March 06, 2024

If you’re reading this article, there’s a good chance you’re dissatisfied in some way with the current state of your health and fitness. Perhaps you’re stuck with a few extra pandemic pounds you haven’t been able to lose. Maybe your back hurts when you bend over to pick up your kids. You just returned to the office and you get winded walking up the subway stairs. 


Whatever your reason and whatever your goal is - whether it is gaining muscle mass, losing fat, preparing for a thanksgiving half marathon with your in-law’s crazy family, or to live life pain-free - you realize that you need help getting there. You know that joining a gym is the first step but beyond that, you’re unsure what to do. 


“What exercises should I do? How many days per week should I train? Do I stretch before or after? What should I eat? How much cardio do I do? And on what equipment? How do I make sure my knee pain doesn’t get worse?”


These questions all circle through your head. Feeling overwhelmed and confused, you land on the decision to hire a personal trainer. 


Working with a quality personal trainer is an invaluable experience that will reap positive benefits for years to come. However, finding a personal trainer in a saturated market like Manhattan is no easy task. In fact, as of May 2020, there are 16,310 personal trainers in New York, most of which are concentrated in the New York City area. 


So where do you start? Read on to find out how to find the best personal trainer for you in Manhattan. 


Location and Budged

The first step to finding the best personal trainer for you in New York City is to do your research on geographic location. If you have a busy schedule and can allocate an hour three times a week to training, you don’t want to spend another hour commuting to and from the facility. Having said that, even if it's tempting to settle for a trainer that’s in your immediate area, you shouldn’t pick one solely based on location. It is likely well worth a small commute to work with the best professionals the city has to offer. Once you’ve narrowed down your location, the next step to consider is the environment you want to train in. 


The environment of a big box gym versus a private studio versus your residence is very different. Do you mind if other people are around while you’re training? Do you gain energy and motivation from having others training near you? Or do you prefer a quiet, private space to work on improving yourself? If you’ve never stepped foot in a gym before, having others around you can seem intimidating. Do you want a trainer coming to your home? 


Generally, personal trainers that work in big box gyms (crunch, equinox) in New York City are cheaper to hire than those that work in private studios. However, their commission is sales-driven. They will walk the floor engaging with members in order to sell training. While there’s nothing wrong with this, just be aware that these trainers have to fill their roster in order to make money. They play a game of maximum volume to make a profit. 


Private health clubs and studios in Manhattan likely have coaches on salary and therefore aren’t compensated based upon sessions performed. Their compensation is based upon their client retention and/or on their level of expertise. While this does not always mean these personal trainers are superior to those that work in box gyms, there’s a good chance their motives may be driven by other factors besides income. Personal trainers that make visits to your residence to train you in your home gym will cost the most out of the three options. Convenience isn’t always cheap. 


Alright, so you figured out your ideal training environment, your budget, and how far you’re willing to travel to work with your personal trainer. The next step is to look into the personal trainer’s credentials and education.

Education, Credentials, and Experience 

One of the problems facing the field of personal training is the lack of required licensure to practice. In any other discipline involving individuals' health, such as nursing, medicine, or psychology, practitioners need years of education combined with hands-on experience before being given a license to practice. The best equivalent to a license in the field of personal training is a degree and certification. 


The issue is most personal training certifications require nothing more than a weekend of self-study, payment of course fee, and an open book online certification exam. That said, there are a few well regarded certifications to look out for. 


Considered as one of the top certifications in the field, a CSCS (certified strength and conditioning specialist) must have a bachelor’s degree to sit for the exam. ACSM certified exercise physiologists are another highly qualified credential to look out for, requiring both education (a bachelor’s degree in exercise physiology) and experience before receiving certification. Some other notable certifications are NSCA and NASM.

Does a college degree mean the personal trainer is adequately qualified? No. But it’s a good place to start. A 2018 report showed that 37 percent of all personal trainers have a bachelor’s degree. Four years of study in physiology, anatomy, biochemistry, and biomechanics should be the bare minimum for an individual you entrust with your health. 


A great indication that your personal trainer truly loves their field and strives to be an expert at their craft is their completion of a Master’s degree. A Master’s requires an additional two years of specialized study in the field of exercise science, nutrition, or strength and conditioning. These programs are often very intensive and involve both research and practical lab/hands on experience. 


So if your trainer has a Master’s degree plus a top certification, there’s a good chance they’re qualified for the job. A personal trainer with a graduate degree demonstrates that they have a true passion for their profession and aren’t just working as a trainer for side cash while trying to make it as an actor in Manhattan. 

Once you’ve identified your personal trainer’s certification and education, it’s a good idea to determine if their expertise aligns with your goals. While great coaches and personal trainers have knowledge of all disciplines of training, personal trainers often specialize in different areas. For example, one personal trainer may be an expert at coaching sprinting mechanics and developing endurance training programs while another might be expert at altering body composition to build lean muscle while burning fat. It’s important to select a personal trainer that has ample experience helping clients achieve similar goals as yours.

Another factor to consider when looking for a personal trainer is their experience. Just because a personal trainer lists having worked with celebrities or professional athletes on their resume does not mean they’re any better than the trainer that works with the everyday individual. 


In fact, oftentimes it is more difficult to coach a working mother of three through a workout than it is to coach an elite athlete through one. What’s more, personal trainers that brand themselves as “celebrity trainers” often charge significantly more per session despite having no additional skill set. Celebrity trainers are a dime a dozen in a city like New York. Make sure the personal trainer’s experience is within a similar population set as you are. 


Don’t be afraid to ask your personal trainer how many different facilities they have worked at in the past. While the turnover rate is high in the fitness industry, a personal trainer who bounces around very frequently might be an indication that they’re not sufficiently growing and retaining their clientele base. A trainer with a full roster that has worked at one location for many years is usually a good sign. 


Feel free to ask your personal trainer for references and testimonials from previous clients. In fact, go ahead and ask to speak with a current client of theirs to hear their opinion directly.

Personality and Compatibility


OK so you’ve determined your ideal training location in New York City and you’ve researched the personal trainer’s education and qualifications. What's next? Perhaps one of the most important factors of all is the compatibility between you and the personal trainer. 

In order to obtain the best results possible from a training program, you’re going to need to have trust and confidence in your personal trainer. This is someone that you will be spending anywhere from two to four hours with per week. Long-term the most successful personal trainers are not the ones with the best skill set or most impressive physique, but rather the personal trainers that are able to develop deep connections and relationships with their clientele. 


Depending on your demeanor, you may prefer a personal trainer with an extremely outgoing personality and militant coaching style that will yell and hype you up for your set. Others prefer the opposite. More introverted individuals may select a personal trainer that calmly coaches them through each exercise without ever raising their voice. 


It’s important to realize that just because a personal trainer is very outgoing and motivational does not mean their skill set is the best. At the end of the day, you’re hiring a personal trainer to get results. Do you want someone to yell at you and make you sweat? Or do you want someone who will intelligently design a program to take you from where you are now to where you want to be? Someone who will just make you tired and sore or someone who knows how you make you strong and lean? Someone who pushes you to your absolute limit each session or someone who will ensure you work hard while staying injury and pain-free? 


Once you figure out the ideal personality type of your personal trainer, the next step is to move forward and schedule a consultation.


So you’ve scheduled a consultation with your prospective personal trainer. It’s time to sit down and get to know each other. Be aware of what they’re doing during the initiation consultation. Are they telling you what they think is best for you? Or are they listening to your goals and what you want to accomplish? Are they actively taking notes on what you’re saying? 


This consultation should be a two-way process. An honest personal trainer will not take on a client they don’t believe they can truly help. 


What does the personal trainer’s schedule look like? Do they fit you into their schedule where it’s convenient for them or do they find the best time for you with your busy lifestyle? Do they prioritize your time over their own? The last thing you want is to start working with someone only to realize a few months in that you can never make the scheduled appointments. 


It’s important to ask your personal trainer how they onboard new clients and what the process looks like. The personal training process should always start with an assessment. If you lack hip internal rotation and have a history of low back pain, there needs to be a plan in place to improve your mobility before jumping into a back squat. Unfortunately, most personal trainers do not properly assess their clients before training begins. 


Having said that, be wary of the personal trainer that uses fear during your initial assessment to persuade you into working with them. For example, if the trainer determines your ankle lacks mobility and then informs you that you’re going to injure yourself running if you don’t improve upon it immediately. Or if during an overhead squat assessment you’re unable to squat to depth and they tell you not to squat at all. Rather than focusing on what you cannot do, a good personal trainer will frame everything in terms of what you can do. Humans are not fragile creatures and should not be treated as such. 


It’s 2021 and thanks to rapidly evolving technology, there are an incredible amount of testing tools available to make personal training hyper-personalized to you. Without ample data across the board - from body composition analysis, cardiorespiratory fitness (VO2 max), current strength levels, mobility, and orthopedic screens, it’s difficult if not impossible to develop a safe and efficient training program. 


Once you’ve gone through a complete assessment, your personal trainer should be able to develop a program based on your goals. A great program will have different phases focused on different outcomes - for instance, general physical preparedness, strength endurance, hypertrophy, power, and so on. A top notch personal trainer will be able to plan out what the next 6-12 months of your program will look like and describe why they chose to make each programming decision. 


Personal training is just as much of an art as it is science. While there are fundamental principles that apply to all humans, we are all unique in our psychology, behavior, lifestyle, and circumstances. We all have different temperaments, pain tolerances, and stress capacity. A great personal trainer will take all of these different factors into consideration when designing your training program. At the end of the day, the program that you will adhere to is the best option. 


Ask your personal trainer about accountability. While you’re accountable to show up to your training program, the data points initially tested at the start of the program should be retested every 3-6 months to ensure that objective progress is being made. Your personal trainer should feel comfortable being held accountable for your results. They should think like a scientist and make calculated adjustments to your program over time, not just mindlessly bring you through the motions. 


Other questions to ask during an initial consultation are their experience working with clientele with injuries, their nutrition knowledge, and if they have a network of physical therapists and health practitioners to refer out to. Great personal trainers will usually have a network of professionals they work closely with should any situation arise outside of their expertise.


Once you’ve determined your budget, your ideal training environment, inquired about your personal trainer’s education and expertise and had a consultation with them, go with your gut feeling and give it a shot. The relationship between you and your personal trainer is one that will grow with time. Ideally, you will learn a great deal about exercise science, nutrition, and your own physical abilities through the process of working together. 


And if it doesn’t work out, this is Manhattan -- one of the most competitive fitness markets in the world. You should not settle for anything less than the best. 


Good luck on your fitness journey!

Andrew Malkiel, MSc


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