In the world of fitness there are many ways to contribute to the lives of the participants and matching the role you are most passionate about with the clients who need this type of help will open the doors to your most satisfying career. Sadly the opposite is true, choosing to work with clients who do not need your specific type of help will result in a boring and short career as a fitness professional.
First things first, fitness professionals serve as proxies for their clients. When a client doesn’t know the proper way to move, they connect with a trainer who knows how to move. When a client doesn’t have the appropriate nutritional habits, they’ll connect with a coach who knows the proper food and ways to eat. When a client doesn’t have the needed will power to sustain regular workouts, they connect with a coach who will act as their will power, being collaboratively forceful to get the client to do that which they lack the will to do on their own. If a client is unwilling to commit to a better future, a trainer will get their commitment by selling them a block of training. When a client gets caught-up in their stories, a coach will give them a different perspective and help them separate the truth from the fiction within the story.
Given that we act as proxies for our clients and that we have a particular passion / ability, we cultivate long gratifying careers when we are able to be passionate proxies to our clients. For example, if we love coaching movement, particularly foundation movement, we’ll be most satisfied when our work is made-up of coaching newer trainees who are open to the coaching and highly motivated to adapt. We’ll be less satisfied coaching high level athletes who know how to move efficiently and even less satisfied trying to get people to commit to a better future, as these clients have not yet agreed to be coached so there won’t be any movements to prescribe, watch, or correct. By the same token, those who love to help clients generate future possibilities will feel stifled if they spend their time engaging with people who have actually made the decision to move forward with training because these clients need movement coaching.
There is a life cycle with training spanning the range between non-trainee (A), thinking about it (B), beginner (C), intermediate (D), advanced (E), athlete (F), and relapsed non-trainee (G); this last group is distinct from the non-trainee group but only for a while – after a length of time those who are no longer working out become non-trainees.
It is not unusual for a trainer to enjoy working with people from a variety of these groups, to have a specific gift for one of them and to find the rest of them to be unappealing or exceptionally hard to work with. For example, there are similarities between B and G in that neither is actively working out BUT both are more open to it than someone who simply doesn’t do it (A). B and G just need to uncover the compelling reason why they need to start and they will begin. Person G might have achieved their initial objective and stopped why person B never found out what that objective was in the first place. The conversation with B and G will be very similar, while these conversations will have a completely different tone, feeling and intention than those with someone who has no interest in working-out or has not yet realized that they have a compelling reason to do so.
Training beginners is very different than training advanced participants, and while training advanced people has a lot in common with training athletes, athletes need more structure and planning in order for them to be in peak physical condition for their key performance dates. Athletes are very easy to train in terms of their motivation and willingness to do what they are told, a coach needs to be very specific with what they are telling them to do as there is very little room for error given that a small change in form will have a much larger impact in terms of performance.
Personally, I connect best with C and D, and moderately well with B. I have enjoyed training athletes but accept that there are better coaches for them than me, and I don’t have the innate patience to work with them effectively. I’m much better at getting people to move safely than I am at getting them to move specifically. I have coached weight lifting and power lifting and I don’t find it to be very appealing. However, I am very effective at getting someone to push themselves to their physical limit in a functional circuit or to dig a little deeper and cross into the realm of maximum intensity in a cycling class. I’m also much better at noticing and pointing out the tiny physical changes in terms of appearance or ability that are experienced during the first months of training than I am at analyzing the lifting numbers and determining an athletes rate of neurological adaptation.
All of this is to say that I am a great trainer for people who are just starting out and I am an effective sales person for those individuals who are on the fence about starting a workout program. I have the science background to design effective advanced programs although I do not have the passion or interest to take people through them on a regular basis. I just don’t engage high performance athletes because their training time is too valuable to be spent with me and my coaching time is too valuable to be spend with them. E.g. if they want to go to the Olympics or become a professional they should work with someone who is able to take the time to plot their course very specifically, while I am taking the time to move hundreds of people through the phases of not being sure they want to work out to not being sure they can work out to being sure they can work out to knowing what to do to get what they want, how intensely to do it and how to avoid injuries while doing it. When the fit is right, I LOVE what I do, just as my clients LOVE learning what they need to do, as well as what they CAN do – it will be a pure WIN:WIN. When the fit is wrong, I call my mistake and find them the right trainer. Even though no one is really losing, it is always better to exit break even situations and seek out a WIN:WIN.
Given that I like people and have a genuine curiosity about how they engage the world, it is common for me to have the enrollment conversation with people that I never end up training – either because they are a better fit with another trainer or because it was discovered that they didn’t actually want to work out and simply needed some perspective about life and their relationship with it. E.g. while most people would benefit from physical exercise, not everyone should set about trying to improve their body composition or improve their fitness. Exercise feels amazing for a lot of people who work out regularly – exercise of a specific duration and intensity will trigger the body to release reward chemicals that are pleasurable, reinforcing, and which have a positive impact on mood and psychological health. However, the intensity is rather high and the duration is relatively long, so triggering the release requires a baseline level of fitness that is fairly high. 15 minutes of movement at an average intensity of 82 percent may not seem like a lot, but anything above 80 percent is very close to breathless effort that is physically painful due to the accumulation of lactate. Until your body learns how to tolerate this discomfort, exercise is not going to be immediately pleasurable. So while the human being can be trained to make exercise feel fantastic in the moment, doing so is a skill that requires a lot of work that has all of the characteristics of suffering.
If working out is not for someone, it is better to find that out at the beginning and to completely avoid starting. Too often when a large training package is sold to someone who doesn’t actually want to improve their health and fitness, there is a large drop in the quality of their life because they are out the money, the time, they get nothing of value out of the workouts, they hurt physically, and in the end the entire experience has been a massive waste of resources. This doesn’t work for me because my main objective is to reduce suffering so if I convince someone to take a journey that they honestly don’t want to take, regardless of the long term potential health benefits, I have contributed to their perceived and actual level of suffering. It’s so much better to not start the journey than to begin one that doesn’t need to be undertaken.
I’m not saying that these people deserve to have a miserable life or that they do not deserve to enjoy the benefits of regular exercise and improved health and fitness. They do deserve to have an amazing life and reap whatever rewards they can. It is just that improving your health and fitness is hard work and not for everyone. It won’t necessarily make someone happy and in the end, the relapse rates for people who achieve a big fitness goal are very high. Feeling good and being happy are not the same thing, so when someone comes to me looking to become happier I’m going to take a straight line to the activities that lead to increased happiness and, for the record, working out and achieving a massive body transformation do not make miserable people happy in spite of the fact that they make the person feel fantastic.
In a way, I started off my career as a fitness professional believing something that wasn’t true and when I began to notice that people didn’t work the way I thought they did, I had to change my course. But what I learned during those fifteen years is useful, valuable and exactly what some people need. There is nothing to be gained by throwing it all away; the opposite is true, it is science and it is effectively instructions on how to engineer fitness. It’s knowledge and wisdom even though it was a mistake to believe that fitness is the same thing as happiness. Engineering happiness is a different science so I have had to learn it.
This means that I can work with a larger percentage of people, lead them to a couple of different outcomes – fitness and health and / or happiness and well-being – and direct them towards their actual desired path much more effectively than had I only one set of tools. This keeps the job interesting and it allows me to contribute to the positive life experiences of a larger number of people. Most importantly for me, I get to do what I am passionate about without having to convince people that they need something that they don’t. I have the freedom to work with the people I am best suited for and to actually reduce the suffering of both active and sedentary clients.
I will post the second part of this article, Finding Your Passion As A Fitness Professional, early next week.