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Personal Training Success

The Four Keys, and Three Primary Pitfalls

by Phil Kaplan


PART I The Four Keys

Carl Bedford liked working out.

Carl didn't call his shoulders "shoulders." He called his shoulders "delts." His thighs, in the gym, became known as his "quads & hams," and his chest was never referred to as a chest. The entirety of the chest fell under the heading of "pecs."

Carl was relatively lean, had a six-pack fighting to come through, and looked great in a tight polo shirt. That's why, when he saw the sign, "Personal Trainers Wanted: Will Train and Certify," he applied for the position. His bartending job was getting tiresome, he loved being in the gym, and if he could get paid for hanging around the gym working with his buddies, why not take advantage of it?

Carl knew the manager, so the interview process was more of an informal chat, and handshake, and an appointment was set for Carl to attend a workshop. 12 prospective trainers attended the 5-hour workshop. They all knew "delts," "hams & thighs," and "pecs," but in the workshop they also learned about the transversus abdominus, the internal obliques, and the Krebs cycle. They learned about calculating Target Heart Zone, about fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibers, and they were taught how to assess posture and identify imbalances.

The test was taken from home, online. They were given passwords to access the 35-question test. Three of the participants opted not to even bother with the test, but the remaining 9 all passed. All 9 were hired, all 9 got their new shirts (cost to be deducted from their first paycheck) and all 9, after an Orientation explaining "the way things work around here" were sent out on the floor with clipboards to present members with the free training session they were entitled to. Four of the nine trainers remained on staff after the second week. Carl was one of the four, and by the time week three was complete, Carl had conducted 31 free 30-minute sessions. He managed to land two clients and his confidence was growing. Unfortunately, he started missing his bartender tips. His live-in girlfriend started putting the pressure on, asking when he's going to start seeing something in return for all of his hard work.

After the first month only Carl and Dana remained. Dana was struggling, but she did have a few solid clients. Carl seemed to be busy all the time. Because he was "a hustler," he would get the majority of new members. He'd typically be in the gym 8 hours a day, busy almost every minute he was there, but he started to realize it was hard to get clients. People seemed to enjoy the free sessions, but when he tried to sell them the 20-pack, or the 60-pack as management instructed him to push for, they all seemed to want to think about it.

When Dana resigned, Carl picked up her clients, and in Month 3 he was generating $400 a week in personal training. $400 didn't make his girlfriend happy, and as his client base stagnated, the free sessions and Carl's stress level were on the rise.

This story is 100% true. I met Carl because he came in for a job interview. He looked great. He had the like-ability gene. He probably had much of what it takes to become a successful personal trainer, but I met him too late. He was cynical, convinced making money as a trainer is hard, convinced the only way he was going to succeed was to come work for someone like me and get a big fat salary. He believed he was entitled to that salary because he was a great trainer. I never saw Carl again. I assume he's tending bar, maybe with a new girlfriend in his life, and limiting his time in the gym to taking care of his delts, quads & hams, and pecs.

Carl's story is all-too-common. If you'd ask him he'd tell you he did everything right. He attended the workshop, he passed his certification exam, he conducted hundreds of sessions, his "freebies" loved him, and he managed to get some clients to pay repeatedly. I don't blame Carl. In my opinion he was a victim of an immature industry that hasn't yet developed a clearly defined career path. I won't attempt to lay out the details of the career path in a single article, but it's a part of the legacy I hope to leave. My future seminars and works will be directed in great part at helping personal trainers understand the keys to success, and . . .

at helping them recognize and avoid the perilous pitfalls that prevent people with true potential from ever finding career success doing something they genuinely love.

In this article I want to first identify four keys that lead to operating in the realm of "a Fitness Professional," a realm where emotional, physical, and financial reward all align.

The First of the Four Keys: Professionals Are Compensated for their Time

Lawyers learn to bill every working minute to a client. Hair stylists have a full calendar during working hours and they're paid for every client they service. Golf pros are paid for the lessons they conduct. Physicians are paid for interacting with patients.

Trainers . . . . well . . . . they do free stuff.

I'm not suggesting we are in the same category as medical professionals, legal professionals, or any other professionals, but I am suggesting there is an element of the term "profession" that carries across career boundaries. Even professional athletes are paid for the time they spend on the field, even if it's spent sitting on the sidelines watching 11 guys wearing the same uniform battle toward the goal line.

More than anything else, this requires a mindset shift, a recognition of the true value of the knowledge a competent personal trainer has amassed, and more importantly, the value of the impact that knowledge can have on an individual's life. The word "de-serve" comes from Latin, translated as "of-service." If we serve our clients by delivering health-inducing outcomes, by helping them improve their bodies inside and out, by radically kicking up the quality of their lives, don't we "deserve" to be justly compensated? The answer is yes.

Let's not mistake my affirmative and confident response as an indication that all trainers deserve to be compensated for their time. Carl certainly was limited in his knowledge, he had little training in helping people apply situation-specific protocols, and he had never actually proven any real propensity to deliver desired results. Carl, while he appears to be a very nice man, is not a Fitness Professional. If you are not yet a Professional, it's OK to do things that you'd hope to someday be paid for on a complimentary basis, as this can serve as a part of your education and growth. Once, however, you achieve a position where you can unquestionably utilize your knowledge to help others safely and effectively achieve the results they seek, you "DESERVE" to be compensated for your time.

The Second Key: Professionals Control Their Own Calendars

An important word trainers forget to use is, "no." Remember Dana? She was the trainer who didn't make it as long as Carl. In telling me his story, Carl complained about inheriting Dana's clients, because they were scheduled erratically. "She had a 6 A.M. client, then she didn't have another until 9, and then she had a 7 P.M. client."

Trainers often blame their crazy schedules for fatigue and burnout. They have to be taught that their time is every bit as important as their clients' time. I encourage fitness professionals to determine the specific hours they "want" to work. I'm not even suggesting they choose the hours they're "willing" to work. I've learned it's not only possible, but extremely gratifying, to prepare you calendar before you take on a single client. Decide what times you're going to conduct training sessions, and if a prospective client tells you he or she can ONLY train at a time outside of your selected hours, stop and take a moment to realize that taking that client means extreme and unnecessary sacrifice on your part. To accommodate your client's calendar, you are willing to screw up your own.

You own your time, and you are free to decide when you're going to have "me" time, family time, workout time, planning time, downtime, recreational time, and play time. All of that time is important, and don't allow others to stomp on your enjoyment of your career and your life. One of two interesting things often happen when a prospective client says, "I can ONLY train Monday nights," and you respond with, "I wish I could accommodate you, but Monday night is my date night with my wife." The first common scenario plays out with something to the effect of, "well . . . I guess I could come in before work, I just didn't feel like getting up that early. OK, how about I take that Monday morning at 7:30 slot." The second common occurrence that will at first surprise you is, when you turn away a client, another shows up in his or her place, ready to fit into your schedule. I don't know why, call it the odd laws of the Universe, but when you take control of your calendar, you'll be amazed how things just seem to fall into place.

The Third Key: Professionals Strive to Deliver More Value Than People Expect

When I conduct seminars for personal trainers I always share this important key. If you are going to thrill people, it's important to go beyond "customer satisfaction" and deliver MORE than they expect. I then ask a question. "Is this difficult." Immediately heads nod, eyes roll, and "yes" is uttered in a mumbling unison. That's when I point out an experience that every professional personal trainer has had more than once. A client comes to you with a specific goal in mind, perhaps a 20-pound weight loss. Sometimes the client has a goal date, perhaps a reunion, a wedding, or an important event. The day comes when the follow-up assessment takes place and the client has achieved the goal. He or she smiles, and always expresses that this is unbelievable.

"Wow! I feel great. I've lost 20 pounds and I'm fitting into clothes I never thought I'd wear again! This is unbelievable!"

It's time to stop and recognize the subtlety of that statement. Why is it unbelievable? All you, as the personal trainer, did was provide what they asked you for. The fact that people find "the desired result" unbelievable illustrates that while they often hope for a result, they rarely expect it. Their expectations are low. Criminally low. I hope, over the course of the next few years, as more fitness professionals emerge with greater competence and greater confidence, clients will come to expect results. Right now, if you simply do what you promise, you'll thrill each and every client!

The Fourth Key: Professionals Take Responsibility for Influence

The word responsibility is an important one for anyone earning a living by acting in the role of advisor, coach, or educator, and a fitness professional plays all three of those roles. Responsibility can be defined as "the ability to respond." Entrepreneurs share a commonality. If they fail to earn, they fail to eat. A fitness professional in the great majority of cases, must have some of the qualities of an entrepreneur. Sure, there are the corporate jobs where fitness professionals are salaried, and there are opportunities for fitness professionals to work in a medical or rehab environment punching a clock for pay, but for most who seek the highest levels of success as personal trainers, there is an undeniable need to cultivate, motivate, and thrill clients, and the most important trait necessary to handle those vital tasks is the ability to effectively influence.

It's easy to blame a health club's operating policies, a client's habitual tardiness, or the fast food companies for a failure to attract or keep clients. As professionals, we don't understand easy. We understand that our clients will run into obstacles. We understand that people harbor self-doubt and false beliefs. We also understand there are many entities all seeking the attention of our clients and prospective clients. That's where response-ability comes in. Professionals don't accept things as they are, but recognize that they have the ability to identify challenges and obstacles and respond. The responses that you bring to situations and client challenges are the forces that propel both your clients and your career forward. Taking people through workouts isn't enough. We have to identify obstacles and use well-honed influence skills to break through.

It would be a wonderful thing if isolating the four keys were enough. It would also be a wonderful thing if I found a planet inhabited by beautiful women who brewed fat burning beer. Since I haven't yet found that elusive planet, it's safe to assume there are issues beyond the four keys. I'll address three of those issues as the Three Pitfalls that can snuff out a personal training career faster than my two-year-old daughter blows out birthday candles, and that's fast. Really fast.

Part II - The Three Pitfalls

The First Pitfall: The Bar's Too Low, the Paradigm's Broken

Carl's entry into the field should be viewed as an absurdity, but it's so common it's almost the overwhelmingly popular entry process. Sit for a one-day workshop that teaches you how to pass a test, learn a few odds and ends about anatomy and the human body, and you're granted a certificate that supposedly "qualifies" you to affect the health and well being of others. Here's a secret. Ashley Kaplan is a certified personal trainer. Here's another secret. Ashley Kaplan is a cat. Seriously. I wanted to prove that anyone can get a certification. I sat with the cat, took an exam online for $69, and Ashley received a beautiful certificate proclaiming her validation as a certified personal fitness trainer.

There's a story told of the five monkeys experiment.

Five monkeys were put in a large cage. In the middle of the cage was a ladder and bananas hung just above the ladder. Every time one of the monkeys climbed the ladder and tried to grab a tasty treat, the experimenting scientists sprayed all of the monkeys with water. After awhile, any time one of the monkeys headed toward the ladder, the other four physically stopped the approach. After awhile they would violently beat any monkey who ventured toward the bananas. The scientists then removed one monkey and replaced it with another monkey, one who had never been exposed to the hosing. From that point forward they put away the hose, never spraying the bothersome water. Of course the newcomer headed toward the ladder and the other monkeys pounced and beat it violently. After a few days, the new monkey, even though it had never been sprayed, joined in the beating when another monkey summoned up some bravery. A second monkey was replaced and within days there were again five monkeys who would beat each other violently. Eventually all five of the original monkeys were replaced and the beatings continued. None of the monkeys had any reason for doing what they were doing, they simply followed what appeared to be convention.

I know, I know, but they're monkeys. We're talking about fitness professionals. We're talking about people with intelligence, people with independent thought abilities, people who are free to make their own decisions. Let me change the story.

In a health club there are five trainers and a dictatorial club owner.

The club owner has a rabid temper and insists that every new member get three free workouts with a trainer. If any trainer fails to contact a designated new member, the owner would scream, spit, yell, and create a spectacle ridiculing the trainer. Eventually, the trainers all started doing free sessions. The owner didn't arrange for the trainers to be trained in the art and science of human influence, yet he decided he would only pay the trainers a bit beyond minimum wage if they convinced the members to pay them for the training services they were told to offer for free. The trainers believed they were worth $50 per hour, but when they failed to generate business, the owner screamed, spit, yelled, and all but exploded and insisted they sell packages discounting their rates if members were willing to commit. "Sell 20 sessions for $300!" the owner roared, so the trainers started discounting their rates to sell packages. Eventually the owner sold the club, and the training team continued to offer free sessions and discounted package rates. A new trainer was hired. He thought he was worth $50 per session. He didn't understand, at first, why trainers trained new members for free, nor did he understand why he would be asked to sell 20-session packages for what equated to $15 per session. The existing trainers explained to the best of their ability. "Because that's the way things have always been around here." Eventually the new trainer conducted free sessions and sold discounted packages. One year later, the original five trainers had all moved into other careers, but there were five new trainers offering free sessions and discounted packages.

'Nuff said.

Don't follow convention unless you want to be like everyone else. The only reason the majority of trainers conduct their businesses in a manner that cripples their income potential is, "because that's the way they've always done things around here." Understand that trainers never set the paradigm. The health club industry set the wheels in motion and as the training field grew the broken paradigm remained unquestioned . . . until now.

The Second Pitfall: Everyone's an Expert

"Become a Personal Training Millionaire overnight!" I get emails nearly every day promising me I can earn a fortune training clients online, I can write my own book and sell a quazi-zillion copies, I can have a new home, a new car, and a new life if I'll just buy the secrets of some new personal training guru. I know some of these gurus. Many have never built their own training businesses. Some who promise "millions" struggle to meet their own financial obligations. I'm amazed that I often see trainers who come to a seminar of mine develop a belief that they should start their own business teaching trainers to be successful. The problem is, the idea begins to take shape before they master success themselves.

Because this industry is still immature, and because it isn't regulated, and because there isn't yet a single association that serves the entire personal training population, it's easy for shysters and hucksters to capitalize on a vulnerable market. I know the question that you want to ask. "Phil, don't you sell trainers success information?" Yes, I do, however I never suggest any trainer do anything I haven't already done myself. I never give unproven advice or throw out unfounded "get rich quick" ideas. I didn't earn a million dollars overnight, so I'm not the least bit qualified to teach anyone how to do that. I have, however, established a multi-faceted career with its continued foundation in personal training. I've been at this for a quarter of a century. I'm not sharing false promises, I'm simply providing what I believe is a much-needed service, and my ultimate mission is to prosper by bettering the lives of others. My success, therefore, can only evolve forward if I reach greater numbers of people and help them at ever-evolving levels. If I can teach trainers to find success under the same operating paradigm as I've established for myself, the "win" is across the board.

This is not intended to be self-serving. You need never purchase anything from me, and if you do and you're dissatisfied I offer an unconditional money back guarantee. I just want you to be careful; to investigate offers before buying in, and to ask the question whether or not the offerings have anything to do with your desires. I'd also ask you to question the sellers of information products, to ask whether they've done what they teach themselves, and if they've achieved the levels of success they purport you can achieve with their plans. If you set out to be a wealthy author or an internet millionaire, then certainly pursue information in that regard, but if you set out to be a personal fitness professional, learn to master the incredibly noble and rewarding act of transforming bodies and lives. Stick to mastery of that which you set out to achieve and you'll be amazed how your business growth ultimately takes on a life of its own.

The Third Pitfall: There Are Few Resources for Legitimate Career-Specific Success Information

There are many wonderful workshops and courses teaching the science of kinesiology. There are phenomenal workshops related to balance, proprioception, stability, and the inner musculature that makes up "the core." There are resources for learning 350 things you can do with a stability ball, resources for gaining knowledge of how you can stay fit on a desert island with nothing but a medicine ball and tubing, and fantastic resources for integrating yoga, Pilates, and martial arts methodologies into a personal training business. Those are all welcome offerings and can prove to be of extreme value.

The challenge is, success in this field requires other skills, skills that are thought of as foundational in other arenas but are neglected among personal trainers. Successful fitness professionals have learned more than how to evolve as an exercise leader. They've learned how to influence, how to manage money, how to market themselves, how to communicate, and how to integrate long-standing business sensibilities into the career they've chosen.

Because few recognize the magnitude of the demand, few legitimate offerings exist providing the missing pieces of the puzzle.


Since 2006 I've been quietly delivering a complete curriciulm built upon the keys and designed to eradicate the pitfalls from the lives of any personal trainers willing to challenge convention. The curriculum was designed with the words "Be Better" driving me. I'm committed to help personal trainers find ongoing betterment, and will reach fitness professionals internationally with a number of vehicles to manage high level alliances.

One such alliance is my "Be Better Project," a group of 20 trainers committed to unprecedented growth who will interact via the web and twice-per-month teleconferences. If you're already a career fitness professional and feel a sense that you're limited by the number of hours in a day, consider joining "Be Better."

If you're in the beginning stages of your career, or if you've been at it for what feels like a long time and the rewards don't seem to justify the commitment, you need a mindset adjustment. I know it might feel as if you need some secrets, some lucky break, or some miracle to befall you, but I guarantee success is right in front of you. You just have to change the way you approach it. I would encourage every trainer for whom these words ring true to invest in my newest program, available as a fully downloadable product appropriately titled, "Change Your Mind - Change The World."

We are at a critical phase in the growth of the Personal Training profession. We are at a period in time where we can connect with medical professionals, not in the manner most trainers would expect, but rather by positioning ourselves alongside doctors so we're perceived as intervention specialists, true professionals who can grab hold of a human body before it slips into the need for a cure, and prevent illness and disease from creeping in. We are at a period in time where we are able, with the right knowledge and the right approach, to command fees in line with legal and medical professionals. We are at a period in time where we can collectively raise the bar to establish an industry that is revered rather than questioned, a period where trainers can break away from the shadow of the health club paradigm and become fitness entities in our own right. We are at a period in time where many will fail to see the payoff that is in fact possible simply because they stop short of the necessary steps, or they allow the perils and pitfalls to force abandonment of the dream.

I believe strongly in the idea of commitment, and I commit, right here, right now, to conduct my business, not only under the direction of the words that I've had framed on my desk for over a decade, "Growth With Integrity," but also to consider only ventures and projects that have the ability to help others find betterment. If after reading this you've decided you don't want to be a fitness professional, that you really don't want to work that hard, that you don't want to worry about esoteric ideas such as influence and marketing, then I feel that I've provided a valuable service. If, on the other hand, you now see how high the bar needs to be raised, and you're inspired and motivated to serve as a role model, as an industry leader, and as a fitness professional who leads from the front, I invite you to challenge yourself, to explore your true "response-ability," and to commit along with me to the words that ultimately meet human desire at any point in time . . . . "Be Better!"

- Phil Kaplan


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