by Al Kavadlo T-Nation
In my early twenties, I made the decision to change careers and become a personal trainer. I hated my job as an ESL teacher, and with each passing year my teenage dream of becoming a rock star was looking less likely to come true. In other words, I needed to find a fallback dream!
By that point in my life, having already spent nearly a decade in the gym pumping iron, working as a personal trainer seemed like an excellent second choice after rock star.
On the surface, being a personal trainer is a guy's dream job. Instead of being cooped up in some office, trainers get to walk around and stay active.
Instead of wearing stuffy business clothes, trainers wear comfy track pants and a t-shirt. Instead of spending hours with boring old men in suits, trainers get to hang around hot girls in sports bras and spandex pants.
Where do I sign up?
Unfortunately, the truth of the fitness industry is very different from that idealized view. Being a personal trainer is still a job, and like all jobs, it requires work.
With that in mind, the first piece of work any new trainer needs to take care of is getting certified.
Depending on how much fitness knowledge you start out with, the preparation process for becoming a certified personal trainer can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months, or possibly years.
Even if you're in great shape and have good form on all your exercises, you'll still need to study up on anatomy and kinesiology.
I'm sure you can locate the biceps and pectorals on an anatomy chart, but what about lesser-known muscles like the supraspinatus and quadratus lumborum?
You'll also need to memorize various formulas for calculating target heart rates, measuring body fat percentages, predicting hypothetical one-rep maxes, and other such academic trivialities that don't matter much when you're actually working with the general public.
While even the most knowledgeable gym rat will still need to study at least a little to pass any respectable personal trainer exam, after you get certified is when the real learning begins. There are a lot of things you'll need to memorize and regurgitate in order to pass a certification test that you can forget about once you start working as a personal trainer.
It's like how during your road test you need to keep your hands at ten and two in order to get your driver's license, but nobody actually drives that way.
Additionally, there will be things in the exam that you simply disagree with. Just bite the bullet, study their swill, and answer what they want you to, after which you can ditch what you don't like and start training people the way you think is best. Sure I picked up a few useful tidbits studying for exams, but it's nothing compared to what I learned from actually training people.
Though there are many different certifications to choose from, none are unanimously considered the gold standard. ACE, NSCA, NASM, and ACSM are four of the most widely accepted personal trainer certifications in the USA, but different gyms have different affiliations. (If there's a particular gym where you want to apply, first inquire about what certifications they accept.)
You'll need a high school diploma to apply for most fitness certifications, and in the case of the NSCA-CSCS, you'll also need a college degree, though not necessarily in a related field (mine is in English).
Though most certifications require you to take an in-person closed-book exam, there are a few home study and online certifications available. I personally wouldn't recommend going this route, however. If you can't handle taking a test in person, you won't be able to handle the average personal training client.
No matter which certification you choose, however, be prepared to spend several hundred dollars between the study materials and the actual exam fee. You'll also need to become certified in CPR/AED, which will cost $50-100 depending on where you go (as well as costing you 5 hours of your life).
Once you've done all that, a lot of gyms will even make you pay for a uniform after you get hired. Hey, you gotta spend money to make money, right?
Speaking of making money, don't expect to be doing any of that for quite a while. Once you get your certification and get hired by a gym, you're looking at a solid six months (or longer) of paying your dues and learning the business before you can expect to take home a respectable paycheck.
You'll need to spend considerable time just being there, getting to know the members and the feel of the club. You'll also have to give away a lot of free sessions in order to attract paying clients.
It's sort of like being a drug dealer whose product is endorphins: the first hit's free, they gotta pay once they're hooked and want more.
While you could go into business for yourself instead of trying to get hired by someone else, there are many benefits to working for a gym.
For starters, you'll get to be around other trainers with more experience, so you can see firsthand what works and what doesn't. You'll also have a manager who can help build your client base.
But the big thing is, working at a gym will allow you to pitch your services to new people every day. Anyone at your gym who doesn't already have a trainer is a potential client. After all, if they're going to the gym, chances are they want to get in better shape!
While working for a gym is the best way for a new trainer to get started and learn the business, going independent definitely has its perks as well.
You don't have to share as much of your profits, or worry about quotas, meetings, and other aspects of the big-box gym bureaucracy. Plus, there's no uniform or nametag (I've always found nametags degrading) and no minimum amount of hours you have to work to remain full-time.
On the other hand, there's also no medical and dental benefits, and more importantly, no pool of fresh members joining the gym every day who might be in need of a trainer.
I'm happy to be working for myself now, but I'm glad I spent almost seven years learning the business working for the big chain gyms.
Every new trainer can benefit from working at a commercial facility (though not necessarily for as long as I did) before going into business for himself. It takes time to become a good trainer and even longer to establish a reputation that will follow you into the great unknown.
When I started out in the fitness industry, I thought I needed to look like a bodybuilder to be taken seriously. I soon found out, however, that most personal training clients aren't interested in putting on mass.
Fact is, most are usually much more interested in losing weight.
As absurd as it seems in retrospect, before I entered the world of personal training, I wasn't even aware that simply being thin could be a desirable body type. It took working for a commercial gym to realize that my fitness goals weren't the same as those of the general public.
I soon found out that personal training isn't about how great you look in a tight shirt or how much you can lift – it's about your clients! Your job is to be there for them. Just like a good parent must put the needs of their child before their own, a good trainer always puts their clients' needs first.
Since most of the people you'll wind up training are not going to be athletically inclined, the workouts that you do yourself are rarely going to have much relevance for your client.
If I took a new client and tried to get them to do a dragon flag or even a basic pull-up, it would likely be an embarrassing failure for both of us. You must understand the beginner's mind as well as their capabilities. Just because an exercise is easy for you, doesn't mean it's going to be easy (or appropriate) for your client.
Make it Personal
To be a successful personal trainer, you must remember that your product is you. Anyone can stand there while someone does squats and presses; what sets me apart from other trainers in my personality.
So if you're a nice guy, don't try to be a drill sergeant. And if you're a stone-cold bitch, there will be certain people who'll need you to get in their face and push them. Nobody is the best trainer for everyone – embrace who you are and you'll attract clients that you'll click with.
It also helps to be outgoing and introduce yourself to new people in your gym. Tell them how you can help achieve their goals, and offer them a complimentary training session so they can see for themselves. Don't be shy about marketing yourself – you're not going to get clients by waiting for them to come to you.
Some folks find personal trainers intimidating, especially if they feel out of shape. These people need the help of a trainer the most, yet they'll often be the least likely to ask for it.
Know Your Role
While I encourage you to be bold in pitching prospective clients, it's best to be honest about what to expect from a personal trainer. In spite of what the majority of trainers are trying to sell people (I've been guilty of this too), we're not capable of guaranteeing results. Getting results is up to the client.
The trainer's job is to help. We hold them accountable and we provide encouragement, but we can't do it for them.
Don't get frustrated with yourself if not all of your clients are progressing. You can't force someone to change if they aren't willing to take full responsibility.
It's important to have realistic expectations if you want long-term clients. Selling people on a lie might get them to buy into that first package of training sessions, but they won't stick around if you don't hold up your end of the agreement.
Being a trainer is a fulfilling job when you get through to people and make a difference in their lives, but remember that personal trainers are part of the service industry. You have to treat your clients with professionalism and respect, even if some of them annoy you at times.
Our job is to give people a positive experience as well as a safe, effective workout. A trainer can give their clients direction and encouragement to maintain a healthy lifestyle, but when you're only with someone for two or three hours a week, you can't be accountable for the other 166 hours when they're not under your surveillance.
Just like getting in great shape takes dedication and consistency, establishing a reputation as a quality trainer takes years to accomplish.
And yes, that translates to the level of income you can expect to earn, too. I barely made 20K during my first year in the fitness industry, but by my third year I was earning over 50K. After a decade working as a trainer, I'm finally earning what most people would consider a comfortable living, but it's taken a long time to get there.
If you think personal training is going to make you lots of money without having to work hard, you're in for a rude awakening. However, if you're genuinely passionate about health and fitness, personal training can be an enjoyable, rewarding career.
Plus you get to wear sneakers to work.