This is both a “my story” and “how my struggle can help you” post. It’s been a rocky road to say the least, and I hope that my struggle will leave you with some advice on how to get started on your own personal training career.
To be clear, “independent” means that I’m not employed by a gym. I’m self-employed and meet clients in other gyms that I have a working relationship with. I pay rent and I train, but I manage my own schedule, clients, billing, marketing, and everything in between.
I started personal training at a YMCA during graduate school. I had bills to pay and I loved training.
There are numerous benefits to working in a “box” gym environment. You learn how to program and execute those programs in a busy gym with limited equipment. You have to “think on your feet” and get creative in your program.
Well, creative or at least flexible. Really it’s a combination of both.
I discuss program design in the “real world” in my article Writing a Program or Winging it. Give it a read.
After graduation, I landed a job at a high-end boutique gym in Nashville, my home town. January 2013 starts off with a bang and I’m training some cool people: doctors, lawyers, musicians, etc. It’s all a whirlwind and I’m loving it. The plus side: I made about 3x as much money training here than at my box job. Sweeeeet.
It didn’t last long though: that gym went under in April 2013. For reasons I’m not privy to, the gym had to close its doors. Not even four months into my awesome new job at a great facility and I’m out a job.
What happened next?
After a short panic attack about failing in my career and life (totally the same thing)…
I moved my clients to a nearby public park, using a TRX and a tree branch. Yes, you read that right. I trained a couple faithful clients by hanging a single TRX from a branch at a public park. I went from a fully stocked gym to a fucking tree.
Talk about low. I can only thank the clients who stuck it out and helped get me back on my feet.
So what Andy. How does this story help me get started?
Here is advice on how I built my career, and hopefully it can help you.
1.) It starts with one
One client. One is all you need to get started. The importance here is two fold: do a great job with your one client, and they’ll send you their friends and family members. Further, losing focus on your one client in search of the next may adversely affect your work performance. Doing a less-than-stellar job won’t get you any referrals.
Friends and family members are far easier to “sell” training to because the barrier to entry is low.
“Andy is such an amazing trainer! He’s taught me how to deadlift and got me through my nagging knee pain. He’s just the best. And might I add, charming and handsome”
–Say all my clients every day
All kidding aside, the most important person (people) in your training career are the people you already have. Maintain focus on them and you’ll be able to build a solid referral-based business.
I may not be the best to give advice here, but I’ll tell you how I go about my marketing: I don’t
This goes back to the first point: as soon as I lost focus on the clients I already had, my work performance suffered and I delivered sub-par workouts.
I’ve spent thousands of actual dollars, not to mention the time invested in studying marketing and social media, that have yielded zero new clients.
As soon as I stopped marketing I would get new clients right and left. How? I went out of my way to do an excellent job with my people, and in turn they refer friends and family members. Although this process takes much longer, the caliber of client you get is far greater than the cold lead.
It’s more difficult to land the client you don’t have than to do a great job with the people you do have. Keep that in mind as you consider your marketing strategy.
More traditional ways that have worked in the past: networking events, and charity auctions. I’ve accumulated four long-term clients from donating sessions to charity auctions. You can always ask for referrals as well.
3.) Never Stop Learning & Gain Experience by actually training people
Attend conferences. Read books/articles/blogs. Study your craft. There’s a metric shit-load of free content under your fingertips.
I can’t stress this enough: if this is truly the career for you, treat it like one. It’s not a hobby; start acting like a professional and hit the books. Invest in yourself and your career.
Go train people!
I know this is difficult when you first start out. Andy! I only have one client! You said that’s all I need!
True, but you can’t get better by training 3 hours each week, and you certainly can’t pay bills.
When I was slow in my own independent business, I worked three training jobs. THREE! And each job lasted a year or longer.
While I built my own business I worked part time for another gym in town making a fraction of what I made on my own. But I trained people, and I trained in a “box” environment. I had exposure to other trainers and how they did things. Good or bad, I learned from working in that environment while I built my own business on the side.
The third job was one of those “Ra Ra Ra” bootcamp fitness jobs. You know with the loud music, cut-off tees and house techno? Yep, I did that.
This is all critically important for so many reasons. Working three fitness jobs taught me hard skills (troubleshooting squat technique and learning how to cue a deadlift) and soft skills (interpersonal and relationship building). It taught me client and time management. I learned how to (not) market. I learned what was important to me in regards to program design for my clients.
It also helped me pay the bills.
Trust me. You don’t want to start your training career wondering if you can keep the lights on.
4.) Get an Internship
Or at least go shadow someone in your field for awhile to gain experience.
I’ve volunteered at 4 different high schools to help make me a better coach.
Hey I get it. It might suck to forfeit 5-10 hours of your week to volunteer, but it pays off in dividends. Sure, we all want to hang out with Eric Cressey and Mike Boyle and Mike Robertson and Dan John…
..but I have a wife and two pets. And a mortgage. It’s just not in the cards for me.
That didn’t stop me from learning and growing: I sought out coaches in my own back yard instead. Seek out internships with training studios or your local high school. They are usually short-staffed anyway and are likely to welcome your help with open arms.
My time spent in these high schools has also given me two great mentors who I still reach out to frequently. I owe them a debt of gratitude for guiding me all these years.
Today I earn a great living training clients, all as an independent trainer. This has afforded me the opportunity to go back and volunteer again with one of my mentors, all for the fun of it. <–I have the freedom that allows me to volunteer and give back while sharpening my tools in the process.
5.) Use your Network
Reach out to other professionals in your network for anything you might need.
Physical Therapist: whenever I have to, I refer my clients to my PT Matt who takes care of them. In return, he sends his patients my way. This goes for Physicians as well.
Find an RD: don’t try and be all things to your clients. In all likelihood you’ll be mediocre at best. For nutrition-related help, I refer over to my RD Lindsey.
Others: this website you’re reading is pretty good-looking isn’t it? You might think I’m some sorta web-design wiz kid by the looks of it. But I’m not. I’m an idiot when it comes to web development. As it turns out I have a wonderful working relationship with the guy who built it, Mike. We manage this relationship by trading services: sessions for web stuff.
If you can, find people like Matt, Lindsey, Mike, and anyone else in your network that can help you. Trade sessions with them if they’re willing. Hell, I even have t-shirts with my logo on them, all because my wife’s cousin is a t-shirt guy.
Seriously, tap your network.
6.) Grind, Hustle, and other cliche’s
At the end of the day the best advice I can give is to grind it out. Work the sessions you don’t like or don’t want until you get on your feet and get going. It may suck for awhile, but once you’ve established yourself and you’ve built a full roster, things will be much easier and much more fun.
Think of it this way: if all your clients meet 2x each week, you need 15 clients to be “full time” at 30 training hours (obviously doesn’t include program development, personal/professional development, drive time, etc.)
If your take home after fees is $60/session, that’s an annual income of over $86,000. Not bad for someone who could charge more, could leverage their time with small group training, and doesn’t work more than 25-30 hours per week.
Not to mention the complete freedom that comes with being your own boss. I mean, HOLLA!
Stick it out. Stay the course. Work your ass of and in due time you’ll reap the benefits of an independent training lifestyle.