The Best Advice You’ve Never Heard on Small-Group Training

Learn the tricks of the trade from some of the most successful leaders in small-group training.

By Megan Senger
Oct 3, 2014

As shown in previous articles in this small-group training series, SGT is poised to become a significant force in the fitness industry.

Over the past 2 years, more than 25 experts have contributed to this ongoing series on building a profitable program. Yet some of their very useful tips have, by necessity, been cut during the editing process.

This concluding segment contains the “best of the rest” of our contributors’ advice. Here is the final question-and-answer session with experts who are making serious money from this burgeoning trend.

How do I train four people with four different levels of fitness at the same time?

Bill Sonnemaker, MS, 2007 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year; owner and founder, Catalyst Fitness, Atlanta: In our “Small Group Personal Training on Demand” [business model], all of the participants perform the same exercises (think “movement patterns”); what changes are the acute variables. Each exercise should be modified—regressed or progressed—to meet the goals and needs of the individual. The exception is if someone has pain or difficulty when attempting to perform an exercise; we use the mantra “modify–substitute–delete.” Oftentimes, modifying one or more of the exercise’s acute variables (base of support, length of lever arm, range of motion, etc.) will solve the problem.

Rick Mayo, owner, North Point Personal Training and Alloy™ Personal Training Solutions, Roswell, Georgia: Use a “leveling” system. Start with something simple, such as beginner, intermediate and advanced. Your original assessments of the individual clients should determine their levels. Then, create workout “templates” based on each level, so you can train/service different fitness levels effectively in the same training session.

What about a client with specific needs, such as a competitive athlete or someone with a disability?

Author’s note: Since personal training is an art as much as a science, there has been dissension among our experts on certain topics. This is one such case.

Jason Linse, president, The Business of Fitness consultancy in Minneapolis: Don’t train them in small groups—at least not for every session. They need [at least some] one-on-one training.

Frank Nash, owner, Frank Nash Training Systems, Worcester, Massachusetts: We train everyone, from people with disabilities to pro athletes, in a small-group setting. People who need one-on-ones are those who want one-on-one attention [regardless of their physical circumstances], and who perhaps love [the idea of] purchasing the highest-priced ticket.

What if people sign up but don’t show up?

Linse: Allow clients to sign up online, but to cancel only via telephone. Handle the no-shows one at a time. Pull these clients aside and remind them that you can “fine” them $10 (or whatever amount you think is fair) for not showing up, but that you don’t want to do that, so you will give them one more chance.

Author’s note: Several other sources overcome this concern by allowing SGT no-shows to drop into a large-group session to make up their missed small-group workout, with the understanding that their right to monthly SGT sessions does not roll over from month to month.

How should you determine your SGT price point?

Mayo: A good starting point is 40% of the cost of a 1-hour private training session. For example, if a 60-minute private session costs $60 in your market, then $25 would be appropriate for SGT [per client]. Your training membership for an SGT client who wants to come eight times a month would be around $200 per month. Again, this is a rough estimate, and it certainly may look different in your locale.

How do you handle SGT warm-ups?

Dale Huff, cofounder, Nutriformance and Athletic Republic, Frontenac, Missouri: To keep it safe for everyone, we do a dynamic warm-up as a group. This way, everyone’s body is ready to go and there are no questions.

Rachel Cosgrove, 2012 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year; owner, Results Fitness, Santa Clarita, California: We have TVs with 10-minute loops playing our dynamic warm-up for clients to follow. The warm-up is also written on a chalkboard on the wall. But our trainers still do coach the warm-up. Many of our clients have specific warm-up exercises written into their programs. These are individualized for them and aren’t on the TV.

What’s the best way to pay SGT trainers?

Thomas Plummer, author of How to Make More Money in the Fitness Industry (Healthy Learning 2014); business consultant, Cape Cod, Massachusetts: I highly recommend moving to flat-rate pay for trainers. Most gyms aren’t very profitable in their small-group programming because they pay bonuses for the number of clients in each group—which doesn’t make sense, since in most gyms the coach really doesn’t affect that number. You can pay trainers $20 per hour, for example, which is $40,000 per year; add benefits and a set shift, and you’ll have happy trainers. You can then book them steadily [with SGT clients], increasing your return per session and your overall profitability.

How do you measure an SGT participant’s progress over time?

Huff: With our clientele, we haven’t found much interest in taking the time to assess progress. Frequency of attendance is probably our best measure [to determine whether] our clients are seeing results and enjoying the workouts. But if your clients are looking for measures of progress, do a once-per-month testing day.

Phil Dozois, co-owner, BreakThru Fitness, Pasadena, California: We have the InBody body composition machine, along with the Polar BodyAge® system [which assesses physical parameters such as blood pressure, strength and flexibility]. But most clients know when clothes fit looser, energy is up, knee pain is gone and the scale shows that weight’s been lost. The trick when measuring progress is to find out what the client is looking for.

How long should an SGT session last?

Plummer: All sessions should be 50 minutes. Our research shows that clients have to be in the gym for at least 45 minutes before they [feel that they] get their money’s worth from the experience. In other words, 30-minute sessions might work from an owner’s viewpoint, but clients eventually will not feel they are getting the time-for-money equivalent. And over time this leads to retention issues.

Author’s note: The overwhelming majority of experts interviewed for this series provide 45- or 50-minute SGT sessions. A handful offer 60-minute sessions, and one exclusively provides 30-minute express SGT workouts.

What are the biggest mistakes you see small-group trainers make?

Cosgrove: Novice trainers think the clients need to bring other people to join them for small-group. This is not the case. Instead, if one client signs up for small-group, that person should simply get a private session until you sign the next person. It is up to the trainer, not the client, to fill the group.

Hayley Hollander, fitness director, Midtown Athletic Club, Chicago; co-owner, Advanced Training Performance, Las Vegas: We fail to engage the participants with one another. It is crucial for an SGT business model to encompass programming that relies heavily on interaction and building a team environment.

John Sinclair, PTA Global faculty member, Weston, Florida: Novice trainers often make everyone do the same thing. They don’t take into account different clients’ training styles, preferences and aspirations. As professionals, we have to be able to match the learning style of each client as well as the communication style of each client.

Colin McGarty, owner, SeaCoast Kettlebell, Dover, New Hampshire: My worst mistake when I started was charging too little to get a group training program going. Make sure you charge what you are worth.

Any final advice?

Brent Gallagher, owner, West U Fitness, Houston: Just because SGT is growing [doesn’t mean that every fitness pro should be doing it]. Make sure it’s the right fit for you and your business. It’s easy to chase the money, but you need to understand why SGT is the right choice for you. If it aligns with your values, pursue it with excellence. Remember, when you train with purpose, profits will begin to flow in.

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Megan Senger

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