Surviving The Initial Years in Personal Training by Stuart Aitken
If you can survive your first few years as a personal trainer you stand a great chance of making it a career you’ll have for years to come.
Industry statistics show that 1 out of every 3 trainers will leave the industry within 24 months. That means that out of you and two of the people you qualified alongside, one of you will be out of the industry within that 2-year period. Some other statistics show the rate to be even higher and a lot of fitness clubs say they have attrition rates within personal training of above 70%.
It makes sense why those stats exist. Most personal training qualifications have you holding a certificate within 3 months and they miss out many of the realities you’ll encounter. Added on to this, there are many false promises that come with a career in PT. It’s unlikely you’ll be earning 6 figures and living your dream lifestyle within 12 months.
Personal training is a superb career that can be filled with job satisfaction, good income and flexibility, but like any career out there that is still finding its feet, it’s just not as simple as you see promised on those Instagram ads.
Here are some things that will help you survive your initial years. Although I’ve said ‘initial’, these apply to any stage of a career in personal training so it’s my hope these will help the new and the more accomplished trainer.
Your First Few Years Are Apprenticeship Years
If you woke up one day and decided you want to be a school teacher, you’d quickly realise you are years away from becoming one.
You need a degree of some kind and a specific post-grad that shows you’ve spent time learning how to teach children. Throughout your time studying, you’ll need to spend time, at first, in the classroom shadowing other teachers. You’ll be given specific lessons to teach and before you fully graduate, you’ll be expected to have taken full days worth of teaching. Even after that, you’re on probation for a year to assess whether you’re right for the job.
Now, teaching is by no means perfect, but the process you must go through to become one highlights something personal training is lacking – there is no internship, apprenticeship or lengthy process to become one, you just get your certificate and become a trainer. Anybody with a bit of cash can become a personal trainer.
I like to teach new trainers to think of their first 2-3 years in personal training as the apprenticeship years. They are the years where you’re just learning how to work with real-life humans in the gym (who are way more complex than your qualification taught you). Where you’re just beginning to understand how anatomy interacts with programming and where you’re just learning how the heck you go about getting clients to buy what you offer.
During any normal apprenticeship, you’d have a mentor. You’d have someone who could teach you how to do the job and you would be able to ask questions and gather feedback. Personally, this was where I signed up to LTB. I realised I needed more help and guidance and sought out a community of trainers who had been where I was.
- Think about your first few years in personal training as your apprenticeship years. Seek out mentors. Don’t expect early career success, keep learning and trying new things.
Treat Your Business Like a Real Business
In Steven Pressfield’s book The War of Art, he compares the pro to the amateur. The pro, he says, shows up every single day and gets to work. The amateur, however, makes excuses about why he can’t show up or didn’t get on with the work. Pressfield is talking about the writing process and the importance of showing up to the blank screen every single day and getting the words down. But this line of thinking can be applied to how most trainers treat their business when they begin. They show up like an amateur does.
They have prices that are all over the place. Some clients are charged session by session and some pay 50% for a block of 10 on session one and the rest on session 6.
They have little to no systems or processes in place for things like the customer journey, consultation, onboarding, programming, nutrition or retention.
Their accounts are updated once in a blue moon and they’ve no idea about numbers like leads generated, sales converted or retention percentage.
There is a lack of professionalism. Sometimes they show up to sessions 5 minutes early and prepared and other times they are rushing away from their own training or their lunch.
I built a working personal training business that survived for 4 years without any of the above, and I’m sure there are lots of you out there who have done that to, but they are simple fixes and they’ll make the world of difference to how your business runs.
Have a simple and easy to explain pricing structure. Be a professional. Create processes and systems that allow you to bring on new clients and make them feel comfortable straight away. Update your accounts regularly. That isn’t all you’ll need to run a business, but it’ll make a big difference.
- Show up like a pro and have a business that truly functions like a business.
- Simplify your pricing structure so you can explain it without having to go on long tangents. Have 1-3 services and then a sliding scale based on number of sessions.
Find Ways to Manage Self-Doubt
Doubting yourself and wondering about your place in the fitness industry is as common as curling in the squat rack in a commercial gym. There are very few trainers who don’t experience it. Knowing this should hopefully be comforting to you as every single trainer who came before you will have experienced some level of doubt.
One of the strategies I use that may help you is to take note of what behaviours bring up self doubt for you. The most common one for me was excessive use of social media. What would happen is I’d experience something negative (like losing a client) that would make me start doubting myself and then I’d start spending more time on social media comparing myself to other trainers and people I perceived to be successful.
What I actually needed during these times was to step back and see that losing a client is not the end of the world, and that I had lots of other proof that I was good at being a trainer.
If you can catch what makes you get into a self doubt phase, you’ll be able to stop before it starts ruining days.
It’s also well worth remembering that clients that will seek you out for help will need support with the basic foundational stuff. They don’t need complicated nutrition advice or long-term periodization, they need accountability and simplicity.
If you’re reading this blog, this industry needs you. Don’t let doubt be the thing that pushes you out.
- Catch doubt in the act. What comes before a period of self-doubt for you? What behaviours were you doing? And what things can you do that will help? Take note of both of those things so you can start learning and reducing it’s impact.
Take The Time to Consider What Success Means to You
It’s easy to think that by entering the fitness industry as a trainer that you automatically must have goals to open a gym one day. But, what happens if you don’t want to open a gym? What happens if you’d simply like to use this career to earn a good enough living that you can help your clients achieve their goals, see your family and go on holiday a few times per years?
Defining what success as a personal trainer means to you is an important question to ask yourself.
Start by considering what you’d like an average day or week to look like and work backwards. It can also be helpful to think about what you don’t want success to look like so you have an idea of the direction you don’t want to head in.
Defining your version of success will aid you as it’ll direct you on the right path. I’ve known plenty of trainers who have opened a facility and realised that it just wasn’t for them.
- Define your own version of success by considering what you would like an average day, week or month to look like.
If You’re Going to Use Social Media to Market, Pick One Platform and Get Great at it
Instagram, Tik Tok, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and many more. There are a lot of social media sites out there you could use to talk about what you do, but is there any need to try and be on every single one?
My advice would be to pick one and do it incredibly well. You’ll get a lot more out of using Facebook if you double down on learning how to write or create video that people like seeing.
Let’s use Facebook as an example. You could:
- Buy a few books on using Facebook to market your service
- Learn how to write content that people stop to read
- Ask some of the people you see using Facebook well how they grew their following
- Dedicate specific blocks of time per week to create content for Facebook
- Start to understand Facebook advertising so you can spend money on advertising
- Think about one specific person each time you create a post
- Ask for feedback from mentors when you create posts
- Collaborate with local businesses on Facebook to grow both your pages
Rather than spreading your time and energy over 3-5 different platforms, concentrate on one and put you’re all into that.
Deciding which one to pick shouldn’t take you too much time. Consider who your target market is and where they spend most of their time. Facebook, as an example, tends to be for a slightly older generation. Instagram, however, attracts a younger population.
Is there anything wrong with using more than one? Nope! Instagram and Facebook are complimentary as an example, but they need a different creative focus. What works on Instagram will not work as well on Facebook. The other big aspect to consider here is how much time it takes you to create content to put on your platforms. If you’re spending over a few hours a week creating content, that’s hours you could be using to educate yourself, train more clients, support your current clients or rest and recover.
- Pick one social media platform and invest your all into that it.
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Don’t be an Information Vending Machine
In an interview with Michael Keeler from Business for Unicorns a few years ago, Michael stated an analogy that sums up how personal trainers think they should respond to being asked a question. Trainers often think that clients come to see them to answer questions and to give out information. They are “information vending machines” where the client puts in money and the trainer hands out the perfect solution.
Although this may work for some clients, you’re much better spending time asking more questions about the clients understanding of a topic so you can learn more about them and give a more personalised answer.
Asking more questions also allows you to protect yourself from handing out generic advice. Nobody wants the answer they’ve read on the internet or seen on Facebook, so by asking some questions you’ll be able to give a personalised answer.
- Whenever someone asks you a question, try responding with one back that allows you to gain more context. If they ask about how much protein they should be having per day it makes sense to ask about their goals and how much they are having just now.
Work on Making Your Core Offering Top Class
If your core offering is 1-1 personal training, make it as good as it possibly can be. Learn how some of the best coaches in your area/ country deliver it and learn from them. Take the time to understand why your clients keep coming back and work on making those elements better. Seek out feedback from your clients about areas for improvement and generally go about making your service something people want to talk about.
The same mentality can be applied to online, small and large group personal training.
Offering additional extras that add value like a client only Facebook group, monthly webinars with guests, in person community events, partnerships and discounts with local businesses, recipe guides, sample meal plans and weekly check-in forms can also help to make your offering perceived as high quality. Everything mentioned there is optional but it’ll help to underline that what your clients are paying for is something they know is well worth it.
- Whatever your core offering is, aim to make it something people want to tell their friends about.
Get Your Finances in Order
During my first few years, I lived paycheck to paycheck.
Like a lot of trainers, I entered the industry and started getting paid cash. The minute you get paid cash you start to think you’re loaded. £300 in £20 notes feels very different than £300 deposited into your account. I’d take that 300 and buy new clothes and have lavish weekends without ever thinking about the envitability of taxes.
Your finance system does not need to be complicated.
For the last 5 years, all I’ve used is an excel spreadsheet that tracks income and expenditure but there is a whole host of apps out there that do things for you now. Just make sure whatever way you do it you’re doing it regularly. Once a month should be enough for most trainers working solo.
It’s also well worth investing in an accountant or paying one to help you make sense of what you can and cannot put through as an expense. The last thing you want is to be investigated and it to come out that you’ve done something illegal.
Getting your finances in check will also allow you to plan for the future. Looking to buy a house one day? You’ll need to show regular income. Looking to invest in an expensive professional development course? Knowing your numbers will allow to decide if you can afford it or not.
- If you don’t already, track your income and expenditure using something simple like excel or an app. Set aside time each week or month to update things and put away a reasonable (25-30%) amount so you’re set for tax.
It’s Not an Either or With Soft vs Hard Skills, it’s Both
In recent years, a lot more has been of the importance of developing your soft skills, like communication, over the hard skills, like programme design. But as a personal trainer, it’s not an either-or. If you’re going to survive your first few years, it’s going to be crucial you develop both.
I’m sure you’ll favour one over the other as that is common. Some trainers really navigate towards the programming side and some love the softer skill side. What is important is that you take stock of what you’re good at and not so good at and work on bringing up the lagging skill.
You’re going to need your programme design skills to create enjoyable, client-focussed exercise regimes and you’re going to need your softer skills to help those clients feel connected to you and navigate the muddy waters of behaviour change.
- Both the soft and hard skills of being a PT are important. Ensure you’re making room in your development for both.
Don’t Overcomplicate Your Programming
Your programming doesn’t need to become something you spends hours and hours on every week. One of the earliest mistakes I made was to create a brand new programme from scratch for every single client I started working with. 99% of your clients will come to you not needing a detailed, intricately created programme but something simple, enjoyable, painless and dense (dense meaning something that keeps them moving for the time they are in the gym).
Aim to create 2-4 ‘templates’ that you start your clients off from. Starting off with something that looks like this will work for the majority of your clients:
- Squat variation
- Core filler
- Press variation
- Hinge variation
- Row variation
- Lunge/ single-leg quadricep dominant variation
- Core/ finisher/ arms
Once you’ve got a couple of templates, tailor them based on the client’s needs (some may not be able to press overhead for example) and wants (some may despise squats so you can change it to another lower body exercise) and progress it by making some basic changes to the exercise variation and set/ rep scheme. I always do a slightly different warm-up and finisher with a consistent main middle section of the session so that the client feels like there is variety. But for some clients, you’ll be able to keep things almost identical for weeks and months on end.
One of the other big things that it’s worth keeping in mind when taking a client through a session is to be mindful of becoming what Travis Pollen calls ‘the biomechanical boogeyman’. You become a biomechanical boogeyman by trying to make every exercise a client goes through look utterly perfect. There will be variations in how each client’s form looks as each of them are built differently. An obvious example is the squat. Some clients will have a large forward lean due to femur length and some will struggle to hit parallel due to hip anatomy. Form is a range, not an exact position, and unless the client is putting themselves into a position that could result in an injury (lots of lumbar flexion during a deadlift for example), you can relax the need to make their technique look textbook.
- Don’t be afraid to create some programming templates for new clients.
Interested in learning more about programming? Our general population programme design course has over 35 5-Star Reviews.
A career in personal training can be one that is filled with great clients, success stories, job satisfaction, flexible working hours and a healthy bank balance. But the first few years are rarely the place where all of this happens. Hopefully, by using some of the strategies mentioned above, you’ll be able to push through the apprenticeship years and make an enjoyable and sustainable living out of being a trainer.