What To Know Before Seeing A Personal Trainer For The First Time

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This piece is part of Bustle’s All Levels Welcome, a column about making fitness culture as accessible and inclusive as possible.

If you're looking for a boost in mental health, served up with a strong side of physical fitness, a personal trainer might be a great way to go. The benefits of personal training include increased accountability, better form, personalized training plans, and a built-in hour of socialization all in one, and I'm not just saying this because I am a personal trainer. But if you've ever had a negative experience with a personal trainer (and so many people have), then you know it's not just about having any old personal trainer. It's about developing a strong relationship with your personal trainer.

To develop a healthy working relationship, you don't just need accountability from your trainer — you need to hold them accountable, too. Your trainer can help you personalize your training, but your goals are always, first and foremost, your own. Your movements, your body, is always yours.

Personal training is, of course, expensive (often prohibitively so). But cheaper personal training options exist, such as online personal training and small group training. Online training can both cut costs and allow you the flexibility of working out on your own terms, in your own space. Small group training also cuts costs and also gives you and your friends the opportunity to train together.

Regardless of how or where you're training, sometimes the power dynamic involved in personal training makes people, trainers and clients alike, forget that ultimately it's your experience that matters. But you're not embarking on your trainer's fitness journey — you're embarking on your own. Your trainer is there to be your ally, but to make sure your relationship with your trainer is beneficial for both of you, here are some tips to live by.

1. Interview Your Trainer Like They're Having A Job Interview

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If you're working with a trainer based out of your gym, the consult will likely be complimentary. If you're working with a freelance trainer (online or IRL), ask them about their complimentary consultation and session policies. Either way, during this consultation, a personal trainer might start by asking you all kinds of questions: about your workout history, your injury history, your goals, etc. That's fair, because a personal trainer definitely needs to know these things to craft the most effective program for you. But remember that you're not the only one being interviewed — you're still hiring them for a job.

Ask your potential trainer questions! Lots of them. Ask: What experience do you have creating a program for someone with my goals? What's your in-session style like? What's your strategy for modifying my program if we need to? How collaborative do you imagine our work being? And if they find all this annoying, they're not the trainer for you, anyway.

Pro-tip: pay attention to the way your trainer talks about people's bodies. Training culture is often overwhelmingly fat-shaming and body-negative. If your trainer is giving you red flags in that regard, you don't have to continue your relationship. You don't have to work with someone who is going to even inadvertently make you feel badly about your body, even if they're 'just trying to help.'

2. Set Your Boundaries Often And Early

If your body just plain hates that feeling of being so breathless it feels vaguely like a panic attack, or a particular movement activates your depression, you can and should always tell your trainer no. "No" can be an absurdly difficult word to say, but you're brave rather than 'difficult' for saying it. You don't have to explain the ins and outs of why you're setting the boundaries you're setting, but you are always allowed to set them. If you don't want to be touched, even when your trainer is trying to show you proper form, you can say that. Or if touching your arm is fine, but not your lower back, you can say that, too. If they mess up, you can correct them. If they mess up again, you can leave the training relationship. That's completely OK.

3. You Can "Shop Around"

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Just because you started with a particular personal trainer doesn't mean you have to stay with them. You might have hit it off super well at first, but if that relationship is deteriorating, it's OK to communicate what you need and switch it up if need be. Think of it a little bit like dating. Going on a few dates with someone doesn't necessarily mean you're going to spend the next few years with them. It's alright to listen to your body and your instincts and make sure you're honoring them at every step of the way, even if that means meeting with multiple trainers or trying sessions with different people to see who is ultimately the best fit for you.

4. You Don't Have To Buy Multiple Sessions

Sorry, fellow personal trainers, but I've got to say this one: In your first meeting, your trainer will probably try to get you to buy multiple sessions at once, anywhere from four to 24. This makes a lot of sense: the more sessions you get, the more stable your relationship will feel, and the more intimately your trainer can plan for and monitor your progress. Plus, it works out for the trainer financially to have you pay for multiple sessions all at once, which isn't a bad thing.

But it can become a bad thing for you: sometimes first impressions aren't everything. Sometimes you have great rapport in conversation, but your actual training relationship isn't great. It's OK to stay firm in only purchasing one or two sessions, or perhaps three or four to give you an idea of what they're like. You can always buy more down the road, and you can always say that's enough.

5. Prioritize What You Want, Not What You Think They Want To Hear

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A lot of my clients have come in to their first meeting with me and talked about things they thought they should talk about in a personal training session. They'd tell me they wanted to lose weight, or to "tone up." And often, that was true for them. But more often than not, I was able to get to a place with my clients where I understood their goals more deeply. And usually, they wanted to get strong, not to lose body fat. Past clients have wanted to feel more fit, not look different. But there is a power dynamic involved in personal training where the trainer is perceived as the expert in all things health. This might be relatively true regarding training. But you are the only expert in what you want, and that's the most important expertise there is.

You might want to start this process in private, asking yourself: What do you envision being able to do that you can't do now as a result of personal training? What kinds of movement make you feel good? If no kinds of movement make you feel good, that's understandable. Which kinds of movement feel least threatening? When have you felt most at home with your body? Have you never? That's OK! What do you imagine being more at home in your body might feel like?

6. Think About How You Have The Most Fun, And Say It

Some people's idea of fun (aka, mine) is throwing a lot of weight on a barbell and having at it. But you might have more fun jumping around using only your bodyweight as resistance. Or you might have seen someone playing with a certain kind of equipment at the gym and really want to try it. You might get bored by counting reps and sets, but timing yourself to see how fast you can go through different movements might seem super cool. Whatever you like, or think you might like, let your trainer know. Because sure, it's about "fitness" and all that. But you've made an investment in a service, and you deserve to be having fun with it. You're certainly paying enough money for it!

7. Keep It Honest

At the same time as you want to hold your trainer accountable to you and your needs, your trainer is also there to hold you accountable. Oftentimes, clients want to impress their trainer (there's that power dynamic!) or simply to avoid having their trainer be unhappy with them. If that sounds like you, then it's understandable that you'd be tempted to tell your trainer that you did do those cardio sessions between training even when you definitely didn't.

But keep it honest! Life gets in the way, and so do mental and physical health. And all of that is OK. Forming new habits is difficult, and your trainer can't help you if they don't know what's going on for you. So let them know, to the extent you feel comfortable with. You might be able to come up with brilliant solutions together that you couldn't do alone. Which is really the point of a personal trainer to begin with.

If you're considering getting a personal trainer, that's awesome. Personal training can be helpful in so many aspects of your life, even beyond your physical health. But you want to make sure you're forming a mutually beneficial relationship that works for you, because that's what training is really about.