Take a look at the picture above. It was taken a few weeks before I quit my job in educational technology and became a personal trainer. I was helping my friend Ai with push-ups; earlier, Steven was helping us with our rolling form, Jabari was helping us climb trees, and Milk was teaching us lateral kicks. I thought that every personal training and group class that I taught would be like this: a bunch of light-hearted people, laughing, playing in the rain, and sharing what they knew to help others.
After a month of working as a personal trainer, I looked more like this:
The Reality of Working as a Personal Trainer
Don’t get me wrong, working as a personal trainer can be an incredibly rewarding, fun, and a lucrative profession. I just made a lot of rookie mistakes that caused my eyes to bulge out of their sockets. I would like to share them here so that you don’t have to face as many challenges as I did.
My Rookie Mistakes and a Little Guidance
1) I quit my job with no other source of income, just a little retirement money. I found two training jobs within three weeks of getting certified, but just because you are hired does not mean you will make $100,000 right away. In fact, you may only make a few hundred dollars the first month. It takes time to establish a client base, and hard work, especially if you are working in a personal training studio as opposed to a gym. I was unaware just how many personal trainers there were in my area: there was literally a gym on every corner, and one or two personal training studios, group fitness studios, or weight loss centers. I am not exaggerating. So, the first tip is to make sure you are financially stable, have a base salary, another part time job, or are working in a gym with a lot of traffic so that securing clients is as simple as talking to someone on the gym floor. Remember, most gyms and studios will only pay you when you are training and expect you to secure your own clients. A lot of gyms will also put pressure on you to make sales; make sure you are okay with that kind of pressure.
2) Because of unstable finances, I ended up taking three jobs, which is not uncommon in the industry. Let me tell you, it can be stressful driving all over town just to train for a few hours. Again, try to have your finances in order before you begin. Working at one location is ideal.
3) Work near your residence. The trainer’s schedule is often split. You may train from 5-9am before people go to work, have a few afternoon lunch sessions between 12-3pm, and then be back 6-10pm to meet with people after they finish work. If you try and hang out at a coffee shop or bookstore all day, you will get burned out quickly. You must rest, and having a bed and a relaxed setting to do that in is key. In time, your schedule will become more stable, but at first, it may seem like a bit of a mess. Working at least one day on weekends is common as well in the industry.
4) Realize as a beginner, you may have these odd hours. You make be picking up clients your boss does not have time to train, or you may be subbing for someone. As a trainer, you often have to work around people’s schedules. Make sure you are okay doing that and it will not burn you out. Take care of your health first.
5) In most cases, the people you are training are nowhere near your fitness level nor your friends’. The majority of my clients were overweight, had mild to moderate medical conditions, varying levels of pain, previous surgeries, and worked stressful jobs. People hire trainers mostly because they want someone to motivate them to exercise; they have not been able to do it on their own. It is your duty to help them reach their goals safely and effectively. It is not uncommon that your clients do not enjoy exercise and may curse at you, make excuses, vent to you about stresses, and may not follow your dietary and exercise guidance outside of the gym. Personal training is a challenging career; you have a large responsibility to ensure the safety and well being of your clients, guiding them to overcome huge challenges that they cannot get through without your help: realize your importance, your duty, and make sure you can still have fun and be light-hearted in the face of such a responsibility.
6) As stated in the previous paragraph, people who hire trainers are not as fond of exercise as you are. They will make excuses and cancel often if you let them. It is your job to motivate them and make sure they come in to exercise. Even the best clients will miss a session every few weeks for one reason or another. Be firm with scheduling, and enforce your cancellation policy; make sure your clients are coming to the sessions they paid for and getting the results they deserve.
7) Make sure you really know your stuff before you start training people. Earning a degree in exercise science is helpful, but you need experience working with real people. Find a mentor while you are in school, such as a physical therapist or a trainer knowledgeable in biomechanics and exercise testing & prescription. Once you are hired, most gyms/studios could careless about your knowledge and skills or teaching you anything new; there are continuing education courses for that! Most gym and studio owners are too busy to really help you develop as a trainer. As long as you can secure clients and retain them, and sell them the products the gym offers, your boss will be happy. I’m not saying all studios or gyms are like this, you may have a boss who really cares to develop you; but I’d say do it in school before you have to worry about finances, time, and job security.
8) On that note, if you are thinking of becoming a personal trainer and earning a bachelor’s degree in exercise science, you may want to consider an accredited nutrition program in addition or instead. Earning a personal training certificate is easy; become a registered dietitian is not. It requires a lot of clinical hours and training, but it will likely pay off. If you are an RD, it will definitely set you apart from other trainers; trainers are not allowed to give direct dietary advice, only “guidance”. If they write a specific dietary program for a client, it is grounds to have their certification revoked. Registered dietitians are also eligible for salaried positions with benefits, whereas trainers often work commission-based jobs without base pay, salaries, or benefits. The coursework will be similar to that of exercise science, covering all or most of what you would need to know to be a great trainer.
9) From my experience talking to different gym owners and trainers, NASM is the certifying company to choose. A few gyms I talked to required NASM certification to hire or at least be obtained within 1-2 months of hire. There are also specialty certifications such as ACSM’s certified clinical exercise specialist that will set you apart and put you on the right track to becoming a great trainer; but most of your clients will have no idea of the difference between certifying agencies and won’t ask, and gyms/studios require a basic certification for hire.
10) Some big box gyms hire third party companies to secure clients for you, but you end up making an average of $10 an hour. There can be a lot of deception in this industry. Be wary of all gyms and studios, get information upfront, ensure the ethics of the company, and only work for companies who are transparent in their business practices. This is logical, but most people in this industry are very good at making you feel safe and secure no matter how shady their practices may be: their job, for the most part, is to convince people to sign up for lots of training month after month, year after year. Again, keep a relaxed awareness.
11) Follow your heart and intuition. I found that sacrificing my passions and interests for potential monetary gain and job security was fruitless: I just became stressed and unhappy. If you follow your passions and dreams, remembering why you wanted to enter this industry in the first place, you will meet the right people who will guide you on a path to happiness and success. If you settle, you may make money, but at the expense of your happiness.
Well, thats about all I’ve got for now. I may have missed a few things, so feel free to ask questions if you have any!
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