Global Change and Human Capital in the Fitness Arena

An Industry on the Brink of Substantive Change

By Phil Kaplan


PART III - Human Capital

(click here for Parts I & II)

Three Choices

    1. Interviewing in an attempt to hire personal trainers. 
    2. Handcuffing myself to an angry pitbull  
    3. Living for 6 days and nights on nothing but olives (I hate olives).  

If those were my options, believe it or not I’d have a difficult time deciding which one to choose. 

There are few things I dread, few things that make me want to curl back up in bed and wander back off to dreamland, but whenever I’m faced with the prospect of mining human capital within the fitness field, I gravitate toward my pillow and the fetal position.  Don’t take this wrong.  I love trainers.  I love people who aspire to be great trainers.  I just hate the fact that so many people without qualification, without credential, without fitness passion, and without a genuine concern for others believe that the leap to “fitness professional” requires nothing more than an interview.

Still, if I am going to continue to build my team, there must be some form of scrutiny, some form of digging through the dust to find the gold.  That’s why I leave my pillow behind and head into the lion’s den, in the hope I’ll find some talent shining through.

The Hooter’s waitress who takes aerobic classes thought she was qualified when she saw the ad I ran for “certified, experienced personal trainers.”  The stable worker who is muscular and loves working with horses thought the transition to working with human beings would be simple.  The construction worker who works out five days a week, benches 365, and was tired of working in the Florida sun was certain he’d be first on my “hire this person immediately” list. 

If these people are actually reading the ads prior to calling . . . then maybe the personal training industry has not yet matured to a level where the general populous sees it as a true career path.  Maybe the waitress, the stable hand, and the construction worker honestly believed they were as professional, as experienced, and as competent as anyone would have to be to wear a shirt that says “Personal Trainer” across the back in big bold letters.  Maybe the term “fitness professional” still needs to be defined.   

Maybe, although we, the working trainers who have amassed education, validation, and experience, understand the virtues of a credible certification, the trainers-at-large believe any interaction with exercise waives the need for what one candidate boldly called, “a dumb old certificate.” 

Here’s the scary part.  I’m in the market again.  I have openings to fill as does my colleague, Juan Carlos Santana.  In a preliminary effort to narrow the field of applicants, Juan Carlos and I joined forces.  We sent an email to individuals who had expressed interest in working with us, and we subsequently spent two days conducting 10-minute interviews on the phone.  By the 15th interview we were punchy.  By the 24th I saw tears in the corners of Carlos’ eyes.  By Interview #29 we simultaneously screamed so loud I’m surprised the windows didn’t shatter.  It’s good we stopped shortly thereafter.  The men in white coats were starting up their engines getting ready to bring two fitness nuts into the loony ward. 

The screening process was grueling.  That’s when the brainstorm hit.  If we’re looking for trainers who have the potential for greatness, trainers who deserve to be working side by side with others of an exceptional caliber, we can’t possibly reach out to them one at a time.  We decided to reach out, industry-wide, and conduct a massive hunt for excellence in motion, for passion that can be molded into success, for individuals with the desire to master the art of bettering people’s lives through fitness. 

As we pull together the specifics of The Personal Training Apprentice Hunt, I think there are two issues that need to be addressed if our field overall is going to mature to a level of indisputable professionalism: 

  1. Trainers Need to Mine Their Own Human Capital, to increase their worth to others and communicate their value to potential employers 
  1. Employers Need to Develop Strategies for Narrowing the Field  

In this article I’ll first address the trainers, then I’ll share a bit of my own evolution in refining the recruiting process in hopes it may benefit potential employers:


TRAINERS – leave your ego at home!

There are wonderful positions available for trainers, ranging from corporate wellness positions to highly visible members of highly skilled training teams.  There are a growing number of “apprentice” positions as successful trainers who built their own clienteles and opened their own studios seek to replicate themselves by hiring.  Ask any personal training entrepreneur at that point in his or her career what the greatest challenge is.  The answer is unanimous.  “Finding good trainers.” 

Accomplished trainers often mistakenly perceive a segment of the universe as the whole and never see the forest through the trees.  They never even have the opportunity to share their true talents with viable employers.  Let me explain. 

Throw a highly skilled fitness professional in the mix of trainers who secure positions with some of the major health club chains.  In many high-volume clubs, a few hours of interaction is enough to reveal that some of their trainers have flawed perceptions of their skill sets.  Watch a few less-skilled trainers for a given period of time and it’s easy to believe the entirety of the health club field compromises quality for quantity.  If you fall into the trap of believing that you’re exceptional because you’re more skilled than those in your field of vision, you run the risk of tripping over your own ego and falling into the pit of frustrated trainers who criticize their own field.   

Recognize that any position that facilitates interaction with people seeking positive physical change can serve as a step toward your ultimate growth, and rather than viewing the step as the platform, view it as a necessary foothold on your rise to the top.  With this perspective you’ll recognize that if you’re the best on a weak team, you’re standing on a springboard to placing you on par with trainers on an exceptional team, and exceptional teammates drive each other to continue to grow.  The challenge is, the exceptional team won’t find you.  You’ll have to hunt down the opportunities, and then present yourself as any applicant interviewing for any professional position. 

Locating the opportunities for employment is a necessary prerequisite, but additional preparation is advised.  Trainers often believe that their superiority shines through in conversation, and they assume that mastery of the approach they use in attempting to secure clients equates to adequate preparation for an interview.  When they are passed over for employment, they blame the organization for failing to see their talents.  In most cases, the trainers failed to allow their talents to shine through. 

When interviewing for a position, stifle that voice that continues to ask, “What’s in it for Me?”  It’s an important question, but it isn’t appropriate for the initial meeting.  The initial meeting requires that the potential employer view you as a competent contributor, not a greed-driven mercenary.  I’m amazed by the number of trainers who wear their arrogance on their sleeves by boasting about their achievements and their perception of their own value in a first interview. 

You can evaluate the “me” question after you’re offered a position.  Mission one, therefore, is to secure the offer.

Approach the interview with a brief summation of what you bring to the table in the way of talent, commitment, passion, and experience, but use that information to lead to a question with far more impact than the “me” question.  Ask “how can I contribute to your organization’s needs?” 

Practice presenting a balance between “here’s what I bring” and “here’s how I contribute” using a video recorder, then study the video objectively asking “how is this going to be perceived?” Ideally you’ll hone your presentation to 5 minutes that clearly shows you in the most flattering light. 

Present the marriage between your desire to help people and your awareness of how vital client attraction and retention are to the company.  While you “sell” clients based on your ability to convince them that you can deliver results, you “sell” employers by helping them see how your respective goals align. 

Trainers like to speak of “helping people,” employers are concerned with “the bottom line.”   

“Pay me to help people and I’ll do a good job,” fails to inspire most employers.  “Allow me to use my skills to attract and keep clients so you continue to prosper by thrilling people” is the language employers respond to.

In short, practice being at your best, recognize the interview as a humbling audition, and keep your ego in check.  The best teams have a healthy team arrogance mixed with a humble recognition of collective contribution.



If you’ve moved to a level where it’s time to start building your team, you might benefit from two strategies that allowed me to conserve my own time in seeking out allies. 

In recent years I’ve found greater success using online job portals ( then classified newspaper ads.  The online posting allows a preliminary screening step, an online response.  I’ve learned to consolidate my follow-up recruiting time by inviting those applicants who, based on their responses, appear qualified, to visit the facility to “fill out an application” between “10 AM and Noon” on a given day.  This allows me the luxury of a “non-interview” eyeballing.  I free myself up for those two hours without any scheduled one-on-one interviews, and when someone appears to fit the mold I’m looking for, I’ll enter a short conversation which may lead to “come on into the office so we can chat.”  I typically wind up with a handful of qualified candidates who I can invite back for 20-minute interviews.  Rarely will I hire before conducting four interviews, as I want to see beyond the fluff and get to know someone and fairly evaluate the match between the opportunity and the candidate. 

Another strategy that has worked well involved setting up in-house forums where the audience, by virtue of the fact that they’re attending, is made up of qualified trainers.  I’ve conducted a “build your personal training business” seminar, a 3-hour session for $39 and advertised it in the newspaper.  If 12 people show up, you have 12 people who, at the very least, saw value in investing something in building their career.  I tactfully announce that I have positions open, and invite anyone interested to fill out an application, but I’m also careful to deliver extreme value, even for those who haven’t interest in applying.  I’ve also managed to attract qualified audiences by bringing in outside speakers for events or workshops that would appeal to the type of personality and level of skill I’m seeking as well as by bringing in outside workshops for certification CEU’s (CEC’s). 

Finding qualified trainers is challenging, but when you find the right match for the right opportunity, you can have a massive impact on your growth potential.  Just don’t feel obliged to devote days, weeks, or months to getting caught in the revolving door of “candidates” who have interest without substance. 

Now Juan Carlos and I are about to begin a nationwide search for exceptional potential.  We hope before applying, our candidates will read this article, and we’ll keep you posted on the outcome!!!! 

Now, if you’d like to apply, don’t wait.  Become a candidate in The Personal Training Apprentice Hunt now!


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