Who are you hiring?

by Mike McQuillan

Who are you hiring?

By Mike McQuillan

What qualities do you look for in a personal trainer?

One of your most important jobs as a gym owner or manager is to hire the right people. If you place an ad for a spot on your training staff, prepare to be underwhelmed. But somewhere in the stack of self-congratulations and off-brand certifications is a resume screaming in silence for you to make the call.

Pick a hand

Years ago at our training studio, we had five candidates apply for one job. Take a look at their credentials, then decide which trainer you would hire.


  1. He ran his own facility before moving into the area.
  2. She was a preschool teacher, recently certified, with no experience.
  3. He was training at a private studio similar to ours and studying for a masters in exercise physiology.
  4. She was training at two different studios. She got her certification from a 500-hour in-person course, one of the most thorough in the entire fitness industry.
  5. He was working at another studio, and coached high school track and field.

If you highlight the white space below, you can see who we hired.

We hired the inexperienced preschool teacher!

The training studio owner worked out of his garage and probably had a whopping two clients on his resume. He didn’t know how to move in the frontal plane. The graduate student knew his stuff, but was kind of weird. Candidate number four was chewing a wad of gum and insisted we hurry up because she had another session coming up. The last guy, the track coach, never answered the phone when we tried to call him back.

The preschool teacher came to the gym in person to drop off her resume. She dressed well but not over the top, and she brought a notebook full of questions. When we hired her, I had the pleasure of handing her the key to the gym, and she said, “I can’t believe it! I used to drive past this place every day and now I have a key!” Game, set, match. She was the right hire.

Put away the tape measure

Hiring a new trainer is a lot like assessing a client. You can read measurable criteria, like experience and certifications, the same way you chart a client’s one-rep max (I don’t) and heart rate recovery. You can also read the intangibles, which tell you who a person really is. In other posts throughout the FIT Presenter blog, you can read about holistic client assessment, but this is about doing business.

Corporate gyms who delegate human resources to hire trainers end up hiring pretty boys and glamour girls who tuck, tie, and text. Those gyms look at experience and not character. If you have the authority to hire your own team, let’s look at the real criteria to hire a trainer.

Formal vs. Professional

The grad student who was kind of weird came to the gym in a suit and tie. That alone did not disqualify him, but it didn’t help to show up in formal attire. What if we had asked him to demo a few exercises? He wasn’t dressed for the job.

Anybody can look professional in a suit and tie. In our industry, we have to win people over while dressed down and having fun. We have to convince clients who likely work in an office setting that we live up to the same standards without the formalities.

What are you standards for professionalism?

Begin with their first communication.  If the trainer answers your ad via email, you won’t believe how many people send their resume without any text. You don’t need a formal cover letter, but there should be a short, friendly, spell-checked message to accompany the resume. If the only text they write is, “HOW MUCH DO YOU PAY?” then my only question is, “How fast can you delete the message?”

When you contact the applicant, make sure you speak at length on the phone before scheduling an interview. Carry on a casual conversation and see if it feels natural. The ability to send emails and talk on the phone matters just as much as the ability to train clients. You make the money and build your reputation on the phone more than you do on the training floor. Plus it gives the applicant a chance to feel at ease, and to know that you operate a first-class facility. As you're about to see, your potential employee is not the only one who needs to make a good first impression.

Prove yourself worthy

An interview is a two-way process. Nothing gives me a more twisted sense of satisfaction than turning down a job offer, especially after a bad interview. So … any chance you’re waiting for an example? Here’s the transcript of my shortest interview ever:

“Hey, thanks for coming in. Let me look over your resume. Okay, great! Come back tomorrow.”

I went back the next day, and a different manager greeted me and told me to wait. About 15-20 minutes later I walked out. I could have brought thousands of dollars into that gym had I taken a job and built up a full-time client list. As far as I know, that manager is still looking for me.

Are you showing potential trainers the courtesy they deserve? If you have their resume beforehand, how much time do you devote to reading and understanding it? Are you sure that your gym is the best fit for the trainer? That trainer that you don't hire will most likely find a job somewhere. I want a trainer to know that if they end up working for a competitor, that my operation is one to be respected.

Start with these questions

One of the great myths of the workplace is that interviewers know their craft. When they ask, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” they really don’t care about your answer. If the interview begins with, “Tell us a little something about yourself,” then they didn’t come prepared.

As you have hopefully seen in a previous blog post, my number one question is:

Tell me one misconception that you have had about fitness when you started in the industry.

Their answer will tell you almost everything you need to know. So many trainers will refuse to answer that question, claiming to already know everything. Not a deal breaker, but definitely a red flag. I want trainers modest enough to know that they don’t know everything, and who can laugh at themselves. They reveal a willingness to learn, and more importantly, they won't be so quick to impose on other trainers.

What’s your opinion on … ?

As a trainer, your critical thinking skills matter more than your knowledge. Nothing breaks up the morale and cohesion among trainers like the latest fad diet or training system that infiltrates the gym. Some people buy into it, while others see through the gimmick. Only the trainers capable of forming and expressing opinions can smell it before they step in it. Even though many books and courses on interviewing will tell you to keep your opinions to yourself, I don’t trust people who don’t have opinions. I want to know that people can tactfully express their controversial views on the industry. By the way, Paleo sucks.

Tell me about a client horror story

Anyone can tell a success story about a client, but can the trainer be modest enough to tell when things went wrong? Feel free to ask about a client success story, but chances are that you have already heard that story from 100 other trainers. They lost weight, felt great. As long as there are no broken bones or extra-marital affairs involved, a trainer should feel comfortable talking about things that go less than perfectly.

We're counting on you

The purpose of FIT Presenter is to build the reputation of our industry through public speaking. We want to humble anyone who might look down their noses at what we do for a living whenever we take center stage. Our command presence shows our professionalism when our gym attire and casual attitude might suggest otherwise. FIT Presenter, along with the rest of the industry, can only succeed when the right people are working on the training floor.

Your hiring decisions affect more than just your clients and your business. The reputation of the fitness industry depends on our grass-roots effort to hire the right people. Most people don't know any fitness trainers. The first trainer they meet, and who shapes their opinion of our profession, may be the person that you hire to represent us.

What about group fitness instructors?

The graphic below comes courtesy of Staci Alden, a group fitness director from Seattle and founder of Alden Fitness Solutions.  She recently delivered an outstanding presentation at the Fitness Business Association’s Succeed conference about the steps involved in hiring a group fitness instructor. You will never find a more honest look at the challenges of maintaining a training staff. While you have to be a VIP member of FBA to see the whole presentation, she was kind enough to share her expertise with FIT Presenter. Staci outlines the key points, tips, and red flags in recruiting, screening, and hiring instructors and trainers.  

Mike McQuillan

About the author

Mike McQuillan, aka the Fit Presenter, coaches fitness industry professionals to give top-quality presentations, seminars, and courses. His day job is an English teacher in Lima, Peru.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}