Beyond The Clipboard: 4 Keys To Surviving As A Personal Trainer

The world doesn't need more trainers. It needs more good trainers. Leave the wannabes behind. Build businesses on firm foundations with these tips!

I recently heard an ad on sports talk radio in Boston, that proclaimed the need for qualified personal trainers is at an all-time high (Thanks type II diabetes and trans fat!). The spot ended with this bombshell: "Certified personal trainers who get X certification, on average, earn a six-figure salary within ..." I can't remember how it ended because I was trying to avoid wrapping my car around a telephone pole from laughing so hard.

I don't doubt that personal training is one of the fastest-growing professions. It's simple enough to see why: People go to college, get an expensive degree, and then discover there are no jobs in their field. Many then opt to become a personal trainer because they like to lift and there are few roadblocks to halt their newfound passion.

Not surprisingly, many fail and burn out within two years. Very few earn six figures, and those who do generally stick with training for a long time, work up to training professional athletes or celebrities, or figure out how to represent high-quality fitness products.

Just so we're clear, if you have any illusions about training professional athletes or celebrities right out the gate, all I have to say is "LOL! That's cute." I'm not trying to be Johnny Raincloud. I'm being realistic and providing a dose of tough love.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. It just means you should do it right. Here are my tips on how.

Tip 1: Adopt A Career Mindset

Personal training actually can be rewarding and (somewhat) glamorous. The trainers who build lucrative futures in the field are usually people who enter with a career mindset. This isn't a hobby.

It's bittersweet, because I receive the following email on a weekly basis:

Tony, How did you get where you are today? I'm a new trainer and want to get my name out there more. How do I get more clients? How do I start a blog or write for websites like

I'm honored to get emails like this, and it's nice to know there are people who don't think I suck. I always try to write back, offer advice, and thank them for reaching out and supporting my work. Conversely, it's tough, because what I really want to write is the brutal truth:

Dear fan, I've worked as a personal trainer/strength coach/business owner for a decade! I spent the first five years working in commercial gyms to get better by working with as many clients as possible.

In 2007, my business partners, Eric Cressey, and Pete Dupuis, and I opened Cressey Performance. It wasn't a walk in the park. We started from scratch and worked 14-16 hours per day to build a successful business from the ground up.

Five years later, I've finally hit my stride and feel like I'm starting to "get it," But I still have a long way to go and am nowhere near where I want to be. I didn't just show up and expect my career to fall into place. I didn't pet a unicorn and watch as clients magically showed up. I worked my ass off to get to where I am today and have lots more work to do before I feel like I've accomplished anything.

"Visit facilities and watch coaches work. But also ask for help!"

Tip 2: Find A Mentor

No one gets to the top on their own and there is no faster way to get where you want to be than to get help. I owe much of my success to people like Eric Cressey, Dr. John Berardi, Dan John, Mike Robertson, Mike Boyle, Bret Contreras, and many more people I'm forgetting.

You may not have easy access to big names like these, but that's no excuse not to visit facilities and watch coaches work. But also ask for help! I've crossed paths with many trainers who thought they knew everything because they took a weekend seminar and read books. They're sadly mistaken.

Mike Boyle has been coaching longer than most trainers have been alive, and he still has an insatiable appetite to learn and get better. He changed his mind and admitted wrongdoing more than anyone I know. That's saying something! Unless your name is Yoda, you will be a student forever.

Email a local strength coach or respected trainer to see if you can shadow him or her. Remember you have two ears, two eyes, and one mouth. Use them in that order. I reached out to plenty of random people early in my career, and more often than not, they wanted to help.

"Remember you have two ears, two eyes, and one mouth. Use them in that order."

Tip 3: Practice What You Preach

Anyone with a digital camera and a YouTube channel can pretend—suprisingly effectively—to be a fitness celebrity. But in reality, it's nothing more than B.S. One of the best ways to get better is to take what you've learned and apply it to a real-life person.

I've witness several trainers who had book smarts and could give Doogie Howser a run for his money, but when it came to applying what they know to a real person, they were total failures. One of my clients mentioned a discussion she overheard at her regular gym between a trainer and his client where the trainer admitted he doesn't work out. My client also said the trainer didn't look remotely look fit—which isn't the point, but it matters.

I don't feel that trainers or coaches have to look a certain way. I know plenty of smart, competent, and successful coaches who don't fall into the societal norm of what a fitness professional should look like. Just because a trainer looks like they belong in fitness magazines doesn't mean they know their ass from their acetabulum . My main beef was that this particular trainer didn't work out at all, and he admitted it to a client paying for his expertise and advice. That's analogous to your lawyer admitting he/she never took the bar exam or that your financial planner just filed for bankruptcy.

"As a fitness professional, I'm a walking advertisement."

No matter how busy I am writing programs and articles, assessing clients, rescuing kittens from trees, and running an online business, I find time to train. As a fitness professional, I'm a walking advertisement.

Tip 4: Get In The Trenches

It seems obvious, but I'm always dumbfounded by the lack of actual coaching I see from trainers when I travel and work out at a random gym. I don't care how many letters or certifications someone has next to their name. The second I see their client perform atrocious technique and not receive correction, the trainer loses all credibility.

Renowned author and fitness entrepreneur Thomas Plummer calls personal trainers clipboard cowboys or cowgirls, because all most of them do is stand there like zombies and count reps. Don't be that guy or girl. Be proactive and coach your clients! If they have a hard time differentiating how to keep their back arched while deadlifting, show them how to do it. After you establish rapport, get your hands on them (non-creepily) and position them properly.

If you have any doubt, use what I call the window test. If you and a bunch of peers were standing outside a window watching your clients train, would you wince or be proud? It's a fair question, and the answer is important to the person paying for your guidance. Don't let them down.