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How to Become a Fitness Manager

If you enjoy behind-the-scenes work and have a penchant for administration and organization, fitness management may be your calling.

Advice from fitness club managers

The pathway beyond group exercise instruction and personal training is not exactly clear-cut. Fitness professionals realize early on that adding classes and clients to their already jam-packed, hectic schedules may not be the best use of their time. However, figuring out a way to increase stability and cash flow is challenging. Since most fitness professionals end up working for several facilities simultaneously and/or fend for themselves as independent entrepreneurs, finding a mentor can be tough.

However, perhaps the time has come and you’re ready for a more routine, stable position that has a predictable paycheck. You’re looking for a post that will continue to utilize your skills as a fitness teacher, trainer and educator, but you want to sleep past 5:00 AM for a change. Let’s take a look at three positions: facility owner/operator, group fitness manager and personal training director. Do you have what it takes to place one of these titles on your business card or—more importantly—is the job a good fit for you?

Universal Truths about Management

To begin, let’s discuss a few universal truths that exist in all three management opportunities to determine if leadership is a path you’d like to walk. Contrary to popular belief, not every successful instructor or trainer is meant to be a manager. It may seem like a natural evolution, but the skill set required for any fitness management position is actually quite different from being successful on the front line.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Will working behind the scenes be as rewarding as being in the spotlight teaching and training?
  2. Do you enjoy paperwork, which includes the administration involved with computers, e-mails, voicemail, schedules, databases and accounting?
  3. Is organization of several moving parts your strong suit?

Unless you answered a resounding yes to all three statements, you may need to continue searching for the next step in your career. While being a fabulous instructor or trainer will poise you to become a manager, unless you enjoy behind-the-scenes brainstorming, paperwork that is never ending and streamlined organization, managing a team may leave you feeling unsatisfied and, perhaps, disenchanted with an industry that you love right now. Let’s take a closer look.

Behind the Scenes

Many people get into teaching and training because they have outgoing personalities and thrive on leading a group or individuals through exercise. Being in front of an audience or being the expert takes you to a different level. Becoming a manager will take you away from this role. You will need to focus more of your time on behind-the-scenes brainstorming sessions to take your club or department to the next level. You’ll be in charge of making superstars out of your workforce. Your ego boost will no longer come from members, but rather from employees who respect your work and comment on your contributions. How will that work for you?


Fitness is a business, after all. Paperwork is a byproduct of running a facility or department. If computers excite you and creating documents, spreadsheets and flyers make you leap for joy, management might be the perfect fit. On the other hand, if you hate anything technology-related and you’ve resisted the urge to get e-mail because you think it’s a passing fad, you might want to rethink taking the leap into management.


Organizing yourself is tough enough, but running a department—let alone an entire facility—requires more than petrified multitasking. If you have color-coded calendars for your life and have mastered your PDA, organizing a team might be a fun challenge. However, if you frequently show up late for appointments, miss them altogether or can’t figure out a system for remembering your children’s birthdays, you might have a problem.

The qualities that make fabulous managers are not necessarily the same qualities that make successful instructors or trainers. However, in our industry, unlike many others, decision-makers regularly promote top instructors and trainers to these positions instead of hiring individuals who possess strong managerial and business skills. This trial by fire forces people to learn on the fly and, many times, find out sooner or later that management is not the position for them. Instructors and trainers are creative, gregarious folks who motivate people by sheer presence. Yes, the knowledge is there, as is the know-how to get recognition and respect, but running a company of one is far different from running a department of many or an entire facility. Let’s take a look at some of the top skills and characteristics a manager should possess.

Facility Owner or General Manager

A facility owner or general manager is the master magician. Being at the helm of the entire organization might mean the day-to-day grind you are accustomed to, such as teaching and training, may shift. Your ultimate responsibility is to create a vision, hire the right people and steer employees in the same direction to increase profits.

Generally speaking, a facility owner/general manager must possess the following characteristics:

Visionary. Not only should you know the ins and outs of the fitness business (including products, programming and people), but you should also possess a unique mindset that sees beyond what everyone else is doing to help you shape a facility’s legacy. You must be an out-of-the-box, big-picture thinker and problem solver.

Puzzle Whiz. You will need to recruit, hire and train the right people for the vision you create and place each individual in the perfect spot to thrive. The same is true for products and programs. You must be able to put together the perfect hardware and software based on the current and future needs of a facility. This is a fun challenge that doesn’t have a clear finish line and requires constant tinkering.

Proficient Profiteer. Profits keep the doors open. To be profitable, you must have a firm grasp on accounting principles and understand spreadsheets and budgets. Strategies to reduce overhead and personnel costs come easily to you, and your sales expertise helps you drive revenue, which is paramount.

Branding Brain. You need marketing savvy to articulate your mission and vision to the community. Get a grasp on your unique selling proposition and tell your story—this is an important role you will play.

Conscientious Customer Care Giver. A majority of your time will be spent talking to members. Yes, you will have an office, but if you are locked away behind closed doors, your facility will not thrive. You’ll answer all complaints from members and employees, and you’ll be expected to develop creative solutions to keep your ship sailing.

Group-Fitness Manager

A group-fitness manager’s role will vary from facility to facility based on the number of classes and vision of the department. However, a strong group-fitness program depends on finding a manager who is more than just a great teacher. Your ultimate job is to pass along your “secrets” to the staff, thus creating safe and effective programming for members to stay engaged. You also have a direct line to dues. Whether it’s easy to see the direct correlation or not, what you do in the group fitness studio(s) has a profound impact on the number of new memberships and the number of cancellations. If your interest in group fitness is more about working out and getting paid for it, socializing with members and being loved, you may want to think twice about trading in the headset for the head position.

Generally speaking, a group fitness manager must possess the following characteristics:

Continuing Ed Contessa. Not only is it imperative that you are certified by a nationally recognized, accredited organization, but you must also stay current with continuing education in order to properly evaluate, educate and grow your programming. Your thirst for knowledge should be outweighed only by your excitement for passing along the nuggets you receive. You don’t have to be the best instructor, but you certainly must possess a keen understanding of exercise physiology, communication techniques, class design and delivery.

Teamwork Taskmaster. While it’s true you’ll need to be able to sub classes and step in to fill any voids, your ultimate objective is to create a team of highly skilled players who have a vested interest in the club, each other and the members. The ability to create an empowered environment where part-time workers with many outside interests have a desire to go above and beyond for you, the club and one another will make a tremendous difference. To make this happen, your teaching takes a back seat and staff development moves to the top of the list.

Business Minded with a Splash of Creative Genius. One of the toughest balances is providing cutting-edge programming, hiring the best talent, driving revenue and staying within budget. You must possess, minimally, a base level knowledge of accounting and business. Simply saying, “Because we need it” without justification or explanation of potential return will not fly with most general managers/owners.

Scheduling Super Star. The ability to create the perfect schedule will take more than putting yourself in the time slots that are hard to fill. Develop a vision for the perfect schedule by balancing the needs of the members with the needs and strengths of your staff. This will also drive your hiring, training and educational platforms. The schedule is your product and one of the toughest parts of the position.

Member Sounding Board. You will be the ultimate conduit between members and instructors, as well as members and management. Group fitness instructors are genuine people pleasers and while that is important, there will also be times when you’ll have to engage in tough conversations, negotiate and simply deal with not being the most popular person in the club because of business decisions you make. A strong group fitness manager will learn to not take things personally, have solid reasoning behind programming and personnel choices and stand behind all decisions.

Personal Training Director

Personal training directors are often the number one source for revenue generation in a club. Along with the title comes high expectations and pressure to continually outpace previous performance and sister clubs. While creating a successful personal training business requires solid skills in helping members reach their goals, transitioning to the head of the department means shifting your focus toward building a solid sales team full of skilled trainers. This can be a crazy balancing act.

Generally speaking, a personal training director must possess the following characteristics:

Sales Savvy. Though you are not technically a sales manager, if you don’t focus tremendous effort on enhancing the salesmanship of your team, revenue may lag. A trainer’s abilities and expertise in the weight room will jumpstart sales, but if trainers do not practice lead generation, or know how to overcome objections and ask for the sale, highly qualified trainers may be looking for new employment opportunities.

Equipment Engineer. As the leader, you may not be using the equipment as much, but you certainly will be the one folks come running to when something isn’t working. You will need to know how to source, clean, troubleshoot and repair (minor) equipment.

Educator. Much like a group fitness manager, you will need to be at the top of your game when it comes to certifications and continuing education. You will also need to help facilitate member and staff education via workshops, client handouts and programming.

Playground Supervisor. In between budgeting and sales forecasting, you’ll be acting as the referee between members and, at times, trainers. Members sometimes behave badly and as floor supervisor, you are typically the one responsible for reprimanding and settling disputes over messy weights, training under the table and cell phone policies. Trainers, at times, may need supervision as well. There is a delicate balance between pushing individual sales through internal competition and creating camaraderie—it’s a tough aspect of the job. Without closer monitoring, you may find yourself sleuthing to figure out how Bob stole John’s comp!

Found in Translation

Management can certainly be a positive step in your career. However, as you will discover, just because you’re a superstar in the role you play now, this does not always translate to being a well-respected leader. Take a look behind the scenes at the top job skills necessary in various management positions to help you decide if this change of pace suits you. Perhaps you don’t currently possess all the prerequisites—who’s to say you can’t start learning? Pick a mentor and shadow him or her, enroll in online or live classes to learn the business side of things, read books about small-business management or leadership and you just might find you have a natural affinity for the management career evolution.

Looking for a job in the fitness industry? Use the IDEA Job Board to find the perfect job for you. Want to post a job? Click here.

3 Top Qualities of Successful Managers

What are the three most important qualities a successful manager must have? Top fitness managers share their viewpoints.

“Organization, communication and adaptability.”
Linda McHugh, group exercise key accounts program manager, 24 Hour Fitness®

“Sincerity, incerity, sincerity.”
— Mary Jayne Johnson, PhD, founder, Profound WellnessÔäó

“Remember you are not the star of your program. Manage the instructors, not your own needs. Be consistent in your message. Loyalty to your company comes first. Constantly look for industry trends and ÔÇÿout of the box,’ nontraditional programs.”
— Donna Cyrus, senior vice president of programming, Crunch Fitness®

“Trail-blazing/innovative, effective, dynamic.”
— Lawrence Biscontini, MA, mindful movement specialist, FG2000

“The ability to listen and adapt, to be compassionate but remain focused on the company’s vision, to keep yourself available at all times to both the members and staff.”
— June Kahn, 2009 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year and founder of June Kahn’s Bodyworks LLC.


Concerned about your place in the new fitness industry? We have 40 years of experience supporting pros just like you! Let’s create a new wellness paradigm together—IDEAfit+ is the extra edge you need. Once you team up with IDEA, be sure to take full advantage of all the benefits of membership.

Shannon Fable

Shannon Fable is a sought-after speaker, author and thought leader in the area of fitness business development and strategic innovation. She has spent more than two decades helping impressive brands such as Anytime Fitness, ACE, FIT4MOM® and BOSU® with business and program development. Fable served as chair of the ACE Board of Directors and is the co-founder of GroupEx PRO®, a cloud-based group fitness management tool that she successfully sold to Daxko in 2019. As a certified Book Yourself Solid® business coach, she helps fitness professionals navigate the industry to build scalable and sustainable careers.

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