With more than 6 million people working out with personal trainers, a clear path to a variety of certifications through organizations like the American Council On Exercise (ACE), and a fitness industry that just keeps growing, if you're hooked on health and fitness, now might seem like the perfect time to turn your passion into a career. Plus, beyond being relatively low stress and high reward, the average salary for personal trainers is on the rise, and wearing workout clothes every day is simply following the dress code—not too shabby.
With so many obvious incentives, it's easy to overlook a few other key elements of a fitness career. So if you've already checked the "must love fitness" box, read on for eight more things that most all-star trainers get fired up about on a daily basis. (And hey, if you already can't think of anything more exciting than explaining the most efficient path for a barbell to take during deadlifts, maybe it's time to review these tips for getting started from ACE.)
1. Technique in all its glorious minutiae
Basic fitness movements like running, deadlifts, and bodyweight squats look (and often feel) deceptively simple. But to properly perform even the most basic movements requires knowledge about and experience with form and body mechanics, weightlifting technique, and even physics as they relate to exercise. Heck, if something as specific as the degree to which your knee flexes during a squat can change the entire exercise, imagine how much a good trainer would have to know in order to coach these movements properly (and even more so with highly technical movements like kettlebell swings or handstands) Three-dimensional knee joint moments during performance of the bodyweight squat: effects of stance width and foot rotation. Almosnino S1, Kingston D, Graham RB. Journal of Applied Biomechanics. 2013 Feb;29(1):33-43. Female recreational athletes demonstrate different knee biomechanics from male counterparts during jumping rope and turning activities. Tanikawa H, Matsumoto H, Harato K, et al. Journal of Orthopaedic Science. Jan;19(1):104-11.. If you like the idea of helping people master technique, make small adjustments to form, or drill a movement repeatedly, personal training could be your calling. Just be sure to think about just how excited you are to spend time coaching a runner’s head tilt, shoulder position, and stride length.
2. Structure, data, and evaluation
Even though regular exercise is proven to help keep your heart healthy and manage weight (plus killer biceps, better memory, self-confidence, and creativity), thanks to our unique physiological and genetic make up, everyone responds to it differently. There’s no uniform “dose” of exercise that will bring the same results for everyone Effect of the volume and intensity of exercise training on insulin sensitivity. Houmard JA, Tanner CJ, Slentz CA, et al. Journal of Applied Physiology. 2004 Jan;96(1):101-6. Effects of the amount and intensity of exercise on plasma lipoproteins. Kraus WE, Houmard JA, Duscha BD, et al. The New England Journal of Medicine. 2002 Nov 7;347(19):1483-92.. In addition to these biological factors, clients might have mobility limitations, old injuries, and just plain old preferences about what kinds of workouts they like. As a result, there’s really no such thing as effective one-size-fits-all programming. Working one-on-one with clients requires customizing, planning, and evaluating, starting with finding out (or helping determine) their goals, screening for movement and mobility, health and fitness history, and lifestyle factors, providing a baseline workout to establish their fitness level, and recording and assessing all the data before even beginning to establish a program. From there, the trainer should be tracking their clients’ workout data, evaluating progress, and making any necessary changes along the way. For some, all that data and evaluaion may sound like a bore, but it's actually super interesting and the stuff many trainers love geeking out over.
3. (All kinds of) people
Being a personal trainer means not just networking to attract clients, but establishing strong, lasting relationships with them. Because personal trainers spend their days working closely with a revolving door of personalities, it helps to be the kind of person who enjoys and even seeks out social attention What is the central feature of extraversion? Social attention versus reward sensitivity. Ashton MC1, Lee K, Paunonen SV. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2002 Jul;83(1):245-52.. Picture spending your days coaching client after client, staying attuned to their needs as they struggle through workouts, all in the stimulating environment of a gym. We're not saying the personality of a high-energy cheerleader is a prerequisite, but rather providing a friendly reminder that some sessions may involve a lot of listening and support for what might be going on in a client's life outside the gym (which can be really rewarding too!).
4. Newbies, novices, and new kids on the block
Surveys have shown that 50 percent of personal training clients have special medical needs like obesity, arthritis, and diabetes, and that about half of personal training clients are over 45 and identify as beginning and intermediate exercisers. The upshot of this is that unless you specialize in providing high-level coaching to advanced athletes, there’s a good chance that much of your time will be spent explaining basic technique, coaching clients through the beginning (sometimes awkward) stages of their fitness journey. That said, even though most of your clients won’t be moving record-setting amounts of weight or immediately doing beautiful things with barbells, coaching newbies means you’ll be present for tons of awesome fitness triumphs, like a first pull-up or full push-up, or a PR on a 5K.
5. Science and research
Trainers are the scientists who cook up the customized programming that will get us leaner, stronger, faster, and fitter. In fact, working out with a trainer while following a structured, evidence-based plan actually results in greater fitness gains than working out alone Effect of Supervised, Periodized Exercise Training versus Self-Directed Training on Lean Body Mass and other Fitness Variables in Health Club Members. Storer TW, Dolezal BA, Berenc M, et al. Journal of Strength and Conditioning. 2014 Jan 3. To help clients reach their goals, trainers have to understand relevant topics in science, physiology, and anatomy (like the role of the endocrine system in exercise or the science of building muscle and losing weight), stay on top of health and fitness research, be able to create effective programming for many different kinds of clients, and understand how to properly evaluate people they’re training. Fortunately you won't be flying solo when it comes to analyzing research and interpreting findings — ACE Fitness commissions fitness-related research and studies and makes the results available to anyone. If you're the kind of person who wants to keep learning and growing along with your clients, personal training might just be for you. As Anthony Wall, Ace Fitness' Director of Professional Education, says "being a trainer isn’t about doing something once and then stopping; it’s about always learning more and becoming better at how to help people succeed and realize their goals."
6. Nonstop cheerleading
Emotional intelligence (aka “EQ”) describes the ability to relate to and engage with other people, and it’s marked by skills like self-awareness, social skills, and empathy. The higher our EQ, the better we are at leadership, teamwork, and bonding with others. Where does this come in to the personal trainer equation? You might have one client who gets discouraged easily, another “Busy Bill” who is too time-crunched and stressed to work out regularly, and another “always-off-track” type. You’ll be responsible for helping each one of these clients get and stay focused to reach their goals. But when they do, you likely won't even question whether it was worth the extra effort. As ACE Exercise Physiologist Jacque Ratliff points out, helping clients who are ambivalent or not ready to make change can be as simple as just being there to "listen, educate, and motivate."
7. Leading by example
It’s one of the most divisive issues there is when it comes to personal trainers: Do trainers have to look the part and if so, what is that part? Ripped to shreds? Super lean? Something in between? Opinions differ about how important it is for a personal trainer to appear to be the pinnacle of fitness, but even if you don’t fall on the “must-look-the-part” side of the debate, keep in mind that you’ll have to demo exercises for clients day after day and have enough energy left over to cheer people through their workouts. Because many clients view their trainers as healthy-living role models, this will be less about being muscle-bound than about looking and feeling healthy and energetic. Healthy eating, physical activity, and stress managment all play a part, so as a personal trainer, you’d likely be putting as much effort into your own wellness as you are coaching your clients (sounds like a pretty good to-do list).
8. Having your finger on the pulse of fitness trends
Even if you have your go-to favorite way to work out, being a trainer will require you to know about, understand, and be able to program all different kinds of exercise to meet clients’ goals and interests. You’ll also have to be able to tell trends from fads (yep, they’re different). From Jazzercise and Tae Bo to P90X and indoor cycling, the way we work out and the kinds of exercise people want to try have been shaped by countless trends, some of which stick around to energize the workout world and others that fall flat. It’s the job of personal trainers to stay on top of what’s in and what’s out and how the research supports or dispels the effectiveness of various kinds of exercise. That way, you can write programming that’s not only proven to work, but is also the kind of workout your client enjoys doing. Even a cursory search of a database of ACE-certified trainers returns tons of pros with a dizzying array of specialties and areas of interest.
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This article is brought to you in partnership with The American Council on Exercise® (ACE ®), the largest nonprofit health and fitness organization in the world. In addition to providing NCCA-accredited certifications for Personal Trainers, Group Fitness Instructors, Health Coaches, and Advanced Health and Fitness Specialists, ACE serves as ‘America’s Authority on Fitness’ and protects the public from unsafe and ineffective products, programs and trends.