Ten years in any profession is a milestone. That seems especially true of personal training, where it’s too easy to feel good or bad about the way your career is going.

Are you a success because your schedule is fully booked, and you make a nice living? Or are you a disappointment because everywhere you look on social media you see men and women doing awesome things to make money and get attention?

I don’t want to pretend I have everything figured out. But after 10 years as a trainer, group fitness instructor, mentor, and master instructor for two leading health club brands, and after 15,000 training sessions and 2,000 group classes, I’ve learned a lot of things I wish I’d known when I was starting out.

Since I can’t go back in time to offer this wisdom to my younger self, I’ll share it here, with the hope that you can benefit from my good, bad, and painfully average experiences.

Lesson #1: You Never Want to Be the Best in the Room

It’s easy to stand out if you can’t see your competition. It’s even easier to assume you’ve mastered your craft when there’s no immediate way to measure yourself against your peers.

My moment of truth came when I got picked as a finalist for Next Top Trainer, an online reality show created by Men’s Health magazine. (It’s like Top Chef, only with fitness pros. You can see the first episode here.) I strolled into the competition thinking I had as good a shot at first prize—a contract to do a workout DVD—as any of the seven guys I was up against.

Then the competition started, and I learned that, for all my education and certifications and experience with clients, my physical conditioning wasn’t close to theirs. Andy Speer, the eventual winner, was in the best shape of any human I had ever seen—until a year later, when I once again got picked as a finalist. Even with a full year to train for it, I couldn’t come close to matching up with Gideon Akande, the season-two champion.

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I was crushed. But my comeuppance could’ve happened any number of ways. If I’d focused on my conditioning instead of logging all those hours with clients, and accumulating credentials, I might’ve gotten put in my place by a trainer whose experience dwarfed mine, or a boss who expected me to know things I hadn’t bothered to learn.

The lesson for my younger self?

You need to be overmatched from time to time in your career, even if it means you’re the worst in the room. Embrace these harsh lessons. You can’t be great until you know what greatness looks like.

Lesson #2: If You Fake It, You Won’t Make It

The more time you spend in the fitness industry, the more you see what you don’t yet have. Look off in one direction, and you see incredible-looking people who can do incredible things and whose incredible marketing skills bring them legions of followers and more money than you ever imagined anyone could make in this field.

Look in another direction and you see coaches who seek none of this. When they aren’t in the gym with their clients, they’re creating content that gets shared by everyone you know, or doing seminars and presentations that your peers will pay hundreds of dollars and travel thousands of miles to soak up.

Most of us will fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, trying to emulate the work ethic of the top coaches while we borrow some moves from the top marketers.

But to move forward as a confident personal trainer, you need to pick a lane. Unsure which lane that is? It’s time to have a tough, honest conversation with yourself. Who are you? What do you do well? What don’t you do well?

If you’re in the industry for the right reasons—you genuinely want to help people look, move, and feel better—you’ll have plenty of opportunities to move forward. You may even get a moment or two in the spotlight.

When you do, you may find, as I did, that you don’t really belong there.

I know that because, in addition to my two shots on Next Top Trainer, I appeared in a handful of independent films and music videos, made a cameo in a popular political drama, and got more than my share of attention in local media.

That was who I wanted to be, but it wasn’t who I was meant to be.

My real purpose was right in front of me all along. As a book nerd, I take pride in mastering the complex, distilling it down, and sharing it with trainers who’re just starting their careers. That’s what I’ve focused on since then.

The lesson for my younger self?

Once you find your lane, stay in it, and move forward as fast as your abilities allow.


READ ALSO: What I Learned from 15,000 Training Sessions in a Commercial Gym

Lesson #3: There’s More to Life than Fitness

Success in any field involves sacrifice. In my case, a successful training career meant foregoing a lot of the things that, to most people, make life worth living. That’s what happens when you dedicate most of your billable hours to actually billing clients.

For years I teetered on the brink of burnout. It finally caught up with me in the winter of 2016.

From the outside, I was the same hard-working, high-achieving trainer—a personable guy with a nice income who’d just begun a relationship with a wonderful person who shared my passions and dreams.

But on the inside, I was numb. I turned into a zombie the minute I left work. My psyche was like a house of cards on a windy day. Even worse, I had an overwhelming urge to take a wrecking ball to everything I had and start over again. Doing what, I didn’t know. Nor did I care. Anything seemed better than the objectively wonderful things I had.

Instead of blowing up my life and career, I did what a coach should do: I hired a coach. More specifically, I went to a counseling professional who helped me sort through my messy thoughts, habits, and unhealed wounds.

It was refreshing to be the client for once. I’d put everyone else’s issues ahead of my own, and now I was taking on my own problems—exactly what I would’ve advised anyone else to do.

Since then I’ve taken up a new fitness pursuit, boxing, for no reason other than I feel better when I do it. But even more important, I’ve learned to say no—to clients, to projects, and to my own most self-defeating urges.

The lesson for my younger self?

I’m the last guy to say you can be successful without ever making a tough choice. It takes a lot of work to build and maintain a full schedule of clients. Sometimes you have to take on additional projects that take you way out of your comfort zone.

Just don’t sacrifice family, friends, and relationships to pull it off. It’s okay to take a Saturday off. It’s okay to train clients early in the morning or late at night, but never both.

It’s okay to make a little less money, or skip an occasional workout, or indulge in an unplanned cheat meal, if it makes someone else happy, and creates memories you can share.

Lesson #4: Don’t Wear Your Clients

Let me tell you a story about one of my tougher clients. He wanted to lose weight around his midsection, but he needed a complete overhaul. A career behind a desk had left him not just fat, but also immobile and dangerously weak in the core and posterior chain. I explained this to him, but all he wanted to do was straight sets of bench presses, followed by accessory work for his shoulders and arms.

He complained about the elevated kettlebell deadlifts for his posterior chain, and flat-out refused to do any mobility and stability work. He scoffed at anything that made him sweat, even as I urged and pleaded with him to pick up his pace.

Sixteen weeks in, when he griped about his inability to lose weight and how my program included things he didn’t “love,” we decided to part ways.

And boy, am I glad we did.

Every session felt like an emotional fistfight over dominance in the relationship. While he openly complimented my credentials, he wasn’t ready to give up control to someone 30 years younger. Nor was he ready to change his diet or lifestyle. Once he decided it was a contest, he wasn’t going to lose.

The lesson for my younger self?

Personal training is by definition personal, but when a client starts to affect you personally, choose your own mental health over his physical fitness. You can always fill that slot on your schedule with someone who doesn’t make you miserable.


READ ALSO: Five Ways to Deal with a Client Who Challenges You

Lesson #5: There’s No Deadline to Find a Niche

Just about every brand-name fitness pro you look up to, and hope to emulate, has a definable fitness niche. Whether it’s athletes, physique competitors, expectant or postpartum mothers, seniors, or something even more specific, every trainer feels the need to claim a market as his own.

You may already have a niche in mind, based on your background, or a personal connection to a population you want to work with, or a problem you believe you were put on earth to help clients solve.

And that’s fine. Keep that passion. But don’t rush to specialize. It’s far more important to develop a well-rounded training philosophy, based on principles that apply to anyone you might someday be paid to train. Every well-known fitness pro I can think of honed her craft working with general-population clients before finding the niche we all know about.

The science that drives our field is universal. Once you learn the science, figure out how to apply it in your training, and build a solid foundation of experience, you open yourself to far more opportunities than you’ll have if you specialize early and limit yourself to a small population of clients in a handful of locations. The more narrow your focus, the harder it will be to support yourself.

The lesson for my younger self?

Learn everything you can. It’s all relevant, and I guarantee you’ll find ways to apply it.

Final Thoughts

A personal-training career is different from just about any other. Even when you work for a brand, you’re expected to be your own boss. You have rules to follow and quotas to meet, but it’s up to you to build your clientele, and it’s your clients who motivate you to wake up early or stay up late. The chance to change lives, including your own, is what drives you.

But once you start driving, you just don’t know where you’ll go, how soon you’ll get there, or what you’ll find when you arrive.

If I could go back 10 years and give my younger self just one piece of advice, it would probably be something like this:

Enjoy the ride. Sure, you’re going to hit some rough spots, and you’ll have to white-knuckle your way through them. But every now and then, take your foot off the accelerator, look around, and enjoy the view.

I sure wish I had.