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Q&A: What should I look for in a fitness professional?

Hey Tom,

I’m thinking about working with a personal trainer or nutrition coach. Are there some specific things I should look for in determining who is a good fit for me?

The role of a fitness professional has changed significantly over the past decade. As people understand how important it is to eat well, exercise correctly and make proper lifestyle choices, the role of a fitness professional has changed from someone who simply maps out a strength training program, to someone who must understand how an individual’s goals and motivations, drug therapies, metabolic health, schedule, interests, and current level of conditioning all affect the likelihood of them achieving their goals. They must also understand how to be a knowledgeable “coach” who can educate and guide them in all of these areas, and learn to lean on other healthcare professionals, when necessary.

If you’re considering working with a fitness professional, here are some things to look for, along with some good questions to ask as you interview them.

1. Fitness professionals use of a variety of physical and metabolic assessments.

Questions to ask:

  • What assessments do you require of clients you’re going to work with?
  • If I do those assessments, how will you adjust my program once you see the results?

The available assessment information today is much greater than when I started as a personal trainer 10 years ago. Today, fitness professionals must understand lab tests (saliva and blood), metabolic tests, movement screens, and a variety of strength and conditioning tests.

Each client requires different types of assessments based on their fitness level and goals, but a critical part of everyone’s goal is a healthy metabolism. Fitness professionals should be confident adjusting your program based on lab testing you’ve had, and in helping you understand what type of lab testing is best for you. Life Time offers a variety of lab and metabolic assessments that range from comprehensive analysis of several body systems, functions, hormone, glucose and cholesterol levels to more specific concerns, like determining your levels of vitamin D or food allergies. The most complete, comprehensive assessment is called the Premium Longevity & Vitality assessments. It includes a complete analysis of cholesterol size and type, hormone levels, measurements for inflammation, stress measurements, vitamin D levels and more.

Fitness professionals cannot diagnose these labs, but a good registered dietitian can help you understand what the numbers mean. From there, your program may need to be adjusted to optimize your results. You don’t want to spend six months following a program with limited success, only to find out later there is something off with your metabolism that needs to be corrected so you can achieve the fitness goals you had in mind.

Aside from stressing the importance of lab work, a good fitness professional will utilize metabolic testing to design cardio programs and track the way your metabolic rate and fat burning abilities change over time. They’ll use movement screens to understand what types of strength and range-of-motion work you should be doing. In addition, basic assessment such as strength tests, body composition measurements and other fitness assessment information should be used.

2. Regular reassessments

Questions to ask:

  • How often do you reassess your clients?
  • Which assessments do you reassess?

The power of assessment data comes from reviewing repeated assessments. If you go to your doctor and find your blood pressure is 126/84, he or she may provide an opinion of what that number means, but his or her feedback would be quite different if you had been in three months earlier with a blood pressure of 148/94. Assessments must be repeated to see if the changes you’re making in your lifestyle, nutrition and exercise are making a difference.

Body composition can be rechecked each week for some people to hold them accountable and keep them motivated. I liked measuring body fat levels on Mondays because it would help people reconsider eating junk on the weekend.

Resting metabolic rate assessments, especially for those on a weight loss program, are wise to check every few months to make sure your program isn’t taxing your body too much and slowing your metabolic rate more than it should. It also allows you to see how much better you’re getting at burning fat at rest, a key indicator of a more efficient metabolism.

Exercise metabolic rate assessments can be redone with the same frequency. The newer you are to exercise, the faster your body will respond. As your body becomes more efficient with exercise, the more your heart rate targets will change.

Finally, rechecking your labs depends a bit on the results of your first lab test. If you ordered a comprehensive lab package like the Life Time’s Premium Longevity & Vitality package, or if you had your doctor order something similar, you probably won’t need to get a complete lab makeup done more than once per year. However, if your assessment indicated certain measures were out of optimal range, you’ll want to get those specific measures rechecked periodically to make sure they’re improving. Many markers of metabolism can be influenced by the right nutrition and exercise program and the changes can happen fairly quickly.

3. Personalized nutritional guidance

Questions to ask:

  • How will you put together my nutrition program?
  • Aside from conversation in our sessions, what additional nutrition support or direction can you give me?
  • How will nutritional supplements play into my program?

Both nutrition and exercise (along with appropriate lifestyle changes) are critical to long-term success with any program. If you’re considering working with a fitness professional, talk to him or her about his or her approach to nutrition. Some personal trainers work closely with holistic-minded registered dietitians. Others provide a certain amount of nutritional guidance to their clients and understand the supplements important for a strong nutritional foundation, and then lean on registered dietitians for more complex issues, special needs or for support with lab work. There is not a perfect way to address nutrition for all individuals as needs vary, but before you start working with someone, be sure he or she has a solid plan for providing you the nutrition support you’ll need.

4. An organized plan

Question to ask:

  • What does my plan look like for the next couple months?

After meeting with a fitness professional and completing some initial assessments, he or she will have a reasonable idea of what your program will look like. Just as there is no one-size-fits-all diet, there isn’t a perfect template for exercise either. Your fitness professional should consider your assessments, the equipment available, your schedule, the sessions you’ll be doing together versus what you’ll do on your own, and your goals, not theirs, to create a solid plan. It’s nearly impossible to script out a program for weeks or months in advance as the program design will likely be modified based on your progress. However, he or she should be able to talk through your plan at a high level.

You should also receive a written or virtual copy of each of your workouts for your own records. You can use the workouts for reference and even to compare over time so you can see how much you’re progressing as time goes on.

5. Leading by example

Questions to ask:

  • What are the goals of your current exercise program?
  • What does a typical workout week look like for you?
  • How does your nutrition and lifestyle program compliment your exercise program?

A major difference between a personal trainer or registered dietitian, and a fitness professional, is how they live their own life. Personal trainers can take you through a tough workout, leaving you sweaty and tired. Registered dietitians can write up a good nutrition plan from what they know. However, when these individuals live and breathe health and fitness, you’ll learn from someone who has addressed many of the same obstacles you’ll face.

If your coach stays up late, eats poorly and/or has a haphazard approach to exercise, you probably won’t have the same experience as when you work with someone who practices what he or she preaches.


There is much to be gained from finding a great fitness professional to work with. When you work with someone who lives, breathes and whose job revolves around fitness, it can be motivating, educational and inspiring – three keys to long-term success. If you feel compelled, meet with a couple different fitness professionals to compare personalities, answers to your questions and the general vibe you get.

One last thing to consider: you’re hiring a fitness professional, not a friend. Remember that his or her job is to be empathetic yet keep you focused on your health and fitness goals. Your sessions are to focus on your health, fitness, nutrition and lifestyle. Great fitness professionals are able to maintain enough distance from their clients to maintain their authority as experts but keep you inspired enough that you look forward to meeting with them each session.

Do you have some other thoughts or questions to share? Post them below. Do you have a question you'd like answered in a future article? Email

Written by Tom Nikkola - Director of Nutrition & Weight Management


You might also want to check out "How to Get the Most From Your Personal Trainer" at Experience Life.

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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