When I chose to embark on a career as a personal trainer, I had a lot of dreams, but also a lot of misconceptions about the reality of the fitness industry. Now, after 15 years in the business, I have a very different perspective, as well as a few confessions I need to get off my chest.
No matter if you’re a trainer, someone who fantasizes about being one, or just someone who trains yourself, pay attention. These are the truths that I had to learn the hard way—but that I was better off knowing in the end.
1. Personal Training Is Not Glamorous
It’s always bothered me when casual acquaintances ask me what I do for a living. I’m not sure if it’s simply that I’ve always had jobs that I’ve been somewhat embarrassed by, or if it’s the lack of effort toward more meaningful conversation that I find annoying.
Or maybe it’s just that I don’t want to get into the inevitable follow-up questions about what they need to do to lose their love handles.
But I think the biggest reason I avoid the conversation is that whenever I tell people that I’m a personal trainer, it comes with a feeling that my job title doesn’t paint a clear picture of my day-to-day life. Unfortunately, television and other media have not always provided the most accurate portrayal of personal trainers.
The truth is, we don’t spend all of our time working with athletes, actors, and models, and we generally avoid getting all up in our clients’ faces. We mostly just try to help regular people get through an ordinary workout and keep them from making the most egregious mistakes. It’s a lot less cool than you probably think.
That doesn’t mean it’s not valuable, gratifying, or stimulating. It’s all of those things. But it’s not glamorous.
2. Social Media Notoriety Doesn’t Make You a Good Trainer—or a Successful One
When I got started as a personal trainer, smartphones did not yet exist. Being the late adapter to most forms of technology that I typically am, I didn’t even have a cell phone yet. I am extremely grateful for this, as it forced to me to learn my trade without skipping ahead and trying to present myself as an authority on social media before I ever really trained anyone.
In fact, when I got started in the fitness industry, social media wasn’t even a thing yet. There were a handful of fitness websites (like this one), but Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram were all still a ways off, and hardly anyone was using the Internet to make a living in the fitness business.
Back then, if you wanted to be a trainer, your only option was to train people face to face. As such, good social skills were much more important than social media skills.
Now, don’t get me wrong, Internet—the World Wide Web has been very good to ol’ Al. One of the few times I was actually on top of up-and-coming technology was when I started my YouTube channel and began blogging back in 2009. Doing so allowed me to reach a much larger audience, land a book deal, and eventually become the lead instructor for an international fitness certification.
But honestly, it’s a good thing I had already been a successful trainer for a few years at that point. If I hadn’t, it might not have mattered how many views my videos got on YouTube.
I still remember the first time I met an “Instagram trainer” with millions of followers. I was surprised—and not in a good way. How could this person build such a big following without knowing the most basic things about training the general population? And why didn’t their online following translate into more clients, and therefore more training experience?
Now I see that the answer is simple: Being a successful trainer and having a large social media following are two different skills that are not necessarily correlated.
Ironically, there are many people who spend all their time on social media interacting with fitness brands and talking about working out, but aren’t actually that serious about training. So, the amount of legit requests for sessions that trainers get via social media is less than you might think.
But more importantly, the ability to care about and follow up with your clients—and potential clients—is one of the most crucial skills you can have if you want to make a living in the personal training business. If you can’t reply to people quickly and professionally, you won’t even get to the point where it matters whether or not you can give them a decent workout.
Being punctual, prompt, reliable, and organized—those are the traits of a successful personal trainer.
3. Your Expertise and Awesomeness Matter Less Than You Think
Some people think that all they need to get in great shape is the perfect program and a quick primer on how to do the exercises. But that’s sort of like saying that all you need to build a house is a blueprint and some supplies. If you’ve never built a house before, good luck with that.
What personal training clients really need is someone to guide the process—and that doesn’t just mean making sure their form on staple movements is halfway decent. They need someone to make sure they show up and do the work. They need accountability and encouragement. They need someone to challenge them. Heck, in some cases they need someone to make sure that they do anything at all.
It’s important to understand that the average person who signs up for personal training isn’t ready to try many of the things that you’re probably doing in your own workouts. Most personal training clients have no interest in deadlifting 500 pounds or doing a human flag, as admirable as those goals are. And they probably never will.
It is much more likely that they are looking to lose 20 pounds, relieve their back pain, or just keep up with their kids during playtime. Those goals are every bit as admirable, and are usually more life-changing, than even the best show-off moves you’ll spend years mastering.
Being a personal trainer means leading by example. Other times it simply requires giving your clients whatever you can to help them, without letting your ego get in the way. It doesn’t really matter how good you look in a tight T-shirt, or in most cases, even how knowledgeable you are about biomechanics and anatomy. Successful trainers put the spotlight on their clients—not themselves.
Yes, it’s nice to get likes on social media, but it’s more fulfilling to help people in real life. If that’s your goal, you’ll have no shortage of opportunities.
Well, that’s all the time I have for now…I’ve gotta go share this article on Facebook!