4 Characteristics of an Exercise Professional

The dreaded tax season is coming to a close this week.  Did you hire an accountant to help you fill out the proper forms and guide you in deciphering the legal tax code to file them correctly? Before you hired this, or any professional, did you stop to think about what kind of credentials they should have in order to do the job? If this professional met the minimum standard requirements by their overseeing professional body, did you ever consider what additional characteristics this person should have in order to be worth your valuable time and money? 

    The negative consequences of hiring a poor accountant may result in financial trouble with the IRS.  Hiring the wrong personal trainer can negatively impact your health and body not just right now, but for many years in the future affecting both the quantity of time and quality of time you have in your life. I would argue that hiring a personal trainer should be one of the most carefully considered choices you make since your health is precious. 

    If you’ve never hired a personal trainer before, or you’re not sure you hired the correct one, here are 4 characteristics to look for along with questions you can ask that will help you navigate this important decision. Remember, this person will directly be affecting your health and body. It’s worth the time to do the research, ask the tough questions, and be discriminating about who you choose. 


    Minimally, a personal trainer should be certified by an accredited organization such as the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), or American Council on Exercise (ACE).  At this time, there is no national certifying agency that regulates personal training so certification programs can vary dramatically from a simple online test to dozens of classroom hours and hands on time. Additionally, these organizations require trainers to earn a certain number of continuing education credits each year in order to maintain their certification.

Questions: Be sure to ask for details on the number of required hours they completed to earn their certification. Is the trainer currently in compliance with their certifying body? 

    A true exercise professional will not stop at earning this single sheet of paper. They should also have an understanding of the body’s structure, muscles, joints, tendons and ligaments. The muscular system does not work alone and effects the skeletal system, respiratory and circulatory systems, endocrine system, nervous system, digestive system, immune system, and others. While a trainer does not need to be an expert in all these areas, they should have an understanding of what role exercise plays in each of them. In addition, to understanding the body, an exercise professional should also have a good grasp of physics and forces since this is how exercise creates adaptations in the body. 

    What’s the difference between a cook and a chef? A cook follows a recipe step by step to produce the same dish over and over. A chef has a deep understanding of each ingredient and how they interact with each other, they can tell just by sight what changes need to be made even in the middle of preparation, and if one ingredient is poor quality, they know how to make a change and still come up with a delicious dish. An excellent exercise professional will be a chef in the gym. They understand every tool at their disposal, can make split second changes and adjust for a body part that’s feeling poor. The workout is customized, not choreographed. There’s a developed thought process, not memorization.  

Questions: If you observe the training session directly after yours, is the client doing the exact same workout you just did?  Or has the trainer/instructor customized the workout for that individual? If you have a special condition (a bad back, a prior surgery, etc), ask the trainer if A) they are knowledgeable about the condition you have, B) how they would customize the workout for you, and C) what the expected outcomes may be. 

    As with any profession, it’s important to continue learning and working to improve our skills. Outside of just the required yearly continuing education classes needed to maintain their certification, does the trainer have a passion to learn and continue to search out new information and well as review? Do they attend classes, workshops, read books, engage in study time with peers? Ask them to tell you about the latest book they read or class they attended. Exercise is not something that can be learned from books alone and requires doing. Does the exercise professional spend time in the gym trying out all their tools and experiencing exercise before passing it on to you, the consumer? 


    “Knowledge without application is useless.” An exercise professional may have all the know how in their head, but be unable to turn it into actionable results. This step requires the ability to design a strategic plan that is orientated to your goals. This plan should have both short term and long term goals with defined steps to accomplish them. On an hourly basis, this includes choosing exercises that are challenging and yet appropriate to the individual as well as the ability to progress and regress when called for. 

Questions: Ask the trainer to give you an example of a short term and long term plan they created for a client and the steps they chose to help them reach their goal. Ask the trainer if they take notes every session to keep track of progress. 


    I recently read a book by actor Alan Alda entitled, “If I understood you, would I have this look on my face?” We’ve all been there and can relate to this situation! Communication is vital to success and can come in the form of verbal cues, appropriate touch, and demonstrations. It’s not one sided though. A professional will ask questions, listen, monitor & modify, and reinforce. They are a teacher, not a cheerleader. They also give you 100%, undivided attention for the entire workout. There are no cell phones, coffee, or distractions; just constant, focused attention on you. 

Questions: If you are meeting for the first time, did the trainer come in with coffee in hand or are they on their cell phone during your meeting? Are they listening to you and providing feedback that tells you they are listening? Are they able to articulate clearly what they do and answer your questions? 



    The gym is not the boardroom and workout clothes are not the same as a suit & tie, but that does not mean an exercise professional should act any less professional than they would in an office setting. 

    • Clothing should be appropriate and neat. 
    • The trainer should be clean, well-groomed, and have good hygiene. 
    • Crude language is a no-no, as is gossip. 
    • They should be on time.  This doesn’t mean strolling in the door when you do. It means being set up and prepared to execute your exercise plan before you arrive. 
    • Reliability. The trainer should not cancel or move your appointment times around frequently. 
    • The trainer should show respect for co-workers, the boss, and other members. 
    • Your hour should be about you, not them. An exercise professional will keep their private life private and will not take up your session discussing their bad day. 
    • We all make mistakes. A professional recognizes and apologizes from their mistakes and uses it as an opportunity to learn. 
    • Stay within their Scope of Practice. Exercise professionals do not diagnose, prescribe, or treat injuries or disease. They should feel comfortable referring to a network of health professionals in other fields. 

    While this might seem like a lot of information to consider before hiring a personal trainer, pilates/yoga instructor, CrossFit coach, etc, remember that your health is your number one asset! Our favorite saying at AIM is “choose your choices” meaning, you are responsible for the consequences of the choices you make.  Ask the tough questions. Be discriminating. Gather the information so you can make a choice that improves your health, not harms it. You are worth it!