Personal Trainers: To Hire One or Not to Hire One?

You probably already know the answer to that question, but it’s nice to be affirmed every now and then.

Last week I wrote about a study showing the benefits of live coaching versus DVD instruction. Unfortunately, although live instruction seems to be a better option, it can also be costly, inconvenient, or not tailored to your needs.

But what if no instruction at all is even better than coaching? In a recent study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, investigators sought to find the answer to that question.

Many people prefer not to work with a trainer because they want to do their own thing and move at their own pace. If you can choose exercises yourself, you’re more likely to work out because you’ll be doing things you like. People may also put more effort into exercises they find enjoyable. So it’s not unreasonable to think results would be better with a self-directed program instead of no instruction at all.

This Calls For a Study

Oddly enough, though, no one has ever actually studied which method is better. So, the researchers in this study took 34 adults who trained an average of once or twice per week and put them into one of two workout groups to find out.

Each workout plan was three times per week and lasted for twelve weeks. At the beginning and end of the program, the participants were tested for their lean body mass and their strength, power, and aerobic ability.

One of the two programs involved going to see a personal trainer for those 36 training sessions. The trainers at the gym where the sessions took place planned the programming. The programs were proprietary (meaning the details were hush-hush), but the researchers did divulge that the plans had three different phases:

  • The first phase involved a functional movement screen to determine what movements the participants could safely perform, with a lot of low-weight, high-rep work.
  • The second phase involved an increase in intensity and a decrease in volume, focusing on the exercises that were safest.
  • The third and final phase included heavy weights like the second phase, but also higher volume, and more complex moves, like explosive exercises.

The group that received no training just worked out those 36 times completely on their own. Not only did they not have a trainer working with them during their sessions, but they also had no specific program to follow.


The group with no trainer lost more total bodyweight, but that was about it, and it’s not so great when you consider the bigger picture. You see, the no-trainer group gained no muscle, whereas the trained group gained almost three pounds of muscle. In fact, since the trained group lost no weight despite gaining all that muscle, they must have also reduced fat more than the trainer group.

But that’s not all. Despite the fact that explosive training didn’t come until the end of the program, the trained group had more explosive power when the twelve weeks were up. They also had greater strength in their upper and lower bodies and a higher VO2 max when it was all said and done.

So in-person training with a well-educated professional seems to be the best option, as long as it’s possible for you. Even a program featuring fairly modest advancement in intensity and volume like the structured program used here can still outperform a solo effort.


1. Thomas Storer, et. al., “Effect of Supervised, Periodized Exercise Training vs. Self-Directed Training on Lean Body Mass and Other Fitness Variables in Health Club Members,Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 28(7), 2014

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