Three months into a six-month vocational training program at the Focus Personal Training Institute in New York City, students in the current class are asked to give advice to a new crop of students ready to start their own program.
One by one they stand in front of 40 people. The audience of newcomers is already in shape, passionate about fitness, hoping to learn how to share that passion with future clients.
The typical response tells new students that even if they are fit right now, they don’t know everything about exercise science. It’s sage advice to a group hoping to become personal trainers after concluding the intensive classroom and hands-on curriculum.
But recently, one student didn’t give a typical response. He was a veteran, fresh off a tour of duty overseas. He admitted to the group to having Post-traumatic stress disorder. He also admitted that three months ago, before starting at FPTI, he would not have been able to stand in front of 40 people to tell them he had PTSD. He started the program simply to learn a skill – personal training – that would help the transition back into civilian life, but he had come away with a higher sense of purpose and more self-confidence.
“It’s something we didn’t expect when we started working with veterans,” says Gabe Valencia, a co-founder of FPTI. Valencia and his business partner Joe Masiello, certified their vocational school with the Veteran’s Administration in March to accept benefits from former military members. The duo saw personal training as a natural fit for servicemen returning home. It’s physical and requires strong leadership. They did not expect it to help transition veterans back home socially, some just weeks off tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Vets have often lived a healthy lifestyle and can be natural motivators," Valencia says. "They also seem to love helping people and relate well to the structure required in effectively implementing fitness programs."
Twenty veterans, from all branches of the military, have now completed the program at FPTI, most of them with aid from the Post 9/11 GI Bill. In either a three-month or six-month program, these veterans learn the science and practical skills to become personal trainers.
It’s really not that hard to become certified as a personal trainer. All it takes is an Internet connection and a passed test. But as doctors and health care professionals work closer with the fitness industry, Valencia and Masiello see a greater need for better-educated and more effective personal trainers. Their students, including veterans, often end up as top performers in the highest-rated gyms around New York City.
"Successful trainers make their living in a gym setting, not sitting in a classroom or on computer. As such, competent training is as much about a practical skill set and communication ability as it is book knowledge," Valencia says. "You can’t develop this skill effectively with online instruction alone."
Which is why in the afternoons during a typical session on the training floor at FTPI, you will see veterans - used to brutal boot camp style training - developing the technical and social skills to motivate others.