Being a Strength and Conditioning Coach can be an amazing experience. You can have a real positive impact on people’s lives and play a HUGE part in helping athlete’s dreams come true. You can wear sweatpants to work, you never have to pay for a gym membership and you can even travel the world with a sports team competing at the highest levels.
By becoming a Strength and Conditioning Coach, you give yourself the opportunity to do what you love and build your ultimate career success but because the upside is so great, there are a lot of aspiring coaches competing with you every step of the way. The good news is that 99% of them won’t go the extra mile to achieve the level of success that you want. So the window of opportunity is wide open as long as you are willing to work.
This guide will take you from an uncertified dreamer to world leader. No matter where you fall on the Strength and Conditioning career ladder, you will find everything you need here to rise above the rest.
Let’s start rising…
There are a whole lot of fitness certifications out there but the one you really want to zero in on here is the Certified Strength and Conditioning Coach (CSCS) from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). This is the gold-standard of strength and conditioning certifications. No matter what job you hope to attain down the road, this certification will pass the test. Many of the other certifications (NASM, ACE, NCSF, ACSM, etc.) won’t be strong enough to get you in the door for a lot of jobs.
At 4A Health, we recommend that everyone get their CSCS. It certainly is a more challenging cert to acquire but it is well worth it in the long run. The only higher-level certification that some professional teams require is the RSCC. The Registered Strength and Conditioning Coach (RSCC) cert is just an extension of the CSCS but if you don’t have the CSCS, you will shut yourself out of being able to elevate to RSCC status thus eliminating your ability to work with some of those higher level sports team (In professional baseball, you cannot work above Double-A without the RSCC)
If you are dead set on working in a private setting, you can opt to go for a less challenging route, but you never know where your career may take you. With the CSCS, all of your doors remain open. As you go down the certification ladder, you start closing doors and you never want to do that.
Getting a Job
I remember sitting at my parents’ house after getting my CSCS and wondering how in the world I was ever going to be able to get hired. I had big dreams of working in the NBA but couldn’t even get a call-back from local gyms. It seemed like everyone wanted to hire someone with experience but how was I supposed to get experience in the first place if nobody was willing to hire a newbie.
The first thing you must do is decide where you want to end up. In twenty years, what job do you want to have? What mountain are you climbing?
If you don’t know where you want to end up, you cannot possibly choose the right path to take.
DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP!
Take some time, sit in a quiet room and think about where you want to go. It’s ok to not know where you want to end up. Many coaches we work with here at 4A don’t know, but it is critical to your career growth to figure it out.
Once you have a destination in mind, you can start planning your route. Any job you take, you want it to be a step in the right direction. You can even make a step-by-step plan of how you are going to elevate yourself to your dream job.
Now that your plan is in place, it’s time to be proactive in your search. When I realized that I wanted to start my career in Minor League Baseball, I e-mailed every single Strength and Conditioning Coach in professional baseball.
Insiders Tip: Don’t ask for a job. Ask for advice on how to get a job. You’re not going to get hired because you sent an e-mail. Asking for advice on how to break into the industry shows initiative, hunger and respect. Most coaches who are hiring, just want someone who is going to work hard, this is a great start to showing you are a candidate to fit that bill.
After I sent out all of those e-mails, some coaches ignored me, some responded with some actual advice on how to break into pro baseball and some even gave me a job interview. As a result, I interviewed with the Philadelphia Phillies, New York Mets and Arizona Diamondbacks (ultimately choosing to accept a position with the DBacks).
The point is, be proactive. Don’t send out resumes and hope for the best. That’s a one-way ticket to mediocrity and that’s not what brought you to this guide.
To Get a Strength and Conditioning Job:
Decide what your dream job is. Where do you want to end up in 20 years?
Create a step-by-step plan of each job you want/need along the road to your dream job.
Be pro-active in the job search. Be respectful. Be relentless.
Internships are the single greatest way to get started on the road to your dream job. The higher you want to climb, the more free work you will likely have to do. This is your time to put your head down, do ALL of the dirty work and grind it out.
I want to share a story with you. A friend and former colleague of mine, left his post in professional sports to move halfway across the country with his soon-to-be wife. He wanted to keep working in sports but knew that you can’t exactly choose the teams you want to work for. At first, he tried his hand working at a rehab clinic but couldn’t stand the job. In his perfect world, he would be able to work at the university that was just down the road (this is one of the most well-known, blue blood, Power 5, major college athletics schools in the country). So he decided to leverage the internship role to get to where he wanted to go. He reached out to the Strength and Conditioning department at the university and offered to work for free. He offered to do whatever he needed to do, help in any way possible, in order to just get in the door. Given his experience, they agreed to accept this offer.
Now, don’t forget, he was in his thirties, about to be married and had already worked in pro sports for five years. He had to swallow ALL of his pride to pursue this role. But he effectively swept his ego aside and dominated his internship role.
After the internship was up, he had done such an amazing job that, not only did they give him a job, they literally created a job out of thin air for him. He had brought so much value to the staff that they couldn’t let him go.
As an intern, that’s your goal.
Your internship should align with your career goals. If you want to be an NBA Strength Coach, you should seek out opportunities in basketball. Some NBA teams offer internship positions (these are obviously the best-case scenario) but there are also a lot of other great options that will push you in the same direction. Find out where current NBA Strength Coaches are coming from and see if you can intern in those places. When I was looking to get an NBA job, I realized a handful of current NBA Strength Coaches had interned at the same gym in Indianapolis. Once I realized that, I was on the next flight to Indy to start connecting with those coaches.
There are plenty of internship roles out there, you just want to make sure the one you choose, is beneficial to your long-term goals.
Once you secure the internship, it is your DUTY to do all of the dirty work. My recommendation is to go way above and beyond. You are auditioning for a job. Hopefully the coaches you work for also have a strong network and can help you get to where you ultimately want to be. With that in mind, leave no doubt that you are the most amazing up and coming Strength Coach this industry has ever seen. Be the first one in and the last one to leave. Any time you can help the coaches out and make their life easier, do it. Your goal is to make them hate the final day of your internship because when you leave, their jobs will be so much harder. I cannot tell you how many people get incredible jobs because they were outstanding interns. Do not screw this one up.
To Get and Win your Internship:
Find an internship position that is in line with your career goals
Choosing a Career Path
There are a wide range of choices in the Strength and Conditioning industry to choose from. You can work privately with locals trying to improve their fitness or you can train the Los Angeles Lakers. The choice is yours but here is some information about the four different categories of Strength and Conditioning jobs.
Strength and Conditioning Programs at the high school level are still on the rise. It varies a lot from school to school what your facilities will look like, what your salary may be and ultimately what the overall quality of the job is.
At the high school level, you can have a tremendous impact on the athletes. This will be most kids first exposure to weight-lifting and you can really set them up for success down the road with a quality program. Athlete participation can be challenging at time with other academic and extracurricular obligations as well as a lesser commitment to athletic success.
You will work with A LOT of athletes, but it is great place to get your hands dirty, try new things and build your skillset as a strength and conditioning coach.
This is the classic Strength and Conditioning route. A strong percentage of colleges will pull right from their own pool of interns to fill lower level positions. Depending on the university’s commitment, there can be upwards of fifteen coaches on staff or as few as one. Typically, the more prominent the school’s athletic department, the more Strength and Conditioning Coaches are hired.
At the collegiate level, unless you work with Football or Men’s Basketball, you will likely be covering several sports. Some select universities will have a Strength Coach assigned to just one sport if that particular university is exceptional at it.
The beauty of collegiate Strength and Conditioning is that this is probably the place where your athletes have the most buy in. Sport coaches in college are more likely to favor a more disciplined and structured culture which lends itself well to the weight room. Fun, high energy workouts are common at this level.
High level Division-1 universities have magnificent facilities and all the gizmos and gadgets you could ever dream of. There are many universities whose athletic facilities are significantly fancier than those in the pros.
The downside of collegiate strength coaching is that six-figure salaries are hard to come by. Strength coaches for Football and Men’s Basketball can be as high as 600k but the drop off is tremendous when you leave those sports. However, those crazy salary figures don’t come without any conditions. Job security is not high in Men’s Basketball and Football and your security is almost always tied to the on-field performance of the team. It is common for a new head coach to bring his/her own staff into their new role which can leave the old staff back home sending out resumes.
On the flip side, there is a lot of room for progression through the school’s Strength and Conditioning Department as well as serving as a nice spring-board into professional sports. You can make a nice living strength coaching in college and many do.
The bright lights, private jets and Ritz Carlton hotel stays are all wonderful perks of these glamour jobs. In the pros you work can work with famous athletes, be seen on TV and have tons of cool experiences.
Making the pros is probably the most common goal of Strength and Conditioning Coaches. But before you sell your soul to work for your favorite sports team, there’s some things you should know. First off, this is where athlete buy-in is lowest. You deal with multi-million dollar athletes who have a well-established routine and are often un-interested in changing the routine that made them rich and famous.
Job security is about as bad as it can be. Firings in professional sports are so commonplace that it has become very de-humanized. Fans call for the coach’s head when the team doesn’t perform well and the Strength Coach is not immune to that (Think about your favorite sports team. Do you even know who their Strength Coach is? Do you care if they get fired? Most fans will answer no to both). Injury rates are heavily scrutinized by the front office and media and can cost you your job (ironically many professional athletes use their own private trainer, so if they get hurt, you could be fired for someone else’s problem).
Salaries also vary wildly. These jobs are highly coveted, so there is no shortage of people willing to do the job for less.
There are a lot of ways to acquire a professional sports job but your best bet is through building as big and strong of a network as possible. I’ve seen coaches go the old-fashioned way through an internship and I’ve seen professional coaches get hired from a chance encounter while working as a personal trainer at Equinox.
Being a Strength and Conditioning Coach in professional sports is an incredible job. The experience is magical at times, but you must be aware of the trade-offs. You cannot be surprised or upset if you get fired. It’s part of the job you signed up for.
Working in the private setting is the biggest spectrum of them all. This could mean working as a part-time personal trainer at your local gym, working one-on-one with many clients around New York City, or opening your own Sport Performance facility.
Working as a hired employee at a big box gym usually comes with the responsibility of client acquisition. Roaming the gym floor, searching for leads isn’t a part of the CSCS test but in the private sector, it’s something you should get comfortable with. It may be awkward at first but building relationships is a critical part of this job so it’s good practice. Plus, more clients will probably mean more money in your pocket so don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.
If you are working as an independent trainer or own your own facility, don’t make the mistake of not developing your skills as an entrepreneur. Far too many coaches start their business with high hopes only to crash and burn due to a lack of a full grasp on the task at hand. Your success in this area will be significantly more predicated on your entrepreneurial skillset than your Strength and Conditioning skillset.
The nice thing about the private sector is you are in charge of your own destiny. It’s all on you, for better or for worse. You can make as much money as you are committed to making. This can also be the “bad thing” about the private sector if you aren’t fully committed to your own success.
The barrier of entry is low here. You can find yourself in some big-name gyms with little to no experience. Now that is not to say that it’s all a bunch of newbies running around. There are a lot of great and experienced coaches working at these gyms, just not all of them.
Salaries vary a lot and are usually dependent your ability to acquire new clients.
It’s also worth noting that some gyms like Equinox and Crunch, heavily invest in trainer education which can be really helpful. There are also a lot of gyms out there that act as exercise and rehabilitation science hubs. They host tons of courses and are very demanding of their employees to keep pushing to learn more. This is a good thing. These are the gyms you want to be in. If you don’t, you may have picked the wrong industry.
This is our wheelhouse here at 4A. I have built my entire career and now my company on the back of continuing education. When I first started as a Strength and Conditioning Coach, I had zero knowledge. My college degree was in print journalism. I was embarrassed frequently in staff meetings during my first job in 2013. I aggressively pursued continuing education and in 2016 I became an NBA Strength Coach. You can accomplish whatever you’d like if you commit to educating yourself.
All education courses are not created equal, however. Some are extremely helpful, while others are useless. What you want to look for is what I call a “source-course.” These are courses that build health and performance from the ground up. They attack the source of any problems not the symptom. Here at 4A, we have developed The genMAX Seminar to be just that.
Be wary of the courses that everyone else is taking. Don’t forget that everyone else won’t be massively successful. Only the one percenters will ascend to the top of the Strength and Conditioning mountain. You want the courses that will take you to the top.
An underrated source of education is books. You can literally get the greatest life’s work from history’s most incredible people for fifteen bucks on Amazon. Do not take this lightly. Every great Strength and Conditioning Coach has an ever-expanding library.
There are also virtual learning opportunities that can serve you in a variety of different ways. Look for the virtual offerings that compliment your career direction. Often times, these can be more affordable options than live coursework. At 4A, we created the virtual 4A Health Club to connect members from around the world and distribute killer educational content every month.
You will ultimately have to take educational courses to maintain your certifications and they aren’t cheap, so you want to make sure you are spending your money wisely.
The best Strength and Conditioning Coaches invest aggressively into their education. When I was first starting, I spent every spare dollar on education as I knew it was the vehicle that was going to take me to the top.
Lastly, follow your passion. You can learn all sorts of different things but if you don’t love it, you will never be great at it. If you love mobility work, be the best. If you love neuroscience, be the best. If you want to create ultimate success in this industry, you have to be the best. If you don’t love what you’re learning, you will make that journey a whole lot harder.
Mastering Continuing Education
Make a list of the educational topics that you are passionate about.
Find material by experts in those areas.
Make a commitment to yourself and your education
Don’t be afraid to spend your money but make sure you spend it wisely. This is an investment.
This is probably the most basic of all the principles here and yet it’s probably the one you are most intimidated by. Real human interaction can be a terrifying thought in today’s day and age, but networking is all about making friends. I could honestly stop writing about networking right here but because the importance of it is so huge, I will continue (I actually wrote an entire article dedicated to building a network that works for you that you should read).
We have all heard the phrase, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” When I worked in the NBA, every day, a handful of aspiring coaches would send me their resume and we didn’t even have a job opening. If we did have an opening and made that public, just take a second and imagine the amount of applications that would flood the inbox for a job coaching the Lakers.
I always say, “when the job comes open, you’re work must already be done.” If you start trying to network once the job comes open, you’re too late. The hiring managers will think about who they know and trust and if they don’t have any candidates, they will reach out to their network to find someone. Your name has to come up in these discussions and the only way to do that is to build a real relationship over a good chunk of time.
When I emphasize the importance of networking, it’s almost as if I am disappointing people with this answer. It feels like they want me to give them a secret tip that nobody else knows about. The secret tip is that nobody else is willing to do it. Shaking hands at a conference or adding LinkedIn connections will get you nowhere. You have to build real relationships.
Every time I talk about networking, I tell this story. Several years ago, when I was just a young coach, I went to a conference out in Nebraska and met another young coach from North Carolina. We became friendly over the weekend and exchanged phone numbers to keep in touch. This was something I had done a thousand times with others, but this time it was different. Over the next few years, every so often, he would send a text.
Something like “What’s-up man, how’s everything going?”
Over time I learned more about him and he learned more about me. I liked his style of coaching and thought he was a pretty cool dude.
Flash forward several years, I become the Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Los Angeles Lakers, and our GM at the time ends up becoming the GM for the Charlotte Hornets. When he calls to discuss their Strength and Conditioning positions, who’s name do you think I gave him?
The craziest part is that I still have not seen him in person since that conference many years ago in Nebraska, but he won the networking game. That’s how it’s done!
This is how I do it. Every person that I have a conversation with, gets an index card and is filed away in an actual rolodex that I created. At the start of every week, I reach out to everyone who’s last name starts with two different letters. For example, the first week of the year, I always reach out to the A’s and the B’s. The second week is the C’s and the D’s, and so on and so forth.
This helps me stay in touch with everyone and build real relationships. I cannot tell you how much money I have made from just this simple process. The trick is to make as many real friends as you can and do it consistently.
Famed entrepreneur, Gary Vaynerchuk, has gone on record saying he believes that a personal trainer could charge $1,000 per hour and I do not disagree, but you have to be a little savvy and willing to go against the grain.
Many professionals in this industry complain about the amount of money they make but they are not realizing the amount of money they are leaving on the table.
The quickest way to never be rich is to trade time for money. This is personal training in a nutshell. You trade one hour of your time for X amount of dollars. You put a very real limit on the amount of money that you can earn. So, you either have to charge more, or figure out a way to scale your business.
When I realized this, I did what I always do. I did something about it. I am an expert at getting people out of pain. There are not many people out there with the skillset to do what I can do. I know this. I’m not bragging, I’m being honest. Seeing that I was “fixing” a ton of clients that had already been to Physical Therapists or Orthopedics with little to no results, I realized I could charge a lot more. So, one day I started charging $500 per hour.
Sure, some people were put off by the price, but I held strong. I believed I was truly worth it and I had the results to back it up.
They would ask, “Why is it so expensive?”
I would reply, “Because it works.”
Everyone knows that the best practitioners in every industry are here in New York City. By charging an absurd fee, I was catapulting myself right up there with the best. They would immediately believe that they were talking to a world-leader.
I rented office space in one of Manhattan’s most beautiful buildings in order to play the part. The lobby had golden ceilings, beautiful elevators and security. There was no doubt that my clients were coming in to see the best of the best.
I would dress nicely, offer sparkling water and wear a big smile all to play up my success.
Their impression of my success alone was incredibly helpful in ultimately getting them out of pain.
It worked. I went against the grain and positioned myself as a world-class practitioner. It was all within my scope of practice and it’s something that you can start doing right now.
If you opt to try and scale your business, the internet should become your best friend. What better way to create scale than to leverage the network that connects billions of people around the world.
In my case, I have used the power of the world wide web in order to teach you my training principles. Every month, I have tens of thousands of visitors come to my website to learn from me.
I have created scale.
There are over 300,000 trainers in the United States and thousands more world-wide and I can reach every single one of them (and I fully intend on doing so).
How can you scale your business? Maybe you can build an app to teach proper lifting techniques. Maybe you can offer some sort of customized online training. There are so many ways to do this, but you have to think outside of the box.
The last bit of advice I will give you in this section is to learn about investing. This was something I did not take seriously for many years and I regret not learning it sooner. There is a lot to learn and can be a daunting task, but few people become truly wealthy without some type of investment vehicle.
I am not going to give you investment advice, but I will tell you that it is a very win-able game. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, you should be building your wealth and you easily could be.
Do some research, read some books and do something about it. Take action. Execute. You’ll be happy you did.
One day, I’m going to write a book on building a business and it will all be based on the next several paragraphs.
When I first started my business, I took the subway down to the southernmost tip of Manhattan and started combing the streets and going into every fitness/workout facility on the island. And let me tell you something, however many gyms you think there are, multiply it by 50.
All over the world, Strength and Conditioning Coaches, buck the system in favor of their dreams of being their own boss and cashing in on some bigger paychecks.
I believe there are four qualities you need in order to succeed as an entrepreneur.
First, you have to have the talent. You must be able to make the right decisions. You can work as hard as you want but if you aren’t good at it, it won’t matter.
Secondly, you have to be able to go against the grain. I have always been a different kind of dude. I find great joy in being different. So, it was easy for me to not follow the crowd and build a company from scratch in the face of MANY people telling me not to and literally laughing in my face. This is not as easy for most.
Third, you must be able to weather the storms. Entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart. I can remember sitting in Starbucks on 14th Street in Manhattan and realizing that I had run out of money and trying to figure out what to do. If that moment comes, will you crawl back to the conventional ways of making money or will you dust yourself off and figure it out.
Lastly, you have to be relentless. Many businesses fail because they quit too soon or didn’t want to go all in. Every time I think I’m working hard, I come to find out that I have a long way to go.
I also believe in what I call “The Entrepreneur’s Trap.” In your mind right now, you probably have an idea of what a business should look like, feel like and sound like. Chances are, you’re wrong. Successful companies sound a lot different than the amateur companies. The key is to provide 10x more value than anyone else. Not to offer the best discount codes.
When I look around at other entrepreneurial efforts, I feel like everyone else is playing checkers and I’m playing chess. Nobody is even playing the same game. Just because you created a product and tell people about it on Instagram does not mean that you are running a business. You would be stunned by the analytics, infrastructure and intent behind everything that I do.
The final analogy I will leave you with is not exclusive to entrepreneurship, rather it applies to all of the above.
Winning in this industry is like flying a plane. You can take off and stay really close to the ground because it’s safe and if anything goes wrong you can touch down safely. This is someone who does little to no work.
If you are a little more ambitious and willing to do some work, you can fly up into the clouds. Now when you’re up in the clouds, things get a little rocky. The plane hits some bumps and you may have to put on your seat belt, but the real danger is a bit more hidden. Giving this level of work is highly dangerous because everyone will stroke your ego and tell you that “you’re really grinding” or “working so hard.” It’s easy to believe them and stay there.
When things get rocky, you could also take the plane down in altitude, stop working so hard and get down closer to the ground where things are safer. Maybe you tried something and it didn’t go very well, so you got rattled and stopped trying.
There is, however, one alternative. One that requires more fuel and more effort. When the skies get bumpy, you can punch the throttle and rise above the clouds. Now, if you’ve ever flown in a plane that flew up above the clouds, what do you notice? You probably notice the incredibly vast skies. You may see another plane way out in the distance. That’s another industry superstar rising above the rest. But these skies are not crowded. In fact, they are empty. That’s the funny thing about this industry. Nobody is willing to burn the extra fuel to rise above the clouds. When you get up there, there is no competition. You’ve already won.
The window of opportunity is, and always will be wide open. This is human nature. But as you read this sentence, you are faced with some turbulence. I am challenging you. In just a few moments, you will make a decision. You will either stay in the clouds, head back down to safety, or join me up above the clouds. This is what winning in the Strength and Conditioning industry is all about. Decisions. Now it’s time for you to make yours.