First, ask yourself exactly you're looking for: Do you want someone to help you with a general fitness plan, or someone who can train you for a specific sport or competition? There's plenty of overlap between the two, but in general, a personal trainer can help with the former, while a coach is better for the latter.
"A personal trainer will work with you in the gym or wherever you exercise, to address issues like weight loss, strength building, cardiovascular health, and injury prevention," says David Van Daff, vice president of business development and public affairs for the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), one of many organizations that certifies personal trainers. "Many of them specialize in one sport or another, but they're not necessarily experts in designing training plans or analyzing performance."
Then you'll need to decide if you're willing to pay for one-on-one attention from either a trainer or a coach. If that's not an option, you might consider enrolling in a small group training program, or joining a club or team, with workouts led by coaches who split their time between members.
With a nationwide average of $49 a session, personal training may seem like a luxury reserved only for the wealthy, or for elite athletes. But despite growing competition from apps, virtual training programs, and boutique "small group" studios, the industry is still expanding: in 2012, some 6.3 million Americans signed up for personal training sessions, up from four million in 1998, according to the International Racquet and Sportsclub Association—and the profession is projected to grow 3.8 percent annually through at least 2016.
That's because, in many cases, individualized attention directly correlates to physical gains. "We like to do the same workouts over and over again; we get comfortable and we often plateau," says Van Daff. "Working with a professional who's trained to break us out of our comfort zones is critical to reaching goals."
Science also supports that notion: A recent study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (which is also published by a trainer-certifying organization) found that men who worked out with a personal trainer three days a week for 12 weeks saw their strength, cardiovascular performance, and lean body mass all improve significantly more than those who worked out alone—despite working out for about 22 minutes less each week with the trainer.
Working out in small groups, researchers have found, can also be more effective than working out in big groups. Another JSCR study from 2010 found that men who undertook a weight-training routine built more muscle when they did so in groups of five (five athletes per coach) than they did in larger groups (25 athletes per coach). Even though both groups lifted about the same amount of total weights, the five-to-one group lifted heavier weights for fewer reps, pushing themselves to failure and seeing more overall benefit—likely because having direct supervision helped them push past their comfort zone without sacrificing form.
Deciding you want or need supervision is the first step. Finding a good coach or trainer is the second. Coaches are generally certified by the national governing body for their specific sport—like the USA Track and Field Association (for track and field, long-distance running, and race walking), USA Triathlon, USA Cycling, or USA Weightlifting.
Coaching certifications usually have several levels; you can learn more about what's required of different levels and types of coaches—and search for certified ones near you—on your sport's official website. Or check with a local club or team near you; many offer coached workouts, and coaches who may be available for private training (or can suggest someone who is) as well.
Finding a personal trainer can be trickier. Your local gym may be the most convenient place to start your search, but there are things you should consider before signing on to any sessions. For starters, there are countless certification organizations, and not all of them put their trainees through a rigorous process.
Be sure your trainer is certified by an NCCA-accredited organization, like the NASM, the American College on Sports Medicine, the National Strength and Conditioning Association, or the American Council on Exercise. (You can search for qualified personal trainers near you, as well as physical therapists, wellness coaches, and fitness instructors, at IdeaFit.com.)
"This ensures they've passed a high-stakes exam and have demonstrated the skill and knowledge needed to train you safely and effectively, versus somebody who took a 20-question quiz online and got a certificate in the mail—and yes, that does happen," says Jessica Matthews, assistant professor of exercise science at San Diego Miramar College, and a trainer herself.
Rapport and experience are also important, says Matthews. Do you want a tough-love drill sergeant or a super-positive cheerleader? Would you prefer someone who specializes in weight loss, or in boosting cardiovascular fitness? Don't just pick the trainer you want to personally look like, agrees Van Daff; ask for someone who fits your personality and has had success training people like you.
Bottom line: Good personal trainers can identify and correct muscle imbalances, protect you from injury, and monitor data like time and reps so you can focus solely on effort, says Matthews. A coach may not be as involved in the minutia of your gym workouts, but will give you stronger guidance on improving sport-specific skills and preparing for competition. Either way, having a professional by your side (either literally or figuratively) will likely motivate you to work harder than you would if no one else was watching. If yours isn't doing that for you, find someone who can.