Reflecting on 10 Years as a Personal Trainer

It has been 10 years since I began working as a personal trainer. I was 21 when I started my first personal training job at a local...
Dylan Harris
March 27, 2023
Reflecting on 10 Years as a Personal Trainer

It has been 10 years since I began working as a personal trainer. I was 21 when I started my first personal training job at a local fitness center here in Springfield. A lot has changed since then. In fact, the fitness center I started at isn’t even the same company anymore. But I thought it would be cool to reflect back on 10 things that I’ve learned over the years.

1. Not Everyone Wants to Be Jacked and Ripped

This one took a few years for me to recognize. Mainly because I was young and naive, with no other major priorities on my plate. Plus, becoming jacked and ripped is what made me interested in becoming a personal trainer in the first place.

However, after a few years of training people, I realized that most people out there are just trying to look good and feel good. They weren’t trying to be on the next cover and Muscle & Fitness magazine. For many people, they just want to break a sweat and destress from their work and kids. So the whole “bodybuilding” lifestyle I was expecting them to be able to be 100% compliant with didn’t usually pan out. Or if it did, it wasn’t sustainable long term. I wasted way too much energy trying to figure out why the busy mom of three couldn’t just weigh and measure every meal, or why dad working overtime couldn’t get in the gym six days per week.

2. Fads Can Be OK

If you’ve followed my content in the past, you will know that I’ve been quite vocal on fads and MLM products. However, I will be the first to admit that fads can be a good stepping stone for many people. But I’m still not a fan of MLM products.

With fads, such as paleo diet, keto diet, intermittent fasting, various exercise programs, etc, as long as they are not causing harm to the individual, they may be just what someone needs to get the ball rolling in the right direction. And that’s exactly what people need early on. They don’t need the most perfect, most scientific formula out there. They just need something that yields a positive result, in a short amount of time, that will build momentum and confidence. Once this ball is rolling, it is so much easier to make other lifestyle and training modifications, simply because the person is now more compliant and excited about the process.

However, I’m still not a fan of MLM products, and do not consider them a good stepping stone, simply because they are often highly gimmicky, while promising some degree of financial freedom, but generally ends up costing the consumer more money than they make in the long run. In fact, most surveys find that 99% of those that participate in becoming a seller end up losing money.

3. Joint Pain Sucks

When you start training people at a young age, you don’t usually understand what joint pain and stiffness feels like. You don’t respect what someone is feeling, simply because you can’t see it, or you cannot relate to it. So while I believe that exercise and weight training are some of the best ways to combat joint pain, modifications should still be considered, and listening to your client is most important.

For myself, I have Colitic Spondyloarthopathy as a result of Ulcerative Colitis. So while I am able to manage the arthritis from it most of the time, when I do have a flare up, it throws a huge wrench in my training plans. But as much as the condition stinks, it has helped me better relate to my clients, and the many different types of aches and pains they may experience.

When dealing with the general population, a very large chunk of your client base is going to have pain somewhere. It’s not your job to diagnose or question their level of pain, or if the pain is even real. Find a modification and get them back to training pain free. If you can’t do that, refer out.

4. Excuses Are Often Legitimate

The older I get, and the more I “adult”, the more I realize that most of my clients’ excuses are pretty legitimate. That doesn’t mean we don’t work up a game plan to work around them. But looking back at 21 year old me, I had some pretty foolish expectations for some of my clients. So it is very important to always communicate with your clients and discover the order of their priorities, goals, and what excuses are negotiable.

Instead of continuing to force your clients to work their excuses around your plan, try making your plan work around their excuses. The trainers that use the common phrase, “F**K YOUR EXCUSES”, has got to be one of the worst strategies I’ve ever seen. It may work for the 1%, but not the 99%.

5. Power is Under-Appreciated

People often talk about the benefits of getting stronger, particularly for the adult population, since strength is directly correlated to injury prevention, disease, and even death. However, not too many people discuss the benefits of maintaining power for adults.

Adults lose power almost twice as fast as they lose strength. In fact, every decade after 40, power declines by about 17%, while strength declines by only 10%. Therefore, 30 years from then, at age 70, you’ll have only lost about 30% of your strength, but 51% of your power! So do yourself a favor, and sprinkle in some power based training, regardless of your age or goals.

6. Don’t Be Too Original

This is a tough one for someone like me that enjoys being creative. But I can tell you from experience, the more creative and original someone tries to be in writing a training program, the worse that program actually is in practice. In other words, the more you try to reinvent the wheel, the further you get from the principles that actually work. Instead of trying to be the next Charles Poliquin or Louie Simmons, try mastering the application of tried and true methods.

7. Optimal Isn't Always Optimal

It’s fun to geek out with other trainers about what is “optimal” as far as training and nutrition goes. But the fact of the matter is, optimal isn’t optimal if the person doing the program isn’t giving it their full effort. I would much prefer someone take a good program, and do it consistently with great energy and effort, than someone take an optimal program, but not give it their full effort. It’s more important to provide a program that someone enjoys and looks forward to, than it is to give them the best program, but one that they get no joy from.

However, sometimes all it takes is educating the client on why a particular program is better for them. Just knowing why they are doing something is enough to spark their interest in the program.

8. Science is Important, but Application is Importanter

I don’t care how much science you read, or how intelligent you think you are on the subject of fitness, as a trainer, if you can’t apply it, it carries no value to your clients.

I have my Master’s of Science in Health and Human Performance. I love science. But the longer I’ve been training clients, the further I get from trying to read every new article that gets published. Instead, I just do my continued education, and rely on the professionals that review new data for a living. They will write up the spark notes of new data, and I take that info and apply it appropriately.

There’s a very good reason why some of the least educated trainers can still provide amazing results to clients. And that’s because they have mastered the art of applying tried and true methods well. While some of the most educated trainers can fail to provide results, and that’s because they end up with information overload from trying to apply every new method or article they read. Like a lot of things in this field, less is often more.

9. Barbells Are Overrated

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love barbell training. But barbells aren’t for everyone, and it’s time to stop forcing it down the throat of anyone that wants to get into weight training. We’ve all been so ingrained that it is a right of passage in the gym that one must use a barbell to get bigger and stronger, and that just isn’t true. It is certainly a very powerful tool, but still only a tool, nonetheless. Many trainers will tell you that everyone should be able to barbell squat or deadlift, or else they are dysfunctional. But the fact of the matter is, some of the most resilient, pain free athletes in the world are terrible with a barbell. So don’t be fooled into thinking that you must use a barbell.

10. Be Likeable

I feel like this must be mentioned, because it is the number one piece of advice I have given to any trainer I have mentored, and that is “to be likeable”.

At the end of the day, the number one product you can provide to a client isn’t results, it’s relationships. Create results for a client, and you may keep them around just long enough for them to figure out how to do it on their own. Create relationships with your clients, and you have clients for a lifetime.

This all starts with being a genuinely likeable person.

Ten years is a long time for someone to work as a personal trainer, especially as a full time career. Many people become a trainer just for some part time side money, and many people want to become a trainer because they are passionate about helping people. But very few end up being able to make a long term career out of it. If you find yourself still training people 10 years down the road, you can be rest assured that you’re doing something right. And hopefully, much like myself, you can look back and see things a little differently than you did in the beginning.

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