As I may have mentioned before, I sort of take issue with a lot of the mainstream trainers around today. The industry is very fickle; trainers can either end up laboring in obscurity (as I currently do) or they can get big and well-paid by thinking out of the box and attracting high-prestige clients. The only issue is that there are a lot of people somewhere in between on that spectrum, people struggling to get to the top by any means necessary, and I would argue that these trainers often fall into being bad trainers because it can help them to make more money. So I've decided to assemble a list of traits that separate good and bad trainers, based on personal experience and time spent on other trainers' blogs.
1. Trainers are always trying to get their name out there by any means necessary. This often means propagating fitness myths in order to make themselves appear smart/unique and set themselves apart from the pack.
This goes hand in hand with the bit I wrote about how varying exercises is complete BS. Intensity is the important factor; as long as you're varying intensity, you're making gains regardless of what exercises you're using. That being said, there is of course plenty of merit to working out intelligently; if you're using the wrong exercises or doing exercises with the wrong form, then you aren't going to be getting the gains that you could be. But most people don't understand that that's it. There's a big obsession with working out “not harder, but smarter”, with the idea being that if you do your research and come up with more and more effective exercises, you can get more and more out of your exercise without having to push yourself. Unfortunately, that's just not true. The most effective exercises are essentially the same ones we've been using for a hundred years, and most of them are pretty well known. Once you know the right way to do it, it becomes not an issue of how smart you work out, but how hard you push yourself. But this myth allows trainers to make up all sorts of new exercises and sell them to you through fitness magazines and the like. It shouldn't be about the next big workout routine – chances are it isn't much different than the one you're always using. Program design means balancing exercises so that you don't hurt yourself, and some exercises are more or less effective than others, but the vast majority of 'killer new workout blaster mega routines XXX' are just old workouts that any trainer can give you – it's not about the routine, but about how hard you're willing to work.
2.Trainers may not actively propagate myths, but instead serve as a middle-man between you and the right way to exercise.
This goes hand in hand with #1. There's another class of trainers who serve only as middle-men inbetween you and proper exercise knowledge. They don't lie, they don't spread myths, but they hold back on shattering them until you've decided to purchase more sessions. They lead their clients around by the nose, keeping them in the dark as long as possible, trying to get the most possible money out of them before being forced to reveal any new information. They'll educate their clients, but at a cost. I once met a trainer who was training a high school athlete who was clearly doing a lot of his lifts wrong, but when I asked why, the trainer replied that he had no incentive to correct the client. The right incentive, of course, would have been the possibility of the loss of the client, at which point the trainer would have started suddenly divulging information (while of course keeping other information in check) in order to keep the client's attention.
Now of course, we're all guilty of this. There's always that one guy who wants you to go through a lot of work customizing a workout plan for him so that he can buy just a couple sessions from you and then never come back. He just wants to see your high-level programming and then leave. In cases like that, we all find ways to serve as a middle-man, delaying this guy as long as possible so you can maybe squeeze another session or two out of him. There will always be those people trying to squeeze the most possible out of what little money they have to spend, and it's not good for business to let them. But for everyone else, try not to be a middle-man.
3. Trainers just yell at you and call you names to get you to exercise harder.
This is less annoying than the first two, but unfortunately this is also the stereotype that you see most often in the media (see: The Biggest Loser). This type of trainer is your typical group class instructor, or the trainer that you always see in the gym making a lot of noise and pushing their clients as hard as they can. But that's not really a trainer's job. A trainer's job is to motivate their clients, by any means necessary. Yes, this sometimes means a bit of yelling or encouragement, but I'd say most clients don't react well to being yelled at. The biggest issue with people just starting out at a gym is that they feel intimidated, they don't know what they're doing and they feel like the more experienced gym-goers may be judging them behind their backs. They need a friend to guide them and teach them what to do, one who is non-judgmental and supportive. Yelling doesn't really have to factor into that at all.
4. Trainers get really up in your face.
This is one that is unfortunately a necessity for many trainers. If you work in a big gym where you're expected to get your own sales, the only way to do that is to cruise the floor and forcefully make yourself a presence in the gym. I'm not in any way a fan of Planet Fitness or their practices, but this commercial really sort of hits the nail on the head in terms of how annoying trainers can often be.
Unfortunately, trainers rarely have any choice in the matter of their gym's business model, and this is often an unwanted necessity.
Now I'm going to assemble a counter-list. This is a list of the positive qualities of effective trainers.
1. Trainers are your friend.
Trainers should be personable and friendly, no matter what. This is literally the only thing that you need in the industry. There are plenty of trainers who have almost no clue what they're doing in terms of scientific evidence, but get many more clients than I do, and it's because being kind and personable is honestly the only thing you need in the industry. If nothing else, you can have this and be successful, even if you mess up on a bunch of the other points. This also goes hand in hand with #3 above. You aren't necessarily their boot camp instructor or their commanding officer; you're a client's friend, above all else. You're open with information, supportive, non-judgmental, and helpful. They aren't paying you for your knowledge, but for your friendship. In the right kind of client-trainer relationship, that friendship should and will last even if they aren't paying you anymore; that's the real test. Good trainers look to enable their clients.
2. Trainers can periodize. (But don't have to.)
Periodization is what sets good trainers (in terms of results) apart from bad ones. Periodization is the principle of varying intensity by various methods so that the body doesn't get too worn out and refuse to perform. This avoids overtraining and improves performance. If you ask a trainer if he can periodize your workouts, and s/he doesn't have any clue what you're talking about, then don't hire that trainer. Periodization is literally one of the few things that a trainer can do for you that would be hard for you to do on your own. Yes, you can do the research, you can pick out a plan, you can monitor your workouts very carefully, record your sets and reps, and then do all the math and figure out what to do next, but this is tedious and most people don't care. A trainer who can do this for you is worth the cost of the sessions, in my opinion. If a trainer can periodize for you, this frees you up to enjoy your workout (a lot of people don't like the slowness of stopping to record sets, etc.) while you let someone more experienced do all the math and figure out what to do next. This is one of the few ways in which the trainer acts not as a middle-man, but as an actual professional providing a service.
I've read an article by Jon Goodman (http://www.theptdc.com/2012/01/personal-trainers-shouldnt-periodize/) which suggests that periodization is mostly a waste of time – since most clients have no real performance goals, motivation and program design is more important than periodization. He's partly right. But the periodization of the kind he's suggesting, including lots of percentages and testing for 1RM's and the like isn't the kind of periodization I'm talking about. Even in my own training I don't periodize like that. It's more trouble than it's worth. Good periodization involves progression while varying workouts and knowing when to take the occasional rest day, and that's actually useful in helping even the least competitive of clients reach their goals. Yes, there should be some math involved, but it shouldn't involve a ton of unnecessary work – because as Jon argues, then it's just more trouble than it's worth.
3.Trainers are always looking to improve themselves.
Getting a certification doesn't make you a good trainer. It certifies that you know the bare minimum. It certifies that you have the base level of competence needed to enter the industry. From there, it's up to the trainer. Most certifications require recertification every few years, which requires learning more, but the best sort of trainer looks up all sorts of stuff on their own. They enjoy their job and are always trying to improve their programming. They spend their time on fitness websites filtering through the BS articles so that you don't have to. They have a keen eye for scientifically researched evidence, and will bring it up if you have any questions to help you understand why you're exercising the way you are. It's possible to get by as a trainer learning very little (see #1), but the best trainers have a thirst for the knowledge in and of itself, and will learn as much as they can, even if it doesn't count for recertification.
Hopefully this list has been helpful.