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Important Note: For Part I of this article, click here
Personal training and the coaching of athletes is a tough business. The media, however, portrays it as a glamorous job catering to the rich and famous. Professional athletes, teams, movie stars, and musicians all pay big bucks to look good and dominate their sport. But it’s not all champagne and caviar dreams.
Thousands of fitness professionals enter this industry hoping to make their mark as a successful trainer. Unfortunately, most trainers don’t stick around once they realize that a steady pay check in this line of work is tough to come by.
Fortunately there are those who not only survive but also do well for themselves. These are the people who’ve learned how to run a training business, market themselves and their services so they can create wealth by working at a job they love to do.
So what exactly does it take to be successful in the fitness industry? I was able to ask four established trainers, all with different backgrounds, to weigh in on some questions about how they train and what they do with their clients.
Wannabebig: Often times many coaches/trainers talk the talk but don’t walk the walk, how much of an impact do you feel this has on their credibility as a fitness professional?
Eric C: Well, I certainly don’t think that a beer gut and cottage cheese thighs are helping their cause! That said, the general public is – for the most part – nothing more than casual observers when it comes to exercise physiology, so some trainers can get away with it. However, just because you can get away with it doesn’t mean that you should get away with it, tubby.
Tony G: As much as I hate to say it, I am often amazed at the physiques of some trainers…and not in a good way. I often wonder if some of these trainers have ever lifted a weight in their life. It’s one thing to have the book smarts, but you also need to have some “in the trenches” or “under the bar” experience as well I think. Who cares if you’re able to quote Mel Siff. Are you able to get someone stronger? Who cares if you’re able to differentiate between the benefits of a pure ketogenic diet compared to a targeted ketogenic diet. Are you able to get someone leaner? Better yet…are you strong and/or lean yourself? Call me crazy, but if I want to learn how to bench-press 300 lbs, I am going to want to go to someone who can actually do it. If I am looking to shed some fat, it would probably make sense to go to someone who is actually lean in the first place or who was a former “fatty” himself and was able to transform his body.
John Izzo: I can speak on this because I am not 6% body fat, but I have had a very successful career as a trainer in a commercial gym setting. Simply put, I kicked ass as far as getting clients (from all walks of life – babes, athletes, business men, bodybuilders). I think you find that the trainers that have the lean bodies, big arms, and fake tans usually lack the “connectivity to general population clients” because they lack empathy. Not all….but some. As far as being able to perform the exercises you ask of your trainees, I think it is important to be able to perform them efficiently. I won’t ask a client to perform an exercise if I can’t perform it myself. Period. My motto has always been: it’s not how you look, its how you train that affords you ability.
John Paul: It’s huge! Would you go to a nutritionist/dietician for diet advice if they are out of shape? Yet, ironically, half of them (if not more) are overweight! The same applies to coaches and trainers. Many of them are in terrible shape! Would you go to a strength coach who could not even bench or squat their bodyweight? I don’t think so…
You’ve got to practice what you preach, and not only talk the talk, but walk the walk!
For instance, presentation is very important as a fitness professional. Clients will watch you, emulate you, respect you and trust you! Whether you like it or not, you are your own business card. Your body, image, habits, values and health represent your skills and strengths as a trainer. If your mind, body and health suffer, so will your business!
I had an overweight trainer come to me once looking for advice on the business of personal training. The first thing I did was write him a training program to get in shape. I simply told him this: “the day you get in shape is the day you start making money!”
Remember, the number one reason that people hire a personal trainer is to obtain and maintain a general level of fitness. If you cannot stay in shape, you have no right to be in this business.
Wannabebig: How important is it to seek out a mentor or someone you can shadow (whether it is business or training related)?
Eric C: Tremendously important – and it shouldn’t just be one person. It’s imperative that you experience a ton of different perspectives as you attempt to formulate your own unique approach.
Tony G: It’s crucial. You can’t expect to know everything and I have been fortunate enough to have people such as Alwyn Cosgrove, Eric Cressey, Mike Boyle, Mike Hope, and many others to help me out within the past few years. Alwyn has been more than helpful this past year and I can honestly say that I am indebted to him with all the knowledge, expertise, and “tough love” he has given me.
I look back at my early training career and I want to go back in time and drop kick myself. You have to find people to kind of guide you and show you the ropes a bit. If I hadn’t, I’d probably still be stuck in upstate NY training in the middle of nowhere rather than in the best club in Boston and writing for various online and print magazines.
John Izzo: I think it’s important to find a mentor that relates to you and is “going in the direction” you want to go in. My mentors have changed over the years and it is a reflection of where I am in my personal life and career. I think that mentors that advocate continuous learning and personal inventory (and practice it) are the ones that help you grow. They become guides for you.
John Paul: One thing I learned from Dr. Fred Hui is to seek out different health-care professionals (i.e. medical doctor, naturopath, nutritionist, chiropractor, physiotherapist, etc.) and spend half a day shadowing them. This is probably one of the best “real-life” educations you can obtain. Most of these professionals would be quite willing to oblige. Dr. Hui used to schedule every Wednesday afternoon to shadow someone and he claims that it contributed greatly to his success.
As much as possible, I try to follow this advice. It really is an excellent learning experience!
Wannabebig: Does the type of personality a client or athlete possess influence the way you design a program or a workout?
Eric C: Definitely! Gender is probably the best example. I’ve worked with national championship men’s and women’s basketball teams, and you have to treat the two quite differently – for the most part in the coaching aspect of things. Normally, you have to go out of your way to slow women down, as they’ll want to rush through things. Programming isn’t tremendously different, but there are certain cues that you’ll have to make more often in one group than the other.
Tony G: Absolutely. Believe me, there have been a handful of clients I have had in the past where I would have rather drank my own vomit than train them. I just can’t stand people who bitch and whine and question me at every corner. Granted, it’s rare when that happens…but it does happen.
Either way, I can usually tell within the first 10 minutes or so whether or not a prospective client and I will be a good “match.” More often than not however, it comes down to the fact that they hired me for my knowledge and expertise and that it isn’t about what they want to do, but rather what they need to do.
I have a pretty good knack for motivating people, and making them realize that they are able to achieve things they never thought possible. But if definitely makes the hour go by MUCH faster when I have someone who WANTS to be there as opposed to someone who just goes through the motions and whines the entire time. Besides, if they whine…I’ll just add more sets of deadlifts and give them something to whine about. HA!
John Izzo: Absolutely. If that wasn’t the case…you would see all cookie-cutter programs….but wait, I guess you kind of still do see that? I think it’s important to build a rapport with a client/athlete to “gauge” their personality, expectations, enthusiasm, barriers, and fight/flight traits. If I have a client who is willing to try plyo’s and perform them and doesn’t care if her chest bounces in front of me and others, than that client will “do whatever it takes” to get to her goal provided I created the right program. Conversely, if I have an overweight client who hates facing the mirror to workout, we are not going to workout in front of mirrors. I want their minds on the workout, not on their inconsistencies.
John Paul: Somewhat, but I think the biggest influence deals with gender – not so much with program design but more toward how I “deliver” a message to a client. For instance, with females, you need to be very delicate. If she is overweight, I may say something like this: “You look really good. We just need to shed a few pounds to reach our goal.” With guys, on the other hand, you need to take a completely different approach, something toward the lines of: “You are a fat slob! Smarten up and get in shape!” This will light a serious fire under them and motivate them to lose the weight. It’s a personal challenge, almost as if you are questioning their manhood. It works … but try it on a lady, and she’ll end up running out of your facility in tears!
Wannabebig: What are some important guidelines you set down for your clients/athletes (pertaining to being late, cancellations, etc.)?
Eric C: I need 24 hours notice. We have special policies in place with snowstorms, given that we’re in New England. If school’s on, then you’re expected to be at the gym. I’m an easy-going guy, so I’m not a hardass about this – but you have to have policies in place to maintain equity.
Tony G: I usually go through the club rules in the beginning when it comes to being late and/or cancellations. That way, there are no surprises. But I tend to use discretion. It really depends on the situation. I mean, if they have an appointment at 4PM and all of a sudden had a family emergency and had to cancel last minute, I am certainly not going to charge them. I’m not that much of a jerk. On the other hand, if someone calls me and is like, “I am just too tired,” then you bet I am going to charge them. I have to pay the bills too!
Funny story though. The same elderly lady that I mentioned above (who I would have do rack pulls), mentioned to me that she never drove in the snow and that if it did ever snow that she wouldn’t come in to train. Last winter, we had a fairly big snowstorm and instead of her cancelling on me, I actually drove to her condo and picked her up and drove her to the gym to train. After she trained, I drove her back. She loved it! I hope that earned me some huge brownie points from the female readers.
John Izzo: I ask my clients to stay on a structured program—meaning “we” pick a day of the week together and we pick a time together, and we never stray from that. It is so important that we build a structure first and foremost. If they cancel because of some unexpected emergency (kid sick, work-related, sickness, accident, etc), then I ask for a phone call 6-12 hours prior to the session. If they are late over 15 minutes—we cancel the session and they are forfeited. Now, sometimes I can give a little leeway if my relationship with the client is one where I feel “if we miss this session, Joanie will lose momentum”. If that is the case, I will squeeze a 40-minute session. It will be harder and more intense with less rest periods.
John Paul: Put it in Writing
If you clarify things up front in writing, there leaves very little room for miscommunication or confusion. You need a system of policies and contracts in place not only to protect you, but also to convey a sense of professionalism and security to your client.
24-hour Cancellation – Establish a 24-hour cancellation policy and charge for no-shows. Also, gauge and check recurring policy abuses and set a deterrent.
Here are some reasons why this policy is in place:
- Cancellations are not fair to you because your livelihood depends on it.
- It is not fair to the client since they may find it easier to make excuses in future and therefore, not commit to their training.
- It is not fair to others since they are being charged in the same situations.
Be sure to establish authority when implementing your policies and do not accept excuses. Keep in mind, your policy should also apply to you!
Stick to Your Policies and Principles – Treat everyone equally and do not allow your clients to rule your life! Learn to let go of a client if necessary. If you don’t, it may compromise your professional development!
Wannabebig: Every trainer has limitations, how important is it to build a network of professionals you trust to refer to your clients?
Eric C: Very important. We work with ART practitioners (who are also chiropractors), massage therapists, physical therapists, and in some cases, sports physicians. These people have diagnostic resources (x-rays, MRIs, etc.) at their fingertips that can really help the cause, and they have more time to devote to specific rehabilitation measures than you do, as you’re responsible for systemic training.
Tony G: Again, critical. I certainly don’t expect to know everything, and as a trainer I have to know my limitations. I am not a clinician. Sure, if someone comes to me with pain in his or her knee, I can get a general idea of what is happening, but I can’t be sure. If I have a list of reputable therapists to send them to, it just makes my job easier.
If someone needs a lot of soft tissue work or deep tissue massage, it is only going to help me get my client to his or her goals quicker if I am able to refer out to other professionals to help them out. Not to mention they will more than likely send their clients to me. It’s a win-win situation.
John Izzo: I think it is very important to find outside professionals that RESPECT you as a Fitness Professional and RESPECT your career. I have many times given a free pass to a doctor or therapist to come and visit me and give them a complementary one-on-one so they can understand “exactly what I do with clients”. A lot of medical professionals, still view trainers as the buff guys that carry a clipboard and change the weight—so I need to give them a taste of what their patients/clients get. Also, when I had 6-7 outside professionals in my rolodex, it gives clients a feeling of trust that I have resources readily available if I needed help.
John Paul: Referrals to and from health professionals is very important. In such a competitive, dog-eat-dog environment, I have no problem referring prospects that may be located outside my area or could not quite afford my services. And I can’t tell you how many referrals that I’ve received from other trainers in return, particularly their more challenging cases. I always look forward to a good challenge! In a way, each client is a puzzle that I am trying to solve – some pieces are large and easy to put together, and others are small and take a little more time and effort.
The bottom line is that you need to build a network with other professionals and surround yourself with a team of competent practitioners. To do this, you need to get out there and introduce yourself to as many people in the industry as possible. Always leave a positive impression by marketing yourself in a discreet and professional manner, and never burn bridges!
Remember this motto:
When you are not sure, REFER. Your clients and peers will respect you for doing so. The caveat here is that you should never refer or endorse anyone or anything that you do not believe in 100% because it will ruin your credibility. Trust is the cornerstone of the client/trainer relationship and your reputation is on the line when you refer. And be sure to ask for referrals in return!
Here’s a list of professionals that I routinely refer clients to:
- Dr. Anthony Galea – Sports Medicine Physician and Medical Director
- Ashley James – Hatha Yoga Instructor
- Dr. Bill Wells – Chiropractor and ART Provider
- Dr. Eric Serrano – Medical Doctor, Nutrition & Sports Medicine Expert
- Dr. Fred Hui – Medical Doctor, Chinese Medicine, Acupuncture, Chelation Therapy
- Dr. Grant Lum – Sports Medicine Physician and Medical Director
- Dr. Jay Mistry – Chiropractor, Acupuncturist
- Karen Kvrgic – Registered Physiotherapist
- Dr. Ken Kinakin – Chiropractor, Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist
- Dr. Larry Baker – Medical Doctor, Bodybuilder
- Dr. Mark Lindsay – Chiropractor, Soft Tissue Specialist and ART Provider
- Dr. Mauro Di Pasquale – Medical Doctor, Nutrition & Sports Medicine Expert
- Sarah Byrne – Registered Massage Therapist
- Sasha Tahiliani – Naturopathic Doctor
- Vlodek Kluczynski – Osteopathy, Physiotherapy, Massage Therapy
Wannabebig: Continuing education, how integral is this area to a trainer/coach and their growth?
Eric C: It’s crucial, as we are in a very dynamic industry; it evolves all the time, and you need to stay on top of things. I get pretty sick of trainers complaining about the cost of seminars and educational materials when they should be looking at these things as INVESTMENTS – not expenses.
Tony G: Simply put, if you’re not investing in yourself by going to seminars and conferences or spending money on top notch products (books, dvd’s, manuals, etc), then you’re never really going to move up in the industry. A mediocre trainer will complain that a certain product costs them $50 and not buy it. A great trainer will see value in spending that $50 to make him/her a better trainer and realize that the information that they gain by spending the $50 will more than likely generate $500 in additional income in the future. I can attest to this firsthand. I have been lucky enough to see Dr. Stuart McGill speak twice. I have dropped roughly $500 to listen to him. But the information and knowledge I have learned from him in dealing with spine stability and how to integrate his ideas with people who suffer from lower back pain has easily helped me to generate additional income. Just the other day, a woman bought a 30 pack of sessions ($2000) because she feels comfortable enough with me that I know how to deal with her lower back issues. I already made back the $500 I spent.
John Izzo: Without a doubt, as a manager—a very important one. When I interview a prospective trainer to work for me after I look at the credentials, I pose the question: “Have you attended any continuing education workshops in the last year and if so, which ones?” If the answer is no…they better have a great interview with me to get their foot in the door. I have met many trainers that obtained their certifications from the XYZ in 1990 and have never renewed it or completed any CEC’s or attended a seminar. I think it is disheartening to have professionals in their field that don’t have a desire to learn new things and keep up with the times.
John Paul: Well, it is said that your worth is directly proportional to your knowledge. Although formal education is beneficial, most successful people would agree that the real learning comes after school is over. This is where becoming an autodidact (self-learner) is invaluable.
There are so many ways to self educate. Read and study new material everyday. Take advantage of audio books, seminars, professional contacts, and seek out new sources of information. Today, the internet can’t be beat. Wannabebig.com, for instance, is a great resource for any trainer or coach out there.
These two quotes pretty much sum things up:
“Formal education will make you a living; self-education will make you a fortune!” – Jim Rohn
“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” – Mark Twain
Wannabebig: What are some of the areas as a trainer/coach you’ve had to work on improving to better serve your clients/athletes?
Eric C: I’m a science geek, so I am constantly on my toes to avoid talking in “geek-speak.” In other words, ordinary people and athletes come to me because they expect me to water down the science for them. The better I’ve gotten at relating things to clients in layman’s terms and avoiding the minutia, the stronger a coach I’ve become.
Additionally, I’ve never had one of those booming voices, so if I’m not intentionally shouting out a cue or encouragement, I can catch myself not speaking loudly enough. This gets worse when my mind goes at a thousand miles per hour and my voice can’t keep up.
So, in a nutshell, communication is important, and I’ve had to work on it.
Tony G: My real weakness up until a few years ago was functional anatomy. I was a health education major in school (with a concentration in health/wellness promotion) and while I did take exercise physiology, human anatomy & physiology, nutrition, etc…I never took biomechanics or kinesiology or more “advanced” courses. I basically had to teach myself how to watch human movement and see compensation patterns and then be able to apply my knowledge to come up with a program that helps to address any weaknesses or imbalances I see. [Side note: however, I have come to the conclusion that most people just need to get stronger! Strength can be corrective in nature].
Also, I was fairly shy growing up and being in this industry I really had to make a conscious effort to become more outgoing. A rather large part of the job is to be sociable and interact with people. Now I am at the point where I feel fully comfortable and confident to walk up to anyone in the gym and strike up a conversation. One of the best pieces of advice I got as a new trainer, was just to make it a point to say hi to at least ten different people per day. I actually picked up a few clients in the beginning just because I went out of my way to say hi and to talk with them for ten minutes.
John Izzo: Communication. So many trainers/coaches lack good communication skills. They are either not professional, or they are too stiff. If they train athletes, they either can’t relate to them or they are intimidated. If they work with the general population client, they don’t know how to address them. They stumble over their words or they don’t know how to reciprocate interaction. Because of this lack of communication, the rapport is not built or it’s always awkward. If a trainer/coach feels awkward around his/her client, than chances are the client/athlete feel awkward. If they feel awkward, they won’t give you 100% in each session.
John Paul: When I first started my personal training studio in the basement of my home, I did not have any fancy equipment or much space. There was a flimsy York bench with some plastic weights and that was about it! I had a handful of clients at the time and every penny I received from the business went right back into it. In no time I was able to build a serious gym with all the equipment you see listed on my website. So where I was lacking in capital initially, I made up in other ways and in doing so, I was better able to serve my clients.
Also, another area that I needed to improve was my listening skills. I sometimes find it difficult to just sit and listen – I much prefer to talk, but I’ve made a real effort over the past few years to change that. I always want to solve people’s problems, but the number one rule in counselling is to listen. More times than not, the client will solve the problem on their own!
Wannabebig: Well, there’s been a lot of great info that has been shared here. I want to thank you guys for taking the time out to shed some positive light on an industry that is so misunderstood by the general public.
Important Note: For Part I of this article, click here
Written by Maki Riddington
Discuss, comment or ask a question
If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – A Q&A session on the business of fitness training – Part II discussion thread.
About Eric Cressey
Eric has helped athletes at all levels – from youth sports to the professional and Olympic ranks – achieve their highest levels of performance in a variety of sports. Although prepared in a variety of bodies of knowledge, Cressey specializes in applied kinesiology and biomechanics as they relate to program design and icorrective exercise; maximal relative strength development; and athletic performance enhancement.
He is a highly sought-after coach for healthy and injured athletes alike, and currently trains athletes and weekend warriors. His website is www.ericcressey.com
About Tony Gentilcore
Tony Gentilcore is a certified personal trainer and strength conditioning specialist through the NSCA.
Currently residing in the Boston area, his expertise lies in body recomposition and nutrition and educating his clients on the best and most efficient ways to obtain their goals.
About John Izzo
John holds a Bachelor’s degree in Public Health Promotion specializing in Community Nutrition.
He holds multiple certifications from the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), American Council on Exercise (ACE), National Endurance Sports Trainers Association (NESTA), American Fitness Professionals & Associates (AFPA), Schwinn Cycling, and APEX Training Systems.
Presently, he is a Senior Project Fitness Manager for a corporate fitness program in central CT and has served as Director of Health & Wellness for the YMCA of Greater Hartford (CT) from 2004-2006. John also is the CT Senior Faculty Instructor for World Instructor Training Schools (WITS).
John is also the founder and sole developer of www.standapartfitness.com a fitness website geared at providing articles and resources from fitness professionals to fitness enthusiasts. The site includes articles from fitness experts and boasts a 10 panelist Roundtable that tackles tough fitness industry issues monthly. John’s most popular DVDs are sold on his website including Stronger Shoulders – Improving the Function of the Rotator Cuff & Free the Hips – Mobilizing the Hips for Improved Function.
About John Paul Catanzaro, B.Sc., C.K., P.F.L.C.
John Paul is a certified kinesiologist and professional fitness and lifestyle consultant with a specialized honours Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiology and Health Science.
He owns and operates a private studio in Toronto, Ontario.
For additional information, visit his website at www.BodyEssence.ca or call 416-292-4356.
John Paul has appeared on television and has written articles for several publications including Bodybuilding Italia, Coaching One-On-One, Dolfzine, FitCommerce, Fitness Trainer Canada, Flare, grrlAthlete, Intense Fitness, Men’s Health, MuscleMag, Olympian’s News, Personal Training on the Net, Planet Muscle, Quest For Advanced Condition, Testosterone, and Wannabebig.
His newsletters are both informative and entertaining, and he has provided reviews for numerous sources including the inaugural edition of Sport First Aid in Canada. John Paul has studied under many of the world’s top strength coaches and is relentless in his pursuit of professional excellence.
John Paul is quickly becoming one of the premier trainers in Canada with a reputation for getting his clients in top shape fast. He’s been dubbed the man with the “encyclopedic mind” whose expertise has not gone unnoticed by other health practitioners who attend his private studio regularly for instruction. Recently, John Paul has begun to attract the attention of fitness-related organizations seeking his lectures and workshops, which provide a wealth of valuable information that can be put to use immediately.
John Paul’s DVD, Warm-Up to Strength Training, has sold copies worldwide and has been featured in several magazines. Discover some unique, cutting-edge techniques like how to increase arm strength by up to 10% instantly! It has received a thumbs-up from many experts including Drs. Eric Serrano, Mark Lindsay and Ken Kinakin as well as Olympic strength coach, Charles Poliquin. Visit www.StrengthWarmUp.com for more details..