So You Want to be a Trainer

It seems almost weekly that I meet or speak with someone who wants to become a trainer. Many of them have a passion for staying fit, some want to help others and the rest just seem to hate their current job. There are usually two different questions that I’m asked by these individuals. Here they are with my usual responses:

Them- "Hey, what resources should I look into to learn to become a trainer?

Me- "There’s a lot! Let’s grab coffee and talk."


Them- "Hey, what’s the easiest and quickest way to become a trainer?"

Me- "Bite me."

Well, the second response may be a little exaggerated. But honestly, I’m very tired of dealing with the quick-buck type of individual trying to push their way into a field that is meant to help people become empowered and healthy. As I mentioned in my post: Owning the Trainer Profession, the current state of the fitness field is deplorable. There is no regulation of the profession and society has a very hard time judging the quality of the product. The last thing we need is more D-bags aiming to shortcut all the necessary skills of being a good trainer and watering down our profession.

To me there are a few very obvious things that quality trainers practice which separates them from the rest of the field. This is usually what I preach to the first individual who is actually inquisitive on becoming competent. Let’s dive in:

1. Know the Certification is Just the Start

In all honesty, you will probably absorb the least amount of information from your certification. Most certification processes just give you a mold of understanding how to do the basics. It’s really up to you to learn how to manage the rest of the variables. That’s not to say your certification is not important, it does set you up for professional development and the more serious ones often times show who is willing to put in the work. But I’ve seen trainers of the same cert that practice on totally different levels and it rarely defines you as a trainer. With that said, the ones I usually recommend to new trainers are:



Any Strongfirst Cert



I personally have a bias for the strength and conditioning certifications and they usually hold more street cred for trainers as they require a higher understanding for the physiology. The Strongfirst certifications are very hands on and consist of a very practical exam, meaning you WILL understand how to coach correct form. They also provide you with an awesome network of qualified professionals. The personal training certs at the bottom are just general training certifications. They’re usually the standard when it comes to most gyms and do provide a good starting point for most people.

A key thing to remember that I stated above: none of these will define how good you are as a trainer. It’s really up to you and how serious you take your craft, which leads me into my next point...

2. Never Stop Learning

This is very similar to point 1, but I believe it’s warranted. When you really think about it, as a trainer you are being part biomechanist, part exercise physiologists, part psychiatrist, part nutritionist and part coach. There are many different avenues in which you can further your understanding and many different attributes that can separate you from the pack.

Cueing for example, sounds simple, but there’s way more to it then what you first comprehend. To go in more depth on the subject:

Some may look at a simple cue as just telling someone how to do something. But there’s so much more to it than that. There’s variables such as focal points, internal vs external cues, visual, vocal and kinesthetic cues and specific times to apply each one. (This is without even stepping into the realm of identifying how to manipulate the limbic system via coaching). When you first start out, you may not see a difference in telling someone to use their glute medius to push the knees out as they squat versus telling them to rip apart the floor with their feet as they squat, but there is a huge difference. And if you want to understand it, just start googling some of the terms above. Next thing you know, you’re that much better at coaching an exercise.

Never get comfortable with your current knowledge base and always look to expand it. This is a key difference from people who train just to make money and people who train to make a difference.

3. Know How to Assess the Risk vs Reward Ratio

This is probably the biggest mistake that new trainers will make. Every exercise that you prescribe has inherent risks to the client. Often times if your understanding of biomechanics and functional anatomy is lagging, this may be harder to assess, but it’s still no excuse. The first rule of training is, “Do no harm” and that needs to stay in the back of your head at all times. The fastest way to be bad at what you do is to hurt someone in a session and that usually happens because there is no assessment of risk for the chosen exercise.


Assessing the risk of what you program is a combination of taking into account the client’s age experience, training level, past injuries and ability when writing a program. If you use an exercise that may be considered riskier, there better be a damn good reward towards their goals. I would say a barbell snatch is a higher risk exercise due to the high mobility and technique requirements, but it also offers a high reward to many track and field athletes. If they are untrained, or immobile, then the scale certainly tips towards it being too risky. If they’re studs and have been progressed correctly, then let’s get the track-stars to snatching. What if it's a baseball player who has good mobility and is well-trained? No freakin' way, there's virtually no reward since there's so little carryover to their sport, not to mention the likelihood of screwing up their shoulder during the exercise. 

Sadly, most new trainers or coaches may not fully understand the risks posed by certain movements and therefore will not be able to make accurate calls. Which is why my fourth point is so crucial

4. Get a mentor

Even Arnold had someone help teach him to lift. At SAPT, we require an extensive internship before we even consider hiring you as a coach. The reason being is that there’s only so much you can learn from a book or dvd and the hands-on knowledge you obtain from a good mentor is priceless. Their guidance can save you from spinning your wheels and can actually show you where to put most of your attention. I can’t describe how quickly I saw improvements in my craft after spending just 75 hours under Coach Steve.

It’s important that your mentor actually knows their shit too. Shoot for the stars and follow under someone you aspire to train like or at least ensure that they follow the previous 3 points. Just as a good mentor can help guide you to a successful career, a poor one can totally derail it.

This also applies in hand with point #2. The easiest way to learn, is from someone else. The common thought is that only greenhorns should be spending their days following around someone else. In reality, there’s always someone better who can teach you a thing or two and not pursuing opportunities to learn from them only hinders you. I’m 5 years into my career and I still venture up to Silver Spring regularly to shadow Dr. Aune of Capital Sports Medicine. Coach Steve and Kelsey chose to spend their honeymoon at Cressey Performance to learn from their program. There are no excuses not to find someone better at something than you and ask to shadow them. Chances are, they will welcome the opportunity.

5. Know the Business Side of Things

There's a difference between being good and successful. Being good gets your clients results. Being successful gets your wallet results. As much as we like to think the two are married, they're not. The Personal trainer Development Center has LOADS of info on this, so I'm not going to beat a dead horse here. 

Keep these five points in mind as you go forth into the field. Adhere to them and you will quickly be on your way to making a promising and fulfilling career. Now set forth and conquer!