How to combat common problems that can plague your career as a personal trainer.
According to the 2008 IDEA Personal Training Programs & Equipment Survey, personal training continues to rank highest among health and fitness programs offered (Schroeder, forthcoming). In addition, the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics (2007) forecasts a promising future for trainers, estimating a 27% increase in employment of fitness workers (group fitness instructors and personal trainers combined) through 2016. But despite the growing opportunities for current and future personal trainers, many people are opting out of the profession.
Discover the most prominent career issues troubling personal trainers and what you can do to overcome them and enjoy a long-lasting, successful career.
The Problem: Faulty Foundations
Like many professionals, I entered my personal training career with a deep-seated desire to help others find joy in movement. The notion was simple: obtain certification and start working. I had wide eyes and a big heart, and figured that passion and a little bit of forward thinking would guide me into a successful career. I was wrong. I worked as an intern for a highly regarded personal training studio; I attended multiple industry conventions; I read trade magazines. I thought I was doing everything properly. Yet having a significant knowledge base was only part of the profession. I knew lots about the body and how it worked, but I knew very little about personal training and how it worked. I wasn’t alone.
“So many new personal trainers come out of school motivated to work with others, but don’t understand the commitment level it takes to be successful,” explains Jan Schroeder, PhD, associate professor of kinesiology at California State University, Long Beach.
Darren Jacobson, national franchise personal training manager for Virgin Active in Cape Town, South Africa, agrees. “One aspect that I find frustrating at the get-go is that trainers do not realize the role, requirements and responsibility of being a great personal trainer,” he says.
The Solution: Seek Guidance. “Get a coach,” advises Chris Snook, co-founder of Action Potentials Inc., in San Diego. “Everyone needs a coach. A lot of problems can develop if you don’t have someone to keep you from heading down the wrong path.” A coach is someone who will help you plan the logical steps to take to begin—or grow—your career. Much like a personal trainer, a coach can also help you set reasonable long- and short-term goals, supervise your progress and hold you accountable.
Jacobson also suggests seeking legal and financial counsel to help iron out the details of what it takes to run a business.
The Problem: Business Blinders
Whether you are an employee, an independent contractor, an in-home trainer or a trainer working online, you are running a business. But utter the word business or sales in a roomful of personal trainers, and you’ll likely hear a chorus of moans and groans. “The biggest comment I hear from my current and former students is that they hate sales,” says Schroeder. “They tell me that if the facility they work for would just give them clients, they’d be thrilled. What I try to help them understand is that they are running a small business. Even if they’re a gym employee, they have to think of themselves as a small business and that means they’ll have to do some selling.” Gregory Florez, chief executive officer of First Fitness Inc./FitAdvisor.com, believes that personal trainers often have the wrong idea of what it means to sell. “You’re really acting as a consultant and not a salesperson,” he says. “You’re not pitching yourself; you’re consulting with someone on how to reach his or her goals.”
The Solution: Know Your Business. “The problem is that the sales/business stuff isn’t sexy,” says Florez. “Many years ago at IDEA events we’d have these daylong business preconference offerings that were really successful. However, personal trainers didn’t take advantage of them because they considered them distasteful.” Florez says that the only way to make a decent living as a personal trainer is to learn how to ask potential clients for their business.
“Think of selling as great customer service, which is something you should be offering anyway,” says Brianne Snook, co-founder of Action Potentials Inc. “The best salespeople are missionaries who truly believe in what they offer.”
So where can you go for business and sales education? Colleges, universities and fitness professional conferences are likely to offer classes and sessions to help you learn how to ask for business without feeling like a salesperson. That way you can focus more of your attention on what you do best: helping people get results.
Asking for business, adds Schroeder, “takes a bit of practice. But with some dedication you can find a style that fits your personality.” She also suggests proposing sales training to fitness facility management. “Facilities need to teach soft sales and the nuances of how to interact with people.”
The Problem: Time Management
Jason Stella, national training specialist for Life Time Fitness in Chanhassen, Minnesota, believes that personal trainers tend to overextend themselves in order to make ends meet. “Time management skills are not really taught well,” he says. The problem is that personal trainers, thinking they must get busy quickly, will often allow clients to dictate their schedules. “Then what happens is you have your first client at 7:00 am and your last client at 8:00 pm,” he says. “If you live close to the facility, then great. But otherwise you’re pretty much stuck there all day.” Jacobson agrees that poor time management and taking on any client in any available time slot can lead to burnout in a hurry. “I have networked with far too many trainers who work long weeks, full days on Saturdays, and Sunday mornings,” he states. “Normally I give them about 3 months before burnout if they don’t change their ways and, sadly, I’m often correct.”
The Solution: Guard Your Time. “Take control of your life and learn to say no,” urges Bill Sonnemaker, MS, owner of Catalyst Fitness in Kennesaw, Georgia, and 2007 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year. “I was notorious for telling my wife Lauren that I would ‘be home in 15.’ But then someone would walk through the doors, and I’d get distracted by giving tours. I’d come home and Lauren would be mad.”
To prevent yourself from working excessive hours, make a schedule and stick to it, suggests Stella. At Life Time Fitness, each new personal trainer is given a specific shift and may schedule clients only during that time. This might mean a bit of downtime at first, but Stella finds this provides an excellent opportunity for trainers to network with facility members and increases the potential for picking up new clients. “It’s important to understand that the unpaid ‘meeting people’ hour with a client is just as important as a revenue-generating hour,” he says.
The Problem: Mobile Mayhem
Trainers are increasingly taking their act on the road, working in people’s homes, the local park or at multiple fitness facilities. Of the 927 trainers who responded to the 2008 IDEA Personal Training Programs & Equipment Survey, 52% reported training in clients’ homes (Schroeder, forthcoming). This number does not account for those who travel between multiple nonhome locations. This type of training is alluring for many trainers, as facility use fees are low or nonexistent, and there is a consistent change of scenery. However, for many newbie personal trainers, the downsides of travel come as a shock.
“New personal trainers don’t realize that they aren’t going to have a 40-hour-week job at one facility; people are going to go all over,” says Schroeder. “It’s actually pretty rare for a trainer to be at one location only, and the travel can become tiring.” Unexpected financial burdens—rising gasoline bills, uncompensated drive time and equipment purchase—also add to the surprise.
The Solution: Stay Centered. As a new trainer, you might not have the option of settling into a “home base” at first. To safeguard against burnout, Schroeder suggests, “find a way to stay in one area for several hours instead of running all over. This will save you time and money.”
She also advocates putting together a financial buffer before you start training. “You should have a nest egg set aside, because things will be lean.” A little extra padding allows you to take your time in building a clientele that fits your needs and schedule.
The Problem: Isolation
Another potential career-ending aspect for traveling trainers is feeling cut off, says Florez, who once owned an in-home and corporate personal training business. While the potential increase in cash flow is a draw for personal trainers tired of splitting fees with owners and managers, a growing bank account can come at a cost. “Going home to home just wears you down,” he warns. “At one point [our business] had 80 trainers, and we’d have to talk one-third of them ‘off the cliff.’ They would call because they were stuck in traffic and felt completely stressed. They had no one to talk to, and they felt very isolated.”
Florez also has firsthand knowledge of the difficulties in mobile training. “I remember sitting in the car with a cooler full of fruit, energy bars and water, driving from client to client with little to no stimulus in between. It is very difficult because we often have to give so much in our day, but receive very little in return.”
Even though you interact with many clients, the limited interpersonal interaction with peers can stunt growth. “A downfall is that [mobile trainers] often have no one to bounce ideas off of and nobody to vent with,” Florez says. “A portion of clients are very difficult, and you sometimes need someone to commiserate with.”
The Solution: Get Connected. Working as a mobile trainer can be lucrative, but physically and emotionally demanding. Without other professionals to interact with, you also risk stagnation and decreased growth potential. Chris Snook is a big believer in mastermind groups to stay fresh and motivated. “This can be a group of seven to 10 people—both in and out of the fitness industry—whom you meet with once a week or month,” he says. “You get together with people who are eager to grow and move forward and then discuss various topics of interest.”
Surrounding yourself with like-minded and success-driven people will only help elevate you as a professional, adds Brianne Snook. “Masterminds can also be fertile ground for improving your business.”
The Problem: Trainer as Psychotherapist
If you’ve been in the business for any amount of time, chances are you’ve come across clients who can drain your energy. These clients spend more time complaining to you about their kids, jobs, partners and problems than they spend exercising. This type of interaction becomes emotionally exhausting, depleting the energy you need to get through the rest of the day. “Clients initially consult with us because they want to get in shape, improve performance, lose weight or update their routine,” states Chris Snook. “Yet it often happens that within a matter of days—sometimes minutes—after that first session starts and they have paid their money, we become their personal psychotherapists.”
Florez finds that absorbing negative client energy can zap your passion for working with others. “Clients all have personal issues to a lesser or greater extent,” he says. “Being a good listener without providing advice can take a toll.”
The Solution: Set Boundaries. If you have a client who continues to overload sessions with personal issues, be firm about what it is you do and don’t do. “Keep yourself focused on what you are there to provide first, and then establish boundaries for your client when he begins discussing personal problems that have no bearing on his physical health and well-being,” advises Brianne Snook.
Be sure to explain that offering non-fitness-related advice is outside your scope of practice, and that it behooves both of you to maximize time and concentrate on the exercise program. If the client continues to arrive with distractive personal issues, then it might be time to terminate the relationship and devote your energies to someone who is less draining.
The Problem: The Scarcity Mindset
Many trainers make the mistake of doing whatever it takes to get and keep clients, even if it means compromising integrity. Chris Snook describes this as the scarcity mindset. “The phenomenon of scarcity is very prevalent in today’s society and especially in the microcosm of personal training,” he says. “We work hard to get clients and even harder to keep them renewing with us. We tend to fear that if they leave us we will have trouble replacing them.”
One result of the scarcity mindset is the popular practice of offering discounts or lowering fees to entice potential clients. “Not only does this devalue the offering, but it also takes from the profits per session,” adds Jacobson. “In the end, the trainer works much harder, but not smarter. Trainers will burn out when their pricing is not sound and sensible.”
The Solution: Perfect Your Pricing. “Doctors, lawyers and dentists don’t discount services, so why should you?” asks Brianne Snook. “Before determining your pricing strategy, determine how much money you need to pay rent, mortgage and car payment,” says Stella. Add up all your expenses and be sure to leave extra padding for emergencies and spending money.
At this stage it would be helpful to work with a financial planner who can help you gain a clearer perspective on how much money you need to bring in to survive. Then devise a pricing strategy based on those numbers and stick to it. (For more information on determining personal expenses, see “Managing Your Money Before It Manages You” by Kay L. Cross, MEd, in the April 2008 issue of IDEA Fitness Journal.)
The Problem: Boredom
You have a full client load and you’re bringing in more revenue than ever. This situation seems ideal, but one day you wake up to find you’ve lost the spark. Boredom has set in. You’re a passionate person who loves helping people achieve goals, but there will always come a time when you think, “Is this all there is?”
“The shame about our industry is that if you want to make a living, you have to train a lot of hours,” says Florez. “Most people do back-to-back sessions. You have to be careful not to ‘overtrain.’ Another human being can feel it when you’re not really ‘there.’”
The Solution: Diversify. When you fear that your clients are overtraining, what do you suggest they do? Change up the routine. Similarly, personal training may be your top priority, but you risk losing your edge if you do not stretch your creative muscles with other projects, says Schroeder. “Trainers don’t realize they need to diversify. Having just one-on-one sessions is great, but you need to do other things to become and stay successful.” Examples include partner or group training, teaching educational seminars and writing.
Jacobson believes that making efforts to continue your education is another great way to stay focused. “Go back to school, learn and teach others,” he proposes. “Give back. By doing so, not only are you sharing your wealth of experience but you are also reminding yourself of the processes and steps you took to become successful. Then you will never find yourself slipping backward.”
The Problem: Not Enough Breaks
Many veteran as well as new trainers feel obligated to work as hard as possible to be successful and fulfill client obligations. Everyone is guilty of sacrificing personal time to check work e-mail, stay late to advise a client or come in on a Saturday to appease a client’s request. But overextending yourself can have negative effects. “Exercise and nutrition are the first things to go when you get busy,” says Sonnemaker. “If you let them go out the door, you are no longer taking care of yourself and living the lifestyle you preach.” Sonnemaker also finds that working too much will affect your ability to effectively train clients. “When you get tired, you run out of creative juice and spark.”
The Solution: Break It Up. “Schedule breaks throughout the day, month or every other month,” says Sonnemaker. “Make sure you always have time to eat and reflect. Also try to take a weekend away every now and then, or spend a weekend at home alone. Get out of your normal routine so you can return to work rejuvenated.” Sonnemaker has also found a unique way to keep his staff feeling refreshed. “I make free massages available to all my staff. I’ve got a credit with a local massage therapist and always encourage them to go.”
You are a passionate, consummate professional full of desire to help make lasting changes in others. In order to stay in the business, it is important to take steps to ensure that you don’t lose that passion and burn out. Thinking ahead, developing solid systems, creating boundaries and taking good care of yourself will keep you motivated to continue growing as a personal trainer—and as a person.
SIDEBAR: Developing a Business Plan
Whether you are a seasoned industry veteran or a fresh-faced newbie, having a business plan can save you time, money and headaches. Done well, it will also prolong your longevity in the industry. “Trainers who want to be in this career for extended periods must approach training as a business, understand the challenges involved and plan accordingly,” says Darren Jacobson, national franchise personal training manager for Virgin Active in Cape Town, South Africa. “‘Fail to plan and plan to fail.’ I suggest taking the time to create a formatted business plan. This will help you to stay focused and work toward short-, medium- and long-term goals in a structured and systematic approach.”
What Is a Business Plan? According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, “A business plan precisely defines your business, identifies your goals and serves as your firm’s resumé. The basic components include a current and pro forma balance sheet, an income statement and a cash flow analysis. It helps you allocate resources properly, handle unforeseen complications and make good business decisions. As it provides specific and organized information about your company and how you will repay borrowed money, a good business plan is a crucial part of any loan application. Additionally, it informs sales personnel, suppliers and others about your operations and goals.” For step-by-step tips on how to create a business plan and samples of different plans, see www.sba.gov.
The following IDEA articles may also be helpful in writing a business plan. All are free to IDEA members and available online at www.ideafit.com/article_archive_index.asp.
- “How to Finance a New Fitness Studio” by Joe Schmitz, in the April 2008 issue of IDEA Fitness Journal
- “Did You Create a Business Plan Before Starting Your Training Business? Tricks of the Trade,” in the April 2006 issue of IDEA Fitness Journal
- “So You Want Your Own PFT Business?” by Justin Price, MA, in the April 2004 issue of IDEA Trainer Success
SIDEBAR: How Managers Keep Top-Notch Trainers
While personal trainer burnout is a problem for individual trainers, it can also negatively affect the fitness facility because of turnover, member dissatisfaction and extra work for management. Here are some steps owners and managers can take to retain quality trainers:
Provide Continuing Education Opportunities. Continuously making available educational challenges in the form of magazine articles, online courses, in-house training or conventions will keep personal trainers from becoming stale. Regular homework assignments can also give chances for opening a dialog among the staff and creating an atmosphere of community as opposed to isolation.
Offer Thorough Orientation and Job Training. At Life Time Fitness in Chanhassen, Minnesota, trainers must meet specific criteria before they are allowed to hit the floor alone. “Each new trainer participates in a 6-day new-hire training that covers time management, business skills, relationship building and even sales,” says Jason Stella, Life Time Fitness national training specialist. “They then go through a 90-day ‘onboarding’ program in which they must complete certain tasks, such as shadowing a trainer, training a trainer and then being shadowed by an experienced trainer.”
According to Stella, this program has significantly decreased personal trainer turnaround. “If you want personal trainers to become successful, you have to have a developmental program in place,” he adds. “Set the expectation of what you want them to learn in the first 90 days, and teach each person how to build a business.” Such tasks may appear time-consuming, but providing personal trainers with the tools to succeed means increased revenue and client retention.
Be Observant. “Actively meet, network, observe and analyze your current base of trainers to identify any areas of risk that may create instability within their business,” offers Darren Jacobson, national franchise personal training manager for Virgin Active in Cape Town, South Africa. “As a successful manager you need to be able to identify areas of risk and work quickly to assist or resolve them as required.” Conflicts or issues left unattended can create hostile work environments and unhappy trainers.
Compile a Library of Resources. Stella believes that it is absolutely necessary to have on-site resources. Throughout each day, clients bombard personal trainers with questions for which they might not know the answers. Providing such tools as industry publications, personal training manuals or Internet access allows them to quickly find the answers they need.
The following publications will help you find ways to stay focused, achieve business success and defeat career burnout:
- Brooks, D. 2004. The Complete Book of Personal Training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
- Cantwell, S. 1997. Policies That Work for Personal Trainers. San Diego: IDEA Health & Fitness Association.
- Covey, S. 1990. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Free Press.
- Cross, K., et al. 2005. Strategies for Success: Launching, Growing and Improving Your Personal Training Business. San Diego: IDEA Health & Fitness Association.
- Hill, N. 2004. Think and Grow Rich. San Diego: Aventine Press.
- Snyder, S., et al. 2002. The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Personal Training. San Diego: IDEA Health & Fitness Association.
Ryan Halvorson is IDEA’s associate editor and a certified personal trainer.
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. 2007. Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2008–09 Edition, Fitness Workers. www.bls.gov/oco/print/ocos296.htm; retrieved April 16, 2008.
Schroeder, J. Forthcoming. 2008 IDEA Personal Training Programs & Equipment Survey. IDEA Trainer Success, 5 (4).