How to Become a Personal Trainer: The Truth

8 Things You’ve Gotta Know

Ever thought about becoming a personal trainer? Here’s what you need to know and, more importantly, how to make decent money at it.

If you’re a serious lifter, there may come a point where you consider becoming a personal trainer. Personal training can be a very rewarding career, but it comes with challenges.

Here are a few things you’ll need to know if you want to be successful:

1. A Personal Trainer Doesn’t Make a Million Dollars a Year

You may be enchanted by celebrity personal trainers and those flaunting their success on social media. But the truth is, 99 percent of personal trainers don’t have the high profile, glamorous job they pretend to have on Instagram.

That may be a blessing in disguise, as that particular world comes with its own sets of hassles. Granted, it’s nice to work with top celebrities and athletes while charging exorbitant amounts of money, but your location often limits those kinds of connections.

Say, for instance, you live in Fairbanks, Alaska. You won’t be shoulder to shoulder with movie stars or the top draft picks. Even then, it often takes the “perfect storm” – a convergence of the right place and the right time – to hit the client jackpot.

Regardless of who you work with, this is a job that pays an hourly rate. If you don’t have any other sources of income outside of training clients, you can’t expect to earn the yearly income of a senior executive on Wall Street.

Put it this way: If you billed 90 dollars per training session and trained ten clients per day, six days per week, and only took two weeks off all year, you’d gross 270,000 dollars for the year. I don’t know any coaches who can do that for longer than a few months and not burn out. Moreover, most trainers get their start in a commercial or boutique gym where they see a LOT less than 90 dollars per hour.

It takes time to build a reliable client roster with good retention and more time to venture out on your own to have a business that can stand the test of time.

This may sound like a downer, but it’s not. Don’t get me wrong; you can make a good living as a trainer – a great one, even. But it’s important to manage your expectations and take the necessary steps to sustain a career. You’re in the wrong industry if you plan to be driving a McLaren after your first three years in the game. Or even a nice Toyota.

2. Your Certification Isn’t That Important

I often get asked about “the best” certification to obtain. The truth is, it doesn’t really matter.

Of course, some cert programs will be more thorough or intensive than others, but for the most part, the information you learn is just the beginning. It gets your foot in the door for the real learning that’ll come from actually being in the industry and sponging up information.

Here are some non-certification things everyone can do to up their training knowledge and become a great coach:

  • Attend workshops: Good ones are usually hands-on and have direct application to the work you do with clients on the floor.
  • Hire a coach for yourself – Seriously. This is the best investment I’ve made for myself. We learn by doing things that are unfamiliar to us. Buddy up with the most experienced person you respect and get under the iron.
  • Diversify your training: You’ll deal largely with general population clients. However, if your training background is strictly powerlifting, Olympic lifting, or bodybuilding, you’re going to confine yourself and disallow methods that may better suit your clients’ goals. Be open to not only learning those methods but practicing them too.
  • For formal education, chase courses in physics, anatomy, biomechanics, and physiology: When you can understand how forces affect the body and apply that knowledge to body parts you can actually label, it serves your clients. Never underestimate the importance of getting amazing at the basics.

Your certification may touch on some of these things, but beyond having the credentials to prove you’re qualified (and to cover liability risk), it’s only a small part of becoming an all-star trainer.

3. A Personal Trainer is Nothing Without Lifting Experience

As much as I hate the trite “your body is your business card” statement, most people will respond favorably to a trainer who appears to be in fair shape and takes their own training seriously. Practicing what you preach and “walking the talk” will never keep clients away. Ever.

More importantly, training gives you a window into what workout programs feel like, what muscles respond to, what joints respond to, and how all of that can benefit clients. This is something all the studies, research, and exercise science textbooks in the world can’t and won’t replace.

This becomes even more important if you enter a specialized arena. Reading everything under the sun can provide theory, but real-world application and experience are what make the difference in helping others see results.

4. Most Clients Don’t Care About Anything But Results

For the first two years of my career, I was a horrible trainer. As long as an exercise was flashy and difficult to execute, I worked it into my clients’ programs. Typically, it would involve plenty of instability work and complex movement patterns that took more mental toll on my clients than physical.

Once I started learning from great coaches, hired a trainer for my own gains, studied from the right industry-specific books and great websites like T Nation, I realized my methods were all show and no go.

So I got technical. Really technical. Technical enough for my clients to have to endure many several-minute long dissertations explaining the “why” behind each lift, technique, superset, or program.

Looking back on it, my clients probably didn’t care. Most just want to be advised on what to do, how to do it, and eventually reap the benefits of their hard work. My esoteric summaries didn’t matter.

A skill worth building? Translating technical descriptions so that they could easily be understood by a child.

5. Do Some Work for Free… or Fail

I get the whole “if you’re good at something, never do it for free” routine, but recognize that we’re in a service industry that’s centered around health and wellness, and more importantly, building relationships.

If you want to go places in your career – or just plain have a career – then the “F you, pay me” shtick isn’t going to get you far. I’m not discounting the value of services provided, nor am I saying every trainer should starve so they can make everyone happy. That’s ridiculous. We all need to make a living and charge our worth, especially if we have plenty to offer.

But keep in mind, refusing to even give free fitness advice or some quick form of assistance at the gym may ruin what could’ve grown into a lasting business relationship. Clients don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

If your goal is to be a busy trainer, share some quick, actionable advice. Stop being insecure and protective about it. Similarly, if your goal is to be a published fitness writer, the first question you ask the editor had better not be “How much does it pay?”.

It shouldn’t be the second or third, either. It’s a privilege to be published. Be prepared to write your first approved article for free and consider any paycheck a bonus. The same goes for being a speaker at events.

Offer yourself up as an available resource for fitness, and the industry will reward you in the form of opportunity, respect, and the money you were looking for in the first place.

6. You Can’t Satisfy Every Client

Show me a veteran trainer who hasn’t had a significant squabble with a client, and I’ll show you a liar.

You’ll invariably run into clients that won’t make progress, and they’ll blame you. You’ll also have clients who won’t be respectful of the business arrangement, your time, or company billing policies and regulations. Some may not view you as having the professionalism that suits them. The faster you can come to terms with this reality, the easier it’ll be to deal with any negative feedback you’ll encounter in the future.

Of course, there might be some cases where it was YOU who dropped the ball. But what matters most is keeping your rep from being tarnished (even if it’s still being built) by letting things get ugly. Understand that things just don’t work out with certain clients, and it’s best to part ways.

7. There are Busy Periods and Slow Periods

Trainers are generally met with waves of clients. First, there’s the classic wave of “New Year’s resolutionists” followed soon by the people wanting to get in shape for summer.

Of course, that’s also followed by an inevitable lull in business mid to late November until after the holidays, or in late summer when many go on vacation. That’s just how it goes, and you’ve got to be prepared for that. If you’re kicking off a private business right out of the gates, it’s a great idea to have some rainy-day savings put away because, at some point, you will need those savings to tide you over.

The lives of clients can change in a heartbeat, and someone who has always been consistent can suddenly fall off your roster. Your referral base, marketing, and overall network need to be strong to deal with it and keep you out of the red.

8. It’s All About Relationships, Not Showing Your Ass

If you want to become a “big deal” without selling out by baring skin or trying to be a fake life coach, doing the best job you possibly can with clients means building relationships.

A client’s occupation, age, lifting experience, athletic background, gender, and more influence the way they view training and what kind of language, coaching, and overall behavior you need to employ to promote a successful training experience.

If you’re thinking of getting into this industry but refuse to acknowledge you’re going to have to be personable and wear different hats to fit the clients, you’re hamstringing yourself. Being good with people is half the battle.