Stuart Aitken

I’ve not been a Personal Trainer (PT) for all that long.

In 4 months time I’ll have been in this industry for 3 years, which in the grand scheme of things really isn’t that long (I know a few who have been at it for over 15 years!).

Just because I’ve not been in this industry for a huge amount of time doesn’t mean I haven’t learnt a few things; things that other PT’s could benefit from hearing.

I remember my first ever PT session very well.

I was more nervous than Gareth Gates during his first Pop Idol performance.

Although it didn’t go quite as badly as the young Gareth’s performance did, I recall quickly thinking after the session “I actually know very little, and have a huge hunger for knowing more”.

Thankfully since that first session I’ve continually sought out courses, mentors and tried to improve a little bit each day as a person, which has improved every aspect of my career in a whole host of positive ways.

I really do wish I could have found some of the people who have helped me improve in the last 3 years before I had started personal training, which is exactly why I’m writing this blog post.

I’m 100% confident if you are new to this industry that there’ll be a few gems in here you can use to get a nice head start on where I was back when I started.

It’ll help you make less of the often-stupid mistakes I’ve made and it’ll help you help more people without as many of the client failures as I’ve had, which is probably the real reason you are actually in this industry; to help people.

So with that said, here are 15 things I wish I had known when I qualified as a personal trainer.


1. Your course has probably taught you very little, the learning starts now.


The table above that you can see shows something that every single person will feel at some stage in their life with regards to any skill. At first we are what is called “unconsciously incompetent” where we don’t know what we don’t know.

When you finish your Personal Training course you leave feeling ready and confident that you could help make Usain Bolt run the 100m faster with your expertise on programming supersets and knowledge of the hip extensor musculature.

Its like you’ve got unstoppable knowledge, and a certificate to prove it.

There are a few slight issues with this, with one being that the quality of PT education is incredibly sub-standard (something we at SBS are changing for the better with the Academy) meaning you finish your course and your knowledge level isn’t anywhere near the standard needed to help most people effectively.

Does it give you the tools needed to guide someone through an exercise programme?

100%. Most courses out there do, but does it give you the necessary tools to really help someone progress?

I really don’t think so.

The real learning starts when you actually start working with real people in a practical setting.

When you have to learn how to talk to people or you’ll never manage to gain financially from what you do, or when your client’s squat looks like a car crash, or when no matter what you say to your client they just don’t change – you’ll need more than your PT course has offered you.

Let me throw in here that as far as I’m concerned, this is all very much part of the PT apprenticeship every single one of us faces and the fact you are reading this blog post means you are most likely light-years ahead of where most of us start.

Taking your first steps into the scary world of PT? There are only 31 spaces left on the SBS Academy this intake – don’t miss out on a place!

I Want To Join The SBS academy


2. Flyers and business cards just aren’t all that important.

I spent over £200 on flyers and business cards just after I qualified, which was a lot of money to justify when money was already tight.

Money that could have been spent on books, courses or even Facebook ads.

I’ve never gained one bit of business from a flyer, or from a business card.

Could they have both been improved upon which would have increased the chance of them being effective?

Yes absolutely, however if I could go back to just after I’d started I wouldn’t have spent the money I did on either of those things.

It’s just not necessary, and your time and money could be spent in much better places.


3. Be client-centred.

I spoke about this heavily during my last blog post on client retention (here), and its something I wish I’d known more about during my first few months as a trainer.


As I lost my fair share of clients due to being philosophy-centred.

Basically this means I prioritised my views on things instead of what the client wanted from their workouts, and this does not fall in favour of clients wanting to stick around.

The most important part of any trainer/ client relationship is the trainer being willing to relax their views on things and be orientated towards supporting the client, even if that sometimes means doing things that aren’t inline with how the trainer supports themselves.

A few quick examples of this are:

  • Not offering sample meal plans to clients who could do with the guidance
  • Training the client how you train yourself
  • Not encouraging enough autonomy into your training sessions because you don’t want them knowing enough to leave you.


4. Good socks are a must.

I had to throw in one of two points like this, but seriously – don’t scrimp on good socks as you’ll have days where you’re on your feet for 8+ hours; good socks are an absolute necessity.

Believe me on this one, I learnt it from Jon Goodman who just so happens to know a thing or two about Personal Training!


5. Learn anatomy, then learn it again.

I remember passing my anatomy exam by 1 point and thinking “oh well, I’ll never need that again anyway” and oh how wrong I was.

Knowing your anatomy is the basis of creating not only effective training programmes and becoming client-centred (as it means you can tailor exercises to the clients wants), but it also allows you to get a greater grasp for being able to critically think about different exercises and working around injuries.

Got a client who loves training their glutes and hamstrings?

How do you create a session that works the hamstrings in not only the sagittal plane (seated leg curls), but also the frontal and potentially transverse? And then how could you manipulate the variables of hypertrophy to get a ‘glute pump’ going?

Understanding anatomy in depth allows you to do this.

Although this last point I’m about to make doesn’t necessarily mean anything objective – we all know correlation doesn’t equal causation – however it still stands true that almost every single well respected fitness professional (Eric Cressey, Mike Boyle, Bret Contreras, Brad Schoenfeld, Will Levy etc) knows their anatomy incredibly well.


6. Communication skills are worth their weight in gold.

The ability to not only talk to someone, but also to be able to sit and listen, and respond in an understanding and empathetic manner are again fundamental to long-term success as a trainer.

At times you’ll not only be the trainer who coaches clients through exercise, but you’ll be a borderline councillor (caveat here – be clear on your scope of practice) and at times your ear will be more important to the client than your knowledge of deadlifts and fat loss.

This is where good communication skills are incredibly under-valued.

Where do you learn more about this kind of thing?

Start by paying attention to what the client says and actually listening to understand the client, not to simply get your next sentence in.

I’d also recommend checking out The Art of Communication on Facebook. Cathy, who runs the page, has been insanely good for helping me progress in this side of my business.

This Ted talk is also a very good place to start.


7. Understand how to progress and regress every exercise you choose.

You’ll work with clients who can squat ass-to-grass on day one, and you’ll work with clients who can’t squat to parallel no matter how many mobility drills and external cues you use.

Having the ability to regress an exercise, or progress it from the position it’s currently in, is incredibly important for helping find the right exercise for each client you work with.

An example of this might be where you have a push-up as one of your pressing exercises and instead of just having it as a plain old push-up, you have one progression and one regression which could look as follows:

1st level pushup (easiest) – incline pushups on a smith machine

2nd level pushup (middle) – lower the angle of the bar

3rd level pushup (hardest) – use a band to help with assistance at the bottom of the pushup

This can also become a nice retention tool to help get the client excited about being able to progress up the movement continuum, and want to continue training. If on day one they are doing push-ups off a high incline, and by week 6 they are using a band to do full ones, it’s a nice clear way for them to see how they are progressing.


8. Don’t neglect your family and friends.

This point might surprise a few people, but I think every single PT out there would agree it’s something we fall victim too.

I’ve gone months without seeing friends and family, and usually its justified in my head because “I’m busy”, in fact my Dad now barely comes up to where I live because I told him so often I was too busy to do anything – bad, I know.

These people are your rock, your support network; don’t neglect them, as they are incredibly important to not only your happiness, but also your health.


9. Lifelong learning.

As I mentioned in point one, at times I think we hit points where we think we know it all, and that’s there’s very little else we need to learn about.

This is nonsense.

There really is insane amount of information out there for us all to be learning about.

Learning about other things in other industries helps keeps you fresh and it expands your thinking processes, and helps keep out confirmation biases which are easy to obtain.

I can’t recommend both Lift The Bar and the SBS Academy enough for advancing your learning in the fitness industry, as well as books by Eric Helms, Alan Aragon, Brad Schoenfeld and Nick Tumminello.

Taking your first steps into the scary world of PT? There are only 31 spaces left on the SBS Academy this intake – don’t miss out on a place!

I Want To Join The SBS academy


10. Be the man/woman you would let your sister/brother date.

Professionalism is an incredibly valued character trait to have, and people really do appreciate it.

Being on time for client sessions, doing what you say you are going to do, dressing and smelling appropriately, keeping your own problems at home and treating the client respectfully are all things you SHOULD be doing every single day.

Nobody likes someone who lacks professionalism, and our industry is no different.

Make sure you put being professional at the top of your priorities with anyone you work with.


11. Your own training will probably suffer.

I remember being told this by another trainer I worked next to, and thinking “no way! I love my own training far too much to let it slip”.

He ended up being right, and I’ll be honest and say I’ve made very little real progress in the last 2 years worth of training.


Honestly its because I’ve prioritised other things, and my own training often ends up being 4th or 5th down a line of other things I need to do, and quite often actually want to do.

Could I have prioritised my own training and exercise regime more?

Yep, and lots of other successful trainers do, but I know so many PT’s who have also found this to be true.

I think it’s got a lot to do with wanting to do other things, and not wanting to be spending what could end up being most of your working life in a gym environment.

My only bit of advice for this would be to:

  1. Not beat yourself up about it
  2. Employ someone to keep you accountable if it becomes that much of an issue (I did this for a while and did gain a lot from it!).
  3. Do more when you can. By this I mean during more stressful work periods, train less and vice versa.


12. When you first meet a potential client, listen.

This feeds nicely into what I mentioned in point 6 about communication.

When you first meet a potential client, ask an open-ended question that encourages more than just “yes” or “no” (like “tell me about you”, or “describe what your previous weight loss attempts have felt like”) and spend the next however long the client talks listening intently to what they say.

A consultation or initial meeting is your opportunity as a trainer to not only show a client you know what you’re talking about (this is rarely a reason a client will buy from you anyway), but to also spark up a connection with this person.

“A connection creates a bridge to allow the transfer of information” – basically, creating a connection allows you to get across to the potential client why their life will be benefitted with you in it.

It should not be spent with you rabbiting on about how great you are or how much knowledge you’ve got about training or nutrition, it should be spent getting to know that client so that you can start mapping out a journey that is all about them succeeding.


13. Leave your own issues at home.

I’ve made this mistake a couple of times, and it never, ever ends well.

Clients come to you to improve their life, not take on more problems.

It does not matter how severe the matter (if its that bad, cancel – they’ll understand), if you’re in a session with a client do not bring your own issues to that hour.

If you can’t bring 100% to each session you are either doing too many sessions – where service quality is dropping – or you need to change your mind-set to one that oozes enthusiasm before you start a clients session.


14. Principles over methods.

“Methods are many, principles are few. Methods may change, but principles never do” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Principles, which are things like creating progressive overload in a training programme or a calorie deficit during the dieting process, are the fundamentals.

They are the things that will rarely change, and they allow you to become sceptical of a person or company who may claim they’ve got a method that changes the principle (like weight loss without a calorie deficit, or tri-sets being the key to hypertrophy).

A method is something like supersets during a training session, or increasing vegetable intake – both of these things can be tools that can be utilised to give a positive effect, but they are not the fundamentals that need to be in place for a client to succeed.


15. LTB.

This is without a doubt the most beneficial thing I’ve done since I completed my PT course; joining Lift the Bar Fitness Mentoring.


I’ve got access to 400+ other trainers, some of who are at the top of the industry and are within a Facebook posts distance away from being able to answer a question I’ve got.

It gives me a support network of other PT’s who have the same issues that I have, and allows me to share the struggles and progress that I have on a day-to-day basis.

We’ve had local meet-ups, loads of educational seminars, webinars and numerous meals out, and I’ve met people I now regard as incredibly close friends from it.

I joined LTB for the learning opportunities and have stayed for the community aspect, which is now a huge part of not just my progression as a PT, but as a person.


I could have quite happily added another five points to this list, but I didn’t want it going on for too long to ensure the information is actually digestible for you. The 15 points I’ve listed are not necessarily the most important, nor are they universal to all personal trainers as this list is 100% individual to my experiences. With that said I have had this proof read by 3 other successful PT’s, all of who agreed with everything that’s on this list so there should definitely be a few things you can use and apply to build a happier, more successful personal training career.

Hey – if you’re a PT and disagree with any of my points, or feel there are more important ones please send me a message on Facebook or throw a comment onto the end of this blog post, I’m always very keen to here about other trainers experiences!