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.

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./,
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.”

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

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

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

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

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.”

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.”

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.”

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

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.’”

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

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

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 abil
ity to effectively
train clients. “When you get tired, you run out of creative juice and spark.”

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.”

Be Proactive

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

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.”


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

The following IDEA articles may also be helpful in writing
a business plan. All are free to IDEA members and available online at


  • “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:


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.


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.


“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.


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.

SIDEBAR: Resources

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. 


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
Fitness Workers.;
retrieved April 16, 2008. 

J. Forthcoming. 2008 IDEA Personal Training Programs & Equipment Survey.
IDEA Trainer
Success, 5