Secrets of a Personal Trainer
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Not a single week seems to go by these days without me getting at least a couple of emails or Direct Messages from people who are thinking about studying to become, or who are in the process of qualifying as a Personal Trainer asking my advice about starting in the industry. Firstly, I am flattered that anyone would want to ask my advice and am always happy to offer it, and secondly, it is amazing that so many people are now interested in careers in the fitness industry. I’m well aware I post often about how much I love my job and my clients and how I genuinely feel blessed to live the life I do, but as with any job, not everything in the life of a Personal Trainer is shiny new Nikes and super happy clients. Whilst I believe it is one of the most rewarding jobs in the world, it can also be hugely demanding at times, so in the interest of balance and honesty I wanted to share with you the Secrets of a Personal Trainer that no one else will tell you….
Photo by Anna Rachel Photography: ift.tt/2mze9GT
Last year my post on the Secret Life of a Fitness Instructor was one of my most popular ever Blog posts, and honestly, it felt cathartic to be able to share with you guys the other side of the sweat and smile that you see at the front of your classes week after week. I wanted to do the same for the role that makes up the majority of my working week – that of a Personal Trainer. My advice to anyone thinking of starting a career as a PT is, in the words of Nike, to just do it – and I would genuinely never say anything other than I love my job (because I do), but it isn’t without its challenges and I honestly think that anyone who is thinking of becoming a PT needs to consider aspects of the job they’ve probably never thought of. With Level 3 certificates being handed out left, right and centre these days becoming a PT honestly isn’t that hard. A quick scroll through Instagram will show you that anyone who’s ever done a handful of gym classes or taken an ab selfie considers themselves a Personal Trainer or Coach (some might even go so far as to release an online guide, or take on virtual clients, but that’s a whole other can of worms… and potential Blog post..!) – but are they a good or successful PT? I’ll let you answer that for yourself. Whilst pretty much anyone can become a Personal Trainer, becoming a good Personal Trainer is a very different story. What makes a good Personal Trainer? One who takes the rough with the smooth, who knows there will be good days and bad, great clients and nightmare ones, that you never stop learning and a lot of the time you never stop working (in some form or another) – one who isn’t in this for the social media fame or protein discount codes. So if that is the side you see, what is the side that you don’t? I can’t speak for every PT, but having been doing this full time now for over 4 years (and part time for 2 years before that) I can share with you some of the lessons I’ve learned over the years.
This may seem obvious, but it always amazes me when I meet new PTs who think that they can “fit” clients into their schedule, or be a part- time Personal Trainer. I’m not saying you categorically can’t, but when you’re starting out and want to establish a client base and indeed your reputation, you really need to put in the hours to do so. And any PT worth their salt will have done it. In the early stages of Wildcat Fitness I was regularly working 14 or 15 hour days, and I am now in the fortunate position to not have to do those kind of hours any more on a regular basis – but it does still happen. If you’re going to be a PT and train clients in person then you have to put in the hours. Most people work 9-5 (ish) and so will want to train with their PT around these hours – so you’ll probably find you get a lot of clients who want to train between 6am and 9am, and then again from 530pm onwards. Which means that sometimes you might not get in from work til gone 9pm, and still have to set your alarm for 530am the next day. It may not always be like this, but unless you have a ready made client base, or you’re fortunate enough to have clients who can train in the daytime or who are happy to take time out of their working day to see you then when you first start working as a PT you’ll have to do some pretty unsociable shifts. For me personally, I took on as many clients as I could when I first started out, hence the incredibly long days, 6 days a week. As time has gone on and I gained the trust of my clients and built a loyal working relationship with them, not to mention a good reputation, then I have been more able to set my own hours as clients feel more inclined to take availability with me when my schedule permits, rather than the other way around. If you think you only want to do or only have time for a few hours of PT a week then you’re already limiting yourself – and clients won’t come back to a PT who is never free at a time convenient to them, especially one who has only been in business a few weeks.
I can genuinely say that I have been blessed over the years to train some absolutely incredible people, some of whom have become great friends of mine. I genuinely look forward to seeing every single one of my current client base and pride myself on having a great working relationship with all of them. I’ve trained musicians, actors, company directors and even royalty, but more important than all of that I’ve watched people go from shy, uncomfortable and unhappy to strong, confident and glowing and been utterly honoured to be a part of not only a body but a life transformation for some of my clients.
And I’ve also trained people who are a huge pain in the butt.
Again, when you first start out as a PT, generally speaking if you have the availability, and someone wants to train with you, then you take them on as a client. I meet everyone before I start training with them – whether for a consultation or trial session, and in the beginning even though I may have had a doubt in my mind over how well we would work together, and indeed how much they really did want my help, I’d tend to ignore it and hope for the best. If you’re a potential PT then let me tell you now – if you’re not comfortable with your client or vice versa, then an hour just one on one with them in very close physical contact will feel like hell. For both of you. So if you doubt someone and whether you can work closely with them – don’t ignore that instinct. Listen to the reasons people give when you ask them why they want a PT – if they think you’re going to wave a magic wand over their life in just an hour a week then beware – some people think the mere act of hiring a PT will be enough to help them lose weight, and will take it out on you when they don’t. You want to be a part of a clients journey, not their driver 24/7. I learned this from experience, taking on clients who wanted to lose weight, training them according to weight loss protocols and giving them dietary advice which they didn’t listen to. They didn’t understand they had to want it and indeed work for it too in my absence and 12 weeks down the line when they hadn’t lost any weight (inactivity and takeaways 4 nights a week will do that for you) started to question my professional ability. Beware the client who comes to you full of excuses, or even worse, one who refuses to listen – because their lack of results will end up being your fault.
Of course it is up to us as trainers to set realistic and achievable goals with our clients, but you’d be amazed by some of the things that people have said they want to achieve through a couple of sessions a week for a few weeks. Be honest with your clients – and those that push back and say they will be the ones to break the mould or achieve the impossible are the ones who should really set your alarm bells ringing. We’re PTs not miracle workers – and honestly some clients can’t tell the difference sometimes!
Where are you going to train your clients? Uhhh the gym! Okay, which one? I am still amazed to this day by the number of people who think they can rock up to their local Virgin Active, David Lloyd or Fitness First, client in tow, and train them there. All of these commercial gyms have their own in-house team of PTs who work for the club and indeed make them money (either through rent or taking a cut of their sessions) so why on earth are they going to let you waltz in for free and make a tasty profit from your freelance clients who have nothing to do with their gym? Much as you wouldn’t take a table in a restaurant but eat your own food, so you can’t train your freelance clients right under the nose of an in-house PT at their gym. Of course you may want to go and work in-house at a commercial gym yourself – I discussed the advantage and disadvantages of doing so at length in my So You Want To Be A Personal Trainer YouTube video here – so I won’t go into those details in this post.
Okay so if you can’t train your clients at your local gym then what about the park? Great idea – and one that works really well for many PTs – but one that also has a lot of factors people don’t necessarily consider. Firstly, most London parks require you to have a licence to train clients there, and in many cases you have to pay for this. You also need a licence for each park you plan on training clients in – so if you wanted to split your time between Hyde, Green and Regents Park you would need a licence for each one – and let me tell you – they’re not cheap. Let me also tell you that clients LOVE the idea of training outdoors, and if we lived somewhere with a year round dry and mild climate so would I, but the UK is neither dry nor mild an awful lot of the time. A couple of years ago I had a client who, after a couple of sessions in the gym with me, decided they couldn’t stand indoor training and only wanted to workout outside, so we scheduled the rest of our sessions in a local park. Things were going great until heavy rain set in on the day of their next session, and half an hour before we were due to start training I received a text – “I won’t be coming today as it’s raining” – which I acknowledged and advised that due to the late cancellation I would still be charging for the session. I then received another message – “that doesn’t seem fair as you can’t expect me to train in the rain” – well yes I can and I do, because if you sign up for outdoor training you can’t flake out every time the temperature drops below 20 degrees or there’s a slight breeze. I’d love to cite this as a one off, but due to regular (and late) cancellations of park sessions due to bad weather I now no longer train clients outdoors as it isn’t worth it for me personally.
Okay so no commercial gym and no park, then where? As you probably know, I train my clients in a private PT studio, and for the most part this works brilliantly for me personally. I pay rent on a per session basis (i.e. I am not paying for the time I am not there) and I am also not responsible for maintenance and upkeep of the premises, not to mention paying business rates. Is the studio designed exactly as I would like with all the equipment I would ideally like to train my clients? No, but it isn’t my space so I don’t get a say. My current location for the majority of my work is actually pretty perfect for me and my clients needs, but just keep in mind that if you too rent space at a private PT studio it may not be exactly what you want. Whilst nowhere near as large or busy as a commercial gym floor, these studios are more often than not shared spaces, so whilst there may only be 2 or 3 other trainers and their clients around when you are there working, you all need to be able to work together but at the same time be respectful of each other. Sounds basic I know, but you’d be amazed how some other trainers can lack basic etiquette when it comes to everything from tidiness to bad language to lack of spacial awareness. More on that later. The point I am making is that you just need to be mindful of who you are sharing a space with – you may have the most awesome bunch of colleagues who create a great atmosphere for both you and your clients to train in, or you may be lucky enough to rent a studio that hardly anyone else ever uses so you really can offer your clients a 1:1 private service, but you may also work with a bunch of noisy, messy, ill-mannered equipment hogs, so just do a bit of research before you choose to base yourself somewhere.
This brings me neatly onto my last point – your peers and colleagues. Even if you are a freelance self-employed PT who works alone, you will come into contact with other trainers at some point – probably within a studio environment if you use a PT studio or rent space in a commercial gym – there will be other PTs operating here and whilst you may never have seen them before in your life, you are still sharing a space with them and therefore associated with them to some degree. Even if you really are a lone wolf, operating only in clients houses and the park then you are still part of the Personal Training community (by association only, granted) – whether online or in real life – and one thing you will most definitely learn over time is that there are some really, really terrible Personal Trainers out there. The same I know can be said of any profession (I’m painfully aware there are idiots in all walks of life) but Personal Training is a tricky one, as certainly in the UK it is a totally unregulated industry, and as I said at the start of this post, more and more these days Level 3 certificates are being handed out like confetti at a wedding and after a few hours study and a brief practical assessment almost anyone can call themselves a Personal Trainer. Even more worrying is the advent of so much advice (and even guides you actually have to pay for) on exercise, fitness and diet from people who have no qualifications whatsoever. All of this combined sadly means there are some extremely dubious and indeed inexperienced and uneducated “Personal Trainers” out there and like it or not you will get tarred with the same brush as them from time to time. Many of my clients have had other Personal Trainers before me and I have been shocked at some of the things they’ve told me about them. One that particularly sticks in my mind is of a long-standing client of mine who had another trainer for around two years – towards the end of their time together apparently the trainer would say “you should know what you’re doing by now, I’ll leave you to it and come back in 45 minutes”….! I mean that’s a new business model even on me – getting paid to do something and not actually doing it. We’ve all been on a gym floor and seen PTs on their phones whilst training clients, I’ve even seen some take calls mid-session. This all ties in to the above point – if you’re sharing space with, or are part of a team of other PTs then just make sure they match your work ethic and level of professionalism – because you could be the best trainer in the world, but if your colleagues are leaving weights all over the floor, sharing intimate details of their weekend Tindr hook ups loud enough for the entire gym to hear, or letting their clients struggle with exercise they clearly can’t do as they’re too busy What’s Apping their mates – then your clients will notice, and it will make them as uncomfortable as it makes you. Similarly people will judge you due to their or their friends/colleagues/neighbours experiences of using a PT and if they’ve been unlucky enough to be trained by one of the goons I’ve mentioned above them chances are they may take a dim view of PTs generally. And as someone who has not only been in the industry for many years, but who works to continually improve my knowledge, skills and education, and also prides myself on my high level of professionalism with all my clients – it is both upsetting and hurtful to see people 15 years younger than me with a piece of paper they got from a few hours online study calling themselves a Personal Trainer, and even more worrying when they start dishing out dubious advice to their social media followers, or even worse charging people for plans or training sessions they really aren’t in a position to be delivering.
But – the Personal Training community can also be an amazing thing, and there are some truly brilliant trainers out there – and if you can surround yourself with people like this it will be one of the best things you ever do for your career. I love learning from my peers and colleagues and even training with them from time to time – believe it or not PTing can be quite a lonely existence at times, especially if you are self employed, so if you can be part of a great community either online or at a gym or your client studio then it can be one of the most rewarding things about your job. Similarly clients will feel confident and impressed by the company you keep and those around them during their training – win win for everyone.
Every job has its downsides, just as life itself is never perfect. And despite all of the things I’ve listed above I still wouldn’t trade my life as a Personal Trainer for anything else. Even after the crazy hours, and even crazier clients sometimes, I still genuinely love what I do and get such satisfaction from my job. I just wanted to be honest and share some of the things about being a Personal Trainer that you don’t see on social media or other fitness blogs – because I genuinely have been there, seen it and done it. And it just inspires me even more to be the very best Personal Trainer I can be as I truly believe that my clients don’t deserve anything less.
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