Planning Your Fitness Career Path
With the fitness industry offering numerous career options, be sure to select the one that best suits your talents and interests.
Whether you just graduated from a university with a health-related degree, recently obtained your first fitness certification or are contemplating how to get more out of your current position in the fitness industry, deciding on the right career pathway is an important—and sometimes overwhelming—process. The good news is, the fitness industry offers an abundance of opportunities for a variety of personality types, aspirations, skill sets and interests. Discover how to make your next (or very first!) career move in the fitness industry, and learn where those exciting initial steps may eventually lead you.
Compared with 20 years ago, career paths in the fitness industry are now better defined and therefore easier to pursue. “The fitness industry today has a more sophisticated network or structure than in the past,” says Jay Blahnik, self-employed presenter, writer, consultant to fitness companies such as Nike and Nautilus, and author of Full-Body Flexibility (Human Kinetics 2003). The span of his fitness career has also included working as a group exercise instructor, personal trainer, program director and fitness video instructor.
While full-time positions in fitness used to be scarce, today they are available at regional and national levels in group exercise, personal training, club management and programming. In fact, now is perhaps the most promising time to be entering the fitness industry, because of how far and how fast it has developed. “When I first started doing personal training, it was a new term—no one saw it as a legitimate career,” Blahnik recalls. “Now it’s a legitimate career, and the business side of personal training is also a career.”
Given the myriad choices that exist in the industry today, how do you navigate the field? For one thing, is it necessary to immediately narrow your focus, or should you stay open to diverse possibilities? It’s true that sometimes you have to experience multiple jobs to get a true sense of what you enjoy most—and least. However, there are steps you can take right away that will help put you on the fast track toward your ideal career, even if you are still working out its exact elements.
Blahnik’s advice is to analyze your career decisions in the same way that people sometimes do in more traditional occupations. For example, do you want to work for a large company or a small one? The answer may lie with what best suits your vision and goals. “Are you more entrepreneurial in spirit? Would you like to be engaged in a startup or small company you can have ownership in, or do you want the protection and broad growth of a Fortune 500 or 50 company?” Blahnik says. Applying this knowledge to the fitness industry will help you discover whether to build your career within, for example, a large chain that offers long-term security and multiple avenues for promotion, or a small club where you can learn how to run your own fitness business one day. “Some people want a career path forged for them so they can see clearly where they are going,” says Blahnik. “Others take more of an entrepreneurial path, where they might juggle a multitude of disciplines to make it all work.”
Consider your personality as well, says Blahnik. “Are you hands-on and interactive, or inspired by the business of fitness but not wanting or needing to be with clients and members every day?” he says. In other words, you can work in a gym, or you can run the company. “They are both legitimate career choices,” says Blahnik, “but one is working with customers, [while] the other is helping the people who work with customers to make a business out of what they do.”
Regardless of where you’d like to end up, don’t underestimate the importance of how you will get there. Like most successful fitness pros, you may take on jobs that are stepping stones to the position(s) you ultimately desire. However, how you conduct yourself in those early roles can influence your future successes. “Have a clear picture of what you want your career to look like,” says Sherri McMillan, MSc, owner of two fitness facilities called Northwest Personal Training—one in Vancouver, Washington, the other in Portland, Oregon—and author of several fitness books, including The Successful Trainer’s Guide to Marketing (IDEA Press 2000). Then, no matter what jobs you do along the way, “give your best effort—put your heart and soul into it—and people will recognize that,” she says.
There can be endless permutations to a career in fitness. For simplicity’s sake, this article covers four popular career pursuits in the industry, outlining the major pros and cons of each.
- group exercise
- personal training
- programming/fitness management
- club ownership
Note that these four arenas are far from mutually exclusive. Many fitness pros work in “hybrid” jobs, meaning they build a career by meshing multiple roles and job titles. It is not uncommon for fitness pros to be involved in two, three—or all four—of these categories throughout the course of their career, or even all at once! Tailor the ideas here to make them perfect for you and what you’re most passionate about.
If you’re a newcomer to the fitness profession, you might not realize that teaching group exercise is one of the most effective ways to enter the industry, because it is not as competitive as it once was or as saturated as the personal-training market. Below are some benefits and challenges to choosing group exercise as part of your career path.
Benefits. Group exercise is not an oversaturated market for employment, so most fitness facilities and program directors are hungry for new, dedicated talent. You can reasonably expect to land a position as a group exercise instructor if you are qualified and able to effectively teach formats that are in demand in your area. You also have the option to strike out on your own, implementing and teaching classes outdoors, in your home or by renting a space in a local community center, gym or church basement.
In the past, most “aerobics” classes included lots of complicated choreography, so instructors were expected to put in significant “prep” time at home. Nowadays, fitness instructors can become quite successful teaching classes without spending too much time preparing advanced choreography. That is because the current trend is toward no-choreography, athletic-style workouts; indoor cycling; muscle conditioning; and prechoreographed classes, such as those produced by Les Mills.
As a group instructor, you promote yourself and your skills to a crowd of receptive fitness consumers every time you teach. Group exercise is therefore a viable way to build a name for yourself in the industry. Many successful presenters, video stars, program directors and personal trainers first gained recognition on the group fitness front. With that in mind, you may decide to build career momentum in group exercise as an initial step or concurrently with other work endeavors. For example, if you choose to become a personal trainer, teaching group exercise will put you in front of plenty of potential clients. If you seek employment as a program director, teaching classes will let you experience firsthand the needs and wants of the client base you wish to serve.
Challenges. While step and high-low used to be the extent of group fitness formats, today’s schedules are much more diverse, which puts the onus on instructors to seek out multiple specializations and sometimes extra training and certifications (which may cost significant time and money).
Many fitness instructors agree that it’s prudent to consider group exercise a part-time pursuit; of all the options in the industry, it is the most difficult to fashion into a long-term, full-time career. Teaching “hard-core” classes 30–40 hours a week is rarely possible, and even if you opt for plenty of “mild” classes to avoid overtraining, you still risk considerable loss of income if you get sick or injured. In other words, there is no guaranteed salary in group exercise instruction.
Not only is full-time personal training a viable option, but it’s also one of the most diverse (albeit competitive) occupations in the fitness industry. You can choose to get hired at a gym, training its members as an employee, or to work as a self-employed independent contractor. Whether you are employed or self-employed, you may eventually become a specialist, meaning you train exclusively with one or more specific types of clients or you develop a particular programming or equipment focus. For example, some trainers specialize in boot camp workouts, while others work primarily with athletes, older adults or women.
Employed Personal Trainers
If you just received a personal training certification and are brand-new to the fitness industry, starting out as an employee may be an especially advantageous way to gain skills, experience and contacts. You may also find it easier to connect with possible mentors—other trainers or fitness pros in the company who can help you shape your career.
Benefits. Working as an employee for a small or large company allows you to experience the ins and outs of what it takes to run a business, with the added benefits of job security and a predictable paycheck. Learning the ropes while being employed can be helpful if (1) you eventually hope to run your own business, and/or (2) you have aspirations to advance in the company where you are employed.
Being employed also lets you focus on what you might enjoy most—the art and science of personal training—instead of worrying about (and paying for) other aspects of the business, such as administrative considerations and advertising.
Challenges. You may earn less than you would as a self-employed personal trainer if you are expected to hand over a sizable percentage of your session fees to your employer. You may also lack freedom when it comes to scheduling your work hours and time off. Finally, if you aspire to specialize in a certain type of program or client, your options may be limited if you must ultimately cater to a client base of diverse gym members.
Self-Employed Personal Trainers
Branching out on your own as an independent trainer gives you many options for how and where you train clients. You can pay a “rental” fee to a fitness facility for access to a full weight room. You can choose to purchase your own mobile equipment, such as dumbbells and a stability ball, to train clients in their homes or a corporate setting. Or you can offer online training, communicating with clients and setting up programs for them entirely through the Internet and computer software versus traditional face-to-face meetings.
Benefits. Many self-employed personal trainers relish being their own boss because they can schedule sessions only at times when they want to work. Being self-employed also means you are in a position to enjoy a higher profit margin per session, given that you set the fees and don’t have to split your income with an employer (however, you must still budget for “renting” training space at a gym or buying your own equipment).
Challenges. Self-employed trainers often face many more administrative duties than their employed peers. When you work for yourself, you’re in charge of managing your own marketing, sales, scheduling, cancellations and billing, to name a few of the usual tasks. You must also pay for items that an employee might not have to, such as exercise equipment, advertising/marketing and insurance. In today’s very competitive personal-training market, a lack of attention to these areas could compromise your career. “A lot of professionals are ill-prepared to be successful in their career, because they haven’t taken the time to advance their skills in sales, promotion and business development,” says McMillan. “As a result, they struggle. You may not be passionate about those skill sets, but if you don’t have the systems in place to be successful, then you are just floating around and not reaching your potential.”
This area of the fitness industry offers plenty of promise for those seeking full-time employment with an annual salary, a regular paycheck and sometimes medical/dental benefits, depending on the size of the company. While it is possible to become a program director as a self-employed contractor or consultant, the position is more often associated with employee status.
Benefits. Working part-time in fitness programming and management is a smart way to supplement your job and income while learning a bevy of new industry-related skills. For example, if you have a keen interest in personal training but prefer not to train clients 40 hours a week, you might complement your training pursuits by becoming a program director for a personal training department. Likewise with group exercise: You could choose to teach a handful of classes while coordinating one or more group exercise programs. There are also opportunities to manage other divisions, such as the sales force, or to oversee an entire fitness club or chain.
Full-time fitness programming and management is a legitimate career in its own right, especially if you have your sights set on climbing the ranks in a fitness company and/or advancing your status and income with job promotions. With the growing number of club chains, franchises, associations and equipment companies cropping up in the fitness industry, there are many opportunities to work on-site at a club or corporate division. You may even wish to advance from a local to a regional or national position.
Challenges. Many program directors are surprised to discover that they must demonstrate and juggle a wide array of tasks, responsibilities and skills. This balancing act may feel overwhelming until you become familiar with the parameters of your job. For example, in addition to hiring and firing instructors and covering classes, group exercise coordinators are sometimes expected to train staff, organize special events, handle marketing, deal with conflict resolution and address customer service issues.
What if your ultimate goal is to own your own club? If you know right off the bat that you want to run a business, you may choose to enter the fitness industry as an entrepreneur, starting a business from scratch or buying from a well-established franchise. On the other hand, you might first create a platform as a personal trainer, group instructor or fitness manager before parlaying that success into ownership of one or more facilities.
Benefits. Depending on the club, its systems and its expansion model, club ownership can be one of the more highly profitable arenas in the fitness industry. This is especially true if the facility has the potential to expand and/or provides multiple revenue streams, such as boot camps, personal training, group exercise, product sales and other health services.
Becoming the owner of one or more clubs can help elevate your profile in your community and, with careful planning, should allow you to make a decent living, even when you are not physically at the club working.
Challenges. Unlike running a business as an independent contractor, owning one or more clubs requires you to hire a staff that adequately represents your company’s culture. In the beginning, you must also personally handle or delegate everything, from staff training to administrative tasks to payroll issues to equipment purchases. Early on (and perhaps indefinitely), you might work long hours, taking on many roles and responsibilities, including unpleasant ones, such as handling employee conflict or dealing with broken equipment.
The fitness industry is booming, and the path to a flourishing career has been set for you by previous generations. However, Blahnik believes that it’s a mistake to simply accept the old paradigms. “The real opportunity for this generation is to have a vision and passion for redefining what fitness and wellness look like,” he says. “It’s taken us 25–30 years to mature the fitness business. In the next 25 years, young people, if they are up for it, have the opportunity to be industry shapers and shifters, not just participants,” he says.
Are you ready to help shape the fitness industry and the people in it? If yes, your first step is to adopt a mindset and an attitude that bring value to whatever career pathways you pursue: “The next group of fitness pros must see that what they do is more than a job—it’s something quite extraordinary,” says Blahnik. “Teachers have to see themselves as life-changers, doctors have to see themselves as life-changers and fitness professionals have to see themselves as life-changers.”
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- 1986 Taught his first group exercise class, then began teaching group exercise in college to help pay his way through school. Soon became the part-time group fitness coordinator, developing a following of loyal participants.
- 1990 Graduated with a degree in business and marketing, with a secondary focus on health education and exercise science.
- Began working in the public health sector, but preferred the fitness industry’s focus on health care from a more preventive perspective. Taught instructor-training courses on weekends.
- Auditioned to teach at Karen Voight Fitness and Dance Center in Los Angeles. Got hired there to teach classes and work at the front desk.
- Passed the IDEA Foundation Personal Trainer Certification (now ACE) the first time it was offered.
- 1991–1992 In addition to working part-time in the fitness industry, worked at the American Heart Association; around the same time, was invited to present internationally at a fitness conference in Australia.
- 1992 Made the switch to working full-time in the fitness industry with a position as a group exercise program director at Sports Club/LA; taught 7–10 classes per week and managed a program with 150 classes per week on the schedule.
- 1993 After applying four consecutive times, received his first acceptance to present at the IDEA World Fitness Convention™. Began presenting frequently, traveling on weekends to do so. In the same year, was hired as coach and choreographer for Jane Fonda fitness videos. Became sponsored by Nike, and around the same time started planning and implementing regional fitness events.
- 1995 Made the leap to the entrepreneurial side of fitness. Continued presenting, consulting, teaching classes and speaking in the fitness industry full-time, and began focusing more on helping other fitness pros and companies launch products, programs and services.
- 1996 Received the IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year award.
- 1997 Began consulting more closely with major fitness companies to develop programs around a product and then launch the programs. Example: V-Bike with Precision Cycling through Star Trac.
- 2001–2002 Got an agent, who helped him negotiate his first multiyear contractual agreement with a major fitness company, Nautilus, and the Schwinn Cycling program.
- 2002–2003 Continued to work at a consulting level with major fitness companies, including BOSU® and Nike; later consulting with Nike and Apple on the Nike + iPod project.
- 2008 Became a fitness columnist for the Los Angeles Times.
- 2010 With plans to take on more large-scope consulting projects, Blahnik continues as a consultant, speaker, writer and resource to companies, conventions and media. He still teaches group exercise and offers very occasional personal training. He uses his complementary jobs as cross-promotion for opening doors to other career opportunities. “Speaking at conferences helps showcase what I can do—it’s a little bit of advertising, and it puts me in the field to learn more about trends,” he says.
- Pre-1993 While at university, worked part-time in a gym, doing tours and showing people programs.
- 1993 Graduated with a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology. “My thoughts were to go into sport medicine or physical therapy because I was involved in sport and wanted to do something in sports,” she says. Completed internships with a chiropractor and sports medicine doctor.
- Began working in the fitness industry as front desk staff, weight room supervisor, fitness instructor and eventually personal trainer.
- Presented workshops at staff meetings and in-house sessions. In due course, began presenting at major conferences, nationally and internationally, which she continues doing today.
- 1994 Moved to a new city and kept expanding her role in the fitness industry, working as director of personal training, among other things; concurrently began studying for a master of science degree in human kinetics.
- 1998 Graduated with a master’s degree in human kinetics. “After graduating, I decided to just keep doing what I was doing because I loved it and was learning how to make a career out of it,” she says.
- 1998 Presented for the first time at the IDEA World Fitness Convention.
- 1998 Received the inaugural IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year award.
- As a result of her weekly fitness column in a city newspaper, was approached by a publisher (Raincoast) and asked to write the first of her three books, Go for Fit: The Winning Way to Fat Loss, released in 1999.
- 1999 Left her job as program director, trainer, presenter and instructor at a fitness facility to become a self-employed fitness pro.
- 2000 Moved to Vancouver, Washington, and founded Northwest Personal Training, a studio offering private and group training, specialty events, programs for the community and educational courses and business resources for fitness professionals.
- 2000 Authored The Successful Trainer’s Guide to Marketing.
- 2001 Had her third book, Fit Over Forty: The Winning Way to Lifetime Fitness, published by Raincoast.
- 2005 Opened a second Northwest Personal Training studio in Portland, Oregon.
- 2006 Received the IDEA Program Director of the Year award. In the same year, Northwest Personal Training received the Business of the Year award from the Better Business Bureau.
- 2007 Honored in her community with the Woman Entrepreneur of the Year award.
- 2010 McMillan continues to offer continuing education courses and business resources for fitness professionals through conferences and Northwest Personal Training studios. She has plans for studio expansion, and her job today includes training, managing, writing, programming, presenting and event planning. “What I do in a day is so diverse,” she says.
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