Beware the "personal trainer"
Unlike doctors or accountants, personal trainers have a mess of different credentials they can earn, from a short online test to a PhD in Sports Science, so the knowledge and skill of personal trainers varies widely. Anyone with decent sports or weightlifting experience can show you how to kick a soccer ball or perform a bench press. However, many trainers with limited experience can be ineffective or even get you injured.
People who own their own business or work for a reputable business will have a lot of information about who they are, testimonials, and who they like to work with.
Good trainers often keep busy schedules and teach a variety of classes or workshops suited to their interest and approach. If a trainer depends primarily on their certification and nothing else, they may not be the best choice. Take your time to gather referrals and quiz trainers on their philosophy, and consider a trial run of a session or two.
I cannot count the number of people I've seen fumbling in the gym. At best, many are doing exercises half-heartedly with no clear goal. At worst, they're moving in a way that will lead to injury. Just like writing a paper for college, changing your oil, or building a deck, you need a clear plan with steps and goals.
First, make injury prevention your goal #1
Injuries suck, and can keep you away from the exercise, sports or active hobbies you've come to enjoy. Keep a strong focus on using good form when you exercise. A lot of people, especially former high school or college athletes, return to activities with too much intensity, or the attitude "I know what I'm doing, I used to do this all the time." This is a good way to get injured. If you've been away from an activity for five or ten years or more, don't expect to immediately perform at your peak. Ease in to it—you have nothing to prove. If doing something that causes joint pain or puts you in injury-prone positions, stop, and find a different exercise.
- An idea of what you want to achieve. This may be weight loss, muscle gain, or endurance for specific sports or activities. Or perhaps you just want to feel better. It helps to write down specific goals, for example: "I want to do 70 push-ups in four minutes," or "I want to develop the endurance to bike for one hour at a moderate pace."
- A plan to get there. This could be from a fitness-oriented magazine or web site, something a trainer creates for you, or you create yourself. I'm a fan of using simple paper and pen for this, but there are plenty of smartphone apps that can help too.
- Following your plan, keeping notes, and making adjustments along the way. You might find some weights or reps need to be changed to provide the right amount of difficulty for you, or you may need to avoid certain movements because they're uncomfortable or aggravate injuries or imbalances.
There are many good sources for exercise plans, including The 4-Hour Body, Stronglifts and Nerd Fitness. However, many exercises, especially the so-called Olympic Lifts (deadlift, power clean, squat) are very technical and must be done with careful attention to your form. If you don't know the proper form, especially for a difficult exercise, you should find a good trainer (see sidebar). It can take a long time to master these movements. If you want to get serious about weightlifting, read Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe.
If Olympic Lifts are too much for you, consider that push-ups, pull-ups and other bodyweight exercises are far less likely to get you injured than doing Olympic Lifts improperly.
If you can't find or afford a trainer
Other options include:
- Exercise videos or DVDs like P90x
- Gear like a Lifeline USA Jungle Gym (which comes with a DVD)
- Group classes at the YMCA, your college, or elsewhere
Whatever you chose, just remember to be careful, watch your form, and avoid injury!