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A HFE personal trainer encourages a client through a ropes exercise.
A HFE personal trainer encourages a client through a ropes exercise.

The First Steps to Becoming a Personal Trainer

10 minute read

Of all the jobs available within the fitness industry, the arguably most iconic and prevalent job is that of a personal trainer.

At the cutting edge of the sector, the personal trainer is predominately responsible for the end user’s enjoyment and results. Writing exercise plans, taking clients through their fitness sessions, offering nutritional advice are just some of the tasks a personal trainer will perform on a daily basis.

While knowledge plays an important part in becoming a personal trainer, so too does attitude. If you want to be a successful personal trainer, you need to be prepared to work potentially long and irregular hours, invest in initial and continued education, take responsibility for recruiting new clients and manage your own diary.

And remember, you also need to be enthusiastic and professional for each and every session you deliver, be it the first or the eighth of the day. There is no denying that personal training is a rewarding career choice, but there is a lot more to it than simply standing next to your client and being a ‘rep counter‘!

If you’ve established you want to be a personal trainer, you might be wondering what you do next to start your journey. Here are some of the first steps to doing so, with some advice on how to stay successful. We also see this as a good time to highly recommend our article on knowing your why, as this too is something to bare in mind when starting out.

Invest in education

Before you can start work as a personal trainer, you need to gain a recognised qualification, with a wide range of options available from weekend courses to full-time degrees.

The minimum you will need is a Level 3 Certificate in Personal Training and its prerequisite, a Level 2 Certificate in Gym Instruction, to be taken seriously by most prospective employers.

These courses can be obtained by studying on a part-time or full-time basis. Where some course providers deliver the content in a classroom environment, others use a web-based learning platform, which means there is a type of course to suit most if not all learners.

Whether it’s a face-to-face or an online personal training course, they will include both theoretical and practical elements and culminate with theory and gym-based assessments.

In addition, many prospective employers will insist that personal trainers hold a rudimentary first aid qualification that includes CPR, as defibrillator training is also becoming more of a requirement. This is often necessary for insurance purposes which, if you are self-employed, you will need to obtain. Liability insurance covers you in the event of an accident or client injury.

Once you have a recognised qualification, you will be eligible to register with organisations such as CIMSPA (The Chartered Institute for the Management of Sport and Physical Activity) or NRPT (National Register of Personal Trainers). Be sure to check out our guide on insurance for personal trainers which explains this side of things in more detail.

Getting your first job

As you near the end of your chosen personal trainer qualification course, it’s time to start thinking about your future career options. Personal training jobs generally fall into two main categories; employed and self-employed.

Employed trainers are usually salaried and work a set number of hours per week. Earnings are usually capped, although they may be linked to hitting sales targets and, as an employed member of staff, uniforms and insurance may also be provided.

In contrast, self-employed trainers are responsible for all of their own expenses and are paid directly by their clients – if they don’t work, they don’t get paid. Self-employed personal trainers generally have to pay a “ground rent” to work in a gym and will need to market themselves to attract clients, which is something often overlooked by guaranteed interview and job schemes.

However, self-employed trainers do enjoy much more freedom and flexibility, and there is no real ceiling to how much money can be earned. If you are prepared to work hard and smart, self-employed personal training can be very lucrative – you just have to look at the UK’s best personal trainers.

For both employed and self-employed personal training, one barrier that all new trainers face is a lack of experience. This can be overcome by training friends, family and other members of your course, as long as everything is done safely. While it would be unethical to take payment for personal training without proper qualifications or insurance, you should ask for references and recommendations in return for your services.

Is self-employment better than employment? There is no easy answer! In the end, you need to do your research, see what is available in the area in which you wish to work and then make a decision.

For many, going down the employed route initially is a good way to gain experience before branching out alone. That being said, other successful trainers have followed the self-employed route from the very beginning – it’s all a matter of personal preference, circumstances, and ultimately, what works best for you.

Be social

An important part of being a successful personal trainer is marketing; you need to be able to tell prospective clients that you are available to work and what services you offer. There are several cost-effective ways to raise your professional profile including leaflets and posters and creating an online profile using free tools such as Facebook, Twitter (X), Instagram and LinkedIn.

While you may well be a company of one, it is also important to create a professional and marketable image. This could include logos, a recognisable uniform and your own unique marketing materials. If you want to be taken seriously, you need to project a professional image.

Build your client base

It’s a given that personal trainers need clients. While increasing your profile using free social media is a good and important place to start, you will probably need to be more proactive if you want to attract new clients. There are several ways to achieve this.

Websites provide an excellent platform for advertising your services and telling people more about yourself. Websites were once an expensive luxury, but are now not only much cheaper (and often free), they can also be self-designed even if you have no programming skills. Companies such as WordPress and Wix offer easy-to-use templates that make website design very quick and straightforward.

Of course, you need to drive traffic to your website and getting listed on the aforementioned CIMSPA and NRPTs websites is one way to do this. It also pays to link your Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn profiles to your website to create a network of social media, while posters and leaflets can also be useful.

Walking the gym floor and introducing yourself to prospective clients by offering free introductory sessions is another effective way to raise your profile. Hand out business cards with links to your online profiles to close the marketing loop and drive traffic to your sites.

Another excellent way to get clients is to align yourself with other fitness and health professionals. For example, a busy physiotherapist may not have the time to take their clients to the gym, so developing a professional relationship with them could result in referrals – especially if you can refer clients back up the chain to them in return. Having a professional image will make these sorts of relationships much easier to develop.

Referrals from existing clients can also help your business grow. Consider incentivising your clients by rewarding referrals. For example, award them a free session for every new introduction.

For more information, read our guide on attracting and retaining personal training clients where we enter more depth on how to build your client base.

Working toward personal fitness goals

Many clients will choose a trainer based on how they would ultimately like to look and feel themselves, and that means you need not only talk the talk, but walk the walk too.

If you want to be taken seriously as a trainer you need to lead by example and show your training and nutritional methods work. Of course, genetics, age and gender all play a part in your ultimate fitness quest, but you should definitely take pride in your personal fitness levels.

Prospective clients are far more likely to seek out your professional services if they see you practising what you preach. Using your own workouts and showcasing their effectiveness is a great marketing opportunity – some trainers will often post routines on social media.

Keep learning

Gaining your initial qualification is a major educational benchmark, but it’s important to realise that as in-depth as a L3 personal training qualification is, it’s only really the tip of the fitness iceberg.

If you want to stay competitive, offer the best service possible to your clients and ensure you stay up-to-date with the latest fitness developments, it is essential you seek out additional courses, buy books on new training and nutritional methods, subscribe to professional journals and keep an eye on a few quality websites. The fitness industry is very fast-moving – if you don’t want to be left behind, you need to keep adding to your skillset.

In staying up-to-date, you may also discover areas within personal training in which you would like to specialise. For example, if you have an interest in the link between exercise and medicine, you might enjoy working with special population groups such as people suffering from back pain, pre and post-natal, or obesity. There are also additional qualifications available in areas such as sports massage, boot camps, exercise for children, exercise for older adults, group training and a host of other exciting avenues.

Specialising in areas outside of the normal tone up/lose weight sphere is a great way to separate yourself from the herd of other personal trainers, and is an option well worth considering if you want to take your career to the next level. Furthermore, one of the biggest upsides to being a PT is the rewarding nature of the job – working with those who potentially need it most only enhances that fulfilling experience.

Keep offering value

Recruiting clients can be time-consuming and may even cost you money, so it makes sense to keep the clients you have recruited and avoid having to constantly spend time and money getting new ones. As your client’s fitness levels improve, you need to make sure the services you provide grow to meet their needs. This is another reason for making sure you stay up to date with the latest fitness industry developments.

Make sure you always under promise and over deliver by going the extra mile for your clients. Ways to do this include offering additional services, fostering a professional relationship with all clients, providing constructive feedback, setting challenging but realistic goals and making sure that your business is centred on your clients.

Personal training is so much more than just working in a gym; you can have a huge impact on the health and wellbeing of your clients and enhance many aspects of their lives. It’s a demanding and competitive role, but if you are prepared to work hard it can be an extremely rewarding career.

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