As one studies to become a fitness professional and obtain an accredited certification, there’s only so much that can be absorbed from textbooks, articles, podcasts, and webinars. Many of the most valuable lessons we need to learn come only after years of experience in the field. The following are 10 revelations I experienced after becoming a certified personal trainer. My hope is for newly certified and newly practicing fit pros will benefit from this guidance.
1) It’s Necessary to Practice Sales Skills
Believe it or not, to get clients to invest in your services, you need to build your sales and marketing skills. It’s not enough to just be certified and work at a gym. Clients won’t just flock to you because you’re qualified and available. They need to see the reasons they should work with you to accomplish their goals.
2) It’s Not About Weak Glutes
It’s become easy to blame glute weakness for an individual’s inability to perform simple movements. What we need to understand and accept is that the gluteals are large and naturally strong muscles primarily responsible for hip extension. What individuals struggle the most with is not a factor of strength but rather a factor of effective engagement and firing of those muscles.
It’s important to cue effectively and encourage clients to pay attention to the feeling certain movements create in the hip. For example, when asking a client to execute a squat, cue them to “squeeze the glutes” on the upward motion. Help them create a mind-muscle connection.
3) Prioritize Rest and Recovery
While I always encouraged clients to take rest days, I didn’t always specifically program them into a client’s workout regimen. If our clients are serious about their progress, they also need to be serious about their recovery. Helping clients learn mindful approaches to both exercise and recovery will yield more results than just hitting it hard in the gym on a regular basis. We all need some downtime.
4) Making Mistakes is Valuable
I don’t know what it is, but we are taught from a young age that with mistakes comes punishment or chastising from some authority figure. Throw that out the window. I’m not saying make mistakes intentionally or act recklessly, but be willing to accept that you will make mistakes along your professional journey. What’s important is how and what you learn from those mistakes. Accept. Allow. Don’t judge. Most importantly, apologize and move forward.
5) Schedule Sessions Intelligently
Who doesn’t want to make as much money in a single day as possible? Of course, your earnings are important. BUT – a more realistic and intelligent approach to take is to schedule downtime in between your sessions rather than back-to-back appointments with clients. You need the time to wrap up any SOAP notes from the previous session, review notes for the next session, and maybe grab a snack or quick walk break. It’s ok to take a break and give yourself time to refresh. Prioritize your own self-care.
6) The Core Isn’t All About the Abs
We often think of the “core” as the abdominal muscles – they are the “sexy six-pack” muscles. The abs, though an important part of core strength and postural health, the low back and hips deserve some credit. For example, if the abs are strong but the back muscles are neglected, clients will experience dysfunction and muscular imbalances.
Similarly, teach your clients about the importance of strengthening the hip muscles so that the low back isn’t encouraged to “take over” during a lift that is supposed to target the lower body. The core is more than the front part of the torso.
7) Flexibility Isn’t Prioritized
When I started working with clients, I would faithfully include warm-up and cool-down exercises that they could do on their own so we could focus the session on the “meat”. I soon realized not only were clients cutting the warm-up in half, but many had a tendency to skip the cool-down and flexibility exercises. I would ask clients “why” and the default answer is “stretching takes too much time.”
Hearing this from multiple clients, I shifted my approach and started including all components in the workout session. I would focus on large muscle groups and active range of motion with dynamic movements for 5-10 minutes before the session and focus on basic static stretches, active-assisted stretches, and Yoga poses as part of the cool-down. If you don’t program it in, it isn’t likely to happen.
8) Motivational Interviewing is a Necessary Skill
Though it is typically applied in a health coaching or counseling setting, motivational interviewing (MI) is an extremely valuable skill to develop, hone, and apply in a personal training setting. MI is a conversational style that focuses on guiding (versus directing) clients toward necessary behavior change. It encourages a deeper level of thinking and contemplation by using open-ended questions and motivating the client to seek their “why”.
9) Asymmetrical Training is Curative for Imbalances
Typically, we approach weightlifting using a bilateral approach. There’s nothing wrong with that method and it is highly encouraged (I use it with clients and students to this day). However, when it comes to correcting unilateral weaknesses or muscular imbalances, loading the body asymmetrically and focusing on one side in isolation of the other can both pinpoint an imbalance and correct it. Assess clients for muscular imbalances and program accordingly to reduce those dissimilarities from side to side and front to back.
10) Trust Your Own Brilliance
It is intimidating starting out in any new field, but personal training is uniquely challenging in that you must individualize your approach with each person – it’s not a cookie-cutter science. While there are principles we use to inform our practice, each client is unique in their goals, desires, abilities, likes, and dislikes. This means each time we work with someone, we are starting from scratch.
Learn to trust your gut and respect your instincts. You are well qualified and have the certification and/or degree to support your professional status. Focus on building your confidence and dare to try something new with each client. It may work, it may not, but part of the magic lies in learning to trust what you know and applying that knowledge accordingly. Ask for feedback frequently and seek out mentorship from more seasoned professionals.
The list of what all fitness professionals should know doesn’t stop with these 10 lessons. However, these lessons are reflective of the most important pieces I learned over the last 17 years of practice and education. More than anything, commit to continued learning and seek out new information so that you can best guide your clients toward success.