Which Type of Fitness Instructor Is Right for You?

Mature male athlete boxing with coach in gym

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Whether you’re just starting to exercise, or you’ve been hitting the gym for a while but need some extra motivation, working with a fitness instructor can be a great next step towards meeting your goals. Instructors include personal trainers who work one-on-one with you on strength training, coaches that help you improve sport-specific skills, or group fitness teachers that get your heart pumping in a class.

When it comes to any of these professionals, there are different instructor personas and styles. Some may leave you feeling determined and pumped up, while others may not mesh well with your own personality. Check out these seven different types of fitness instructors, and find out which is the best choice for you!

The Drill Sergeant

When you’re working out with this tough-love type of trainer, don’t expect a free pass for any excuses. While they’ve got empathy for how challenging it is to make change, they also know that sometimes you can get in your own way.

The Drill Sergeant instructor will tell it like it is, and their no-BS approach may be just what you need to break through limiting beliefs. Expect a bit of intensity, and sometimes maybe even a little shouting, to push you towards fitness feats you once thought were impossible.

This fitness instructor is the right fit for you if:

  • You struggle to push out those last few reps, even though you know you probably can do it.
  • If you're honest with yourself, you sometimes make excuses for not working out consistently.
  • A little tough love doesn't make you feel bad, but rather motivates you.

The Cheerleader

Feeling down about not making progress quickly? The Cheerleader is quick to remind you how awesome you are and how much you have already accomplished just by taking the first steps.

This type of fitness instructor is typically full of energy, and helps build you up with praise. They'll show up with big smiles, high-fives, and enthusiasm.

This fitness instructor is the right fit for you if:

  • You love having someone “in your corner.”
  • You tend to thrive on someone else’s energy; it gets you more excited about your own workout.
  • You sometimes have a hard time giving yourself credit for what you have achieved so far.

The Spiritual Guru

It’s time to get your zen on with this fitness professional, most commonly found teaching yoga, tai chi, or other mind-body exercises. The Spiritual Guru will remind you that exercise isn’t just about how fast your heart is pumping, but also about how your mental health and physical fitness align.

This fitness instructor is the right fit for you if:

  • You are frequently stressed out, whether that’s dealing with a high-paced job or family struggles.
  • You love the idea of nourishing the mind and the body in one activity.
  • You appreciate a calm, comforting presence when it comes to your workouts.

The Partner

If you want someone completing every last exercise with you, The Partner is what you need. Expect them to work out side-by-side with you, like a group fitness instructor that completes every move with their class.

While it’s less common to find a personal trainer that does this, there are some that utilize this style. You may also find coaches in other disciplines (like running) who will offer to exercise alongside you too. By tackling the same challenge with you, The Partner knows exactly what you’re going through.

This fitness instructor is the right fit for you if:

  • You dislike working out alone; company helps a workout go by quicker.
  • You want to try new group fitness classes.
  • You prefer a collaborative relationship with a fitness instructor, rather than someone telling you what to do all the time.

The Mountain Guide

This instructor has already been down the path you’re just starting to walk. They’ve improved their strength or lost excess weight or run their first marathon—or whatever other goal seems a bit scary for you to work towards.

The Mountain Guide will help you avoid the wrong turns and pitfalls common to the journey (the ones they know from personal experience!). Like any good guide, helping you get there safely and injury-free is a top priority.

This fitness instructor is the right fit for you if:

  • You have a specific goal in mind that seems a little overwhelming.
  • You like working with someone who has been there, done that.
  • You trust someone with experience.

The “Health at Every Size” Instructor

While you may have heard of the “health at every size” approach when it comes to medical care or nutrition counseling, it is also embraced by some fitness instructors too.

These trainers recognize that fitness is about more than just looks, and steer away from the connection between exercise and weight. Instead, they focus on creating workouts that are fun, sustainable, and accessible for all shapes and sizes. These instructors tend to be very empathetic and sensitive, encouraging clients but never criticizing or pushing too hard.

This fitness instructor is the right fit for you if:

  • You don’t want to focus on weight as part of your fitness programming.
  • You want classes or exercises that can be modified based on your current size and fitness level.
  • Empathy and gentle coaching are attributes that matter to you in an instructor.

The Technical Educator

A cross between teacher, fitness nerd, and trainer, The Technical Educator grounds exercise plans in scientific methods, and wants you understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

For example, an endurance coach that embraces this style might put you through a lactate threshold field test, teach you about training zones, and educate you on wattage while cycling. A personal trainer may have you utilize certain technology for cardio workouts (like a heart rate monitor), and teach you about the science behind concentric and eccentric contractions while strength training.

This fitness instructor is the right fit for you if:

  • You like learning about the anatomy and science behind different movements.
  • You love fitness technology—from FitBits to apps, you dig it all.
  • You appreciate an evidence-based approach to developing a fitness plan.

Finding the Right Fitness Instructor

With all the different types of fitness professionals, you’re bound to find one that is the right fit for you. Keep in mind that some trainers may have approaches that encompass more than one of these personas. A few may even categorize themselves as chameleons, adapting their style based on your own personality and on what they think will help motivate you best.

Lastly, don’t forget that you can switch trainers, coaches, or classes anytime. Don’t feel guilty about needing to try someone or something new. Your fitness goals are just that—yours!—and you should test different methods until you find the right fit. No matter who you work with, you should always walk out of a session knowing something new.

By Chrissy Carroll, RD, MPH
Chrissy Carroll is a registered dietitian and USAT Level I Triathlon Coach, and the author of "Eat to Peak: Sports Nutrition for Runners and Triathletes."