The Invaluable Experience of Working for Free

Nick Wyllie
Powerlifting, Swimming, Olympic Weightlifting, CrossFit


Breaking into the fitness industry is often a tough and overwhelming process. Clients and gyms want experience and knowledge, so how is a young, enthusiastic trainer with little or no experience ever able to begin their career? How does this trainer ever learn enough to help others and build their own methodology?


The answer is simple. You must work, and work hard, without getting paid. Volunteer experience is something that is often overlooked or even blatantly avoided, but it is an invaluable experience. Volunteering has helped me develop as a coach, and has directed the paths of countless other professional trainers and coaches in the industry.


There are countless ways to work for free in the fitness and coaching industry, I have accumulated over 600 hours of volunteer experience in the last two years. I would not be the coach I am today if it weren’t for that time-spent learning, practicing, and applying the knowledge I have gained from these experiences.


Find an Internship

An internship is the most common way in which trainers gain volunteer experience. Some internships may be paid, but for the sake of this article we are not talking about those. Finding an internship at a sight that is worth your time is the key first step. Establish a list of prerequisites that define the value of your experience.


These can be such things as the level of expertise of the owner, the clientele, the rapport of the gym itself, etc. Finding a gym or team that matches your criteria with an already existing internship program can often be difficult, but all is not lost. If an internship does not exist at a place you deem worthy, pitch the idea to the owner. This is how I personally created my own internship at a gym I ultimately ended up working at. Present the idea with everything written out, including hours, detailed tasks, feedback time, etc. Emphasize the fact that you will be working for free and that you have a strong passion for the gym. This approch will help you land a position.


The idea behind the internship is that both parties receive equal benefits. The gym is essentially getting free labor, and perhaps input from a perspective of an already knowledgeable young trainer. The trainer/volunteer is getting hands on experience that will help them grow as a professional. There is no replacing real practical experience with feedback from members and other trainers. This internship experience allows the trainer to take the knowledge learned from the classroom and see which parts work in real life situations. An integral part of the internship experience is learning from the other trainers or coaches.


Most great coaches out there are a melting pot of knowledge passed onto them by other trainers mixed with their own experience through years of trial and error. Take what you see other trainers doing well and apply that to your knowledge base, then add your own personal touches to it.


Volunteer With a Team

Find a volunteer coaching position with a school team. Whether it be strength and conditioning or sport specific, there are always many volunteer coaching positions available each year with either universities or high schools. Just like with the internship, the tasks and responsibilities might vary with each position, but the experience remains invaluable nonetheless.


This volunteer experience is very similar to the internship, but varies in the sense that there is the addition of the team aspect. Working with a team can be very rewarding, but it also creates new difficulties that allow you to find the solutions and grow as a coach. There are psychological challenges and pressures that come along with being a part of a team that your every day gym members do not experience.


Take the time as the volunteer coach to learn from your fellow coaches on the proper way to deal with these challenges and again bring your own personal twist to it. Continue to build your own identity through the success of these other coaches and what seems to work for yourself as well during these volunteer hours. Take the time to educate yourself for free. I am not talking about buying certifications or paying for more school, I am talking about free research.


Use Reliable Sources

There are countless platforms out there, specifically written to help educate trainers. Breaking Muscle is a perfect example of this. There are online video tutorials, magazines, and various other sources that will continue your education for free. A lot of trainers and coaches do what they do because they enjoy helping others. They want to spread knowledge to as many people as possible, so take advantage of this.


This was much harder to do years ago, but with the Internet and social media this has become very easy. Be careful to avoid fraudulent information, fact check as much as possible and, when available, always check sources. I have lost count of how many hours I have spent educating myself through these platforms, and I believe every hour I have spent has been worth it. It has benefited not only clients but my coworkers and myself as well.


Cutting Corners Is Counterproductive

There are no short cuts when it comes to building a successful professional career in the fitness industry. Patience is key and skipping ahead can be counterproductive and often not possible. Time is on your side if you start early, so let these volunteer hours mold you into the coach and trainer you want to become. Take every opportunity to learn from others and do not get caught up in the money. If you have patience, gain the necessary experience, and create your own identity with these tools, then the money will eventually be there. Do not skip ahead, be resilient, stay passionate, and keep moving forward.