea is to get you to your goal in a controlled and safe pace while adhering to the way your body adapts and moves.

Trainer helps a client use battle ropes, a strength building tool.
Edwin Tan/Getty Images

How to find a personal trainer

At one point it seemed straightforward to find a trainer: all you had to do was go to your local gym. Now you're able to scout them online, through social media, on personal training apps  or by word of mouth (and of course, you can still find one at the gym). 

There are various types of trainers, depending on their specialities. For example, you can find trainers who specialize in Crossfit, boxing, kettlebells, pilates, yoga, running, powerlifting, pre- and post-natal training and much more. Trainers often have more than one specialty because of continuing education courses they've taken. As a client, it's important that you have a clear idea on what your goal is so you can match with the right trainer. It's also helpful to ask yourself if you prefer in-person sessions or are comfortable enough with virtual training.

Once you know what you want, you can start searching. A good place to start is through nationally accredited organizations like the National Academy of Sports Medicine or American Council on Exercise. If you're looking for a trainer with a specific skill set, specialty certifications also have their own registries. For example, the Precision Nutrition certification is ideal if you want a nutrition trainer, National Strength and Conditioning Association if you're looking for a performance trainer, StrongFirst for kettlebell trainers, or Road Runners Club of America for a running coach. You can also inquire at your local gym or ask friends and family if they have recommendations. Another way to find a trainer is by browsing personal training apps such as Future, CoPilot or Caliber, which have become popular over the years. 

An empty gym, with dumbbells and weight benches.
Vostok/Getty Images

How much does a personal trainer cost?

There's no denying that a personal trainer is an investment, which is why it's key to come up with a budget if you decide to hire a trainer. The price will vary depending on factors including where you live, how experienced the trainer is, whether they're working for a gym or self-employed, or if there's a specialty involved. 

"On average, the cost for a personal training session will range from $70 to $100," explained Berenc. "A lot of trainers, whether in a gym setting or on their own, will offer a per-session discount if you buy a package of training sessions up front."  

Personal trainer and nutritionist Jacob Zemer has seen training prices as low as $60, but says to expect sessions in major cities to cost upwards of $100 to $200 an hour. He said, "Remember that the price of a trainer doesn't affect the quality of the trainer, it just affects the demand of a trainer." This applies whether they're training in a studio or virtually since it's still an hour of their time. If they are traveling to see you, you should expect that the price will increase to account for travel time.  

Remember to also ask about cancellation policies, because you may lose a session from your package or be charged an additional fee if you cancel.  

Questions to ask a potential trainer

Once you've narrowed down a few trainers, it's key to come armed with questions to your consultation. After all, you're going to be paying them for their services and you want to make sure you're spending your money wisely. "During your consultation, ask about their experience overall, how long they've been a trainer and what their background is in the industry," said Berenc. This can include certifications, degrees, number of years of experience and the types of clientele they've worked with. 

Along with their certifications, they should have their CPR, AED/First-Aid certification and professional liability insurance up to date as well. Berenc advises not to shun a relatively new trainer because you can be a part of their growth in experience, and they can learn from you as well. If they're well-experienced, it's helpful to ask if they've worked with clients who have had similar goals or limitations as you. Another important quality to ask about is their communication and coaching style. "The goal is to get a sense of their coaching and communication style and if it aligns with what you like or want," explained Berenc. 

If the trainer you're considering is going to be training you in your home, consider doing a background check as well. This is to look out for your own safety and others in your home. Finally, learning how they customize a program is helpful because you'll know there's a process to their training style. "A good trainer will have a structure to their programming and will be able to explain how they track progress and what you can expect from training with them," Berenc said. 

Yoga trainer with a client in a session.
Marko Geber/Getty Images

Red flags to look out for

At a minimum, a trainer should have a personal training certification from a nationally accredited organization and at least an additional one that shows their continued interest in growth. If not, keep looking. "You want to see that they have invested in their education as a trainer and put time into developing the skills and methods needed to help you reach your goals," said Berenc. 

Another red flag to look out for is if they don't assess you or ask questions about your workout history, goals or any injuries prior to your training. You should also be aware if they make unrealistic promises (like lose 30 pounds in 10 days) or they don't stay in their scope of practice. For example, not all personal trainers are certified to give nutrition advice or create a meal plan for you. Unless their credentials specify otherwise, they shouldn't be doing so.  

If there isn't a structure to your workouts and your safety isn't being taken into account, this should not be ignored. According to Berenc, be wary if the trainer's goal is just to make you feel crushed after every session and they don't focus on making the program and relationship client-centered. Although working hard is important, it shouldn't leave you feeling beat up after every session. 

Don't forget the trainer should be tracking your workouts to make sure you're set up for success. If you're not liking an aspect of your training, you should be able to voice your concerns without the fear of being berated or made to feel bad. Additionally, in this day and age it's common for a trainer to have a smartphone on them and to have a social media presence. "If they are buried in their phone or on social media the entire time, their focus is in the wrong place," warned Berenc. 

"You do not want a trainer that is not engaged in the session, and doesn't care about your end result, because you want the trainer to have you as top priority," Zemer said. 

During the training process

In some cases, you may get to a point where you think things aren't working out with your trainer and you'd prefer to move on. The best way to determine if it's time to cut ties is by breaking it down by a timeline. The first few weeks are when you're just getting to know each other and learning your trainer's style. 

"You can likely get a sense of someone's personality and engagement in the first two weeks or the first four to six sessions," explained Berenc. "If after two weeks of working together it's just not clicking, you should let your trainer know what you are looking for and or what you aren't getting that you want."

"At maximum you should give it three months before deciding to go out and explore other options," Zemer said.

Berenc says that on average, for most goals, you should see some improvement after a month to month and a half of training. This is because usually a phase of a program lasts four to six weeks. Although it doesn't necessarily mean you'll hit your goal in that timeframe, you should start to see some improvement. "For instance, if you have a strength goal, you should see more weight on the exercises you are doing," he explained. 

If you still feel like you're not getting through to your trainer or making progress in the recommended timeline, it may be time to explore other options. After all, a trainer's job is to guide and work with you to help establish habits in and outside of the gym that will put you closer to your goal.  

woman on balance ball at gym with personal trainer
Getty Images/Peathegee Inc

Bottom line

Remember that you are hiring a personal trainer for their services and their job is to serve and work with you, not the other way around. Before hiring one you should assess your budget, and determine realistically how often you'll be able to train and what your goals are. Research different trainers in your area and come prepared with questions to make sure you're getting the best service possible.

A trainer is there to offer you guidance and help you reach your fitness goals, but you still have to put in the work. "Regardless of how good the trainer is, you still are the one squatting, deadlifting, benching, so you have to show up with a positive attitude, be coachable, and realistic about your expectations," said Zemer. As long as you put in the effort and are consistent, you'll be able to get closer to your goal in no time.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.