In a health and fitness industry filled with misinformation and misguided professionals, how do you choose a good trainer or coach? This question can be among the most challenging to answer for any athlete. Even coaches and trainers with the best of intentions can lead you toward disastrous results. 


Successful coaches share several key characteristics. Among other strengths, they have a deep understanding of health and fitness principles and do not ascribe too much value to any individual method or movement. Finding a coach who embodies these characteristics can help ensure your athletic success.


coaching a push up

Anybody can push you through a workout, but a good coach will teach principles, not just methods. [Photo courtesy CrossFit Empirical]


Principles vs. Methods

Distinguishing principles from methods will help you find the right coach for you.


  • Principles can be thought of as laws of nature. Health and fitness principles are physiological processes, such as how the cardiovascular system responds to stresses of different durations and intensities, the anatomy of proper alignment during archetypal positions and movement patterns, and how the body responds to different macro and micronutrients. Principles define methods, not the other way around. If you simply follow a program or prescription, these are methods. You might see a positive change, but the methods represent only the surface of a given field of mastery. 
  • Methods are practices that define a program. They include specific movements and exercises, the rep and time schemes, macronutrient prescriptions, and any other behavior that a coach or trainer might prescribe. Methods are like letters and words. They hold little significance individually, but combine together in unique ways to communicate the author’s meaning and values. Methods are the tools a coach uses to express a given principle.


Guiding Questions for Choosing Your Experts

There is some value in every school of thought in the health, fitness, and movement culture. But there is no magic bullet. You do not need to be extremely knowledgeable about health and fitness to be wise in choosing a trainer, teacher, or coach. Use your intuition and the following five questions to discern the principled “experts” from those who are simply defined by methods.


  1. Do they speak more than listen? Trainers who speak more than they listen express a greater priority for demonstrating their knowledge than understanding your needs. Especially during early stages of working together, your trainer should try to understand you, your needs, your goals, and any past issues you have experienced. Trainers cannot design an effective protocol until they have a clear vision of you and your direction. Those who quickly launch into offering you best practices have not taken the necessary time to know what you need.
  2. Do they address your needs or give you an extension of theirs? Many trainers fall victim to confirmation bias and the overconfidence effect, an extremely harmful combination of cognitive biases. They believe that because they are in great shape, the methods they used to achieve their condition are the methods to success. That bias causes them to place too much value in their personal methods, rather than seeing the underlying principles that defined their success.


    This fallacy plays out as trainers offering their clients a scaled-down version of their own training, rather than a program that specifically addresses the client’s personal needs and goals. The best trainers constantly seek new principles to test on themselves and eventually on clients. A client’s program should never fall victim to the whims of their trainers.

  3. Do they only have one program? Are the programs of your trainer’s other clients eerily similar to your own? Discern whether your program is completely unique or just a tweaked version of what your trainer offers to all of his or her clients. The latter can be okay, if you simply want a great workout with the attention and connection that comes from a one-on-one relationship. But meeting specific goals or conquering specific deficiencies requires a coach that can offer personalized guidance. Use the next question to help discern the difference.
  4. Can they give you the “why?” It is perfectly acceptable to act like a curious two-year-old, constantly asking “why?” Those persistent toddlers personify a commitment to principles over methods. Inquire about specific movements and program elements. Try to understand the principles that define your program. True teachers relish the opportunity to expound on the reasons beneath their methods. If your trainer takes the route of so many frustrated parents and offers a “because it’s good for you” or a “because that’s the way it is,” consider seeking a new expert.
  5. Do they speak your language? Perhaps an even better question to ask is “How many languages do they speak?” The best trainer for you will demonstrate fluency in many different fitness “languages.” They have immersed themselves deeply in many different aspects of the health, fitness, movement, and nutrition world. It is impossible to learn and master everything, but look for someone whose background has breadth and depth.


The road to mastery follows a progression from collection, to curation, to creation. True teachers have collected ideas widely, curated their collected experience into a set of highly effective tools, and now use those tools to define a unique perspective and create unique offerings. Your ideal coach should connect with you and communicate back their principles in a way that aligns with you and your values.


Be an Expert on Choosing Experts

Not everyone can or should develop a professional level of understanding of health, fitness, and movement principles, just as it is not necessary to design and build your own car. You only need to purchase a quality vehicle and then understand how to drive it. Avoid coaches who can teach only a singular method. Seek trainers and teachers who move well and understand the principles behind movement and fitness. Look to those who have sought, explored, experimented, and studied widely. These trainers are best equipped to use their experience and knowledge to help you optimize your individual system.


So you've found a great coach for yourself. What about your kids?

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