A New Business Model: Partner & Small-Group Training
Trainers are going beyond traditional one-on-one sessions for an exciting option that makes good business sense.
Fitness trend watchers, take note: there’s a creative business model sweeping the personal trainer market, and it’s called partner and group training. At Body By Design personal training studio in Cairo, Egypt, partner and group training now form a major part of the business. “I have been fully booked since I started freelance personal training 8 years ago,” explains Body By Design owner Anna Louise. “A waiting list quickly built up, and existing clients asked if their friends, siblings or spouses could share their workout time, as I had no more hours to offer new private clients. I started partner workouts first, and this developed into small groups. These two services now make up over 50% of my workout time.”
Jon Hinds, founder and owner of Monkey Bar Gymnasium in Madison, Wisconsin, has also seen his partner and group training programs increase significantly, because they offer two things all clients want: “They give them a good deal for their investment and offer more private attention, which yields greater results,” Hinds says. “About 60% of our sessions are still one-on-one training, but the small-group training is growing rapidly.”
While personal training always used to mean one client, that’s not true anymore. Partner and small-group (three to five people) training now constitutes a viable business model and revenue stream. According to the 2007 IDEA Fitness Programs & Equipment Survey, even though one-on-one training is still the most popular personal training format (80%), sessions with two clients sharing are offered by 71% of respondents, and 44% cater to three to five clients sharing (Schroeder & Friesen 2007). Personal training gyms and in-home training are most likely to offer these multiple-partner training programs.
Although the logistics can be challenging, business owners, trainers and clients alike are reaping rewards from partner and group training. Discover why this model is popular, find out how trainers are setting up sessions and learn solutions to the potential challenges that can arise.
Trainers who offer partner and small-group training say that the benefits extend to everyone involved: the businesses themselves, the trainers and the clients they serve.
HOW BUSINESSES BENEFIT
An Additional Revenue Stream. “I think trainers originally thought that partner and group training would take away from the private training revenues, but most of the businesses I consult for tell me that it is a different client who likes the partner or small-group sessions,” says Annette Lang, MS, owner of Annette Lang Education Systems and a private personal trainer in New York City who teaches educational programs for trainers and group exercise instructors.
More Money. Solo business owner Anna Louise can increase her hourly income. “Two clients mean I am [earning] 50% extra money, and three clients mean double my hourly income,” she says. “However, the larger the group, the slightly longer the workout takes, so this also justifies the overall increased income.”
More Individualized Service. “Many clients think they don’t need one-on-one training if they don’t have a problem,” says Cody Sipe, MS, co-owner of Miracles Fitness in West Lafayette, Indiana, whose fitness center is geared toward middle-aged and older adults. “However, they are willing to do a small-group session. This allows them to get more personalized attention and helps integrate them into our business,” according to Sipe, recipient of the 2005 IDEA Program Director of the Year Award.
Increased Retention. “The trainer gets to know more members faster and creates bonds with them,” says Dakota Hart, general manager and head of personal training and group fitness for the corporate office of Gold’s Gym Canada, in Calgary, Alberta.
Extra Money. Whether an individual trainer owns his own business or works for someone else, he can earn additional money through partner or small-group training. Sipe says that trainers definitely earn more per hour working with multiple clients, and that it’s important for them to do so. “If trainers have a group of four, they earn almost 60% more than if they train one-on-one for that time,” he says. “As a business owner, if I don’t incentivize trainers to teach small groups, what motivates them to fill up a group? Why wouldn’t they just want to work one-on-one with clients?”
Time Efficiency. If you train multiple clients in a single home visit, there’s definitely a cost savings in travel time. “When the time and expenses related to travel are considered, it’s just as profitable for me to do [a single] partner session as it is to do two individual sessions several kilometers apart,” says Barb Gormley, who owns CustomFit Personal Training in Toronto and trains groups of clients in homes.
More Potential Clients. Hart says that some clients feel safer in a small group because of the numbers. “The small group may be the stepping stone to one-on-one training for an individual who would definitely benefit from one-on-one training but still might not feel comfortable approaching a trainer,” he says. “Once he recognizes firsthand in a nonthreatening session the benefits of this personalized attention, he becomes more comfortable and may consider one-on-one training.”
Burnout Prevention. Partner and small-group training also add variety for trainers and are fun, notes Jon Denoris, MSc, CSCS, founder of Catalyst Health at The Princess Grace Hospital in London. “It’s a nice change. It helps prevent trainers from going stale and burning out.”
Less Money. Multiple-client training can provide a more cost-effective service for the clients, since it usually costs less per person than one-on-one training. “We offer partner and small-group training to try to get more people involved in more individualized training without the barrier of cost,” says Sipe.
More Support. “Some clients are quite competitive, and working out with like-minded partners really pushes them that bit further,” says Anna Louise. “For others, it works the opposite way. A few ladies have become convinced that they have the worst coordination in the world. When they exercise with friends, they realize that everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, and they are not as bad as they first thought!”
How do trainers establish client partnerships or small groups? Here are some of the methods used:
Defining Set Times and Topics. Sipe’s facility offers several small-group sessions in 4- to 6-week increments. Scheduled for certain days and times, sessions run for 30–60 minutes and center around specific topics, such as “Beginning Strength for Women,” “Low-Back Health” and “Perfect Posture.”
Creating Small Groups, Depending on Need. If Sipe’s clients want to take a particular group program but can’t do it when it is offered, they can ask for the program to be repeated at a better time. “If a client knows two or three other people are interested in the [same] program, such as ‘Low-Back Health,’ we work with her,” he says. “If not, we will advertise the program to the other members in order to get another two to three people signed up.”
Selling Session Contracts. Anna Louise offers her clients a flexible arrangement as far as purchasing sessions. “Clients buy contracts of four, eight or 12 sessions (with a pre-agreed expiration date),” she says. “Each time they have a session, we sign off a session. Groups buy the same contracts at the same price for each individual who is training, and we sign off each session. But every third session is ‘free’ if two or more of the group attend. If only one person shows up, he is charged as a single individual and that session doesn’t count as one of the ‘three’ shared with friends. This means, for example, clients can take 12 sessions for the price of eight.”
How do trainers arrange exercises for a partner or small-group training session? Here are some protocols that are commonly utilized.
Supersets. In partner training, the clients “superset” between two different exercises throughout the routine (e.g., perform a back exercise and a chest exercise), notes Anna Louise. Or they alternate cardio intervals and strength supersets. For example, one client does a half-kilometer walk or a 1-kilometer run while the other supersets two exercises, performing 3 sets of 10 reps for each exercise. Then the two clients switch.
In small-group training, thre are two ways that Anna Louise uses supersetting:
- Two clients are on cardio machines while two others superset three or four exercises, and then the pairs switch places.
- Groups perform three to four exercises that form giant supersets (depending how many are in the group).
Circuits. Creating a circuit (e.g., 10 exercises or stations) can work well with two clients or with small groups. In partner training, says Lang, “person #1 does exercise #1, then exercise #2, [etc.]; person #2 starts with exercise #2, then goes to #3, [etc.] and would finish with #1.” This requires a higher-level trainer, she cautions. “You need experienced trainers to do this, because they need to observe both clients and be able to cue as necessary.”
In group training, “this format depends on the theme of the small group, be it boot camp, plyometric training, sports conditioning, etc.,” says Bryan Lepley, personal training director at BodyBusiness Health Club and Spa in Austin, Texas. “One example is to do a 10-minute warm-up with 10 stations (2 minutes at each station twice), then a cool-down and stretch.”
Partner Exercises. Sometimes, when partner training, Denoris will get the two clients to work together, perhaps using each other’s body weight. “Otherwise,” he says, “I’ll have them do an active recovery or some mobility work on their own while [I am] spotting the other on a strength exercise.”
Same Exercises at the Same Time. Clients can also perform exactly the same exercises at the same time, as in a toning class, says Anna Louise. The caveat here is that, for safety reasons, only simpler kinds of equipment are used. “When we [use this method], we stick to bands, dumbbells, balls, etc.”
“Because our facility has a focus on the new exercisers, it might take clients a while to really understand how to do each exercise properly,” says Sipe. “So during the first 4- to 6-week session, we often do the same exercise at the same time with me monitoring everyone’s form. Later, perhaps in the second session when everyone is using proper form, I might change the format. It depends where everyone is on the learning curve.”
While trainers cite the myriad benefits of offering partner or small-group sessions, they also note some of the challenges that must be overcome to ensure safe, successful training.
Dealing With Equipment Challenges. Depending on what type of exercises you use with your group, you need to consider how much equipment you have. This can be a factor no matter where you train, but especially if you are carting equipment to clients’ homes. “It’s important to have as wide a variety of equipment as possible, including small pieces like bands and exercise balls,” advises Gormley.
Keeping Different Levels of Ability Motivated. “Different [ability] levels are an inherent issue with groups,” says Lang. “That is one of the reasons you need to be an experienced trainer to work with small groups.”
“Careful exercise selection allows clients to compete with themselves rather than against the group,” notes Denoris. He also explains to clients that he can make any exercise harder, and urges them to proceed at their own pace.
Handling Differing Physical Limitations. “What if one client [in a group] has bad knees and can’t squat or lunge at all, while another has bad tennis elbow and the third has disk problems in her back?” questions Anna Louise. “This problem is solved by using three variations of a similar base routine. For example, one person may perform a regular squat with a bar or dumbbells, while her partner with a bad back uses a ball against a wall for support and the client with bad knees performs a squat lying supine on the ball. [However], all of this means lots of advanced planning and thought!”
Keeping an Eye on Clients. With two or more clients, you can’t watch each one as closely as you would a single client. Therefore, it is vital that you don’t cut any corners when it comes to screening, says Denoris. “Make sure clients fill out all necessary forms before they come to the session, because you can miss things when you have several people all trying to get your attention.”
Gormley requires clients to exercise with her twice on their own before they do any partner training. “That way, I can sort out any issues with the program; determine the appropriate weight, reps and sets for each exercise; and start to know each client,” she says. “These individual sessions also familiarize both partners with their programs so [each client] can start working pretty independently while I’m with the other partner.”
When two or more clients train together, it’s important to devise strategies for handling the following business-related concerns:
Dealing With No Shows. On this point, trainers say it is crucial to have a well-defined policy and to communicate it to clients.
“Cancellations by one or both clients are not an issue, because I make my policies clear in writing and during our initial meeting,” says Gormley. “If one client cannot make the session, we reschedule for a date that suits both of them.”
Denoris says he always charges small-group training clients the full amount. “It’s advisable not to be flexible on this issue with a group.”
Sipe requires that small groups pay for their 4- to 6-week sessions up front. If they miss a session, they don’t get their money back. However, he says that if three of the four group clients need to miss the same session and inform him in advance, he tries to be accommodating. “Then we cancel the session and add one more onto the end of their schedule.”
Handling Space Constraints. Another challenge is making sure there is enough space to train as many as five clients at once without inconveniencing others who may be working out on their own. “You need more space for small-group training,” cautions Lang. “Some facilities use low-traffic areas, like locations where specialty classes are taught or racquetball courts.”
Addressing Clients Who Talk Too Much. Some clients may chat more in a group setting and not pay enough attention to their workouts. “Sometimes, you have to bring them back to focus on what you’re trying to accomplish,” says Sipe.
Meeting Unrealistic Client Expectations. Lang says it is key to explain the pros and cons of multiple-client training, so they won’t be disappointed. “Clearly communicate about the expectations and limitations of small-group or partner training versus one-on-one,” she recommends. “Tell clients they always have the option of going private if they want more attention and personalized programming.”
If you can overcome the challenges associated with partner or small-group training, this business model can provide valuable revenue streams for you and your business.
The combination of more personalized attention than clients would get in a class and a lower fee than they’d pay for one-on-one training appeals to many people. The camaraderie for your clients—and for you as a trainer—can be extremely enjoyable. “I’ve found that the couples and friends who practice [workouts of this type] are very successful in meeting their goals,” says Gormley. “They cheer when one partner finally balances on one leg for 1 minute, clap when the other reaches her target of 20 perfect push-ups and high-five at the end of a challenging workout.”
How do you apply partner or small-group training in a body-mind exercise setting? Suncoast Pilates & Personal Training Center in Palm Harbor, Florida, has conducted partner and small-group training sessions since it opened 10 years ago, notes manager and head trainer Patricia Massey Welter. “We felt that [these sessions] would give our clients affordable options,” she says. “We started offering duo Pilates reformer training 7 years ago. As we added more Pilates reformers/towers (we now have five), we added group Pilates reformer/tower sessions. Pilates has grown to be 90% of our business, whether it be private, duo or group. Partner and group training have become quite popular. Our largest growth area is small-group Pilates reformer sessions, and we plan to continue to expand the number of group Pilates reformer sessions monthly.”
In her home studio in Trumbull, Connecticut, Sarah A. Collins, MS, IDEA Master Personal Fitness Trainer, of Fit Solutions by Sarah LLC, also counts small-group training in Pilates (mat-based) as a big draw.
Why It’s Beneficial for Business. Body-mind workouts have become so popular that it can be challenging to find enough qualified staff to meet the demand for group Pilates sessions, let alone solo sessions. “In our area [in Florida], there is a lack of certified Pilates instructors,” says Massey Welter. “By offering group Pilates equipment sessions, we can still serve clients whom we otherwise would not have sufficient trainers to service. Our business at this moment is limited only by a lack of qualified instructors, not by a lack of potential clients.”
Why It’s Beneficial for Clients. Saving money is a prime reason clients like partner and group training, but it’s not the only one. “Clients get the benefit of being accountable, not only to themselves and to the trainer, but to a group,” says Collins. “The camaraderie increases compliance and makes it more fun in each training session.”
Bruno Bosardi, master trainer at Body Alchemist in San Diego, believes that learning Pilates in a small group helps each client improve. “We teach a basic foundation workout,” he says. “Once the client has a basic understanding, it is easier for her to progress. When a person works in a group, she improves at a faster rate. She becomes more responsible for herself and does not rely on the trainer as much.”
Portia Page, a Balanced Body University faculty member who trains and instructs Pilates clients at several locations in San Diego, says that some people prefer a group setting because they can model their breathing patterns on those of other participants and also use them as guides to see how to do something, especially if it is a new exercise.
Workout Structure. In a Pilates partner session, both participants usually do the same exercises together, notes Page. “Sometimes, however, if they are at different levels or one person has an injury or is not feeling up to par, he or she will use a different piece of equipment during [some parts] of the workout.”
During small-group Pilates reformer/tower sessions, clients also do the same exercises, notes Massey Welter. “However, many exercises may have modifications,” she says. “[Each client] must complete a certain number of private [sessions] prior to joining group Pilates sessions and learn the exercises and any exercise modifications specific to that client. As often as possible, clients are put into groups depending on their orthopedic issues. In small-group yoga sessions, the same exercises are taught to the group as a whole as well, with modifications given to participants who require modifications.”
Differences in Abilities. If trainers don’t screen for skill levels, varying abilities can present a challenge during group sessions. Collins solves this potential problem by offering different levels of groups. “The group description defines the skill requirements, so all participants know when they are at a beginning or a more intermediate level.”
It Isn’t for Everyone. Pilates is more effectively taught in private or to two people at most, believes Massey Welter. “With more than two clients [sharing] equipment training, it can be difficult unless all participants are at the same skill level,” she says. “Personally, I have imbalances due to arthritis and a prior stroke, so I take one-on-one lessons myself. I am a good example of someone who should not be in group training. As a studio owner, it has been difficult to inform people if they are not appropriate candidates for partner or group training.”
The Wave of the Future? Even with her strong feelings that Pilates partner or group sessions are not for everyone, Massey Welter is definitely optimistic about their growth. “We see this as the future of Pilates business—to be able to make Pilates accessible to more people as it becomes more affordable,” she explains. “However, some individuals will always prefer the exclusivity of personal sessions and be able to afford them.”
The prices trainers charge for partner and small-group training vary according to location, type of facility/in-home training and trainers’ education and experience level. Fees shown below are not meant to cover all scenarios, but rather to serve as examples of the amounts being charged by some trainers interviewed for this article.
|City||One-On-One Fee||Partner Training Fee|
$75 Canadian (~ $70.21 U.S.)
|$37.50 Canadian, per person (~ $35.10 U.S.)|
|Toronto||$75 Canadian (~ $70.21 U.S.)||$65 Canadian, per person (~ $60.84 U.S.)|
|London||£75–£100 ($150–$200 U.S.)||£60 each (~ $120)|
|Cairo, Egypt||$32, in block of 12 sessions||$23.33, in block of 12 sessions|
|$65 per session, in block of 10 sessions||$33 each, in block of 10 sessions of 10 sessions|
|$75||$45 per hour, each|
|Palm Harbor, Florida
(Pilates reformer or yoga)
|$55 per session, in block of 10 sessions||$40 per person, in block of 10 sessions|
|West Lafayette, Indiana||$40–$50, in block of 10 sessions||$32.50–$40 each, in block of 10 sessions|
|Madison, Wisconsin||$45–$90, depending on expertise of trainers||$34–$60 each, depending on expertise of trainers|
|City||One-On-One Fee||Partner Training Fee|
|Cairo, Egypt||$32, in block of 12 sessions||$23.33 each for 3–5 clients, in block of 12 sessions|
|London||£75–£100 ($150–$200 U.S.)||£50 each for 3 clients ( ~$100 U.S.)|
|$65 per session, in block of 10 sessions||$23.50 each for 3–5 clients, in block of 10 sessions|
|$75 per hour||$20 each for 5 clients, in block of 6 sessions|
|Palm Harbor, Florida
|$55 per session, in block of 10 sessions||$30 each for 3–5 clients, in block of 10 sessions|
|Palm Harbor, Florida
|$55 per session, in block of 10 sessions||$15 each for group of 5 who meet twice weekly|
|West Lafayette, Indiana||$40–$50, in block of 10 sessions||$49 for one half-hour session once a week for 4 week|
|Madison, Wisconsin||$45–$90, depending on expertise of trainers||$24–$45 each for 3 clients, depending on expertise of trainers|
April Durrett, an IDEA contributing editor, is an award-winning health, fitness and lifestyle writer and editor. She can be reached at [email protected]
Schroeder, J., & Friesen, K. 2007. IDEA Fitness Programs & Equipment Survey. IDEA Fitness Journal, 4 (7), 86–95.
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