If you know a barbell like the back of your hand and spend your free time planning fun new workouts, you’ve perhaps considered taking your love of all things exercise to the next level and becoming a certified personal trainer.
Should you take the leap, though, know this: Finding success as a trainer involves a whole lot more than fitness expertise.
Whether you’re debating getting certified or completely determined to make a career shift, consider the following advice for thriving as a personal trainer.
1. Make Sure your business skills match your fitness skills
Of course, a good trainer knows how to whip up a killer workout and create programs that keep the long-term benefits coming. However, they also need to have a handle on everything from marketing to accounting.
“Many aspiring trainers are attracted to the profession because they love the fitness aspect of it. However, they’re often unprepared for the business end of things,” says Nerissa Zhang, CEO of The Bright App, which provides trainers with tools and resources to help them run more efficient, profitable businesses. “As a trainer, you’re really a small business. You must learn how to market yourself, how to close the sale, how to be confident in your dealings with clients, and more.”
You’ll also need to consider your internet skills. “If you have a website, do you have analytics?” asks Zhang. “Do you use Facebook Ads? If you create content, how good is your videography, editing, or social media game?”
Finding the balance between your efforts in the gym and efforts on the business side ensures your training career will be sustainable (and less stressful).
2. Find a mentor
If you’re just starting out in the fitness industry, don’t be afraid to seek help from trainers you admire.
“The best thing you can do is to learn about every aspect of the gym business by observing and interacting with others,” says Zhang. As a new trainer, I consistently spent 12 to 16 hours a day at the gym. Most of these hours were unpaid, but they eventually paid dividends. I learned how good trainers worked by shadowing them and learning from them until I became one of them.”
3. Never stop learning
According to Zhang, one of the biggest complaints clients have about trainers is that they just didn’t help them fitness-wise—or, in some cases, even got them injured. “The fix here is really to go deep on knowledge and experience. Get good certifications and actually be an expert on whatever it is that you teach,” she says.
Most credible certification programs (like ACE, the American Council on Exercise, or NASM, the National Academy of Sports Medicine) require regular continuing education work or recertification to ensure trainers are up to date on their knowledge.
Beyond your standard certified personal trainer credentials, you can also pursue whatever specific credentials interest you, like strength and conditioning or group training.
4. Prioritize client relationships
In addition to that fitness and business knowledge, solid communication and relationship-building skills are also a must for trainers.
“It’s really about attracting attention and good communication with potential clients,” says Zhang. “Some trainers just don’t enjoy doing that and have to develop new skills.” In many cases, good communication and relationship-building are what make you stand out in a crowded gym or Instagram feed.
Even once you’ve landed a potential client, how you connect with them plays a major role in the future of your relationship.
“Trainers sometimes forget that it takes time to build rapport,” says Nancy McCarthy, an ACE-certified group fitness trainer, personal trainer, and health coach with 40 years of experience in the industry. “Building rapport is one of the most important first steps when beginning a program with a new client.”
A big piece of establishing solid trainer-client relationships: listening. “We cannot just hear them,” McCarthy says. “We need to really listen and repeat so the client knows we understand what they are trying to tell us.”
5. Stay in Your Lane
Many exercisers have, at some point or another, received diet advice or even meal plans from trainers. However, this is a red flag.
“A major mistake in this area is when a trainer goes beyond their scope of practice,” McCarthy explains. While trainers are qualified to create training programs and support clients in their healthy lifestyles, they are not qualified to provide nutrition, medical, or sports-related advice.
ACE fully explains a trainer’s scope of expertise in their manuals and online resources. Going forward with a plan without having full knowledge and expertise could result in an injury, psychological damage, or worsened medical issues.
“Trainers, therefore, need to make professional network connections and have good communication with medical, nutritional, and sports professionals,” McCarthy explains. This way, they can refer the client to these professionals or relay their input as needed.
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