So you're considering a career in fitness. Awesome. The world needs more people like you—smart, sincere, hard-working, and genuinely invested in helping your future clients reach their goals.
You know why you’re needed: In an increasingly sedentary world, with the U.S. obesity rate approaching 40 percent, exercise is the most powerful medicine you can get without a prescription. And strength training is the most underutilized form of that medicine. You’re in the right place at the right time with the right skills.
The question is, how do you get started? You need to put yourself in a position to help the people who need your help, build a successful business, and make a good living in the process.
That’s where we come in. I founded the PTDC in 2011 with the goal of giving personal trainers every resource they need to thrive in the fitness industry. My new book, from which I pulled most of what follows, focuses on entry-level trainers, with the goal of helping them get started right, and lay the foundations for long and successful careers.
1. What’s it really like to be a personal trainer?
Let’s get the bad news out of the way first: The hours are terrible. For much of the year, at least five days a week, you’ll start each day before the sun comes up and finish after dark. In between you’ll have long stretches with no clients to train.
That won’t change as long as you train clients in person. Most people who’re affluent enough to hire trainers like to train before or after work. You’ll certainly get some clients who can work out in the middle of the day—retirees, stay-at-home moms, self-employed professionals. But throughout your career, you’ll find the highest demand for slots in the morning and early evening.
And when you’re just starting out, those might be the only slots you can fill. You’ll get them because the other trainers in your gym don’t have openings, and people who need to train in those limited hours will be willing to take a chance on you.
But before we talk about how to land those first clients, let’s take a couple steps back.
2. What do I need to become a personal trainer?
I’ll be honest: What you need most is for someone to hire you to train them. Some people, usually because of their physiques or athletic achievements, are in demand before they take any of the traditional steps toward a career in the fitness industry.
Most fitness pros, though, start with two basic prerequisites.
It starts, but doesn’t end, with your personal training certification
Just about any potential employer will require a certification. But certifications alone don’t prepare trainers. Even the ones that include a practical, hands-on component don’t offer any real guidance on the business side.
And those are the most legitimate, accredited certifications. Since they aren’t regulated in most places, anybody can start a company that certifies trainers. Those non-accredited certifications are usually cheap and easy to get, making them attractive to people looking for shortcuts. That’s just human nature.
So while some credentials take as long as a year to earn, you can start and finish some of these newer ones on the same weekend. To tell you how irresponsible that is, I once earned a certification for a dog. (He scored a 79 on the test, a solid C-plus. Dude earned a lot of treats for that one.)
My point: By all means, start your career with a baseline certification from a respected, accredited organization. But consider that your starting point. Knowing enough to get a job doesn’t mean you know enough to do the job.
You must have personal training insurance
Think of everything that can go wrong during a workout. How easy would it be for a client to slip and fall while working with you? Or to drop a weight on her foot? Now you understand why personal trainers need liability insurance. You can be the most careful trainer on the planet, but no one is immune to random bad luck. And any decent personal-injury lawyer can make a little bad luck look like negligence to jurors who’ve never been inside a gym.
That said, if you really were negligent, or if you overstepped your professional boundaries, insurance won’t cover you.
But what are those boundaries? If a client has a bad reaction to some food you recommended, or injures herself doing a heavy lift she’s done many times before without a problem, your insurance company may not have your back. You need to ask about contingencies before choosing a policy, and research providers’ reputations among your fellow trainers.
You should also get disability insurance, which covers a percentage of your income if you get hurt.
I told my own story of losing two weeks’ worth of income because of an injury in this article. Granted, a disability policy wouldn’t have kicked in after just two weeks, but it still opened my eyes to how precarious life is when your income depends on your physical ability. What if I’d been hit by a car, and couldn’t train clients for months? What if I’d had a family to support?
Choose your policy wisely; coverage varies. Just make sure you have some form of disability insurance.
3. Where can I get my first job as a personal trainer?
This used to be a simple question for fit pros. After completing your certification, the only option was to find a job at the local gym. You’d start on the floor, making minimum wage, and move up as you gained clients and built a reputation.
Things have changed. Today you have a range of options for where to work as a personal trainer:
· Big box gym
· Private studio
· Group classes
· Online training
· In-home training
You can also mix and match, as I used to do. At my busiest, I’d start my day with a bootcamp, then train a couple of clients in their homes, then go to the gym and train clients one-on-one. I made a lot of money, but those were long days.
There’s no “best” choice. Your goal is to find the right fit for you right now.
Most new trainers are in one of two positions:
1. You already know the clientele you want to work with.
2. You have no idea.
If you don’t know, you’ll probably start the way trainers have traditionally started: at a commercial gym. It’s not anyone’s dream job, but it’s by no means a dead end. Many of today’s most successful and best-known trainers started in commercial gyms. It’s a perfectly fine way to learn the business and figure out what you do best and want to do most.
But let’s say training is your second, third, or even fourth career, and you wish to train older clients. That’s a good market, and you’d be well-suited for it.
Or let’s say you want to work with young athletes. Or, you want to work with elite players in one specific sport.
You can save a lot of steps by finding coaches and facilities that specialize in those populations, and getting in the door with an internship or shadowing a coach for a day or two.
I should add that even if you’re sure about these things now, your preference could change. You may find you don’t really like training young athletes, or you like the athletes but can’t stand the parents, or you’re fine with the kids and parents but you don’t like the hours, or the way the business works, or the repetition.
Whatever the reasons, there’s a good chance you’ll want to try something else at some point, and specializing too soon can limit your options down the road.
It’s hard to know which clients you’ll love training unless you train a lot of different types—younger and older; athletes and nonathletes; novice and advanced; and those training for performance along with those training for fat loss.
One final bit of advice: Enjoying a sport or a specific type of training can be very different from coaching others for that sport or type of training.
You may find that your favorite clients are very different from you.
4. How do I land my first personal training clients?
Two words: Look. Busy.
Perception quickly becomes reality. If you create the perception that you’re in demand, you soon will be. After all, if you’re not in demand, why would anybody want to train with you?
Here are a few ways to look busy, even when you aren’t:
First, fill your schedule, at least partially, with fictitious appointments. You don’t need to go full fabulist by using fake names. Just block off some hours with a color. Keep your phone or tablet with you at all times, with the calendar app open. When you speak to a potential client, let them see your partially filled schedule.
Second, when it’s time to book an appointment with a prospective client, offer two times. Never say, “What time works for you?” For one thing, it puts the onus on the client to find a time. Second, it implies you’ve got nearly unlimited openings, which is the opposite of what you’re trying to project.
Another trick that worked for me: When you’re on the floor, wearing your uniform, give the impression that you’re working with somebody. Sometimes I would invite friends to come to the gym for free training sessions. Other times I would ask members if they want to try out some new exercises or stretches I’d just learned.
Busy begets busy. Never let people see you standing around with nothing to do. Always find someone to engage with.
5. The most successful trainers have the best communication skills
When you do engage, keep in mind that anyone you speak to, in or out of the gym, is a potential client. Or they know someone who’s a potential client.
You have two goals in a conversation with a person you’ve just met:
· Communicate what you do, and where you do it.
· Get them to like you.
It sounds basic and intuitive, but I assure you it’s not. In fact, as you’ll see, you need to develop a strategy for day-to-day conversations.
Consider the most common question you’ll hear when you meet someone outside the gym: “So. What do you do?”
If you say the first thing that comes to mind—“I’m, uh, I’m a personal trainer”—you’ve pretty much ended the conversation. Sure, there’ll be some blabber for a minute to avoid an awkward silence. But you know the other person is plotting an escape.
You can do better.
Start by understanding the person only asked to be polite. He wasn’t actually interested in what you do; it’s just the socially accepted way to begin a conversation when there’s nothing else to talk about.
But you can make him interested, and turn a polite question into an engaging and potentially productive conversation, by asking questions.
Consider this answer to his question: “I help people achieve their health and fitness goals.” (You’d come up with a variation that fits your personality and the situation.) Follow it up with a question: “Take you, for example. What are your health and fitness goals?”
You’re now in the driver’s seat. You’ve given him a chance to talk about himself, but you’ve also created an opportunity to find out what he’s interested in. From there, just follow his lead. If he says he loves running but doesn’t do as much as he’d like, ask why. If he describes an injury, ask what he’s done for rehab. That gives you an opening to describe a runner you worked with who had a similar injury, and went on to complete a marathon or return to obstacle-course racing.
Now he’s genuinely interested in what you do, and wants to know more about how you’d help someone like him.
That’s the best-case scenario, of course. He might say he doesn’t have any goals, in which case you can offer your congratulations and find something else to talk about. In any situation, your objective is to engage the person by being engaged—showing interest in what they do and how they do it, even if there’s no obvious benefit to you.
If nothing else, you get to practice being a good conversationalist, which is a crucial skill for a personal trainer.
READ ALSO: How to Sell Personal Training in Five Steps
6. Like it or not, you’re an entrepreneur now
When I started as a personal trainer in 2006, I had one source of income: my hourly wage at the gym where I worked.
Within a year I had multiple sources. I still made most of my money training clients in the gym, but I also ran a bootcamp and trained clients in their homes. I soon added online fitness training to my portfolio. When I launched the PTDC in 2011, I supported it with income from book sales and affiliate commissions.
Today I have at least 10 income streams, led by the Online Trainer Academy, which I opened in 2016.
I don’t say any of that to brag. My point is to highlight how many opportunities there are. Your first goal, of course, is to get good at training clients. From there, the possibilities are endless. The best trainers get paid to write, to speak, to consult, to endorse products and services. Some go on to create new products and services.
None of that happens until you realize you’re not just a trainer. You’re an entrepreneur. You’re responsible for your own business. Even if your gym gives you people to train, it’s up to you to keep them. No gym in the world will continue feeding you clients unless you can retain and renew them.
But that’s just the first step. At some point you’ll be expected to generate new business—to sell personal training to existing members, to bring new members to the gym, and even to create programs and services that increase your gym’s bottom line.
It comes down to this: You must forge your own path. You’re part of a community of fitness professionals, but your career is your own.