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The Big Rocks of Personal Training

by Jonathan Goodman | Follow on Twitter

Bret Contreras steps away from research for a minute and lays out what’s actually important for trainers to be successful.

The following is a guest post from Bret Contreras.

Iconstantly receive emails from personal trainers who are intimidated by the amount of science inherent in the fields of strength & conditioning and rehabilitation. I can relate. I spend considerable time reading research and trying to make sense of it, and I’m not always successful.

I don’t want trainers to feel overwhelmed or discouraged, so I’m writing this article in hopes to alleviate certain personal trainer fears.

What Qualities Help Make a Successful Personal Trainer?

I suppose we need to define the term “successful.” There is success in terms of earning money and there is success in terms of delivering results to your clients. These two roads should run in tandem. In order to be successful, a personal trainer should possess characteristics such as business skills, social skills, motivational skills, programming skills, and coaching skills.

The best personal trainers aren’t the most scientific or knowledgeable. They’re often the best-rounded. They know how to market themselves and get the word out, they instill confidence in their clients, they’re great motivators and command respect, they can write good programs, and they’re good at coaching the big lifts.

It’s So Intimidating!

My blog tends to get pretty scientific from time to time, and I often hear from trainers that my content is intimidating. Just today I heard from a trainer who informed me that he’s “not half the trainer I am because he doesn’t yet understand force vectors and moment arms.” Whoooa buddy, have some confidence in yourself.

How to become a personal trainer

You won’t see a linear increase with your ability to deliver results as you increase your knowledge. If you’ve got the basics down pat, then you’re miles ahead of most trainers. Go to any commercial gym and you’ll likely witness a trainer who doesn’t seem to know anything about program design or form. I’d say the majority of personal trainers are clueless in this regard. Focus on learning these skills first, since they lay down the foundation. Worry about moment arms and vectors down the road.

The Big Rocks

I’ve always been able to deliver great results to my clients, even fifteen years ago when I was twenty years old. In the past decade, I’ve probably quintupled my knowledge in sports sciences. However, my ability to deliver results has probably increased by only 50%. Once you’ve mastered the basics, additional knowledge just adds icing on the cake. The big rocks determine 80% of your effectiveness as a trainer, and the details such as advanced screening topics, advanced biomechanical analysis, advanced knowledge of physiology, and advanced knowledge of sports comprise the remaining 20%.

What are the big rocks?

Marketing Knowledge – The best trainers are confident in their abilities and figure out how to promote themselves. They typically look the part, dress the part, sound the part, and act the part.

Altruism – Much of this is innate, but it can be learned. The best trainers actually care about their clients and aren’t solely interested in collecting their money.

Become a personal trainer

Ability to Get Clients to Adhere to a Better Diet – Proper nutrition is usually more than half the battle. Some personal trainers are really good at getting their clients to change their eating habits, and some don’t command that sort of respect. The best trainers understand that training is only part of the battle and are highly skilled at figuring out how to get the clients to stick to an optimal nutritional plan.

Ability to Motivate – The best personal trainers give their clients reasons to keep coming back every week. One of these reasons is consistent motivation. Motivating requires effort. Lazy trainers don’t have it in them to push their clients each and every session. The best trainers do.

Fun – Another reason to cause a client to keep coming back each week is simply because they have fun and look forward to the session. The best personal trainers are positive and enjoyable to be around.

Knowledge of Form – Everyone needs to become a good squatter, deadlifter, presser, rower, bridger, and lunger. The best personal trainers are great at coaching the big lifts, they know the best cues, and they understand 1) what good form looks like, 2) what bad form looks like, and 3) how to get bad form looking like good form in the most efficient manner possible.

Knowledge of Progressions – Not everyone can start out deep squatting and deadlifting with barbells. Many need to start out with bodyweight box squats or dumbbell RDL’s. Knowing progressions and regressions is a critical element in personal training, and the best trainers can quickly determine the perfect exercise along the progression-regression continuum for each primary movement pattern.

Basic Program Design Skills – The best trainers understand how to manipulate variables such as volume, intensity, and frequency, they provide structural balance in their programming, their programs allow for progressive overload while still providing variety, and they center the training session on big lifts.


If you demonstrate proficiency in the big rocks, congratulations! Be darn proud of yourself, because you’re ahead of the pack. Probably 80% of your effectiveness as a personal trainer is dependent on the big rocks. When you’ve mastered the 80%, now strive to learn the remaining 20% and seek advanced knowledge in physical therapy, biomechanics, physiology, nutrition, and sports.

What do you think are the Big Rocks of Personal Training?

About the Author

How to become a personal trainer glute guyBret Contreras has a master’s degree from ASU and a CSCS certification from the NSCA. He is currently studying to receive his PhD in Sports Science at the Sports Performance Research Institute New Zealand (SPRINZ) at AUT University in Auckland, New Zealand. Visit his blog at and his research review service at




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About the Author
Jonathan Goodman

Jonathan Goodman is the creator and head coach of the PTDC and has a distaste for third person bios ... Hey, I'm Jon and I'd have to say that this site is pretty awesome. Thanks for being here. If you're interested in my brand new book, it's called Ignite the Fire (revised, updated, and expanded). My team and I have also created the first Academy and certification for online trainers. Click here to check out the Online Trainer Academy.