Susan Finley

What does it take to be part of a personal training team like the one at TrainSmarter in Birmingham, AL? I talked with Susan Finley the owner to find out! Susan has been in the fitness industry for 28 years. She holds many certifications including ACE (PT), RTS (level one), NASM (corrective exercise), NCFI (corporate fitness) and TRX. She’s also a ChiWalking/Running Instructor. Susan offers a lot as both a coach to personal training clients and as a mentor to personal trainers.

When seeking a position at any gym first see if you’re aligned with the mission of the business.

Susan opened TrainSmarter in August of 2014. “I wanted to create an energetic atmosphere that would attract the best fitness professionals in the business. I was looking for trainers who have a thirst for continuing to learn more and a desire to be the best in our field. With that wealth of knowledge and experience we could change people’s lives by showing them that their potential is so much greater than they dared to dream.”

What is the application process for your facility?
I think that TrainSmarter is an extraordinary place so I look for extraordinary people. Applicants must have at least a personal training certification from an organization that I think is credible. Typically they email me and I ask for a resume. In filling my latest openings, I have been using Indeed, which has provided a lot of resumes for consideration.

I look at their cover letter to see how well they express themselves and look for personal training experience, as opposed to group fitness or athletic training. Athletic training is a niche that I feel is covered—and then some—by loads of other people in the business. So if someone tells me (as I heard recently), “I really want to work with athletes.” I keep looking.

Some experience is good but I’m not looking for someone who’s owned their own studio or has been training long enough that I think they’ll either have strong opinions that might not correlate with ours or try to establish an image as “an expert” (as one of the trainers who recently left us did).

I’m looking for someone with a passion for helping people and an insatiable thirst for learning. We can teach them everything else. My newest trainer spent 20 years as a dental hygienist. Knowing she’d been in a “helping” profession made me look twice at her resume. She had some experience, a certification and a desire to learn. Sold.

What do you look for during an interview?

  • Are they on time?
  • How are they dressed?
  • Do they appear to really want to work at TrainSmarter or do they just want a job?


These days it’s common to hear “I’m looking for a mentor.” I’m happy to be that but I also am not looking to invest a couple of years in someone so they can go off and open a competing business. I always ask about where a prospect wants to be in one year and in 5 years. I want people who want to buy in to the TrainSmarter values and be a part of our organization as we move forward.


Do you have a practical? What’s that like?
If the resume looks worth pursuing, I contact the applicant to arrange a phone interview. If they pass that, they move on to the in-person interview. I generally try to have at least one of the other trainers sit in on the interview. At some point, I’m likely to say, “Do you have any questions for (the current trainer)?” and later, to the trainer, I’ll say, “Is there anything you think (the applicant) should know?”

If they pass this interview, they have to spend a minimum of 10 hours of training session observation. Once that is completed, I put the word out that we’re looking for 3 volunteers who would like to get a free workout by participating in a trainer’s practical training. (This is a win-win. Some people get free training and I get to observe the trainer in action)

I try to be unobtrusive and not hover during the session and I make sure that the client is someone the trainer hasn’t seen before. We go over each session before the next. Once we both feel that the trainer is ready, I start to delegate clients to him/her. But there is still a probationary period of 90 days in which everything must feel right before we sign the official contract. Then we celebrate!

What do you look for when hiring a personal trainer?
A passion for service, for changing lives. I had a trainer who was passionate about exercise, creating routines and testing the results. But his training ended up being about HIM, not THEM. My relationship with him didn’t end well. I love it when a trainer gets excited about a client’s mastering a hinge or postural improvements. I’m looking for lifelong learners who want to be part of a team. Being easy to work with and team-oriented is critical.

Do you employ personal trainers or are they independent contractors?
They’re ICs. Basically, the clients who come to TS come because they know or know of me. That tells me that the way I do things has a broad appeal. I’m looking for people who can reasonably replicate the “TrainSmarter way” of doing things. The trainers who have done that have been the most successful. My training schedule is PACKED and I can’t train everyone who comes in.

I assign clients to trainers to train as their schedule permits. The client pays the trainer. The trainer pays me a percentage per session. Trainers have a key and are free to schedule their clients whenever suits them. Essentially the trainers become my clients, as well. I’m always on call for consultations about their clients, teach them how to be the very best in the business and load up their inboxes with articles and information. I try to be the person for them that I looked so hard for when I was starting in the business—but all those years ago there was nobody out there!


What is the 1st day like on the job at your facility?
The whole team feels protective of a new trainer and we rally to support any way we can. If the new trainer is getting a new client, we make sure they understand the assessment protocol. And some existing trainers jump in to teach new material to the new trainers.

How does a new trainer get clients at your facility?
Typically I find the clients and hand them over to the trainers. Unfortunately, the trainers don’t work very hard to generate their own clients, with the exception of one extraordinary trainer. That’s one case where the IC starts to behave like an employee.

When you think about the 1st 30 days of a new trainer’s career at your facility – what makes or breaks their success?
Patience! Few trainers get a full schedule of clients right away. It takes time and perseverance. But if you’re good, the word of mouth goes to work for you.

Do you have a story about a trainer who didn’t do really well and 1-2 mistakes they made?
Ooh. Yeah. I knew this trainer was a big Crossfitter and that couldn’t be more different from what we do. She had good credentials (though she’d let her personal training certificate expire and seemed to think I shouldn’t be concerned about that since she has a college degree in the field…) She said she wanted to join our team but I never really felt a sense that she wanted to help people. And she seemed inordinately interested in when she was getting paid, how much she was getting paid…seemed to always be about the money, not a vision.

In addition, she seemed to think she knew more about most things than we did. One day, she just didn’t show up to teach her class. Later she emailed me something vague about personal issues. It was all really weird. But I learned to look really closely for a prospective trainer’s desire to help clients and work well with our trainers. One thing I am learning as an entrepreneur is to trust my instincts. I never used to be comfortable with that but my experience has taught me that I need to pay attention to my gut reactions!

Do you have a story about a trainer who did really well during their 1st 30 days and 1-2 reasons why?
I have a fantastic trainer that I almost didn’t hire because she essentially had no experience in personal training, was newly certified and all her experience was in teaching Les Mills classes. But I saw something in her and took a chance on her. She spent every available moment at TrainSmarter. If she wasn’t training a client, she was still there, watching and learning. She’s self-motivated and now has a passion for serving new and expectant moms. She was willing to work hard and had a sense of purpose.

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Thinking about making a move to Alabama? Learn more about TrainSmarter.

Beverly Hosford

Beverly Hosford

Beverly Hosford, MA teaches anatomy and body awareness using a skeleton named Andy, balloons, play-doh, ribbons, guided visualizations, and corrective exercises. She is an instructor, author, and a business coach for fitness professionals. Learn how to help your clients sleep better with in Bev’s NFPT Sleep Coach Program and dive deeper into anatomy in her NFPT Fundamentals of Anatomy Course.