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The Inside Track

Personal training is a great first fitness career

By Jessica Lawson – Army Times

Clint Phillips gets paid to do what he loves — working out.

The 46-year-old former Air National Guard staff sergeant is a Chicago-area personal fitness trainer who has helped many clients build biceps while on his way to establishing a successful exercise business.

Phillips went from being a $15-an-hour personal trainer for a health club to employing 14 trainers, operating 20 Web sites to attract clients and commanding an hourly rate of $70 to $80 over the course of his decade-long career.

Best of all? Phillips said it's the best job he's ever had. "I love what I'm doing now," he said.

If you're like Phillips and think there's no "work" in working out, consider an after-military career in the exercise industry. The military's emphasis on discipline and staying in shape makes former service members ideal candidates for careers in fitness, where those qualities also are crucial to success, said Richard Cotton, an exercise physiologist and the national director of certification for the American College of Sports Medicine.

What's more, the job outlook is bright. Employment is projected to rise 27 percent through 2016 — much faster than the projected average of 7 percent to 13 percent for all occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And as Phillips' career demonstrates, becoming a certified personal trainer is a great start toward a lifelong career in fitness.

Personal training 101

Personal trainers work one on one with clients to help them achieve their physical fitness goals. Some trainers earn credentials through self-paced study for a certification test. Others learn through one-year certificate programs at colleges or pursue bachelor's or advanced degrees in exercise science, physical education or kinesiology (the study of muscles).

Cotton recommends at least an associate degree.

"Just because you are an exerciser all your life doesn't mean you are going to be a good trainer," said Fabio Comana, exercise physiologist and spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise. "There are so many things that the education teaches you that the experience doesn't."

The most crucial step in starting a fitness career quickly, however, is becoming certified. There's no law requiring it, but most employers require their fitness instructors at least to be working toward certification, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The industry's certification process is self-regulated. Most legitimate fitness organizations such as the American Council on Exercise, American College of Sports Medicine and the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association — the fitness industry's largest nonprofit trade organization — recognize certifications accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies.

Certification lasts two years, and trainers become recertified by attending continuing education courses and conferences.

Personal training is a good start toward other fitness careers, Comana said, including strength and conditioning coach, fitness manufacturing and sales and wellness coach.

Benefits and misconceptions

Becoming a personal trainer may hold much allure for people who want flexibility — including the ability to set their own work schedules — in their civilian careers.

But flexibility has limits, Comana said, because trainers work at their clients' mercy. Not a morning person? You'll still hit the gym at 5:30 a.m. if you're training an early bird. And because most fitness centers are open long hours, personal trainers often work nights and weekends and even occasional holidays.

Further, you may not be able to support a family on a gym employee's pay of about $10 to $20 an hour, Cotton said. Personal trainers who contract with fitness centers and set their own hourly rates earn a lot more, as Phillips' example demonstrates.

Phillips and his trainers work from clients' homes or one of the seven gyms around Chicago with whom he has an arrangement to pay a "head fee" in exchange for permission to train his clients in their facilities.

He'd originally looked into opening a gym. "But the cost analysis didn't really make sense," Phillips said. "It might be a long-range goal someday."

Model for success

Phillips' career is a textbook example. He earned a bachelor's in biological sciences from the University of Illinois at Chicago before deciding fitness was his passion. But it was his vision for the company that made his career a true success.

"When people get into personal training, they really don't look beyond five years," Comana said. "It's fun for someone in their 20s and 30s, but you might not want to do it in your 40s and 50s.

"I always tell people, `Start thinking. Create your vision statement. Where do you want to be five or 10 years from now? Start working toward that.' "

3 skills every trainer needs

Personal trainer and Air National Guard veteran Clint Phillips says to focus on three important skills if you want to succeed in business as a personal trainer.

• Training skills. You need solid exercise techniques to teach clients. But you also need to be able to lead, instruct and motivate others.

• People skills. The best trainers are friendly, outgoing and likeable. "If you are a good trainer but you are boring, people aren't going to stay with you," Phillips said.

• Business skills. There's a trick to finding the proper balance between serving clients and keeping down costs, which can require some innovative approaches to doing business. For Phillips, that meant attracting clients via the Web.  

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