I vividly remember my first interaction with a personal trainer. He was working with a client in my local gym, and stuck his ass in my face as I did a set of bench presses.
A few minutes later I noticed he was hogging a lot of equipment, including some dumbbells I wanted to use. So I took the dumbbells while he worked with his client on another exercise. When he saw I was using them, he stormed over and demanded them back, scolding me for interfering with his client’s workout. So I got up, looked him right in the eye, and said he didn’t hesitate to interfere with my workout when he stuck his butt in my face.
It was an unusually testicular move on my part. He was big; I’m not. In my memory, there was a moment of silence as he weighed the satisfaction of punching me out against the risk of having to explain an aggravated-assault conviction to future clients. The stare-down ended when he apologized, and asked if he could have the weights back when I was finished.
I remember that story mostly for the obvious reason: I stood up to a bully and kept my teeth. But there’s also the fact that my first encounter with a personal trainer would be so hostile. Just a few years later, starting as an editor at Men’s Fitness magazine, I would be in almost daily contact with this new breed of fitness pro.
I’m not a trainer myself, although I am an NSCA-certified strength and conditioning specialist, and I’ve interviewed trainers for almost every article I’ve written over the past 20 years. I write books with trainers, and when I travel to conferences and seminars, that’s who I hang out with.
So I’ve had a lot of time to talk to trainers about what they do, on top of having a front-row seat as their profession evolved from the occasional meathead in a health club to an actual career path – with dental plans, in some cases. The really good ones, I’ve noticed, have these five traits in common:
• solid education
• passion for training
• passion for coaching
• strong work ethic
• relentless curiosity
Not every good trainer I’ve worked with has collected the complete set. Some skipped college. Others admit they’ve grown bored with their own training. Maybe there’s a lazy one out there who’s nonetheless good at what he does. That’s the great thing about the profession: The more diverse your clients become, the more options open up for trainers with unconventional backgrounds and qualifications.
My goal here is to show you what most of the trainers and coaches I work with have in common. What matters isn’t that you walk the exact same path. But you should at least know what the straightest path to your destination is.
I’ve written books with Alwyn Cosgrove, Chad Waterbury, Mike Mejia, and Ian King: four primary coauthors, from three different continents, with completely different lives and backgrounds. But they share one important trait: Each has a master’s degree in exercise science.
I’ve also worked with fitness pros who have degrees in computer science and English. What I rarely do is work with a trainer who has no college experience at all.
Recently I’ve gotten into arguments – well, more like polite discussions with respectful disagreement – about the importance of education. Some fitness pros today believe that a college degree doesn’t matter, and that everything worth knowing can be learned by doing. Whatever studying you do should be specific to your job. Universities, by contrast, force you to spend as much time studying outside your major as inside it.
On top of that, college is expensive. The higher-education experience was historically reserved for the children of wealthy and generous parents, and while it’s now open to all, it’s still easiest when someone else writes the checks. If yours can’t, or won’t (and mine certainly couldn’t, and didn’t), there aren’t many options. A few of you are smart enough to earn scholarships, or poor enough or qualify for financial aid. Everyone else can pay cash up front, take out loans, or manage some combination.
The anti-college argument I hear most often is that a degree in physical education or exercise physiology doesn’t prepare a coach for anything useful.
That may be true. (My degree is in journalism, so I wouldn’t know.) But it’s beside the point. Colleges aren’t trade schools. Their purpose is to prepare you for a lifetime of learning, including a lot of things that won’t seem important at the time.
There will be classes you’d rather not take, with teachers you don’t respect who assign papers you don’t want to write. In real life, you’re going to have to answer to people you don’t like. You’re going to have to learn things you’d rather not know, and fill out paperwork that’s often redundant, if not absurd.
Unlike high school, you’re treated as both an adult and a paying customer. You don’t want to wake up in time for class on Monday morning? Fine, nobody cares. Show up, don’t show up. Pass, fail. The teacher still gets paid, and the college still gets your tuition. If you borrowed the money, you still have to pay it back.
For many of us, college offers the first, most important, and potentially most expensive life lesson: The entire value of your education comes from what you put into it.
You don’t have to look like a bodybuilder to be a good trainer. In more than 20 years of writing about fitness, I can probably count the number of competitive bodybuilders I worked with on one hand. Most, however, look like they train. And quite a few share another trait: They’ve actively competed in something that required serious, focused training.
Take Ian King, for example. Long before we wrote The Book of Muscle together, Ian was a record-setting powerlifter in New Zealand.
Over the years he worked with champion athletes in countless individual and team sports on every continent that isn’t permanently encased in ice. They won Olympic medals and World Cup trophies. I don’t know if any of them competed in powerlifting. But I have to think his background helped him understand the athletes he was training.
Then there’s Alwyn Cosgrove, with whom I wrote the five New Rules of Lifting books. Alwyn was a Scottish and European champion in tae kwon do before he moved to the states. I don’t know if his experience helps him understand his clients’ struggles. But Alwyn has said many times that his exposure to world-class coaching made all the difference for him when he began his own training career.
I don’t think it makes much difference what you train for, or in what sport or activity you competed, or still compete. The point is that if you want to teach stuff, you need to do stuff. It doesn’t matter if it’s bodybuilding, powerlifting, running, CrossFitting, Tough Muddering, or that thing where you chase a wheel of cheese down a hill in England.
It also doesn’t matter if you’re actually good at it. As someone who’s sucked at everything, I’m in awe of people who’re elite at anything. But I’m pretty sure your clients won’t care. They aren’t there for you, and they’ll probably be turned off by someone who flaunts his awesomeness.
If you don’t compete at something, the next-best option is to change something. If you’re not lean, try to get lean. If you’re thin, make yourself thick. My point here isn’t that every trainer has to look a certain way to be successful. But you should understand how difficult it is to challenge your own genetics and make different lifestyle choices. If you can’t do it, how do you expect more from your clients?
Almost everyone reading this knows more about hands-on coaching than I do. The few times I tried gave me an acute appreciation for how difficult it is to explain, demonstrate, cue, and correct exercise form.
Which is not to say that I don’t coach. I do it all day, every day in articles, books, emails, and on Facebook. No matter how many times I describe an exercise or technique, there’s always a reader who doesn’t understand, forcing me to dig a little deeper and find a better way to explain it.
The best trainers I work with are constantly coaching. Sometimes I’ll ask what I think is a simple question and in return I’ll get a thesis, including details I never would’ve figured out on my own. The more experienced ones might shift to business or social-media coaching. But the passion to teach, to help people improve, never changes.
If you don’t have that passion, if you wake up each morning and go to bed every night not caring if anyone gets better at anything, then personal training isn’t the right career for you. Find something else to do – even within the fitness industry there are other ways to make a living – because apathy can’t be fixed.
During my struggling-screenwriter days, I made a living waiting tables. It’s a bad job for someone with no inherent interest in food service. I was fine when it was busy and I didn’t have to think. The work was right there in front of me. Take orders, serve food, collect money. I was good at all that. My problems came when business was slow. When you don’t care, you have no incentive to use your downtime productively.
If you’re just starting out as a personal trainer, probably the best move you can make is interning with someone who’s already successful at what you want to do. Watch everything. How he dresses. Posture. Body language. Tone of voice. How he cues athletes. How he explains exercises and techniques to different types of clients.
Also watch what he does in between athletes or clients, when he doesn’t think you’re watching. Does he surf the web? Flirt with coworkers? Argue about sports? Or does he record training results, write new programs, or squeeze in his own workouts?
In other words, does he use time, or waste it? You want to learn not only how to do things right, but how to avoid doing things wrong.
If you ever get the opportunity, ask a successful fitness pro what he’s reading. Chances are he isn’t reading books about training. He’s already read the classics – pull one off his shelf at random, and you’ll probably see highlights and Post-its and handwritten notes on almost every page. Now he’s looking for better ways to apply what he already knows.
So he’s reading books about marketing, or psychology. Or he’s trying to learn more about public speaking, or how to improve his writing.
Whatever he’s reading or doing, you’ll notice a common theme: He’s trying to get better at something. Sometimes it’s obvious that he’s trying to boost his business or elevate his communication skills. But not always. Chad Waterbury, for example, has suggested some of the best nonfiction books I’ve ever read. It’s almost embarrassing to admit that a fitness professional told me about The Swerve, easily the best book I’ve read about the origins of publishing, which just happens to be my profession.
What ties all these traits together
Now we circle back to where I began. The fitness industry has changed dramatically since my first encounter with a personal trainer. So has my own field. (In my first job after journalism school, I used a typewriter. We didn’t even have email until the mid-1990s, when I was a senior-level editor at Men’s Fitness.) Education is the key to success in a rapidly changing world. It begins in the classroom, but it continues for life.
Which brings me to a subject I haven’t yet mentioned: certifications. I earned three. The first was an in-house cert at a community college, which involved, IIRC, eight weeks of lectures with some hands-on training and a test at the end.
The second was from the American Council on Exercise. Back in 1997, I thought the ACE test was the hardest I’d ever taken. With no background in exercise science beyond that initial certification class, I studied for months, and was elated when I passed.
But that was baby stuff compared to the CSCS exam from the National Strength and Conditioning Association, which I took in 2001. I think I got the same grade as my ACE test, but I’d estimate my knowledge of science and practice tripled in the four years in between. For one thing, I moved to Men’s Health in 1998. The demands of the job forced me to catch up to the trainers I relied on for information. For another, I viewed myself in a new way: I wasn’t just a journalist who happened to write about fitness; I was a writer who was also a fitness professional.
I don’t think it matters what certifications I have, or even which ones you have. Your clients probably don’t know the difference. The key is that you have them. Notice I said “them,” as in more than one.
Multiple certs don’t mean you know more than the trainer who has just one. But they do suggest you want to know more. They suggest you value education, you take training seriously, you have a passion for coaching, you’re driven to succeed, and you get a kick out of learning something new.
I can’t guarantee these traits will lead to success. All I can say for certain is that every good trainer I’ve worked with shares most of them. The very best fitness professionals have them all.
Lou Schuler, CSCS, earned his bachelor of journalism degree from the University of Missouri in 1979, making him one of the few people who can honestly say he went to college for a BJ. He’s a National Magazine Award-winning journalist and author or coauthor of many popular books about strength training and nutrition, including, most recently, The New Rules of Lifting Supercharged, with Alwyn Cosgrove.