Jonathan Ross by Jonathan Ross

Fitness TrainerBeing successful as a personal trainer can be defined a lot of ways. I don’t define it as having a lot of client sessions; rather, I define it as training in such a way that you make yourself unnecessary, which has the paradoxical effect of causing your clients to want more of you. I also define it as training to best serve the people who need our help the most. And meeting the needs of currently underserved markets undoubtedly will result in a steady stream of clients for the next several decades.

Here are five keys for how to be a successful personal trainer:

1. Lead—Don’t Cheerlead

A successful trainer develops a client’s desire for, and ability to pursue, fitness independently of the trainer. It’s not about giving someone a killer workout and saying “good job” even if it isn’t. Leading someone to fitness means using what they care about to foster an internal drive to move in the direction of better fitness. It’s really about teaching, not training. Make yourself unnecessary and a funny thing happens: clients will flourish with fitness like never before. They will still do all the work, but you’ll get all the credit. And that is because you’ve helped your clients engage in actively seeking fitness instead of just going through the motions. When you change your clients thinking about, and attitude toward, fitness, their bodies inevitably change as well.  

2. Expose the “Calories In vs. Calories Out” Myth

The worst lies are those that contain more than a grain of truth. There are far too many trainers and even academics who, even though they know better, still promote this dangerous idea. The immutable laws of physics and thermodynamics make this one look rock-solid true, but the problem is that we humans are self-aware. This seemingly small psychological truth has massive implications for our biology.

For example, in 2011 a Yale University showed that an individual’s belief about the healthfulness of a food (or lack of it) affected his or her body’s hormonal response to that food. Researchers gave people the EXACT same shake that was labeled as either health-conscious or indulgent—complete with fake nutrition facts labels (the healthy shake was labeled has having fewer calories than it actually contained, while the indulgent shake was labeled as having more calories than the real total). After consuming the “healthy” shake, there was less suppression of the hormone ghrelin, while after consuming the “indulgent” shake, the suppression of ghrelin was increased. This means that the participants got hungry again sooner after consuming the “healthy” shake, but didn’t become hungry for a longer period of time after consuming the “indulgent” shake. When your ghrelin levels are elevated, you get hungry. Ghrelin always goes down after eating, but it goes down less if we eat fewer calories and, conversely, goes down more if we eat a lot. It cannot be understated that the exact same shake was served every time; the only difference was in how it was labeled. The belief in the calorie content of the shake affected the participants’ response, which would be impossible in the simplistic world of the energy balance equation.

If you believe you ate something healthy, you will get hungry again sooner. When we study thermodynamics in nature and in the physics lab, this doesn’t happen. We humans are unique in our ability to consciously contemplate our world and the food we eat.

3. Use What Works for the Client

Don’t be an “MMA guy” or a “kettlebell girl.” Never define your training by the tools you use, but instead by the results you are after. Training with a limited selection of equipment or methods limits your abilities, professional growth and creativity. Some equipment will not work for some clients,  sometimes for no other reason than personal preference.

This also goes for technology. There are some terrific body-monitoring devices and smartphone apps available, but not all of your clients will be into them. Some will want to embrace whatever technology you recommend, and others don’t want another gadget to manage. Use whatever makes your clients’ path to fitness as smooth as possible. Doing the work is hard enough.

Mold your training methods, tools and technology to the needs of your client—not the other way around.

4. Train Movement First

Here are two facts about our world today: a large and increasing number of people are overweight or obese, and the overall age of the population is growing older. People want and need to feel better now, and will pursue fitness if they can first feel a bit better and use movement as a means of bringing more enjoyment to everyday life. Helping clients do just that will require a paradigm shift—a comprehensive system for helping anyone find the right starting point for fitness. This is powerful for two important reasons:

  • First, our future success in the fitness industry will depend directly on our ability to successfully reach the obese and older populations, as these represent two growing and largely untapped markets. Historically, we have done a terrible job of reaching these groups because we don’t understand them and, therefore, expect them to come to us.
  • Second, now that the IFT model is a part of the entry-level certification for personal trainers, even new trainers will be entering the industry already possessing the skills to successfully reach these markets. Today’s high-school student is tomorrow’s new young trainer who will better serve your clients unless you make it a priority to adjust your training approach accordingly.

For the last couple of years, I have focused a lot of my training efforts with clients on developing better movement while on the way to their fitness goals. I have to tell you that, if you do the same, people will begin to think you are just short of a faith-healer. You will have numerous “I can’t believe it doesn’t hurt” moments and, without asking, get more word-of-mouth referrals than you can handle.

5. Use Intensity With Intelligence

Is it any wonder the general public sometimes has a hard time connecting with many of us in the fitness industry? Some trainers foolishly believe that vomiting from an intense workout, being sore for days or suffering through bleeding calluses are things to be celebrated. Injuring the body is never something to celebrate. Intensity without intelligence is the biggest problem in our industry today. Why? Because people often say they need to get in shape first and then hire a trainer. How crazy is that? Why would you put off hiring the right person for the job unless you were convinced (or scared) that they were not the right person?

Yes, intensity gets results. But low/medium/high-intensity is relative to each individual and has everything to do with where someone is on the spectrum of fitness when they begin training. Trainers who are destined to disappear from this industry are the ones who hit people with intense workouts right out of the gate, using sweat output as a means to justify the expense of training. Be the worst stereotype of a trainer and you’ll likely be one of their first expenses to go when money gets tight. Hard workouts are in every fitness magazine, website and book—they are a dime a dozen. The ability to compassionately guide someone through developing their own confidence to work hard enough is the mark of a true fitness professional and one that is built to last.

There you have it…now go forth and be successful!

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