Recently, a couple friends asked me”what it takes” to become a personal trainer. Both are considering Personal Training as a way to augment their other business, add a little cash flow, or make a career change altogether.
One was impressed with what I’ve done in my own career, “building something from nothing.” While flattering, building my business to it’s current state took a lot of time, frustration, anger, and probably a little stupidity.
It was more like building a sand castle using a teaspoon and the mean kids kicking sand in my face.
A little backstory:
I did build something from nothing. I started working for a boutique gym the week I moved back from Knoxville. Four months later, that gym closed its doors.
Save for a couple clients (aka “believers”) who wanted to continue working with me I was jobless and broke.
Three years later, three part-time jobs, two internships, dozens of clients, thousands of miles on my car, and countless headaches along the way, I’ve built something that I’m really proud of. I work for myself and enjoy a full book of clients.
Because of my journey, whenever I’m asked this question, I counter “are you sure?”
I’m not trying to push anyone away from this career. I love my job and hope I can do it for a long time. However I don’t think most know what it takes to be successful. What follows is a little insight into the everyday things you ought to know about this industry:
The average career “lifespan” of a personal trainer is short: approximately 1-3 years (anecdotal observation).
Further, the average yearly income is approximately $55,000 for a full time trainer (1). Although in my research I saw as low as $32,000.
Here are some Pros and Cons to consider, and actionable steps to break into the industry:
Con: Odd Hours
I start most of my days at 5 am, and while I don’t have to work most evenings anymore, you can expect to work from 4-8 pm or later most weeknights as well.
Your schedule might look like this:
5 am: client
8 am: client
10 am: client
5 pm: client
6 pm: client
Five hours of work, spread over a 14-hour day. Not only that, but you’ve got odd breaks between clients. One hour here or there isn’t too bad: make it useful by working out or reading research journals or a book by Dan John (have I mentioned how much I like his work?). Early mornings and late nights<–This is standard. Get used to it.
Over time you’ll fill those gaps with clients, but it doesn’t happen overnight. This leads me to another..
Unless you work for a gym that hands you clients right and left, expect to build your business and your brand from the ground up. If marketing is your wheelhouse and you’re good at social media, maybe it won’t take you three years to build your business.
If you’re like me and totally marketing illiterate then expect this to be an incredibly excruciating process.
Word of advice: do a fucking awesome job and wait for referrals to come from current clients. The best clients are always those referred by your current clients.
^^This is so important I both bolded and underlined. Don’t underestimate this one^^
Con: Your business is susceptible to Life
When life throws you lemons, make lemonade.
When clients cancel…sleep in? Shake your fist at the sky? Curse because you forgot your latest Dan John book?
Illness, travel, business, kids, and other “life” things will get in the way and affect your business.
This week, January 18-22nd, has been a total bust: MLK day I lost 7 sessions (gym is a government building); Wednesday I lost another 7 sessions due to snow and ice; Friday I might lose another 7 sessions due to bad weather moving in.
Twenty-one hours gone. If you make $60/session, we’re talking about a metric shit-load of lost wages.
Con: no “Benefits”
What about employee benefits? According to the American Council on Exercise (1):
- 41% of full time personal trainers receive full health insurance. For part-timers, it’s only 4%
- 40% of full time personal trainers have life insurance, compared with 3% of part-timers.
- 17% have 401k plans; 5% for part-time
- 64% have paid vacations; 6% for part-time
- 52% paid sick leave; 4% part-time
- 31% maternity leave; 2% part-time
These numbers aren’t too great. If you’re used to having these in your current career, it will be incredibly difficult (if not impossible) to forgo these things.
As an independent trainer, I have none of these things on my own: No PTO. No Paid Vacations. No Benefits.
Only through smart investing and being married to my wife (who has a great health insurance plan) do I have some of these things. No paid vacations yet…
Con: you’re the “Knower of all things”
I’m not Mr. Go-To with Intermittent Fasting, so when someone asks me about it, they expect me to know. But I don’t. Admit to your clients when you don’t know something.
This is a great opportunity to go and learn about IF, but that’s the case with everything. This can be great because you get the opportunity to learn new things all the time. It’s also incredibly daunting. There’s a mountain of health and fitness information out there to sift through.
He who knows best knows how little he knows
Con: the “lone wolf” lifestyle
As an independent, I answer to no one but myself and my clients. I’m the boss. That’s both liberating and frustrating. I don’t know everything, and sometimes it would be great to learn from someone else who’s far smarter than me. It might make the growth and development of my career and coaching skills easier, if not faster. I’m also responsible for everything: marketing, scheduling, billing, equipment purchases, everything..
Enough with the negativity for awhile, here are some PROS:
Pro: working for yourself
This is a HUGE deal. I can’t stress enough how much I like this, and barring things going wrong or I just grow incredibly tired of working odd hours and missed sessions, I don’t think I’ll ever go back to working for someone else.
Pro: “unlimited” income potential
Any other job outside of sales has a set salary. The only way to make more is pay your dues, stay with the company for awhile, and hope for a raise or a promotion.
Personal Training isn’t like that at all. Assuming you do a great job and don’t scare away customers, your yearly “salary” increases with each additional client you sign to your roster. More clients = more Money. As a con, when a client leaves for one reason or another, your salary goes down as well.
I know I mentioned earlier that the schedule sucks, but after awhile it can really work in your favor.
I like my 5 am sessions. I’ve spent many years filling those gaps in my schedule: I’m booked solid from 5 am to 12 or 1 pm Monday-Friday. That’s a schedule most personal trainers would kill to have, and I have it. It took years, but I built it.
I call it a day around 1 pm or so most days. I go home, eat lunch, take my dog to the park and enjoy this fine Tennessee weather, read a book or write on my blog. It’s a schedule that I really love, and wouldn’t trade for the 9-5 grind.
When you make Personal Training a career, and you give a lot of shits about it, usually opportunity comes knocking. I’m currently building a couple cool things with this site as well as another site. I’ve been asked to be the S&C coach for my old high school lacrosse team, and I frequently volunteer with another high school to gain more experience and be around great coaches. My career has afforded me these opportunities.
As you can see there are plenty of Pros and Cons for making Personal Training your career. Whether it’s a side job or your main gig, it can be fun, lucrative, and frustrating at times.
So let’s stop messin’ around and get to brass tacks: what you need to do, starting today, to build a successful career training:
1.) Get Certified: this will all depend on your budget, time allotted to study, and your educational background, but seek highly respected certifications like ACE, NSCA, ACSM, or NASM. Certification is more or less a formality, as you can’t really train publicly without one. Think of it as a “jumping off” point. Once you’re certified, continue to learn and develop your skills
2.) Start Training People: either get hired on part-time at your local YMCA, community center, or gym down the street and start training people. You’re never going to get good (and thus better, and make more money, etc.) by sitting on your ass at home. Getting an internship or volunteering at your local high school is a great way to learn and gain experience
3.) Build your network: I HIGHLY recommend finding a mentor in your area. I have two local high school strength coaches I’ve volunteered with that I keep in contact with so I can learn and grow. SHADOW other coaches and trainers while they work with their clients. Ask questions. Study and learn from others around you who are successful.
4.) Focus on the Essential Few, not the Trivial Many: worry about your social media presence when, I dunno, you actually know what the fuck you’re talking about. Nobody gives a shit how many Twitter or IG followers you have, and you won’t be able to convince people that you’re knowledgeable unless you deliver results. The only way you can do that is by mastering your skills with real people in the trenches. As soon as you lose sight of the clients in front of your face, you won’t have clients much longer.
5.) Build a reputation: Be reliable, ethical, punctual, and all those other things your mom and dad taught you as a kid. Again, the best clients you’ll ever have will come from referrals. Do a great job with the people you have and they’ll send you more clients.
If you’re passionate about exercise and education; if you like working out and learning how to help others do the same; if you want to coach and teach others how and why we deadlift…
..are you getting this whole “education” thing I’m laying down? Because I’m throwing it on pretty thick..
Then by all means I want you to make it as a personal trainer and have just as much success as I have. It will take work and dedication, but it’s incredibly rewarding and hella fun.
You have a lot of work ahead of you, I suggest you get started as soon as you can!
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