The financial reality of being a personal trainer (part 1)

Posted on February 15, 2017

(Last Updated On: February 17, 2017)

This is a two part series:

The Negative

According to the Bureau of Labor, in 2015 personal trainers made an average of $36,160 per year.

Money, wealth, rich, poor, these can be quite relative. Making six figures in Manhattan will have some manhattanite turdbag saying they’re “barely getting by.” Palo Alto is looking into whether making under 250k should qualify for subsidized housing. Meanwhile an $800 mortgage can get you a mansion in the swamp / mosquito / my sweat has sweat / why would you do this to yourself / is climate change good? swallow it off the map! land of Florida.

However, the median wage for a full time worker (in 2015) was $42,120. So we can at least say personal trainers are below the average worker. And at 14%, significantly so.

It gets worse than that.

Your average worker is going to get some benefits. The average apparently coming out to 30% of your salary.

average benefits package example

Beyond legally mandated ones, personal trainers rarely get benefits. In my three years at a major gym, the trainers got nothing. No sick days, no vacation, no insurance, nada. Most gyms won’t give anything. Certainly not when starting out. Some might give something after being there a while, like after a year.

Adding voluntary employer benefits, we can say the average compensation package is then,

  • $42,120 * 0.22 + $42,120 = $51,387

22% higher. Personal trainers are now fifteen grand from the average worker. About 30% less. I don’t think anybody will say that’s not a lot.

It gets worse.

You work in the health field. Continuing education is basically a must. For many certifications, you have to keep up with a certain amount of continuing education units in order to maintain the cert. Off the top of my head, this comes out around $1,000 per year. That’s just to maintain a cert. That doesn’t include other learning you might want to do, which many companies, but not personal trainer employers, will cover. My girlfriend went to a two day business conference that was about $1,000. She mentioned it to her boss. Boom. “We’ll cover that for you.” Unlikely to happen as a personal trainer. Knock another $1,000 per year off the compensation.

You’re unlikely to start out near this much money either. When I started I was only able to work three days per week, four hours each day. That’s all I was hired on with / all the gym could offer me. Minimum wage was like $8. (This is 2009 in California.) I was given one client. At the time, you were either paid for all your hours at minimum wage, or you were paid based on the clients you worked with. Whatever was greater. But not both.

Working with a client was roughly double the minimum wage. $15. For a half hour session, that’s $7.50. The other half hour I didn’t train someone put me back to minimum wage. So because $8 was more than $7.50, I made $8 for the hour. Rather than $7.50 for the session I trained someone + $4 for the half hour I didn’t. Yes, this gym was awful pay wise, but many gyms won’t pay you unless you have clients. In much of personal training, like the self employed, if you don’t have clients you don’t make money. So to start out making something even if I wasn’t training anyone was considered a positive in my mind, at least to start.

Getting more direct- making more than $20,000 the first year is going to be tough.

-> This is somewhat relative. If you’re in New York, making $20,000 shouldn’t be that hard. Say the mark moves up to $30,000. That’s great…but you have New York living expenses.

How many other jobs start out like this? Not businesses, but jobs.

To one degree, we’re talking a commission based job. Sort of. Because at least with many commission jobs you can make a two week salary with only a couple sales. If you’re a realtor or recruiter, a sale a quarter might get the job done.

Whenever people ask me about getting into personal training I tell them “It’s very easy to get into; it’s tough to make a living at.” You’ll more or less need to start your own business. Because even working for someone else you have to do the selling (a different skill than training),

-> You might have some help from the facility in this regard. The first place I was at was great. They fed me people, I took care of them, but the pay was shit. They took 85% of the client’s invoice. A second place I went to had a much better commision split, though in 18 months I got two clients from them.

you’re doing the scheduling, the program design, you’re probably cleaning the gym / racking weights, almost everything. The odds you walk into a facility with no experience and you make a salary are so little as to not be discussed. And we all know the success rate for new businesses. Not as bad as made out to be, but still not great.

So while it’s true when starting the average job one is unlikely to make the median wage, whatever that job is will likely be closer to the median than a personal trainer would be.

If a gym does offer benefits, you will very likely need to be full time. That’s 35 hours + per week of clients. That is not easy to get. (A big reason the average compensation is so low: many trainers aren’t working full time hours). If the average client comes twice per week for one hour sessions, we’re talking 18 clients.

Really, we’re talking more like 25, because at 18 we’re assuming every week every client comes to every session. That never happens. People get sick, appointments crop up, kids are assholes, people go on vacation.

I’ll never forget my first spring as a trainer. I had been doing well, clientele growing, then all of a sudden I had 10 people not show up in one week. I didn’t know what happened. After a couple days I realized it was spring break for the local schools. My paycheck that pay period got cut in half. It wasn’t like I could all of a sudden have new clients fill that void. Even if they were available, what was I going to do? Tell people I’d train them for a week, then bye as my old clients came back from vacation?

At the gym I was at, it was 30 minute sessions. So now we’re talking 50 clients to be full time. I got up to the lower 40s for a while. (In my experience, it took 18 months to hit this at a big box gym which largely provided clients, which ended up hitting 85% of the average personal trainer salary.) It was pretty brutal handling all that. Doing that many programs every month, that much scheduling, that many text messages, that many personalities, that many hours on the legs -demonstrating exercises, moving weights around. (I’ve found 30 clients to be a nice number.)

Bringing up our next point- good luck getting a clientele to fit a perfect eight hour block of time. High schoolers? You’re not going to train from 3pm until 11pm, are you? Everyday people, they get off work at 5pm. You going to go 5:30pm to past midnight? They go to work at ~8am. You going to have eight hours of training before then?

What inevitably happens is you do something like four hours in the morning and four at night. Even me, who has a good deal of retired people, I barely ever got an eight hour day straight. Nor did I want one. Eight hours of not sitting down, again, tough. Getting four hours of clients, then booking your hour lunch, then another four hours, it’s highly unlikely. You can get close, but the rule I saw was to get something like eight hours of clients meant being in the gym at least 10, because cancellations happen something like one every four clients.

Then, if you go four hours in the morning and four at night, what are you going to do in the middle of the day? The gym I was at was a 35 minute drive from my apartment. I wasn’t going to drive home then drive back, commuting more than two hours a day. So I had to stay in the area. To this day, on Thursdays, I start training people at 5:15am and go home at 6pm. I spend the middle of the day at Barnes and Noble or something, doing other work.

You’re very likely going to be in the gym, or around it, more hours than you have clients / get paid. This is the long way of saying if we were to break that average trainer salary into hourly pay, it’d go down even more.

If you’re thinking you’re going to make up for this with…

Online training

First, there is a paradox with in person and online training in that if you’re making good money in person, it will likely be harder for you to make similar money online.

The reason for this is location. If you’re in personal training and money is the priority, you want to be in New York or LA. Boston / New Jersey, a couple other locations on the West Coast, but NY or LA reign supreme. Personal training is more valued in these locations and there is more money and more people in these places.

The tradeoff is you probably live in New York or LA, and with online training, they aren’t your market. Meaning nearly every location someone finds you online from -Houston, Iowa, Greece, whatever- there is a likelihood they either value personal training less and or don’t have as much money to pay for it.

It’s hard to charge New York or LA prices to people who don’t live in New York or LA.

Second, there are about one billion websites out there. 75% aren’t active. For instance, X domain redirects to Y domain, so it’s all considered Y. That still gives us two hundred fifty million websites to compete with. Some might say “well, you’re only competing against other health websites.” Or fitness sites. Doing an admittedly pretty quick search, I don’t find anything saying how many of these there are, which is likely because it’s tough to count them.

-> One could argue you’re competing against more than health sites. Founder of Netflix on competing with Amazon: “Really we compete with everything you do to relax…with video games…drinking a bottle of wine…other video networks…board games.”

However, in 2001 there were 70,000 health websites. Let’s see if we can duct tape a number together.

  • 2001 = 70,000 health sites
  • 2001 = 29,000,000 total sites
  • 2016 = 1,000,000,000 total sites
  • 1,000,000,000 / 29,000,000 = web has grown by a factor of 34.5

If we assume health sites have grown at the same rate, that’s 70,000 * 34.5 = 2,415,000 health sites. That’s a lot of competition. What brick and mortar business has to compete with that many others?

I’ve found you need to be in the Alexa top one million sites -not only health sites- to make something more than drinking money. Once getting under the 800,000 mark you can potentially be making a living. A moderate one, but a living. (Took me around 3.5 years to hit the one million mark.)

  • 800,000 / 250,000,000 = .0032 or the top 0.32 percent.

That’s more than three times better than the top one percent of all websites. Even just health sites, that means being in the top 8,000. It means being better than millions.


Part Two.


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