How much money can a personal trainer make?

Posted on August 21, 2017

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I’ve previously covered the average personal trainer salary in The financial reality of being a personal trainer. In this post we’ll go outside the average and think about what’s a plausible maximum income.

General assumptions:

  • You will work morning OR nights, but not both
    • The fact is in a gym the middle of the day is largely dead. Trainers make their money before or after people go to work. If you want to have a family, or semblance of a personal life, you are not going to be working 6-10am, then coming back to the gym 4-8pm. You may do this for a time period, I did, but it won’t be in perpetuity. Working that schedule, when the hell would I see my kid?
  • You will make money 49 weeks per year
    • Your clients will average two weeks of vacation per year, and holidays will add up to an additional week not in the gym. We’ll get to your vacation later.
  • Your clients will not show up one out of every eight sessions; 50% will give 24 hour notice.
    • If you have eight clients in a day, one won’t show up. Dentists appointments, sick days, wondering if their child is satan. I’ve had times where one out of eight is generous. One out of four isn’t something to balk at.
    • If they give 24 hour notice, you don’t charge them for that missed session.
    • 50% * 1/8 = 1/16. That means you can charge for 94% of your sessions.
      • Again, generous. If you have clients you’ve had for years, it gets harder and harder to enforce a 24 hour rule. I don’t blame the client either. If someone has been paying me thousands of dollars a year, for years, I’m not fretting over a session or two a month.
  • 15% facility fee
    • That is, you take home 85% of what the client pays. This is as good as it gets. This number can vary all the way to 50% if self employed, and 15% if working at a large gym.
  • You’re not on salary

The last point is a big one. I’m not sure the number of trainers who are on salary vs not, but my experience is overwhelmingly trainers are not on salary. They are either paid by session or are independent contractors.

This is crucial because if you do a Google search for personal trainer income, you may find the median trainer salary to be $57,000. But, the median INCOME is only $38,000. That right there shows how many trainers are not on salary, bringing the median dramatically down.

-> Median is the middle, not the average. The average of 1, 2, 3, 4, 100 is (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 100) / 5 = 22. The median would be 3. Averages are sensitive to outliers; medians are not. Thus, half of trainers are above and below $38,000, illustrating there are not many trainers at salary considering how high the salary is in comparison. (If there were many trainers at salary, the median income would be higher.)

Specific training assumptions

  • You will do either high priced one on one, or lower priced group sessions
  • You’ll train four hours per day
    • For some judging this number, training is not all of a trainer’s work. There is writing programs, continuing education, working yourself out as a guinea pig, responding to clients, watering whatever fertile soil you’ve laid for generating new clients.
    • And again, we’re basically talking 6-10am or 4-8 pm. Regularly training clients outside those hours is not impossible, but unlikely. (If someone were to argue 6-11am, I wouldn’t put up a big fight, but I’d say they probably need to be around a good deal of retirees.)
  • If individual, you’re able to manage a $100 an hour rate. Small group, you will do $30 per person, per session.
    • The average session is $50 per hour. $100 sessions are unlikely to happen everywhere. LA, Manhattan, Silicon Valley, maybe Seattle these days, then some random small, wealthy towns. (La Jolla in San Diego comes to mind.) But we’ll go with it. If you do small groups, you’ll likely need to charge less than the average hourly rate. More people per session => less price per session for the customer.
  • For small groups, you’ll average four people per session

One on one vs group trainer

The group trainer can make more per hour. Let’s look into a year.

This is where it gets a little tricky. If you’re an independent contractor you’ll be taxed differently. Dissertations have been written on this, but let’s just say your effective tax rate is 15%.

Meanwhile, a standard employee making that kind of money may have an effective tax rate of 35%. In order for the standard employee to take home $80,000 per year then, they’d have to make:

Not quite- the forgotten elephant in the room

This is where we go back to the notion of not being on salary. That means not having benefits. As I went over in the first posts on personal trainers’ income, you will so rarely get benefits it’s barely worth considering. A typical salary employee can consider their benefits as being an additional 22% of their income.

  • 401k
  • Vacation
  • Group health insurance prices
    • Buying it as an individual sucks. Ask anybody who had to go on Cobra.
  • Other random benefits
    • My girlfriend’s company hooks them up with a will and trust appointment

Therefore, even if income is matched, someone with no benefits only makes 78% of what someone with benefits gets.

In the original post I mentioned being self-employed can largely make up for a lack of benefits. You can see a personal trainer making $94,000 with no benefits and self-employed taxes (take home 80 grand) is essentially the equivalent of an employee making $94,000 with benefits, regularly taxed (take home 82 grand).

-> If you’re in America though, our never ending healthcare debate is a benefit you always lose when self-employed. You can search around the internet for stories of self-employed people terrified about losing their health insurance, because they won’t be able to buy it on the open market without Obamacare. (Again, difference between buying as a group, like in a company, vs an individual.) Even if my girlfriend and I make the same amount of money, she always has a trump card with her health insurance, due to working in a company. If it comes down to one of us needing to stay home to watch our daughter, I’d have to lessen, if not shut down some of my business. I’m on a vote to vote basis with my benefits; she’s not. Some politicians claim to be business friendly when all they are is large corporation fellatio friendly.

Is $94,000 actually reasonable money for a trainer? The second way of looking at this

Personal trainer percentiles:

Source: BLS.

At 94 grand, we’re talking 2.5x the median income. That’s an extraordinary job in any profession.

How about percentile wise? Merely by looking at the chart above, $94,000 appears to be pretty far into the upper percentiles. (Percentiles meaning if you’re in the e.g. 95th percentile, you do better than 95% of people.) If that intuition isn’t enough, here is some brief math. I don’t want to go into the weeds too much here, but I think this is important to get across. If we assume personal trainer income is normally distributed,

Credit: http://www.statisticshowto.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/standard-normal-distribution.jpg

(Personal training income is not normally distributed. It’s skewed right- the mean (average) is higher than the median. However, the difference is small enough I don’t think it matters to get our point across.)

Then,

For the 90th percentile we’re at $73,000, with a Zscore of 1.282. (Z-score chart and example.) Personal trainers have a mean salary of $43,000:

Let’s go as high as we can. 99th percentile (Z score = 2.326):

Where if you make $97,000, you’re in the 99th percentile.

This is before taxes. I’m not sure what the average trainer is taxed, but it’s hard to argue most trainers being employed by a large gym, incurring more taxes than they would self-employed. Big gyms have room for a lot more trainers, and odds are the profession has more employees than business owners.

This matters, a lot. A trainer making $97,000 as an employee, assuming no benefits, is taking home the same as a trainer making $74,000 in self-employed income. Both are in the 99th percentile.

We started out by making various assumptions for what a trainer could reasonably achieve. Now we’re looking at it from a percentile view. Either way, we come to a similar conclusion: less than a hundred grand.

Money is one of the most subjective entities in human history. I’m not here to tell you whether this should deter or persuade you to get into or stay in personal training. I will say most trainers would be delighted to make anything near this amount, but the trainers who do start getting up there often get frustrated at realizing there is a ceiling they can’t breach without going into sales, becoming a manager, opening their own gym, hiring their own trainers. Which are different professions.

Debbie Downer time: how outlandish the 99th percentile is

If we assume there is a perfect relationship between intelligence and income, then we could say:

Now, we’re considering a given profession here. It’s not fair to compare a scientist with a NFL football player. Scientists may be smarter, but regardless they can never make the yearly income of NFL players.

If we believe personal trainers to be a microcosm of the population, with the average trainer having an average IQ, then in order for a personal trainer to be in the 99th percentile of income, they need to be in the 99th percentile of intelligence!

-> In just America’s adults, that still means there are 2.4 million people as, or more, intelligent. “One out of a million still means being one of thousands.”

“There’s more to income than smarts.” I agree. Persistence, work ethic, luck. Those are commonly accepted. If we make our equation include those percentiles:

Now let’s say you believe you work as hard as anybody. You’re as persistent as the most persistent. You’re one of those people who always seems to win the banquet raffle too. Even if you’re in the 100th percentile of all those factors, 100% = 1, then,

You still HAVE to be in the 99th percentile of intelligence!

And you have to work that hard, be that persistent and lucky, year after year…

Expectations

Psychological research is littered with examples of human hubris. We often think we’re smarter than we are. It is a joke to any veteran personal trainer how easily new trainers think they’ll make money, and lots of it. Then a few months in, they hate themselves.

Again, I’m not here to tell you what is and isn’t good money. But expectations dictate emotions. Most of us go into a profession with an idea of what the median income is, hoping to be around there. When we have conversations with one another and find out about each other’s profession, we’re (too often) impressed or not based off our assumption of average income. Not the upper percentiles. Because by statistical law, there is a significantly better chance one is closer to average than the 99th percentile. If you still feel “Hey, being around that amount of money works for me,” then that’s a healthy place to be, because you’re more likely to end up there than anywhere else. Personal training included.

For some reason, newbie personal trainers bypass this step. Instead, they do something like calculate “Hey, $50 an hour? If I get 10 clients I’m making bank.” Avoid that mistake. It’s good for you and the industry, which is rife with turnover. Turnover in large part caused by financial expectations not meeting even the margins of reality.

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Posted in: Business