Beginners: Finding the right gym and PT

Beginners: Finding the right gym and PT

I’ve been asked to write some posts more targeted towards beginners, so I will happily oblige. Today I wanted to talk about the basics: how to find a gym to train at and how to choose the right personal trainer.

Choosing a gym
It is not essential to train at a gym (I wrote a post a while back on how to efficiently train at home), but it is usually to your advantage. You will see better results if you have access to a full selection of free weights, barbells, benches and squat racks, which you normally will not have at home.

With more and more budget gyms cropping up all of the time, the market is saturated. This can make it confusing to know where to start. The cheaper gyms will be basic, but you also don’t need to spend hundreds on a flashy membership to a gym with an overabundance of resistance machines and gimmicky fitness classes.

I train at a small gym mostly comprised of powerlifters, Olympic weight lifters and strong(wo)men, but there are also bodybuilders and complete newbies too. My membership is actually 35 per cent cheaper now compared to my previous gym – despite the fact my current gym has much better equipment and is far better maintained, the price is lower as it is not a chain gym and it does not offer fitness classes.

If you are a beginner there is no need to join a serious powerlifting gym but, at the same time, if that’s where your interest lies, there is no reason you can’t. Serious lifters are usually more than welcoming and considerate towards newbies.

If you are joining a gym, don’t be lured in by the flashy machines. Instead, look for a squat rack (note: a Smith machine is not a good substitute for a rack, and it is sad how many gyms think it is), plenty of barbells that don’t look like they will fall apart if you load some weight on to them, a vast selection of dumbbells, a proper bench with racks for pressing, at least one chin-up bar and plenty of space – preferably including weight lifting platforms – to train. Make sure the gym allows you to deadlift, as many gyms do not.

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Obtain a guest pass so you can get a feel for the crowd. Make sure you trial the gym at a time you plan on regularly training, as the last thing you want is to join on a quiet weekday morning only to find that after work – when you will be training – it is packed to the rafters and involves queuing up to use a dumbbell.

I have trained at gyms that have been almost exclusively used by juiced-up bodybuilders, as well as budget gyms packed with students and leisure centres where I was the youngest person by at least 40 years. It is better that you know in advance what you are signing up for, rather than be surprised, uncomfortable and stuck with a contract. A slight level of anxiety is normal and it means you are doing something right by stepping out of your comfort zone!

A gym which offers fitness classes is a good option for those who struggle with motivation and feel nervous about stepping into the weight room alone, but I would still recommend training with free weights (usually outside of a class environment) for best results.

I wouldn’t recommend signing up to a women-only gym, unless you are doing so for religious reasons. Generally speaking, these gyms promote “toning” and “sculpting” nonsense. You are better off in a co-ed environment where you will likely receive smarter advice.

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If you are just getting started in your weight lifting journey, it is important that your gym is conveniently located. Whether it is close to home or work, you are much more likely to stick with your new training regime if your commute is simple.

It is also important to check the gym’s opening hours to check that it works for you. My gym, for example, doesn’t open until 9.30am on weekdays and is only open for four hours on Sundays. It is inconvenient for many people, but it works fine with my schedule.

Finding a good PT
Again, I don’t think having a personal trainer is essential, but it is beneficial. When I first started lifting, I was armed with a program but I had no clue what I was actually doing. Before each workout, I would watch videos of each exercise in my program and scribble notes. Given my dance background, I found it easy to understand how to load my spine properly and achieve a proper hip hinge, among other things.

That said, I have worked with a number of beginners who would put themselves in danger if let loose in the weight room on their own. Most people would benefit from at least an introductory session with a personal trainer to learn the basics of squatting, deadlifting and pressing. The trainer’s job is to make you feel comfortable in the weight room, and they should do so by providing you with a program to follow. If they attempt to stick you on any kind of machine, especially a treadmill, ask for a new trainer.

Do not sign up for a session(s) with a personal trainer on the same day you join your gym, as you will likely be lumped with the newest, most inexperienced member of staff. Instead, take your time to observe the staff in action.

When selecting a trainer, the important things to look out for are:

  • Certification/qualification: It is extremely easy to become certified as a personal trainer, and many courses can be done online over the duration of one weekend. There are a lot of trainers out there who have no business putting themselves through a workout, let alone paying customers. Generally speaking, those who have a degree in exercise/sports science will be your best shot. However, I have met plenty of trainers with degrees who still have no clue what they are doing, and the best coaches I know actually don’t have degrees. NSCA, NASM and ACSM are great qualifications to have in the US, while the best organisations in the UK are Premier Training, YMCAfit, The Training Room and Discovery Learning. Good trainers should undergo continuous education, and hold valid insurance and membership to their industry’s regulating body (REPs in the UK).
  • Training style: When you watch a trainer take a client through a workout are you positively curious or horrifically scared? There are a lot of trainers out there who think they have to put their clients through a balls-to-the-wall workout every single session, and this only continues to fuel the idea that one has to be on the verge of vomiting to experience a good workout. When I am coaching someone, I spend almost half the time speaking and demonstrating proper form. Anyone can make someone suffer through 1000 burpees, but it is much more difficult to teach someone how to properly squat.

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  • Evidence of progression/regression: Do they put all of their clients through similar workouts? Every individual is at a different level and it is the trainer’s job to decide what exercises are and are not appropriate. For example, rather than throwing a barbell on every client’s back and trying to coach them through what is likely to be an ugly squat, a trainer should progress their clients through bodyweight squats, bodyweight squats to a box, goblet squats holding a dumbbell at chest level, barbell front squats, and only then to barbell back squats.
  • Confidence in methodology without reverting to jargon: When you ask your trainer why they follow a certain methodology, they should respond confidently in basic terms. If they throw in buzzwords and scientific jargon, they likely don’t know what they are talking about and are just trying to pull the wool over your eyes.
  • Someone with a clear plan: Upon learning your goals, your trainer should be able to immediately outline a plan as to how they are going to help you achieve them. They should put you through an assessment to determine your initial fitness levels, design a program specifically tailored for you and track all of your workouts going forward.
  • How they train themselves: Do they train in a way you would like to emulate?  I had been following Alanna Casey’s training for years before I decided to hire her as my coach. I was 100 per cent confident in her abilities as both an athlete and a coach, so it was an easy decision.
  • Walking the walk: I would not take powerlifting advice from someone who can’t squat their own bodyweight, just as I would not hire someone with a beer belly to get me into fitness model shape. While they don’t have to be the strongest or most aesthetically-pleasing person in the world, your coach should walk the walk to some degree. However, just because someone is not shredded with rippling abs does not mean they are a bad trainer and, conversely, those trainers that are in phenomenal shape often have no idea how to transfer their knowledge to clients. What matters most is that the trainer has successfully coached others with similar goals to yourself.
  • Testimonials: Following on from that point, a good trainer should have a list of satisfied client testimonials. This may include before and after pictures, graphs of strength increases over time, or even pictures/videos of improved form in certain exercises.

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  • Personality: There is nothing worse than a trainer who comes across like a robot, simply marching their clients through exercises with no chit-chat in between. While it is important to retain some degree of professionalism, trainers should be able to make you feel at ease between sets. They should treat you as a real person and coach you through not just the physical but also the mental aspect of training.
  • Price: This is a funny one. The three trainers I know who charge the highest fees are also the three worst trainers I’ve ever met. So just because someone charges £200 an hour does not mean they are any good. Try to choose a middle-of-the-range trainer who is passionate about their job and not in it for the money.

How did you choose your gym or personal trainer? Is there anything I’ve missed?

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