Personal trainer Alan Boetticher's work begins early, before the first weight is ever lifted or those first miles are pounded out by rubber-shod feet.
"I like to assess whether the person is serious enough and committed enough to change his or her life," said Boetticher, a personal trainer who runs Albany, N.Y.-based NY Fitness, along with fellow trainer Chris Wilson.
For that reason, Boetticher said he rarely discusses details with a potential client over the phone or by email. Instead, he schedules a one-on-one free consultation, during which he sizes up the client just as much as the client might be sizing up Boetticher. "I want to know why they are here," he said.
Although the desire to lose weight is often what brings a potential client to the door, Boetticher said the reasons for seeking a personal trainer are often deeper -- some want to improve overall health, some are working toward a specific goal (such as a triathlon) and still others may want to stay fit and active into their later years.
"I want to know what it really is they want to get out of the experience," he added. "And, after a little prodding, we usually get at it."
For millions of people across the United States, this is the kind of individual attention they seek when it comes to their fitness needs. But what should you look for in a trainer, and how can you find the one that helps you attain your goals?
The most successful trainers, experts say, are experienced motivators who can create safe and effective fitness plans, unique to the individual. In general, one should look into a trainer's educational background, certifications, experience, whether or not he or she is insured and his or her motivational style. For instance, not everyone is looking for the "drill sergeant approach."
Ideally, a trainer should have at least a bachelor's degree in a related field, such as exercise physiology; possess a certification from a nationally recognized agency, and be keeping up with his or her education.
"It's an ever-evolving field," said David Van Daff, vice president of membership at the National Academy of Sports Medicine, which certifies personal trainers along with many other fitness professionals. The academy has a research institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that focuses on studying effective exercise interventions and programs, which then make their way into the education programs and workshops offered by the academy.
Beyond a solid background and an updated skill set, there is another key component to choosing a trainer. "One of the most important things to look for in a trainer is experience," said Michael Carozza, who owns Carozza Fitness, a strength and conditioning facility located in Stamford. He has been working with clients in the Stamford area for more than 15 years.
Carozza said most of his clients come to him through referrals and recommendations and added that speaking to other clients is a good way to assess whether a trainer is right for you.
"An important question to ask is 'How long have you worked with the trainer?' " he said. "If (he or she has) retained clients for years, it doesn't mean it has taken six, seven or eight years, or whatever it is, to reach their goals." Instead, he said it can show the trainer's ability to adapt and keep a client on task as his or her fitness needs change.
"There is no magical exercise or program," Carozza said. "A personal trainer teaches people what they need to do to get to where they want to be."
The rates for trainers vary. Some national estimates put it at $25 to $350 an hour. Those interviewed said rates in the New York-Connecticut region can range from about $65 to $200 an hour, though it can be lower or higher, depending on the type of service, duration of the workout and the expertise of the trainer.
There are ways to ease in to the one-on-one investment, too. For instance, some facilities offer small group instruction with a personal trainer, a specially designed multiweek program (such as a boot camp) or classes, so that potential clients can assess whether such a program is right for them.
Monroe resident Ed Brennan said he took his time when it came to selecting a personal trainer. Brennan, who is in his 60s, has long been an athlete but he had yet to work one-on-one with a fitness professional. His hope was to find the right plan to keep up his athleticism as he got older.
After getting his hands on some fitness books and taking the time to assess his own needs and what he hoped to accomplish, he said he found a good match with trainer Lisa Ellor, with whom he works out at Anytime Fitness in Monroe. The pair work on targeting specific needs, as well as overall goals.
For instance, Ellor designed some exercises that helped Brennan recently return to the ski slopes and golf links. Through targeted exercises, Brennan also keeps those aches and pains away when it comes to his running. On a more long-term basis, he has been focusing on exercises that improve agility and balance.
"A good trainer is someone who gives (his or her client) the perspective of this is what I want to do, this is who I want to be ... .and this is how I am going to get there," Brennan said.
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Here are some things to look for when seeking a personal trainer:
Credentials -- Make sure to ask about where a trainer has earned his or her certification (is it from a nationally recognized organization?) and then assess whether that background aligns with your fitness expectations. You also should ask whether a trainer has liability insurance, knows CPR and can perform basic first aid, according to San Diego, Calif.-based IDEA Health & Fitness Association, which serves fitness trade professionals.
Education -- Does your trainer have a bachelor's (or master's) degree in a related field, such as exercise science? Has he or she kept up with continuing education certification from accredited agencies?
Experience -- How long has your trainer been working with clients? Ask around and see whether a trainer has earned positive referrals and recommendations.
Observe -- If possible, watch a trainer as he or she works with other clients. Does the trainer employ a holistic approach, focusing on nutrition and overall health goals? Is the motivational style something that will help you to attain your goals?
Ease in to it -- If it is possible to join a short-term fitness program, a class or small group instruction, you can get a taste of one-on-one instruction and see if it is right for you.
There are also a number of groups that work to provide tips and guidance when it comes to working with a personal trainer. For instance, the 30-year-old IDEA Health and Fitness Association has a free database of fitness professionals. You can find it at www.ideafit.com/fitnessconnect.