What Does it Actually Take to Become a Successful Personal Trainer?

Some 18 months ago, I had a moment where I realised the harsh truth about what being a Personal Trainer really felt like. I had just finished with an 8:30 p.m. client and, as I hadn’t seen my girlfriend in two days, I had agreed to cook a late dinner for us both.

There was just one problem with this: I was knackered.

Not only that, but I still had a few client issues to deal with from that day’s work and I was supposed to be up at 4:45 a.m. for a 6:00 a.m. client the next day.

This was becoming a common problem in my life – I was constantly unrested, lacking in time or energy to see the people that meant the most to me and struggling to fit in promises I’d made to the people I was working with.

I remember this evening well; alongside cooking that meal, I also received two texts from two clients in the space of half an hour to say to they were stopping Personal Training.

The realisation of what it truly takes to succeed as a Personal Trainer hit me all in one evening, like a bloody bus.

Although I know every other profession can be just as challenging as being a Personal Trainer (PT), the scale of what it takes to become a competent PT can be incredibly misleading for someone who hasn’t spent any time in the industry.

On the outside, it looks like the perfect career.

To preface this, I think it’s important to state where your head is likely at if you’re either considering starting, or just starting out in the PT world. If you’ve been in the industry for a substantial period of time you’ll probably end up laughing along at some of these as well (and thanks to some of the members of Lift The Bar for helping me out with these!).

You probably think –

  • You’ll get to work whenever you want
  • You’ll have people queuing up to work with you
  • You can announce on Facebook you’re now PT-ing and people will beg to work with you
  • You’ve changed yourself, which means other people will be easy to change
  • You’ll earn a healthy pay cheque by simply showing people how to use weights, build muscle and lose fat
  • You’ll get to work with people like yourself who really love to exercise
  • You’ve completed your level 3 Personal Training qualification, and you know everything you’ll need to know… ever
  • You don’t need to know anything about business
  • Business cards, a nice logo, a Facebook page with a transformation picture of you and a T-shirt with your phone number on the back will be all the marketing you need
  • The truth? All of the above are either complete rubbish, or take you a hell of a long time to get anywhere near accomplishing.

I know PTs who have been in the industry for 4 years who still work from 6:00 a.m. through 9:00 p.m. most days.

I know PTs who have 10+ years experience who still work weekends.

It takes a lot more than a level 3 certification, some transformation photos of yourself and 1000 followers on your business page on Facebook to become proficient at this job.
I really don’t want this blog to turn into a “don’t get into this industry, you are setting yourself up for failure” article, or to scare you away, as it’s easily one of the most rewarding jobs you can do when done properly. However, I would like to break some of the misconceptions about some of the things you probably don’t realise you are going to face when taking that step into the PT world.

1. Hard, smart work

I originally just had this down as “hard work”, but hard work won’t guarantee you anything in anything. It’s got to be hard work with an element of intelligence attached to it. By this, I mean you can’t just put in 15 hours day which is spent looking something like –

  • 10 hours surfing through Facebook, occasionally arguing with another PT about something with of no importance.
  • 2 hours of training clients
  • 1 hour spent writing Facebook posts, half of this spent worrying about what people might say about said post
  • 1 hour’s programme writing
  • 1 hour of walking the gym floor, most of this spent talking to other PT’s about the best pre-workout
  • It’s got to be prioritised, structured hard work.
If you’re just starting out and have no clients, your main goal should be to start getting people to realise how good you are at what you do. This could then be broken down into writing Facebook posts about relevant information to your target audience, taking people through free personal training sessions, designing posters for a seminar you’re going to do and creating a free Facebook group for your local area.

2. Continued Professional Development (CPD)

After my first ever PT session I remember quickly realising I knew very little about the things that I could really use to help the clients I was working with.

Yes, I knew about supersets; yes, I knew how to start a treadmill… but I knew very little about how to connect with a person, or how to get them actually adhering to the plan I was putting forward.

You’ll be left behind in the personal training world if you don’t prioritise CPD because this is an industry that is moving incredibly fast, and the people that are at the top of it are putting their development as a high priority. There’s new research released on a monthly basis about things that will enable you to help the people you work with achieve their goals faster, and more effectively.

Although your level 3 qualification is all you ‘legally’ need, when it comes to creating training programmes that people enjoy and actually want to do, getting someone to adhere to their nutrition outside of the sessions they are with you, or creating an environment that breads trust and rapport… you’ll need more than just that level 3 piece of paper.

3. Get good at personal training first

Continually learning and putting your development high in your list of priorities when you qualify is important – but actually applying this into the practical side of your job is even more important.

Don’t be one of these trainers who can construct a Facebook ad campaign better than you can deconstruct a client’s squat. If you want to become great at what you do, then you need to prioritise it. It’s as simple as that.

Personal training is all about being able to coach people to their given goal. Unfortunately, being good at the online world and marketing does not mean you’ll be good at actually coaching people in a 1-2-1 or group setting.

Get great at doing that, then try and make your brand as recognizable as Apple.

4. Being good at what you do isn’t enough, you need to know business

Yes – I know it sounds like I’ve done a complete one-eighty here after point number 3, but this is the reality you’ll face as a PT: you’ll have to wear many different hats on any given day of the week.

Monday might be a really busy client day for you, whereas Thursday’s are quieter and this is when you put some time aside to focus on your business.

Having a basic understanding of how to sell to someone, how to price your product, what to do with your accounts, marketing on social media and websites are all part of the bigger picture of being a successful trainer.

I don’t enjoy much of the business side of things. As a self-employed trainer who doesn’t have the luxury of employing a PA, however, I have to get to grips with some of rudimentary aspects of business – and you’ll have to as well.

5. Client-centred focus

When you first start out as a PT and attend your first few seminars (CPD? Check!), you’ll start to see that there is a better way of doing things. The trouble with this can be that you can start to see everything through one lens, instead of using your “big picture brain” about what it is that the client actually wants.

Just attended a seminar all about powerlifting?

Cue all your clients training in a 10-week block leading up to a 1RM squat, bench press and deadlift test.

Just attended a bodyweight seminar?

That’ll be everyone doing different versions of pistol squats, press-ups, handstands and other funky looking bodyweight exercises.

The client, and their specific goal should always come first; your own personal preference towards exercising should not interfere with this.

Anytime you consider whether or not an exercise should be in a client’s programme you should be asking yourself –

“Will this help my client move further towards their specific goal?”

Got a yes to that question? Great, keep it in. Got a no? Have a quick rethink about why it’s there, and either replace it with something more suitable or ensure you change your justification process.

6. People skills

As a PT you have no choice but to continually interact, converse and create value with the people you meet. Without the ability to hold a conversation and ask the right questions, you’ll be seriously limited in your growth in this industry.

This is because personal training is all about the connections and relationships that you have with the people that you meet and that eventually end up buying from you.

Connections create trust, which creates adherence, which creates results, which can create referrals, which can finally create what you need to sustain your livelihood – sales.

The above, although rather simplistically broken down and with the obvious exclusion of a few steps, can quite easily happen if you have enough knowledge to facilitate change in a client and if the client believes in you enough to adhere to the programme.

Your people skills are the things that will be able to encourage change in a client. Without them, you’ll unfortunately be fighting a losing battle in the war of change with the people you work with.

7. View your first few years as an apprenticeship

You might think you can wander into any gym and convince anybody to take up personal training with you. In reality, it’ll take you a few years to get to that level.

The main reason for this is simple – you’ll likely not have enough information about selling, practical programming and all the other things I’ve mentioned that you’ll need as a PT.

Those first few years are all about learning, getting experience and setting your career up for future success.

Yes there absolutely are trainers out there who get themselves up and running very quickly, and you could well be one of them. However, if you start off with the expectation that you’ll be this trainer, there is a high chance you’re setting yourself up for failure.

View your first few years of personal training as an apprenticeship and get yourself into the mindset of continually learning, working long hours, helping as many people as you can (quite often without pay). Focus on that, and the money and success will come.

How to start building a successful PT career

I’d like to offer a few tips and solutions to any trainer who has read this article and is wondering how and where they can actually start building a successful PT business.

1. Start helping

How do you know if you’ll actually enjoy being a PT?

Start helping a person out. Offer advice, help them with their training, educate them on nutrition… essentially you want to “dip your toe” into the coaching pond and see if it’s for you.

It doesn’t matter if this person is your friend, a family member or a partner – start helping them and you’ll be able to get a feel for what being a PT is actually like.

If this feels like the scariest thing in the world, see if you can find a local trainer to shadow for a few weeks.

2. Get certified

The next stage, if you enjoyed stage 1, is to get yourself qualified.

Naturally, I’m going to recommend you do it via the SBS Academy, which opens its doors VERY soon. If this isn’t logistically an option, any course will suffice; it’s all about getting qualified, then learning on the job and educating yourself.

If you are interested in the SBS Academy, make sure you sign up to the email list – that’ll be the first place where we notify people that the Academy is open for enrolment!

3. Learn from the leaders

I’d then recommend you spend the next few years investing in seminars, courses, books, mentoring programmes and generally just learning from the people who have been there and done it in the fitness industry.

4. Love The Process

Lastly, and I personally think this is the most important stage – start loving the process of becoming a successful PT.

You have the potential to have one of the most rewarding and fulfilling careers out there. Being able to help people accomplish things they didn’t think they could, and helping clients improve their own lifestyles is an incredibly gratifying experience that you’ll get the bug for very quickly!

I really couldn’t love the job I get to do more, and I really wouldn’t change it for the world. That said, I don’t think being a PT is for everyone – and there are a lot of misconceptions about the work that a PT does.

Don’t get your expectations muddled up with reality.

Do your homework, get some experience doing the job before you commit to it 100%, and then spend the time refining your skills.
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