PT Education: The First Month with a New Client

A New Direction

Hi Team, as I promised in my first post for the year, 2010 at me-dot-com will see the introduction of some different types of articles. Today’s post is the first ever article (published on this site) written specifically for Personal Trainers (PTs), PT students, PT managers, centre managers and health club owners. My guess is that it will also be of interest to PT clients and potential clients.

Having personally completed over 40,000 PT sessions since 1987, I consider myself to have reasonable insight into what does and doesn’t work (on a range of levels) when it comes to the product and service of Personal Training. Even today (in 2010), the PTs working in my centre (Harper’s Personal Training Brighton) still deliver somewhere in the vicinity of 1,000 training sessions every week. Although I train very few private clients these days, I am still involved in trainer education, I’m still in the gym every day and of course, I still oversee the running of my business.

My centre in Brighton is a 10,000 square foot dedicated Personal Training Brighton facility: no members, no general training, no casual workouts, no contracts, no pressure sales and no queues for machines. Ever. It’s a nice environment to work in. And to work-out in.

When I began my PT career there was no blueprint to follow, no other PTs to learn from and no ‘How-to-PT’ guide. As a consequence, the vast majority of my PT education has been hands-on and experiential. Learning by doing. I have made many mistakes along the way and my clients and staff have taught me much.

For our first instalment of ‘Trainer Ed 101’ in 2010, I thought we would explore the first month of the Trainer-Client relationship as it’s the most important month you’ll ever spend with your client. Do it right and you’ll set you and your client up for a long-term, win-win relationship. Do it wrong and they won’t even make the third week. And you’ll dent your confidence, your brand and your earning potential.

Back in the day (when I lived on the gym floor) my clients trained with me for an average of about three years. One client (Pauline) trained with me (four or five days per week) for sixteen years (1993-2008 inclusive). In an industry where many clients only hang around for three to six weeks, it is crucial that we (PTs) understand the needs and expectations (emotional, physical, sociological and professional) of our clients, and it’s even more crucial for us to consistently deliver an incredible level of service, a high quality training experience and of course, a little fun. Even when the novelty wears off. And it will.

The following list is a brief overview of the areas that I consider to be the most important in terms of where you (the trainer) should focus your time, energy and attention in the first month with any new client.

1. Create connection and rapport. If you have all the technical skills, qualifications and academic understanding but you fall drastically short in the relationship-building, communication and connection departments, you might want to either develop those skills quickly or look for another career. Believe it or not, in this industry a PhD is often less valuable than a personality and great interpersonal skills. I’ve seen many educated and intelligent trainers fail simply because of their inability to create real connection with their clients. While academic intelligence and technical knowledge are good things, sometimes emotional and social intelligence are more valuable. If your clients (or potential clients) perceive you (the trainer) to be (1) all about the money, (2) lacking integrity, (3) not genuinely interested in them and their goals, (4) untrustworthy or unreliable, or (5) arrogant or egotistical, then you have some serious work to do. And by the way, don’t assume you know how other people perceive you.

We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are.

2. Don’t kill them.
I’m amazed at the number of PTs who train (relatively unfit) new clients way harder – in terms of program design, exercise selection, training frequency, workout duration, overall training volume, training intensity and recovery – than is appropriate for a newbie. From a training perspective, the first month with a new client should be less about major adaptation and physical transformation and more about safety, education, skill development (exercise technique), forming new training habits and establishing a fitness, strength and flexibility base – via low to moderate intensity exercise. Our primary goal should be to help them create life-long behavioural change, not to turn them into Olympians by next Thursday. If they’re after rapid transformation and extreme results, then (1) educate them to know better or (2) tell them you’re not the guy/girl for the job.

3. Collect some baseline data (via testing). And my suggestion is to do it on day one and to re-test on day twenty-eight (if not earlier). If we don’t collect some pre-program measures and relevant data then how can we accurately, honestly and scientifically evaluate the effectiveness of the program we’ve designed and implemented? Blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, hydration levels, resting heart rate, post-exercise heart rate (recovery), skin-fold measurements (at least 8 sites), overall body-fat percentage, muscle mass weight, girth measurements, body weight, strength, flexibility, aerobic endurance, muscular endurance, power, speed and reaction time are just some of the variables I have tested over the years. Lack of regular testing indicates laziness, ignorance and a lack of professionalism on behalf on the trainer.

4. Have fun. I’ve seen many PTs on the gym floor who seriously look like they’d rather be some place else. Some of you know exactly what I mean. Hardly inspirational stuff. Hardly a recipe for success either. Professionalism and fun don’t need to be mutually exclusive. Neither do results and fun. Surprisingly, they can go hand-in-hand. It doesn’t matter how technically brilliant a program is, if the client finds you and the whole PT experience to be an unpleasant affair, your PT career will be shorter than a Paris Hilton skirt.

5. Get some results. While the first month is not all about major transformation (see point two), from a motivational and customer-satisfaction perspective, it is important that our client sees (and feels) some level of change. Even training at low to moderate intensity (coupled with dietary and lifestyle changes) a month is certainly long enough to see measurable changes in body-fat, blood pressure, weight, girth measurements, energy levels and all the fitness variables.

6. Be professional. Without doubt, the biggest criticism of (some) trainers is their lack of professionalism. In an industry which has long struggled for respect, credibility and mainstream acceptance, it is paramount that we PTs do everything in our power to consistently deliver a professional and polished product. Why would anybody refer a potential client to a person who is lacking in professionalism and why would anyone want to work out with such an individual? Professionalism covers such things as: punctuality, language, confidentiality, teaching skills, appearance, personal hygiene, attentiveness, concentration levels, training skills, assessment skills, reliability, administration skills… and much more.

7. The away-from-the-gym hours. What your client does when he or she is away from the gym (or wherever your training environment happens to be) will have more of an impact on the overall result than the time they spend with you. Even if someone trains with you three days per week, they’re still spending the vast majority of their time away from you and the gym. For this reason, it’s important (especially in the first month) that you have some awareness of, and input into, what transpires – in terms of diet, lifestyle, social habits, sleep, decision-making and additional exercise – when he or she is left to their own devices. So to speak. If you’re training Sally perfectly but she’s throwing down two litres of Cookies and Cream every night after the kids have gone to bed, then there’s a big chance that the second assessment ain’t gonna be a joyous occasion! Which is bad for you, your brand (your reputation as a PT) and of course, Sally.

So there you have it; a quick look at the first month of the client-trainer relationship. Of course there’s more to explore but I think that’s enough for us to chew on for the moment. I hope you PTs find this information relevant and valuable as you develop your career (or business) and I wish you every success as you learn and grow in fitness.

Love to hear your thoughts, questions and feedback on (1) this article specifically and (2) this type of article in general.

Ciao :)

* If you’re a health club or studio owner or manager and you’d like to explore the possibility of me doing some professional development work with your team, you can email Johnnie here or call him for an informal chat on (03) 9553 8857 during business hours (Melbourne time). Easy Peasy.

If you liked this article, subscribe to my blog and receive my FREE eBook. Click here: I want a FREE eBook. If you’re interested in having me work with your organisation you can contact me here.

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael January 31, 2010 at 5:42 pm

Craig, I have been trying to get a personal trainer near me to committ but each time I make an appointment he rings and says ‘oh i’ve double booked you.”

I think what should be added is not so much the PT should be at the client’s beck and call, they do have a business to run, but so far it’s been a take it or leave it approach from all I have contacted, and one said I don’t give a ***k about your diet that’s your problem.

Second, why be a PT if you have utter contempt for obese people? Some just seem to work on a guilt blame thing. One PT I used to see just came out one day and said obses people are the scum of the earth. Nice.

Third, the PT should not be a therapist but you cannot deny that sometimes, look at the drama in the Biggest Loser, there are doubts and fears and tears as one’s body changes. I am not suggesting a cup of tea and a long chat, but surely a PT should not be surprised when the client’s issues come out during exercise. All the self doubts seem to rise to the surface when you exercise to stop you. But that is when we turn to your blog :)

Thanks just wanted some 2 cents worth on this as I am looking at a PT this year.

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Jules January 31, 2010 at 6:32 pm

As a current PT client and, as a prospective PT student and PT, I found all of that very interesting. Very well done.

As I was reading it I was thinking about my PT, Gav, and how he ticks all the boxes. He connects with me; he didn’t kill me in the first two weeks; he collected baseline data (in my second session, I believe) and performs regular testing and measurements; he makes our sessions fun. Try training a client at 8:00 AM when your client has been awake since 2:00 AM. That’ll be me. I laugh. Lots. And tend to lose my focus and want to stall and talk… a little too much. It’s pretty amusing though. It sure adds another dimension to our PT sessions!); we got results in the first month; he is very professional and when we train I can see I consume 110% of his focus. I can also see how much he cared about what I do outside the time we spend together training at the gym. He looked over my food diaries, we spoke about my (dysfunctional) sleeping patterns and he voiced great concern that I was heading down the overtraining path.

I’m going to email this article to Gav and I hope he swings by and reads it. He already knows how much of a difference he has made to my life because I’ve told him so, many times. But here is yet another “thanks Gav – you’re awesome” just because! (We’re having a tiny break at the moment because I’m training for my first ironman triathlon in 5 weeks. I’m having some major Gav PT withdrawal though – really miss the fun sessions in the gym).

One thing a PT can never do is give any client the self-motivation, focus, discipline, self-control and desire to do what they need to do outside of PT sessions. Because, unless you’re going to hang around your client like a bodyguard 24/7 for up to 6 months, you will never really know what happens outside the relatively small bunch of hours that you see them for during the week. A few weeks into training, Gav could really see how much I wanted to achieve my goals and how focused and committed I was. Knowing this, I could also see how much more of an effort Gav put into helping me achieve my goals too. It’s a partnership between both of you and so subsequent achievements are shared.

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Christina January 31, 2010 at 7:39 pm

Thanks, Craig, for making me appreciate the wonderful trainers at my local personal training studio. I can honestly say that they are everything you have outlined and more. Now I know why after two years I’m still a very happy client and why I’ve been able to achieve my fitness goals relatively easily.

Only last week I was out running when I was stopped by a woman who wanted to ask me about how I stay in shape. Yeah, I know. I could hardly believe it either. That’s gotta be a golden moment in a former fat chick’s life.

Anyway, I was able to sincerely and enthusiastically recommend my trainers. It must have worked because she phoned the studio the next day and made an appointment. Happy clients make more happy clients.

Have a wonderful Monday.

Christina xxx

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Pip January 31, 2010 at 11:07 pm

Interesting article here Craig.

I believe the PT world is and would be a hard one to crack……………………….and to stay in and feel successful!

I myself am always interested in training, gyms, training clients and have considered a career in this area, (have also looked into becoming a dietitian, naturopath or sports nutritionist or beauty therapist specialising in spa treatments. The cost of such an endeavour, the debt needed, the bridging course involved, the time and the years with hardly any time or money put me off. I know I’m of average academic ability and I would need to put heaps of time/effort into my studies to get average marks, I wouldn’t breeze through!

I’m stubborn! I won’t pay $50 plus an hour or 45 mins to get trained by a trainer at a gym. On the one online thing I did once I was told to eliminate ALL carbs, – complex, fruit, reduced fat dairy as well as refined and get used to it. I’m not going to comment if that was right or wrong advice however I was too stubborn to be told what to do and did my own thing despite.

Anyway I came to my conclusion that if I don’t do what trainers tell me…………….why would they listen to what I tell them.

However I am all for trainers or coaches IF I’m going to learn a new skill or get technique improvement on what I don’t know deep down. You can read books on how to improve technique but practical learning is much better! Eg a session or two if inexperienced on operating weights, or tennis lessons or in my case triathlon training at the moment. I’m doing a 12 week novice tri course, getting heaps out of it so am pleased as I stupidly allowed myself get into debt to pay for it!

But just training to get a sweat up, lose fat over time, get fitter all round, build a bit of strength (with no real important goal on how much in what time frame) are things I feel I can go alone. The accountability thing is nice while doing it, – but long term is what we want hey.

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Lisa February 1, 2010 at 3:52 am

What a cool glimpse into the world of training.
#2 is why I had to break up with my trainer.
She killed me consistently.
It was tough because she had #1 down, like a hairdresser who becomes like a sister.
This is inspiration for trying again, with someone who won’t cause intense freaking throbbing pain in the affected joint :)
Thanks Craig!

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Tania February 1, 2010 at 6:57 am

Have been looking forward to your upcoming PT based articles. I believe this is a wonderful chance to gain a little insight into your wisdom and vast experience. (I still have the notes that you provided at a PT seminar 10+ years ago and refer back to them from time to time.) Agree with point 1 – I recall, when I first (fairly unsuccessfully) attempted a PT career. I couldn’t quite understand why the chubby, unfit kind of guy who smoked in his breaks had one of the best PT businesses at the gym – wasn’t his education, or obviously the way he looked. He didn’t really do anything particularly exciting in his programs, they were fairly repetitive and boring really – it was obviously his connection with clients. On this, my second attempt at really pursuing a fitness career (thought I should before it is time to retire!) I am changing some mum’s lives in my community. In the back of my mind throughout this experience, I remember that smoking trainer and try to build an honest rapport with all my clients while instilling a lifelong love of fitness and health.
Look forward to your future PT articles.
Tania

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Craig February 1, 2010 at 7:38 am

HI Michael. Wow – it sounds like you’ve found the worst PTs in Australia. You’re right; some people simply shouldn’t be trainers. Good luck finding the right person. If you were in Melbourne, we would look after you… ;)

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Craig February 1, 2010 at 7:39 am

Sounds like you’ve found the right man for the job Jules…

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Craig February 1, 2010 at 7:41 am

Hey Christina – It’s good to hear some positive feedback about PTs and it’s always nice to get a compliment from a stranger… well done running girl…

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Craig February 1, 2010 at 7:45 am

Thanks for your thoughts Pip… you’re right, sometimes fifty bucks on a PT is a waste of money. Sometimes ten bucks is a waste too! Some trainers are rubbish, some a brilliant – like any profession.

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Craig February 1, 2010 at 7:45 am

You’re welcome Lisa – good luck… :)

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Craig February 1, 2010 at 7:48 am

Hi Tania – good to hear about what you’re doing in your community – keep up the great work… and thanks for the feedback :)

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Aileen February 1, 2010 at 8:11 am

I’m one of those people that grew up before PT’s were invented (I’m 51). I’ve trained all my life without one. Oh, and incidentally pre-cardio equipment too – would you believe I run on the road :-) On each of the two occasions I’ve been offered free PT sessions as part of my gym m/ship renewal I’ve ended up injured. I would never hire a PT. Why? And what do I see as being wrong with them? Firstly your number 2 is the biggest by far. Secondly plain lack of knowledge, lack of ability to tailor the program and or the exercises to the client. How often in a gym do you see everyone doing the same sort of thing. Or doing things wrong, poor form etc.

I see PT’s as lack of empowerment. My knowledge well exceeds that of most PT’s because I have had to get off my backside and learn. I know what suits me, what works for me, and what doesn’t.

I’m sure there are great PT’s out there, by and large though I don’t see them.

Incidentally this year I am dumping my gym membership. I am training almost entirely at home. I am so fed up with what gyms have become. I can walk into a gym and talk to no one. If I had my way I’d ban ipods – the ultimate antisocial tool. Almost everyone in the gym now is tied up with if not an ipod, a PT – doesn’t allow for a good atmosphere in my book. At least if I train at home I can listen to music I like and do odd jobs in between. I can train when I like and tie up the squat rack for a whole hour if I feel like it!

Maybe I’m just a cranky old fart. :-)

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Craig February 1, 2010 at 8:55 am

Hi Aileen – there’s no right or wrong here, just different opinions and I’m glad you shared yours. For the record, I agree with you that excellent trainers are few and far between. I see PTs as a resource that will be valuable for some and not for others. No more, no less. Thanks for sharing – you old fart ;)

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Aileen February 1, 2010 at 9:01 am

BTW I’m from Perth and certainly out at my corner of the world which is east of Perth not in the trendy city/seaboard areas there is an absolute dearth of ANYTHING! I have looked high and low for boot camps in my corner of the world – absolutely nothing. I see it as potential but most trainers I talk to say there is no one wanting to be trained and no trainers wanting to do it. Sad. I guess we could have a whole discussion on socio economics here. But I digress.

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Kristy February 1, 2010 at 10:27 am

I have been training for a number of years with someone who i consider to be the best personal trainer in the world. She is caring, works me hard for the times I am with her, encourages me, helps me not only with training but also with some personal things/issues.

I am currently unemployed and the money side of things will soon become an issue but my training is something that I simply wont give up. In terms of results well I cant say that they come easily or have come much at all, the fitness is certainly there and although I am “obese” I am quite fit at the same time.

There have been times when I have thought about chucking in the towel, but if i didn’t train at all I would be even more “obese” so given I have found what I consider to be the best trainer in the whole of Melbourne then I am not yet willing to cease the training I do with her.

I know there are some ordinary trainers out there who dont look out for the best interests of their clients and personally if my trainer ever left where we go I would either follow her to a different gym or stop training. (there isn’t anyone else I would train with)

Ive had a number of injuries over the times ive trained with her and never once have I had to stop training and not work out because there is always something that can be done even with injuries and my trainer is 100% flexible in everything.

Anyway that’s my two bobs worth, I think the world of my trainer for everything she has done for me in every way….. I just wanted to share.

Enjoy your day folks :-)

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Linda February 1, 2010 at 10:42 am

Great Article. With time comes experience. I have been a trainer for over two years now and are learning and refining every day.
I try my utmost to give every client the attention they need, and have realised some need more loving than others. I try to always encourage communication with my clients. Sometimes I feel like a dumping ground for the emotions of many. I have done some great work in my community and nothing tops it off more than the emails and cards I constantly receive. I have learnt that I cannot help everyone, some people know they need to change but still cannot commit to themselves. I try hard to not to take things too personally as if I did I probably would stop. I know I am but the provider of the tools and it is up to my clients to utilisise them. I value and respect your writing Craig and I thank you for providing an honest account of your world. I find that my integrity and work ethic are what keeps my clients coming back. Some days are hard, and some are too easy, but all makes for an intersting flight.
Cheers Linda

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Mandi P February 1, 2010 at 12:41 pm

Hi Craig,
you article is very educational for trainees as well as trainers. I am going to look at getting personal training again. I left my last one for reasons 3 and 6. He did a half baked data gathering session in my first session and for the next 6 months didn’t collect any again to see if I had changed (hopefully for the better) and nearly every single session he started it 5 mins late and finished up 3 mins early and talked about himself all the way through (there are too many mirrors in the gym and he knew where to find himself in every single one). I know I should have had enough gumption to say something to him. His “best” effort was to run 45 mins late, after that long warming up on the cross trainer and treadmill I think I was over warmed and wasn’t able to put as much into the session.
I am going to look at your list when I find my next personal trainer and if they don’t tick all the boxes I am going to move on pretty fast. If only all the personal trainers out there lived up to the bench marks you set here as I think they are realistic and professional.
cheers

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Nat February 1, 2010 at 1:12 pm

I’ve been a registered nurse for 20 years and decided to leave the sickness industry and join the health industry to become a PT. I must admit I was disappointed in my course because I wanted more knowledge, but to gain that formal knowledge I wanted via a degree is not an option at this stage in my life. So I read everything and anything on biomechanics and exercise physiology. I moved to a country town in which I’m the only qualified PT so seeking a mentor wasn’t an option either. I wanted to work as a PT but lacked the confiedence in my own ability and knowledge so I bought into a franchise specialising in group outdoor personal training.

On a whole the franchise is great and I do (I think) all of the points raised, BUT I struggle with number 2 (don’t kill them). In my heart and my nursing / PT knowledge tells me not to work them so hard but the group setting and the structure of the program makes number 2 difficult to control sometimes. I know I have lost potential clients because they worked too hard – despite me saying “work within your own capability, rest if you need to for the first session, so I can assess your starting point.”

Hey I’m only new at this PT game and the wonderful results I’m seeing and the feedback I get from my clients beats working in the sickness industry any day!!!

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Frankie February 1, 2010 at 2:58 pm

I did about 40 hour prac at *insert nameless all female gym here* a while back as part of my requirement for my Ex Science degree. I was absolutely horrified at how some of the brand new clients were totally thrashed by the trainers. Some so much that they could not attend their next session due to extreme muscle soreness. NO IDEA.

Not only that, they gave them very difficult moves to do for a beginner and wasted a lot of time in isolation exercises (these were women trying to lose 20kg not enter a figure comp).

Luckily management stepped in after quite a few complaints and also due to some observations from a member who was physio who used to sit and do her cardio while watching others being trained who told them she thought they were practising and teaching some dangerous techniques.

A blanket order was given to all the PT’s that they were only to use compound exercises from then on..and actually specified which exercises to do – for ALL clients. I doubt that going to the other extreme really helped either.

Was glad to get out of there. I had one of the PT’s (who I was observing and ‘learning’ from) who’d done an 8 week course and been working 6 months, asking ME how to train if you have muscle imbalance and then having to show her the correct technique for several exercises.

Not bashing PT’s at ALL…..just bad ones.

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Megan February 1, 2010 at 4:09 pm

Craig, thank you!
Last Friday I finished up my comfortable 17 year career in finance to work solely in the PT business I have been establishing part time for the last couple of years.
I truly appreciate your advice and am taking it with me as I head into the adventure of learning, creating and promoting good health, healing, humour and harmony to many!
Thanks again!!

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Sandra February 1, 2010 at 4:54 pm

Thanks for the article Craig,

It has come at a great time for me as I started my PT course today. I’ll be looking for more, as I think it is important that we give our clients the best – after all, that’s what they fork out their dollars for.

Cheers,
Sandra

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Rhonda February 1, 2010 at 10:55 pm

WOW!!! how sad it is to read all the bad experiences some of you have had with your personal trainer(s).
I am a Personal trainer and absolutely love my job….although I dont see it as work. I have been training some clients for over 5 years from when I first started as a PT and now have around 65 clients many who have been training for at least 3+ years.
I believe the number one rule to being not just a good personal trainer but a personal trainer with a difference is building rapport with your clients…it’s a pity they can’t teach this during the PT course. You can have the best program in the world, but if you can’t/don’t connect with your client it is useless. It’s not just about giving your client your time during their session and making them work hard, but also about listening to what they say about their lives away from their session and taking an interest. I had a client who had her first triathlon yesterday, so Saturday I sent a message wishing her all the best, then last night I sent a message asking her how she went. Tonight she thanked me for showing an interest and how my message meant so much to her…to me, it is just something you do, but from what I am reading above, obviously its not…which is very sad.
Yes there are sessions that end up more of a counselling session, but I could/would never dream of brushing my clients concerns off. It’s not just about the results on the outside of a person, but I believe working on the inside of person is just as important, if not more important. If/when a client feels better on the inside, the outside generally follows with longer lasting results.
It’s disturbing to see so many trainers come and go and how self absorb they are. All they think about is their business and making money, then after 12 months they wonder why they don’t have many clients and start considering a change of career. Yet when they walked around the gym, they never smiled, would only talk to someone when they were trying to sell PT, then when that person didn’t show an interest they would never talk to them again.
So my one piece of advice (apart from what Craig has already mentioned and my comments above) to any new trainers or someone considering becoming a personal trainer ………SMILE!!!! Whether it is 6am or 9pm, you will be amazed at how many people notice and how business will come to you.
And to clients with a personal trainer……….IF YOU ARE NOT HAPPY GET A NEW TRAINER. It may take a few trainers to find the right person for you, but you are paying for a service and deserve the best.
Cheers and always smiling
Rhonda

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