Since 2001 as the job market has shrunk and the post-9/11 world has made us ponder our existence, many have ditched the cubicle for a clipboard and a set of weights. The idea of living well and helping others resonates strongly and the lure of decent pay while being able to structure a job around one’s own life has propelled many to become personal trainers. I’ve been doing it since 1997 and I’d like to share some of the positives and the pitfalls.
Personal Trainer Certifications
There are a LOT of mediocre personal training certifications out there as well as quite a few bad ones. If you’re signing up for a weekend class and paying about $200, know that this is a start, but you will by no means be ready to work with clients. What you’ll get is some bare bones knowledge and that’s it.
Instead, look for programs that go into more depth. Think about the type of trainer you’d like to hire for yourself and try to become that trainer. I recommend the National Strength and Conditioning Association and the American College of Sports Medicine as excellent organizations to start with.
Trainers at the gym are provided with clients—no marketing on your part—and you just have to be good enough to keep them. However, you’ll likely get paid less and you’ll be competing with other, more experienced trainers to get clients. Try to specialize in one area and build a reputation for that discipline. I was famous for teaching grueling 15-minute ab classes in one gym. I became so well-known for it that they had to move my mini-classes to a bigger section of the gym. That was good for client recruitment. Another drawback for new trainers is that you won’t have seniority meaning you’ll likely get assigned the crappier hours in the gym like nights and weekend shifts. Usually the prime day shifts are taken by vetted professionals and you’re not there … yet.
This “seems” like cake. You can charge up to $100 an hour (some get even more) and you set the schedule with your clients. Here are the drawbacks, though: you have to be good at marketing and getting the word out to get started. Be honest with yourself here; if you don’t know how to do sales and promote yourself, you might be better off in a gym. You’ll also be charging a premium for your services which means a wealthier clientele. Keep in mind that clients with money travel more and might even have summer homes, leaving you without two or three appointments a week at any given time. Translate that into your hourly rate and can your budget handle the hit? The third obstacle for home-based trainers is the need to be talented and motivational with very little. Expect to have only what you bring with you (bands, an exercise ball, other small props). Some clients might have their own private gym, but it’s much more likely you’ll be working with a post-partum Mom on a tiny patch of living room carpet and have a distracted client with a baby crawling around.
Your Own Training Space
I’ve got to tell you that one of the happiest days of my professional life was when I opened my Pilates studio and people had to come to me. No more schlepping all over town in my car, no more ringing doorbells and waking clients who “overslept.” It was awesome! Except now you have rent and monthly expenses to cover. A percentage of your time now goes to paying a landlord and various utility companies. You’ll also be expected to accept credit cards and you, yourself, will need a credit check to make sure you’re a good risk for whatever bank you’re using (hint: look at Square; they’re great). I suggest creating a full business plan before you make the leap and don’t skimp on marketing. Word-of-mouth referrals are always best, but you’ll need to get people in the door before they can start referring you.
Multi-Trainer Studios or Your Own Health Club
Let me just say right now that the health club industry has grown 0.2% in the last five years. Yep, pretty flat. It’s a cut-throat business with huge upfront costs and a ton of competition. Banks are notorious for not lending to health clubs because they have such low margins and a long earn-out rate. Think long and hard before you pursue this course.
It’s a bit different for a personal training studio with multiple trainers. You’re basically taking a space you might already have and adding other trainers for when you’re not there. If it’s big enough, they might be able to train alongside you. Some clients won’t care about that, but some will be majorly tweaked! (Keep that in mind.) If you’re thinking of bringing on additional trainers, you can either have them rent space from you and they bring their own clients and collect their own money, or you can hire them, train them the way you want, and provide them with clients. Both have pros and cons; you’ll need to weigh which one works best for you.
I’ve worked in gyms as a trainer and Pilates instructor. I’ve had a small private training studio that I worked at alone and I’ve had as many as four Pilates studios at once that I ran with up to 23 employees. If I had to choose what type of trainer I’d be now, I’d just do it myself and not hire any instructors. Financially I would have been way ahead!
But I’m very thankful of the pluses to being a trainer. When my son was young, I worked solid mornings from 7:00 am to noon and then hung out with him for the rest of the day. I loved having that time. As he got older, I cut back my training time with clients and expanded into running multiple locations and got more into training trainers. Now I balance training time, running my studio, and working in social media, so, just like me, your role in the fitness industry can evolve as your interests and the market changes. Flexibility is a great thing.
Let me know what you’ve learned as a trainer and what you’d do different. I’d love to hear your thoughts.