The financial reality of being a personal trainer (part 2)

Posted on February 17, 2017

(Last Updated On: February 17, 2017)

This is a two part series:


The Positive

Some careers are tough. Chefs come to mind. They always work more than eight hours per day; on their feet. They’re constantly trying out new techniques and learning, changing menus, things they aren’t getting directly paid for. The pay is notoriously bad for the hours they work. The hours suck, as when they’re busy is when everybody is relaxing. Restaurants are always listed as one of the riskiest businesses, so you’re lacking stability.

-> Invariably there is the “Hey, you chose to do it” crowd. While true, there could be some more empathy here. More than likely, the person declaring it fell into the job they have, like most do. Nor is changing professions like changing hats. How many of us thought we loved a career path only to find a few years in that…a few years is already too much? You can do internships to simulate a job, but nothing can fully simulate a career.

There are many positives in personal training though.

Because things are so rough when starting out, barely anyone makes it past the beginning. That’s great!

The big box gym I started at was one of the smaller locations. When I came on there were three other trainers. Within a month one was tired of it all -I think he’d been there six months- and didn’t want to do Saturdays anymore. He gave me four hours worth of clients as I was the only trainer who was willing to work Saturdays. Within another month or two he was fully gone, on to try another gym, and I picked up some more of his clients.

Those four hours, three times per week, I worked? They were 4am to 8am initially. While I had a decent resume`, I got the job mainly because 1) nobody else would work those hours 2) the past couple people hired to work them couldn’t show up on time. Seriously. I still talk to the guy who hired me here and there. “I was just so happy you showed up.” My ability to set and listen to an alarm clock got me a job.

Within a couple months it was me and two other trainers. The gym liked to have four or five on staff. Over the course of three years I saw a minimum of ten other trainers hired, attempting to fill these slots. That’s about a new trainer every three months. To be clear, not one single person I saw hired in three years made it past six months. I genuinely think this number could be more like 15-20, as I just don’t remember the others. I started out trying to get to know the new hires. Then I stopped that…then I didn’t even bother to introduce myself because I knew they’d be gone so quickly.

For the other two trainers who stuck around-

  • One had her boyfriend paying her rent. It was a part time thing for her that she emphatically, repeatedly, stated “this is not my career.”
  • One was in school, planning to quit once done (which he did)
    • In fact, this dude started a class action lawsuit against the company for improper pay. And he won.

No joke. Three and a half years at one facility, a large commercial gym, and I saw only one other trainer who was looking at things as a full time job and career. He was hired on a few months before I left. Not sure if even he stuck with it. While within the company, I do know he had already transferred gyms a few months in…

If you can stick with it, you can make personal training work. After about 18 months I was able to start doing small group training, increasing the amount of money I could make per hour.

-> Small group meaning each person is still doing their own workout. Not a class setting where everyone is doing the same thing. I don’t think a new trainer could, or should, do this. It takes experience to be able to train people this way. But once you can, you can significantly increase your income or lessen your hours and make the same amount of money.

After 18 months, I had enough clients who were willing to go with me as I transitioned to self employment. The majority of those clients had a different trainer before me, but the trainer quit.

If you’re self employed, 20 clients per week * only $200 per client per month, and you’re making a living. One that’s 30% more than the median personal trainer salary. (No, still no benefits, but you’ll be taxed differently which will largely make up for this.) Many clients will stick with a trainer for years. It’s not like other businesses where you’re always needing new clientele. Once finding a solid group, I’ve needed less than a new client every six months to make a living training people in person. People have stuck around that long.

Without a doubt, if a trainer is committed, one can be doing better than average within two years. If very motivated, a trainer can hit the average salary after a year. (And likely be ready to venture out on their own.)

In contrast to many other jobs where the average worker has probably been around I don’t know, at least five years? Chefs it often takes many years to become a sous or executive chef, and most probably aren’t even thinking about opening their own restaurant until at least a decade in.

In this regard, personal training is unusually simple to do well at. Just . Keep . Going . So many others will drop out, by default you’ll do well.

Not only that, sadly, though truthfully, by process of elimination you’ll be better than most other trainers. Like there are some teachers who’ve been doing the same curriculum since the 80s, there are those trainers who’ve been around for decades and never improved their abilities, but for most, stick around longer with a decent commitment, and you’re going to improve at what you do.

For online, Maciej Ceglowski, the owner of Pinboard, a bookmarking tool, has found every year 5% of the web disappears. Link rot stats say the average webpage is around 9.3 years.  In 2014, Maciej remarked one of his users found 90% of what they saved in 1997 was gone. Every 20 years the web is completely new. Call it 99.99% new e.g. Amazon just hit 21 years. Like cars, the fleet is replenished every 20 years.

So while there is an eye glazing amount of competition online, a good deal of it is gone every year. If you’re approaching things with a longterm mindset, “I want to be doing this for 10, 20, 30 years,” then it’s pretty amazing if after a decade half your original competition is gone. Particularly when as an individual running a site, your overhead can be under $20 a year. Going belly up isn’t a concern. Of all things, persistence is a competitive advantage.

Online training also provides a way of doing small group training. That is, you can get back to multiple clients in an hour. So while you might not be able to charge as much, you can make up for it with volume.

We could go into certain books to read, various techniques, how to sell, how there is always room and money to be made by being better than most, but at the end of the day the surest path to success in personal training -whether that being a good trainer or making some money (not always synonymous)- is sticking with it. Whatever you need to do to stick with it -6am, 5am, or 4am training, being poor, working Saturdays for years, working until 8pm, not paying student loans for a year until you have enough money, meditating to soothe your mind knowing people at In n’ Out are doing better than you- if you do it, the rest will come.


Closing tangent- starting on the side?

A natural curiosity is starting out training on the side. This is heavily person dependent and will be another post, but in general I recommend not doing this. I saw many trainers with other jobs and they all fell into that other job because it was so much easier than starting out as a trainer.

The majority of new trainers I saw were looking at it as a second career. “I like working out. I’m not happy with my current job. I’ll start out training a couple people per night.” After a few months in, every single one of these said “fuuuuuuuuck this.”

There’s more to this, and I’m not saying one should all of a sudden quit their job if they want to train people, but the main reason is there is something to be said for an increased urgency in HAVING to make something work.


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