December 10, 2012

Rotator Cuff Advice; Finding a Personal Trainer

Yep, it's time for our next installment of "Ask the Personal Trainer!"

There are two questions this week for our esteemed panel of trainers.  And how about I just jump right in for once with the first question instead of blathering on for countless paragraphs?

But don't worry about getting too much sensible advice all at once. I plan to make my own shocking suggestion, one that any legitimate personal trainer would find annoying and counterproductive at best, and possibly illegal and dangerous. Welcome to Cranky Fitness!

1. What are some tips for finding a great personal trainer? Where should a client look and what should they look for?

Dave Smith:

[Dave Smith is a personal trainer who specializes in quick and effective body weight exercise routines that can be done anywhere, anytime - Check him out at]

A couple years ago I had a woman come in for an initial assessment at my studio and she sure came prepared! She approached our first meeting as if I was a candidate looking for work at her company. She asked about my education and credentials, my training experience, the types of clients I work with, references I could provide, the methodologies I follow, and the list went on. She concluded with a great question:

"Tell me why I should hire you as my trainer over all the other trainers in this city."

I was impressed (and slightly caught off guard!) and now I tell everyone who is looking for a trainer to follow a similar model. You are the employer and the trainer is your employee. It is the responsibility of the trainer to prove the he/she is the right candidate for the job, otherwise you can surely find someone who is able to do so.

(On a side note, I like this approach because it also shows you are serious about your training and won't settle for a half-ass effort from your trainer. You are setting a standard of excellence right from the get-go!)

Where can you find a trainer that is worth hiring? Generally I do NOT recommend trainers working at large health clubs because these trainers are often less-experienced, less committed to their work, and more sales-driven than trainers who operate their own practices. I would look for a trainer who makes a career from training (i.e. it's not just a temporary or part-time job). He/she should also be in demand - If the trainer has lots of availability it usually suggests something about the quality of his/her service.

Do an online search for "fitness studios" or "private personal training" to find some career-oriented trainers in your area. Then meet with them with your interview questions ready to go!

Taylor Ryan:

 [Taylor Ryan is a certified personal trainer and nutrition consultant; check out her personal blog Lifting Revolution for tips, recipes, workouts and more!]

Finding a good trainer is similar to finding a good hair dresser. You want someone that you feel completely comfortable with and someone that you know won’t give any nasty surprises. And just like the hunt for a good hair dresser, it can be a difficult search.

First off, talk to your friends. If any of them have a trainer, ask for feedback and referrals. If they trust them and like them, chances are you will too.

If that’s not the case, then hit up Google for trainers in your area. Local gyms will of course have trainers, but if you don’t intend on paying for a gym membership search out private, independent trainers.

Before meeting with them find out their credentials. Are they certified trainers? How long have they been training clients? Do they have experience with people like you (your age, fitness levels, goals, etc)?

Then and only then, set up a consult. Most trainers will provide free consults, if you find one that doesn’t take it as a red flag and move on. Don’t be shy, this is your time to get feedback and find out what they expect from you and what you can expect from them.

Here are a few other things to look at:

Do they appear to be in good shape? I have interviewed wonderful trainers for my business, at least they were wonderful on paper. But when it was time for their face to face interview, they seemed out of shape and didn’t have the “oh, it’s worked for me, it will work for you” vibe. If a trainer can’t complete one of my workouts with perfect form, they won’t get hired... end of story. It’s important to find one that not only talks the talk, but walks the walk. You’ll fee much more motivated.

Do your schedules match up? If not, then no matter how much you clicked, it’s not likely to work.

Do you like each other? You’re not going to be motivated to show up for a workout in the snow or rain if you don’t like your trainer. Make sure it’s someone that you feel will pull out the best of you and make you feel comfortable.

Check prices. Of course price is important. Most trainers run for $50-$150/hour depending on experience and location. If you find a trainer that is only charging $20 for an hour, then expect just $20 quality. Unfortunately 95% of the time price matters, of course don’t go outrageous either, find something you’re comfortable with and you’ll be golden.

Chris Kelly:

[Chris Kelly is a fitness writer and personal training studio owner. He specializes in quick and effective workout routines to fit fitness/nutrition in to a busy schedule. Check out his blog at Peak Wellness online.]

Make sure your trainer is properly qualified. Here are some criteria:

  • Possess a certification from a nationally recognized fitness organization (NASM, ACE, ACSM, NASM) are some of the best
  • Experience training individuals who possess goals similar to your own (be it fatloss, training for marathons or figure competitions)
  • Perform a basic posture and fitness assessment to get an idea of your individual needs
  • Assigns homework and extra suggestions for nutrition/fitness beyond the gym (we are looking for a program versus a workout)
  • Does not possess a second job/occupation completely out of sync with fitness (trainer cum actors/chef/model etc)

Beyond these items, the reason I feel many individuals bounce between personal trainers is a lack of personality compatability. Though very few people fall in love with exercise (except my clients of course =), Ive always compared choosing a personal trainer to the process of finding a mate.

Plenty of trainers will appear to be attractive options, but the only way to know for sure is through a good first date. While I am not suggesting a candle lit dinner for two, I absolutely feel a thoughtful and honest conversation about your goals and objectives fits the bill. The right trainer will possess a background that caters to what you are looking for but will also take the time to listen and offer their experiences and observations.

I personally take at least an hour to get to know potential clients through conversation both during our assessment and sitting down to review afterwards. I want to know that we possess the chemistry (good conversation, mutual understanding and trust) necessary to grow our relationship. My clients see me an average of 2-4 times per week (often more than their family and close friends) so it is important we have a great working relationship.

By the same token, I cannot emphasize enough taking a bit of time to get to know your potential trainer as a person first. This could be as simple as setting up lunch or a meeting in a setting outside of the gym. Inquire about their background, their goals and ambitions and whether they plan to make you do 50 push ups during your first session (this may be a forward question for the first meeting =)

By the end of this conversation, I can guarantee you will know whether this is someone you can see yourself working with or whether it may be necessary to explore other options.

Crabby McSlacker:

[Crabby has no personal trainer credentials whatsoever, but it's her freakin' blog. Plus she can fly. And you've already heard way more than enough about her new fitness ebook so she won't say another damn word except to slip in a gratuitous link in order to goose the google.]

1. Attempt to follow all the great advice above from the real personal trainers. Enjoy the camaraderie, accountability, and sense of accomplishment you get as you find your perfect match and transform yourself into an incredibly fit specimen of humanity!

2.  But what if all the personal trainers who meet those criteria charge professionally appropriate fees,  and you are too strapped or just too cheap to pay that kind of money?

Crabby's Cheap-Ass Personal Trainer Alternative:

  • Gather enough information through reputable exercise websites or books to have your goals and a general exercise plan in mind. 
  • Watch free videos which are all over the web to get some idea of the general form tips and warnings.
  • With agenda in mind, hire a personal trainer for a few sessions with the specific goal of making sure you are not going to kill yourself trying to execute the moves.
  • Or not.
  • Do your own improvised workouts out where personal trainers are found in their natural habitat.  Your gym may already be crawling with them; they are the buffed ones with clipboards, hopeful and/or bedraggled clients in tow, and they often get to monopolize any fun functional fitness equipment your gym has.  They can also be found in public spaces such as parks conducting "boot camps."
  • Once you have found them, sneakily spy on them while going about your own routine. Watch the moves they're doing; listen to what they're shouting to their class/clients.  Then pick out the stuff that looks appropriate and intriguing. Try to spy on clients with similar fitness levels to yours.  If you're stealing inspiration from a trainer you know nothing about, be cautious with any move that looks to be a particularly crazypants injury-provoking show-offy stunt.
  • Bonus: you only do the stuff YOU like, not the stuff the TRAINER likes!
  • Don't sue Crabby if you end up taking her irresponsible approach and end up with shredded joints, broken bones, or head trauma.

Uh, oh, do we have any personal trainers left to answer the second question??

2. What approach or exercises would you recommend for healing from rotator cuff problems, and/or how might a client work around these injuries when doing upper body strength work?

Taylor Ryan:

Five years ago I got a bit cocky in the gym. Without a spotter around, I decided to do a set of barbell shoulder presses with a new weight. As soon as I tried, I felt something “pop” and I knew I was screwed. I put the weight down, looked in the mirror to discover my shoulder completely dislocated.

Seeing the top of your joint isn’t ideal, and the experience has stuck in my mind. It’s helped me deal with clients who have faced similar shoulder issues.

First, it’s always important for clients to get clearance from their doctors that it’s okay to get back to light exercise. It’s also important they realize how important exercise is to help assist recovery, avoid stiffness and improve range of motion.

From there, it’s about strengthening the rotator cuff... slowly. Like snail speed kind of slow. Bands, cables and body weight are awesome ways to help isolate the shoulder, cause just a bit of instability to make it engage and to help strengthen it.

A few of of the best moves include:
  • Internal/External rotations with a band or cable
  • Wall push-ups
  • Arm reaches
It doesn’t stop at exercises, stretches are crazy important to help mobility and overall comfort.

Most like standing against a wall, with arms at 90-degrees, fingers up to the sky. Slowly, slide the hands up towards the sky while keeping arms and elbows on the wall. Go as high as possible and slowly come back down.

A second good stretch is place your hand behind you and trying to slide it up the back as far as possible.

It’s important to avoid strong shoulder moves like bench press and shoulder presses (duh) until the pain has decreased and the rotator cuff is healthy and thriving. Try too much too soon and you’ll end up in a worse off place.

Chris Kelly:

Ok, so I will begin with two caveats:

• A personal trainer is NOT a therapist;
• If your personal trainer cannot name the rotator cuff muscles, they should probably not attempt to "rehab" anything.

The job of the rotator cuff muscles is to stabilize the movement of larger more powerful muscles responsible for raising our arms overhead. Rather than moving anything, they make sure other muscles move properly.

Too many hours hunched over our computers, i-phones, etc leads to caveman like posture in nearly all individuals with shoulder pain. If we cannot get our arms overhead due to tightness and immobility, neck and shoulder issues are almost inevitable.

By contrast, we can "buy slack" for our rotator cuff muscles to do their job by helping our clients' get in to better positions.

There are three steps (which do not require a trainer)to improving these problems:

1. Posture awareness
• If you work at a desk or spend more than 5 hours seated per day, you are likely the culprit of the caveman like posture described above.
• A quick screen for this issue is to observe yourself in the mirror: does your head jut in front of your body? Are your shoulders turned inward in normal standing posture? If either is the case, you can benefit from this information.
• A quick fix for this problem is to simply stand up every twenty minutes and open up your shoulders while sticking your chest out (this is also called Brugger Posture). Perform this drill for one minute at a time and repeat throughout the day.

2. Improve mobility
• Regular self massage and stretching for the major muscles of the upper body helps to create space for the shoulders to move overhead properly.
• Daily consistency is even more important than hours spent stretching. Set a timer for ten minutes per day and knock out the following routine:

3. Train stabilization/movement
• The last piece of our equation is training the rotator cuff muscles to work together with the muscles of the upper extremity
• Here is a video outlining two easy to perform drills which can be performed throughout the day

Dave Smith

The Problem?  The vast majority of exercises place way too much focus on anterior muscles (i.e. muscles on the front side of our bodies) because those are the muscles we can see in the mirror. We like to press with our arms and push with our legs (think chest presses, squats and lunges) without balancing out our muscle strength with posterior exercises (i.e. backside muscle exercises).

The Result?  We look great on a front view but are extremely unbalanced and are leaving ourselves open to injury. Rotator cuff injuries are a perfect example since they can often be traced to overemphasis on strengthening the big muscles on the front side of our shoulder without equally training stabilizing muscles found elsewhere in the joint.

The Fix?  Strengthen muscles that "rotate" the arm! Here are a variety of dumbbell and resistance band exercises that will provide increased shoulder stability and muscle balance.

And to prevent future shoulder issues keep in mind this simple rule that I follow with all my clients:
For every pushing exercise you do, do at least one pulling exercise to balance your muscles out.

Every chest press must be met with a row, a pull-down, or some other exercise that will provide equal emphasis on the anterior and posterior muscles. The same goes for lower body exercises: Match your squats and lunges with hamstring curls and glute bridges. You'll prevent injury and be building a much nicer physique!

I got nothin' on this one.

Anyone have any thoughts on finding a personal trainer, rotator cuff injuries, or questions for future posts?   Or heck, how's your monday going?

Bodybuilder image: Velvet Tangerine


  1. Your personal trainer should also be akin to a lawyer working a trial - questions, questions, questions. It's like peeling an onion - each layer you peel back yields more information. If the trainer spends more time talking about him/herself, that is a good indicator this probably isn't the person who is going to give you your money's worth.

    Rotator cuff weaknesses/injuries and how to prevent/deal with them are especially timely for an aging population as joint mobility and muscle elasticity decrease. The problem with these exercises are that they aren't particularly sexy. That whole "ounce of prevention" saying really applies here, and if people took the suggestions left by the trainers above to heart and incorporated them into their workouts, they'd be better off, instead of waiting for a problem to occur.

    Monday so far is great - it started snowing yesterday and from the looks of things will probably snow more today - winter is here!

    1. Excellent advice Monica, both on the personal trainer selection and the importance of PREVENTING injuries rather than having to recover from them. Note to self: pay attention to prevention for once, dumbass!

      And enjoy the snow!

  2. For those who live in big cities, another idea for finding a personal trainer is these kind of agencies that do the advertising, billing, etc. and also match individuals up with trainers from their list. It still took me four tries within that list to get the right trainer for me, but it was a lot less awkward to reject someone through the agency than to kind of fire them personally. I suspect I'd have felt too guilty to blow off the nice and okay, but not great one that I tried before the bowl of awesomesauce I have now.

    1. Ah, that sounds like a great resource, Trabb's boy! Hadn't thought about the awkward firing problem, as it doesn't come up when you are stealing personal training from unsuspecting trainers. If they suck, I just spy on someone else.

      Glad you found your bowl of personal trainer awesomeness!

  3. Hmm, must check out posterior exercises. I never even thought about it. Thanks for the info.

    1. But I'm sure you have a lovey posterior Leah! Oh wait... never mind... :)

  4. Currently in a sling ( week 3 of 6) post surgery for the rotator cuff thing. I am looking at my rehab experience now-- it will be 6 MONTHS before I can do things I like to do again ( like play hockey.) The "getting your shoulder to be normal" thing is very s-l-o-w.
    For what its worth, I did try to "rehab" it myself without surgery ( for about 6 months.) Very motivated to do it-- but didn't work-- and surgery was needed.
    Be nice to your shoulders!!! Weak joint and easily overloaded and injured.
    Good advice on "sneaking" the trainer :-)
    I guess I will just hang around at the gym and pretend to be adjusting my sling...

    1. Oh man, 6 months sucks, pokedog! But glad you've got the surgery behind you. And hang onto that sling, I discovered (after a broken elbow)) that they come in handy in crowds to keep people from bumping into you, whether your arm's still out of commission or not!

  5. Because of the large fitness center that I belong to I know several well-qualified personal trainers!

    For me, if the trainer, because they are usually young as it's a relatively new field, is not fit themselves, I wouldn't use them.

    Hopefully I will never need the second part of the article :-)

    1. Yeah, I'm hoping that too Dr. J! I really needed the nudge about prevention though, 'cause YIKES that sounds like an awful injury to deal with.

  6. This is great. I've been looking into getting a personal trainer since my new job has some $$ to pay for it, but I don't know where to start. I want to be pushed, but not yelled at...I'm worried I'll sign up with someone and really dislike them and then have wasted my $$...

    1. Great point - A seasoned trainer will likely want to do an introductory session/consultation with you before asking you to commit and pay for anything. I know it's only 1 hour spent together but this should at least give you an idea as to whether or not you two are compatible.

      Be wary of anyone who pushes you to buy long-term packages or many sessions without even sampling the product first!

      Good luck!

  7. All great advice. My only thought on Dave's suggestion that a personal trainer who is not busy should be avoided - sometimes we just choose to limit how many clients we want to have. I'm a certified trainer but I do not want to work all the time (the reason I'm not linked with any gym). Not a soapbox or anything - just presenting another perspective.

    1. Hey Kim,

      You're right on - My comment applies to a lot of "trainers" out there who are dabbling in the business. Being a top trainer requires a lot of dedication to continual learning and improving one's practice. Someone who trains clients as a hobby often isn't investing in their training practice seriously. Those are the trainers I would stay away from.

    2. Thanks Kim and Dave, excellent point about the dabblers with few clients! Unless they're new and cheap and well-educated and you don't mind being a guinea pig in exchange for a lower rate. I imagine even the best trainers had to start somewhere!

  8. Great points about finding a personal trainer. It really does take time to find the right match for your specific situation.

  9. In both of the above, go slowly seems to be the best advice, making sure you are doing it right from the beginning.

    Hm, sounds like that can be applied to a lot of life.

    1. Good point messymimi! One I wish I'd keep in mind a bit more often... sometimes headlong is my middle name.

  10. I don't think a personal trainer is exactly what I want. I want someone I can grab at the gym, and ask things like "Am I doing this right?" and "Show me how to do [exercise] with proper form," and "Show me how to use [equipment]." About five minutes a month, max. I don't have any goals more defined than Lift More Weight in General.

    And perhaps what has been bothering my shoulder for years is not an old undiagnosed rotator cuff injury but an old undiagnosed something else.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

    1. Great idea Mary Anne; wouldn't it be nice if gyms had a go-to staff personal trainer available for quick questions as part of membership? I'd pay a few extra bucks a month, and if you multiplied it by total membership it would more than pay for something like that. But might cut into trainer package sales!

  11. Fantastic and New Ideas for finding the right trainer for ourselves. Thanks for sharing it and i hope i will go woth your tips.

  12. Going back to what Crabby was saying about trainer certifications and good ones to look for:

    I was at a workshop that focused on exercise and cancer and there were several women there from an I'm-not-naming-them national health club chain. These women supposedly were "certified" through the club they worked for. The instructor was talking about prostate cancer and exercises appropriate for men when one of these women asked "But what about when women get prostate cancer?"

    Um, next question, please...

    The national certifications Crabby mentioned are great, I would be leery of trainers that only have a certification that is issued by a health club.

    1. OMG, that's both funny and scary Monica.

      And yep, Chris had a good point about national certification! Although apparently national programs may be sadly lacking in training on how to help women recovering from prostate cancer. :)

  13. It's so important that personal trainers ask you what YOU want, and your personal fitness and health history. I hate it when a trainer just walks in the room and tells me what we're doing without first talking to me about what my goals are etc. And it's amazing how many times I've worked with professionals and they don't find out until we've been working together for a few months that I've done boot camp and belly dancing etc. etc. in the past - just because it doesn't come up and they don't ask. It seems as though if they take the time to ask about your goals and what experience you have with exercise, together you can quickly assess where you're at and what's the best way to move forward. And this can apply to so many other things (like doctor appointments!).

    I feel very strongly about this :)

  14. sending the hubby your way. he's struggled with his rotator as long as Ive known him.

  15. Having had both my rotator cuffs freeze up, I can attest the information provided by the trainers is spot on! Probably the only time I have exercised faithfully in my life. Of course, that is all about to change, just not sure when...soon though.

  16. It's really hard to find a personal trainer. I'm badly needed a good one.

  17. Alright, I'm slowly catching up on my reading...

    Okay, how many people instinctively sat up straighter reading Chris' rotator cuff section? *raises hand* I always thought I had an old rotator cuff injury from volleyball, but maybe not. I'm totally trying that routine to see if it helps!


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