The Full Circle Experience

I am a Personal Fitness Trainer

by Phil Kaplan

I got my first certification in 1987.  I was a personal fitness trainer.  It felt good, until, I started working with others who shared the title.   

I'll modify the names to protect the innocent.   

Ray cheated on his new wife with not one, but two of his female clients.   

Chas smoked pot between clients, and a few of his “cool” clients joined him periodically. 

Mike worked as a trainer . . . and an escort, escorting male or female clients to wherever it was that they wanted to be seen or not seen.   

It was easy to dismiss those three, as their extracurricular activities had little to do with anything I did for a living.  Regardless, somebody needed to establish some ethics that we were to be bound by, and if these guys were writing the newest editions of the book, I wanted to cancel my subscription. 

With time and experience I met other personal trainers.  I met the ones who took pride in making their clients sore.  Some found an odd self-gratification in knowing that a client lost his or her lunch during or after a workout session.   

I met the inventive trainers who operated under the paradigm of “if your body moves that way, it must be safe for exercise.”  As I continued to explore the world around me, I found no shortage of personal trainers who appeared to readily and willingly violate each and every one of the safety guidelines I had studied to pass my certification exam. 

While of course I met some very nice and very competent personal trainers along the way, it didn't take long before I understood and intuitively embraced the concept of separation, or separating myself from those who saw the career choice to be a free for all justified by a nice pair of delts, a smile, and the ability to count backward from 15. 

If I was going to be different, I needed a different term.  I felt as if Personal Training was going to be my profession, and in a moment of decision I threw away my business cards and made up new ones.  The new ones didn't say “Personal Trainer.”  They said "Fitness Professional."

I had half a dozen shirts made.  They said my name on the front and "Fitness Professional" on the back. 

In 1991 I spoke at the IHRSA conference.  I had, at that point, achieved some acclaim as a committed individual earning a sound living as a personal trainer, and I was speaking to an audience of health club owners, managers, and fitness directors about "making money in providing service to the members"”  The health club paradigm was set up to profit almost exclusively by selling memberships, and I was going to teach the audience how to ethically generate profits by appropriately charging justifiable fees in exchange for fitness services.   

I asked the question, "who here is a personal trainer?"  About 200 hands went up. 

I followed with, "keep your hand raised if you are a fitness professional."  Every hand stayed raised.  Then I threw out the question / command that proved highly revealing.   

"Keep your hand raised if you can define the term Fitness Professional."

Every hand went down. 

That odd phenomenon lives on.  Personal Trainers are quick to call themselves fitness professionals, but much as the book of ethics remained a figment of anyone's imagination, the term fitness professional remained unconquered in pinning it down to a definition. 

Three years after that IHRSA presentation, I had an office, conference set up, and personal training studio on Oakland Park Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale.  Business was good.  I had a strong team, but my team was small and my greatest challenge was growing it.  

It was hard to find "the stuff" that made for a fitness professional.  A mix of humility and competence were required, along with people skills, caring, and evidence of reliability.  I dreaded the interview process, but at times had to subject myself to it.  I remember the day I screamed, "ENOUGH!!!!!"   My assistant at that time was named Kira.  I'm sure she'll never forgot that scream.  It came immediately following the stable worker who she ushered in for an interview. She told me with her eyes, as he sat in the hot seat, she knew there would be a reaction. This filthy (literally) poorly kept stable worker answered my ad because his brother told him he works well with horses and he's strong.  That was a fateful day for me. 

I politely escorted the stable worker out of my office, keeping a safe distance to avoid odors and the little bugs and microbes that surely made a home on this guy, and I let loose. "ENOUGH." I think the building shook. It was a moment of relief. I knew I had to follow with some evidence that I still had my sanity lest Kira call the looney bin to come and get me.

"Kira, I've had enough.  Either get me a button under my desk with a trap door that leads to a pit of hungry alligators, or cancel every other interview appointment!"  I slammed my office door.  I sat down with a yellow pad and a pen and I wrote out the list of traits I'm looking for when I seek out Fitness Professionals.   I had been using the term in my help wanted ads, but I concluded either nobody understood the term, or the candidates who were showing up couldn't read.

That day changed the way I interview, it changed the way I hire, and it prompted me to get a certification for my cat to reveal the flaw in the belief,"I'm certified, “I'm competent"

The list served me well.  It helped me specify what, specifically, I was looking for in hiring Fitness Professionals.  The list not only served me then, it has continued to serve me to this day, and I've happily shared it with any fitness director, personal training studio owner, or fitness professional seeking to build his or her team through hiring.  Most of the time I could recognize the industry veterans who needed the list.  They had bald spots on their heads from pulling their hair out, or at the very least, a lump on the side of the head they opted to bang against the wall most often. 

Here is that list of traits, exactly as I created it that fateful day:

  •  Extraordinary People Skills
  • Ability to Motivate
  • Creativity
  • An Acceptable Level of Knowledge in:
    • Exercise Technique
    • Exercise Theory
    • Human Physiology
    • Human Nutrition
  • An Acceptable Knack for Using that Knowledge to Bring About Positive Change in Others
  • Responsibility
  • Honesty
  • Concern For People
  • Integrity
  • Loyalty
  • Marketing Ability
  • A Willingness to Keep Abreast of New Developments
  • Exceptional Communication Skills 

When I present this list, I ask the question, "is this a lot to ask?"  The answer I hope for is, "yes."

We do want to ask a lot of someone seeking professional respect.  We ask a great deal of those who aspire to be medical professionals.  We ask a great deal of those who aspire to be legal, financial, or psychological professionals.  Shouldn't we ask someone seeking professional respect in the realm of assisting people with their health, movement, function, and well being to jump through a series of reasonable hoops? 

That list above is not new.  As I mentioned, I’d been sharing it for over 10 years with anyone who would find it valuable.  What is new is, I no longer call myself a fitness professional. 

Things have changed, in many ways for the better, but in other ways they've muddied up a bit.  The number of certification offerings has grown twenty-fold since my first certification, and the certification agencies have challenged each other to find which "credentials" have merit. Health clubs and employers of personal trainers run across the board in what they call "employment requirements." A low barrier or entry, reality shows, the web, and the societal ADD that is prevalent today have all contributed to parity and instant replication.   

Today I see the words "Fitness Professional" on the shirts of health club employees who seem to live by and rarely hesitate to drop their own subpar standards.  I see the words on promotional literature for health clubs who haven't any competence requirements for their employees.  I see the words on business cards of many who come in to interview with me and have difficulty defining simple terms such as calorie, balance, and aerobic exercise.  

You find that hard to believe?  I challenge you to try it.  Ask a self-labeled fitness professional if he or she can define a calorie, can define muscular balance, and can define aerobic exercise, and they’ll all nod their heads without the slightest bit of doubt. Then go the next step.  Ask for the definitions.  You may find yourself surprised.  The response is quite similar to the response I receive when I ask a self-proclaimed fitness professional to tell me what a fitness professional is.   

Expect, if you ask the questions to a few "fitness pros" you do not know intimately, to witness momentary silence combined with an unexpected moment of self-questioning.  It's the revelation of a hole between what people think they know, and what they honestly have command over. This odd phenomenon, mixed with the other evidentiary examples I just provided, demonstrate the ease with which anyone can adopt a title in our field, and "Fitness Professional" is now so overused, it borders on meaningless. 

Today I am a Personal Trainer.  Although I've owned a health club for the last seven years, I am not a health club owner.  I'm a personal trainer who, within the growth of my business, came to open a health club.  I'm not a writer.  I’m a personal trainer who has information to share and am privileged by being invited to contribute to vehicles for sharing.   

My intention is no longer to separate myself, but rather to raise the bar, to stand as an example.  My mission today has little to do with separating from the masses, but brings me to a place where I want to empower those who seek betterment.   

If you want to be an exceptional personal trainer, you might be able to.  I'd be lying if I said anyone can.   

You have to have some foundational skills or innate gifts, or in the absence of those skills or gifts, you have to realize the quantity of work you have cut out for you.  You have to be willing to learn and study, not only the textbooks, but human influence, human adherence, human emotion, and leadership.  I hope that five years from now, the traits I outlined earlier will not stand in list form as criteria for separation, but will become the traits inherent in all personal trainers. 

Respect your position as I respect mine.  We are personal trainers, connected by passion, bound by a power to change lives for the better, and in that we deserve to be revered for what we do, provided we set the bar high, provided we are willing to stand on a visible platform demonstrating the qualities of excellence that all aspiring personal trainers should hold dear. 

I am proud of what I've chosen to do for a living.  I am proud of the impact I’ve had upon the lives of others.  I am proud to call myself a Personal Trainer. 

Note: I will be sharing details on this emerging platform in a first-time ever-offered program for personal trainers covering 8 days beginning April 14th.  The information is delivered via teleconference and internet.  If you are serious about being the best personal trainer you can be, if you aspire to make this your career and the source of your present and future prosperity, consider joining me and 199 other personal trainers for 8 days of change. Check it out.


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