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The New Personal Trainer

The personal training industry is in its third decade and is stronger than ever, with an expanding base of diverse clients and multiple ways to reach them. Personal training ranks sixth among the American College of Sports Medicine’s top 10 fitness trends for 2016, and it has ranked in the top 10 for the past 9 years of the survey (ACSM 2015).

International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association member clubs report that 13.5% of their members use per- sonal trainers and most users are between the ages of 18 and 44 (IHRSA 2015). According to a 2015 report by IBISWorld, the personal training market has expanded steadily over the past 5 years, owing to an increased demand for weight loss services and an interest in customized training. The market is projected to continue growing over the next 5 years (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2016) as disposable incomes rise and obesity remains prominent.

Over the years, the industry has reinvented itself to adopt new training methods, integrate innovative equipment, and address the disruptive (and complementary) effect of technology on health and fitness. Personal training is in an exciting and pivotal transition. To lend insight into the changes, several leading professionals explore what it means to be a successful personal trainer today—not from an exercise programming perspective, but from a big-picture viewpoint.

“Trainers should be prepared to be flexible and adapt to the changing landscape,” says Tony Nicholson, director of Anytime Health at Anytime Fitness Corporation, headquartered in Hastings, Minnesota. “Those who don’t will become obsolete, like fax machines, pagers and flip phones. They’ll need to evolve how they train, create, share, tweak and administer programming; how they communicate and motivate; and how they manage their businesses.”

The Tech-Savvy Trainer

“Fit tech” carries buzz, and for good reason. Apps, wearables, instant messaging and social media— as well as online and virtual training, scheduling and billing—are affecting multiple aspects of the fitness industry. For example, technology enhances or enables the following functions that are part of a personal trainer’s daily business:

  • collection of performance and biometric data, such as steps and heart rate
  • technique and posture screening analysis
  • communications via texting and e-newsletters
  • social media and website marketing
  • virtual training via Skype and other online platforms
  • recordkeeping
  • billing and/or payment processing

To stay competitive, trainers must educate themselves about current technology trends. Patrick Jak, director of metabolic testing at Fitness Quest 10, in San Diego, and head coach of the University of California, San Diego, cycling team, says, “Attend conferences other than traditional industry venues; for example, go to the Consumer Electronics Show or the Quantified Self Conference. Keep your eyes and ears open to articles, studies and magazines, to learn what other trainers are doing. Use [the technology] yourself. Experiment to see how it works, what works and how it fits within a business model.”

If grappling with so much technological change feels overwhelming, take it one step at a time, advise the experts. “Try new technology before suggesting it to a client,” says Ted Vickey, senior advisor for fitness technology at the American Council on Exercise, in San Diego. “There are over 100,000 apps in the iTunes store. Do your homework; find what works and what doesn’t. Recommend a few favorites, and know them inside and out.”


A significant change is the proliferation of wearables, which are stimulating more interest in and awareness of a variety of fitness and health metrics among consumers. According to Juniper Research (2015), 70% of people who buy a wearable want a fitness device. Fabio Comana, faculty instructor for the National Academy of Sports Medicine and San Diego State University, says, “The growth of wearables is unprecedented. Trainers need to aggregate or access that information through shared ecosystems and use it in practical ways for clients.”

Jak notes that trainers can use data collected from multiple tech tools to create more effective customized programs.


Another benefit of activity and nutrition tracker data is that it fosters accountability and opportunity for motivational and educational feedback, which, if used effectively, can help clients stay on track and achieve results more quickly. “Trainers [who have access to client data] can observe trends in physical activity or eating habits so that feedback and potential corrections can be given immediately or at least on the same day, rather than waiting for the next session,” says Sabrena Merrill, ACE senior advisor for health and fitness education, in Kansas City, Missouri.


Communication tools like instant messaging, e-newsletters, Skype or FaceTime allow trainers to reach clients frequently and easily. “The space . . . is evolving to more of a digital platform and a strategy of ‘meeting clients where they are’ versus being tied to a physical location,” says Nicholson. “For example, trainers can start the connection [with the client] in a physical location, but the follow-up, motivation and accountability will be virtual and/or digital, coupled with daily, weekly or monthly in-person check-ins.”

Claudia Micco, wellness coordinator and lead trainer at the Ritz-Carlton Resort, in Kapalua, Hawaii, and owner of HypnoFit Maui, says she works with many home-based and out-of-town clients who are willing to do personal training with her online, via Skype.


Experts note that while fit tech can help make trainers more effective in terms of program design, education, feedback and motivation, they actually have less live face-to-face time with clients and must compete with digital media that offer streaming fitness, online mobile workouts and unlimited amounts of free programming. The consensus is that trainers must provide more than exercise; they must demonstrate value to clients, while also delivering good customer service and building relationships. “Trainers need to evolve to remain viable and relevant,” says Comana.


Today’s trainer must strike a balance, integrating the positive aspects of technology into business operations while not allowing it to overwhelm the training experience. At the end of the day, technology is another tool to support clients and enhance training. “Technology is limited in its ability to tell a trainer and client how emotional, mental and spiritual factors are playing into the client’s overall well-being,” says Hayley Hollander, fitness director for Midtown Athletic Club in Chicago.

“Devices are great at tracking but are limited in behavior change,” says Vickey. “People still want the personal touch.” A powerful way for trainers to keep the “personal” in personal training is to shift from an instructional mentality to a coaching approach.

The Coaching Model

Industry leaders agree that the days when a personal trainer’s role was to design programs and “work out” clients are ending. Trainers who serve more as wellness and lifestyle coaches, rather than as exercise instructors, can provide clients with a much- needed value-added service. Personal training has evolved from being a luxury for the affluent, healthy adult; these days people of all ages and ability levels seek training for multiple reasons. A client’s motivation includes weight loss, sport-specific training, pain or stress management, disease management, a desire to increase energy and quality of life, or a combination of any of these. This variety requires successful trainers to be able to identify why a client is seeking training and how to support different individuals.

Amy Boone Thompson, national director of personal training services for The Wellbridge Company, based in Denver, oversees a program of 350 trainers in 21 clubs in seven states. The Wellbridge Company is making it a priority to serve inactive people. “We have learned that the trainer who is best for this population is not our typical club trainer,” Thompson says. “We are hiring differently. We look for professionals who are empathetic, caring and patient, and have certifications and experience in behavior modification and medical exercise.”


To serve in a coaching role, personal trainers must create rapport with clients and support them in finding their inner motivation, says Lisa Borho, MPH, MS, fitness trainer department chair at Clark College, in Vancouver, Washington. “Our graduates tell us that wellness coaching was the most important skill they learned in the [Clark College] program. For most people, wellness coaching requires training.” Trainers need to learn to listen more—so they can help clients define objectives—and then provide the motivation and education that will empower clients to succeed.


Influencing the new paradigm of wellness coaching is the fact that many clients who want to “get in shape” need to change eating and activity behaviors. “Historically, changing the cli- ent’s health- and fitness-related behaviors was not the focus [of personal training],” says Neal Pire, MA, author and editor of ACSM’s Career and Business Guide for the Fitness Professional and medical wellness implementation specialist at HNH Fitness/ Holy Name Medical Center in Oradell, New Jersey. Most of the leading personal training certification bodies now offer education and/or certification on coaching skills.

“Coaching skills are a must for personal trainers so they can help their clients overcome the behavior barriers that keep them from achieving their goals (i.e., putting them on the wagon) and so clients can build self-efficacy and have the confidence to continue doing what they need to do effectively to achieve those goals (stay on the wagon),” Pire continues.

Says Merrill: “The support, guidance and feedback that coaching provides cannot be replicated with a smartphone app or a predesigned workout program.”


With the understanding that personal trainers play an important role in supporting clients through behavior change comes a broadening of scope to include wellness education. “Service providers need to evolve from one-dimensional resources to coaches who can provide insight on the full suite of the health and wellness scope,” says Nicholson. “This includes exercise both in and outside of a club with cardio, strength, flexibility and mobility training; eating regimens [with a registered dietitian’s aid] or with support of an app; . . . and an overall increase in everyday activities, where a wearable tracker will play a role. Having this type of ‘scoped’ approach versus focusing on just exercise programming or just the in-club experience will transform the coach into an invaluable asset.”


Today’s savvy trainers know that the focus cannot be only on the physical; the mind must be included as well. “We are training the client’s mind first and the body second,” says Micco. “In 1998, I became a hypnotherapist and Neuro-Linguistic ProgrammingTM
(NLPTM) practitioner because I was tired of clients losing motivation and quitting. I wanted to find out why people have trouble creating new habits, even when they think they want to change. I recommend additional training in psychology, brain-based learning, hypnosis, NLP and other strategies.”

Hollander agrees with “finding the driving factors on an emotional level for every client.” This “will give the coach the answers to map movement and program design to what the client needs day in and day out to stay motivated,” she says.

Choosing to Specialize

As the training industry matures, another significant development is the trend toward specialization. Jeremy Scott, owner of Jeremy Scott Fitness in Scottsdale, Arizona, has been named one of America’s Top Trainers by SHAPE magazine and trains approximately 150 local clients and another 100 clients via his online training, nutrition and inner circle coaching programs. He encourages trainers to find their niche. “A good saying is, ‘If you are for everybody, you are for nobody,’” says Scott. “If you want weekend warriors, focus on that. If you’re a strongman, bodybuilder, whatever, find out who you want to work with. I’m not saying there can’t be crossover, but most bodybuilders are not training middle-school girls’ volleyball players.”

Steve Ettinger, a kids’ fitness expert in New York City, agrees. “I specialize in working with kids and teens. I’ve found it has created more opportunities for me, since it’s a less crowded space. It’s also made it easier to get word-of-mouth references, since I’ve become known as the ‘kids’ trainer.’ And I’ve gotten referrals from other trainers who don’t enjoy working with kids, but who have adult clients looking for someone to train their children. Specialization is a valuable path to explore.”

Says Jak: “By specializing in a particular customer group (cyclists), I find I’m able to stay more focused. I can streamline themes, messaging and communications. It’s easier to scale and hit a larger number of individuals. I can become more immersed at becoming an expert and being great at what I do.”

The Role of Equipment

With the wide array of equipment available in today’s market, trainers must grapple with choice and comprehend how to use a variety of devices properly. Experts recommend that fitness professionals obtain and stay up to date on foundational knowledge of biomechanics, along with education about the basic movements.


Borho notes that certain themes, such as functional movement patterns, cross all tools. “If a trainer can master push, pull, bend, twist, squat, lunge and gait, then it is a matter of applying those principle movement patterns to a variety of tools.”

Mike Z. Robinson, 2015 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year and owner of MZR Fitness in San Luis Obispo, California, says, “Successful trainers will make a point to try to experience as many things as possible as soon as they hear about them. Clients are going to hear about them and will bring them to our attention.”

Merrill suggests creating an annual training schedule and budget. “Commit to learning one or two new tools every 6 months,” she says. “Budget the time and finances to do it. Use the new tools on yourself prior to introducing them to clients, so that you can troubleshoot issues and have informative answers to client questions.”


Jak thinks specialization helps with equipment choices. If a trainer specializes in a tool, such as barbells, then that tool can help define a demographic. “When you become an expert in something, you have success with it,” Jak says. “When you succeed with something, you want to learn more about it. It’s a positive snowball effect.”

Business Chops

As competition from boutique studios, health clubs and online offerings increases, trainers need to build strong, sound business models. Scott underscores the importance of business skills. “You can be the best trainer on the planet, but if you can’t keep the doors open, it won’t matter,” he says.

Most experts interviewed think the difference between trainers who thrive and those who struggle lies, not in exercise programming knowledge, but in business skills. All trainers need to know the “soft” skills of sales, marketing and customer service, but the degree to which operational and management skills are necessary depends on whether a trainer chooses to be an employee or an entrepreneur.


All trainers are in sales, as they must promote or sell fitness and health among prospective and existing clients, notes Pire. “Trainers need to realize that they provide a valuable service that can dramatically and positively affect a client for a lifetime,” he says. “That value should have a price tag on it. Every trainer should develop sales skills: prospecting, qualifying, and asking for the sale are all essential parts of the process . . . [and so are] hospitality skills.”

Nicholson thinks that as coaches, trainers will be doing more, which will lead to a higher price point for their services, and clients will get more in terms of true lifestyle change and behavioral management.

Kristin Healey, fitness and training director, Northwest Personal Training in Vancouver, Washington, says, “At a minimum, on an individual basis or a larger scale, [trainers] need a marketing plan. My advice is to create a yearly plan that hig lights your focus for each month. Key areas are internal marketing, external marketing and skill development.”

“Trainers should understand marketing beyond sales and promotions and into pricing analysis, customer analysis and competitive analysis,” says Jak. “They need to be knowledgeable about social media and not just post their last workout, but rather establish a brand identity, gain exposure and identify a company and/or a personal mission.”


For trainers who operate a business, professionals note that survival in today’s marketplace requires knowledge in accounting, operations, management and forecasting. Many of those interviewed advise trainers to find a mentor if their business skills are weak. “Get a coach or become part of a mastermind group,” says Scott. “If you’re not a great business- person—and most fitness pros are not—surround yourself with people who are.” Industry leaders uniformly agree that trainers should do more networking among colleagues, both to help others and to seek help.


Good recordkeeping and documentation skills are essential for trainers who want to collaborate with allied healthcare professionals. “After a trainer has [acquired the appropriate education to] work with clients who have health risks, the trainer should introduce him- or herself to area physicians and express availability to help patients,” says Pire. “Develop SOAP notes [subjective, objective, assessment, plan] during sessions, and get client approval to share training outcomes with physicians, along with an introductory letter. Doctors are used to receiving progress reports from physical therapists and other clinicians who may be treating their patients.”


Over the years, personal trainers have done a great job serving the fit market. The challenge remains to serve those who are not fit (both young and old) and may not enjoy exercise, and those who have one or more medical issues. “Eighty percent of the U.S. population are not walking into the doors of health clubs, even though they know they should,” says Thompson. “We [at The Wellbridge Company] had to create a paradigm shift in our business [to reach this market] to rethink . . . our existing beliefs.”


“The typical personal trainer needs to understand that there’s an entire population that does not think like us,” says Jak. “They don’t like to sweat. They don’t ‘like to be out of breath.’ They don’t want ‘beast’ workouts, HIIT or boot camps. And that is perfectly okay. We need to be prepared to modify our behaviors to help this demo- graphic modify their attitudes about exercise and nutrition.”

“I train a mix of athletes and ‘regular’ kids. Not everyone is a supercompetitive athlete,” shares Ettinger. “Everyone at a very fundamental level, especially kids, likes to move. The most important thing is being patient and working with people to find something they’ll both enjoy and be willing to do. Most of the time, inactive kids or those resistant to working out have had negative experiences in the past. If you try to force it, without figuring out why they’re resistant, you might push them farther away from fitness.”

Personal Trainer 2.0

Personal training continues to mature and help millions of people. It has the highest adoption rate of any program or service in the fitness industry, according to the first International Fitness Industry Trend Report, “What’s All the Rage?” released by ACE, IHRSA and ClubIntel, on September 15, 2015 (ACE 2015). In the early years, consumers were unfamiliar with the benefits of personal training. Today, demand has increased, but so has competition. By offering high-quality training and blending passion with focused business and technology strategies, successful trainers can stand out in a crowd and penetrate new markets. In this way, the modern personal trainer 2.0 can do what he or she does best: Help people and transform lives.

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