Important Note: For Part II 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: Thanks guys, for contributing; hopefully after reading this piece our readers will understand a bit more about what goes into being a trainer/coach and what it takes to be successful in this industry.
How many years have you been involved in coaching and training clients/athletes?
Eric C: I’ve been doing this for six years now.
Tony G: For me, it’s been roughly four and half years, so I guess that makes me a relative “newbie” in the grand scheme of things. When you consider the fact Mike Boyle has been training people for about as long as I have been alive, it puts things into perspective.
John Izzo: I started weight-training when I was around 15 at the local Boy’s Club and at home with an old DP cement-filled weight set. I started my career at the local YMCA in 1998 while I was still in college. When I graduated college, I worked full-time as a personal trainer for a company called Healthtrax, Inc. From there, I moved on to have some very productive years as a personal trainer working in commercial facilities such as Gold’s Gym and World Gym. In early 2004, I split my time training with being a fitness director and manager. In 2005, I returned to the non-profit sector and became fitness director for a YMCA and built a fitness program from the ground up. Today, I manage a corporate fitness site in central CT and train home clients while running my website, www.standapartfitness.com
John Paul: It has been over a decade now that I have been training clients, but I have been involved with coaching for quite awhile. Here’s a bit of history…
It all started back in high school really. As a straight “A” student with several academic awards including mathematics and computer science and some high aspirations, I was expected to be the first doctor in the family. There was only a slight problem – I was not too fond of blood. Getting my finger pricked was enough to make me pass out! So I had a decision to make. I was fascinated by the human body (at 18 years old, female anatomy was very high on my list) and I absolutely loved to workout so I opted to study Kinesiology & Health Science at York University. I chose York over the others because their curriculum allowed one to venture over different disciplines – you were not locked into one stream.
As I’ve mentioned before, formal education is important to a certain degree (pardon the pun), but it’s what you do outside school that truly molds your career. In fact, I consider myself more as an autodidact (i.e. self taught.) If I’m not conducting a seminar, I’m attending at least one a month and I strive to read a minimum of 1-hour everyday. If you read an hour a day, that equates to 1 book a week; roughly 50 books a year; and in a 3-year period, you should achieve a PhD in any discipline.
So the way I look at it is that I earned my Specialized Honours Bachelor of Science back in 1996 and probably the equivalent of three Phd’s ever since! And by constantly attending seminars and reading everyday, I stay ahead of the pack. It’s actually a very simple formula: the more you learn, the more you earn!
In my final year of school, I received several job offers. I decided to work at a fairly small gym that was opening in Markham, Ontario. I was hired to take care of the “back” end. No, I was not employed as a colon therapist, but rather my role was to manage membership services such as fitness assessments, program design, exercise instruction, etc. I was told that it would be my baby and I could do what I want with it and that was all I needed to hear! The fact that I had hundreds of guinea pigs (so to speak) and was able to test numerous diagnostic and training protocols was exciting to me at the time and a very valuable learning experience down the road. Within a couple of months, I implemented personal training and the rest is, as they say, history!
Consider that the “good” part of the story; here comes the “bad!” I quickly discovered how shady the health club industry is. I’ve heard many stories of these clubs not paying their employees. That did not happen with me. I was paid on a regular basis – the problem was that every other pay cheque bounced! However, I stuck it out. I was loyal and in a weird way that paid off in the end.
The “ugly” part occurred just about a year after opening the doors. I received a call one night informing me that those same doors were going to be locked first thing in the morning and to collect all my gatherings before I left that evening. (Apparently withholding lease payments is not a good thing!)
Now I was faced with a very interesting dilemma. I had several clients that wished to continue their training but nowhere to do so. A colleague of mine was training clients out of his home and was very successful. He encouraged me to do the same. With that push, my family’s support, and clients itching to recommence their training, I started my personal training business out of the basement of my home. In fact, eleven years later, the business is still going strong. We are in the process of designing our next facility located in Richmond Hill, Ontario which is scheduled for construction next month.
Wannabebig: Many people assume that all a trainer/coach does is to count reps and sets with clipboard in hand. What are some of the big misconceptions that keep the public misinformed?
Eric C: Well, that IS what the really bad trainers do.
Truthfully, though, there is a lot more to this profession – especially when you’re dealing with a lot of athletes/clients at once (I’ve had as many as 75-80 at a time by myself). I’ve seen pretty bright trainers who stumble because they aren’t personable, can’t motivate people, don’t understand the right cues to offer, and simply can’t appreciate the business side of things. Conversely, there are trainers who have great personalities, but nothing between their ears in terms of training knowledge. You’ve got to be personable, organized, and knowledgeable – and you need to train yourself so that you’ll be able to walk a mile in your clients’/athletes’ shoes.
Tony G: Unfortunately what you described IS what the majority of trainers/coaches do. I see it everyday: the disinterested trainer who counts reps with a monotone and throws in the token, “all you, two more….looks good.” All while staring at the Sports Center highlights running on the television nearby.
However, little do people know that I went to school for this! It’s definitely more than JUST writing programs and applying them. I think many people have a bad taste in their mouth when it comes to their experiences with a personal trainer and because of those experiences they are led to believe that we are professional rep counters. To be honest, I can see why many people would have that inclination.
Personally, I write PROGRAMS and not workouts. I generally have an idea of what I want to do with someone and how I want to progress them as the weeks pass. Also when you take into account that people usually have musculoskeletal issues, weaknesses, imbalances, and are just plain weak…it takes A LOT more planning that one might think.
Additionally, building a rapport with clients and being able to motivate them takes a lot of work as well. I deal with many people who don’t have time to train 4-5 times per week and make healthy meals everyday. If I only have someone once or twice per week, I have to squeeze a lot in, and make sure I am able to TEACH them the tools they need to not be so reliant on me in the long run. Trust me it’s harder than it looks. In many ways, we as trainers are teachers as well.
John Izzo: Those are the big ones. I think one not mentioned, is the perception of what today’s fitness professional is “supposed” to look like. Most people assume that trainers need to be competitive bodybuilders or have extreme vascularity, low bodyfat levels, bench 315, and have fake tans (year-round). I think this is simply judging a book by its cover. Early in my career in a commercial gym setting, I was the guy no one came to for help. I am not a ripped, shredded, bodybuilder with a 365 bench (although my best was 315 at 175 lbs when I was 21), so my methods of acquiring clients was building a rapport and sharing what I knew. Soon knowledge of the information I had spread like wild fire and I became successful and the main resource for all the gym members.
John Paul: I wish! Training is only one aspect of the business. Perhaps there are some trainers out there who are content with just showing up and earning a paycheck, but what happens if they get injured or sick? What about when they are on vacation, or during slow times?
You see, to truly benefit in this industry, you need to ensure a steady supply of income from different revenue-producing streams. You need to consider passive income where you can make money even while you sleep!
As a trainer/coach, there are so many possibilities for making money other than physically training people. Here are some of them:
- Memberships to website(s)
- Online training
- Reports (e.g. eating & training plans)
- Training software
- Certification programs
- Phone/email consultations/coaching
- Training the trainer is another avenue to generate revenue
- Yet another option is setting up equipment
Wannabebig: As a trainer/coach what are some of the valuable lessons you’ve learned so far, working with people who’ve contributed to your success?
Eric C: No matter how much you know, there are always others who know more than you and are more specialized in a certain area than you are. Steal their ideas, make them your own, and then take over the world. Or you could just contact them, talk some shop (maybe even intern under them), and then send them a thank-you note. I’m partial to the latter option…
Additionally, there will always be people stronger than you. Find them, and train with them. Environment is huge.
Tony G: I am often still amazed that I am fortunate enough to have the opportunity to correspond with some rather big names in the industry on a daily basis. I’ll resist the urge to name drop…(wink).
That aside, this industry is pretty much built around sharing information and ideas. NOTHING is new and revolutionary and it is AWESOME to be able to network and talk shop with a variety of people either through Internet forums or at seminars and conferences. As far as valuable lessons I have learned:
1. Be diverse and open to change. No one’s programming is perfect and if you’re not willing to accept the fact that leg curls are about as useful as an asshole on your elbow, you’re doomed to fail. In all seriousness, I can’t even tell you how many times I have changed my approach to writing programs for people. I look at stuff I wrote three months ago and I think it’s total crap. I am always looking for better ways to make training my clients more efficient. You should do the same.
2. Don’t waste your time arguing on the Internet.
As a trainer, you HAVE to have a solid foundation in strength/conditioning, nutrition, functional anatomy, and physiology (to name a few). However, you also have to be cognizant of the BUSINESS side of things. This alone, has probably been the most profound “lesson” I have learned in the years since I started training people. I never really knew how important it was to read up on business. I wish I had started earlier.
John Izzo: I learned and still preach to all my new trainers, that in order to be successful in this field, you must understand that helping to reach your client’s goals must become your (the trainer’s) goal. Too many trainers “tell” a client what to do and many fail to make them understand “why”.
John Paul: Success is everywhere! Do not get caught up in one method of training, one certificate or one guru. They each may have merit but they also have limitations.
In order to be the best, you have to go to the best. People have different talents, and if you can find the best person for each unique talent and learn from them, your success will grow.
Surround yourself with this excellence and feed off it. Be open to learning and using the creativity and expertise of others to grow. Just be aware that standards are highly variable in this business, with non-standardized qualifications in training, education and experience. There are many ways to uncover success and learn from it.
Remember this: Success Leaves Clues!
Wannabebig: When faced with the question: what is your USP (unique selling point), what do you tell them?
Eric C: I don’t sell to people. My results speak for themselves.
Tony G: Wow. What a paradox. I have heard Jim Labadie and Ryan Lee talk about this all the time and how important it is to have one. And yet as I write this, I can honestly say that I don’t have one! I don’t know, I guess I take pride in the fact that I am pretty well read in a variety of topics related to strength/conditioning and nutrition. I feel just as comfortable talking about how to get someone to improve their deadlift as I am discussing ways they can shed some fat. I’m even comfortable discussing the finer points of Alpha-2 adrenoreceptors and how they affect fat oxidation. I like the fact that I am diverse in a multitude of areas.
But in the end, I guess I would have to say that my USP is that I have an uncanny ability to develop a rapport with my clients to show that there is a big difference between what they WANT to do and what the NEED to do. Essentially, I am able to get them the results they want (whatever it may be) in the most time efficient manner…safely.
John Izzo: Progression. It’s as simple as that. For years, I was around $3000-4000 equipment and I had all my clients start with floor exercises in the corner of the gym. Other members would come to me and ask “if your clients are paying you so much money to exercise on the floor with no machines?” And they never understood it. Starting with basics is the premise of all successful exercise programs. I see so many ‘beginners’ (trainers and enthusiasts) wanting to start with the advanced portion of exercises or programs because they think that is the quicker method to getting one to their goal. But in actuality, it is the downfall of a program.
John Paul: You know, they say that you cannot be a jack-of-all-trades. You should specialize in one area (i.e. speed specialist, body composition, mature population, etc.) You can ultimately specialize in many “one” areas but for best results, you should narrow your focus. Furthermore, you should target your efforts to a specific demographic (i.e. aesthetically-motivated females between the ages of 30-50, etc.)
Well, I have not followed either rule. My youngest client has been 10 years old and my oldest regular 80 – that is a span of 70 years. And I’ve had almost an equal mix of female and male clients – sometimes it leans more toward the male side, but right now the scale is tipping toward the female side (again, please pardon these puns!)
I take a very holistic approach with my clients. I start with an extensive fitness and functional assessment. For instance, we use 30 anthropometric measurements including weight, height, 17 girth measurements, and 11 skin fold sites to evaluate body composition alone. If the functional assessment reveals some form of pathology that requires professional attention, I will refer them to one of several therapists (i.e. chiropractor, osteopath, physiotherapist, acupuncturist, massage therapist) in my network.
From there, I provide a dietary analysis and nutritional guidance. Depending on the situation, certain diagnostics may be in order: here at the studio we carry the Adrenal Stress Index (saliva), Urinary Metabolic Profile (urine), Expanded Male and Female Hormone Panel (saliva), and Food Allergy Test (finger prick) or I may refer them to a physician for some blood work. For some of the more complex cases, I will send my clients to specialists such as Drs. Eric Serrano, Mauro DiPasquale, Fred Hui, and/or Christian Renna. In fact, I have flown to the States several times with clients for this purpose.
Exercise prescription is next. I will take into account their goals as well as their assessment results to design their program. This may be a lengthy process, though, and can easily take over an hour in certain cases. There is an entire science behind proper program design (the art is being able to implement it afterward) and I like to control as many variables as possible (such as sets, reps, rest interval, tempo, duration, frequency, etc.) for the greatest effect. My success depends on the success of my programs, period.
That’s my unique selling point!
Wannabebig: What are three main qualities that separate a mediocre coach/trainer from a great one?
Tony G: I could really go off on a tangent here. I am sometimes hesitant to answer questions like these, because in the long run….who am I to say what establishes a good trainer from a bad trainer? That being said, I do have a few opinions on the matter.
I have worked in several clubs in the past four+ years, and I have to say I have come across some pretty asinine things. I am sure that that may come across as me being a snob or a “know it all,” but well I don’t care. And in no particular order here are my top three qualities that separate a good trainer from a mediocre trainer.
1. A great trainer doesn’t give into “trends” in the industry to try to stand out. Sure, they are willing and able to diversify and try new approaches in an attempt to make their athlete or client better. But they don’t fall prey to foo-foo bullshit. A mediocre trainer tends to latch onto the foo-foo bullshit.
Case in point – Functional Training. I can’t tell you how many times I have watched a certain trainer have his/her client do one-legged squats on a foam pad while holding a medicine ball over their head and think to myself – why? BOSU balls, balance boards, blah blah blah… all fall under this category. Sure, they have their place under certain (very specific) circumstances, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s a waste of time IMO. To me, “functional training” is anything that improves a real life quality. Call me crazy, but unless you’re training to become a street performer, having your client perform crazy circus acts IS NOT functional. Not only are they promoting faulty motor patterns, reducing rate of force production, making people WEAKER, and causing little-to-no training effect….they can be downright dangerous to boot.
2. Reading is so important. I try to read an hour a day, which I am able to do because I take the subway to and from work everyday, so I have no excuse. I can’t even tell you how many times I have read something that blew my mind on the way to work and I am immediately trying it out on my first client of the day when I get to the gym. If anything, I think the chicks dig it when I am sitting there on the train reading “Science and Practice of Strength Training” by Vladmir Zatsiorsky. It’s a conversation starter.
3. Teaching/coaching. A mediocre trainer will just show up and tell their client what they’re going to do for the day. A great trainer will take the time to really teach WHY they’re doing this particular movement and explain HOW it is going to help them. You have to be able to put things into context for people. For instance, I trained an 81-year-old woman at a facility in CT that I used to work at. I would have her do rack pulls from knee height. She would ask, “Why am I doing this?” And to be honest, most people watching her train were probably asking the same thing. Anyways, I would just explain to her that doing rack pulls would help her be able to lift and carry a bag of groceries easier. Context. Once I said that, she was all about doing rack pulls and in a matter of 8 weeks, went from using 15 lbs to 85 lbs for reps.
John Izzo: Simple:
1. Instruct – These are the practical skills you learn and what you teach.
2. Inspire – Your empathy and experience should be motivating for even the lowliest of the low.
3. Integrate – Develop a relationship with the client where you can have a direct effect on what outcomes he/she makes. Integrate yourself into the client’s life.
1. Drive & Dedication – I group these as one, but basically, the message is the same: the more driven you are to succeed; the more likely you WILL succeed! Those that are dedicated and work hard will always fair better than those that hardly work!
2. Passion – Personal training is not a job for me; it’s a passion! I jump out of bed at 5:00 am every morning. I truly enjoy doing what I do and I love to help people. You have such a positive influence on their lives. I experience much gratification and inspiration from some of these unbelievable client transformations.
3. Results – Results ultimately speak. If you are good at what you do and love doing it, you will be successful in any endeavour. Success and happiness is not only measured by how much you make, but I will say this, personal training can be a lucrative occupation. It is not uncommon for a great trainer to earn a 6-figure income!
Wannabebig: Do you feel that one of the big pitfalls of the training industry is the ease of entry into the industry? If so, why?
Eric C: Yes, I think it’s unfortunate. Personally, I’d like to see something similar to what athletic trainers and licensed massage therapists have to go through. There needs to be a standardized curriculum focusing on anatomy above all. Then, you’d need to compile a certain number of hours shadowing someone who has already been credentialed for a certain period of time.
The main problem is that the crap trainers give the rest of us a bad name. A great example is these cookie-cutter “speed” training facilities that are popping up all over the place. Parents are shelling out money for large, cookie-cutter group sessions supervised by interns who aren’t even qualified to clean the locker rooms of these places; they’re just babysitting. It takes more coaching skill to show an athlete HOW to run faster and train him/her for it than it does to just say “Run and turn at that cone.” It’s not just what you do; it’s how you do it. The good coaches out there have to work extra hard to create value in the public’s eye, as these people have been burned by businessmen who don’t know a thing about exercise physiology.
End rant of rant, thanks for listening.
Tony G: Picking up where Eric left off it does kind of bother me that there are certain certifications out there that allow people to get certified while taking their test at home (with the book). Essentially, ANYONE off the street can become a personal trainer. The fitness industry is saturated with sub-par personal trainers now. I see some of the certifications out there and it makes me laugh. It is quite sad. You have people who become trainers just because they look the part. I’m sorry, but if you’re using performance-enhancing drugs, you should NOT be giving people advice on training. That’s not to say that there aren’t some very knowledgeable people who use steroids who happen to be trainers, but I think it’s safe to assume those are few and far between.
So yeah, I think the ease of accessibility into the industry has been one of the main pitfalls.
John Izzo: One of my biggest pet peeves with a lot of new trainers that enter the field is the idea that they should put out products to make millions without ever training a soul. I asked this question to my Roundtable and added, why so many new trainers elect to own their own training studio? And the consensus was that many newbies want to establish their own way of exercise programming- right or wrong- without being critiqued by others (experienced fitness personnel). It becomes a way to escape scrutiny from the industry. All you need is a lot of money and space and you can open up a facility and have everyone do jumping jacks in the corner-and POOF you’re a trainer!
John Paul: The field of personal training is a self-regulated one with hundreds of certifications available. Being certified does not imply competency because we do not have quality control and consistent standards. This is why continuing education is a must. Using professional journals, industry conventions, seminars and networking opportunities are necessary to maintain excellence in this profession.
Wannabebig: Success in this field requires skills other than scientific knowledge and training experience. These skills are thought of as foundational in other arenas but are neglected among personal trainers/coaches. What are some of these skills?
Eric C: Writing – but I think that’s the case in any job. If you want to be treated as a fitness PROFESSIONAL, don’t spell like a third-grader. Maybe I’m just biased because I’m the son of a teacher of English, but it just irritates me when people make silly mistakes in writing when they know better. You don’t “loose” fat, people. That dead horse has been beaten, reincarnated, and beaten even more.
Beyond that, basic organization and just being able to communicate with people are incredibly important.
Tony G: Business: you have to become familiar with the business side to being a trainer. Like I mentioned above, this is an area where I wish I would’ve started in sooner. I would definitely love to take a mulligan on that one.
John Izzo: I was just in a discussion about this on a forum. Here is my take: Having general knowledge is half the equation–the other half is having character, personality, and communication skills. That’s what keeps you in this business. And the personal training business is VERY cutthroat especially in commercial facilities. Having a great body will get your foot in the door and may get you a few clients…but if that trainer lacks relationship building skills and practical knowledge (& application), and then those clients won’t stay with him/her.
I have interviewed so many trainers that sat across from me and all they talked about was how hard THEY train, how healthy THEY eat, how dedicated THEY are…that’s great…but if you are working for me–how can you instil those behaviours in others? That is real skill. And I honestly don’t care if you are short, tall, fat, skinny, red, green, or black…if you can get clients to their goal (any which way but loose), then YOU ARE HIRED. If you cannot do it, and I hear complaints, or see insubordination, or see decrease work performance. YOU’RE FIRED. Doesn’t matter if you have 18-inch arms and deadlift 600 lbs.
John Paul: That is very true. Here are some of those skills necessary for success:
- Good communication and people skills
- Listening Skills
- Honest Business Principles
I’ve known trainers that had all the training knowledge in the world, but their people skills were terrible and so it affected their success. There’s more to personal training than just training!
Wannabebig: Stay tuned as there’s lots more info to be shared in Part II of this article.
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 I 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..