How to Get Started as a Trainer

Every now and then, a reader reaches out to me asking for advice as to how to get started as a fitness professional. There are so many different options - a little direction would be nice, wouldn't it?

I figured now would be as good a time as any to take some of the questions I'm asked most frequently and turn my answers into a post for anyone and everyone who's interested in making a career as a trainer. I'll be sure to add and edit more to this post as more questions roll in.

For someone who considers themselves a career-changer, what is the best approach to educating yourself to truly be prepared to be a good trainer?  

I don’t know that I can speak for what’s the best way necessarily, but I can tell you how I went about learning everything that I know now. What started out as an interest in training and nutrition – casually perusing numerous fitness forums, poking through articles, following fitness professionals of interest – quickly became an obsession as I fell in love with the field. I was able to relatively quickly identify who the top experts were at the time, and I refined my focus to the content that they were disseminating.

I may have majored in human biology in college, but I will tell you that 90% of what I know is from my own self-education.

Read like crazy. For me, that came mainly in the form of blogs. After a while, I stopped visiting fitness forums once I realized that I was wasting much of my time combing through arguments and rants.

I’d also recommend signing up for some science-based newsletters. Alan Aragon’s Research Review and Bret Contreras and Chris Beardsleys’s Strength & Conditioning Research are both incredibly valuable.

Get on social media. Facebook, Twitter, you name it. Follow fitness professionals. Even if you’re not active yourself, they frequently give out tons of valuable tips and advice that you’d be remiss not to keep up with.

Attend seminars whenever possible. Perform Better hosts numerous in all different locations throughout the nation every year. But as far as what kinds of seminars to go to, that will really depend on what your specific area of interest is. For me, I try to go to as many as I can to broaden my knowledge.

Lastly, practice what you preach. I worked with a number of different online coaches and therefore I have first-hand experience as an online client. This proved to me invaluable when I decided to launch my own online coaching business. I learned a lot about what worked, what didn’t, how to communicate with a client, and I especially learned a good deal about how not to run a business. I also studied each and every program that I received – looked for patterns in the training, identified trends in the diet – and was very observant with how that affected my progress.

This also means, of course, that you should not only look the part but play the part. Do you know what it feels like to do a set of widowmakers? Have you dieted to extreme leanness before? I’m not saying that these are musts to any extent, but the more you can say yes, I’ve been there, the more you’ll be able to empathize and help others.

What kinds of hands-on experience is out there that won't cost and arm and a leg?  

Before I answer this question, I want to preface this by emphasizing the following: if you really want to get better at your craft, you’re going to have to invest in yourself.

I never hesitate to spend money on a seminar, a book (on training, nutrition, and especially on psychology), or an opportunity to network with other fitness professionals. If you can take what you’ve learned, turn around and make yourself a better professional, and thereby increase your value, then wouldn’t you say that that was all worth it?

Better yet, think of it this way: if you spend $100 on a seminar, do you think you could make $105 back off of what you’ve learned?

As for hands-on experience, lots of training facilities offer unpaid internships. My first formal coaching experience, as you may know, started out at Cressey Performance, where I was one of six unpaid coaching interns. It wasn’t easy to land that job, but to me it was a no-brainer because I knew that what I would learn there would be top-notch.

Cressey Performance in Hudson, MA
Cressey Performance in Hudson, MA

Do some research to places nearby that are reputable, practice sound methods, and have internships available. Or perhaps you’d be willing to travel and pop a squat out of state for a few months – even better. Alternatively, it wouldn’t kill you to get a starting gig at a commercial gym; many of today’s best trainers had their beginnings at an Equinox or a Bally’s.

Don’t be afraid to ask around.

Did you hear about how Ben Bruno became friends with Eric Cressey and Tony Gentilcore? Long story short, he showed up at their facility, asked if he could shadow for the day, and asked tons of questions. The next week, he showed up again and lifted with them before the facility opened for the day. He kept coming back until it became the norm, and they developed a good friendship.

The point? [Tweet "If there aren’t any readily available opportunities for you, make them."]

Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want.

Are trainers happy to offer guidance?  

In general, I would think that they are, yes. As long as you’re not asking too much of them and you approach them in the right manner, it shouldn’t be a problem.

An example of one surefire way to irk a trainer would be to zip them an email and outright demand advice. At the very least, let them know that you’re familiar with their work and express some degree of gratitude. People, after all, are much more likely to help you if you can make them feel good about doing it. What’s in it for them?

Some fitness professionals will also do a Q&A session every now and then on social media. Dean Somerset, John Romaniello, and Adam Bornstein are the three first names that come to mind. Take advantage of those opportunities to get your questions in.

With the self-study programs out there, it's scary to think how many people are able to call themselves trainers.  I'm not knocking on it, but more concerned that if I don't have the proper education and training, I'll only be doing clients a disservice!

A valid concern. Many are blind to this, so I’m optimistic that you’re even aware of this problem.

Besides educating yourself via the methods I’ve mentioned above, you’ll of course have to get your certification. You’ll definitely want either the NSCA-CPT or NASM. When I was in college, I got the latter, but I’ve heard many good things about the NASM as well.

If you want to work with athletes at the collegiate level or above, NSCA-CSCS is the way to go. You’ll need a four-year degree for this and it’s more difficult to study for, but it’s worth the prestige.

Hang around (either physically or virtually) the best fitness professionals out there. Sign up for their newsletters, keep up with their articles. Basically, in the most non-creepy way possible, become a fangirl (or boy).

Seek out mentors if you can. I have a few people I go to whenever I need career advice and they’re happy to help. Find people who believe in your potential, want to see you succeed, and are more than willing to offer you guidance.

The more that you can better yourself, the better the fitness industry becomes. Hating on the “bad trainers” out there won’t do any good for anyone; it’ll only spread more negativity in the industry, which we have enough of. Instead, focus on you.

You may not be able to change the world, but you can change the lives of the clients you’re working with. Be a part of the positive change.

Want more comprehensive information?

Check out strength coach Julia Ladewski's e-book, So You Want to Be a Strength Coach. Because after all, as Julia says, "We need more great coaches."

For inside deets and much more comprehensive info, pick up Julia's e-book 
For inside deets and much more comprehensive info, pick up Julia's e-book

Cheers to that.