John Hanc is a long-time contributor to the New York Times and Newsday and a former Contributing Editor to Runner's World magazine. His articles have also appeared in numerous publications including Smithsonian, Family Circle, the Boston Globe and Columbia Journalism Review. In the past year, two books co-written by Hanc have garnered a total of five major literary awards. Your Heart, My Hands: An Immigrant's Remarkable Journey to Becoming One of America's Preeminent Cardiac Surgeons (Center Street Books), which Hanc wrote with Arun Singh, M.D., won four awards, including Gold Medals in both the 2020 Nautilus Book Awards the and American Society of Journalists and Authors annual writing competitions. Fighting for My Life: Living in the Shadow of Alzheimer's Disease (Thomas Nelson), which he wrote with Jamie Tyrone and Marwan Sabbagh, M.D., also won a Gold Medal in the Nautilus Awards.
Prioritizing Your Own Well-being: How Top Trainers Stay in Top Shape
You’re a health and exercise professional. You’re supposed to be knowledgeable and a good motivator. You’re supposed to know how to help your clients reach their goals of improved health and fitness, safely and effectively.
And one more thing. To optimally perform in what is undoubtedly a strenuous occupation, you need high levels of energy and good health, which, as you well know, come from following the healthy habits you exhort your clients to follow.
“I think personal fitness has to be a high priority for any personal trainer,” says Courtney Brickner of San Diego’s Brickhouse Fitness. “I don’t see how you can tell folks to do stuff if you’re not doing it. You’ve got to practice what you preach.”
Trainer Robert Morea agrees—and offers an additional reason. “Every time I do a workout for myself, I’m learning how to be a better trainer for my clients,” says the co-owner of Great Jones Fitness in Manhattan. “Whether it’s a particular movement, or a circuit, I always feel like I learned something from my workout that I can pass on to my clients.”
Clearly, then, for yourself and your business, maintaining your fitness as a health and exercise professional is key.
At first glance, this doesn’t seem to be such a problem. After all, most trainers are attracted to this career because they love training. They enjoy working out and obviously understand the benefits of being in shape. They love getting into the gym and throwing heavy weights around or trying the latest class or group workout.
But knowing you should train and wanting to train is only part of the battle for health and exercise professionals. As with everything else in your life it also comes down to one thing: time.
Beat the Clock
As a trainer, your clients come first. And those peak times when you used to train—first thing in the morning, lunchtime, early evening—are usually when your clients want you to be training them. So how do you find the time for your own workouts? How do you readjust yourself to a new training schedule—and maybe a new regimen? Can you—should you—continue to do the same kind of workouts you may have followed before you became a trainer? Or do you have to totally reorient yourself to self-care and exercise?
The answer is that you need to be creative and flexible. But just as your clients manage to find the time to meet you for their workouts, you can find time in your busy schedule to meet the responsibility that you owe to yourself—to stay fit.
Bricker understands the time challenges. A mother of three, she has juggled family with her career as a trainer for six years—and specializes in working with clients who face a similar challenge.
“I understand being busy,” she says. “I get it. I understand you’re tired, and I understand sometimes the idea of exercising after a hard day may not be fun. But we know it’s necessary and it should be a priority to everyone.”
To do it, Brickner recommends scheduling your own workout as you would a client’s.
“Like most trainers, every night I go over my schedule for the next day,” she says. “And I’ll look for a block of time—anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour—where I can fit a workout in. And then I’ll put me in my schedule.”
When she gets to the gym for her workout, Brickner says, “I’m not messing around.” Supersets are usually the norm, perhaps with some cardio bursts in between. “I’ll do some high knees, jump squats and mountain climbers between my sets,” she says.
Mix It Up
While you can’t go wrong with a good high-intensity interval training session, ACE’s Exercise Physiology Content Manager Jacque Crockford suggests opening yourself up to varied fitness experiences. “I think trying new classes, activities and equipment is valuable for trainers,” she says. Your presence at, say, the beginners’ Zumba class might not go unnoticed. “People see a trainer trying new things, they might recognize you,” she said. “It could lead to you picking up a few additional clients.”
As to when you’re going to work out, a safe bet is mid-afternoon when clients are at work and gyms are quiet. That’s the time Morea schedules his workouts. By then, he’s already been training clients since 6 a.m. “After training seven or eight people in a row, I’m burnt,” he admits. “You have to motivate yourself and that’s not easy.”
His approach: Get out of the gym.
After his 1 p.m. client is done, Morea leaves the studio. “I get some air, maybe run an errand, get a small snack,” he says. “Then I come back and do the workout.” This, he says, enables him to process the morning, shake off the energy of the people he’s been dealing with for hours, and hit an internal “restart” button on his own training.
That training, he notes, is generally only a half hour, and typically involves a nonstop, high-intensity circuit of big, major muscle group movements. “Some days are harder than others,” he says. “With my clients, I have to be flexible depending on their energy level and how they feel. Same with me.”
But he says, at the end of his workout “I feel great and I’m ready to get back to work.”
Speaking of burnout, there is, of course, such a thing as too much exercise—even for a professional. “Group fitness leaders, in particular, tend to overtrain,” says Leigh Ann Richards, general manager of MetroFit in Montgomery, Ala. “When I was younger, I led three classes a day. At this stage of my life, I know what I have to do—and it’s not an hour and a half of cardio every day.”
Instead of teaching three classes, Richards recommends to her class leaders that they alternate between leading and participating. “Coach two, and actually do one.”
For most trainers, finding the spark to hit the weights after a day of exhorting others to do the same can be a challenge. Crockford suggests another source for inspiration and energy: Clients.
“We talk about the importance of rapport building at ACE and that applies here,” she says. “This shouldn’t be with a new client, but someone you have a rapport with. You can start by asking them, ‘How would you feel if I did this workout with you?’ or ‘Would you mind if I joined you?’ You really need to make it their choice.”
But if the client is amenable to the suggestion, it can be, as they say, a total win-win.
Cases in point: Brian Mischke opened his New York-area studio, Essential Fitness, in 2014 and became a father soon after. Given those developments in his life, his own training took a back seat. Then, one night, in strolled one of his clients from his former gym. They’d worked out together there. The client had heard his old trainer was in a new facility and wanted to resume their sessions.
“The timing was perfect,” says Mischke. “He’s my last client of the day, which works for his schedule, too. He was also getting back in shape, and I figured since I was just getting back in the groove, a slightly slower pace for a while wasn’t going to hurt me.”
Now they train together at 7:30 p.m., for five half-hour sessions per week. The client has lost weight and gained strength, and Mischke is able to do higher-intensity workouts with him, helping both client and trainer. “It’s pretty much two strength-training days, followed by a conditioning day,” he says.
The client and Mischke are now at a similar strength level, which he says, is also helpful. “That means less time changing plates,” he says.
Time, of course, is always a factor, which is why nutritionist and trainer Tracy Stopler of Nutrition E.T.C. organized a “walk and talk” for her clients. It started when she was training to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in 2008. “My clients knew I was doing these long walks on the beach,” she said. “One client asked if she could join me. I said, ‘O.K., but why don’t we make that your session?'”
The client, Stopler said, “loved it.” Now she schedules her 10-mile beach walks periodically with four clients. They meet at Stopler’s office, drive to the beach together, and for 2.5 miles at a time, she will walk alone with each of the clients, in order to give all four their private one-on-one counseling time. (They also break to eat after five miles.)
“I try not to make it about me,” Stopler says. “It’s really about getting my clients to get some physical activity while we talk, but certainly it’s a great way to get my exercise in, as well. It’s so time-efficient.”
Not to mention profitable.
Which, in the end, is what it’s really about: You’re running a fitness business. As such, your ability to maintain your own fitness is a validation of everything you tell clients about theirs. And if they can do it, you can do it. For some, it will require efficient time management and being flexible enough to vary your own regimen and workout times. For others, it means finding partners, whether clients or others, with whom to share your workouts. Think of it as investment of time in your business and yourself, which, in personal training, are often the same.