Whether you're new to the gym or a fitness buff in need of a new routine, it may seem like an indulgence to hire a personal trainer, but the payoffs can last a lifetime. "Think of it as investment in your health; it's not an impulse buy," says Jacque Crockford, an exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise. Exercise not only keeps you in shape, it helps protect you from a host of chronic diseases.
But how do you know whether you'd truly benefit from a trainer's expertise -- or whether you could reach your fitness goals through other means, like online routines and group classes? Ask yourself these five questions.
1. Have you fallen off the fitness wagon before?
You might have the best intensions, but when life gets busy and other obligations take up more of your schedule and energy, if you tend to put your health on the back burner, a trainer may be the solution.
A personal trainer's sole job is to keep you on track. Sure, workout buddies can do that for free — and sweating with a friend is fun — but success often depends on finding the right person. Picking a pal who's also crazy busy, has a different schedule or is flaky can backfire. What's more, you may end up compromising or focusing on things other than what you need. With a trainer, it's all about you. "I have a client who is super busy and we'll just power walk together," says Becky Schlageter, a personal training manager at Webster Place Athletic Club in Chicago. "She told me that otherwise, she wouldn't do it."
2. Are you long on goals but short on time?
No one wants to spend extra time working out, and the good news is that you can find plenty of quick routines online or in magazines. But there are advantages to the custom plans trainers create for time-strapped clients. A routine that's personalized for your goals, your fitness level, your schedule — and that the trainer can change as your body does — is the most efficient way to get fit. "Personal trainers can develop a routine that caters to the time you have and that still yields big results, even if you only have 15 minutes," says Schlageter.
3. Do you like being coached?
If you're used to calling the shots at work or home, sometimes it's nice to have someone else tell you what to do for a change. That doesn't mean springing for a private session every time you walk in the gym. If you're self-motivated, save money by meeting with a trainer once or twice a month to develop a four- or two-week plan, track your progress and share feedback about what works.
Or consider small group training options, especially if you're social or loved team sports as a kid. "It's a great way to get the personal attention of a certified professional and the fun aspects of training with others," says Crockford. "Each member pays less (than for a private session) and the trainer can make more per hour, so it's a win/win."
4. Have you hit a plateau?
Weight loss, muscle development and performance can stagnate if you follow the same routine long-term. Mixing in a new fitness class or changing up a tired circuit on your own is a quick way to wake up your metabolism and muscles and bust out of a rut. But if those last 10 pounds just won't budge or you're still not seeing the changes you want, for example, it could be time to hire a personal trainer.
"Most people who have a set routine don't realize that a simple variation in grip or the height from which you lift weights (for example) can work muscles in a completely different way," says Schlageter. Good trainers are also up to speed on the latest workout protocols, theories and research, and can offer ideas and tips for more effective cardio plus what tools and equipment can jumpstart your body and deliver better results, she adds.
5. Are you easily injured or recovering from an injury?
Poor form is recipe for getting hurt. If you're a fitness novice who's never learned the proper way to do certain moves or use equipment, a simple circuit could land you in the doctor's office. For that reason, you might consider a few training sessions or small group-training to learn the basics.
For those who have already had an injury, it's common to finish physical therapy and find yourself back in the gym, on your own without a plan or clue as to how to safely get back to or start working out. A trainer can develop a safe strategy with necessary modifications as your body finishes healing, helping you fully recover and end up fitter than ever.
—Rachel Sturtz for Chicago Athletic Clubs