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Bridging the Great Career Divide

What it takes to span the two worlds of personal training and group exercise.

Think for a moment of the most successful personal fitness trainer you know. Now think of the most loved group fitness instructor you know. Did you think of the same person for each?

When choosing a trainer, you probably thought of someone who has great technical knowledge, the credentials to show for it and the people skills to connect with clients. When choosing an instructor whose classes are packed week after week, you may have thought of someone who offers a great workout and also motivates and inspires.

The world of fitness professionals seems to divide between two major roles: personal fitness trainers and group fit­ness instructors. But what about the trainers who teach and the instructors who train—the fitness professionals who have established their careers across the great divide? Why do they do it? What can you learn from them? Will doing both enhance your career?

Important Skill Sets

While both trainers and instructors need to be able to educate effectively, their knowledge bases and communication skills differ.

Personal Trainers. To be able to coach their clients and provide them with personalized exercise programs, personal fitness trainers need an extensive knowledge of anatomy, physiology and kinesiology, as well as an understanding of a variety of injuries and illnesses. They support their knowledge with nationally accepted certifications. Skilled trainers also creatively design programs for their clients and feel comfortable using a wide variety of exercises to specialize programs and get results. Successful trainers run their businesses with the skills to market themselves, make sales and retain clients, but they also demonstrate good people skills when interacting one-on-one with clients.

Instructors. In addition to being able to educate their students, instructors must know how to entertain. They do this with personality and music and by fostering the social component of the class, but they also teach safe and motivating exercises. They provide effective workouts and address students’ needs while working the room and connecting with participants (i.e., addressing them by name and learning their stories).

Advantages to Doing Both Jobs

Are you a trainer or an instructor? Have you thought about working in the other arena? Below are some benefits to adding the second job title to your responsibilities.

Why Trainers Would Want to Teach. In the group fitness setting, trainers have the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and establish their credibility. Teaching classes can definitely boost a trainer’s business. “In a class, trainers have exposure to a deeper membership group than just those members who [exercise] exclusively in the weight room, where trainers generally work and get their exposure,” says Carleen Prentice, general manager at Sunset Athletic Club in Portland, Oregon.

Although Prentice doesn’t particularly look for trainers who also teach classes, she believes that staff who teach and train have a greater understanding of what the facility offers. That makes them valuable employees who aid in membership retention.

Trainers who work at smaller facilities can teach classes to increase their hours to full-time status and to promote their services if the trainers are shy about marketing themselves.

Aside from the obvious business booster, teaching group fitness classes helps trainers find balance. Susie Rooker Ngarangad, a personal trainer at the Presidio YMCA in San Francisco, is also a group instructor. “Teaching helps keep me from going crazy, because it’s a change of pace,” she says. “I have less burnout because I exercise my mind.”

Why Instructors Would Want to Train. By working with clients one-on-one, you can often earn more per hour than as an instructor. If you currently work part-time in fitness and you become a trainer, you may be able to increase your hours to full-time by adding training sessions. You may also be more marketable, depending on your company or the niche in which you want to work.

Gaining the in-depth technical knowledge you need to work one-on-one with a varied clientele may also increase your ability to serve individual clients during a group class. Intensive knowledge of anatomy, physiology, kinesiology and injury prevention could strengthen the technical aspects of your classes.

Last, but not least, adding personal training to your repertoire may enhance your career satisfaction. You may find it rewarding to work one-on-one, helping clients define and reach their health and fitness goals.

Getting Started

Working as both a trainer and an instructor has its challenges, and not everyone has the personality or the technical expertise to do it, but the benefits often far outweigh the challenges. If you want to cross over, consider the following suggestions in order to increase your chance of success. When contemplating either move, start with informational interviews. In planning for continuing education, step outside of your comfort zone and learn something to help you step into the new arena.

Adding Training Services. Instructors who aim to become trainers may want to hire a trainer to get a sense of the dynamic between trainer and client, says Jonathan Ross, instructor, trainer and personal training director at Sport Fit in Bowie, Maryland, and owner of aionfitness.com. Motivational methods and mental approach differ in the more intimate setting.

Ngarangad recommends starting slowly by working in positions with shorter time commitments to clients; offering one-time equipment orientations, for example. It’s a big leap from instructor to trainer, and your scope of practice increases. You’ll need to study anatomy and physiology so you have the advanced technical knowledge to create truly individualized workouts.

Adding Instructor Skills. Trainers who want to teach can get started by taking a variety of classes and paying close attention. You should observe how instructors lead their classes, work the room and entertain participants. Many group exercisers thrive on the competition or support offered by the social environment, so consider how you would cater to their needs. Notice how instructors balance working out with having fun, and think about how to relax your focus on the technical; you won’t have time to get too caught up in that. Determine what you like in an instructor and what type of class would work for you. Find a mentor, practice and learn with that instructor (who might not be another trainer) and attend in-house trainings. Finally, learn by doing. “Experienced instructors are what really turn people on to classes,” says Ngarangad.

If it seems that training and teaching year-round will be too hectic, you could just teach seasonal classes, suggests Ross. Or you may want to take a break from regularly scheduled classes when you get too busy training clients, says Prentice. As Ngarangad points out, you could also sub classes as a way to balance your schedule.

Working Both Jobs

The fitness industry thrives on relationships, and businesses require personnel who can fill different niches and meet the needs of diverse memberships. If you feel you can add variety to either the group fitness or personal training program at your facility, take the leap, but be prepared to invest a significant amount of time in learning new skills, and remember that there will be differences to which you must adapt.

SIDEBAR: Transition Tips

Think you’re ready to add teaching or training to your schedule? Follow these tips to make the transition a success.

Ask Yourself Why. Before you decide to take on a new role, consider your reasons for doing so. If you want exposure to potential clients or you love teaching fitness and want to make it your career, then you’re off to a good start.

Do Your Research. Go to informational interviews, focus your continuing education, take classes, work with trainers and study, study, study. Be prepared for your new role with all the knowledge you need.

Find Your Niche. Offering a variety in personalities and specialties is the key to successful group fitness and personal fitness training programs. Differentiate yourself from your peers and find a place where you fit in.

Start Slowly. The transition won’t take place overnight. Begin by teaching small sections of classes with another instructor or by offering one-time equipment orientations for the facility where you work.

Practice, Practice, Practice. Experience is the basis on which successful instructors and trainers develop their careers—the more you teach and train, the better you will be. Keep at it.

SIDEBAR: Inventory Your Skills

Determine whether you’ve got what it takes to cross the great divide and find success on the other side. Review this comparison of the skills that successful fitness professionals need.

Group Fitness Instructor

  • entertaining personality
  • national group fitness certification
  • ability to multitask
  • ability to foster socialization
  • class specialization and flow
  • variety in music and choreography

Personal Fitness Trainer

  • technical expertise
  • national personal training certification
  • ability to focus on clients one-on-one
  • ability to figure out who clients are and what they really want
  • business sense
  • variety in training methods

Laura A. Davis, MS, has worked in the fitness industry since 1995, as everything from fitness trainer to group fitness instructor to program director to assistant general manager. She holds an undergraduate degree in journalism and a graduate degree in sports and fitness management.


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