The Actor’s Guide to Personal Training
How a personal trainer leverages the skills he learned as an actor to enhance the client experience.
If you had told me 13 years ago that I would have a successful personal training business today, I wouldn’t have believed you! At the time, I had my heart set on becoming an actor. But even though I secured a modest number of stage and screen roles, personal training emerged as a compelling passion. And though I miss performing for others, I’ve come to realize that the skills and techniques I learned as an actor have become integral to the success of my training business.
This article explores those skills and offers helpful how-to tips on how you can apply them to enhance your own services as a fitness professional.
A common acting skill I used when becoming a character was empathy. Without empathy, we cannot understand and share the feelings of another. I’m putting this characteristic at the top of the list for good reason: The ability to feel empathy is a vital skill for a trainer because this profession requires that you genuinely care about your clients.
How-to: When a client—either a first-time client or someone you have been training for years—begins to tell you a personal story (as often happens, since personal training can become very personal), try to place yourself directly in her shoes. While taking in the details of the story, ask yourself the following questions:
- How did this make her feel?
- Was she able to overcome the obstacle(s) in this story?
- How can I structure our sessions together to focus on the emotional outcomes relevant to this story?
- Which exercise motivation and inspiration tools can I use to assist her in achieving long-term success?
These questions will help you identify the specific emotions your client was—and may still be—feeling in your sessions together. You’ll have a clearer understanding of how to better assist her emotionally in future sessions. The client-trainer bond will strengthen as your empathy deepens.
Most of acting is reacting to what you hear, but the ability to listen in our daily lives is unappreciated. Listening shows compassion, placing the needs of another before your own. As fitness professionals, we always need to remember that, during client interactions, it’s never about us; it’s about our client. Remember that the person talking often doesn’t want the listener to come up with a solution; he just wants to be heard.
How-to: Use your empathy skills, and do your best to hear everything your client is saying. Listening skills are not just for when your clients tell you dramatic stories or vent about their day; apply these techniques for the more subdued stories, too. By truly listening to your clients—and not talking or trying to offer up a solution—you will develop the ability to tailor the session to be just what they need, while allowing them to be the “lead character in their show.” This helps them feel valued, and clients who feel valued become more loyal.
As an actor, I had to adapt and transform my personality, reactions, actions and speech to relate to my fictional friends and family. Your ability to adapt to your clients’ personalities and needs is directly proportional to how much you can relate to and help them.
You could be the smartest person in the world when it comes to human anatomy and physiology; however, if you can’t share that information with your clients in a way they can understand, your efforts in helping them achieve their fitness goals will ultimately fall short.
Your next step is to use your empathy and listening skills to adapt to your clients so they feel even more comfortable with you. Remember, your clients already trust you as a skilled fitness professional (otherwise, they wouldn’t have hired you), but you still need to ensure a successful and substantial relationship with them. Becoming a natural and effective adaptor is key.
How-to: Pay close attention, and you will notice nuances in each client’s personality, mannerisms and emotions. What inspires and motivates one client may not work with another. A militant boot camp instructor approach, for example, works only for some people, while a softer and gentler approach works for others. It’s critical to “mirror” your clients’ physical actions, read and respond to their emotional behavior, and speak in a similar vernacular—all with integrity and honesty. This doesn’t mean you are acting in a superficial sense; instead, you are building a deeper connection that makes your clients feel more “at home” with you. Best of all, when clients are more comfortable, their chance of success is far greater.
Playing a variety of characters on stage and in film gave me a lot of confidence in my public speaking and presenting skills, but it’s critical to understand that I never allowed this confidence to morph into arrogance or superiority. While training, you must know your specific audience in order to choose the best words and storyline to present. When you strategically craft your words to best influence each client, and you deliver those words with the utmost confidence, your training will be unstoppable.
How-to: Remember to apply all of the previous techniques (empathy, listening and adaptation), and speak clearly and slowly while presenting. To best execute confidence while presenting, remember who you are. You are unique and have the privilege of making lives better. “Command the stage” with your clients, but not in a demanding or arrogant way. Your voice should come across as assured and knowledgeable; you are the expert, and you know how to guide your clients to achieve their fitness goals.
Like any successful theatrical production, personal training requires teamwork. Together, you and your clients establish the dynamics of your relationship. Most importantly, you are both making a commitment of time, passion and love to achieve a goal—and that goal will best be achieved if you both remain equally focused and committed throughout the process. Any award-winning play or blockbuster movie needs all cast members to play their roles.
How-to: Early in your relationships with your clients, it’s vital to establish that they always have your support. They are not alone in their fitness journey. Express this sentiment directly to each client, and speak of it with honesty and compassion. Check in often to see if your clients need anything from you that they might not be overtly expressing, such as extra emotional motivation in your workouts together or tips to stretch an overactive muscle that nags them when they’re working out alone. Whatever the need, ensure that your clients know they can always count on you. Never forget that your relationship is based on a foundation of unwavering teamwork—now and always.
I can’t stress enough the importance of this list of ways to thrive in your interactions with your clients: (1) adapt your personality; (2) mirror their physical actions; (3) speak in the same vernacular; (4) be mindful of their emotional reactions; and (5) remember there is no “them” and “you”; rather, it’s about both of you—client and trainer—becoming a team.
Although I now consider my acting career secondary to my fitness career, I am forever grateful for the time I spent onstage; it taught me valuable skills that have helped me become a better personal trainer.