Top trainers discuss the future of the fitness industry—and its role in confronting America’s toughest healthcare challenges.
There’s no separating America’s alarming obesity epidemic and the nation’s out-of-control healthcare spending. In theory, these problems should drive demand for personal trainers in the years to come, but in reality, most trainers’ clients are already fitness enthusiasts who are not part of the obesity problem.
What about all the people who are part of the problem? How can personal trainers help the unhealthy become healthy? That was a key topic in a panel discussion earlier this year at IDEA Personal Trainer Institute™ East, in Alexandria, Virginia. Panelists tackled the issue of where the personal training profession would be going in the years ahead.
Len Kravitz, PhD, a contributing editor to IDEA Fitness Journal, moderated the debate among five leaders in the personal training industry. This is an edited version of their discussion.
Mitch Batkin, MA, senior vice president of fitness for Sport & Health Clubs in Maryland and Virginia. Batkin has supervised fitness operations, including personal training and group exercise programs, for several hundred health clubs.
Fabio Comana, MA, MS, director of continuing education for the National Academy of Sports Medicine and a faculty member at both San Diego State University and the University of California, San Diego. One of the developers of the ACE Integrated Fitness Training™ Model (ACE IFT™), Comana has worked as a collegiate head coach and as a club manager for Club One.
Rodney Corn, MA, co-founder of PTA Global and an adjunct faculty member at the University of San Francisco and California University of Pennsylvania. Corn has traveled worldwide presenting at fitness conferences and sharing his expertise in wellness, sports performance and corrective exercise.
Hayley Hollander, personal trainer, educator and co-founder of Advanced Training Performance in Las Vegas. Hollander is a master trainer for TRX® and the training and education coordinator for PTA Global.
Pete McCall, MS, an exercise physiologist and San Diego–based personal trainer and IDEA member. He is an adjunct lecturer in exercise and nutritional sciences at San Diego State University.
Len Kravitz: In light of statistics on obesity and inactivity and the rising costs of health care, how is the role of the successful personal trainer evolving?
Fabio Comana: I think the first thing we have to do is look at the changing demographics of our population. I think we’ve got two or three primary submetrics that are leading the change. Number one, we’ve got an aging population. Numbers two and three, we’ve also got an overweight and inactive population. Healthcare costs are going up about 7%–8% every year. In 2006, [the total cost of] health care was about $2.3 trillion. In 2016, it’s going to hit $4.1 trillion. It’s estimated that with the current rate of obesity, $1 out of every $6 will be spent on obesity by the year 2030.
So, we come back to the personal trainer and our realm—exercise. If you think about it, exercise is not enough. To lose weight, we need [to burn] 2,000 calories a week. The reality is that most people aren’t even [burning] 1,000–1,200 calories a week. Yet they’re left with this notion that “I just start exercising and I start to have the pounds fall off my body.” So the reality is, exercise is not enough, which means we’re not relevant enough.
We need to be more relevant in a person’s life. This means that as a personal trainer you can’t expect to have 3–5 hours of relevancy in a week. You’ve got to think beyond that. I think personal training has to move in the direction where wellness is leading us. [The fitness industry has become] a $26 billion industry in 37 years. Wellness [has become] a $300 billion industry in 10 years.
We’re going to be gobbled up into wellness pretty soon, so we’re going to have to start behaving like wellness providers. Think about lifestyle coaching, think about everything you can bring to the table so you’re relevant for 110–115 hours of the person’s week.
We need to expand beyond the brick-and-mortar of our clubs. The 22 million people who come to our clubs 100 times a year are not our problem. The other 240 million Americans who aren’t coming into the clubs are the ones we’ve got to be reaching. We’re going to have to change our job description. We’re no longer black-and-white cows—we’re purple cows. We need to be something unique; we’ve got to be a purple cow.
Kravitz: What do each of you see as the emerging trends in our industry? What’s next? Is there a next?
Hayley Hollander: First, if you’re not moving toward a technologically advanced way of reaching your clients—whether through apps, or through email, or through text, or through YouTube, or through social media—you’re missing the boat. [The second trend I see] is group training, and number three is personalization—making exercise match what the person likes.
Rodney Corn: If you don’t put as much time into business programming as you do into exercise programming, you will be obsolete. Business programming means understanding behavior as much as you do exercise science. If you don’t understand the people you’re working with, you’re never going to be successful in the future, because clients are too savvy now. Even people who sit at home and don’t do anything understand there’s something else out there.
Mitch Batkin: I am sure that nothing will ever replace the amazing experience that you guys can give. Videos are not going to replace it. People gravitate toward people and places where they feel better about themselves. A video’s not going to do that. An experience with a personal trainer will be amazing if you want to make it amazing.
And the other part is, [it’s very important to] individualize it. Ask why your client wants to lose 10 pounds. Ask why that shoulder hurts. Ask a lot of “why” questions. Dig down, down, down until you get to the real emotional root of why people are standing in front of you. Because they need your help. We all know that. And then it’s your job to provide the solution. And if you individualize it to them, they will know you’re in business because you care, not because you make money. And people always gravitate toward companies or people that are in it for the right reason.
Comana: We’ve got to shift our focus away from the “two-tenant” diet-and-exercise approach. We’ve got to start looking at lifestyle coaching. We’ve got to stop being directive—and become more semidirective. If we want to motivate people to change, we’ve got to build autonomy, giving them the right to choose. For too long we’ve been telling people what to do—a directive approach. “You can’t have this; you’ve got to do that.” It doesn’t work. We must understand it’s really people’s thoughts and emotions that drive behaviors. So we’ve got to start connecting with people on that level—being personalized, and understanding what it is they want. Let’s provide that solution to them.
I think we’re going to get into an area where trainers have got to embrace technology, exergaming, edutainment, whatever the heck you want to call it. It’s here, and you’ve got to embrace it because it’s not going away. We know the lines between virtual training and real training are becoming muddled, and we have to find a way to take our business outside of the brick-and-mortar world and into a virtual world. I think we’ve got to look at where we start to see the changing landscape of the gyms.
Personal training studios are growing; the facility layout is growing. Big-box clubs are kind of losing popularity. Small-group training using open-space, open-floor approaches is becoming very popular. Why? It’s quick, it’s easy, it’s efficient, it’s cheap. Let’s get in; let’s get out. I think drop-in training is going to happen—where we can open up our doors [to more than] the members. I’m working on this idea where people can just drop in at a facility and work out there. Or a trainer can bring someone into a facility and just drop in.
Personalized menus online [is another trend]: You just choose the course where you want to go, you sign up for the course, and you drop in. And express workouts. We’re not seeing 60-minute workouts anymore. I believe in a 6, 8, 10 approach. I start people with 6 minutes. If we only have 25 minutes, we do four 6-minute workouts: 6 minutes of cardio, 6 minutes of weights, . . . you know, literally. You’ve got to make things convenient for people. If you want to get people in and you want to create an exercise experience, you’ve got to simplify the process.
Batkin: I’m going to keep it relatively simple: the three Ps. We need to play more with our clients and have fun with exercise. Passion: I think we’re all here in this business because we have a passion. A passion for fitness, a passion to help people or a passion to wear tight clothes all day—we have a passion, and it’s important that we keep that passion ignited.
And finally, there’s practice. We need to practice our craft. As educators, I know we try to do that all the time by working with one another, by communicating with one another, but I know it’s true [that we need to keep practicing]. So play, passion and practice, and if we can keep those fired up, we’ll be doing well.
Kravitz: I’m just going to add to Mitch’s comments. My philosophy has always been, don’t follow your passion—I don’t know why people say that. Live your passion.” I had the greatest gymnastics coach in the world, and he said, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” Every day you go out and train, be the best you can be.
Kravitz: As more video-led, prechoreographed programs become available—we see them on TV (for example, Insanity)—how will these programs impact the relevance of the personal trainer?
Corn: This is a fantastic question that goes right back to what we were saying about relevance. Why are these shows and DVDs so popular? Because they’re very valuable. And they’re reaching a population that we’re not currently reaching.
We can gain more relevance if we start to realize that some people don’t want to train in the free-weight room. Some people don’t want functional training. Some people don’t want to use machines. So what do they want to do? Find that [out], address that, and now you’ve created an emotionally based exercise program. People are far more likely to comply with or adopt a new strategy when they’re emotionally attached to it.
Remember, in the medical community and the public’s eyes, we’re stereotyped—just like we stereotype the people who don’t want to exercise because they’re “lazy” when, in fact, that’s not the essence of it. It’s not that they don’t want to change; it’s just how do they change? So we have to learn how to help them.
Pete McCall: These programs are getting people interested in achieving results from fitness. When you look at a program, whether it’s advertised on late-night TV or it’s advertised in a former garage down the street from your house, what’s getting people interested is that they’re seeing results. I think we forget that sometimes. Late-night TV is selling results. I think we have an opportunity to look at how we market ourselves and whether we market our programs based on results.
Kravitz: A recent trend in programming has been a shift toward high-intensity interval or metabolic resistance training workouts; e.g., CrossFit and P90X®. What concerns are growing out of these types of programs?
Hollander: I think the HIIT programs have catapulted fitness into regular consumers’ lives. These programs have given us a way to market ourselves, but they’ve also created concern. Interval means up and down. A lot of times we neglect the down, the rest part, the recover part. And when we’re programming intensity, intensity is relevant to someone’s physical capacity. What is intense for each individual? Can we program individually for that interval? And if we don’t do that, it can sometimes lead to injury, which makes us even more relevant. But how do we reach out to people and educate them beyond that?
Batkin: I’m a huge fan of high-intensity training, but I’m equally, if not more, a fan of just being safe. So if we don’t make sure people can progress appropriately to high intensities, people are going to get hurt, and that’s what’s happening. I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with CrossFit or any of those types of exercise. I love them all. The issue is if the instructor is overzealous or doesn’t understand how to progress people properly.
McCall: I really think, too, that we have an obligation to our clients to protect them from themselves. A lot of people who take these classes have absolutely no business taking them. I see people who go into high-intensity indoor cycling classes 4, 5, 6 days a week, and Hayley hit the nail right on the head. We’ve been focused on intensity, intensity, intensity. I don’t see anybody promoting recovery. We have to educate people that high intensity is good 2, 3, maybe 4, days a week.
Audience question: I’m a personal trainer and studio owner. All these high-intensity programs that we’re referring to address, in my opinion, what I call the hobbyist exercisers: Exercisers who are going to do it anyway. [They make up] only about 14%–17% of our population. If we’re going fishing for customers, I’d like to fish for the other 80%; there are a lot more of them. But how do we stop marginalizing this 80%? And how do we make these nonexercisers our customers?
Corn: First off, that’s an absolutely brilliant question because if this industry doesn’t go down that route, I think we’ve failed ourselves and the population. We’ve created boundaries and guidelines that don’t match the 80% of people.
What are the guidelines for fitness? 150 minutes per week. Do you want to know what research says? That doesn’t work. So the research says if people have to [exercise] 150 minutes, as typical users they’re not going to show up. I don’t think the issue is that the people aren’t willing to do it. I think the barriers are so high they can’t do it. The bottom line is that we have to address the person, not the guidelines—because if the client’s not going to show up, the guidelines are meaningless.
Audience question: I’m a personal trainer and have a personal training studio. Can we expand the conversation and talk more specifically about the economic system in our country and about how that impacts fitness? One reason a person might buy Insanity is because it’s $59.99. You know personal training for a year is $10,000. So I was hoping we could go a little bit further [with this topic], especially when we talk about targeting the majority of the population. Still, whether I’m going to a club or somebody’s coming to my private studio, we’re not talking about people who are impoverished and really suffering with obesity and overweight. What are your thoughts?
Hollander: When the economy crashed in 2009, a lot of us had to take a look at our businesses and say, “How am I going to make this work?” Because what’s the first thing that everybody gives up when times get hard? They give up the personal services. So we’ve had to ask ourselves, “Well, how do I do my business?” How can I attract customers so it’s financially viable for them, but it’s also attractive for them and gets them the results they need—and we still get an income?
The statistics are showing that 5%–7% of people do personal training and 40% do group training. So where should we go? Group training. What does that mean for us? We can make more money per hour and we can work fewer hours per week. [And that option is also] more financially attractive for somebody else! Well, what does that means for our programming? It means we have to look at what we would do individually and what we would do personally, and we have to create personalization within a group. That’s what will make us attractive, and that’s what will keep people coming.
Corn: This is going to be a little esoteric, so stay with me on this, but you brought up impoverished people. The city I live in has about a 15% unemployment rate, so there are a lot of people who don’t get a lot of stuff.
As a professional, what are you willing to give back to the community? What do you volunteer your time for? How much time do you spend giving to something? Do you go to schools? What’s the first program they say gets cut out of school? Do you know somebody at a school, or can you get to know somebody? Can you volunteer 30 minutes to help kids or teachers? I have a friend who lived in Texas and who went to schools and actually did personal training for teachers. So what are you going to do to help give back? Because it will come back. And if you don’t really care about volunteering, then look at it from a business standpoint of branding and marketing. If you’re out there and you’re volunteering in the community, you’re marketing yourself. But you’re also doing a service. And if you’re on the service end of it and you just want to help people out, you’re still marketing yourself, so it’s a win-win.
Kravitz: Hayley, how do you convert your one-on-one client into a group training setting? Give us some real hands-on tips on how this is done.
Hollander: When I listen to my clients speak, the people they talk about are potential group trainees. So if a client is talking a lot about a neighbor, the neighbor would be a potential candidate for group training, because [my client and that neighbor] probably hang out a lot and they probably like each other. If clients talk about a coworker, if they talk about their spouse, if they talk about their significant other, their best friend, their family member, that’s how we can group them all together.
When taking them from one-on-one to group training, first I meet them one-on-one. I have to know what they’re all about. I’ve got to know why they’re there to begin with. What are they looking to achieve, and what do they like? That’s what’s going to make a successful program for them. I personalize the group training experience based on the styles of training they like.
So I [start with a] one-on-one consultation, decide whether they need two to eight [solo] sessions, match them with the people they like to be around and then create a personalized group session for them.
Comana: One of the things I always ask trainers is, do you conduct exit surveys? So when you’re working with clients and you’re getting toward the end of the package they purchased, are you asking them what’s next? Because remember: If their goal was to lose 20 pounds and you helped them lose 20 pounds, what is next? [If it’s nothing,] you’re no longer relevant to them—you no longer fit their need. So you should never be waiting until the conclusion [of the package to talk about what’s next].
Have clients perform a SWOT [strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats] analysis on you. Identify what your strengths are. Identify what your weaknesses are, because you’re never going to get better unless you know what you don’t do well. So your exit survey is asking them—because you have rapport with them—what you don’t do well. Then look for opportunities. “What’s their next challenge, and how can I service that? If I can’t stay relevant to them, I’ve lost a customer.”
Then I would say, “What are your threats?” Usually your biggest threat is not your competition; your threat is yourself because you have too much self-focus. You think what you’re doing is great, but remember you don’t hold value unless the client sees benefit in it. So don’t be so self-focused, don’t be complacent, and don’t be afraid to try new things.