So, you’ve decided to give up the stockings and stilettos for sneakers and spandex, or you traded the suit and tie for a stopwatch and sweatpants. Congratulations, and welcome back to humanity! For many, a career in fitness begins with packing a few office supplies and what’s left of their dignity and leaving with a hearty “Take this job and shove it!”Are you next? Are you ready to leave the black and white world of cubicles for the technicolor universe of universal machines and free weights?
If you start at the bottom after years, if not decades in another industry, then the challenge comes in a new form. Can you humble yourself? Can you work alongside people decades younger who have years more experience than you do? How will you compete with them? Easily, once you read this article.
You can kick down the gym doors as a new trainer, especially if you come in with another career behind you. Client rapport, business savvy, willingness to learn, and professional vision all favor those who take on fitness as a second career.
Hey, you remind me of someone!
If you are stepping out of your element and into the gym, then most people who hire personal trainers are just like you. While it’s true that college athletes turned strength coaches have the advantage in training competitive athletes, those athletes make up a small part of the clientele. Most clients are non-athletes who come to you in desperation. They sacrificed years of toil and recreation to make the money they need in order to pay you. Now they need a contact on the inside. A bodyguard. A protector. A shot caller. They are not looking for the scariest muscle freak on the gym floor, nor the athlete with the most trophies. They are looking for someone who knows the struggle of adapting to the fitness lifestyle. They are looking for you!
You not only understand client motivation better than a young hotshot, you also understand client communication better than they do. Someday I want to run a seminar to teach fitness trainers how to use the telephone. “Kids these days” can’t seem to stay off of their smartphones, yet they don’t know how to hold an intelligent phone conversation with a potential client. You, however, learned Voicemail 101 and “How may I help you?” in the business world. No amount of technology will replace phone etiquette. Soft skills like communication and client empathy won’t give you a leg up while looking for a job, but they will help you advance more quickly once you get there.
What do you bring into the industry?
Every time you take a client onto the floor, you have the potential to change this industry. The fitness industry grows from the inside out, not from the top down. Right now, a trainer that you and I will never meet is developing a new training technique. The textbook publishers may never find out about it, but the clients know. Somebody else is crafting a new business model that will open doors for both trainers and clients. The big box gyms may not approve, but trainers and clients do. You could be the next to add a dimension to this industry that we have (here comes a word you can use to feed the parking meter) hitherto never seen.
One of my favorite entertainers is also my favorite example of a late starter who sprinted ahead as an industry leader. Jacob Rodney Cohen struggled for years on the comedy scene in the early 1950s but never got his big break. He gave up the stage to run an aluminum siding business on Long Island, New York. When he took another stab at comedy later in life, he brought his business acumen with him and opened a comedy club along with his doctor, the incomparable Dr. Vinny Boombatz. He now had his own stage, but he still had no respect. When he looked up his family tree, two dogs were using it. His wife is such a lousy cook, they pray after they eat. His psychiatrist said he was crazy. He asked for a second opinion, and the doc said, “Okay, you’re ugly too.”
Rodney Dangerfield stands as one of the most respected among his peers in the comedy world, not only for his self-effacing one-liners, but for owning the club that launched some of the biggest stars in the history of stand-up. His business background gave him a leg up that none of his contemporaries could match. He was so excited that Dr. Boombatz gave him sleeping pills and told him, “Take these whenever you wake up.”
We've been expecting you ...
The fitness industry offers the same potential. The background that you bring from another career has the power to change the way business is done. Speaking from personal experience, I once worked at a training studio where a client became a trainer at the studio. She had a business background and knew how to put the focus and praise on other people, instead of onto herself like so many in this industry do (myself included, sometimes). She had contacts in the community and used them to build her client base. Five years later she was promoted to manager.
I had a student at the career institute who was promoted to training manager at a full-service health club within one year. Another student, newly minted as a trainer, set up a diabetes prevention program on an Indian reservation. Several clients got off of their medication within a short time training. Such initiative comes from experience outside of the industry.
An even more radical visionary walked across stages and gym floors for years before discovering the need for public speaking coaches in the fitness industry. The result of this wild collaboration is the subject of our next case study.
How did I get started?
Fitness training was not my first career choice either. I studied economics in college and got my training certification as a side hustle. That scene in Ferris Bueller when Ben Stein is teaching about the Great Depression? I would have been in the front row raising my hand and answering every question. Instead of “Anyone? Anyone?” Ben would have asked “Anyone other than Mike?” I went to work at a bank and soon discovered the true meaning of misery.
Luckily I had an ISSA cert up my sleeve and went to work at a training studio. Within a year I was teaching the certification course at a career institute which led to my new career. Teaching + fitness training + Toastmasters equals FIT Presenter.
Along the way, I have worked alongside quite a few trainers with degrees in exercise science whose pedigree could not compete with passion and professionalism. One such coworker boasted, “I have a four year degree in exercise science and I have to compete with people with a $200 certification?” A year later she washed out and moved far far away. Another trainer went to the same college that I did and got a degree in phys ed. If you want to know more about his escapades, check the blog post titled “The den mother and the house mouse.” He trained the house mouse.
When I left that studio, They found a replacement who had recently completed a master’s degree in exercise science. A week later I got the call from client X. From the time I left the gym until I moved abroad, I trained him in his house.
“I knew you were good, but I didn’t know how good until I trained with [you know who].”
You have the advantage
Much of your success depends on your willingness to learn. A history professor at my college once told his students “everything on the History Channel is BS.” Is it really? Or maybe he was just defending his discipline. He didn’t want ordinary outsiders thinking they knew as much as those who deep dive into the academic side of history. We see that in other fields too. Doctors don’t resort to WebMD for treatment options, and executive chefs don’t look at magazines for new recipe ideas. The fitness industry is no different.
In order to stand out, some trainers turn their noses up at basic material in favor of new age sports science and high-powered, high-priced fitness seminars. Meanwhile, some of the best training ideas come from the initial certification textbooks. As a new trainer, your willingness to learn means more than all of the education and experience combined. If you can accept the most basic information as valuable while rejecting the junk science driven by mythology and marketing, you can stand out ahead of lots of people with really big muscles.
Learn from the right sources
Hopefully you’re not getting your direction from TV infomercials. You can’t zap away your abdominal fat, and the term “diet pill” is an oxymoron. Mainstream media is no better. The New York Times is well-versed in world affairs but worlds behind in their fitness articles. Cable news channels, whether fake news or faux news, left-wing propaganda or right-wing paranoia, are propped up by the same drug companies that want you to avoid the gym and rely on medication for survival.
As you develop in your career, it’s just as important to find sources you don’t like. This will solidify what you believe, and prepare you to respond when a trainer or a client presents something that you know is wrong.
How do I get started?
There is no straight path to becoming a fitness trainer. As you can see in another article, there is no such thing as a degree in personal training. Exercise physiology majors aspire to work with pro athletes or in fancy clinics, not on a gym floor. There are incredible trainers with advanced degrees, and there are also disgruntled phys ed majors who never got their shot at the school system.
Most certifications are earned online. Like with most careers, your education is far from complete once you get a diploma or a certification.
The most popular training systems are standardized at the corporate level and passed down to the gym floor.
To get the best intro to the fitness industry, there is no substitute for practical experience. Learn from as many people as you can, and remember that your mentors have a shelf life. Nobody will carry you every step of your career.
Your most important career tip
To stand out as a top banana in the fitness industry, the most important skill you need is public speaking. You stand out as a leader when you stand out as a speaker. Your ability to hold court in front of an audience gives you the authority to lead people who have greater credentials on the gym floor. The real leaders inspire the achievers.
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