What Trends Are Driving Personal Training?

by Jan Schroeder, PhD and Ayla Donlin, MS on Aug 24, 2011

Find out with this data from the 2011 IDEA Personal Training Programs & Equipment Trends report.

Since last year’s survey, we’ve seen a modest uptick in the economy. Perhaps with that comes increased optimism for growing your businesses and expanding your services to new (and old) clients who are looking to loosen up some dollars to spend on their health and fitness. How do you best prepare for this? How do you know in what direction to steer your offerings or what equipment to buy? This survey, specific to personal trainers, is a bellwether of what you can expect and plan for in the coming year.

Nearly 700 IDEA personal trainer members—mostly independent, small-business entrepreneurs—completed the 2011 survey. Read on to discover what they are seeing in their day-to-day operations, why they are making certain decisions about programming and equipment and how they are positioning themselves for 2012 and beyond.

Topline Trends

The most popular trends reported from the 2011 data show that IDEA trainers continue to incorporate small, portable equipment into small-group training sessions that focus on body weight leverage training, functional resistance training and balance training. The results further show that these trainers believe specialized client populations, such as older adults and those in need of weight management or back pain prevention programs, are growing. This, in turn, means that professionals need more continuing education to remain current and effective in their service.

Respondents report that they retain 75% of their clients for 1 year or longer. Drilling deeper into the data reveals that about one-third (31%) of clients stay with their trainer for more than 5 years, while the rest of customers stay 1–2 years (22%), 2–3 years (19%), 3–4 years (11%), less than 1 year (10%) and 4–5 years (7%). How do these business owners achieve such robust retention, and how are they choosing to steer their programming and equipment decisions going forward?

Survey respondents reaffirmed that training adults one-on-one remains the mainstay of their training businesses. Sessions focus most often on cardiorespiratory cross-training, strength training, stretching, functional resistance training and balance training.

These are the session options offered by 50% or more of survey respondents:

100% cardiorespiratory cross-training

100 personal training, adult, one-on-one

99 strength training

98 stretching and/or flexibility

96 functional resistance training

95 balance training

91 flexibility, range-of-motion assessment

89 height, weight assessment

89 personal training, 2 clients share

89 training for weight management

86 cardiorespiratory interval training

83 balance assessment

83 muscular strength assessment

82 cardiorespiratory circuit training

82 posture assessment

82 body composition assessment

81 circumference measurements

80 cardiorespiratory endurance training

79 resting heart rate assessment

77 body weight leverage training (e.g., body weight only, TRX®

Suspension Training®, GTS® [Gravity Training System],

climbing ladders, ropes, push-up and pull-up devices)

77 muscular endurance assessment

74 senior-specific training

74 back pain prevention

73 plyometrics

73 speed, agility, quickness conditioning

71 cardiorespiratory endurance assessment

70 postrehab following injury

69 activity heart rate assessment

62 blood pressure assessment

62 personal training, outdoor

62 nutrition assessment

62 nutrition coaching

61 personal training, youth, aged 18 or younger, one-on-one

59 personal training, 3–5 clients share

58 exercise for chronic medical conditions (e.g., diabetes, coronary

heart disease)

56 circuit training, small-group

56 sport-specific training

54 online client reminders and information

53 very slow strength training

50 lifestyle coaching

Top 10 Programming Trends

This year we asked IDEA personal trainers to report their picks for the top programming trends in the industry. Participants were asked to respond yes or no to a list of more than 30 possible programming trends. Write-in replies were also analyzed. Results fall into three main categories: training methods, special populations and organizational training formats.

Training Methods

The number-one programming trend is body weight leverage training, followed closely by functional resistance training and balance training. Two of the top three trends—functional resistance training and balance training—have been offered by at least 95% of respondents since 2008. Tied for fourth in popularity are senior-specific training and weight management training. Further down the list are cardiorespiratory interval training (tied for sixth with personal training, 2 clients share); nutrition coaching (eighth); and back pain prevention (tied for ninth with outdoor boot camp classes and personal training, 3–5 clients share). More than three-quarters of trainers who responded to the survey currently offer their clients these types of programs.

Robert Sherman, personal trainer and area group fitness manager for Equinox in Washington, DC, is not surprised by these results. He says the trend toward body weight leverage training, functional training and balance training has been “fantastic” for providing a groundwork for all other training—groundwork that is critical to clients’ success and used to be missing. “The next wave will be to break through barriers in the form of training specific metabolic equivalency,” he says. “This will come from going beyond genetic predispositions and working toward improving goal-specific outcomes of performance.”

Special Populations

Consistent with the trends, Ray Vargas, owner of ISOTONEX Personal Training in San Jose, California, is keeping his eye on a few special populations. His top three picks are the weight management sector, seniors and clients needing postrehabilitation. “Working with these diverse client segments offers many different opportunities for personal and professional growth, and tremendous specialized learning possibilities for the motivated fitness professional,” Vargas observes. “The reason for such growth is that these markets have remained untapped for many years, but now we are seeing the need for training at every phase of life. For an athlete, this many mean speed, agility and quickness, but for a senior citizen it may mean getting in and out of the house without breaking a hip.”

Organizational Training Formats

As mentioned, working with multiple clients through personal training sessions that 2 clients share or 3–5 clients share, as well as through outdoor boot camps, ranks among the top 10 programming trends. Five-year trends data show that while 2 clients sharing and 3–5 clients sharing have both grown, outdoor boot camps—perhaps surprisingly—have shown no growth.

Jill Coleman, personal trainer and director of instructor training at Metabolic Effect Inc. in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, understands well why the multiple-client model works. It’s a textbook win-win, she says: clients get the same- or better-quality training from the small-group (or semiprivate) workout and pay less, while the trainer is able to make more money per session. What is needed for the model to succeed, Coleman says, is “a more conscientious and skilled trainer—he or she must train each client just as well [as if it were a one-on-one session], all the while effectively managing a group.”

So why the lack of growth for outdoor boot camps? “Semiprivate training still allows for each client to obtain individual attention,” says Coleman, “while outdoor boot camps cannot guarantee it.”

Adds Coleman, “Semiprivate small-group training also keeps everyone more accountable. Research done on group fitness models shows that people who exercise in a group are more likely to stick with a program than those who exercise alone. Building camaraderie within a group, while also garnering the attention of a one-on-one [session] with a talented trainer allows for the best of all worlds, not to mention a less expensive training option and subsequently—in many cases—more frequent training.”

Survey data regarding which types of facilities are more likely to offer shared sessions show equality across facility types, with slightly fewer group sessions being given at the trainer’s home.

Cardiovascular Conditioning

An analysis of how training sessions are composed shows that trainers devote about 19% of the time to cardiovascular training. The remainder is spent on resistance training (38%), functional training (20%), flexibility training (12%) and balance training (11%). All trainers surveyed (100%) use cardiorespiratory cross-training techniques with their clients, and most use cardiorespiratory interval training (86%), cardiorespiratory circuit training (82%) and cardiorespiratory endurance training (80%).

Bethany Diamond, personal trainer and founder of Ovarian Cycle Inc. in Atlanta, suspects that trainers use cross-training and interval training more than endurance training because they feel their clients are perfectly capable of doing basic endurance training on their own time. “Trainers who can take clients to a higher level of intensity doing interval work and cross-training, for example, can elicit a higher caloric output and give customers more bang for their buck,” Diamond says. “Hopefully the clients feel value added when they leave a session having worked harder than they would have on their own.”

Apparently, the workout setting also makes a difference in the type of cardiovascular conditioning employed. Data show that cardiovascular training is more likely to be used by trainers who meet their clients in either a health club or the clients’ homes than by trainers who work in a personal training gym or in their own homes. Diamond suggests that this may have something to do with equipment availability. Health clubs are loaded with expensive cardio equipment, and a client’s home typically has at least one piece of cardio equipment that the client is comfortable using, she observes.

A variety of equipment helps to round out cardiovascular training in clients’ sessions. Most common are treadmills (77%), elliptical trainers (69%) and upright cycles (63%); recumbent cycles (59%), indoor rowing machines (45%), stair climbers (50%) and arm ergometers (18%) are less likely to be used.

Coleman suggests that trainers will generally default to equipment that is versatile and has very little learning curve—items like treadmills and stationary bikes. Though these machines can create a challenging workout, the movement patterns required are more natural and intuitive than those required on, say, indoor rowing machines. “Trainers can get clients on these more intuitive options and focus on delivering an effective cardio workout rather than having to spend time teaching complicated movement patterns that might compromise the quality of the workout,” she says. “Obviously, a challenging movement pattern has its place in an intermediate or advanced training program, but for beginners, building cardiovascular fitness is the priority.”

While some training may involve equipment, trainers also provide cardiovascular conditioning through walking programs (45%) and social activity groups (walking or running clubs, group trips, organized group activities) (32%).

Back to Basics: Training for Function

In other areas of program design, the survey shows that trainers are offering sessions focused on strength training (99%), stretching and/or flexibility (98%), functional resistance training (96%), balance training (95%) and body weight leverage training (77%).

A look at where these training techniques are offered turns up consistency across facility types. The exception is body weight leverage training. This is offered at 86% of personal training gyms and 84% of health clubs, but the percentages drop off slightly in the trainer’s home (77%) and in clients’ homes (75%). The types of equipment that trainers choose for today’s top programming (e.g., body weight leverage equipment, medicine balls, foam rollers, balance equipment, etc.) reflect a more functional approach to movement. In this sort of training, equipment becomes an accessory.

Irene McCormick, MS, personal trainer and IDEA author and presenter, from Des Moines, Iowa, explains her choice to incorporate body weight leverage training and functional training into her program design. “As a personal trainer and group fitness instructor, I teach body weight suspension training more often than not during one-on-one or small-group (2–4 clients) training sessions. The reason I choose to utilize this type of training more often than other closed-chain exercises is because I can approach so many more aspects of a client’s fitness needs using this approach. The multiplanar approach, in addition to the weight loads applied onto muscle groups that are very difficult to train, impact my clients and result in strength gains not seen using traditional strength training techniques. Best of all, the [equipment] is portable, and I can attach it almost anywhere. It’s simple to use, so I can focus on my client’s biomechanics, body range of motion, misalignment, etc.”

Top 10 Equipment Trends and Most Frequently Used Equipment

Respondents were asked to weigh in on what they felt were the top equipment trends of 2011. Body weight leverage training equipment, balance training equipment, and foam rollers and small balls came out on top. All three types of equipment are also among the top 10 pieces of equipment currently offered by respondents. In recent years, all three types of equipment have steadily grown in popularity:

  • Body weight leverage equipment was offered by 63% of respondents in 2010 and by 73% in 2011.
  • Balance training equipment was offered by 83% in 2007 and by 94% in 2011.
  • Foam rollers and small balls were offered by 76% of respondents in 2007 and by 91% in 2011.

Kettlebells, stability balls, medicine balls, resistance tubing or bands, nutrition analysis software, barbells and/or dumbbells, and fitness assessment equipment were also among the top 10 equipment trends. Other than nutrition analysis software, all these types of equipment have grown in usage over the past several years. Not surprisingly, the top equipment trends parallel the top program trends (body weight leverage training, functional resistance training and balance training).

Erica Ingham, program director for Club One Inc. in San Francisco, offers this analysis: “Smaller pieces of training equipment that encourage functional movement—such as kettlebells and small balls—can produce results that change the way we feel when we move through life. Equipment that challenges the neuromuscular system to respond to a proprioceptive environment encourages one’s body to leverage strength in a functional manner. One way this can be accomplished is by using equipment that provides an unstable environment.”

Bryan Lepley, personal training director at BodyBusiness Health Club & Spa in Austin, Texas, explains how his training staff uses today’s popular portable equipment: “We use it predominantly in small-group settings to make personal training more affordable for the consumer and to maximize the earning potential of my training staff. [Small, portable equipment] offers fresh ways of training, yet these pieces are less intimidating than traditional selectorized or free-weight equipment.”

As in the past several years, nine of the top 10 pieces of equipment are small and portable. Confirming this trend were the responses from trainers who were asked to write in the top three pieces of equipment they use with clients during a training session. The most popular pieces listed were dumbbells, stability balls, the TRX® Suspension Trainer™ and the BOSU® Balance Trainer.

Alisha Lopez, personal trainer and owner of No Limits Sports and Fitness Academy and a member of the parks and recreation commission for Signal Hill, California, explains why she believes trainers are choosing to offer these tools: “First, all of these pieces of portable equipment are less intimidating and more familiar to most people than the bulkier gym equipment. Second, these pieces of equipment are less expensive and more cost-efficient than commercial gym equipment. Third, portable equipment such as the TRX Suspension Trainer, fitness ropes (undulation ropes), resistance bands, stability balls, balancing equipment, etc., are just as effective if not better than strength equipment in terms of multiplanar movement. Last, incorporating this popular equipment into personal training sessions with clients can help improve strength, stability and flexibility as well as open up a variety of different exercises.”

About the Survey

The percentage (%) shows the number of survey respondents who answered yes to a given survey question. All percentages have been rounded up at 0.5 and down at 0.4. Percentages do not necessarily total 100, because of multiple or missing responses.

About the Respondents. IDEA personal trainer members who gave us permission to use their e-mail addresses were sent three e-mail invitations to link to a Web-based survey in February 2011. The 693 trainers who responded are 81% personal trainers, 14% owners, 2% fitness program directors, 2% personal training directors and 1% general managers. There was an 8% response rate, with a 95% confidence level and a ±5% margin of error.

About the Demographics. On average, the respondents work at two separate facilities. Of the respondents, 52% offer personal training in clients’ homes, and 22% offer personal training in their own home; 26% work in fitness-only health clubs, 21% in multipurpose health clubs, 32% in personal training gyms, 13% in parks or recreation programs, 13% in group exercise studios, 11% in corporate fitness centers, 7% in Pilates or yoga studios, 7% in a YMCA/YWCA/JCC and less than 8% in other venues. Most of the respondents are self-employed (68%), while 38% list themselves as independent contractors and 31% as employees. Less than one-quarter of trainers (22%) sell product to their clientele for additional revenue.

As for location, 35% work in large cities, 37% in small cities or towns, 23% in suburbs and 5% in rural areas. Most respondents (96%) live in the United States—35% in the West, 28% in the Northeast, 22% in the South and 16% in the North Central region; 4% live in Canada.

About the Clientele. Surveyed trainers serve a predominantly female clientele (72%), with the most common client age ranges being 35–44 years (32%), 45–54 years (29%) and 55–64 years (25%). Under the age of 18 (5%), 18–34 (16%) and over 65 years (19%) are less commonly served age ranges. Most clients are at an intermediate (48%) or beginner fitness level (39%), while only 18% are at an advanced fitness level. While 97% of trainers serve apparently healthy clients, respondents also train individuals with chronic or temporary injury (83%), special medical needs (83%) and physical disabilities (47%). Trainers work commonly with amateur athletes (66%) and less frequently with professional athletes (12%). Most trainers (84%) work with older adults (65 years and older), and almost half of all respondents work with children and teens (aged 18 years or younger) (47%). Only 23% of trainers work with women only.

The average cost of a training session is $57 (median $55). Most clients pay for their sessions either as a package (79%) or individually (70%), while only 16% pay with a monthly membership fee and 5% pay with an annual membership fee.

About Median and Mean. The mean (average) is found by adding together all the numbers and dividing by the number of responses. Very large and very small numbers can create a wide range, which may make an average less representative of most of the people.

The median is the midpoint, meaning 50% of respondents answered above that number and 50% answered below it. A median is useful because it helps eliminate the distortion that an average can cause.

About Health Clubs. The “health clubs” category in the charts includes multipurpose and fitness-only health clubs and YMCA/YWCA/JCC facilities.

Editor’s Note: Look for more facts and figures from the survey in the September issue of IDEA’s e-newsletter IDEA Trainer Success. If you are interested in more information about programs and equipment offered in fitness facilities (from a program director’s/manager’s perspective), look for the report in the July–August issue of IDEA Fitness Manager. For a full copy of either report, call IDEA member services at (800) 999-4332, ext. 7.

IDEA Fitness Journal, Volume 8, Issue 9

© 2011 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

About the Authors

Jan Schroeder, PhD IDEA Author/Presenter

Jan Schroeder, PhD, is a professor in kinesiology at California State University, Long Beach, where she is in charge of the bachelor of science in fitness degree program.

Ayla Donlin, MS IDEA Author/Presenter

Ayla Donlin, MS, is a lecturer in kinesiology at California State University, Long Beach.

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