One of the reasons you joined IDEA was to find out what others in the industry are doing. Each year IDEA conducts an annual survey of the most innovative fitness professionals in the United States and Canada to track the latest trends in group exercise and personal training programs.

To get a representative look at what’s being offered, we pooled the responses of 20 cutting-edge fitness professionals, half of whom offer personal training sessions exclusively or as part of their general fitness programming.

This year’s personal fitness trainer (PFT) participants represent a variety of geographical regions; although most reside in large cities, small cities/towns were also represented. The actual venues where our personal trainers work are also all over the map: Most train in the health club setting or in clients’ homes, but personal training gyms, spas and outpatient physical therapy clinics were also cited.

Owing to the self-reporting nature of the Trendwatch survey form, some participants provided more than one answer to the survey questions, whereas others elected to not answer certain questions.

Personal Training Takes Center Stage

Despite the current economic downturn, it’s clear that the general public has come to appreciate the value of personal fitness training. In fact three different kinds of personal training made this year’s list of top five general fitness trends. (To see the complete list of what participants say is currently in demand with consumers, see “What Clients Want Today.”)

One-to-one personal training appears to be growing in popularity with all clients, especially females. For example, Mitch Batkin estimates that 70 percent of his clientele is now made up of women.

Partner training (defined as two clients sharing one trainer) tends to appeal more to spouses, siblings, close friends, work colleagues and even parents with their children. It also represents a cost savings for clients. “Partner training is popular with those with limited budgets or those who can’t see spending the money for one-on-one training,” says Everett Aaberg.

Rounding out our list of most popular fitness trends is small-group training (defined as 3 to 5 clients). According to Sherri McMillan, “This appeals to all ages and fitness levels.”

Services Offered

Today’s PFTs clearly wear a lot of different hats. In addition to providing customized quality exercise programs, the services our participants offer run the gamut from lifestyle coaching to gym design to massage therapy! And the methods by which they charge for such services also vary. Some of these services are considered part of a typical training session, some are offered as a separate profit center and a few are referred out to an allied health professional, such as a dietitian or psychologist.

Here’s a look at the number of personal trainer participants who offer certain services and how they charge for these services:

Client Profiles

When asked to describe today’s typical personal training client, our participants’ responses are equally mixed. Although most trainers work with a range of client types, some have created a niche market by targeting a certain demographic.

“I specialize in postoperative breast surgery and osteoporosis [clients],” says Joan Pagano. Dale Huff caters to baby boomer clients who want to improve their golf or tennis game and also targets a growing “specialty area of disordered eating and eating disorders.” Greg Mack cites clients seeking to lose weight, as does Suya Colorado-Caldwell, who says Bally Total Fitness recently introduced a company-wide weight management/lifestyle program to accommodate these clients. Finally, Justin Price says more and more clients are expressing an interest in postrehab and “prehab.”

The specifics about how our participants train clients gleaned some fascinating data. We asked about the average number of sessions taught per week; whether that number had increased or decreased over the past year; and if that number was expected to grow or shrink. We also asked participants to cite the number of trainers who are employed as staff versus those who are considered independent contractors.

Sessions per Week

The average number of sessions trainers log per week ranges anywhere from a low of 20 (for a small, single-trainer enterprise) to a whopping 3,000 (for a major fitness chain with a large PFT staff). This diversity is no doubt due to the fact that our participants work in a wide spectrum of business models and locations, from mom-and-pop training studios in small cities to national fitness chains in major cities.

When comparing to last year, the majority of participants agree that business has improved this year. However, when projecting for future business, participants are pretty much split down the middle: Six out of 10 participants say they expect the number of sessions to increase this year, whereas the remaining four participants are more pessimistic.

Surprisingly, the size and business model do not appear to affect participants’ optimism about the future, belying the belief that small-business owners tend to be more vulnerable to economic vagaries. For example, even though Huff’s suburban health club offers an average of 400 weekly training sessions, he projects that the current economy and war efforts [that were ongoing when participants filled out the survey] will hinder future growth. Yet Nicki Anderson, who averages a total of 140 in her small personal training studio and in clients’ homes, expects business to improve in the coming year. Equally optimistic is Justin Price, who is opening his own fledgling facility this year.

Some large chains are also moving forward with personal training expansion plans. “Systematic growth of the business is a company-wide initiative for 2003,” says Bally’s Colorado-Caldwell.

However, for some, bigger is not necessarily better. Pagano’s company is actually taking pains to not increase the number of training sessions offered each week. “Any more is too many,” she says. “We are a small, high-caliber operation and we want to maintain quality control!”

Trainer Employment Status

As expected, the distribution of staff (actual employees entitled to some or all benefits) to independent contractors varies at different PFT businesses.

Trainers on Staff. Participants’ staffing rosters range from a single trainer to upwards of 300 trainers. Comparing these numbers to last year, most participants say the number of trainers who are considered employees has grown. Looking ahead, the majority expect to hire more trainers in this category.

Trainers as Independent Contractors. Judging by participants’ responses, companies employed far fewer independent contractors than paid staff this year. Participants who did have independent contractors training in their facilities cite anywhere from a single trainer to 10 trainers, and all say that this number was down from the previous year. Half of those say the number of independent contractors will increase next year, whereas half project the number will decrease.

Looking Ahead

Despite current economic and political uncertainties, this year’s Trendwatch PFT participants seem upbeat about the future of personal training. With more and more consumers aging and recognizing the value of the one-on-one training experience, our participants appear to have every reason to be optimistic!