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How to Transition to Personal Training Full-Time

Kevin Root used to work in advertising. Then one day he realized that his life wasn’t going the way he wanted. “Advertising is a rough industry, and not one I necessarily believe in,” he admits. “I knew that I didn’t want to help sell another can of Coke.”

Root became a personal trainer, and he’s happy in his new career. But how did he bridge the gap between one job and the next? Discover how people from different industries have made the switch to personal training—and what worked for them during the change.

Think About the Change

Sources interviewed for this article wanted to become personal trainers for a variety of reasons:

  • feeling unfulfilled in their current jobs
  • wanting jobs they really liked
  • wanting careers in which they could make a difference and help people
  • wanting jobs with more flexible schedules
  • becoming interested in personal training during their own health and fitness journey

Learn About the Career

Before committing to become a personal trainer, research the field to see whether it’s a good match.

Determine if personal training is right for you. “I took many different career and personality tests online, and I compared the results,” confides Root, a certified personal trainer who now trains clients and is a part-time marketing project manager at the La Jolla Sports Club in La Jolla, California. “Next I researched what jobs and industries would make me the happiest. Then I met with a career counselor to compare my notes with her thoughts. We came to a lot of the same conclusions: I wanted a job that was creative and fun, where I could help people. And after my years at an advertising desk job, I wanted something more physical. I already spent much of my free time surfing, sailing and playing soccer. Personal training was a good match.”

Research what the job entails. At the same time that Denise Collman’s interest in her own health and fitness was increasing, she was also growing tired of her job as a systems analyst. “My brother was involved in a career change website called Careershifters, and I went to one
of the organization’s workshops to learn how to transition my career,” she explains. Collman is now a health mentor/personal trainer at Nuffield Health’s St. Albans Fitness & Wellbeing Gym in
St. Albans, England.

Tamara Grand, owner of Fitknitchick in Port Moody, British Columbia, advises change-seekers to learn more about personal training before jumping into a career in it. “I spent some time with a
few trainers and shadowed them,” she reports. “I saw what a personal training session looked like as a trainer and how different trainers organize sessions with different types of clients.”

Get Educated

The good news is that you can choose from a number of personal training certifications and courses. You just need to decide what suits you.

“Find the best path for you,” declares Collman. “That might be evening learning, weekend study or working in a gym for a short period observing other trainers.”

Grand recommends in-person education if it’s possible. “Working directly with teachers and other students will help you master the material, and there’s a lot of it,” Grand affirms. “This interaction will also help you develop your communication and teaching skills.”

Ask personal trainers about their education and experience. “I talked to personal trainers at my gym, plus I called local gyms and spoke with the managers,” says Angelena Marie Riggs, who worked in outside sales but is now an NASM-certified personal trainer and owner of AM Fitness in Shelby Township, Michigan. “I explained that I wanted to become a personal trainer. I asked what certifications [the gyms] required, if they were hiring and what their pay structure was. Since I was making a career switch, I also asked what their new-trainer education was like. I noted who took the time to talk to me, so I knew who to call when I passed my test.”

Seek Mentors

A mentor can make a crucial difference in your success at changing careers. >>
Collman went regularly to an indoor cycling class, and she became friends with the instructor. “She gave me honest advice about the different routes I could take and what I could use my qualifications for,” Collman explains.
Lee Jordan, who was an executive at a Top 50 global IT company, went from weighing over 450 pounds to being a fully healthy, athletic person. The personal trainer who helped him also served as a mentor when Lee wanted to become a trainer. “The earliest steps toward my personal training/coaching career were words of encouragement I received from my personal trainer,” he remembers. “She gave me several back issues of IDEA Fitness Journal as a way for me to familiarize myself with the industry.” He is now an ACE-certified health coach, behavior change specialist and personal trainer in Jacksonville Beach, Florida.

Work as a Trainer

So how do you actually switch from your current career to personal training? That depends upon several factors, including your time availability and your finances. Will you need to work full- or part-time while you study to become a trainer? Can you live with parents or friends to save money? Are you the sole breadwinner of your family, so you’ll need to continue a full-time job? Here are some options:

Study, and don’t work at a paid job. “The advertising agency I worked for was downsizing, and I had the option to stay or go,” explains Root. “With a little severance and a lot of free time, I hit the books and started closely observing personal trainers. After I got certified, I papered La Jolla with my training resumé and jumped right in.”

Work part-time at a nonfitness job. Tara Sabo decided to pursue her personal training certification and continue to work in advertising. While she was waiting for her course to start, her employer let her go. (This was during a tough economic time.) She moved back to her parents’ home to save on expenses, and she also took a retail job to generate some income. She now works as a personal trainer, group fitness instructor and fitness director at South Shore Health & Racquet Club in St. Joseph, Michigan.

Work part-time at a fitness job. When Grand left her nonfitness career, first she worked as a group exercise instructor. This position proved helpful both financially and as a way to make connections in the fitness industry. “For me, stepping into the role of personal trainer was a natural extension of the small-group fitness classes I was teaching. Part of my certification process required me to complete a 20-hour practicum, creating programs and providing one-on-one training sessions for 20 different ‘clients.’ I recruited from my group fitness classes, and I gained experience as a trainer by working with those people.”

Collman also worked part-time and learned on the job. “I got an interview at Nuffield Health. I started on a zero-hour contract and put in around 24 hours a week. Then they offered me a 40-hours [per week] contract. I did exercise programs, inductions, indoor cycling classes and health assessments. After a few years I moved into a managerial role, and 2 years ago I became a health mentor as well as a personal trainer.”

Work full-time in your original career and part-time in training. Donna Meeker-O’Rourke, MPH, works full-time as an administrator in the department of anthropology at Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey. She has stayed at her university job and has spent a few years building her private training business: DMO Fitness in Clifton, New Jersey. She works at DMO before and after her full-time job, and she plans to leave the university in the future.

Riggs continued her sales job while studying to become a trainer. “It kept my income stable, and I studied in the evenings and on weekends. Once I was offered a training job, I gave notice at my old job. I wanted to [be able to] give my all to becoming a great personal trainer.”

Go full-time as soon as you can. “I trained my first few clients for free while I worked my full-time job,” says Jordan. “But, ultimately, if you are going to learn to swim, at some point you have to get wet! Once I had strategically developed my skill set and client niche, I fully invested my time and effort in helping my target market: obese clients.”

Take a Risk!

What holds people back from becoming trainers? Often, it’s fear. “My lack of confidence was a challenge at first,” notes Collwood. “Changing careers was a huge step. I had no idea if I would be good. I had to keep telling myself that it was the right choice.” Collwood’s advice: “Understand that you will have confidence wobbles in the beginning. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it!”

Sabo is thrilled that she changed careers. “The fitness industry is wonderful,” she exclaims. “I haven’t been stressed at work in years. It has been incredibly amazing for my sanity and my own health and happiness. I am a much better person physically and emotionally because of the career change.”

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