Five years ago Rene Todd of Bethesda felt her workout routine, which consisted mostly of aerobics and running, had gone a bit stale. Though she exercised regularly and considered herself fit, she wanted to take her sessions up a notch by adding weight training. So she set out in search of a personal trainer. First she tried her health club in the District's West End neighborhood, which randomly assigned her one of its dozen or so staff trainers -- a man with a noticeable gut who never seemed satisfied with Todd's efforts.
"He always sort of pooh-poohed everything I did," said Todd. "I got a workout, but we did the same thing each time. I didn't feel like I was stretching myself. . . . I think he didn't enjoy his job because he didn't really seem to care how I felt one way or the other."
Trainer Number 2, referred by a second gym, was no better.
"A big lug" in Todd's words, he stared into the distance as she huffed and puffed. Something, Todd thought, was wrong here.
It's not that the idea of working with a trainer was wrong. Whether your objective is to start, step up or stick to a fitness routine, most experts agree that a qualified personal trainer can help. "Hiring a personal trainer commits a person to their exercise goals," said Michael Bracko, an exercise physiologist and spokesman for the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), an organization that works to advance research in exercise science. "It's real good motivation."
From 1998 to 2002, the number of personal training clients in the United States rose from 4 million to 5.4 million -- an increase of 35 percent, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, a Boston-based trade association representing the health-club industry.
But with typical rates at around a dollar a minute, it's not a cheap option -- or one most people can afford to continue indefinitely. That's one reason why you might want to make sure that any time you do arrange with a trainer is well spent. The problem: finding a trainer who is qualified, speaks your psychic language, understands what you're after and has the expertise to deliver it.
As Todd discovered, the process is often not straightforward.
"It's just like selecting a doctor or buying a new car," said Susan Johnson Sterling, vice president and director of education at the Cooper Institute, a nonprofit fitness research and education center in Dallas. "You don't have to take the first person who comes along. . . . It could be that that person is just excellent but you would like someone of a different gender or with a different personality."
Or, perhaps, with the specialized training to handle a trick knee or balance problem. Or to help prepare you for a specific sport or activity. Or who is experienced with people of your age and goals. All the more reason to screen prospects carefully and ask questions upfront.
Before you can fire off questions, though, you need to locate a trainer or two who seem reasonably good prospects.
In hopes of helping people launch a productive search, we recently asked readers how they went about the process. Dozens replied. We also put the question to some national fitness experts and local trainers. Here are their recommended strategies:
Word of Mouth
Some readers told us they owed their friends, neighbors or co-workers for steering them to a favorite trainer. In most cases, the approach worked only for those not already wedded to a particular gym or exercise locale. But then there was Julie Robinson of Gaithersburg.
A business associate directed Robinson, 38, to Tony Marchegiani, an independent trainer at Fitness First in North Potomac, where Robinson already had a membership. The colleague, she said, "was really happy with his trainer, so I asked for his name." After seven months with Marchegiani, Robinson has dropped two dress sizes and is determined to stick with her program -- and trainer.
"He pays close attention to your progress. He takes very good notes to see where you were the last time you worked out. He reminds you that you need to make time for yourself, even when you're busy. It's good for me to hear that, because working out is the first thing that goes when I'm busy.
"He asks what I've been eating. He just tries to keep me focused and motivated. He's very serious about wanting you to be happy with your results."
No matter how strong a recommendation may be, Bracko cautions, a trainer just may not mesh well with your personality and exercise goals.
To test this, Bracko suggests taking "a test drive" -- sampling a session with a trainer and weighing the compatibility factor before entering a long-term agreement. Some gyms offer members a free intro session when they join and a free annual tune-up thereafter. These may qualify as your test drive. Otherwise, be prepared to pay.
Health Club Referral
Because a gym's membership often covers the fitness spectrum from hardly to hard core, many health clubs have a staff trained to work with a range of populations and needs. That makes many health clubs good places to start a search.
Some clubs with local branches, like Sport and Health Clubs and Bally Total Fitness, employ personal trainers who offer services to both members and nonmembers. At Bally, people in both groups pay about $60 an hour. At Sport and Health, members pay $45 to $85 an hour, depending on gym location; nonmembers pay roughly $10 more per hour. Both clubs offer discounted multi-session packages that can trim costs by as much as $15 per session -- possibly good deals if you like the trainer, bad if you don't. Bracko recommends asking in advance whether a package deal commits you to working with a single trainer, or whether you can switch if you're not happy.
Gold's Gym offers personal training to members only. Three of its 14 area gyms (20th and M streets NW, Capitol Hill and Fairfax) employ their own trainers and charge roughly $50 to $60 an hour. The others contract with companies that supply personal trainers, said Barry Smith, director of fitness for Gold's Gyms nationwide. Prices vary at these "outsource" locations.
Most clubs say they try to provide a mix of trainers so clients can be assured of finding at least one who specializes in his area of interest -- be it weight loss or post-rehabilitation training. Most also offer new members at least one free hour with a personal trainer, generally to familiarize the member with equipment. Still, be prepared for a sales pitch.
"I have no doubt the trainer is going to give a subtle pitch for [his or her] services," said Mitch Batkin, vice president of fitness for Sport and Health Clubs. "That's how they stay in business. But I have never heard of a client coming back saying, 'Man, they slammed me for a sale.' "
Jim Savitz, 54, of Rockville, heard his share of sales pitches. When Savitz sought a trainer through Fitness First of North Potomac to help him build strength and stamina after angioplasty several years ago, it took him four candidates -- and well over a year -- to find a good fit.
"There are a lot of trainers out there who are new and trying to pick up business. They may be charging very little, but you're getting little in return," said Savitz.
His first draw, says Savitz, was a musclehead who seemed more interested in staying buff than in helping his clients. The second, who approached Savitz claiming he could do better than the first, "clearly didn't seem like he knew what he was doing. There was no encouragement, no discouragement, nothing. I could have been training with the wall."
The third trainer was attentive but never varied the workout. Finally, Savitz found Marchegiani, who not only added variety to Savitz's three-a-week workouts, but paid attention to posture, form and injury prevention.
"He does a good job of striking the right balance," Savitz said of Marchegiani. "I'm feeling better than I've ever felt. I've been offered great deals at other gyms. I tell them, 'If I can't bring my trainer into your gym, I'm not going to join.' It's a very personal thing."
One-to-One Fitness, which focuses exclusively on personal training at its two gyms in the District and five in Virginia, doesn't offer free first sessions. Instead, the company offers new members two discounted introductory sessions. All One-to-One trainers hold at least a four-year degree in an exercise-related field and are required to undergo four to six weeks of in-house training, said Pat McCloskey, the company's director of training. Gym members are assigned a training coordinator who develops and oversees their fitness program, but exercisers may work with different trainers in the course of a week.
"It sounds like, 'How could we provide a great service with multiple trainers?' but that's why we take them through an extensive training program," McCloskey said. "It's kind of like going into a good restaurant. You might not have the same chef every night, but if you go into Morton's on any night, you know you're going to get a great meal. . . ."
A 45-minute session at One-to-One costs $45; packages are available.
After he tore the cartilage in his left knee during a pickup basketball game 18 months ago, LaMarr Moss, 33, of Largo didn't think he'd play again. But physical therapist Brooke Cawley had other thoughts. Cawley, who at the time worked at the National Rehabilitation Hospital's K Street location, helped Moss for two months after arthroscopic surgery, focusing on reducing swelling and improving Moss's range of motion.
Once therapy ended, said Moss, "he referred me to a personal trainer who would get me in the gym and show me several exercises that would keep me fit and strong in order to get back onto the court. It sounded like something I needed. I had always worked out and exercised before my injury, but I had never had to focus on one particular muscle and work to get it back to normal. I knew I could actually end up right back under the knife if I wasn't careful and didn't let the muscle get stronger."
After a couple months of daily personal training at Bally Total Fitness on L Street NW, Moss was back playing point guard.
Cawley, who now works at Physiotherapy Associates in Tenleytown, said he has observed more therapy patients being referred to personal trainers in the past three to five years. "I think the health care field is starting to view exercise as being much more beneficial," he said. Patients newly out of therapy, Cawley explained, "may not know what is good and bad in terms of exercise, how much weight to use, how to work the whole muscle [that was injured], or how to work out so that they don't hurt themselves. That's when you get into seeing a personal trainer."
Benjamin Moser, owner and president of Fitness Together, a Bethesda health club, says he receives health-related referrals from physicians, chiropractors, nutritionists, even acupuncturists.
Each of the six trainers he employs has at least one area of expertise, Moser said; he keeps such specialties in mind when matching referral clients with trainers. He is likely to work with a client with Parkinson's disease, for example, because he has trained people with neurological problems and has had some formal education in that area.
But he concedes a good fit involves more than training.
"The personality thing is also a huge issue," Moser said. "If it's not a good fit on a personal level, the client is not going to succeed."
Some Web sites affiliated with reputable fitness or certification organizations offer lists of trainers once users plug in a Zip code, city or state. The locators list professionals who have been certified through the host organization and who have agreed to post contact information -- generally an e-mail address or phone number. But, at least for now, some experts say, the effectiveness of such sites for a local search is limited by low public awareness.
One of the most comprehensive services is provided by IDEA Health and Fitness Association, a San Diego-based membership organization for fitness professionals. IDEA's personal trainer locator (www.ideafit.com) lists more than 4,000 trainers in 50 states and six foreign countries. Those listed must hold a certification from a reputable organization, be trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and first aid, have liability insurance and adhere to a code of ethics established by IDEA, said David Gilroy, the group's director of communications.
Ideafit lists the trainer's level of experience and his main area of interest -- basic personal training, weight loss, strength training or post-rehabilitation training. A search for the group's trainers in Virginia resulted in more than 50 listings, including at least two dozen in the Washington area with such special interests as marathon training, women's exercise, nutrition, weight management, senior fitness, fitness programs for diabetics, strength training -- even "post-rehabilitation therapy by phone."
ACSM's locator service works similarly: After accessing the Web site at www.acsm.org, click on "certification and credentialing" in the top margin, then click on the "ProFinder" logo. The site provides a listing of "exercise specialists" or "health/fitness instructors," both of whom are qualified to work as personal trainers.
The site does not list specialties for individual trainers, but ACSM director of communications Christa Dickey said both exercise specialists and health/fitness instructors are trained to work with a range of special populations, from overweight exercisers to those needing post-rehab workouts. Other trainer locators are provided by the American Council on Exercise at www.acefitness.org, the National Strength and Conditioning Association at www.nsca-lift.org, and the National Academy of Sports Medicine at www.nasm.org.
Moser, who's been listed on the IDEA locator for the past 20 months, said he has yet to receive a client through the service. But Bracko insists such sites are a good starting point for finding a trainer.
Trial and Error and Trial
Sometimes the answer comes just by living and doing, by getting out and trying new things. Even while she was meeting frustration in her effort to locate a good trainer, Rene Todd was finding her spin class motivating. Eventually, the light dawned: She asked spin instructor Kim Teri if she trained individual clients. Teri said yes.
For the past two years, Todd has been happily training with her. When Teri moved from Washington Sports Club in Bethesda to Precision Fitness, also in Bethesda, Todd followed.
"She doesn't yell. She doesn't patronize," Todd said. "At the first session, she said, 'You have a lovely body. What is it you'd like to accomplish?' She listens. The bottom line is, it's your money and your time."
Savitz agrees. "It was a bit tortuous," he said of his search to find a trainer. "But for most people I think it takes trial and error to figure it out. I think most people starting out don't know who is a good trainer and who is not.
"When you start out with a trainer, let him know that you're going to try this and see how it works. Tell him you may try several trainers before you make your decision. That way no one's feelings get hurt."
Dana Scarton has written previously about fitness for the Health section.