Posted December 27, 2017

Often Overlooked Elements to Success in Personal Training

I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a lot of trainers – either directly through the club I worked at, through certifying new trainers, or via emails and messages from people all over the place – to help them improve their careers and give advice where I can about how to better their service delivery or improve their income in some way. A lot of the time it’s come back to “try this exercise or look at the situation like this,” and very rarely something like “you should charge $X for this service.” At the end of the day, it’s still a business, and while I’d love nothing more than to tell someone to just sit around in the gym and give unsolicited advice to people as they squat nearby, there’s already too many of those guys running around.

So today I wanted to go through some less than commonly recommended bits of advice on how to become somewhat successful as a personal trainer. In most instances -SPOILER ALERT – it comes back to communication and empathy.


1: Say YES Until You Have to Say NO

When I started training, I worked from 6am until 9pm Monday to Friday, and then 8am until 4pm on Saturday. Sunday was a day off, but also a day to spend catching up on programs, groceries, soap operas, scheduling in for the coming week, the usual stuff.

This isn’t to say I was busy for that entire timeframe, but that’s when I was available. It’s tough to serve at the pleasure of your clients, as this means you’re working around their schedules. This means before and after work are potentially busy times for you to train, but makes your days considerably long in order to build up a clientele.

Had I started out looking to cap my availability to 30 hours right from the get go, I probably would have starved for the first couple of years of my career. While these hours may seem extreme, it was pretty usual for me as in high school I attended classes and then either was practising or playing a sport or going to work, and in university I would go to class and then go to work afterwards. The hours were already fairly engrained in me, so it was easy to load all waking hours with clients. Hashtag hustle and grind.

I was taking on clients at all hours, with all abilities, and from all walks of life. I didn’t have an “ideal client” except the ones whose cheques cleared. Eventually I was able to be more discerning with my time as my calendar filled up, and as I was able to reduce my hours in exchange for an increase in my pricing. But I didn’t actually start turning away clients until I’d worked for about 10 years. At that point I had a steady clientele, made a decent wage, and was able to pick and choose the clients I wanted to work with, and work at the hours I was willing to work.

This also expands to other ventures I’ve taken on. When I was first getting my name out there, the idea of doing work for exposure was cool, and did benefit me a fair bit, but now I can be more discerning with how I spend my time and who I work with. This isn’t to come off as arrogant or only about money, because to be honest some projects are just fun and things I’ll work on for free, but others should have a price tag attached. I don’t know too many people who would work for their boss for free doing something they didn’t want to do, and especially so if it became a habit.

Q & As, podcasts, writing assignments, seminars, conferences, and everything else all have time and energy involvements, and very often result in zero dollars earned, but can pay off down the road in a bunch of different ways. Saying YES to everything you can, even if it means lack of sleep, friends, life, or income, can pay dividends down the road, but then you’ll also have to know when to start saying NO. ¬†Now if those obligations took me away from my family or clients, or wound up being a massive time or energy drain that could be better used with other projects, I’d likely politely decline.

To give an example, I was asked to speak at a conference in 2018 where I would have to pay for my own travel and accommodations, then also take time away from training clients (earning an income), all for the honorarium that would cover about 1/5th of the cost of the flight. The topic they wanted me to speak on was one I wasn’t comfortable delivering, had zero preparation on, and would feel like a complete fraud trying to speak on in front of others, so I declined that one. Conversely, another conference wanted me to speak, offered free travel and accommodations, and paid a reasonable speaking fee, plus provided a great experience with my own choice on topics. Easy choice.


2: Develop Listening Skills and Learn to Flex Your Style

I have a couple of young clients who work on the oil rigs and swear so hard they’d make mechanics blush, but also some very prim and proper 70 year old women where swearing would be the first thing to push them out the door, and the energy level in the sessions is entirely different as well. Whereas the oil rig workers are happy to get jacked up and throw around more plates than a dishwasher at Dennys, my elderly debutants are more reserved and quite honestly scared of everything in the gym that I’m not showing them or setting up safeties. They may never touch a barbell, and they’re okay with that.

How I talk, the volume of my voice, the language I use, and the focal points for each training session between these sets of clients is entirely different, and something that takes time to understand and develop with each client. It would be easy to say “this is just who I am” and only act one way with everyone, but that wouldn’t actually be true, and it wouldn’t provide the best service possible to each unique client that comes through the doors.

Aside from that, their goalset and amount of energy they’re willing to expend to get there is entirely different. The oil rig guys are willing to kill themselves in the gym to add 5 lbs to their deadlifts, even if it means they can’t walk for a few days afterwards from the DOMS, whereas my ladies would let me know quite quickly if they were even a little sore from their last workout, and have no specific goals of pushing numbers, just staying healthy enough to get to book club and garden in the summers without back pain.

Figuring out how to best communicate with a client comes back to listening skills, as well as observing non-verbal communication. See how someone walks into the gym -are they flexed and looking scared? Open and powerful? – what language they use – proper grammar versus dropping casual swears? – how they respond to open ended questions – are they closed off and reserved? Telling you their life story? – can all play a role in understanding how you should communicate with that person, in addition to what ever their actual goalset may wind up being.


3: Connect Clients to Ancillary Services

When I started out, I contacted my clients medical professionals (with their written permission) to learn more about how I could work with them to get the best results for their patients. This allowed me to develop a pretty extensive network of professionals whom I could refer to at the drop of a hat when the situation came up, or to contact if I needed some help connecting them to a service within the medical community.

This could be something easy enough for any trainer to do with other services too. If you primarily offer weight loss, have a tailor who could help your clients alter their clothes as they lose weight and change shape. If you want to give your clients experience rewards for achieving specific milestones, you could get small gift cards to different places they may have never considered, or even to somewhere to buy some new training shoes. Even just having the name of a good place to get some runners for your clients looking to get into running is easy enough to do, but helps your clients a lot more than having to Google search it on their own.

One of my clients started out after not working out for the past 30 years. His diet was no where near what it should have been (vegetables were dirty words, water was a foreign substance) and he had no workout clothes. His wife made the appointment for him to come see me and he showed up in old jeans, work boots, and a ripped t-shirt as that was all he had.

Since his birthday was coming up, I called his wife and mentioned a great gift would be some workout clothes, and that if it came from his kids it would be even better to show everyone was supporting him. I mentioned a few places to get good quality clothes for reasonable prices, and outlined that he would benefit from some good cross trainer shoes.

His birthday came and he was all kitted out in new stuff the next day saying his family completely surprised him. He’d wanted a new fishing rod, but admitted he’d likely get more use from the workout clothes instead. After he got the new clothes, he even started coming to the gym to work out when we didn’t have a session whereas before that wasn’t happening.

For his diet, he mentioned he hated prepping food, his wife did all the cooking for dinners and he made his own breakfast and lunch, which was typically Tim Hortons drive through for both. I told him about a few great fast restaurants close by that did some meal prep work of food that actually tasted good, and was portioned out according to how hungry he was, and he jumped at it. His wife still made his dinners, but now he was eating a fresh salad for lunches, had a healthy breakfast and good snack each day, and started to switch out his higher calorie drinks for water, and wound up dropping weight like a snowman in a sauna. 40 lbs later, he went out and bought himself some new workout clothes.

The workouts themselves weren’t anything fancy, but simply getting some workout clothes made him willing to do the work. Helping solve the problem of not wanting to do meal prep and get good quality food helped structure his food intake, and both took next to zero time or energy from him to accomplish. It was the removal of barriers that lead to success, which created the self fulfilling prophecy that lead to the results he was looking for.


4: Teach, Don’t Instruct

When I was in university, it was common for a lot of my first year classes to be one body in a seat that was surrounded by 200-300 other bodies in seats. The instructor provided zero individual attention unless you went to their office hours and spent time waiting while 30 other students asked the same 3 or 4 questions, and in many instances they were struggling with learning the material in a new language, making it all that more challenging for them to pick up the content, which meant I’d have next to no chance to get in during office hours.

When I was doing my practicums, I was able to get one on one ¬†attention from my supervisor, which allowed me to learn the reasoning behind some of the interventions, how and why the research projects were organized the way they were and what the expected outcomes would be in a way that wasn’t likely to happen from a classroom setting.

When working with clients, I could very easily give workouts that were incredibly detailed and highly specific to the clients needs and goals, but then in our follow up session if I asked them if they did any of the homework on their own, the likely response would be “I didn’t know how to do it, it was too confusing.”

Now this could come down to 2 different instructional processes. If I just walked the client through the workout (do this, then that, not like what you’re doing there, more like this, now do it on your own), they’d likely struggle because they hadn’t internalized what the goal of the exercises were, how to do them, or understood the key points to focus on during the workouts. It would be like the instructor in those first year courses.

If instead, if I walked them through the goal of the exercise first, what the exercise was trying to accomplish, common compensations, key features, and provided video feedback they could rely on later when trying to go through the movement on their own, they would have a much deeper understanding of the exercise and have a much higher chance of successfully doing it on their own compared to the first option.


The more you can teach a client about the why and what, the better they’ll be at putting it together for themselves, especially if it’s a program at their level of understanding. I’ve never had a client say they were unhappy I took the time to tell them about how or why I was getting them to do a specific thing, and there likely won’t be a time when a client knows more about fitness and exercise than me, so I’ll have lots of material to give out.


This article is in no way exhaustive, but these are common areas a lot of trainers could expand their business relatively easily, while also delivering a higher level of service to their clients, helping them get better results in the process. Are there ones you think should be on here as well? Drop a comment below and let me know.

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