There’s thinking about starting a solid fitness routine. Then, there’s actually doing it. You have a wide range of options to start or resume working out—you can download a running app, start a home yoga practice, or simply get a gym membership and hope for the best. But one of the best ways to ensure real habitual change (or, at the very least, accountability) is signing up for a few sessions with a personal trainer. This way, you can receive personalized recommendations and advice depending on your fitness background, lifestyle, and goals.
But simply meeting with a professional is just one piece of the fitness puzzle. If you want to make the most of your time with your trainer, here’s what you need to know.
Do Your Homework
There’s no shortage of social media influencers who would love to work with you. And while they may have the physique of a fitness model and thousands of followers, many have zero formal training. There are a few credentials you should always look out for, according to Michelle Rogers, a certified personal trainer and health coach. This ensures they have a certain level of training and adhere to a code of ethics.
There are a dizzying number of personal trainer certifications out there, and it’s not immediately obvious which ones are legit. But you’ll be in good hands with someone whose certification is NCAA accredited. That includes some of the more well-known certifications such as the American Council on Exercise (ACE), the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), the National Council on Strength and Fitness (NCSF), and the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NCSA).
While you’re vetting your potential trainer, check out their website and socials. Look for testimonials, advanced certifications they’ve earned or continuing education coursework they’re taking, and any fitness-related articles or blog posts they’ve written to make sure they actually have the knowledge, skills, and experience to help you meet your goals.
Make Sure It’s a Fit
Research your trainer and meet them face to face (either in person or virtually) to find out if their experience aligns with your goals and whether you click. “Many trainers specialize in a certain niche so I would advise seeking out a trainer that specializes in what you are seeking to achieve,” says Rogers, who offers virtual training sessions geared toward midlife and older adult women.
If your goal is to finish your first 5K, you’d be better off with a trainer who runs marathons and works with beginner runners versus the powerlifting competitor who teaches boot camp at your gym. Sure, the powerlifter can probably make an adequate plan for you. But wouldn’t you rather work with someone who has fielded the kinds of questions you’ll ask and the challenges you’ll face hundreds of times?
Once you know they have the skills and experience to target your goals, see if there’s any chemistry. Rogers says this comes down to “communication and trust.” When you meet your trainer for the first time, whether online or face-to-face, consider the following: Are they asking good questions—and really listening to the answers? Are you confident that they have your best interests at heart? A trainer with all the technical skills in the world won’t be of much use to you if you can’t admit you skipped a workout or that you have no idea how to do the stretches they prescribed.
Clarify Your Goals
Take some time before your first session to visualize where you’d like to be in three months, six months, or a year from now. If you envision “being fitter,” that’s a starting point—but certainly not an endpoint. Get specific. What does being fitter actually entail?
Does it mean growing stronger, faster, or more flexible? Once you narrow it down, keep going. How strong or how fast do you want to be? Which yoga pose do you want to master? Once you know where you want to go, you can work with your trainer to map out a path to get there. (The questions they ask should help you get some clarity if you aren’t totally sure.)
“No goal is too big,” says Carla Baccio, a certified personal trainer on the training platform Fyt. “Your trainer will help you adjust [it] and give you clarity on a timeline, but showing up to your first session ready with a clear goal will help you and your trainer start off on the right foot.”
Know Your Why
Now that you know what you want to accomplish, it’s time to tackle an even more important question: Why do you want it? Other questions you can ask yourself to help you figure out what’s motivating you that might be helpful include:
- What would change for me if I achieve this goal?
- How will I see myself when I accomplish this goal?
- Why is this goal important to me now?
- Who will I be once I meet this target?
Once you figure out your motivation, write it down on a sticky note and place it somewhere prominent to give you a little extra boost for those days you’re low on energy.
Consult Your Calendar
We’re not just talking about booking your sessions (although a calendar is great for that, too). Look at your life as a whole. What other commitments do you have on your plate? That includes work projects, travel, family commitments, and the pickleball team your neighbor talked you into.
Knowing what else you have going on will help you be realistic about how quickly you can reach your goals. Rogers asks her clients lots of questions to help them determine whether their goals are reasonable in the context of their other commitments—and it’s super helpful when they have the answers at their fingertips.
This one might seem like a no-brainer. But you’ll get the most out of every session by showing up prepared and focused. That means silencing the notifications on your phone, going to the bathroom before your session, and making sure your water bottle is topped off and your sneakers are laced up.
Try to get a good night of sleep and drink enough water throughout the day (or night before, if you have an early morning session). You’ll also need to fuel up on food, but not too soon before your session. A high-carb, meal with some protein and a little fat to keep you full (like eggs and toast) about two or three hours before the workout or high-carb snack (like a slice of toast or a banana with a little peanut butter) about 30 minutes before the workout should do the trick.
As Rogers points out, your trainer has reserved a certain chunk of time for you. If you start late, your trainer probably won’t be able to let you make up the time at the end because most likely have another client booked in the slot directly after yours. You’ll usually want a full hour to get a complete training session, according to Baccio. That includes proper warm-up, mobility, muscle activation, strength, cardio, and a cool down.
Preparation also means getting into the right headspace and respecting your trainer’s boundaries. To put it more plainly, “Don’t treat your personal training session as therapy,” says Rogers. “We all have headaches going on outside [the gym] but you should leave that at the door for this time.” While there’s nothing wrong with some conversation during your warm-up, as you get into the workout, if you’re busy rehashing your co-worker drama, you’ll be distracted at best and put yourself at risk of injury at worst.
How To Prepare for a Virtual Personal Training Session
If it’s a virtual session, all of the above still stands. Just make sure you have your space ready, with a workout mat and any other accessories you’ll need, and your camera in a place where your trainer can see your entire body. This way, they can correct your form as needed. You should also be prepared to update your home gym as you get stronger. “You will most likely start with light weights, but be ready to invest and have space for some heavier weights as you progress in your training,” Baccio says.
Ask For Post-workout Advice
A session once or twice a week is great. But your trainer can give you some tips on things to do outside of the appointments to enhance your progress. Think stretching (it’s important!), how to make a rest day work for you (should you take a long walk, do some yoga, or just veg out?), and exercises you can do on your own. They may also have some good ideas on things to eat, but don’t take it as prescriptive advice unless they’re also a registered dietitian.
To make sure your questions get answered, prepare them in advance. “Your trainer may have more than one certification,” says Baccio. “To get the most out of your session, bring intentional questions, especially if you have been struggling with a particular topic like trying to understand macros or how to start new habits.”
Let Your Trainer Know if Something Isn’t Working
Feel a weird twinge in your hamstring whenever you do a goblet squat? Hate a certain warmup exercise so much you’ve started to “accidentally” show up a few minutes late to every workout so you don’t have to do it? Don’t keep it to yourself. Staying open and communicative about what’s working and what isn’t is vital to ensure you actually enjoy your workouts—and, more importantly, avoid getting injured. Your trainer can (and should) make adjustments to ensure the workouts work for you long term.
If you experience chronic pain despite modifications, tell your trainer and ask for a referral for a physical therapist.
Talk to Your Doctor
If you have any medical or musculoskeletal conditions, talk to your doctor and/or your physical therapist first and get any restrictions or precautions in writing to give to your personal trainer at or before your first session. Better yet, ask your trainer if they have a medical clearance form for your doctor to complete. (If they don’t, that might be a red flag.) Your trainer may need to modify your program if you have diabetes, tendonitis, back pain (or any chronic pain), arthritis, high blood pressure, cancer, asthma, or hypothyroidism, just to name a few conditions.
“In most cases, your doctor will recommend exercise to improve your health,” says Baccio. “But talking to [them] about starting exercise is crucial as you may have a clear idea of what types of exercise are recommended for you. Your personal trainer will use this information to create the most effective and personalized training protocol that is safe and that yields the results you want.”
A little bit of progress goes a long way toward creating momentum as you tackle even the most daunting goals. Doing what it takes to fully prepare for your personal training sessions is one of the best things you can do to supercharge your progress.
- Interview with Michelle Rogers (October 2022)
- Email interview and article review with Carla Baccio (October 2022)