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Find the Perfect Personal Trainer

Sunday, January 9, 2005; Page M03

Health clubs make you feel like an anonymous gym rat, and home-video workouts are plain cheesy. But you need some kind of kick in the butt to take off those holiday pounds. It may be time to invest in a personal trainer. "There's a sense of trust, guidance and obligation that a client gets with a personal trainer that they won't get if they strike out on their own," says Margaret Velez, a trainer and Pilates instructor whose clients have included the Baltimore Ravens, Cher and Michael Douglas. "Trainers are paid to be great private coaches, great motivators and informed fitness experts." That explains the high cost. Trainers can charge upward of $50 an hour, so it's important to know what you're getting before you commit your body and wallet. Here are a few key tips for finding your ideal match:

CREDENTIAL CHECK. Whether you go with a trainer at your gym or find one via a doctor or friend, make sure he or she is certified by a legitimate organization. A college degree in fitness is great, but it might be outdated. Certification, on the other hand, "means that the trainer has been assessed on the most current professional knowledge and skills available," says Ron Clark, president of the National Federation of Professional Trainers, which has certified 14,000 people since 1988. There are a number of certifying agencies, none of which are regulated by the government, so it's important to do your homework to check whether they're legit. "Find out how large they are, how long they've been around and what the certification process requires," says Pete McCall, a trainer at Washington Sports Club. He cites the American Council on Exercise, the American College of Sports Medicine, the National Strength and Conditioning Association, and the National Academy of Sports Medicine as reputable groups (though there are plenty more).

Whether you want a trainer to make you laugh, cry or simply sweat, the right taskmaster is out there. (Allison Dinner For The Washington Post)

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Another paperwork issue: insurance. One benefit to working with gym-affiliated trainers is that they're typically insured, "so if he drops a weight on your toe, your medical costs are covered," McCall explains. Some independent trainers also carry liability insurance, but that tends to make them more expensive.

IMAGE ISN'T EVERYTHING. A chiseled body does not a great personal trainer make. "A lot of people want to work with a trainer with a perfect body, but some of the best personal trainers I know are in great shape but don't have physiques that could win competitions," McCall says. Look for a trainer who's dedicated to working out, being healthy and -- most important -- motivating you. In addition, before you jump in, you'll want to know whether you're getting a good match personality-wise. Do you want a cheerleader, a drill sergeant or someone in between? "I always suggest that prospective clients talk to my current clients," Velez says. "They'll get a sense of who I am."

IT'S ALL ABOUT YOU. Alarms should go off if a trainer starts busting your boo-tay without asking questions first. "If the trainer doesn't spend a majority of the first meeting talking about your medical history and assessing your fitness level, walk out," Clark says. Velez agrees that a preliminary screening is "crucial." "I need to know if [a client] is diabetic, if his or her posture indicates muscle weakness in certain areas -- these are all factors in telling me what the healthiest and safest way to proceed is," she says. In addition to uncovering any risks, a screening provides a guideline for a workable fitness plan. "This is where together we figure out what to focus on, be it increasing muscle tone with weights or focusing on balance and coordination with Pilates," Velez says. If you haven't worked out in a while, it's smart to have your doctor review the trainer's plan.

BONUS POINTS. Though it's not a requirement, Velez says it's good for trainers to know CPR. "Not only does this show a high degree of dedication and professionalism, but it also means that if something happens while you are working out, the trainer can help you on a basic medical level," she says. Also ask if your trainer goes to workshops and conferences. "It's not mandatory," McCall says, "but it's a good sign" -- it means your trainer probably knows about the latest fitness research, trends and newfangled equipment on the market. Isabel Gonzalez

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