Home Baseball Content Career Capital in the Fitness Industry: Part 2

Career Capital in the Fitness Industry: Part 2

Written on July 24, 2014 at 3:48 am, by Eric Cressey

In the first installment of this two-part article, I discussed why "Follow Your Passion" isn't usually very good advice in any realm, but especially in the fitness industry. In case you missed it, you can check it out: Career Capital in the Fitness Industry: Part 1.

To briefly bring you up to speed, author Cal Newport emphasizes that acquiring "rare and valuable skills" is far more important to long-term job satisfaction, as we're more likely to enjoy careers in which we are wildly proficient. These skills are known as "career capital," and we can "redeem" them for improved quality of life - whether it's better pay, more influence within a company, more flexible hours, working from home, or a number of different benefits. As Newport's title related, you need to be So Good They Can't Ignore You.


Newport's points got me to thinking about what "rare and valuable skills" one needs to be very successful in the fitness industry. I think it's a particularly interesting question, as there are a ton of people that make career changes to enter the fitness industry because (and these are just a few factors):

a) A lot of people love to exercise, so being around exercise all day seems fun.

b) It's perhaps the starkest contrast to a desk job, which many people abhor.

c) Wearing workout clothes to "work" sounds cool.

d) Fitness jobs generally provide more flexible hours, albeit it inconvenient times (you work while others play).

e) There is very little barrier to entry in the fitness industry; anyone can be a personal trainer TODAY, if they so desire.

While a lot of people are able to make enough to "survive"with this transition, it's a big stretch to say that a lot of people THRIVE. Folks who make a ton of money and have outstanding job satisfaction are few and far between.

Not surprisingly, a lot of people fall flat on their faces with this career change. It's usually that they can't get a sufficient, sustainable clientele off the ground, or that they just realize that the new career isn't what they expected it to be. What separates those who manage to succeed, though? Here are the "rare and valuable skills" I see as tremendously valuable for "sustainability"in the fitness industry.

1. Professionalism

This matters in any industry, but it's especially important in the fitness industry, where it's tremendously easy to differentiate yourself because there are so many remarkably unprofessional trainers out there. There are trainers taking calls on their cell phones during sessions, and others who refuse to wear sleeves while training clients. There are coaches who have been using the same program for 25 years, and others who are sleeping with clients. Heck, I once had an intern show up for his first day of work in a Miller Light t-shirt! You really can't make this stuff up. Call me crazy, but....

If you want to thrive as a fitness PROFESSIONAL, it's a good idea to actually act PROFESSIONALLY. Click To Tweet

Professionalism isn't something that comes in a day, though. I didn't really appreciate what it meant when I was just getting started in the fitness industry; my views on it have changed over the course of the past 15 years. Image - both your own and that of your business - evolves over time. As an example, it might start with showing up on time and looking the part early on in a career, whereas 15 years later, it might be making sure that your staff doesn't say anything stupid on social media to detract from your professional image. So, you could say that you're actually cultivating a specific kind of professionalism within the fitness industry - and no matter how good a person or hard a worker you think you are, it takes time to build.

2. Versatility

I think this might be the single-most important factor governing success in the fitness industry.

Being versatile enables you to make friends with introverts and extroverts alike. It helps you to work with kinesthetic, auditory, and visual learners. It makes you to be accessible over multiple communication medius: email, phone, text message, and Skype (to name a few). It assists you in managing different personalities on your staff, if you wind up in a leadership position. It makes evolving easier in a very dynamic field. It's what allows you to acquire new skills and become a bigger contributor to a team. One of our Cressey Sports Performance staff members, Chris Howard, is a great example. He can evaluate athletes, write programs and coach - but also has a master's degree in nutrition and is a licensed massage therapist. And, he can make friends with anyone. He's built versatility capital.


I should note: don't confuse versatility with trying to be everything to everyone. It just means that you'll be able to get better results underneath the specific umbrella where you're most qualified - and chances are that there will be more "umbrellas" under which you can choose to fall. Yes, you can redeem your versatility capital for the ability to pick what you enjoy doing (and that's what Chris has done at CSP).

3. Perseverance

Again, perseverance is important in any career, but it's particularly vital in the fitness industry, where you will have to pay your dues early on. This might include unpaid internships, brutally long hours (including the dreaded AM/PM split), and standing around on hard floors for 12 hours each day. And, you have to realize that in that last hour of the day, no matter how much your feet hurt and you want to go to sleep, you have to deliver the same quality product to clients.

This is why I always laugh on the inside when I hear an up-and-coming trainer complaining about having to work "floor hours" at a commercial gym. They don't realize that every single second they spend on that gym floor - even if they aren't actually training a client - is building a little toughness that'll sustain them over the long haul. It's better to build a callus (have plenty of exposure to being on the floor) than it is to develop a blister (jump into a training position cold turkey, only to wind up with knee and low back pain and a cranky demeanor by the end of your first day).

As an aside, I'll never hire anyone I hear complaining about old bosses or jobs....ever. If that's all that you can think of discussing during a job interview or in a cover letter, you have a negativity problem, lack the ability to walk a mile in another's shoes, and don't really understand how true learning and professional growth takes place.

4. Unique Expertise in a Specific Population

I'm a firm believer that the fitness industry is getting more and more "niched." Athletes are specializing earlier, and winding up with more "specialized" injuries that require specific preventative and rehabilitative training approaches. People are more overweight and unhealthy than ever, and it's given rise to entirely new industries. If you need proof, just consider how many more bariatric surgeries and hip replacements we are doing now than we did 20 years ago! The world is changing, and becoming more specialized. As the somewhat hackneyed saying goes, "generalists starve while specialists thrive."

Here's the problem, though: You have to be a good generalist before you become a specialist. Click To Tweet It takes years to acquire a skill set broad enough that you can select the areas where you're particularly proficient and leverage them to create a sustainable (and enjoyable livelihood). It's why doctors do residencies and fellowships after they've finished med school course work and clinical rotations! Nobody gets to go directly to a fellowship just because they have an undergraduate degree; they have to earn that right over time. Effectively, they're redeeming career capital to pursue a specialty.

Fitness works similarly. If you haven't taken the time to learn structure (anatomy), function, dysfunction, assessment, and programming in a broad group of clients/athletes, you'll never be prepared to handle a specific population. There is a right and wrong way to move, and you need to appreciate it before getting to how specific individuals deviate from it.

Once you get past this general education stage, though, you can really change the game. Candidly, most of the resumes I encounter for internships and jobs look very much the same. What jumps out at me is when something has a unique specialty that jumps off the page; they demonstrate that they have the potential to add instant value to our business. When they can do that AND fill an existing need we have, it's a great fit.

On our staff, Greg Robins is a great example. When he initially applied, I loved his military background, which made him an instant leader and someone that could oversee our internship program. He also had a track record of building successful bootcamp programs (and got ours off the ground at CSP).


Since then, he's gotten heavily into powerlifting, attended multiple Postural Restoration Institute courses, and taken a particular interest in hip dysfunction cases and sprint mechanics. He's expanding his skill set in particular realms without diluting the general foundation he'd established. You can't build a pyramid without a strong foundation, but once that foundation is in place, you can do some cool stuff - and cool stuff earns you career capital.

5. A Mental Library

If you haven't heard of Dr. James Andrews, you'd be wise to look him up. Suffice it to say that he's the most renowned sports orthopedist of all time.  I've been fortunate to interact with him at a few conferences and over the phone when he's provided second opinions on MRIs over the years, and he's as good a person as he is a surgeon. Dr. Andrews is widely renowned not only for his surgical skills, but also for his tremendous bedside manner and accessibility.

However, what I think is perhaps even more remarkable - and what makes Dr. Andrews such a sought-after consultant - is the fact that he has an absurd number of case studies compiled in his brain. No matter how ugly and atypical your shoulder, elbow, knee, or hip MRI is, he's probably seen 500 just like it over the years. He can speak to whether these issues respond to conservative treatment, and if so, what the best course of action is. If not, he can speak to whether surgery is warranted, and if so, what procedure is the right fit. You just can't get that with the small town orthopedic surgeon who does two rotator cuff repairs each year, and treated one ACL tear back in 2002. Interacting with a lot of people builds a lot of career capital in your memory "bank."

If you need any proof that being good at what you do is a great predictor of job satisfaction, Dr. Andrews is 72 years old and still going strong. I don't imagine that he needs the money at this point, and he actually does a lot of pro bono outreach work to try to combat overuse injuries in youth sports. Compiling and redeeming career capital put him in a position pursue this mission.

Again, there are parallels in the fitness industry. At risk of sounding overconfident, I get to interact with over 100 throwing shoulders/elbows every single day, so I've built a great sample size from which to draw over the past eight years.


Some trainers have seen dozens of post-pregnancy cases, cardiac/pulmonary rehab folks, or NFL Combine prep cases . The only way to acquire a fully loaded memory bank is to encounter a lot of people in a specific population.

Closing Thoughts

These are just five examples of where one can acquire career capital in the fitness industry - and there are certainly many more ways to do things. Additionally, under each one of these examples are many specific actions that can build to create a "wealth" of knowledge and experience - "rare and valuable skills" - that can someday surely be redeemed for a career you'll genuinely love. That same success and job satisfaction aren't guaranteed if you simply "following your passion," though, so be sure to take that advice with a big grain of salt.

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27 Responses to “Career Capital in the Fitness Industry: Part 2”

  1. Greg Justice Says:

    Terrific list Eric, and number’s one and three especially stand out. With the low entry barrier into our industry, we see a lot of bottom feeders, in a sense bringing our industry down…and some of the unprofessionalism is abhorrent. Perseverance seems to be lacking with many trainers, as they are willing to give up after just a few set backs. Thanks for sharing your list!

  2. Josh Heenan Says:

    Great piece Eric! “the dreaded AM/PM split” brings me back to my RFC days.

  3. Shaine Says:

    I don’t like how you say “If you haven’t heard of Dr. James Andrews, you’ve probably been living under a rock for the past 30 years.” That’s just outright insulting to your readers!

  4. Keith Washington Says:

    Hey,Coach Cressey. Thank you for writing this. As an up & coming PT/strength & conditioning coach (especially at an older age), it’s not easy finding a specific “niche” in an industry that seems to be growing by leaps and bounds. “Where do you fit it?” is always the biggest question and obstacle. Articles like this really help me to believe I’m on the right path. Also, looking forward to your first seminar in Jupiter. I will make sure to attend. CONGRATULATIONS, BROTHER!!!

  5. Olly Says:

    Thanks Eric, this is a fantastic post!

    These are amazing values to aim towards and severely lacking in the health & fitness industry.

    Nice to see that you can maintain professionalism and integrity, be an amazing coach and also be successful at the same time.

    All the best,

  6. Steven Craig Bryan Says:


    Your articles are outstanding and provide great insight. I’ve been in the fitness business for 30+ years and there has been a lot of changes and opportunities. I see a lot of young unexperienced trainers coming in to the business thinking about money and not the service they provide. They usually don’t make it because they don’t have the patience to learn the business and constantly learn. I think sometimes it’s to easy to get a certification. You created a great niche and provide others with your outstanding knowledge and for that you are to to congratulated. I hope this information inspires others.
    Thanks again for all your hard work.

  7. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thanks, Keith! Looking forward to meeting you soon.

  8. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thanks, Greg!

  9. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thanks, Olly!

  10. david Says:

    Hi Eric,

    I’m a psychologist (and CSP client) with a particular interest in how people develop “expertise,” so I find these posts of yours very interesting, lots of overlap with how I think about my own work, in fact. We should compare notes some time!

  11. Pablo Elorriaga Says:

    Awesome reading!! If I truly think about it… I can be better in all 5 items on this list ( specially perseverance )

  12. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thanks, David! Would love to discuss.

  13. Ray Says:

    Thanks for the excellent two-part post, Eric.

    Like Keith, I’m entering the field as an older guy, and I know full well how much education is still ahead of me. I’m making good use of the resources section of your web site, and looking around for a good gym and/or established pro in my area with whom to put in some grunt time. I’m more than willing to shut up, study, watch, listen and learn at this stage.

    Speaking to professionalism and versatility, you evaluated my post-op shoulder almost two years ago, and were as nice and down-to-earth a guy as you were knowledgeable and professional. My wing is better than ever now, and I credit you with helping me get there.

    Thanks again, sir!

  14. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thank you, Steven!

  15. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thanks, Ray! I appreciate the kind words – and I’m glad to hear that the shoulder is doing well!

  16. Eoghan o Kelly Says:

    Another great article Eric. But just like someone mentioned above about the Dr. Andrews mark, there is no need for it. I love your work and spend a lot on your resources which have helped me develop as a coach, but recently there are lots of these snide little remarks sneaking into your posts. A couple of weeks ago you slaughtered some poor guy for wanting to ‘talk shop’ with you. Fine, you may not like the email but putting it up online for him to berated by everyone is a bit much.

    Your a successful and intelligent man but stay humble, there’s always someone out there better than you.

  17. jeff bell Says:

    You never cease to amaze me! You speak well beyond your 15 years in the fitness industry. I’ve been slugging away for over 30 years and counting, have enjoyed tremendous recognition for specific niches’, trained hundreds of personal trainers in the NYC metro area fallen into obscurity opening my own studio and becoming a business owner. Rising again as a specialist training people with rare muscular disorders, and short, effective training systems with huge impact.

    These points are well versed to help emerging trainers understand that becoming a trainer is a process and exercise in patience, and your point of perseverance resonates powerfully today where everyone expects immediate results, and client handouts without putting in the legs of building a solid reputation of service and knowledge.
    These are the foundations of a skillful trainer and its these skill sets the can open the doors that put you in front of a diverse clientele.

  18. tim rudd Says:

    Thanks Eric,

    Your constant commitment to writing these articles and sharing your experiences is very inspirational. I’ve been following you for years now and you are very consistent with practicing what you preach. I’m very happy to have you as mentor and as a resource in helping me grow as a coach and a person. This article will definitely go a long way in helping me take my business to the next level regarding career capital. I’ve never thought of it this way and it makes total sense, and will change the way I move forward with my business. I’m going to start reading this book ASAP.
    This article has come at a very important time for me, as I was struggling with this thought process, I focus on being very passionate, but never thought about leveraging my career capital and tying into to the vision of my business and how I can use this to grow my current coaches and use it when hiring new ones.

  19. Nathan Jordan Says:

    Great tips on how to develop career capital. Like many trainers I got into the business because I loved to exercise, thought it would be fun, and was tired of doing what I was doing before. It is definitely a struggle at this point after being open for 3 and a half years. I am still a generalist. I want to be a specialist but I have yet to develop a true niche. I would love to be the go to place in Central Ohio for people who get hurt doing Crossfit but I am not good enough yet at rehab to be that person. I follow lots of experts though and will keep learning more every day.

  20. tim mercer Says:

    Thanks for helping out us NewB’s Eric! Solid article and much appreciated!

  21. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thank YOU, Tim!

  22. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thanks, Nathan. Don’t force the niche; it’ll happen when the time is right. Keep going after specific objectives and it’ll eventually come around.

  23. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thank you, Tim! Best of luck sorting things out.

  24. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thank you, Jeff! Sounds like you have some great experience from which you can speak! Keep up the good work.

  25. Eric Cressey Says:


    I’m sorry that you feel that way – and interpreted it as such. It was fully intended as a compliment to Dr. Andrews, not a shot at any of my readers. Nonetheless, I’ve revised the sentence to reflect that.

    As for the “talk shop” example, I actually emailed with that individual separately. The Facebook post was really just intended as a teaching moment that could benefit up and coming coaches with respect to getting their questions answered more efficiently.

    I think that if you met me in person and we chatted, you’d appreciate very quickly that being humble is something I hold in high regard and always try to practice. Unfortunately, sometimes, things might not come across perfectly in an online writing medium. Thanks for your feedback, though.

  26. Anthony Gillespie Says:

    Hey Eric, well done on writing pure sense as always. It is always good to have my thoughts on something confirmed by someone who is and has been living and breathing it. Inspirational and intelligent stuff mate. Well done as usual.

  27. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thanks, Anthony!

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