With most of my knowledge of fitness gleaned from reality TV, I imagine a personal trainer's primary role is to yell at people to exercise. Of course nothing is so simple; a good trainer understands how different exercises and diets will affect the body, and what their trainees need to do achieve their fitness goals.
To learn a little about what personal trainers really do beyond the TV stereotype of being more of a drill instructor than a fitness guide, we spoke with Christopher Huffman, CSCS (Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist). Chris runs his own business and been involved with the field for about ten years now.
Tell us a bit about your current position, and how long you've been at it.
I am a certified personal trainer and strength coach at a private personal training studio. I am the owner of the facility, and we have been in business for about 5 years in Boise, Idaho, currently employing two full time trainers. All told, I have been in the fitness industry in some capacity since 2005, including designing strength training programs as an independent online trainer, conducting online marketing for a major supplement company, or working as a project assistant for a major drug trial involving an exercise program.
What drove you to choose your career path?
The major turning point in swaying my interest towards the fitness industry came from my experiences in physical therapy after a traumatic back injury. Through my experiences in rehabilitation, I came to understand the importance of physical therapy in restoring overall ability, but also recognised the shortcomings in restoring previous performance. In other words, I felt well, but not fully capable. Eventually, these experiences coalesced into a desire to pursue a career that would have a more direct and long lasting effect on an individual's fitness and wellness goals. Personal training and strength coaching fit these desires.
As I pursued my own fitness goals, ranging from fat loss to bodybuilding and powerlifting, I came to recognise just how difficult it was to find a direct answer as to how to get a very specific result out of the exercise I was doing. The fitness world is full of misinformation, outright lies, and marketing schemes; my goal was to never be a part of all that. I wanted to work in a career that worked to provide individuals with practical methods to achieve fitness goals based on scientific evidence. All of these ideas and experiences led to becoming a personal trainer.
How did you go about getting your job? What kind of education and experience did you need?
Education and experience in this field are secondary to results produced. Some of the best trainers in the world have no formal education, just a lifetime underneath a barbell. Some of the worst trainers in the world have all the certifications and formal education available, yet cannot produce results in true-life application. In most situations, a good balance of formal education, voluntary education, and practical experience set the foundation for a good trainer. As for myself, I have been resistance training for close to 15 years, have undergraduate degrees in Health and Sports Sciences and Exercise Science, and possess many major certifications, including the NSCA's Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) certification.
I started my own business about 5 years ago, creating my own career path. Previous business ownership experience simplified the path to creating my own career as a trainer, but it has definitely been an uphill battle. Aside from the scientific and practical application knowledge that goes into conducting safe and effective training programs, this career requires a wide range of business related skills and experience. At times, the job itself was more sales, advertising, and marketing than actual training, especially at the start of business. Regardless of whether or not a trainer owns their own studio or gym, they still are the main representative of their own "brand". This requires experience and excellence in customer service, sales, and marketing if you are to expect continued success. You are your own billboard, brand ambassador, and business staff rolled into one.
Did you need any licenses or certifications?
Licensing is not required in the field of personal training or strength coaching in the United States. Certifications are typically required by employers or insurance agencies to demonstrate minimum levels of education and become insurable, but are not necessary in order to conduct business as an independent trainer (albeit, an un-insurable one). Certifications can range in requirement and prestige, with many only requiring the applicant be 18 years of age, a high school graduate, and CPR and AED certified. A few advanced certifications require an undergraduate degree or higher in the field of exercise science (or related), clinical experience, internships, or a combination thereof.
What kinds of things do you do beyond what most people see? What do you actually spend the majority of your time doing?
The grand majority of time as a personal trainer is spent training clients, either one-on-one or in a group setting. This time includes teaching and critiquing movement patterns, evaluating overall performance and scaling training intensity to current fitness levels, and providing general encouragement and a helpful "push" to help clients get past plateaus and set new personal bests. Down time during rest or non-training days with clients is spent discussing training goals, evaluating body composition, or teaching facets of nutrition and exercise science that can be applied outside the gym in the real world. Clients are typically provided with workouts to perform outside of our studio space in addition to their normal weekly sessions, especially with time consuming cardiovascular routines where frequent monitoring is not necessary.
The remainder of the time is spent planning training programs, conducting general business affairs, or working on overall business improvement, which includes my own personal fitness. Building training programs typically takes 5-10 minutes to every in-studio training hour for the average training client. For advanced clients or those with health issues (including injury rehabilitation), planning can take multiple hours per month. My most advanced clients have programs that typically take 1-2 hours to initially construct (for a 4-16 week program), with multiple weekly updates that can take up quite a bit more time. All in all, I spend about 5 hours or more per week working on spreadsheets, training logs, or other client data.
General business time includes advertising, marketing, social media, web design, consultations, answering calls and emails, networking, and all the other things that keep the doors open. The hours spent on these endeavours are countless.
What misconceptions do people often have about your job?
Even though I wear workout clothes to work every day, this is not an easy job. The hours can be absolutely gruelling, namely due to the most demanded time slots in a typical workday schedule (early AM before work, late PM after work). Client cancellations and reschedules typically make for completely upended schedules week to week, making it difficult to have a normal schedule and social life.
We don't scream at everyone. It's not a television show. There are revelations to be had, but the music doesn't swell and the flashback montage doesn't roll when it happens. We just keep working. It's not glamorous, it's just consistent hard work.
Also, we are not all ultra-fit, ripped, chicken-and-broccoli-eating trainers. I live a balanced lifestyle, including resistance training, cardiovascular exercise, and a healthy nutrition plan. But I also eat ice cream. And no, I don't have shredded abs year-round. I perform my job duties best when I pursue my own fitness goals, focusing on performance more than aesthetic. While I may be intimidating to a newer trainee with less muscle and more body fat, I may not be all that impressive to an extremely lean and muscular bodybuilder. My appearance has nothing to do with the results I provide nor the knowledge I possess.
What are your average work hours?
I make my own schedule. With that being said, I work a split shift, beginning with 4:30AM to 12PM and ending with 4PM to 8PM most evenings. I will typically work 8-12 training hours per day, but this varies with client adherence and retention. An average work-week consists of 40-45 training hours, and 5-10 hours on "behind the scenes" work.
What personal tips and shortcuts have made your job easier?
Taking care of my own personal health, including mental well-being, is paramount to success in this field. No one wants a worn out trainer that has trouble demonstrating a healthy and vibrant fitness lifestyle; they want someone positive, upbeat, and enthusiastic to help them get through what can be an arduous endeavour.
Also, learn every possible way to cue an exercise in any possible communication format you can. Coming to the understanding that people learn in different ways, whether visually, through verbal explanation, or kinetically, is by far the most effective teaching tool we have.
Aside from this, there are no shortcuts in fitness. I believe in making it clear to everyone I meet that nothing in this world will beat good old-fashioned hard work when it comes to achieving fitness goals.
What do you do differently from your coworkers or peers in the same profession? What do they do instead?
I pride myself on providing a level of professionalism and integrity that the field certainly seems to be lacking. Unfortunately, the industry itself gets a bad reputation from a very under-qualified field of trainers that lack the drive and passion to make this job a career. Many come into the field believing that their passion for their own fitness lifestyle is enough to make it as a trainer, or that their own successes can be reproduced in another individual with ease.
The industry is plagued with trainers who simply count reps, text in between sets, show up late to sessions, or just don't show up at all. I hate that the industry is seen this way, but it is to be expected with such a low barrier of entry to a job in the field.
Our business is centered on making sure that our clients are getting all of the attention that they deserve, and that their results are important to us in a way beyond just keeping the doors open and the lights on. Clients that have worked with other trainers are frequently taken aback at the amount of work we put into our clients' success, or just at the fact that we put down our cell phones for more than an hour at a time.
What's the worst part of the job and how do you deal with it?
Client adherence is by far the most difficult and frustrating part of working as a trainer. We only desire to see the very best results in our clients, especially considering the investment they put forth to be here. Some clients absorb as much information as we can throw their way, while others seem to have the information bounce right off of them. No matter how easily some tasks are broken down, repeated failures can mount into frustration for a trainer and, if it continues for too long, apathy. For example, many of the simple dietary changes can be ignored or avoided entirely, including those that are additions to the diet rather than subtractions. Getting some clients to drink more than a cup or two of water a day can be an epic struggle, with calendar based goal-setting or reminder apps on their phones to coax them into just getting a bit more fluid in their daily intake. Moving onto more complex tasks, like completing extra workouts during a week or eating more protein in the diet, can take some clients months, if not years, to make a habit.
What's the most enjoyable part of the job?
The most enjoyable moments are when clients finally show autonomy in their personal drive and motivation. This might sound somewhat counter-intuitive to a business that relies on people walking in the door, but higher compliance leads to greater results, eventually leading to great testimonials, word-of-mouth advertising, and retention as the client strives for more advanced fitness goals. Goals begin to take care of themselves once clients realise they have the knowledge, willpower, and support they need to achieve their best.
What kind of money can one expect to make at your job? Or, what's an average starting salary?
According to many certifying organisations, trainers are making "average" salaries in excess of $US50,000 a year. This is far from the truth. While the overall cost of training is expensive (averaging about $US50 per hour for private training, ranging $US5-30 for group options), the trainer typically sees a significantly reduced portion of this hourly rate, either due to overhead expenses, facility cuts, or space rent. The Bureau of Labour Statistics places the median pay at $US31,720 annually.
An independent trainer controls his or her own rate, usually evaluating their own value and expertise against current market rates. Gross earnings can vary wildly depending on overall sales performance, client retention, and desired work schedule. Typically, a trainer will work an average of 30 training sessions per week, if they are considered "full-time". Other hours of the week need to be allocated towards business responsibilities and client services (programming, correspondence, additional openings, etc.). All of these factors add up to an unpredictable wage, especially in early years of business. With overhead costs, including advertising, rent, and equipment purchasing, the breakeven point is quite far away from the typical industry turnover rate of 6 months for new trainers.
How do you "move up" in your field?
The independent trainer and the "gym" trainer have different evolutions in career advancement. The "gym" trainer typically will work on overall client acquisition and seniority at their gym of employment, eventually gaining increases in pay or responsibility over other training staff. The independent trainer is obviously responsible for their own business, and with success can come opportunity to branch out into other fitness endeavours, including gym or studio ownership. Personal trainers, depending on their overall education, experience, and certification level, can move into coaching positions in strength and conditioning programs for professional or collegiate sports teams.
Most notably, success this career is based on overall reputation for providing results, having a compatible personality with a given client-base, and providing a level of service above and beyond others in the field. This allows a trainer to charge "what they are worth" while clients recognise the value they are getting behind that premium.
What do people under/over value about what you do?
Too many clients believe, at least initially, that we are just a workout buddy that comes at a high price tag. Until they experience a full training program, including pre-planned workouts, objective measurements of progress, and constant guidance along the way, many believe we are just there to make sure they keep their appointment and count their reps. Eventually, they find out we care about their results as much as our own, and that we bury our noses in books, research articles, and websites every night to find the best solution to achieving their goals as efficiently as possible.
What advice would you give to those aspiring to join your profession?
Don't assume that certification is enough. To continually produce results for clients with varying goals you will need an extraordinary breadth of knowledge in the realms of anatomy, physiology, and biochemistry that can be applied in practice. Read everything, learn from everyone, and learn to separate fact from fiction. Be prepared to work incessantly.
Finally, have genuine empathy for anyone trying to achieve any fitness goal. Not everyone wants to be a bodybuilder. Not everyone wants to reach elite levels of sport. Sometimes they just want someone to talk them through the pain, give them some valid guidance, and hopefully make a lot better progress than they would on their own.
Career Spotlight is an interview series on Lifehacker that focuses on regular people and the jobs you might not hear much about -- from doctors to plumbers to aerospace engineers and everything in between.