How to Become a Personal Trainer
I’ve been waiting to write this blog post for a while because I know there are so many of you out there who have been thinking about becoming a personal trainer.
I feel I’m qualified to create this post because I don’t have an exercise science background, and I’m only a couple years removed from having a different type of job. I still remember what it’s like to work another job while secretly wishing I could be a personal trainer.
I graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in journalism and mass communication in 2011 and planned to become a beat writer covering a major pro or college sports team.
Right about the same time I realized the newspaper business was a dying industry, I began to grow very fond of fitness. After lifting weights consistently for a few years but stalling on my progress to build muscle and get stronger, I decided to start researching more about strength and conditioning.
I found out pretty quickly I had a passion for fitness, and I eventually decided to pursue a career as a personal trainer.
A couple of years later, I couldn’t be happier with my decision.
Are you considering making the jump?
Before you make any decisions, here’s what personal training is really all about:
So you want to become a personal trainer?
The first thing you need to realize is personal training isn’t a 9-5 job. Your first client of the day could be at 5:30 a.m., and your day could finish at 9 p.m. You’re also on your feet all day and could potentially have a very sporadic schedule.
Also, you shouldn’t become a trainer just because you like working out yourself. You should become a personal trainer because you truly enjoy training and want to help change the lives of others.
Being a personal trainer is about making a difference in someone else’s life. If you help someone lose weight, you could boost that person’s confidence, improve overall quality of life and save that individual from an early grave.
That’s a big task, right?
Personal training can be one of the most rewarding professions because of the implications body composition changes and increased strength can have on a person.
If you’re OK with everything we’ve discussed so far, keep reading.
Personal Trainer vs. Fitness Professional
At first, I didn’t pursue personal training because I thought being a personal trainer was just something you did to pass the time in your 20s while you were still figuring out your career path.
But then, I realized there were actually fitness professionals.
What’s the difference between a personal trainer and a fitness professional?
I’m glad you asked.
A personal trainer is someone who just counts sets and reps.
Fitness professionals take their craft very seriously, continually educate themselves to provide the highest quality results and experience for their clients and act professionally. They understand the work isn’t done after you earn your certification. Most of what you learn in your education or certification won’t help you once you get out on the floor with clients.
Because it’s so easy to earn a certification, you can find a personal trainer everywhere you look. At the same time, it’s also a good thing because you can easily separate yourself from the competition by providing a quality experience for your clients. You can definitely stay in the field a long time.
Steps to Becoming a Personal Trainer
Follow these steps in this order:
1. Seek out and shadow someone currently in the field
No, your first action shouldn’t be to get a certification. First, you need to figure out if being a personal trainer is something you even want to do. Just because you love working out doesn’t mean you should be a personal trainer. Sometimes, your own training takes a back seat when you’re working with others.
Find someone in your area who’s the type of trainer you want to be. If you want to be a performance coach, seek out the best performance coach you can find in your area. If you want to help people lose weight, seek out the top body composition specialists in your area.
A quick Google search will do the trick. Don’t think these individuals are too busy to talk to you. Ask lots of questions. They’ll be more than happy to answer them.
I reached out to a number of people in the industry before I decided to give working as a personal trainer a try.
In fact, I actually met my boss at a seminar in Indianapolis even though we both live in Madison.
Put yourself out there.
Actually meeting some trainers or coaches and seeing what personal training entails will give you a better idea whether you want to pursue the industry.
2. Read/watch material on both the art and science of coaching
It’s time to hit the books. Or blogs. Either way, read everything you can get your hands on about both strength and conditioning and personal development. Yes, you read that correctly. Peronal development is crucial to success in any walk of life. Looking for some resources? Here are a few to get you started:
Products/Books – The High-Performance Handbook, by Eric Cressey (athletic performance, program design); Ultimate MMA Conditioning, by Joel Jamieson (conditioining); Movement, by Gray Cook (assessment, corrective exercise; Primal Body, Primal Mind, by Nora Gedgaudas (nutrition)
Blogs to Follow – thePTDC.com (The Personal Training Development Center); bretcontreras.com (biomechanics, functional training); ericcressey.com (athletic performance, corrective exercise); robertsontrainingsystems.com (athletic performance, corrective exercise); precisionnutrition.com (nutrition); T-Nation (strength, muscle growth)
3. Get an internship
Don’t start training people the second you decide you want to become a trainer.
Especially if you’re coming from a different profession, you’re going to need to get experience by working under the direction of someone who’s already experienced in the field.
What works for you won’t work for everyone else. Whether you train individuals or groups, everyone with whom you work will have different goals, a different background, a different injury history and a different personality.
People are paying you a good deal of money to help them reach their fitness goals, so you better make sure you know what you’re doing. Obviously, you’ll make mistakes along the way, but you’ll make far fewer errors if you first learn the tricks of the trade.
In my internship, I learned other valuable things like proper technique for all major exercises, how to properly assess incoming clients and how to write and execute programs.
Perhaps the professionals with whom you network in your area will have internships. If they don’t, you may have to travel a bit. Otherwise, Eric Cressey (Boston area) and Mike Robertson (Indianapolis) have highly-coveted internships.
Even if the internship is either unpaid or only part-time, don’t hesitate to do it. Learning from someone experienced and successful in the field will pay huge dividends later on. Trust me.
4. Get a certification
Yes, having a certification is important, but basic knowledge you earn from your certification will do very little for you in terms of real-world application.
Which certification should you get? In all honesty, it doesn’t really matter. I never get asked about my qualifications.
Think about it. When you go to see your accountant or insurance broker, do you ask to see their certifications? As long as they can help you, do you really care? Probably not.
As long as you can help your clients reach their goals, they’re not going to care about your certification. It’s more about your experience and skill set – not your qualifications.
Still, you’ve got to have something. Here are a few high-quality options:
Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) (National Strength and Conditioning Association) *requires bachelor’s degree or higher
Certified Personal Trainer (National Strength and Conditioning Association)
Certified Personal Trainer (American College of Sports Medicine)
Certified Personal Trainer (International Sport Sciences Association)
5. Get a job
Now that you’ve completed your internship and gotten your certification, it’s time to get to work.
Even if you would like to open your own gym, it’s probably best to spend at least a year or so working for someone else. Once again, you’re going to make plenty of mistakes, so you would much rather make them somewhere else.
Not everyone is cut out to be a business owner. I don’t own my own gym and likely never will. You can still be an accomplished and well-respected personal trainer even if you work for someone else.
How do you find a job? Maybe, if you’re lucky, the gym at which you completed your internship will hire you. My co-workers and I all began as interns. Otherwise, find a place at which you think you would be a good fit and apply.
You can find a gym at every corner, so don’t just work at any gym. Make sure your principles align with the core values of the company.
Tips to succeed as a personal trainer
By no means is this an exhaustive list, but here are a few tips to get you started.
1. Show genuine interest in others
You can be a terrible trainer in terms of your knowledge of strength and conditioning, yet be wildly popular and have lots of clients.
How is that possible?
People don’t care how much you know. They care about how much you care about them and their goals. They care that you demonstrate true concern for their well-being.
Obviously, you’ve still got to have at least some idea what you’re doing.
2. Act professionally
Even though you’re working in a gym setting, you absolutely must remember to act appropriately.
Don’t wear a backwards hat or check your phone while training your clients. Your clients are paying good money to work with you, so you better be certain you’re paying attention to them the entire time they’re with you.
Wear a nice pair of athletic shorts or windpants, an appropriate t-shirt and well-kept pair of shoes. You want to present yourself as someone who’s serious about his or her craft.
3. Make workouts enjoyable
No matter what you think your clients need, you must ultimately make sure the program you design for them is both effective and fun.
You could design what you think are the best workouts of all time, but if your clients don’t enjoy them, you’re never going to get great results for them.
Meet them halfway. Give them what they need, but do it in a way that’s fun for them.
4. Be approachable
Understand clients are going to be sharing a lot of very personal information with you. They may share things with you they haven’t told anyone else – not even their family members.
You definitely need to know some things about their background and personal information to help them achieve the best results, but they’re not going to share any information with you if you’re intimidating.
If you make sure to smile and not take yourself too seriously, your clients will feel much more comfortable around you.
5. Remain positive
Your clients are going to have good days, and they’re going to have bad ones too. After all, they are human beings with real emotions.
As a result, they may not always perform to your level of expectation. When that happens, make sure to stay positive and pick them up when they’re down.
If a client performs an exercise that’s mostly incorrect, be sure to find a least one thing he or she does correctly and give praise. Then, you can suggest an adjustment or two to get that individual on the right path toward performing the exercise properly.
6. Think science, speak client
I heard someone else use this expression once, so I’m going to go with it.
Clients don’t care whether you can recite all the muscles in the human body. They just care whether you can help them.
Think about the last time you went to a licensed health professional for injury treatment. When you were in pain, all you wanted was for that person to get you out of pain. You wanted that person to use simple, actionable, easy-to-understand terms to get the message across.
It’s the same thing with your clients.