For years, I used the words "coach" and "trainer" interchangeably. I didn't realize the difference until my first interview for a personal training job.

I fed the gym owner some cringe-inducing cliché like, "I was born to be a coach." He cocked an eyebrow and spurted, "What do you mean, 'coach'?" 

"I mean 'trainer'," I said, embarrassed. I got the job, and on day one I realized that, despite interning as a strength and conditioning coach, I had no idea how to be a personal trainer.

I'm still a rookie and learning the hard way every day. With this article, I don’t intend to peg myself as an expert or preach to trainers who are decades ahead of me in the industry. But maybe I'll help them reflect on the growing pains of being a young trainer and help other newbies avoid critical mistakes that could mean lost clients or lackluster results.

Mistake #1: Always being a cheerleader

I hit the gym floor hell-bent on being the most upbeat trainer since Richard Simmons. Turns out showering potential clients with praise isn't only annoying – it’s also bad for business.

Don't get me wrong. Being unapologetically positive is the only way to be a great trainer. There's no excuse for using negative reinforcement with a client. Basic training, yes. Powerlifting gym, OK. Personal training, never. But being overly complimentary can give clients the impression that they don't need you.

Trainers understand the importance of the free evaluation. It gets clients in the door without a financial commitment and gives the trainer a chance to prove his or her value. Ideally, the trainer wows the client with knowledge, charms them with a bubbly personality and seals the deal with a big sale. Little did I know that constantly telling my would-be clients how awesome they are was actually pushing them away.

Every time I told someone their shoulder flexion range of motion was "almost perfect" or their squat pattern was "the best I've ever seen," I was reinforcing the notion that they didn't need my services. Why would they pay for a personal trainer when that trainer was already singing their praises? 

Now, still cheerfully point out a potential client's strengths, but don't downplay their weaknesses. If a client understands that their hip tightness or knee instability can lead to injury and you know how to fix it, they're much more likely to hire you than if you just tell them they’re amazing and call it a day.

The Fix: Don't sweep constructive criticism under the rug, especially when establishing credibility during an evaluation. Be upbeat and positive, but save your loftiest praise for big moments, like personal records or mastering difficult exercises. .

Mistake #2: Training everyone how I train myself.

Science is pretty black and white. All in all, the human body still reacts to exercise the same way it did thousands of years ago.

So even though I may know what works according to scientific research, the best methods in the lab won't do a damn thing if my client doesn't buy into what they're doing.

I know that strength is the foundation for all other fitness goals, and I've reaped the benefits from years of powerlifting. But if a client hates lifting heavy, it won't matter how much I tell them it works.

I know that steady state cardio is inferior to high intensity interval training for fat loss. But if a client loves jogging because it makes them feel good and hates sprinting because it makes them want to puke, I have to rethink my approach. I need to dig into my toolbox for methods that will help them reach their goals without making them hate every second of exercise.

The Fix: Find a mode of exercise that excites the client and accomplishes their goal. It doesn't matter if it's the single best method out there. If the client is consistently motivated and engaged, you're doing your jo.

Mistake #3: Writing programs to impress other trainers

The beauty of personal training is the personal part. We get to evaluate every client and write individualized programs tailored to their goals. But too many trainers write programs with the intention of impressing other trainers. 

Your client's goals must be at the forefront of your mind during the entire program-writing process. But back in the day, when my confidence was lacking and I felt I had to prove myself to everyone, I often thought, "What would Mike Boyle think of this program? Would Eric Cressey approve? Do Charles Poliquin's clients train like this?" 

Not only would these top-notch trainers never see my programs, but my clients weren't getting the best service possible because I wasn't keeping their goals front and center. 

So what if trainer X hates a certain exercise or trainer Y thinks gluten causes global warming? They haven't evaluated your client. And I guarantee your client won't be impressed with your fancy periodization scheme or your multi-vector loading approach if they don't get results. 

The Fix: Simpler is almost always better. Count on results to impress people, not the complexity of your programming. 

Mistake #4: Not assigning homework sooner

Sometimes we forget that not everyone lives and breathes fitness. We shudder at the thought of missing workouts, but in reality, our clients often struggle with simply showing up. And try as we might to motivate our clients to exercise on their own, it takes more than just a verbal commitment to make exercising a habit. 

I used to merely suggest on-your-own workouts. I didn't want to be too pushy or scare clients away. I used soft phrases like, "If you have time," or "When you get a chance." 

Now, at least once a week, I’ll assign homework to each client on a personalized printout, broken down into categories for exercise, nutrition, supplementation, sleep and stress management. Assignments are simple and progressive. And I always deliver homework with the assurance that it will help them reach their goals faster.

I immediately saw in increase in client retention. Suddenly, I carried more authority and gained more trust with my clients because I'd shown them that I cared about them beyond the two to three hours a week we spent together. 

The Fix: Give homework immediately, but make your assignments simple and manageable. This holds clients accountable, and small, frequent successes will build your clients' confidence. 

Mistake #5: Internal vs. external cueing 

What we say matters, but how we say it matters more. No client ever fit into a bikini because of your dissertation on excess post-exercise oxygen consumption. 

When I first started training, I always coached people with complicated internal focus cues, telling them to move their body from an anatomical standpoint. Every body part was moving in relation to another body part. This gets confusing fast. 

Nick Winkelman, the director of education at EXOS, has done phenomenal research on the superiority of external cueing, which teaches us how to move in relation to things outside our body. Clients catch on exponentially faster with external cues. For example:

Exercise: Squat
Internal cue: Push your knees out
External cue: Spread the floor with your feet

Exercise: Bench Press
Internal cue: Tuck your elbows
External cue: Rip the bar in half

Exercise: Deadlift
Internal cue: Push through your heels
External cue: Drive the floor away from you

An advanced client with high body awareness may understand internal cues, but the average client who doesn't know their gluteus maximus from their medial epicondyle will "get it" much faster with external cues. 

The Fix: Use concise, memorable external cues. Keep a list of your best cues so you can refer back to them. 

Live and Learn
We can't avoid mistakes entirely, but we must learn from each one. Our mistakes often mean our clients don't reach their fitness goals, so use the lessons from my mistakes to make the personal training experience even more fulfilling for your clients. 

Tony Bonvechio, MS, CSCS, is a personal trainer in Providence, Rhode Island and an intern at Cressey Performance. A former college baseball player turned powerlifter, he earned his Master's degree in Exercise Science from Adelphi University. Read more from Tony at


How much of your time would you estimate you spend growing your business?