My job as a fitness writer is to interview experts. For years, that was good enough.
It’s what I learned in journalism school at Northwestern University, where I got my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and it’s what I do when I write for publications like TIME, Men’s Health, and Runner’s World.
I didn’t need to be an expert in my own right—not when top researchers in their field would answer my emails and texts within minutes, walk me through complex topics in microscopic detail (literally microscopic, in some cases), and even reach out to me when they came across a study I might find interesting.
All that changed when I realized my knowledge sometimes surpassed that of the person I was interviewing. I’d be speaking to a well-known fitness pro and think, “Wait a second, that’s not right!”
That’s when I realized it was no longer enough to be the conduit for other people’s expertise. I needed to develop my own.
My guess is that you have a similar reaction when you see a poorly crafted workout on a popular website, or read a fitness article that’s riddled with inaccuracies. You’ve probably thought, “I can do better than that.”
The problem, for both of us, is that there’s no easy transition from one to the other—from writing about fitness to being a fitness pro, or from training clients to writing about the training process.
I was determined to do it anyway.
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The Best Intentions
I didn’t yet plan to train clients when I bought Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning and began studying for my CSCS. I thought the certification would help me ask more insightful questions in interviews and write more knowledgeable articles—to do my job better, in other words.
But all that studying had an unexpected side effect: Going to the gym became extremely frustrating. Everywhere I looked, I saw someone exercising with poor technique, if not doing something so risky it was like they were rehearsing for a viral #GymFail.
It was even more demoralizing to see what some trainers did with their clients. I remember thinking, “People pay for this?”
I wrote articles that I hoped would help others avoid the things I saw virtually every day. That, after all, is why I became a writer: to use the power of words to reach people and inspire change.
But was it enough? I could see my work in this magazine or on that website, but what I couldn’t see is whether it made any difference in the lives of the people I was trying to reach.
For the first time, I considered training clients myself. What better way to make a difference? And how amazing would it feel when it happened?
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Here’s Spit in your Eye
I found a gym called Symmetry, where an independent, part-time trainer like me could work with my clients.
Once I had some.
That part happened faster than I expected. The gym’s owner emailed me a few days later. “We just had someone come in looking for a trainer,” he wrote, “and I think you two would be a great fit.”
My first training sessions, just about a year ago now, were nerve-wracking. (I’m sure you can relate.) But I hid my stress sweat as well as I could, learned from my mistakes, and left each session with ideas on how to do it better next time.
I learned how to improvise when the squat racks were in use. I found ways to modify a workout when a client came in with too much stress or too little sleep. I learned to work around a flareup in a pre-existing condition that my client may or may not have told me about.
Then there was the time my client forgot her shoes, and I got to experiment with barefoot training, about which I’d recently published an article.
At the same time—actually, about a week after taking on my first in-person client—I started working with online clients who had reached out to me through my website and social media.
I soon realized that getting my training business up and running was the easy part. Those “aha!” moments I so wanted to witness are way more elusive than I expected. (Again, I’m sure you can relate.) It’s awesome when it happens, but you have to work through a lot of disappointments and frustrations first. Along with sweat, body odor, flying hair, and, one time, something worse.
No matter how much you want to help a client, or how solid your training plans may be, or how well you get along, or how accessible you make yourself, you can’t help her if she isn’t ready to help herself. Getting that commitment, I’ve learned, is the biggest challenge with general-health clients.
And that was what I looked forward to. The things I hadn’t really thought about—shooting instructional videos, getting waivers signed, sending invoices—are just as tedious as they sound.
But if I had to choose, I’d take a day of invoices over a client spitting in my eye. It happened when I was encouraging him to exhale forcefully. I learned a valuable lesson that day: Never face a client when working on his breathing technique.
The Astroturf Is Always Greener …
At this point, you’re probably thinking, “Well, what did you expect? Did you really think training was all sunshine and rainbows?” If you’ve been training for a while, getting spit in your eye might not make your top 10 list of unfortunate client interactions.
I should’ve known better than to romanticize your profession. After all, as a fitness writer, I’ve seen it too many times from the other side of the keyboard.
I regularly have coaches ask me how I got my start (journalism school), and how they can get published in X, Y, or Z magazine (write a lot; rewrite everything; network; start small and work your way up). Some want more exposure. Some want more clients. Some think writing pays better than it actually does. (Freelance writing, no matter the topic, is a tough way to make ends meet.)
And pretty much all of them crave that neurochemical happy dance that comes with seeing your name in print.
Sorry to break it to you, but that feeling is also pretty elusive.
Sure, it happens, just like those breakthroughs with your clients. But only after a lot of back and forth with editors, entire days wasted while you chase down sources (even the most reliable ones sometimes go on vacation), and eternities spent staring at a blinking cursor on a blank screen.
And that’s just the first draft. It gets even worse when your editor wants changes you wholeheartedly disagree with. An assignment is rarely an opportunity to say what you want in the way you want to say it. Fitness publishing is an editor’s medium. If you want to get paid, you play by the editor’s rules.
But that’s not to say it’s always a bad experience.
The Good Parts
Training and writing, separately or combined, have moments when they’re immensely rewarding, along with moments when they’re anything but. When I’m lucky, the downs make the ups more gratifying.
Every now and then, I flip a switch during a coaching session, and watch someone enjoy exercise for the first time in forever. Right in front of my eyes, the client will see a path to real, sustainable, life-altering changes.
Then, on my way home, I’ll pick up a magazine and see my name in it. Or a friend will stumble across one of my articles in her favorite magazine or when Googling who knows what (I may not want to know), and text me excitedly.
I simultaneously blush and beam.
It makes that loogie in the eye a lot easier to take.