According to WebMD, the hottest trend in fitness for 2013 is “educated, certified, and experienced fitness professionals.” In addition to listing professionals as the top trend, personal training and group personal training were in the top ten also. Personal training jobs are expected to continue their growth with a projected increase of 24% from 2010 to2020, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. This is a trend that has been going on for some time now.

Last decade while our nation suffered one of the biggest economic downturns in our history, the fitness industry charged full steam ahead. During the “lost decade” (2000-2009) our nation had zero net job creation, but personal training saw robust growth. Ironically, part of that growth is certainly because of the downturn. The barriers to entry for becoming a trainer are few compared to other professions that require years of education and experience. Also, companies have to invest little to hire personal trainers. These jobs are almost universally part time and mostly without benefits. Additionally and significantly, like 100% commission sales jobs, companies don’t have to pay trainers unless they sell their services. Many gyms continue to add trainers in droves at little cost to themselves.

Personally, I came into fitness during the economic downturn of 2000 and 2001 after losing my dot-com startup job. Many of us came into fitness in reaction to economic variables, seeking brighter futures and greener pastures. Many of us also came into fitness with a sense of purpose, seeking to serve, heal, and help. While our economy has been volatile in recent years, our nation has simultaneously suffered from an epidemic in terms of our collective health and wellness. The obesity crisis and failing health care system have helped to spur the growth of fitness as well. The fitness industry stands as a beacon of hope in combating this crisis and helping our nation get well.

 The problem when business is booming is opportunists tend to flood the market (see the housing bubble and growth of real estate jobs in the mid-2000s). In a similar fashion, thousands upon thousands of eager opportunists flocked to the fitness business in search of a successful career. Some with altruistic and worthy motives, but others had motives to seize the opportunity and make a quick buck. While few are getting rich quickly in the fitness biz, buyers still should beware because something even more important than your money is on the line - your health.

Before you hire a coach or trainer, make sure to do your due diligence. Here are five traits to look for in a great trainer.

1. Passion for Fitness and Is Fit Themselves

Optimally a personal trainer is a pretty fit person. I suppose, theoretically, one can be a great coach without having played the game or necessarily looking the part. Some of the great coaches never played the game. Conversely, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Isaiah Thomas are three of the greatest players in the history of the NBA and all had questionable (at best) head coaching careers. While a great player does not necessarily equal a great coach, being a fit trainer does at least in part equal being an effective one.

Being fit isn’t the same as being an athlete. Being an elite athlete is in large part a function of talent while being fit is in large part a function of passion, determination, and dedication. Make sure your trainer possesses these qualities. Walking the walk and practicing what he or she preaches. Leading by example.

I suppose it’s possible to be an effective trainer without being a fit one, but I wouldn’t hire one. Also be mindful of this distinction - a passion for working out and a passion for coaching people aren’t necessarily the same thing. Make sure your trainer possesses both.

2. Understanding of Push and Pull, Ebb and Flow, and Periodization

The push and pull of fitness is a wonderful metaphor for a fitness professional, as there is a literal application of putting the push and pull in our fitness lives. Indeed, there is a sweet spot between the two. My sifu in kung fu was, in my humble opinion, the best trainer I have worked with. Sifu grew up in the rough neighborhood of Jamaica Queens and had to fight his way out, literally. Along the way he had people help him up and out, and he came to be one of those who truly understand what it takes to motivate. What he lacks in education or fancy credentials he more than makes up for in knowing people.

Sifu could always push people farther than they could push themselves. Still, that’s the easy part of being a trainer. Anyone can make someone do a hard workout. The key is knowing when not to push and when to pull your client back in with understanding, empathy, and a little rest. Clients want to know you have their back and you’re not going to hurt them. It’s an art, really. Before you hire a trainer, talk to his or her clients. Get references and see if he or she possesses this art.

3. Knowledge and Know-How

fitness industry, finding a good trainer, good personal trainer, coaching while a great education does not make a great doctor, it certainly doesn’t hurt to see a degree from Harvard Medical School on the wall. I wouldn’t necessarily choose a trainer based on the degree or cert he or she has, but I most certainly would look to see what my trainer has learned and from where it was learned. A trainer’s job is to help clients adapt, grow, and change and so a trainer must do so also. Therefore continuing education is also important. We are all creatures of habit, trainers included. Change is ultimately the real key to growth. If your trainer isn’t growing and learning, neither are you.

4. Excellent Communication Skills

People sometimes mistake a good communicator for someone who has a silver tongue and slick presentation skills. I tend to think that communication in large part is about seeking to understand. It’s about critical thinking and effective listening. Being a coach and trainer means agreeing to help someone on his or her journey to better health, fitness, and wellness. In order for a trainer to succeed in this role, it is essential for him or her to know where a client has been and where the client seeks to go. If I were hiring a coach or trainer, I’d tend to lean towards a trainer who listens more than talks.

5. Empathy and Compassion

Over the years, having such a fervor and passion for fitness, I actually developed a disdain for the overweight and sedentary. While I wasn’t born an athlete, I was born with a stubborn and iron will. I flat out couldn’t relate to those who, in my estimation, just didn’t suck it up and push through the discomfort of exercise. I recently had a meeting with my editor and she mentioned she used to work with a trainer who actually professed to “hate fat people.” While hate is certainly a pretty strong word, it’s my guess that it’s not an uncommon thing for those who are super fit to look down on those who aren’t.

fitness industry, finding a good trainer, good personal trainer, coaching in the past, I certainly levied my fair share of judgment towards the sedentary and overweight. That is until my personal life suffered a setback or two, and my aging body didn’t agree to keep up the pace I had been pushing for decades. Through my own setbacks and shortcomings, I found a new voice as a trainer, coach, and writer - a voice of empathy replaced the voice of looking down on those whom I previously saw as not willing to step up and just work harder.

Empathy is the key to piercing through the disconnect that sometimes occurs between trainer and client. Empathy, in part, comes from something we can all relate to - struggle. When I found that sense of true empathy and real humility, I also found a better way to reach people. Empathy is the gateway to an even more important word - compassion. A trainer does not have to have a history of being overweight, injured, or obese to relate to your struggle. However, an effective trainer is most certainly one with empathy and compassion. Make sure you hire one of those.

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