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Personal Training as a Sacred Cow

by Jonathan Goodman | Follow on Twitter

Clients aren’t paying you for your time. They’re paying you for your knowledge and education. Stop de-valuing yourselves and accepting the sacred cow.

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The sacred cow.

No, I’m not about to discuss the high esteem given to cows in various cultures around the world (that’s a story for another time).

A sacred cow is a business dogma referring to a commonly held belief by an industry or company as being something that is intrinsically true and unchangeable. These become icons or ideologies that are never questioned and incorporated into practice by the vast majority of those involved in the field. Essentially, you do it this way because that is the way it has always been done.

The fitness world is littered with sacred cows: you have to train in proper footwear, the more equipment and treadmills the better the fitness facility, workouts not ending with ab busting crunches or planks won’t help achieve the beloved six-pack.

Remember, however, that significant advances in any given industry happen because people take sacred cows to the slaughterhouse.

The personal training industry is free range, grass feeding the most beautiful sacred cow out there right now. It is so precious that even Smeagol’s soft hissing voice is too harsh for its precious hide.

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Here it is:

One on one personal training.

Yeah, I said it. One on one personal training is the ultimate sacred cow in our heard.

For some reason there is an unfounded belief that if you aren’t focused 100% on your client for at least an hour you are doing your client a disservice. It has gone so far that entire gyms are dedicated to ensuring that it is just a client, a trainer, four walls, and a plethora of fancy machines are all that is present during a workout.

Why? Because it is safer. Because you think that’s what people are paying you for. Because people need your absolute focus. Because that is what ‘personal training’ is.

That is what personal training is right?

That’s the sacred cow. That is what personal training IS.

That is really the only argument that holds any merit because the rest of the reasons for one on one training are ripe to be slaughtered. Love it or hate it personal training needs to take a trip through the slaughterhouse and get repackaged as a more consumable product.

I’m going to break this dogma down into two parts – philosophical and practical arguments.

Philosophical Arguments

One on one training safer.

You have to be one on one because it is safer. I will give you that. Definitely, if you are one on one with a client it is most likely safer than if that client was training in a group or on their own. The idea that one on one is safer does not automatically imply that non one on one training is unsafe.

Group or semi-private is not unsafe.

Learning martial arts is relatively safe. It is probably safer if it is just you and the instructor. Yet I don’t see as many boisterous advocates for one on one martial arts training.

In my decade in the business I have seen just as many injuries and safety issues arise from one on one trainers as I have from group trainers. Is fitness really so complex and so dangerous that without one on one attention from a professional everyone is going to maim themselves?

Alwyn Cosgrove, the pioneer in the industry for semi-private training, often makes reference to the fact that many other highly skilled activities are taught in groups and these groups seem to perform just fine. Military personnel learn to shoot guns and perform hand to hand combat taught in small groups. Martial artists and dancers are also taught in small to large groups. Sports teams from recreational to professional level all train in small to large groups.

Yet some argue that our general population clients are too fragile and have such difficulty learning that they have to have one on one training? Interesting.

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One on one training gives clients all our Attention

A note to all the sacred cow one on one trainers: you seem to think that one on one attention is the only option and that group or semi-private training is unsafe and poor customer service. So how do you justify turning around and offering online training?

What about the issue that our clients are paying us for one on one attention? Does this hold much merit?

At the moment it holds merit and there is a general belief (that plump happy well groomed cow in the golden field) that personal training is one on one time with a trainer.

What a travesty for our industry. We essentially are telling the world that we are not worthy of respect and that we are a poorly trained and uneducated group of individuals not to be highly valued.

Don’t agree? Go try and book a one hour individual session with an orthopaedic surgeon for $60. Maybe see if your physiotherapist (physical therapist for my US friends), massage therapist, or kinesiologist will give you one exclusive hour of their time for $60 to $80. Then also see how willing those professionals are to dedicate time with you emailing, answering Facebook and twitter messages, and doing extra research to redesign programming.

Good luck. None of those individuals would do that. And no one would expect them to.

Why do we, as personal trainers, devalue ourselves? If we want to be taken as legitimate professionals we need to learn and understand what we are really being paid for. And it is not our dedicated attention.

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Focusing our time on the individual let’s us do MORE

Like the rest of the medical profession, clients are paying us for our knowledge and our education, not for our time. As long as we continue to value time as our commodity then we will never be given professional status. We must learn to value knowledge and education as our commodity.

People pay us because we know how to get them to their goals and can design an appropriate method to get them there relatively free from pain and discomfort. Yeah, they can go get a gym membership and grab a copy of the latest fitness magazine in an effort to reach their goals. We can blow that program out of the water when it’s specifically catered to the client. We can shave months off of their timeline and make it fun in the process. That is what we offer.

Not our eyeballs – our brains.

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What about emotional support? That’s part of our job though right?

Unfortunately it is at present, and personal trainers sadly accept this. We shouldn’t. Did you know that psychologists, psychiatrists, counsellors, and social workers are actually educated and trained to assist people with goal setting, lifestyle coaching, and overcoming emotional issues such as motivation and self esteem?

For real. They’re the professionals at doing so.

IT IS NOT your job to fix your clients emotional life. You shouldn’t be the outlet for your client’s family and relationship issues. It isn’t your job to make your client feel better about the job they lost or the troubles they are having controlling their food intake. Sorry, but we aren’t trained for that and, again, we aren’t paid for that.

Why are you offering counselling services to people for $60 to $80 an hour (which isn’t even your take home money) in addition to your fitness services when you aren’t trained or qualified to do so? If a physiotherapist can charge $80 for a session and a shrink can charge $150 for a session why are you combining $230 worth of services and charging $60?

I am not saying we aren’t motivators. Tell your clients they are doing a good job, get them through that last rep, encourage better eating habits. But it stops there. That is your job. Coach and teach.

What do personal trainers do? We assess physical status and abilities and then prescribe a fitness program to help individuals set and attain goals by following a fitness prescription. We then coach them during the course of that program on proper exercise form through observation, demonstration and cueing. We then reassess physical status, make adjustments, reset goals and start again.

Lastly, humans are social creatures.  My undergrad is Sociology so I have spent a lot of time understanding human social behaviour. And guess what? People like to do things with other people! Mind blowing? No. Have you heard of Facebook? Pinterest? Book clubs? Deal with it. People like to get to know and feel a part of groups with other people. When you take them one on one with just you that group is gone. It is just you. And them.

What happens when you move gyms? They can’t afford your rates? You decide not to train anymore? What will they do then? Shouldn’t we be making every effort to help clients develop a group of like minded individuals they can become a part of who all revere fitness and a healthy lifestyle?

Practical Arguments

Personal trainer math

You want a career. You want to be able to make a good living working in the fitness industry. Well, news flash – that is a tough thing to do! How many 45 year old career personal trainers do you know? A few, maybe. Walk through fitness facilities around the world and tell me the average age of personal trainers. At the moment, this isn’t a sustainable and long term career except for a few select individuals.

Why? Because of our sacred cow, one on one training model.

Let’s do some basic math.

You charge $80 an hour (a nice middle figure for most personal trainers in fair sized centres). Your take home after taxes and other mandatory costs at 20% (being generous) leaves you with $64 per hour. This is even less if you own your own fitness facility by the way.

So we can say that the average trainer can take home $64 per hour. That isn’t bad.

$64/hour x 40 hours per week = 2560 a week. Wow. Times 4 weeks a month = $10,240 a month. Double WOW. Times 12 months a year? = $122,880 a year. That’s awesome!

Wait a second.

40 hours a week is a lot of clients. That is training 8 hours a day, five days a week. Anyone in the business knows that this is the most ridiculous idea of all time and you will burnout after a few months, if you make it that long. Not to mention you are going to need another 15 hours a week for education, time management, client management, and other work related responsibilities. And I guess somewhere you should fit in your own workouts. Maybe a life.

Typically, trainers work 20 – 25 hours a week of actual sessions. This is much more realistic. And let’s remember that this is actual training time on the floor. Marketing, consultations, and all the rest of the requirements to maintain a consistent client base is IN ADDITION to these hours and is UNPAID! So a 25 hour a week training schedule is still really a 40 hour a workweek!

So let’s say 25 hours a week at $64 net per hour. $1600/week = $6400/month, with 12 months in a year = $76,800. Still not bad for a personal trainer.

Ummm. Wait a second. What about holidays? Vacations? Time for conferences? Your clients going away on vacation? The odd long weekend or sick day?

12 months a year is 52 weeks. We are most likely going to lose at least 4 weeks a year to vacations and holidays. Then take out a few weeks out for your clients going on vacation, long weekends, sick days etc., which means that your training hours will most likely drop a bit. There goes another 4 weeks. That is 8 weeks out of 52 weeks that are gone. Leaving you with 44 weeks.

44 weeks at $1600 a week =$70,400.

There it is. The absolute max long term yearly revenue for a personal trainer. A good, well established personal trainer.

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Now any of you in this business can recognize that $64 an hour net is very high. The vast majority of trainers will never get there. Typically trainers are lucky to be getting $15 to $25 net per session.

At $20 net per session with 44 weeks in a year working 25 hours a week is $22,000 a year net to live, learn, and play.

$22,000 a year with no benefits, no pension, and no job security (what if all your clients move away?).

Can you see how the dream of working in fitness is in practicality, unrealistic? You most likely will never get to over $60 an hour net and work 40 hours a week 52 weeks a year. If you think you will then you obviously have not worked in this business for long.

This is why you don’t see a lot of 45 year old career personal trainers. You simply can’t make a career in this business.

This leaves us with limited options.

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Is One on One training dead?

You can start a business on your own and hopefully be one of the successful ones, which will take about 10 years to pay off. You can become fitness famous and a well known author and person in the business. This doesn’t pay. Sorry, no one makes a living of off fitness writing. Go ahead – prove me wrong on that one. There are a few trainers making huge bucks (like Jillian and Bob). With two super famous trainers and a handful of semi-famous ones, you have almost as good a chance of getting an NFL contract.

The only two things you can leverage are time and money.

You can either charge more. Or you can train more hours.

Charging more means you have to be located somewhere that there are enough people who can afford it. Then you have to have enough experience, education, and on-going learning to justify the higher rates. And there is an upper limit to what you can charge. Not many people can charge $100 or more a session.

Training more is the other option. But there too, you are limited by how many hours are in a day. You will not train 40 hours a week for very long. It is not realistic.

So if there is a limit to how much you can charge and how many hours a week you can work, there is a limit to how much you can make. And if other options like writing and making DVD’s are nearly impossible to turn into great revenue generators there is really a sense of hopelessness to our industry and we can’t ever expect to see career minded individuals make it.

That is – if you hold onto the sacred cow of one on one personal training.

There are only two options for those who want a lifelong career in the fitness industry.

You open, run, and manage your own business eventually having a staff working for you. Or, you must better leverage your time.

You cannot train one on one.

You have to train more than one person at a time to increase your revenue, not burn out, and have a life. Do this either with semi-private personal training or group personal training. This is the only way to increase your hourly wage enough to make a successful long term career.

We need to slaughter the cow. Take it to the slaughterhouse. Repackage it. Redo it. Make it better. You can fight it and coddle the pretty cow in the field or you can find a way to make this a credible and sustainable professional career.

What you choose to do with this cow is up to you.

Did I just surprise you or is this sacred cow something that’s been bothering you for some time? Comment below and, as always, please share. Also make sure to “like” the PTDC on Facebook. Together we’ll all grow and build sustainable careers doing what we love.

About the Author
Jonathan Goodman

As the creator and head coach of thePTDC, I'd have to say that this thing is pretty awesome. If you're interested in my book, it's called Ignite the Fire. Feel free to come hang out on my Facebook page where I talk explore the perfect balance between fitness, business, and living an awesome and fulfilling life.