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September 2012

7 Habits of Highly Successful Fitness Professionals

By Karen Asp

‘Fess up:  Have you ever looked at another fitness professional—one who’s wildly successful—with a touch (or more) of envy? If you’re human, the answer is perhaps obvious. Yet, while you might think that person was born with DNA that’s coded for success, strip away the layers and you’ll find traits almost all highly successful fitness professionals share. 


What do you believe are the most important habits and traits that a fitness professional should possess? What do you believe has been the secret to your success? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

This isn’t earth-shattering news. In 2004, the late Steven R. Covey published a blockbuster book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, that described exactly what the title promised: Habits highly effective people have in common. Turns out, success is no different, as there are habits that separate successful fitness professionals from unsuccessful ones. The trick is figuring out what those habits are so you can apply them to your career.

Ready to delve into those habits? Industry experts share their insights. 

The Definition of Success

All of this, though, begs an important question: What exactly is success? Does success in this industry mean having the most clients? The busiest schedule? The biggest paycheck?

Turns out, all of the above might be correct, depending, of course, on who’s answering the question. But when industry leaders were asked how they define success, they came back with similar responses. “I define success as a life fulfilled, daily happiness and a sense of purpose,” says Vito La Fata, creator and owner of Fitness Profit Systems, a California-based company that helps fitness professionals generate income, create impact and achieve success through business and marketing coaching systems and Team BeachBody opportunities. “At the end of the day, you want to believe you’re creating something significant and doing something that fulfills you.”  

Kelli Calabrese, an ACE-certified Personal Trainer in Dallas and international master trainer for Adventure Boot Camp, takes it a step further, asking herself if there’s joy in her heart. “If I feel any heaviness or darkness, then I know that what I’m doing isn’t successful,” she says. For Calabrese, peace and happiness form the foundation of success. “If those aren’t there, it won’t matter how much money you have in the bank, as you’ll always feel unfulfilled.” 

The 7 Habits You Need to Adopt Now

If it’s true that habits are hard to break, you better make sure you’ve got the right ones in your back pocket. Start with these seven, as they’re the ones that successful fitness professionals follow:  

Successful fitness professionals know that goals aren’t just for their clients; they’re also critical for their success. “Goals help you focus your efforts on getting better rather than just staying busy,” says Pat Rigsby, co-owner of Fitness Revolution and CEO and business coach with the Fitness Consulting Group in Louisville, Ky. 

The most obvious goal is money-related, specifically how much money you want to make. But don’t limit yourself to financial goals. “If you’re making a large amount of money, but working from sun-up to sundown and don’t have a high quality of life, that would be hard to define as successful,” Rigsby says. Other goals might include how many new clients you want to attract to your business each month, the number of leads you want to get each week, even new skills you want to learn.   

Once you have these goals in place, spend 20 to 30 minutes a day working on them. “Otherwise, those goals become stagnant, and you go nowhere,” La Fata says. For instance, if you want to attract five new clients each week, spend that time doing activities—like making calls or sending emails—that will help you achieve that goal.

If you’re having trouble figuring out how to fit this into your schedule, you need to track your habits and behaviors to see where you’re devoting your time and where you can find some wiggle room. This is a practice La Fata does religiously, logging where he spends his time every day and tracking that via spreadsheets. He then evaluates those spreadsheets every week, checking them against his goals to see how they match. 

Having good communication skills is a prerequisite for success in any industry, but it may be even more important in the fitness industry where you’re often working one-on-one with individuals. After all, how you communicate can go a long way in making or breaking your career. Calabrese says she’s seen many personal trainers ruin relationships with clients because they haven’t been good communicators. 

Here’s one surprise, though: Being a good communicator isn’t limited to what you say. “Good communicators pay equal attention to what they communicate and the response they receive,” says David J. Parnell, strategic communication coach, legal headhunter and author in New York City. “To be a strong and effective communicator, you have to be clear and specific but also be perceptive to your audience’s responses and change your message accordingly.”

To hone your communication skills, Parnell offers a few tips. First, keep an “other-oriented” state of mind. Before pressing your agenda, find out what your audience’s interests and drives are. Remember, too, that studies have found that attention span functions in four-second bursts, so if you’re long-winded, shorten those thoughts. Finally, ask questions, as they’ll not only get you the information you want, but also direct your audience’s attention and information exchange. “It’s more powerful to get your audience to say the very thing you want to communicate versus simply saying it yourself,” Parnell says. 

Even your clients know that going it alone can be difficult, which is why many probably utilize the buddy system in their workouts. Follow their lead, and you’ll be one step closer toward achieving success.

La Fata calls this PDA, or public display of accountability. “Find a buddy who operates on a similar level as you and check in with each other regularly,” he says. Not only will you be able to give each other feedback on what’s working and what’s not working, you’ll also put a little pressure on yourself to achieve. La Fata and his buddy send each other a weekly action plan—it usually includes action steps they’re going to take to accomplish their goals—and meet at the week’s end to give feedback. The best part? “Doing this keeps you accountable to your goals,” he adds.

When choosing a buddy, look for somebody who is strong in areas where you are weak. That way, they can help you overcome those weaknesses.    

Yet don’t stop there. Many successful fitness professionals also have a coach or mentor, which helps lift your game even more and lessens the learning curve. “Do you want to do a lot of trial and error to see what works or do you want somebody to help shorten your learning curve?” says La Fata, who regularly hires coaches to advance his own career. To make this work for you, look for fitness professionals who are at the top of their game and may be advertising to help others in the industry.

You’re juggling so many projects that by day’s end, you’ve gotten little accomplished. Sound familiar? If so, you need to hone that focus. “Fitness professionals who are successful might have 50 things going on at the same time,” Calabrese says. “Yet they know they have to have a laser-beam focus to get everything done.”

To gain that focus, Calabrese recommends making lists. At the end of each day, list the top 10 things you need to accomplish the next day and then prioritize them. You might even block out certain times of the day for specific projects. During that time, focus on nothing but the task at hand, which means letting phone calls go to voicemail and not checking e-mail. Then resist the temptation to veer off to other projects until you’ve completed all 10 tasks on your list. “Even if something great comes up, I put it aside until I have my list completed,” Calabrese says. 

One other tip? Tackle your toughest task first. “It’s a great way to build confidence and discipline,” La Fata says. 

You might think you know everything you need to know about the fitness business. You’ve earned your certifications, after all, and you regularly fulfill those continuing education requirements. Yet don’t let complacency—or perhaps laziness—overcome you. If you want to rise to the top, you’ll make learning a regular part of your business, which will, in turn, help you provide even better services to your clients.

Open up the spending accounts of the top fitness professionals, and you might be surprised to see that they spend a significant amount of their income on education. “While the average trainer sees education as an expense, the elite see it as an investment,” Rigsby says.  

As a result, these individuals continue to improve what they offer their clients. Compare that to fitness professionals—and there are many like this in the industry, Rigsby says— who acquire a single certification and then do the bare minimum to deliver a service. They don’t look for ways to deliver more value to clients. Nor do they continue learning more about their craft, which is a mistake. “No matter how much you know about your business, if you’re not great at your craft and working to get even better, you won’t be successful,” Rigsby says. 

It goes without saying that successful business owners know how to run a business. Even if they don’t have a background in business, they’ve made it their job to know how businesses operate, which is exactly what you need to do, too

Admittedly, this can be the most challenging part of being your own boss. “For many fitness professionals, learning how to run a business is often the toughest part of the job,” Rigsby says. Yet if you want to succeed, especially if you’re hoping to capitalize on financial gains, you have to stop treating your business like a hobby and learn how successful businesses run. If necessary, hire a coach or take classes to bolster your business smarts.  

You certainly don’t want to reinvent the wheel when it comes to attaining success. That’s why some of the most successful fitness professionals utilize systems, which help you implement programs faster and allow you to spend your time more efficiently. “Systems are instructional courses and plans that educate you on strategies, concepts and theories and then provide you with a plan and materials you need to execute those strategies,” La Fata says.  

For instance, La Fata recently worked with a trainer who used his 21 Day Group Training Money Machine, what he describes as a “business in a box,” as it provides modules that teach about the concept of how to build your group training offerings; set up pricing; and create program manuals, marketing flyers and Web site graphics. When this trainer ran her first campaign, 52 people signed up. Four weeks later, she ran it again and brought in 54 more clients. In total, she gained 106 new clients in 45 days and made more than $10,000. 

Furthermore, successful professionals know they need to be flexible and utilize new technologies. “People are expecting more mobile options, solutions to their unique needs and fitness at their fingertips,” La Fata says, adding that if you want to be successful, you have to realize that your business extends beyond the walls of a gym. “We should partner with companies that allow us to provide solutions we can’t generate on our own.” 

Take, for example, home exercise DVDs. Although it would cost an extraordinary amount of money to create a high-quality DVD and make a profit, you can partner with companies to offer DVDs that your clients can use and that will generate income for you, La Fata says.

Put all of these habits to work for you, and you’ll be well on the way to success—and perhaps becoming the envy of other fitness pros. 

3 Habits of UNSUCCESSFUL Fitness Pros

So what about the habits of unsuccessful pros? You can probably guess that they’re doing the opposite of what successful pros are doing. Yet that may be only part of the picture. Below are three habits to avoid:     

1. Feeling a sense of entitlement: There are trainers who think that just because they have an incredible physique, they should get all of the clients, regardless of whether they have the certifications. Yet in this industry, clients should be earned based on your knowledge and skills, not on your physique, especially if you want to last in this industry. “While having a great physique might give you short-term success, it certainly won’t give you long-term success,” Calabrese says. 

2. Sporting an "I’m-an-island" mentality: It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, no doubt about that. But acting alone because you’re scared other trainers might steal your clients or ideas isn’t the way to success. “If we care about the health of this nation, we need to think about co-petition versus competition,” La Fata says. 

3. Working in your business versus working on your business: Doing the same thing day in and day out might not seem terrible, but not if you ask Rigsby. “Doing the same thing indicates that you don’t have a plan to grow or improve,” he say. “That’s an immediate buzz kill to success.”


Karen Asp is a journalist, ACE-certified Fitness Professional, contributing editor for Woman’s Day and co-author of Understanding Your Food Allergies and Intolerances (St. Martin’s, 2012). She also writes for numerous other publications, including Self, Glamour, Whole Living, O, Family Circle, Redbook, Real Simple, Prevention, Redbook and Men’s Fitness. Follow her on Twitter (@karenaspwriter).  


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