Now that you've received your PFT certification, what career steps do you take next?
The newly certified personal fitness trainer (PFT) is much like a college student soon after graduation day. The anticipation of finally being “set free” to move toward carefully crafted hopes and dreams quickly dissipates and is replaced by the fear and anxiety of “What now?”
The road has been arduous—loaded with studying, workshops, practical application and the final exam. Like the college graduate, the new PFT must now wade into unfamiliar territory and establish a stable career. The PFT’s path is completely self-driven; the outcome is based largely on her ability to become a reliable source of knowledge and credibility in a sea of competitors. In many cases, the decisions made early on have a lasting impact and can mean the difference between a trainer who holds her ground and one who burns out early. Starting out can be a frightening prospect; however, with careful planning and education, a PFT can create a long-lasting, fulfilling career.
When I began my journey into personal training, a funny thing happened. Though I expected to walk proudly out of the testing center with a sense of confidence and determination, I quickly realized that my responsibilities as a personal trainer were far greater than I had anticipated, and that my current education level was not enough to equip me to help others. It was one of those make-or-break moments where I had to decide whether I was really ready to pursue a career as a PFT or whether I was going to let the opportunity pass by. I chose the former—but knew that there was a great deal more to be learned and that I needed to become more aware of my weaknesses before I could even think of becoming a great trainer.
Ignorance may be bliss, but it can be costly in the long run. Before you begin to search out employment, take the time to write a list of your possible weaknesses and ways you can overcome them. For example, if your knowledge of anatomy is lacking, perhaps it would behoove you to enroll in a community college course or purchase a book for home study. Not only will this increase your understanding of the human body, but it will also help you feel more confident when working with clients.
Tom Terwilliger, a 20-year veteran of the industry and owner of Terwilliger Fitness in Denver, suggests putting together a goal-oriented plan before you schedule your first interview. “Many times I find that trainers seeking employment at my facility have an obvious disconnect with what they want,” he says. Terwilliger believes that this lack of understanding can seriously limit individuals’ success. “Where do you want to be in 1 year, 5 years and 10 years?” he asks.
Even though putting together a 10-year plan may seem difficult, Terwilliger emphasizes that it will help you better flesh out the steps required to achieve long-term goals. “Start with the outcome and work backward,” he says. “If you know where you want to end up, it’s much easier to figure out how to get there, and you’re more likely to achieve your goals.” So instead of feeling around in the dark, learn what it will take to get you to your ultimate goal. If you hope to open your own fitness facility, begin taking business classes in your spare time. Network with local business owners and learn what it takes to be successful. Meanwhile, you can beef up your training skills and put money into a savings account so you have as much capital as possible before taking the big leap.
One of the most valuable things a new trainer can do is find a mentor. Not only can this person offer education, but he can provide you with insights not readily available in most textbooks. “Several years ago, a brand-new trainer with no experience wanted to meet with me,” says Terwilliger. “He mentioned that he was interested in working for me and that he wanted to introduce himself. He knew about me and my business, which was really impressive. He then told me that he would be back in 2 years and would be the best trainer I ever hired.” Over the subsequent years, Terwilliger became something of a mentor for the new trainer, meeting with him every so often to share insights and information. “When he returned with experience, I had no choice but to hire him!” he recalls.
Finding a mentor can be as easy as looking in the local newspaper. “If you read an article [by an experienced trainer] and you like it, see if you can find more information on the person who wrote it,” Terwilliger suggests. “Perhaps the writer might be willing to agree to a meeting. You can also search the Internet for internship opportunities. It may take a few bucks, but it’s definitely worth it.” He also advises identifying the fitness leaders in your community and seeking them out. “Become an apprentice,” he says. “There’s no better way to get an understanding of what it means to be a personal trainer than from someone who is very good at it.”
“The best way to gain experience as a personal trainer is to work in a health club,” says Jason Stella, personal training department head for Lifetime Fitness in Burr Ridge, Illinois. “Most new trainers don’t have the business skills to make it on their own, or to be responsible for gaining clients. Working for a health club is a good way to learn. If you can’t make it at a club with 15,000 members, how can you generate business on your own?”
Nicki Anderson, owner of Reality Fitness in Naperville, Illinois, and a finalist for the 2006 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year award, echoes Stella’s beliefs. “I won’t hire anyone unless they have about 2 years’ experience from a larger gym,” she says. “When you work in a bigger gym, you can see what others are doing and how they work. You can also learn what type of population you want to work with. You don’t want to get a job at a studio that focuses on ‘40-somethings’ and then find out you don’t like to work with them.”
Terwilliger believes that health clubs offer more opportunities to learn about salesmanship and how to generate clientele—skills that will become extremely important if you decide to break out on your own. “It’s easier to market yourself when you have built-in clientele,” he says. “You can figure out what to do and what not to do.” Stella also argues that health clubs offer the potential to move into leadership and management roles, which may interest those who don’t see personal training as a permanent career choice. All agree that once a trainer has gained adequate experience, she will have a better sense of her career intentions. “Define yourself first through experience, and then make a decision about what you want to do next,” advises Anderson.
As you take your first steps toward a PFT career, ask lots of questions of yourself, industry experts and potential employers. There are many aspects of this business that can be understood only through experience, and most veterans are more than willing to share theirs to help a fellow professional make informed decisions.
Once you have settled on your first steps and are ready to approach a potential employer, do some research before making contact. “Everyone sends out resumés blindly,” says Terwilliger. “Get to know the company. Get to know the manager or owner. Talk to the human resources person and make a connection.” Not only will this give you a better idea of what the organization is like and if it is a good match for you, but it can also help elevate you in the eyes of the hiring manager.
A career as a PFT can be tremendously rewarding and lucrative. Taking appropriate steps to break into the industry will help make the process more manageable and satisfying, and you will reap the rewards for many years to come.