What PTs wish they'd known before qualifying

Personal trainer qualifications: everything you need to know about becoming a PT

Posted by for Strong Women

Thinking about whether to turn your fitness hobby into a side-hustle or not? Here’s what three brilliant female personal trainers wish they’d known before taking the leap, and their top advice for making it in the industry. 

So, you’re thinking about training to be a PT. You’ve caught the fitness bug, realised the magic of getting stronger and worked out how to make progress yourself – turning that hobby into a side-hustle is the obvious next step. You’ll get paid for doing what you love while helping people in the process. If you’re spending your spare time working out, you might as well get paid to do so, right?

“Being a PT is something I don’t even consider as ‘work’,” says Sammy Harper, founder and head trainer of Blitz by Harper. “I wake up every day excited to coach my clients and feel really grateful that I get to make a difference to so many people’s lives.” Who wouldn’t want that feeling? But what exactly does being a professional trainer entail and what should you know before taking the plunge? And, arguably more crucially, is it worth trying to monetise your passion or turn it into a career? We asked three top female personal trainers to share the things that they wish they’d known before qualifying, to help you decide whether becoming a PT is right for you.

1. No one “looks” like a PT

“Before I became a PT, I wish I had known that it was absolutely OK to be myself! I know that sounds crazy, but I definitely felt like I didn’t belong in the industry because I wasn’t 6ft tall and a size 6 with shredded abs and a thigh gap,” says Laura Hoggins, PT, author and director of The Foundry. Known as “Biceps”, Laura’s made her name as one of the most energetic advocates for strength training in the country – whether that’s in her addictive strength class on FIIT, in her book (Lift Yourself) or at Foundry. Her style is instantly recognisable; it’s all about the energy and gains. “Being true to myself and my training identity has been the biggest reason for my success.

As a teen, Laura wanted to be a PT but the lack of body diversity in the industry meant that she couldn’t see herself in that space. “I didn’t have the balls (or the tits!) to go for it but after a decade following a corporate career in the bank, I have managed to create my own lane in the fitness industry and I am proud to stand for every woman and man who wants to get strong no matter what their experience or body type.” She says that there’s still a common myth that “you need to be all shredded and orange and lick broccoli and only drink black coffee to be a PT,” and it’s that assumption which puts more people off thinking about qualifying. “Yes, I do believe as a PT you need to have experience of training consistently for a number of years, and understand what it personally takes to reach your goals, but I think your delivery style and application of knowledge is more important than getting a PB every week on your 5k!”

Ellie Crawley is a coach and the founder of FeelFit and she’s convinced that “anyone can be a personal trainer” because there’s “no look, size, shape or level of fitness that means you can’t do it.” In fact, she says that the industry is crying out for more “real PTs” who can help to break the prescriptive narrative of what it means to be a trainer. “As long as you study, continue to learn and develop yourself as a trainer, then you can do it. Different types of training require different skills and levels of fitness.”

2. Finding the right course is key

One of the most important things is finding a reputable course that’s going to offer you proper support and give you a solid background from which to work.

When I was looking into training as a PT, I wanted to find a course that had as much in-person contact time as possible because I learn way better in a classroom than I do in my bedroom. If you’re looking to qualify post-Covid, then Ellie also advises trying to find a course that’s in person rather than online “as hands-on experience is really important” but it really is down to what suits you. Laura, on the other hand, suggests that the most important factor is having as much contact time with tutors online and offline as possible. “There are lots of ways that you can learn but the opportunity to debate and question the science is key,” she explains.

To become a PT, you need to have a Level 2 Gym Instructor qualification and a Level 3 Personal Trainer Diploma, so first things first, you need to find a company that offers both. Sammy advises looking at what different qualifications qualify you to do and writing down what it is that you want from a course (eg extra student support, nutrition courses, live seminars, installment payment plans). “I’d look for providers that offer combined courses (Level 2 and 3 at the same time) and are accredited by one of the major awarding bodies such as the YMCA and Premier Global Training

“Another thing to take into consideration is the cost of different courses. It’s good to know that most providers offer instalment payments with 0% interest, which I think is a great route to go down. Initially, PT courses might seem expensive but they are a great investment for your personal growth, your career and your future self.”

3. Formal qualifications < practical experience

It goes without saying that qualifications are essential. They’re the things that’ll probably get you through the door of a gym for an interview or allow prospective clients to have some faith in your methods because they prove that you know the science behind the practice and that you’re well-versed in the safety aspects of fitness. However, qualifying is just the beginning when it comes to becoming a great PT. Nothing can replace the experience you get from working on the gym floor, Laura points out, whether that’s shadowing a coach or a mentor or getting stuck in with helping out with clients or classes. “As a personal trainer, I commit to forever being a learner.” Remember that once you qualify, there are an infinite number of courses you can do to further hone your skills and expand your knowledge.

While she was doing her qualifications, Sammy got a job as a receptionist in a gym and asked to shadow other coaches. She also offered free sessions to friends and family to gain experience. “Everyone goes into the industry with the same qualifications – it’s the steps you take after that count.”

4. Work out your commitments

Interestingly, if you love training and want to spend more time doing so, then becoming a PT might not actually be the best use of your time. Laura points out that “the busier you get as a PT, the less time you have to train,” meaning that it’s worth distilling what exactly it is you love about fitness – is it physically training or is it about helping others to get stronger?

5. It’s OK to find things difficult

When I turned up to my PT training class on the first day, I felt confident that the material would be totally manageable – I knew how to workout! The reality was so different; there’s so much science behind everything you learn in the gym and if you’re looking to qualify a decade on from doing GCSE Biology, then the level of knowledge required can feel quite daunting. PTs (at least those who are Level 3 or 4) know a lot; they might not go into detail when taking you through certain moves but that’s because they’re distilling complex information about myofibrils and adenosine triphosphate into simple, actionable information. 

Ellie says that because she loved learning about movement and the human body, she didn’t find it hard – the tricky stuff came after she’d qualified when she was trying to find her own training style. Remember that it’s OK to find things challenging and that just because certain aspects might be tricky, that doesn’t mean that it’s not right for you.

6. It’s an emotional job

Ellie says that she wishes she’d known just how rewarding being a PT would be. “It takes a lot of time, energy and commitment to others but it is so worth it – I just wish that I had done it sooner!” She calls it “the most rewarding job” she’s ever had because of the way helping others get strong and confident makes her feel. “I haven’t always been into fitness – in fact, if you had told me at school this is what I would be doing and loving so much, I’d have laughed.”

6 tips for all prospective PTs

  1. Get a mentor. Ellie advises finding someone from whom you can observe, shadow and learn – but leave the comparisons at the door. “Don’t compare yourself to someone who has been in the industry for years! Just follow your path and you will find the right people.”
  2. Be prepared to work hard. “You only get out what you put in,” Sammy reminds us. “Prepare to hustle hard and work for what you want.” That means taking the time to stand out from the crowd with a can-do attitude and infectious energy.
  3. Spend time at the gym. Sounds obvious but Laura says “it’s important to spend time in an environment that you love and at a gym that aligns with your values and training identity.”
  4. Develop your toolkit. It might be tempting to get super geeky straight away, especially if you know certain things have worked for you but the key at the beginning is to keep things simple. “Keep it simple, assess your clients comprehensively, work on the basics and concentrate on building from there,” Laura says.
  5. Keep on learning. As Laura says, becoming a PT is committing to be a life-long learner. She’s currently doing a CPD course in corrective exercise to understand the overlap between the work PTs and physios do – when to refer clients and how to facilitate their rehab. As the science develops, the best PTs will keep on reading up on what they need to know and what new insights come out that may benefit their clients.
  6. Stay in your lane. That means knowing what your brand is and sticking with it. “At the Blitz, I make sure that everything I offer is based around my ethos and what I stand for – it’s too easy to get caught up in what other trainers are doing and offering, but your clients are buying into you and what you have to offer so make sure that it’s true to everything you stand for.”

Ready to really challenge yourself? Have a go at one of the SWTC training plans. Choose your level and get stronger today than you were yesterday!

Images: Getty

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Miranda Larbi

Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.

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