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Small-Group Secrets: Programming for Profit

Learn the pros and cons of four different small-group programming systems.

Fitness is an exciting industry filled with passionate people. Yet personal training itself is frequently a dollars-for-hours trade with inherent income limits and a high rate of burnout.

The solution? Convert to a business model where small group is dominant—where one trainer works with up to a dozen clients at the same time (see www.ideafit.com/fitness-library/small-group-secrets-the-start-up-plan).

This article—the third in an ongoing IDEA Trainer Success series on small-group success—discusses profitable business programming: how to calibrate your booking systems, your menu of services and your equipment choices to maximize revenue and market appeal.

A New Programming Paradigm

A decade ago, the classic personal training business model consisted of 1-hour appointments, one client at a time, each with a customized workout. And although it’s tempting to do what you’ve always done, a small-group training (SGT) launch is a great time for a programming overhaul.

There is no one right way to run a fitness business, but there are ways for you to make more money based on your unique skills and niche clientele. Read on for the pros and cons of four different yet successful small-group systems.

Same Time, Same Trainer: A Traditional Booking System

“Our small-group sessions are by appointment, just like a one-on-one,” says Rachel Cosgrove, owner of Results Fitness in Santa Clarita, California, and the 2012 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year. “Each trainer has three appointments per hour available instead of one. This creates the same accountability as a one-on-one.”

Consistent SGT appointments (for example, every Monday and Wednesday at 6:00 pm with the same participants and same trainer) also maximize group spirit, which in turn boosts word-of-mouth marketing.

Another benefit? Prebooked appointments support personalized and periodized fitness plans that help avoid plateaus.


  • supports a positive client culture
  • makes exercise planning easier for less experienced trainers

Potential Limitations

  • restricts clients to a strict time schedule
  • limits the number of clients the facility can take on during peak times
  • increases the administrative demands of tailored-for-each-client program designs

Variable Times, Variable Trainers: Personal Training on Demand

The classic “prebooked appointment” approach comes with a major client concern: time constraints born of hectic work and life demands.

If you offer only preset training slots, busy professionals and parents often won’t hire you because of frequent schedule conflicts, says Bill Sonnemaker, MS, co-founder and chief operating officer of Catalyst Fitness in Atlanta, and vice president of education for Redcord®. “Or, a client runs more than 15 minutes late to a class or training session and decides to pull the plug on going entirely.”

Sonnemaker has pioneered a unique solution: “Personal Training on Demand.” His facility offers SGT “drop-in” hours Monday through Friday from 6:00 am to 1:00 pm and from 4:30 to 7:30 pm, plus Saturday mornings. For $299 per month, clients buy the right to unlimited group training sessions, with no appointment necessary.

After a warm-up, clients are guided through approximately a dozen exercises that change daily. In general, participants are encouraged to complete two to four rounds of the circuit, each starting whenever a client arrives at the studio.

To make this work, Sonnemaker relies on equipment that lets exercises be easily progressed or regressed under a trainer’s guidance (see “SIDEBAR: Equipment for Small Group” for Sonnemaker’s list of go-to equipment options). By design, not every exercise uses sophisticated movement patterns. And trainers triage their time, prioritizing clients during their first circuit and on more complex exercises.

With this programming approach, trainers can handle up to a dozen participants simultaneously. In practice, however, Catalyst Fitness typically hosts three to six clients at a time, Sonnemaker notes.

Sonnemaker describes the class as SGT, but not a boot camp: “The personalization comes from tweaking the exercises to appropriately meet and challenge each member’s threshold.”


  • offers customers total time flexibility
  • lets clients have up to six training sessions per week for a relatively low flat fee
  • frees trainers from having to write individually tailored programs

Potential Limitations

  • makes client numbers unpredictable
  • requires trainers to have a high level of interpersonal and technical skill to effectively manage the system
  • may not be personal enough for clients with certain physical challenges

The Hybrid Model: Office Hour Appointments

John Sinclair is an experienced trainer in Edmonton, Alberta, who teaches as part of the PTA Global Faculty. He offers his customers a more expensive, more personalized programming approach: training by appointment, but with time flexibility.

His clients prebook sessions during small-group “office hours” between 8:00 am and noon and again from 4:00 to 8:00 pm, Monday through Friday.

Sessions start on the hour or the half-hour. Sinclair may train some clients from 4:00 to 5:00 pm, and others from 4:30 to 5:30 pm. But if clients prebook a 5:00 pm slot and show up at 5:14, they still get a full hour; their session ends at 6:14 pm. “If clients are not fixed to a certain time, they are more likely to show up,” Sinclair explains.

Why not use a circuit? Sinclair, who trains three to six clients at a time, believes personalization trumps standardization. He strives to provide each client with a “private personal training experience” that happens to take place at the same time as other clients’ workouts. And he charges accordingly: $95 for a one-on-one, and $75 per client for a small-group session.


  • makes appointment times more flexible
  • enables trainers to periodize and progress their exercise designs

Potential Limitations

  • favors experienced trainers who are able to handle varying session start times and a more tailored approach
  • may require a lot of nonclient contact work for detailed exercise designs
  • limits potential market penetration because of its higher fees

The Tiered Model: Service Layers

Of course, SGT options need not be an either/or proposition. You need not be limited to set group times or a circuit-style class. For more flexibility, consider a “service layers” tiered pricing model.

Service layers are like a menu of personal fitness services progressing from more to less (the “layers”). For example, a trainer or facility might offer one-on-one training, semiprivate training (three to six people), small-group training (six to 10 people) and boot camp classes (more than 10 people). Layers are priced accordingly—from relatively expensive one-on-one sessions to highly affordable boot camps.

Each layer also includes access to all less-personal (larger group–sized) sessions. So, a client who signs up for small groups also has unlimited access to boot camp classes; a one-on-one client would have access to every other service.

“All our training is sold as layered memberships on annual agreements,” says Rick Mayo, a fitness business coach and owner of North Point Fitness in Roswell, Georgia. “Instead of developing an entirely different business plan, consider small group as another layer in your personal training options.”

How? Service layers are highly adaptable. A facility with multiple trainers might offer a complex workout menu. But an independent trainer can opt for a simpler approach: mostly small groups (the most lucrative layer), supported by a few hours of one-on-ones and several boot camp sessions per week.

Interestingly, there is a growing trend to offer only the most profitable services. Cosgrove, who calls one-on-one sessions “a thing of the past,” offers only two layers at her facility: traditional large-group classes and SGT.

Cosgrove’s SGT customers have access to four SGT sessions per month, as well as unlimited access to gym equipment and large group classes; non-SGT clients have access to only the gym equipment and large-group classes. Each type of facility membership is billed automatically and monthly. (For more about the best way to charge clients, see www.ideafit.com/fitness-library/small-group-secrets-pricing-and-profits.)


  • offers a wide range of price and service choices for clients
  • appeals to a broader market

Potential Limitations

  • increases the administrative work required to track clients and manage trainer schedule(s)

Picking your Program

The bottom line? SGT programming should make it easy for clients to book and attend training—and to find fitness success. “[SGT] allows the client to pay less and the gym and trainer to make more income, have more flexibility for schedules and achieve better results,” says Cosgrove.

“The great thing about the small-group format is that you can quadruple your business with no appreciable gain in active training hours,” adds Mayo. That’s why with small group, it’s time to get with the program!

SIDEBAR: Equipment for Small Group

Make your equipment work for you! SGT equipment choices should be versatile and make exercise progressions and regressions straightforward, says Bill Sonnemaker, MS, co-founder and chief operating officer of Catalyst Fitness in Atlanta, and vice president of education for Redcord®. Here are his training tool mainstays:

  • body weight exercises (e.g., push-ups, lunges)
  • trigger point therapy tools
  • Redcord® (suspension training system; similar to TRX®)
  • ViPRÔäó
  • Surge 360
  • Halo Bells by Balanced Bells® (versatile dumbbell-like weights)
  • kettlebells
  • Indo Board®
  • agility ladders and cones
  • Hyperwear® SandBell®
  • Dynamax® medicine balls
  • stability balls
  • elastic resistance
  • SorinexÔäó and Sledbarrow sleds
  • PLAEÔäó ACHIEVE Flooring

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