What’s Wrong With the Personal Training Industry (and What to Do to Fix It)

“To hell with this.”

That was my reaction one day while at the gym at the end of a string of eight or so clients. At this point, I think there was little blood left in my body as the majority had been replaced with coffee. To say that I was a bit tired and cranky is an understatement.

This had nothing to do with the clients that I was working with or the gym where I worked. My clients and coworkers both kicked some serious ass. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed harder than I did during some of those hour-long sessions.

Still, personal training eventually drove me nearly crazy and finally led me to step to the side to pursue a different avenue. Now, admittedly, some of this was due to me personally wanting a career switch. I want to freelance full-time and needed to get some things in line to make that happen. The other factors, however, are still happening across the country and causing trainers to fail and drop out in droves.

The attrition rate for personal training is absolutely astounding. If you take a look at the trainers in your local gym one month, there’s a good chance that you won’t see the exact same faces the next month. In my opinion, attrition is somewhat needed as it continues to force out individuals who aren’t good at their job. In another sense, it can be alarming.

Having worked in the industry for several years in a variety of clubs and situations, I can tell you for sure that it’s becoming more and more difficult for personal trainers to live and earn a full-time income. I’m not saying that there aren’t personal trainers out there making a killing and living an amazingly lavish lifestyle thanks to the fitness boom and the obesity trend. Of course there are. But, for every one individual that’s a huge success, there are thirty others that have come and failed.

Here’s why:

Low barrier to entry

It’s no secret that any Joe Schmo off the streets could become a personal trainer tomorrow. The credibility of the certification and his ultimate success as a personal trainer would be extremely questionable, but he’d tell friends that he was indeed a personal trainer.

Compared to other industries, the personal training field is extremely unregulated in terms of certifications. That’s not always a bad thing. In fact, I think having a variety of certifying bodies is beneficial as it allow individuals to pursue whatever interests them. However, it also allows anyone to create a certification and confuses the mass public.

I know very little about medical school. In fact, my best friend is currently putting the finishing touches on medical school. But despite following his progress from day one, I would have a hard time detailing the process of medical school and becoming a doctor. Still, when he’s operating on me twenty years down the road, I can be at ease knowing that he took the exact same test that other practicing doctors have taken – and passed (hopefully). Same thing goes for dentists and nearly every other medical professional.

Personal trainers? The tests take a variety of forms – some written, some fill in the blank, some practical.

This has two main effects:

  1. Allows the educated and experienced individuals to rise to the top. After only a few hours in a gym, it becomes extremely obvious whether they took an hour long course and got a paper certification or whether they spent years learning and refining their craft.
  2. Generates a public distrust of personal trainers in general. I would argue that the mass public have the idea that personal trainers are only good for writing a hard workout and making you sweat. Very few would say that personal trainers know anything about hormones, biomechanics, or lifestyle optimization in any fashion. This is partly due to how the media portrays trainers as steroid-filled freaks that wander around the gym and speak in bro-terms. It’s also a case of the many ruining it for the few. When a trainer injures their client through stupid programming or a variety of other mistakes, that trainer furthers the public mistrust of fitness professionals and makes the job harder for everyone out there trying to do their best to provide great, quality service.

Let me reiterate: I’m in no way saying that personal trainers are not educated or forego staying on top of industry standards. Quite the contrary. There’s a revolution of trainers out there kicking ass, attending conferences, and spreading the good word (check the community at the PTDC for evidence).

Sadly though, for every trainer that attends a conference or gets an extra certification, there are ten more printing off their online credentials that would rather play a video game than read a book about anything related to fitness.

(Small point: If you’ve been working with your particular trainer for over a year, ask them about the last continuing education session or learning opportunity they went to. If they can’t name any way they’ve furthered their learning, please pick someone else. Good trainers that have a passion for their job make it a point to stay ahead of the curve.)

Public Misunderstanding of the Industry

I literally overheard someone talking about getting a personal training certification the other day utter this exact statement:

Yeah, I’m thinking about getting a personal training certification. I mean, I know a good bit about working out and stuff. I train all of my friends anyway. It would be a nice way to earn some cash on the side.

I also watch a ton of HGTV (House Hunters, mainly) but I don’t go ripping out my cabinets or applying to become a realtor on the weekends.

Good personal training is far deeper than simply putting someone through a tough workout and leaving them gasping for air on the gym floor. Anyone can do that.

A sucessful personal trainer also knows how to help someone change their life. That takes time – a lot more than just a few days on the weekends.

Bad Business Models

If you can’t sell, you can’t train.

It really is that simple. The current business model for most commercial gyms is one that supports numbers rather than results. In case you didn’t know (which none of my clients did), most personal trainers are paid completely off commission. That means they are only making money when someone buys something (usually sessions) or when they are working with clients. All those individuals clad in black that you see down at the coffee bar are making a whopping $0.00 that hour.

In all honesty, the current business model is understandable. Commercial fitness owners can’t ease the mind of shareholders after a dip in revenue with the rationalization that clients still lost a ton of weight. Someone has to be paying attention to the bottom line.

In most scenarios, results and sales go hand in hand. If you’re getting great results, you’re probably going to stick with a trainer.

But, there are certain scenarios where terrible trainers happen to master the art of sales. They’ll talk your pants off of you in a matter of minutes.

In a successful business model, these sales-oriented trainers would then make commission off the sale and pass along the clients to the trainers that just want a shot at helping someone squat better. The sales-oriented folk (that really don’t want to train all that much) get to go out and woo the next gym member that stumbles in for a free assessment.

That’s not the case at most commercial gyms.

Trainers are often expected to sell and service, meaning they have to generate revenue and train their clients. For some, they learn to master the art of selling after a series of failures. For others, they end up hating half of the job.

Here’s the underlying problem, commercial fitness gyms are looking at the bottom line number. For those trainers that happen to have the gift of sales, they are handsomely compensated and continue to succeed as they are driving more revenue to the company. They rarely have to adapt to become a better trainer in the commercial sector because there will always be more fish in the pond so to speak.

So, you have an atmosphere that promotes individuals good at selling and doesn’t necessarily benefit those extra good at training.

So, sales is a huge part of the job. So why don’t many certifications speak to the sales aspect of personal training? Most certifications are neglecting the most important part of success (at least for being successful out the gate).

The Current Workload of a Successful Trainer

When time is money, you want to be as busy as possible. That’s fine if you also have a cot at the back of the gym and a hook-up for free coffee in the cafe. It’s no secret that personal trainers are a highly caffeinated group. Any good-hearted trainer will tell you that working with clients is the best part of your day. They’re also lying if they say that they’ve never had a time when they prayed desperately for someone to cancel so they could have an hour off.

The business of personal training is, in fact, the business of exertainment or the art of listening to people talk and carrying on a conversation while simultaneously having them perform a variety of exercises.

In order for a personal training session to be successful, the client must be entertained otherwise they will get bored regardless of how many jean sizes they have dropped. Picture it like being the host of a party and focusing all of your energy on entertaining one or more individuals. After seven hours of your party, you would probably rather sit by yourself in silence with a bottle of wine than have another conversation with someone about the last movie they saw and how great their kid was doing in basketball this year.

Now, extrapolate that example to five days a week. That can get really exhausting.

The successful trainer is typically working with clients between 25-35 hours a week. That’s 25-35 mini-parties they are hosting. Extremely ambitious trainers are working more than that.

Compound those busy weeks over the course of a few years and you get burnout. It’s a difficult lifestyle to maintain as you try to manage your own health and fitness while also cramming in food between sessions and somehow finding the motivation to work out after eight hours in the gym.

What has to change?

I don’t pretend to have all the answers to fixing the personal training industry. (That’s why I’m asking for your feedback in the comment section.) I do know that personal training is a highly rewarding and much needed profession given the rate of obesity in the country. The trick is making it sustainable and rewarding for those that want to stay in it for the long haul.

The following ideas are listed to solve the problems above. They’re listed in no particular order of importance.

1. Create an industry standard for certifications. Get rid of anyone that doesn’t have (or isn’t willing to maintain) the standard. The standard should include a college degree of some sort. I realize that their are a lot of very successful and educated personal trainers out there without a college degree, but times are changing. A college degree is virtually required in every other profession so why not personal training? Plus, this gives individuals something to fall back on if personal training doesn’t work out.

2. Include sales training in certifications. The basics of business including how to market, sell, and build excitement for your product (ultimately, you) should be required learning for all personal trainers prior to working with a single client. Also, teach trainers how to manage their money being that most get paid solely off commission rather than a dependable salary.

3. Find some way to pay trainers based on the results they get. I realize that trainers aren’t directly in charge of someone losing weight since they can’t directly control what the client eats outside of the gym. But, investors are paid based on the return they secure and they can’t predict the stock market.

Find some way to compensate trainers based on how successful they are. Some how also reward them for their retention rate. This will help to weed out the bad trainers and reward the good ones.

4. Fix the public image of personal trainers. All of the steps mentioned above can help change the public persona of personal training. Personal trainers need to be seen as necessary for maintaining a healthy lifestyle rather than a quick fix for weight loss or a lazy man’s solution to working out.

5. Internet regulation. I can hop onto this blog and spout off my opinions on anything fitness-related if I so choose. So can everyone else around the world. This leads to a massive amount of shitty information on the web partly due to content farms that hire out unqualified individuals to generate keyword rich content that hit the top of search engines and individuals that recognize they can create a post about six-packs and score well in Google (although this is changing).

6. Forced continuing education. Although this is mandatory for individuals to maintain their certifications, it needs to be even further more regulated and encouraged. Simply put, if you’ve been training for 10 years without going to a conference, you don’t know what you’re doing.

I don’t understand why fitness professionals fail to attend more conferences. They’re great for learning and building relationships with other people that share your same passion.

7. Develop a way for trainers to earn more money while not requiring more client facing hours. In the land of those who “make it”, they can simply charge $150-$200/hr and have a successful income within a few days. For those starting at the bottom, it’s a work-till-you’re-successful mentality that leaves many qualified and blossoming professionals out to dry.

The Personal Training Development Center is a fantastic resource for anyone looking to build more small groups or start an online coaching program. Trainers need more of those kind of resources.

8. Make it difficult to be a personal trainer. Part of the benefit of medical school being seven or more years long is that it weeds out people that actually want to be there compared to those that want to earn a doctor-like salary. Create the same thing for personal trainers and force out those that just want to make a good living by hanging around the gym all day.

9. Force trainers into an internship type of program to start. Have them follow around a successful trainer for a month including their client hours and programming time. You’ll take care of three things at once:

  • People will realize very quickly what personal training is all about and will drop out if they don’t like it.
  • Companies will save on hiring costs. It costs a ton of money to hire someone on as a trainer assuming the gym has some type of on-boarding training. When these trainers quit a month in, these gyms lose out on a ton of revenue.
  • The young trainers will get introduced to the gym. Part of building your business is getting over the “new-face-in-the-crowd” syndrome.

10. I want to hear from you. What do you think needs to happen? I don’t care if you’re a trainer or just a gym enthusiast. Give me your opinion.

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