How Did You Become a Personal Trainer?

by Carl Raghavan, SSC | September 18, 2019

carl raghavan coaches a lifter

I get this question a lot. What did you do? How do I become a personal trainer or a coach? Of course, they don’t usually want to hear the truth. This question is code for: What is the quickest route (ideally not involving many years’ work and experience) to becoming a highly paid, elite-level coach who can pick and choose his clients, lift when he wants and be his own boss? For me, it was a fourteen-year process. Six years at a fancy gym in Mayfair, London, three years at a CrossFit, and at least that at Physical Culture in Putney (my current home), plus a few bits and bobs in between, including moonlighting to make ends meet. I never actually set out to be a trainer. It was my sister’s advice – probably the only time I’ve ever listened to her. I thought the idea of training people indoors as opposed to being outside in the sunshine doing real sports was weird, but after a few weeks I started to warm up to the idea. Now I can’t see myself in any other industry. Coaching is my passion – but that doesn’t mean it’s not still work.

From the outside, being a freelance trainer sounds like a pretty sweet gig. This is because most people haven’t done their research. They don’t know what the job really entails. Let me introduce you to the downsides – and offer a little advice.

Time is Your Most Important Commodity

I never wanted to be tied to a desk. Punching a clock day in and day out, year after year isn’t my idea of living. But at least it gives you a structure. When you can keep any hours you want and there’s no one above you to keep you accountable, you can fall into one of two traps: working too much or not working enough. Surprisingly, the former trap is the most common – when you’re new in the game, it’s hard to say no to work. But you should. What you may not realize is that being booked-out actually makes clients more appreciative of your time. And time is your most important commodity. Spend it wisely.

You may be able to squeeze in forty or more clients per week, but should you? Can you work that hard and still get enough sleep, train properly, see friends and family, and pursue your hobbies? I doubt it. You can’t juggle all those balls without dropping something. You’re only human. My advice? Don’t forget why you wanted to be freelance in the first place. If you’re going to be your own boss, don’t be the kind that’s a pushy douche. Forcing yourself to work all hours of the day and night will only lead to burnout, illness, and frustration. You may not be hunched over a desk, but you’re still in prison. All you’ve done is repaint the walls.

“Freelance” Does Not Mean “Unemployed”

Time-wise, I practice what I preach. I’m happiest waking up late, having a relaxed breakfast, downing a few cups of coffee, answering emails, maybe doing a little writing, looking at my training program, then strolling into the gym just after lunch. I’ll coach a few clients after a meal – one- or two-hour sessions – then in the evening I’ll see a few mates for a drink or a nice meal. Simple, no stress. A perfect day. Wake up, rinse, repeat. That’s the great thing about freelance work. Trouble is, if you don’t have a 9–5 job, people often assume that your schedule is wide open, that you can be at their beck and call every day. I went freelance so that I could set my own hours, not so that I could walk your dog or wait in for the plumber while you’re at the office. Again, time is your most important commodity – do you want to spend it running someone else’s errands?

I am not your Therapist

One-to-one personal training, which is mostly what I do, is very draining. You have to stay sharp for the whole session, making sure you give people the right cues. After a while, you struggle to focus. An aside: Social media has really screwed over my attention span. It’s gone from two minutes to two split seconds. Fuck you, Mark Zuckerberg!

Anyway, there are some clients who will make your job even harder, distracting you from the process of coaching (i.e. the thing they’re actually paying you to do). A surprising number of people will come to you asking for strength training when what they’re really after is a therapist. Or a life coach. Or a personal guru. This will annoy you.

There are a few types in particular to watch out for. First up are the energy vampires, clients with limited people skills for whom small talk is a chore. Trying to engage with them is like squeezing blood out of a stone. Then there are the burn hunters, clients who don’t want to do technical work – or anything else that requires thought. They view training as exercise, something they can do while mentally switched off. If the session doesn’t end in a puddle of sweat, they’re not happy. Worst of all are the hypochondriacs, over-thinkers who can’t bear to do anything except roll around on the floor because their doctor told them all they can do are bullshit thera-band exercises or they’ll hurt themselves. Sooner or later (sooner if they’re a hypochondriac), all of these people will want to discuss their issues with you. Don’t let them.

Perhaps you’re thinking I sound cynical. That I’ve been doing this too long. In fact, I love my job. I don’t know what I’d do if I wasn’t a coach. My point is simply that coaching involves working with other people, and other people are sometimes pains in the arse. You will have some wonderful clients – I certainly do – but the world will also serve up a few tricky ones, who will test your patience and your people skills. If this becomes a source of stress, you could always try online or group coaching. It’s a great way of dealing with some of these high-maintenance clients – definitely better than running through a Kill Bill-style hit-list in your head.

Sometimes a client who’s tough in a one-to-one setting can be amazingly responsive to coaching in group or online situations. The problem is that group classes can be difficult to organize as a freelancer. If this is the case for you, then you may be someone who prefers to work for a gym. Being around a team of colleagues has other benefits, too: you can bounce ideas off other trainers, plus the banter and camaraderie make long days seem shorter.


If you’re still reading, then presumably I haven’t scared you off. Great! Enough of my rambling and negativity. Let’s move on to some advice. You really want to be a personal trainer? Here’s what you do. Google the words “cheap online personal trainer course”. Click on a link. Sign up. Which one? Doesn’t matter. All you want is a course that qualifies you to get insurance. Now, I can tell you for a fact that everything they teach on these courses is outdated bullshit. You’re doing this so you can get insurance, not so you can learn. Learning will come later – from books, the internet, and the international strength and conditioning seminars you will do once you’re certified. Another great option is to simply spend time at famous gyms, living the method. Eat, sleep, and shit training. Ask questions and write lots of notes. To make your mark in the industry, you will need to find a niche. Personal trainers are a dime a dozen, so you need to figure out what makes you special. Why should people pay you for coaching, and not the guy down the road who’s doing boxing and bodyweight circuits in the park? Find what you’re passionate about, what makes sense, and what’s effective. It could be barbells, martial arts, rock climbing, whatever. The list is endless. Immerse yourself in that field. Put in your 10,000 hours and become a master of your craft.

The fitness industry is heavily saturated, and the standard Micky Mouse Personal Trainer courses are nowhere near enough to make you stand out. The certification process usually involves little more than a multiple-choice questionnaire. You get 40% for showing up and being able to write your name. I remember going to mine hungover and very sleep-deprived – and I still passed. I’m sounding cynical again, I know, but the truth is that these courses are engineered to let you pass. They only want your money. They don’t care about your journey or the struggles you will face over the next 6–12 months: finding clients, marketing yourself, achieving a decent wage and work-life balance. They want you to pass so they can bring in the next batch of keen-bean fitness sheep, churn them through the system and fling them straight out into the wilderness of the fitness industry. This is why so many people quit and change careers after less than a year. It’s tough. Social media, used wisely, can help. Message people, study their content, ask yourself why you like them. Take advice from people in the industry, then develop a blueprint to boost your own social-media presence. The world is more accessible than ever, and not just online. Search for cheap flights so you can meet your mentors in the flesh. Do some serious research, figure out your dream version of yourself and analyze the steps you need to take in order to get there. Stand on the shoulders of giants – and don’t forget to pay them the respect they’re due.

Your Motivation

Ultimately, to survive in this business, you need to be in it for the right reasons. Hint: this does not include looking in the mirror or pumping up your biceps. You have to be a good communicator and genuinely care about other people’s goals. You need to care, period – because sometimes you may have to do things you don’t really enjoy. Are you prepared to be in the gym, coaching, from 6am till 9pm? Are you willing to clean cardio equipment and mop floors at a commercial gym because you don’t have enough clients straight off the bat? What about teaching step classes, boot camps and body pump to pad out your pay-check, even if your heart’s not in them? Where will you find an extra £1,000 a month, which is what they’ll charge you to use the space at most big globo-gyms? Do you have enough equity to establish your own gym, where you can make your own rules? Can you survive financially for three years until you earn enough to stay afloat?

Are you willing to move to a foreign country and become a rich oil kingpin’s pet, living in some city where he can call you all hours of the day to “train,” where you don’t speak the language, and where you don’t have any friends or family within a hundred miles? Do you have the stones to sack an intolerable, un-coachable client, even if you need the money? Will you be able to tell a client – this one’s my favorite, and bafflingly common – that they have B.O.? None of these questions will be on your multiple-choice quiz at Personal Trainer school, but you’ll probably encounter them, as well as other, weirder situations too. If so, please drop me a line – I do love a good personal trainer story.

The gist? Being a trainer isn’t easy, but if you really love fitness and you can cope with the downsides, then it will all be worth it in the end. So take everything I’ve said into account, let it settle in your brain for a minute, and ask yourself: how badly do you want to be a trainer?

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