Studying and passing exams, getting our continuing ed creds, and completing extra certs are all a part of our jobs as personal trainers. There’s one more element to our work that teaches so much more that our training manual can’t offer: Good old-fashioned experience. Some things cannot be learned in the books.
Much like a schoolteacher who knows the curriculum and how to develop lesson plans, applying such knowledge expertly requires wisdom gained only through the doing. Many first-year teachers are overwhelmed, while more experienced teachers take it all in stride. Teachers learn through experience how to adapt and intuitively create the most effective learning environment for a variety of students year after year.
Athletic coaches gain knowledge through experience, too. They figure out the best way to train, motivate, and strategize their team from season to season. It involves a little trial and error; basically, what works and what doesn’t is determined by past performances. A coach’s first season is usually a nail-biter.
It gets easier when you know what to expect or have dealt with similar circumstances before. While there might always be some surprises, making decisions happens more fluidly when you acquire the exposure and mastery from real-life experiences not conveyed through studying books.
Fitness training is similar. Education is certainly important and provides a backbone for what we do. Exercise is ever-evolving and we must stay on top of it as fit pros. But experience is our ongoing study guide.
If I had to bookmark what I have learned in my ten years of direct personal training experience, I’d single out two things:
• The first is that clients don’t always have commitment. Some want a quick fix and don’t want to put the time and effort into their fitness journey. This can be discouraging as a trainer, but we can’t take it personally.
• The second thing I learned is that it’s hard when training comes to an end, especially after long-term training. I always leave the door open for future training, but saying good-bye is tough.
Dave Frost has been a certified trainer since 2013. “Experiential knowledge gained from the school of hard knocks or from tribal knowledge sources (like our NFPT blog) can help balance the relationship of practical sweat and scientific theory,” he said. “Experience is an enabler to build on first principles. We know what works for us, and we carefully journal the tips, hacks, and techniques that work for others in their unique journeys to wellness and fitness.” Frost, who specializes in training clients who intend to “stay well past forty,” recently published a book KABOOMER: Thriving and Striving into your Nineties.
Keleigh Hall has been an active trainer for 21 years. “The books don’t teach you how to ‘pivot’. Meaning, you cannot prepare yourself for the dozens of personalities you will be working with,” she said. “Books give you the science behind training [principles] but until you are working hands-on with your clients, you don’t know what you’re gonna get in terms of the psychology of your client. Clients can tell you on paper what motivates them, why they hired you, what their goals are, and all the things they want to accomplish. However, when the rubber hits the road and they have to put in the work, the emotions, good, bad, and ugly start to show.”
Aside from personalities and emotions, time tells a lot through training sessions. “Over time you will recognize patterns in an individual, you’ll also notice similarities from client to client,” Hall said. “To be an overall effective trainer it is beneficial to learn the skill of pivoting in terms of how you communicate and work with your client. Step into your clients’ shoes and relate to them as if you were them. This, you will never find in a personal training manual.” Innate empathy and experience.
Hall added, “Being a trainer is an incredibly fulfilling job when you know it’s your passion…you suck up every part of it.”
If you’re just starting out your personal training career and feel a bit overwhelmed, just remember—we all started somewhere and over time, those of us who have stuck it out and remained committed to our fitness careers have grown in confidence and experiential wisdom over time. And so will you!