How to Build a Stand-Out Personal Training Career

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  • How to Build a Stand-Out Personal Training Career
    Are you looking to build a career in fitness? Do you want to help others pursue their fitness goals? A personal training career can be incredibly rewarding, says Amy Thompson, National Director of Personal Training Services at Wellbridge. In this article, Amy provides entry- and mid-level advice to anyone looking to pursue a career as a personal trainer. From planning your education to preparing for your interview, she outlines the preliminary path to building a career in personal training. This article is a must-read for anyone looking to become a successful personal trainer.
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    Article Highlights:

      A number of educational programs can lead to a career in personal training. Understanding anatomy and the body's response to exercise, injury, nutrition is a great foundation. 
      Pursue a certification accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies, and consider registering with USREPS.
      Selecting the right work environment is critical. Tips: If you're pursuing employment with a health club, dress professionally and focus on communication and confidence. If you're starting your own business, make sure to do all the research into licenses, permits, rent, create a business plan and focus on lead generation.
      Personal trainers can become facility managers and focus on recruiting, hiring, payroll, training, development; in short, teaching other trainers the business of fitness.
      A recent employment trend shows more women are joining the industry, mostly at the management level. As a result, more leadership training and networking groups are being offered.  


    The profession of personal training is still in its infancy. The career itself is only 25 years old, which means we are still going through growing pains related to standards and compliance as well as how to enter the field. However, the need for fitness professionals continues to grow as we enter more work spaces, more hospitals, and clinical settings, as well as reach more of the inactive.

    The path to becoming a personal trainer will look different for each person, but there are specific requirements and recommendations that we will explore here. The career attracts a variety of people such as former athletes; fitness enthusiasts; some who have personally overcome an injury, illness, or weight problem with fitness and nutrition; and some who are looking for flexible and lucrative opportunities. Regardless of what brings you to the profession, in this article we will explore the paths you can take to obtain credentials, land a job, and succeed in a career as a personal trainer.

    Before we explore how to attain credentials and get started with your career, let’s begin by asking yourself some very important questions about your ideal work environment. This way you can best match your expectations with the right avenue in the industry.

    What type of work setting do you see yourself in? Clinical, commercial, corporate, collegiate, community-based, or something different?

    What types of clients and needs would you like to work with? Children, adults, older adults? Sports performance or injuries? Weight loss, post-surgical, or disease? Other special populations?

    Do you want to work for yourself or for a reputable establishment and what kind of commitment? Employee or independent? Full-time and salaried positions or part-time and flexible commissioned?

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    Answering these will be important before moving to the decision of choosing your education track. I feel this could be one of the most important steps in your long-term success. I encourage you to write down pros and cons of each work environment. Consider whether you will need benefits or if you will provide your own. It is also important that your earning potential is realistic and accurate. Do some research to make sure the potential is achievable.

    First, we will discuss education and preparation for the field of fitness. Many fitness professionals attend college programs. There are two-year, four-year, master, and doctoral programs in exercise science, physical education, nutrition, kinesiology, athletic training, physical therapy, and others that can lead you to a career in personal training. Gaining an understanding of anatomy and the body’s response to exercise, injury, and nutrition will be a great foundation to your career.

    I will also look for graduates who have studied psychology, biology, and business. Business skills can be applied to every career, whether you are an employee or an independent business owner. A greater understanding of business and marketing will significantly improve your ability to organize, promote, and sustain your clientele. When hiring, managers will definitely look for degrees on your résumé, although that does not necessarily guarantee that you will get the position over someone who does not.

    Often collegiate programs offer little in practical application and in communication skills that are important for your success. Look for programs that offer internship experiences where you can immerse yourself in a variety of settings. Ask for hands-on training that will build your comfort and give you these important experiences. I am a strong advocate of collegiate programs as a starting point while or before you sit for certification.

    Choosing your certification can be a difficult and tedious process. There are thousands of certifying agencies and certifications that have no national standard for regulation. In January 2006, the International Health Racquet Sports Association (IHRSA) implemented a recommendation that its members only accept personal trainers with certifications recognized by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) or an equivalent organization. This standard will become even more important to our industry as we compete for space in the medical field and reimbursement dollars for preventative services.

    What is NCCA accreditation? It is a third-party endorsing organization who evaluates the certification for meeting testing criteria and ensuring the questions on the exams are fair and clear. Agencies that have gone through this rigorous and introspecting process have joined an elite group who will likely be looked to when healthcare reform and reimbursement begin to cover programs and services we provide.

    They have now established a Coalition for the Registration of Exercise Professionals (CREP). CREP advances its mission by maintaining the United States Registry of Exercise Professionals (USREPS), an internationally recognized registry of exercise professionals in the United States, and as an advocate for the exercise professional who holds NCCA-accredited exercise certification on issues that pertain to regulation, access, and scope of work.

    Once you choose the certifying organization, look at the certifications they provide; most will offer a personal trainer certification. This is recommended as a starting point. Later, you can sit for advanced certifications in biomechanics, injury prevention and rehab, special populations, sports performance, and more. Often your employer will pay for or contribute to your advanced certifications to help you in the costs and to offer more resources to its members. It is recommended that you should study for your exam for 6–12 months prior to sitting for an exam.

    Completing an internship while studying for your exam is a nice compliment as you can apply and practice the material while you are learning it. Some internships will follow the manual chapter by chapter and prepare you every step of the way until it leads up to the exam. Submerge yourself in the culture of an organization and try out the job to see if it is a good fit for you. Throughout your internship, managers are auditioning you to see if you are a potential fit for your team. They will be looking for timeliness, professional aptitude, positivity, and passion.

    After graduating from a collegiate program and/or obtaining your nationally recognized certification, you are ready to begin looking for a job. We previously discussed the importance of selecting the right work environment for your preferences.

    First, we will discuss working as an employee in a health club or studio. Submit your résumé to include all experience and education. I like to see any leadership or business experience, including any roles where your responsibilities included public speaking or communication. All companies have different interview processes and you should be prepared for multiple steps. Typically, a manager will reach you by phone and get to know you briefly to cover broad requirements and expectations. If they like what they hear and it feels like a potential fit, they could invite you for an in-person interview.

    What to wear? Even though we work in fitness and are typically in exercise clothes, for your interview, dress in business clothes to impress. Dress like a professional. Many employers will bring you in for a practical interview as well. You may be presented with a case study and asked to choose exercises appropriate for that individual. Here they are assessing knowledge and application as well as communication style and confidence.

    Finally, you may be asked to meet with other managers or personal trainers at the facility so they can get a second opinion to see if you could be a good fit with their culture. Some other interview processes include written exams, group interviews, and some even ask you to put on a uniform and try the job for an hour or so. Keep in mind, that the interview process is just as much for you as it is for the employer. You are interviewing the company to see if you feel it is a positive work environment, clientele you will enjoy working with, and of course, if the potential to grow and learn is available.

    If you are planning to work for yourself, getting your business started will require more planning. First, research all of the business licenses and permits required. Naturally, you would expect to pay rent in a facility, and most city and community parks now require permits and there are fees associated. You will need to do research and execute against a conservative marketing plan which will keep your operating costs low until you get a steady stream of income.

    Often new business owners get carried away in paying for expensive advertising or marketing overhead. This is risky once you consider that the majority of our clientele usually comes from referrals. Instead, I recommend investing your money in a referral program, whereby, those who send clients to you get rewarded with complimentary services or apparel they can wear to further promote your business.

    Sadly, many fitness professionals will get started in the industry only to learn within their first year that they struggle to build clientele, they cannot retain their business, they work when other people do not, and they often do not get paid when clients are on vacation or are sick. The majority of the roles in this field are commissioned positions, which require you to build your own lead base, close your own sales, and retain your clients. Some thrive in this climate, make phenomenal money, and earn paid benefits while others cannot sustain themselves financially and decide to leave the industry.

    What can you do to ensure your own success and maximize your potential? Start by creating a business plan. Understand how much you need to earn and how many clients it will take to create that income. Also, factor in some attrition, which means some will fall off their programs and stop training. Do you have a strong lead generating system such as attending local social events, working floor shift to attract clients, and providing a complimentary service to new members or clients?

    Ten Competencies of Successful Personal Trainers

    1. Knowledge and Skills – Long after you attend college or obtain your certification, you are still a student. Find opportunities for continuing your education in areas that will benefit you and your clients; this keeps you relevant and current.
    2. Leadership and Influence – You cannot do the work for your clients. You can teach healthy habits and exercises, but both the ability to influence someone to take responsibility for their own health and the leadership you demonstrate to guide them through the difficult days will be paramount to your success and retention.
    3. Self-Management – Always a professional. Timeliness, etiquette, well-groomed, polite, and respectful are all examples of managing yourself and good traits for your ultimate growth.
    4. Business Skills – Impeccable record keeping can be attained through accurate and transparent policies and systems. Have a plan for your daily productivity and a back-up plan for days when clients cancel. You can control your own profitability with a specific and measurable plan.
    5. Ethics and Integrity – Be honest in all dealings. When questions arise, do the right thing and do the fair thing for your clients.
    6. Communication – All words and all actions represent who you are. Avoid slang, foul language, and gossip. Keep conversations in good taste and create boundaries between the client and the trainer.
    7. Example – Live your personal commitment to fitness. Model the behavior you teach.
    8. Passion – Seek out clients that excite you and help you practice your passion. Strive each day to bring something new to your clients that will inspire and invigorate them. It will in turn, inspire and fulfil you.
    9. Positivity – Be someone you want to be around. Positivity is contagious and will help your clients to approach health and fitness with a better attitude.
    10. Purpose – Live your purpose and you will never work a day in your life. Your career will be rewarding beyond measure. We change lives. We save lives.

    Career advancement in the personal training industry can take a variety of paths. You can take a manager role within an organization where you will be asked to run the business of personal training or even the entire facility. Managers typically do less “training” and more administrative responsibilities to include: recruiting, hiring, payroll, training and development, equipment and facility inspection, service standard training, and more. Many new managers find this as a way to execute their passion on a higher level, teaching personal trainers the business of fitness and helping them to be more successful more rapidly.

    One challenge of becoming a manager is learn to inspire and empower others to take responsibility for their business and to balance the passion for helping others achieve results with the need to make the income they desire and service the customer the way the company envisions. As a manager, you will be tasked to run profitable and professional programs. Many employers will offer little or no business training and have no internal systems or procedures by which you can learn.

    More and more fitness business training courses and programs are coming available to help teach you the business of fitness and how to become an effective operator and leader for your team.

    Another path for career advancement is to own your own business. We reviewed this path briefly as it related to getting started. This choice can be very rewarding as is may allow you to determine your own work environment, standards, schedule, and income. This path will draw more on your strengths in all aspects of operations. Depending on the size and scope of your business, you may be your own accountant, marketing director, administrator, and membership representative to control expenses. It can completely or partially remove you from the one-on-one client trainer sessions.

    Often managers or business owners find that they miss being able to have the daily impact on other’s health, while others appreciate being able to impact so many more people by way of the reach of their business. There will be many more opportunities in healthcare and in corporate settings for fitness professionals as the industry evolves and gains more stake in prevention.

    Some of the recent trends of employment in the industry show the number of women in the field is increasing mostly at the management level. Most companies employ an equal number of men to women across the company, but typically less at the management level. A recent survey of certified trainers in a fitness company showed 35% women to 65% men at the management level. More and more leadership training and networking groups are offered for women in fitness careers to help provide skills needed for advancement.

    My advice to anyone looking for a sustainable career in personal training is to follow the entry-level guidance listed in this article and to excel at every opportunity that you are provided. Always remember that we are in the service industry and that means we are providing an intangible product. The client experience and their results are the most important gauge you have for your long-term success. Be dependable, impeccable, and professional, so that ultimately you can be successful in a career as a personal trainer.

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    About the Author:

    Amy Thompson

    Amy Thompson is the National Director of Personal Training Services at Wellbridge, a Denver-based company, where she works hands-on with 19 personal training managers and over 350 personal trainers. In this role, she is involved in all club operations but primarily on how they integrate and retain members through personal training, small group programming, and nutrition services. She is a seasoned business executive and is highly respected in the fitness and franchise industries. She serves as Program Director Committee Chair for the International Dance-Exercise Association (IDEA) and the Industry Advisory Panelist for American Council on Exercise (ACE).

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  • Disclaimer: The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) encourages the exchange of diverse opinions. The ideas, comments, and materials presented herein do not necessarily reflect the NSCA’s official position on an issue. The NSCA assumes no responsibility for any statements made by authors, whether as fact, opinion, or otherwise. 
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