Are Unpaid Strength and Conditioning Internships Worth It?

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Today’s guest post comes from Justin Kompf, who’s been a familiar face here on (he’s written a handful of other posts for this site in the past and I’ve always enjoyed the messages he delivers).

Today’s post deals with a hot topic and something that’s caused a bit of a dichotomy in the “real world.”  Should people do an UNPAID internship.

On one hand you have those who feel it’s the road everyone has done in the past, and if you read books like Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath, unpaid internships are a way give yourself an “ooch” or “taste” to figure out whether or not you even like that particular career path.

On the other hand, you have those who gravitate towards extremes and feel unpaid internships are the worst thing since Pepsi Clear.

I don’t agree with this for many reasons.

In any case, Justin does a great job at giving some perspective and I hope that if you’re someone who’s considering taking an unpaid internship in the S&C field that this post helps – TG.

Oh, and before I forget: on April 5th, 2014 I’ll be participating in the First Annual Cortland Strength and Conditioning Symposium, which Justin is kindly organizing.

With the likes of myself, John Gaglione, Dr. Mike Roussell, Dr. Cassandra Forsythe, and Spencer Nadolsky as the slated line-up it’s going to be an unparalleled event for students and fitness professionals alike.

Registration is now open, and it’s set at a VERY reasonable price as we want to ensure that this is an event that’s accessible to everyone.

For more information you can go HERE.

Okay for real this time, I’m done.  Have a wonderful Holiday everyone.  See you in a few days – TG.

About a week ago I received an email from a former student. He was considering a strength and conditioning internship in San Diego, the only catch was that it was an unpaid internship. This student wanted to get my take on unpaid internships.

Little did he know that he was talking to the king of unpaid internships. Before I received a paid strength and conditioning position I spent close to two years interning at two colleges and one year observing a physical therapy practice.

This is a question a lot of young strength coach hopefuls have and I think my experiences and the insights gained from them can help these people (possibly even you) make that decision.

I’d like to go over the three internship experiences I had and what I learned from each of them.


Before graduating from the Kinesiology program at SUNY Cortland I had to complete an internship. I had my sights set on Syracuse University. After spending my Friday mornings observing the football team for two months one of the strength coaches gave me an intern position with the Olympic sports teams.

That semester was far from what I had expected.

It consisted of cleaning equipment and observations. I suppose I was naïve to expect that I would be coaching from day one. I ended that semester wishing I had gotten more out of the experience so I made the decision to stick around and intern with another Olympic sports strength and conditioning coach the following Fall semester.

By then I was a graduate, had passed my CSCS, and was familiar with what was going on at Syracuse so I was given a lot more responsibility. I was able to be hands on with the women’s lacrosse, softball, volleyball, and rowing teams.  I spent most of my day at Syracuse before I would go personal train.

I can say two things about that experience, without it I would not have had the skills to coach big groups on my own and without that experience I probably would not have gotten a job as a strength coach or teacher at Cortland.

LESSON LEARNED: if you intern at a major university you probably won’t be doing too much coaching, even over the course of an entire semester.

Most of your job will be cleaning and observing. If you want to take the coaching experience seriously I highly recommend riding out this period and sticking around. If I had just left Syracuse after one semester I would not have gotten to get the coaching experience I needed.


Less than a week after graduation I took a flight out to California to live with my cousin while I interned at the University of California at Riverside. UC Riverside is a D1 school like Syracuse but the resources that they had to work with were a small fraction of what we had at Syracuse. Syracuse has four strength coaches (still considered understaffed) and three weight rooms. UC Riverside had two coaches and one weight room.

Their head strength coach was in China for the summer teaching so I had the opportunity to step in and work with a lot of his teams. This was the first time I got to be hands on in my coaching so it was all new to me. The assistant strength coach was great in going over their coaching protocols. He took me through all of his progressions for teaching cleans, squats, and deadlifts which I still use at Cortland.

LESSON LEARNED: I was stepping out of my comfort zone in so many different ways. I was 3,000 miles away from home and didn’t know anybody other than my cousin and her husband and I was essentially thrown into the fire to learn how to coach.

I learned how to coach with minimal equipment which has came in handy since Cortland is a division three school with limited resources as well.


Note from TG: Being originally from the Syracuse (Go Cuse!) area I’m very familiar with Summit Physical Therapy.  Most notably I’m familiar with Mike Hope.

I remember back in like 2004 I was having some knee issues and by chance someone referred me to Mike at SPT.  Having worked with several PTs in the past and being less than satisfied my hopes weren’t too high upon my initial visit…..but I tried to stay positive.

Within two minutes of meeting Mike I was hooked – thanks to no small part in that he references Louis Simmons and WestSide Barbell during casual conversation.  

My mind was blown:  a PT who actually lifted weighs???  

Not only that, at the time, Mike was a regular contributor to as one of their rehab specialist. 

Long story short:  Mike’s the shit.  That is all.

The first time I went into Summit Physical Therapy I immediately learned that I didn’t know anything.

Imagine that, a senior in a kinesiology program who just figured out he didn’t know anything.


In that year I would go in at least once a week whenever I would have a break from Syracuse or personal training. I learned so much about functional anatomy as well as the importance of research. Every time I left Summit Physical Therapy I would have a new book or paper in my hand that I had to read. It helped me a lot when it came to teaching my personal training class at SUNY Cortland.

LESSON LEARNED: Coaching experience is extremely important but it is also important to have people that will challenge you intellectually.

There were actually times when I would walk away quite jaded where I felt like my intelligence was being insulted, times when I considered not going back. Luckily I got over myself and decided it was worth it if I could learn something new whenever I went in.

I learned that I should always have a reason for everything that I do as well as a thorough understanding of any topic I want to discuss. I would be light years behind in terms of knowledge if I didn’t spend time at Summit Physical Therapy.

Take Away?

So should you do an unpaid internship?

Will it benefit your career in anyway?

Based on my experiences I’ll put it this way:

Doing an unpaid internship does not guarantee that you will get a job as a college strength coach, however, passing up on an unpaid internship guarantees that you will not get that strength coach job.

If you decide to embark on this experience I recommend getting out of your comfort zone, and coach as much as possible.

Make mistakes, they’re bound to happen, and learn from those mistakes. That way when you move up to running your own program you won’t make them when it’s important.

Be sure to retain good relationships with the coaches you work with as well. You’ll want to use them as references at some point. Odds are they will know someone down the road who might be able to help you get a job.

My student ended up emailing me a couple days later informing me that he had accepted the intern position in San Diego. Unpaid internships are a crucial stepping stone in the career path of a strength coach so without reservation I would recommend them.

About the Author

Justin Kompf is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and certified personal trainer through the NSCA. He graduated from SUNY Cortland in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology. He currently teaches and trains clients at the University. Justin like burritos, deadlifting, peanut butter, and The Fast and the Furious movie saga (minus 2 and 3). He is an author for . He can be reached at

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Comments for This Entry

  • Tim

    Awesome post Justin. Definitely appreciate the insight. I just completed an unpaid internship at UMass Lowell. The assistant Strength Coach had done 5 internships before accepting a paid job. Great experience and learned a ton from a coaching and anatomy perspective. I'm starting an unpaid internship at Cressey Performance in just a couple weeks and am looking forward to it. Saving up as much money prior to has been really key for me. As well as opening my gym in the mornings, doing some personal training, then heading over to my internship. Lots of hours, but 100% worth it.

    December 24, 2013 at 11:26 am | Reply to this comment

  • Rob

    Are full time unpaid internships illegal in the us? They have been made illegal in the uk?

    June 25, 2014 at 12:14 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Jason park

    Great post! I have been wanting to get into the S&C field for quite sometime. I just graduated with a bachelors in exercise science and I reached out to the S&C coach at my school. They accepted me for an unpaided internship. I was on the fence because I felt like it would be a waste of time since I've already did an internship but with a celebrity personal trainer. After reading this it has given me a good idea of what my next move will be. Thanks for giving us your experience and input.

    August 11, 2016 at 5:37 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Jason park

    Great post! I have been wanting to get into the S&C field for quite sometime. I just graduated with a bachelors in exercise science and I reached out to the S&C coach at my school. They accepted me for an unpaided internship. I was on the fence because I felt like it would be a waste of time since I've already did an internship but with a celebrity personal trainer. After reading this it has given me a good idea of what my next move will be. Thanks for giving us your experience and input.

    August 11, 2016 at 6:37 pm | Reply to this comment

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