Guide to Becoming a Strong(er) Exercise Science Student

TAGS: Guide to Becoming a Strong(er) Exercise Science Student, exercise science industry, life lessons, career, networking, education, Joe Schillero, strength and conditioning, coach, training, JL Holdsworth

There are many different exercise-related career paths you can take. Some college degrees include Exercise Science, Sports Science, Pre-Physical Therapy, and Kinesiology, just to name a few. Those degrees, in turn, can lead to careers in Strength and Conditioning, Campus Recreation, Hospital or Commercial-based Wellness, Entrepreneurship, and many others.

I am currently the Fitness and Wellness Graduate Assistant at the University of Akron, and I will be finishing my last year of graduate school and  receiving my Master’s Degree in Exercise Physiology. I've had the opportunity to work in a university setting for the past five years, and I have been supervising undergraduate Exercise and Sports Science students for the past two years. I've worked in collegiate, recreational, commercial, and hospital settings, and I have had the chance to see a lot of undergraduate students’ paths through graduation and beyond.

Those students who have become the most successful in their careers have been those who spent time outside of the classroom—those who spent time learning and building themselves into better coaches and trainers on a daily basis. I’m not sure if I can even name one person who just went to class and got a good job solely based on his or her degree. Going above and beyond is what’s going to allow you to work in a fulfilling career after college.

Below is a list of "Must-Do's" that I wish I would have known about as a freshman in college. Start focusing on these things right away, and you’ll be surprised at how much better of a position you’ll be in come graduation.

1. Train

I chose to list this first because I feel that it is one of the most important. Whether you plan on coaching, personal training, teaching, or managing people in this field, you need to spend time under the bar. This past summer, I was an Intern Strength Coach at JL Holdsworth’s facility, The Spot Athletics, and part of the interview process was doing a max effort squat session with JL. He made it very clear that “if you don’t know how to train, then how the hell can you be a strength coach?”

It doesn't matter if you choose to train for powerlifting, Olympic lifting, or strongman, if you want to train or coach people in the future, you need to spend time getting your education in under the bar. You should have at least four years in college spent training consistently. If so, you’ll be amazed at just how much you will learn from that alone. I've seen way too many students graduate after having never worked out consistently, let alone trained. Learn how to overcome adversity in training—push through obstacles and grind through difficult challenges. Then, take it to the next level and sign up to compete in something. Especially if you plan on working with athletes, you need to know what it feels like to prepare mentally and physically for a competition. Committing to that will make you a much better coach. I really can’t emphasize this enough.

2. Focus on your Passion

One thing this industry doesn't need any more of is ‘gurus’ out to make a quick buck. Sure there are opportunities to make a comfortable living in the fitness industry, but if money is your primary motivation, you need to pick a different career. So hopefully that isn't you. Hopefully, you are instead very passionate about training and that athletics is what brought you into an exercise science career. Embrace that passion and never lose sight of it.  Being in this industry for the right reasons will allow you to feel fulfilled and to successfully invest in others.

3. Get Career Experience While in School

Working in a career-related position while in school not only builds your resume and network, but it also helps you to see whether or not you really want to work in this field. It doesn't need to be a perfect job, either. Even my brief time at Bally Total Fitness years ago taught me things about the commercial gym industry (like that I didn't have a desire to work there in the long run). If you have a specific career focus that you are considering, like physical therapy or strength coaching, spend time shadowing and volunteering at that position. The last thing you want to do is graduate and find out that you really don’t like the career path as much as you initially thought you would.

4. Start Learning How to Deal with People

Whether it’s personal training or coaching, you need to start learning how to teach people and work with them hands-on. Learning the step-by-step process of how to teach a movement from a textbook is great, but it all gets a lot more complicated when you have an athlete or client who doesn't have the proprioception to pass a DUI test sober. You need to learn how to teach different people with different learning patterns, and that only comes with experience. You also need to learn how to deal with different personality types. Different clients and athletes respond differently to specific coaching methods. Some people will need more tough love while others get plenty already and need someone to show them a little compassion. Learn how to adapt your coaching techniques to who you are coaching.

5. Network 

I feel confident in saying that the majority of what determines if you get a job or a graduate assistant position once you graduate is who you know. Get to know people in your career field by going to seminars, corresponding with people via email and social media, volunteering, and completing internships. Even more importantly, it doesn't do you any good if you network with people and their impression of you is poor. Act professionally, be willing to volunteer your time, and make an effort to set yourself apart. Also, consider how you are presenting yourself online and in social media. Think about what someone’s impression of you would be if he or she only knew you by your Facebook or Twitter profile—to some of you, that might be a little scary to think about.

6. Devote Time to your Anatomy/Physiology and Kinesiology Classes

These are some of the most valuable classes you will take in college. An understanding of how the body is built, moves, and works sets the foundation for your future education. Gaining a good understanding from these classes will help you as you apply ideas to training and coaching.

7. Understand Nutrition

Even though your career focus may not be dietetics, exercise science and nutrition go hand-in-hand. You don’t need to become an expert, but you should gain enough knowledge to have a “BS detector” for nutrition information (because there is plenty). Learn about basic nutrition principles including how the body uses macronutrients and its different hormonal responses. Research common dietary protocols so that way if a client or athlete says, “Hey, I started Intermittent Fasting today," you are not only able to make sense of how that will affect his training, but you are also able to give recommendations accordingly (and within your scope of practice).

8. Learn Something Every Day

Although my classroom education gave me a solid foundation, I've found that what I've learned outside of the classroom has been the most beneficial. Spend a few minutes each day to read or watch something informative. Elitefts™ publishes several articles a day and has many great eBooks available, so there is plenty to choose from. Also, make sure you learn how to analyze and process books, articles, and research studies before you draw conclusions or add them to your training philosophy (see more about that below).

9. Begin Developing a Training Philosophy

In many jobs and internships (especially in the field of Strength and Conditioning), you will be asked what your philosophy is for training. Start to think through what it is and why it is as such. Your philosophy will always be evolving and won’t ever be perfect, but if you are going to have athletes, clients, and patients do something, had you better be able to offer explanations with confidence. Also, as you develop your philosophy, don’t restrict yourself to only one method or school of thought. Learn about different philosophies and how they can affect your training and coaching.

10. Remain Humble and Open-Minded

You've probably heard the term “they knew just enough to be dangerous.” This concept, unfortunately, applies to a lot of people, especially students in the exercise science field. Don’t take one thing you've learned (even if it’s a good thing) and suddenly parade yourself around as an expert, refusing to be open to learning different things. As I learn more, it always makes me realize how much I don’t know. Always remain humble and open-minded to ideas, while at the same time keeping things simple and sticking to your core philosophy.

These are just a few things that will help you set yourself apart from other students as you go through college. The fact that you’re reading articles on this site means that you have a desire to grow your knowledge outside of the classroom. Take that ambition to the next level and view every day as an opportunity to better yourself. There are fulfilling careers out there in this field, but no one is going to hand you a job after graduation. Work hard and set high expectations for yourself. You never know who could be watching.

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