I decided to become a personal trainer after I had dropped out of college, quit drinking (for a while, until later when I actually quit drinking), moved back home, and needed to figure out what to do with my life. I signed up for classes at a local community college but only went to a few before leaving. I couldn’t find something that fit but I knew that most days of the week I would find time to work out. Between finding a job and finding motivation for the rest of my life, I found a way to encourage myself and feel better about myself.
I tried to get family and friends to exercise with me and was happy to encourage them through it all. One day my mom suggested I become an aerobics instructor (outdated terminology, but you get the idea) and I spent the next couple of weeks researching personal training. I got a job in a gym as a sort of floor attendant while I studied and worked with other personal trainers to learn as much as I could. The gym promoted me to personal trainer once I achieved the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) Certified Personal Trainer credential and I thought it would be smooth sailing from there.
When I thought of myself as a personal trainer I imagined myself talking to people about their problems as I took them through perfectly programmed workouts. The person would learn to trust and listen to me, would see the changes in their body, and would keep coming back. My bills would be paid, my heart would be full, and I would have helped someone to get healthier (and hopefully happier).
Turns out I was wrong.
At no point in learning about anatomy, physiology, or kinesiology did anyone ever tell me what the actual business of personal training was like.
When you work for corporate gyms, personal training is more a sales job than anything else. When I last left a corporate gym, I was working only on commission but spending most of my time at the gym to try to drum up new sales. I spent maybe 15 hours per week training, was at the gym for at least 60 hours a week, and when all was said and done if you divided the commission up per hour worked I was making less than $2 per hour. I was trying to sell and not to train because with the tiered payment structure the gym built (as with the gym before it), I made more money selling than I did training. What is 30% of one training session when I can make 15% off of an annual package? Training I would make around $20 per hour and only when the client actually showed up for a session. When you include extras like a heart rate monitor and fitness testing if the client is interested, they could be committing to thousands of dollars easily.
When I first started I was excited to train. When I realized how much more money I could make selling training I amped it up. I impressed my supervisors with the amount I was able to bring in so early on. When I realized I had become a glorified saleswoman, I stopped selling as well. My numbers dropped. My supervisors complained, they asked what happened and how they could help me get back to the numbers I had before. I didn’t have an answer for them then because I was too scared to talk about how I really felt.
As a trainer in more than one gym, I was asked about my training protocol and programs less than 10 times. I was asked about my sales numbers daily.
Have you found a new client today? Go walk around the floor and offer to help people that need it.
Have you sold any heart rate monitors today? Talk to your 4 o’clock client about it, she needs one.
I was tired. I was tired of being the bleeding heart trying to convince a person that could barely afford their gym membership that they should invest in a $1500 training package. I was tired of working long hours for little return. I was tired of selling these massive packages or checking off training hours that cost $80 a pop for the client and seeing a meager return in my paycheck. I was tired of not being the personal trainer I wanted to be. I wanted to talk to people. I want to listen to their stories and help them overcome their insecurities. I wanted to be a personal trainer. Not a personal trainer sales machine.
If you look around the gym in most chains you might notice that a lot of the trainers are young. I’m not saying older trainers don’t exist (I’ve met some fabulous ones), I’m just saying they’re few and far between. And I think it has a lot to do with the current state of the business of personal training. I don’t think I’m the first one to get tired of the sales focus, I think I just got tired of it earlier than most people do.
The most successful personal trainers I know work for themselves.** They have created a brand and while sales are still important, they know that their success ultimately lies on the effectiveness of their training and their client’s willingness to learn. Because of that, training doesn’t fall by the wayside in the name of sales.
I once worked with a trainer who swore that someday he hoped to open a chain of gyms that paid trainers hourly or salary and that personal trainers would be kept from all aspects of the sale. It’s a nice dream and I hope he makes it happen someday. For all of the future personal trainers that genuinely want to empower other people and focus on fitness instead of on sales goals.
*I still happily train friends and family, and – of course – give fitness guidance online. I love fitness and personal training on my own terms,in my own time, and under my own brand. I still maintain my ACSM certification and renew it when applicable.
**Disclaimer: My experience relates to working for big box gyms. Working for yourself is a whole different kettle of fish that I have only minimal personal experience with and cannot speak to well enough to comment on in detail.