Getting Started as a Personal Trainer

Getting Started as a Personal Trainer

So you want to become a personal trainer? You think that working in a gym and teaching other people everything you’ve learned from both working out and studying sounds like the best job ever?

You’re right.

Personal training is one of the most rewarding jobs you could have, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t pitfalls that you need to try to avoid to help your career get off to a solid start. I became a certified personal trainer at the ripe old age of 19, in between my freshman and sophomore year of college, and I did a few things right and a lot of things wrong that you can learn from.

Here are some first-hand Do’s and Don’ts that I learned along the way.

DO Earn a Good Certification

There are countless personal trainer certifications out there (I’m sure someone could count all of the certifications, but that person would have to be incredibly bored). These certifications vary greatly in quality, reputation, and pre-requisites.

For example, the NSCA’s CSCS is widely recognized as the most difficult and most respected fitness credential. I took the CSCS exam after finishing a Master’s degree in Exercise Science and still failed it by 1 point the first time (yes, I later passed it). In fact, out of everyone I know in the fitness industry that has taken this test only one person has passed it on the first try. Depending on the clientele you want to work with, this is probably the very best certification, however, you have to have a college degree or be a senior in college that is about to graduate in order to even sit for the test.

Therefore, if you are currently in college, or didn’t go to college but still want to get an excellent certification, you’re going to have to look elsewhere.

My mentor recommended that I take the American Council on Exercise, or ACE personal training test. I studied for about 4 months and took and passed it. The ACE certification is an excellent option for someone who is still in school because it is both challenging and reputable. I was hired at a local gym as a personal trainer, and at my university as a strength coach for the softball team within a couple of months of passing the test, so I definitely think it was worth earning a certification that actually required a great deal of preparation.

DON'T Schedule Early Morning Workouts if You Hate Mornings 

I’m in no way, shape or form a morning person, but 27 years old me could handle scheduling an early morning workout with a new client. However, 19 years old me was not quite so responsible.

Six months into my personal training job, my boss quasi-pressured me into taking on a client whose husband was purchasing her a personal training package, however, the client could only fit early mornings into her schedule. After quite a bit of prodding, I accepted the challenge of training this woman super early. However, on the morning of our first session, my alarm failed to go off, and I completely slept through the session.

The client showed up to an empty gym and neither she nor her husband was too pleased. We re-scheduled the session, but after that, we parted ways. It turned out that she wasn’t all that motivated in the first place, which led to some pretty terrible sessions.

DO Help People at The Gym

Help people in the gym that are in dire situations instead of laughing at them.

One day when I was working as a trainer in the college gym, a guy that was running on the treadmill dropped his iPod (yes, iPod, not iPhone). Rather than stopping the treadmill and casually stepping off to pick it up, the guy just bent over with the treadmill still running full speed. Of course, the treadmill flung him off of the back and pinned him against the wall behind it, going full-on power-sander on his knees. As if this wasn’t bad enough, once he finally managed to get back on his feet, iPod intact, he stepped straight back onto the running treadmill and fell on his face again.

A fellow trainer and I had to go into an office to keep him from seeing us laughing and we never saw the poor guy in the gym again. Although it was really funny, the more professional thing to do would have been to go over and make sure the guy was OK and to remind him to turn off the treadmill (and always wear the safety clip) before he jumped back on. Even though it was a funny scene, I most likely lost some credibility or at least perceived professionalism from everyone in the gym that saw me laughing at the guy rather than helping him … including potential clients.

DON'T Assume Anything

Don't assume anything about your clients.

As a seasoned 21-year-old trainer I picked up a graduating college senior as a client. He was a really nice guy, had a great attitude, and by all accounts, he was a generally healthy 22-year-old. He was, however, pretty out of shape in terms of cardiovascular conditioning or muscular strength/endurance. After a thorough warm-up, one of the first exercises that I had him perform was the flat dumbbell chest press.

This is a pretty straightforward exercise, but because it was our first session I simply wanted to gauge the state of his strength and coordination. Although I assumed that he could probably handle a 10 rep max of between 40 – 50 lbs., I had him grab a pair of only 20’s for the first set. It’s a really good thing that I did. On about the 4th rep as he was pressing the weights up and toward each other his left arm gave out and the dumbbell collapsed squarely on the side of his face before I could grab it.

I immediately grabbed his wrists and removed the weights from his face. He said he was fine and wanted to continue, so, with my hands still on his wrists, he began to press the weights up in an arch again. Sure enough on the very next rep as he approached the top portion of the exercise his arm gave out again and hit him in the face again. It was a low point of my training career, as both of us were thoroughly embarrassed.

The point of this is not to scare you away from becoming a personal trainer. Rather, it’s also to help you avoid a lot of the dumb things that I did as a young trainer. Becoming a trainer really is an awesome choice, even if you don’t do it full-time or you don’t do it forever. However, it’s going to go much smoother if you earn the best credential you can, you don’t take on more than you can handle, you always act like a professional, and you consistently stay engaged with your clients before, during and after workouts. If you can do those things, you’ll do fine.

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Matthew Johnson is a fitness writer, personal trainer, strength coach, as well as a former gym owner. Matthew holds an MBA from The University of Memphis and a Master’s in Exercise Science from Middle Tennessee State University. Matthew has also earned the Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist credential from the NSCA. Matthew recently published his first book, 300 30 Minute Workouts for Busy People, and lives in Memphis, TN with his wife, Anna, and their dog Henderson, and cat, Sox.

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