10 Lessons from my first Months Coaching as a Personal Trainer
Career Change, Being a Beginner Again, Learning and Growing
In the spring of 2020, along with the rest of the world I paused. For the first time in a long time, I had, well…time. 😅
In that time I tuned in: to myself, to my relationships, and to what I loved most: joyful movement, reflection and growth, and cultivating relationships.
Combining those personal interests with my professional skills from over a decade of teaching led to pursuing a career change, completely changing both jobs and industries along the way from K12 Teaching and the field of Education to Personal Training and the Fitness industry!
I took the 2020–2021 school year to self-study my way to a National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) personal training certification, underwent a thorough job hunt, and accepted my first personal training position at a local gym. It’s been rewarding, challenging, exciting, anxiety-inducing, and generally full of ups and downs, like anything worthwhile in life!
Here are 10 Lessons I’m Reflecting on Learning from my first few Months of Coaching and Personal Training
1. Check your Ego and Give yourself Full Permission to Be a Beginner
First, I had to check my ego to even consider a career change from teaching to personal training. It’s not easy to leave behind the job and financial security and societal respect and approval that come along with tenure and teaching, particularly once you’ve gotten a Master’s degree, taken a sabbatical and even taught internationally.
Yet, when I was honest with myself, I found over and over that what I loved most was working out and focusing on optimizing health, learning and growing, and both prioritizing and cultivating intentional, meaningful relationships. The idea that I could devote my life to doing just that and teach others to do the same just lit me up inside!
Ego has a sneaky way of creeping back in, though. Even once I was devoted to my career change, when it came to job hunting, I had a few offers from different facilities and organizations. Some of them seemed to offer more instantaneous credibility (A position with a fitness center within a hospital! That would look great on a résumé!) or name awareness (______ Gym or Facility, everyone knows them/they have instant name recognition, that must be good!) which seemed to make these offers super attractive at first glance. So much so, in fact, that I would make excuses for them when I had less than stellar experiences during their interview processes.
A few months into my career and change and starting my job, I am so glad I swallowed my ego, listened to my gut and took the position I did, with a local Anytime Fitness franchise here in Florida.
Not only have I come to learn that Anytime is a well-run organization that I have a lot of respect for; my particular Anytime Fitness gym’s location is owned, operated, and managed by some great leaders, frequented by fantastic members, and I get the honor of working and serving alongside some wonderful, hardworking, supportive, and creative colleagues and coaches!
Of course, counterfactuals are hard to prove out, so while I don’t know exactly how the other positions would have played out (since I didn’t accept them), I do know what my job appeared to be (and, I’m happy to report, actually is):
- the best, shortest commute (very close to home, so convenient!)
- the best/most consistent schedule (something I’ve learned is in no way a given in the fitness industry)
- the best take-home pay (no brainer!)
- a fantastic facility (clean, great variety of equipment, lots of open space)
- a close-knit team of people who all do everything (from giving tours to signing up new members to coaching to cleaning toilets! we all do it all!)
- a broader organization that truly values helping people get to a healthier place and specifically, a well-run franchise within it of it that excels in terms of communication, operations, tools and technology.
- a company of feedback and accountability in both name and practice.
- open to growth, expansion, and specializing in a niche of choice over time.
In addition to being happy I took the position I did, I am also so glad I went in with a beginner’s mindset, eager to grow and aware that I had a lot to learn. While I knew I had skills as a teacher that would translate to instructing, and my ability to build rapport with students would probably translate over to customer service skills with prospects and members, I also knew I had a lot to pick up on when it came to coaching!
In my first couple of weeks, I had an idea for a program offering that incorporated mindfulness and movement. When I first floated it I got some mixed feedback. One of my colleagues kindly suggested I could benefit from learning the basics of the gym before adding to them, and while it was a bit hard to take in that moment, once I slept on it, I was super grateful for the permission she’d given me to embrace being a beginner.
A few months in, I have such a better understanding of our gym, our members, and what would be beneficial and in many ways am still learning the ropes of my new industry and workplace. Eventually, I’ll probably raise the idea again, or something even better will come to me, but I’m sure it will look and feel different from that place of deeper understanding, generated from the space and permission I gave myself to be a beginner, learn, and grow!
2. Listen More than you Speak
This one is always in process for me because I love to talk to people 😅, but, whether I am chatting with a fellow coach, collaborating with a manager, or checking in with a client, asking an open-ended question and waiting with curiosity to actively hear and understand what a person has to say or what need they may share (or not share, but allude to) will nearly always reveal more and help me learn more than being the one doing the talking.
In education there is a saying that the person doing the talking is the person learning, but I almost would switch that on its head with personal training. The person listening is learning more because they are able to take in not just the words being spoken but what those words might really mean in a given context, environment, or situation.
There have been times I’ve heard a client say one thing while their body language or face suggests something else. I’m learning to listen to their expressed needs while reading between the lines to detect nuance, notice body language and facial expression, to pick up on unexpressed needs, and any discomfort, confusion or anxiety folks bring with them to the gym as they strive to take that often uncomfortable first step toward making a change to get to a healthier place.
Once I can really hear them — both what they say and what they don’t — I can personalize the experience of welcoming them to our gym and introduce them to the right people, show them how to use equipment specific to their interests or needs, introduce them to training offerings that seem right for them, and provide them with the tools and resources to communicate and connect with us moving forward, to facilitate their individual transition to our space more smoothly, help put them at ease, and get them started with less friction to overcome.
3. Keep it Simple with Team Training/Group Workouts
If a workout doesn’t make sense to you, don’t coach it! Sometimes it’s hard to wrap your mind around a workout you didn’t program. That doesn’t make it a bad workout, nor is your workout necessarily better. But, if you’re uncomfortable with an exercise, a sequence or a movement pattern, or you just prefer some other way of putting a circuit or sets and reps together, switch it up so you can own your coaching experience in that moment! You might even want to change something up simply because you are sore in that area and don’t want to hit it too hard that day. That’s ok — you are human, too!
In terms of quantity or complexity— I’m noticing less is more! People seem capable of holding no more than ~3–5 movement patterns in their heads at a time, particularly as they get tired.
Programming accordingly for groups will make your life and clients’ lives easier. For example, you could program a superset of 2 movements that hit agonist and antagonist muscle groups, followed by a core movement. Repeat that circuit of 3 moves 2–4 times through, before moving on to a new superset/core combo. Add a warmup and a cooldown and you’re good to go.
Keeping things simple in a group context makes the workout less hectic, simpler to explain, easier to understand, clearer to instruct and model (along with progressions and regressions, which are key in this setting to make the workouts accessible and safe), and more straightforward for clients to actually carry out, particularly as they become fatigued and their brains kinda stop working 🤪.
Also, quick reminder — keep it simple. Simple, not necessarily easy. 😜
4. Trust your Gut when it comes to your 1:1 Training & Programming
When it comes to programming for 1:1 clients, trust what you’ve learned as evidence-based practices through your certification, do your research, collect data from your client, and stick to your plan while also remaining flexible, open-minded, and seeking support from trusted colleagues as needed.
Be sure to:
- complete some kind of complimentary movement assessment to get a baseline of your client’s functional movement (in my opinion this can and should be somewhat personalized to your client, their background, and needs, but if you don’t know much about them, having an FMS-like set of movements to go through could be a helpful starting point!)
- collect more background information through an attitudinal assessement and background survey, including PAR-Q+ screening, and
- get a full history at your initial interview (which along with the PAR-Q+, may trigger the need for medical clearance if indicated), and
- do some intentional goal setting together so you really understand and get to your client’s deep why. This will be important to come back to later on! Only then personalize a program to your client’s needs, abilities and goals, with a flexible approach to see how it goes and what you may need to switch up as you go.
Once you are past the initial intake process, clients may come in with expectations of being exhausted or sweaty at the end of a workout, as this is the norm in the group fitness scene; however, you may be slowly ramping them up as you educate them on body mechanics and movement patterns. There can be a bit of a disconnect, as it takes a few weeks for the challenge to become more apparent to those new to strength and resistance training; there is a big learning curve!
Notice what your client enjoys and, as long as it can be incorporated in a progressive fashion that makes sense, include it, whether that is a few machines, supersets to “feel the burn”, or a heart-pumping metabolic conditioning tabata or core finisher. At the same time, trust your gut and stick to best practices in a well-designed, periodized, progressive overload program that develops full body strength, paired with targeted conditioning; don’t feel like you have to constantly be changing things up or have a client balancing one-legged on a bosu ball with a med ball in one arm and the other arm doing some fancy dance move. Basic push-pull-hinge-squat-press patterns and their variations are tried and true — no need to be a circus!
5. Working Out is not the same thing as Training Progressively and that’s OK!
Team training or group fitness can be great for general fitness, movement, burning calories through cardiovascular conditioning, with some strength and resistance added in. They’re also fun, high energy, and can help people feel connected to their gym and fellow class members by creating community, which generally improves engagement and motivation.
Group workouts are not training with a specific, individual goal in mind, however.
From my perspective, when 1:1 clients come to the gym, they should be training toward customized SMART goals you’ve outlined together, on a predetermined timeline, with intentional workouts outlined in advance, including a plan for how to repeat and progressively overload them, with periodization built in over time to avoid long-term plateaus or injury.
Some best practices in programming can and should be applied to team training if and when the gym culture and client base allows for it, but often, it isn’t really practical, given that every member will have different goals, priorities, training statuses, kinesthetic/proprioceptive awareness of their bodies in space, and past injuries, making it is impossible to meet every goal in a group setting.
Both group workouts and 1:1 personal training have value, but I have learned stop trying to force my 1:1 philosophy into a group workout context! Folks are allowed to sign up for the offering that best suits them without my somehow judging it or forcing some “best practice” on them that may not be what they actually need or want.
Finally, it’s 100% ok and even smart to occasionally leverage all or part of a corporate workout template for a team or small group workout to reserve valuable time and energy, which can then in turn be devoted to that customized 1:1 programming or other responsibilities at the gym!
6. Document, Speak Up and Bring your Best
When you see something that isn’t right at the gym, say something!
It’s possible to do this respectfully, and ultimately you may be helping uncover a problematic situation or helping someone recognize a blind spot they didn’t know they had (which I’d hope someone would do for me!)
Whether it is an unusual corporate workout template that you either don’t understand or that may benefit from modification, a colleague’s behavior that feels consistently off, or an irregular or uncomfortable interaction with a gym member, it’s important to document these situations and, especially if a pattern emerges, say something to the appropriate person.
In any workplace, I think it’s helpful to avoid gossip laterally, as that’s rarely productive. That said, when you notice a pattern that seems to be repeating itself, and is consistently impacting your own comfort at work, take note of it (literally, write it down!) and, if it continues over time, pass that documented feedback upward to a manager who can take action, if warranted.
In the field of education, I worked for more than a decade with a wide variety of teachers. Some were 100% engaged and there to serve kids, and some were just there to collect a paycheck. Some were, in my opinion, actively harmful to students in the sense that they were completely checked out and unavailable for help or support beyond cracking open a textbook.
Unfortunately, sometimes the same structures that protect great teachers, like tenure, enable not-so-great ones, and I saw these teachers continue to teach without any corrective measures taken over time.
While I would never want union protections taken away from the majority of educators, it has been very interesting to experience the opposite end of the spectrum as an at-will employee — I am well aware I can be let go at any moment, as can any colleague, for any reason. As a result, it is important to always be on my A-game, bringing my best energy and effort to my work, and the same is expected of everyone on staff.
Side note: sometimes finding ways to get involved and serve your organization can provide a platform and structure for this kind of work.
I noticed that Anytime Fitness and their parent company, SE Brands, was providing DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) training for their franchisees so I signed up to attend and then offered to get involved in the overarching council/committee work. Being a member of the DEI council will provide me with training and tools to recognize my own potential blind spots and disseminate what I learn to others, so that our gym can become an even more inclusive environment that better serves all members and clients!
7. Get Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable
When I first started at my gym, I noticed some discomfort in my space. I was a little surprised, given that I generally love going to gyms all over the world and feel pretty comfortable working out anywhere. I realized it was a bit of a different ball game now that I was a coach in the space, and I felt a need to be an expert on every piece of equipment overnight.
As a result, I set a personal goal of attending classes to experience workouts with other members, as well as completing some of my own self-directed lifting workouts in the gym for a full month. While it was a little awkward at first, it was a great way to get familiar with equipment, experience different coaches’ programming styles, and get to know the different training offerings at my gym (which I’ll also be coaching).
I’m sure there’s also a metaphor here about feeling OK with feeling uncomfortable sometimes as coaches ourselves, in order to understand and help our clients power through those feelings of discomfort if and when they arise (which they will) during their sessions with us! 💪
Plus, I get to see and connect informally with members during my and their workouts, which can’t hurt — a coach modeling and embodying an active lifestyle is an aligned, walking billboard for the work we do every day!
8. Just Be There
In my first few weeks at the gym when I was trying out the different workouts with different coaches, I got to pick up some awesome tips and tricks from their coaching styles. One coaching strategy that really stood out to me was to simply stand behind and to the side of a client, within view, but either saying very little or nothing at all. I was impressed and suprised to find that every time this coach made his rounds to me, I found myself pedaling or rowing harder, increasing my RPMs or power output, or dialing in my lifting form.
I learned from this experience that often I don’t need to say or do much of anything as a coach; my presence alone will be a motivating factor for my clients.
It’s their workout or session; I’m there as a guide on the side, for accountability and to be a second set of eyes for form and technique, and perhaps to help them check in with themselves and make some mind-body connections. My presence alone is important and valuable and sometimes silence does not need to be filled with 300 cues which can just serve to distract or confuse clients.
9. Be curious / Reserve Judgment and Plant Seeds
As I shared above, there were plenty of problematic teachers in the field of Education. Every industry has it’s baggage and issues, and I often see or hear things that I have a strong emotional reaction to in the fitness industry too.
Whether it’s a focus on body aesthetics over actual health and wellbeing, connecting eating behaviors to exercise with verbiage about “earning” or “punishing” oneself with food or movement, or glossing over form and technique in the interest of keeping things moving, it’s easy to feel judgement about some of what I see and hear in my new industry.
And I notice that when I am able to reserve judgment, and be curious instead, I nearly always get to engage in a deeper, more meaningful conversation, which turn leads to cultivating a better connection/stronger relationship with someone, and I get to learn something new, either about the rationale behind someone’s thoughts and actions, or about myself!
Based on what I learn through this curiosity-based inquiry, I love planting seeds that are just slightly subversive/disruptive to the sometimes-problematic norms of the fitness/wellness industry. Some of my favorites:
- reminding clients that a body scan or weight on the scale is just a snapshot in time — potentially helpful over time, but, even then, just one way to measure progress among many — I also encourage members to think about their quality of sleep, energy level, attitude, gut health/digestion, how their relationships are going!
- encouraging clients to disassociate food and movement. While of course they are related and usually when we work on one the other will change, I like to encourage people to associate movement or exercise with feeling good and energized in their bodies, while thinking of food as a vehicle for experiences, pleasure, experiencing culture and connection with self and loved ones. This can remove some of of the common feelings of shame, guilt, and punishment many folks experience out of eating. Unlinking food and movement makes it more likely that we can use both for self-care; linking the two can have problematic, unintended side effects that encourage black and white, all or nothing thinking (e.g. if and when you have to take a break from the gym due to injury, travel, or a busy schedule, your healthy eating habits also go out the window! Foods may not be nutritionally equal but we can strive to make them morally equal and understand that even an occasional treat, enjoyed mindfully and with others for a special occasion, can “feed” us in a way that is a net positive for our overall health and wellbeing).
- asking how people are feeling before, during, and after a workout or gym session — before, to get a read on their energy level and potentially modify expectations on my part as coach; during to see what their RPE (rate of perceived exertion) may be, how many RIR (reps in reserve) they have left in a given set, to ascertain if we can push harder or should back off, and especially at the end to see if they feel more or less energized than when they came in — my goal is always for clients to walk out feeling more energized, and to associate that feeling with working out/training together or coming to the gym.
- encouraging clients to take a moment to focus on their breath at the end of the workout, whether through a cool down stretching sequence, or a mindful moment together, is another thing I love to do. Demonstrating a simple mindful breathing or mindset exercise as a counterbalance to all of the high-energy, heart-pumping movement we do helps model that true health is about physical, mental, and emotional and, if folks identify with it, spiritual, health and wellbeing, and finding that elusive balance!
10. Find some Balance and Have some Boundaries
One lingering habit from my teaching days that I’m working on overcoming is over-working. With classroom teaching, you really do need to take your work home with you — whether it’s lesson planning, grading, or contacting parents, there is always more work to do.
While there are definitely some parallels with personal training (e.g. programming workouts), it is not on the same level (thankfully).
I’m learning to trust myself as I gain experience with and gague the time needed to effectively program, plan, and feel prepared to deliver team workouts and 1:1 and small group sessions.
In my first couple of weeks, I did too much work at home. Part of this was out of leftover habit of being overly prepared before going to school to teach, and part of it was simply that I love my new job and career so much that I always want to be working on it! 😅
Regardless of the reason, overwork without boundaries is not the healthiest habit to be in, so, about 6 weeks in, I upped my hours on-site at the gym, so that my schedule included time for more client follow-ups and programming during the day to reflect my true efforts! To be honest, I’m still finding the balance, and I’m sure my schedule will shift again in the future. 🤷♀️
In the meantime, I’m enjoying the process of finding some healthy boundaries around work time, inclusive of programming and client contact time, so that my nonworking time can be more focused on enjoying our new life in FL together. Justin will probably roll his eyes as he reads this as he’s been encouraging me to do this since day 1, but hey, some lessons you just have to learn for yourself! 💗