Every article imaginable has been written about personal training, calling out the industry, disparaging it, revealing it, highlighting it and taking it down. I, myself, have written articles discussing the state of the industry.
Personal training gets a bad reputation, and I can't deny that, as a personal trainer myself, it largely deserves it. It’s easy to criticize and criticism is often warranted, but this isn’t a “bash the training industry” article. Rather, let's take the opposite perspective and recognize how underappreciated personal training is. It's not an easy job by any means. As bad as most trainers are, being good at this profession is equally as difficult. Fitness isn't a simple and linear profession to excel in, and no amount of feel good “passion” or motivation or working in a gym disguises the fact that it requires a very diverse and developed skill set.
Don’t Screw This Up
A personal trainer with a full schedule has about 12–15 clients who average about 2–3 appointments per week. This means that you have 12 individuals you must meet with for multiple hours each month every week, and every single one of those interactions is an opportunity for you to fuck up and blow it. Consider that in most service industries, the customer is seen only one time. For example, buying a car is an investment, but you likely only meet with the salesman once, maybe twice. Sure, it’s a long day, but it’s a single interaction. With personal training, you're on average (assuming a client trains three times a week) seeing an individual 12 hours a month. Multiply that by 12 and you get 144 hours of intense, one-on-one interaction. You can't be disinterested during those hours. You can't be low energy. You can't show up for only 80 percent of them and cancel the other 20 percent. You'd swiftly lose clients if you did that. And one bad hour, one day, when you come in late and are low energy and disinterested can undo months of goodwill with that client. You can't afford to ever be “off” as a trainer.
You Can't Have a Bad Day
With most service jobs, you can doze off. You can have underperforming days. But that's not the case with personal training, especially if you're charging premium prices. If you're a trainer who charges $100 an hour, you had better uphold that price point. Are you proving your value for every one of those dollars?
If your hourly rate is $150 or more, you're a luxury service. That’s considered a pretty significant hourly wage by most standards. Is your service world class? Are your interactions world class? Every time?
Imagine you have a bad week because of personal issues. So now you’ve delivered low quality service for a quarter of the month. You get a “C” for your service this month from your clients. Do you think they will want to reinvest with you if you string two or three months together like this? No, they probably won’t. Again, as a trainer, you can never be off.
Your Clients Will Affect You
And what about the clients? For example, let’s assume that you have over 30 appointments a week. Every day, you have multiple people coming in with different moods, energy levels and personalities. Some days, they'll be great. Other days, you may have five clients in a row all with low energy and upset with various life stressors. Are you able to manage that every week, week in and week out, for months and years and not be bothered by it?
Imagine that you have some clients going through a divorce, and you train both of them. You may think, “I only train people. I don’t talk to them about personal stuff.” But I guarantee that trainees will share personal information with you. Will this affect you? Will you effectively be able to not internalize this and instead brush it off? Will you handle this professionally and show compassion for someone at the same time who feels they can confide in you? You may say, “That’s not my job,” but it is your job.
You are a personal trainer. There is a reason why "personal" comes first. You'll be absorbing people's emotional vomit at times, and you can’t simply tell them to shut up. As a trainer, you can't ever be off.
You Can Never Not Care
You'll deal with clients of various physical capabilities. Don’t idealize and think that if you train “athletes,” this will be different. You'll never have the same person walk in the door with the exact same needs as the next person.
You can never hurt anyone. At best, the client comes back and it’s a total accident. At worst, you or your gym gets sued and you never see that client again. You can never get complacent with what you know as a trainer. You can never not be attentive with your clients. What starts as bad service can turn into injury if you're distracted.
You have to deliver results. You have to do this in three hours a week, sometimes two, and make that person come in on the other days when you aren't there. You have to do this while accounting for lifestyle, stress and all the other factors that take place outside the gym that can readily negate the work that you do inside the gym. If you act like you don’t care, you can lose clients. If you get too involved with clients, you can inhibit the work that you do with clients and lose clients. You must develop a sense of professionalism and compassion all at once, and you must maintain and improve upon this week in, week out, and always be proving your value.
You can't take sessions off. You can't take weeks off. If you're away, the likelihood of results goes down. Your vacations had better be very, very planned out. As a trainer, you can never be off.
Good Luck With Your Own Training
Aside from all the above, there is yourself. You have to be fit looking as a personal trainer. Any arguments to the contrary are laughable. You're selling people health and wellness, and the more jacked and tan you are, the more likely you are to attract business. Period. You're expected to live this lifestyle. You can’t afford to have bad months where your training slacks off. You must look the part all the time.
If you target a specific population, you can't not be part of that population. Train physique people? Bodybuilding had better be something that you’re into. Train strength athletes? Guess what? Being strong gets you respect. You had better really love training, and you had better always stick with it.
Every staff I’ve ever worked on and managed, I’ve seen trainers neglect their own training and wellness, and the more clients they get, the unhealthier they get. Then they burn out and comment at how they don’t care about themselves anymore because of their clients. They turn off and it’s hard to pull people out of this. So it’s a balancing act between your needs and your client’s needs. If one suffers, so will the other.
It Takes More Than You Think
I say all of this not out of martyrdom or humble brags about how “hard” life is as a personal trainer but rather to highlight that this profession is, as the title of this article said, not an easy one, not if you want to be good at it.
If I were to pinpoint a truly single reason why so many trainers drop out, why the burnout rate is high and why quality is so low, it would be because people simply don't realize what the job truly entails. They don’t approach it as a profession. They approach it as a lazy way to “work in a gym” and get paid for it. To make a very bad comparison, I'd equate wanting to be a personal trainer “because I think it’s easy” with wanting to become a doctor because “they get paid a lot.”
My father is a physician, and as bad as the above comparison is, he encountered it a lot when he was in pre-med and even during his internship. The attitude wasn't dissimilar. Being a doctor is likely the most prestigious and universally respected profession that someone can do and many people want to do it. And there were many people who got to the pre-med phase, realized “holy shit this is like really hard and a lot of stuff to know” and dropped out. Even the people who made it beyond that got to their medical internships and dropped out when they realized how crushing the hours were. Fortunately, it's common cultural knowledge that being a doctor isn't “easy.” Unfortunately, because of many confounding factors, people assume that being a personal trainer is.
I don’t encourage people to be personal trainers. In fact, generally, I discourage them. There are better fields with more defined career paths, more clearer learning opportunities and advancements and overall better long-term prospects. You have to be internally driven and have both short- and long-term vision to make a viable profession out of this, and most people aren't.
To be a trainer, you have to love to teach and you have to love being around people. It also helps to have a thorough understanding that going from shit to suck to good to maybe someone calls you great will take some time, a lot of time. If that is you, by all means do it and pursue it. If it isn't and you aren't that serious about it, pick something else.