Personal Training: Myth Versus Reality

TAGS: popular fitness, mainstream fitness, career path, personal trainer, working with clients, fitness industry, Alexander Cortes, strength and conditioning, fitness, coach, personal training

In her last article, Jennifer Petrosino covered the ins and outs of the educational routes that you can take when deciding whether or not you want to work in the “fitness” industry. She covered the different appeals each of them might have based on your interests and the context in which they're applicable.

My background is a little bit different from Jen's. While she has led herself into formal education, I’ve been in the gym. I’ve been a rookie trainer with zero clients, and I've had an active roster of over 20 people. I’ve trained thousands of sessions, worked as a personal training manager, and worked with over 120 trainers on five different staffs at three different nationally known companies. I’ve worked privately at boutique gyms, I’ve done (and currently do) online programming, and I've gotten my foot in the door on writing content for websites and magazines. While I sure as hell wouldn’t say that I've done it all, I have been in the industry long enough to give some degree of insight into what career paths you can take, what kind of experience and education you'll really need to get better, and how to avoid many of the common pitfalls and traps that leave promising trainers broke and burnt out.

To preface, this isn't intended to be a comprehensive overview of every possible path. I won't discuss getting into strength and conditioning as a coach, and I won't discuss niche sports such as Strongman, CrossFit, or Mud Runs. I’m not talking about opening up your own gym or how to get sponsorship and be a fitness personality. This is for personal training and personal training only.

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All that said, I'll start by dispelling one pervasive myth that is often associated with working in the fitness field—being a trainer is like never having a real job, right?


Before I cover anything about the industry, I want to make one thing completely and utterly clear. Being a successful trainer—successful enough to support yourself with a living income, consistent clients, and a sustainable business—takes work. It takes as much work as any other profession. And it sure as hell isn’t “easy” just because you get to wear athletic pants while doing it.

Notice that I used the word profession, as in you must be professional. I've known many people who worked in the fitness industry, and I've known very few professional people who worked in fitness. Guess which ones were successful? It wasn't the guy who showed up in dirty sweatpants and a cut off T-shirt and played Angry Birds while his client flailed away on whatever machine wasn’t taken that day.

If you approach a career in fitness with a half-assed attitude, thinking this will be easy money, or that you’ll get some clients because you have great abs and you won't have to work more than five hours a day, you're in for a very rude awakening.

I know people who have done that, and even if they do manage to get a few clients, they live paycheck to paycheck and swiftly realize how disillusioned they were in their thinking. They drop out in due time. Or they become the bitter, struggling trainer who complains about how the system works against them. Either way, you don’t want to be this person.

That said, you don’t necessarily need to devote the entirety of your being in order to be a moderately successful fitness professional. I've known people who work part-time, do a great job with their clients, and really enjoy what they do. But they are few in number, and they are very focused individuals.

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Three distinct traits separate the successful people from the crash and burn cases:

  • Dedication: You take this seriously, as in you are actually dedicated to being good at it.
  • Perseverance: You are constantly trying to improve.
  • Strong work ethic: You work a lot and you work hard.

None of the above are really insightful, but they form the groundwork for everything else.

That established, we'll assume that you're serious about this. You attempt to be professional, and you want a career of some kind.

Personal Training = Popular Fitness

Whenever I meet new clients, I always explain my personal background and the biggest influences on me as well as what shapes my current training and career and what defines “fitness” as a whole.

Without going on a tangent as to how I personally train people and what I teach, I'll say that I do this because I want my clients to have some context of what I'm talking about relative to what they hear and read and are exposed to in the media. I want them to be skeptical of me, and I want them to have critical context and logical reasoning abilities in regards to their own health. I'm not a guru or ultimate authority and neither is anyone else.

Within that vein of thinking, one of my foremost lessons is “what is the fitness industry?” Personal training, as I define it, is popular fitness, or you could say mainstream fitness. Most people, barring those who are exposed to strength and conditioning through playing competitive sports, associate fitness with two things: a commercial gym where they have a monthly or yearly membership and the personal trainers who work in that gym.

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To generalize, the media’s depiction of a “fitness person” will almost always be a personal trainer. That’s the popular image. So if you work in popular fitness, you can assume that you'll be dealing with “regular people” and “average Joes and Janes” and that you aren't training elite athletes or high level athletes. You'll be dealing with the myths, misconceptions, and misunderstandings that accompany “popular fitness.”

This requires a lot of patience, a lot of understanding, and a lot of interpersonal skills working with individuals who all are very different in their capabilities.

Comparing Personal Training to Strength and Conditioning

Why do I bring this up? Because good trainers will often have the coveted CSCS certification, just as many strength and conditioning coaches will. Subsequently, I've seen personal trainers try to compare themselves to strength and conditioning coaches and they shouldn’t.

Overall, these are two different fields. Working with teams and large groups in a competitive setting isn't comparable to speaking one on one with a person who is a parent or a six-day-a-week working professional. This isn't to say that someone couldn't be great at both, but each of them is a very different working environment. The education of someone in strength and conditioning will usually trump personal training any day, but personal training has a strong interpersonal communication component that is different from strength and conditioning. Management skills can be learned from both, although training is definitely more “bottom line” focused than with strength and conditioning. No strength and conditioning coach will be approached every month for a business plan and asked how many client renewals he's getting.

What Personal Trainers Can Learn from Strength and Conditioning

If I was hypothetically working as a strength and conditioning coach, my job would be predicated on the physical performance of my athletes. If they don’t get bigger/stronger/faster, I'm not keeping my job.

In contrast, personal training is often a dead end game of some novice improvements but no long-term changes. Clients can be fooled into repeatedly resigning with a trainer because the trainer knows just enough to keep a client “entertained” without actually improving anything past a beginning stage.

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I explain to new clients that my role isn't to entertain them but to improve their physical performance relative to subjective goals. If they want to look a certain way, we must train them to the level of strength and conditioning that aligns to that look. From there, that's what can be maintained. In that manner, I use the following comparison: “Imagine if you were an athlete and you had to get measurably better at your sport. Your training would probably be pretty specific and technical, right?”

When asked this question, most people will agree because it makes sense to them. Expanding on that, I teach them that there is an entire field of science devoted to improving the performance of the human body. Your levels of physical strength will directly impact your ability to condition yourself, and both of these play a profound role in all aspects of health and metabolism. Physical strength can be distinctly assessed and measured, as can endurance, conditioning, and flexibility/mobility. Improving these things follows a defined continuum of stimulus, adaptation, and appropriate changes to continue progressive adaptation.

If this seems like a lot to talk about, it is. Knowing how to explain this in layman’s terms takes practice for sure. It took me about four years before I really had this conversation down with smooth delivery.

The reason I share this is because I want clients to know that there is a science to the body. There are textbooks and degrees that accompany all these things. This isn’t just about workouts or magic tricks or secrets.

For 99 percent of people, this is the first time that they've ever heard the human body explained in this fashion, and this runs counter to what most people see in the media. So in sharing this with them, I'm not only establishing my own value as a trainer, but I'm also trying to make them an educated consumer.

So Where Do I Start?

In the next installment of this series, I’ll cover the educational routes for a personal trainer, the vast sea of certifications, and the job opportunities that exist. This series isn't intended to simply rehash the steps that it takes to become a personal trainer but is rather meant to be a real insight into the unseen and sometimes dishonest aspects of the profession and field of fitness. My intention isn't to dissuade anyone from exploring the fitness field but to provide an honest account of the daily reality that comes from working in it. As always, I welcome any feedback or commentary.

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