First, I have had the opportunity to work as an independent physical fitness instructor for a few years while completing my degree in university. I have also worked in a commercial facility for the past 8 years. My wife spent a good 2 years working for a small private personal training studio. I have a lot of good close friends who have worked at both commercial facilities as well as different training studios, some of them actually built and owned them on their own.
In other words, I’ve seen a lot, studied a lot of different business models, seen what works and what doesn’t work, and I’m going to give you my unbiased opinion of where you should work if your goal is physical fitness instruction.
There’s considerable debate where to work as a personal trainer: either in a boutique training studio, Crossfit style industrial gym, or in a commercial health club. While I won’t discount any of the above-mentioned facilities, I can honestly say that I know many of each that are run well and do extremely large volumes of physical fitness instruction, and also those that are poorly run, quickly go out of business, and leave their employees holding the bag as to where to gain employment.
Each venture has to have a good solid business plan in place prior to being considered as “the place” to get a job and to not only survive, but thrive to the fullest.
The Crossfit style Industrial Facility
The major benefit to a Crossfit style facility is that the type of building being leased is typically a warehouse space, so the cost per square foot is fairly low. The equipment needs are basic, consisting of at the most high end a good set of competition barbells and at the low end anything heavy found on a construction site. Many of these types of facilities operate on a group physical fitness basis, very rarely working with individuals in a private setting as the cost per hour doesn’t generate as much income, although there are those that do private sessions. A few trainers can work the space with little cross-stepping, which means the facility will typically only need a small handful of trainers, thus keeping employment costs low. They’re no frills, no gimmicks, and have the potential to do quite well in the physical fitness instruction world.
A major downside, specifically of the Crossfit business model, is that each location pays a licensing fee to have the Crossfit name attached to it, but there are no pre-defined territories, which means if you opened your doors and paid your fees then started to market, another trainer could be setting up shop right next door to you and there is no legal recourse against it. This will cut into their market penetration and in the end wind up hurting both locations as they split their potential memberships.
While I won’t go so far as to say that all Crossfit instructors have minimal experience in training some of the complex lifts and metabolic systems they give their clients, there are quite a few that tend to avoid individually screening their clients for potential risk factors such as thoracopelvic rhythm, scapular mechanics, and other primary biomechanical concerns prior to throwing them into the mix. As a result, Crossift tends to have a higher rate of injury than other classifications of personal training, which means that their drop-out rate is higher, leading to a potential drop-off in business after the initial groundswell.
That being said, there are those out there who do take the time and qualify their clients for specific exercise prior to having them go through the paces, which makes them have a lower risk of injury and consequently a lower drop-out rate. From my experience, these trainers are in the minority.
The benefits of these types of facilities is that there is a different type of client looking to work out here, which means there is less chance of having “flaky” clients walk through the doors. Some that makes physical fitness instruction much easier. They tend to get more weekend warriors who want to increase their athletic capacity, as well as those who want to lose weight and gain muscle, plus the type of equipment utilized means that there is a larger emphasis on creativity and body weight movements than at other facilities. The group environment is also second to none, emphasizing cooperation and mutual encouragement among all participants. Most of the instructors are great coaches.
Some of the downsides to these facilities are that they can be intimidating to even seasoned active adults. They tend to be in more remote locations due to the cost of location and the types of facilities used (warehouses, industrial parks), which can make commuting difficult. Another downside is that anyone with a basic level of certification can open a facility after paying a licensing fee, which means the quality of instruction may or may not be there, leaving the door wide open to criticism and liability. They also have to outsource all secondary services, such as accounting and maintenance.
These facilities tend to have much smaller overall square footages, but focus more on private physical fitness instruction or small-group training sessions. They tend to have more of an aesthetic appearance, some even going as far as having hardwood flooring, branded weights, furniture, lobbies, etc to make the clients feel as comfortable as possible.
The locations tend to be more commercial space than industrial, meaning the zoning restrictions increase the overall lease cost per square foot, limiting the potential size of the facility. Many studios can do extremely high profits from a 1000 square foot location, and some are even ran out of the owners’ basements or garages. Facilities will tend to “rent” space to contract trainers who wish to train their existing clientele, or may hire employees to train clients while taking a small dollar amount from each session. The typical pay per session to the trainer is between 50-70% of the session cost. Some facilities tend to work with between 5-20 trainers. Studios work with a mix of private, semi-private and group fitness training options, depending on space and clientele.
The types of trainers in these locations tend to focus on specific niche markets of fitness. Some work specifically with athletes in a specific sport, some work with more clinical populations or obesity, and some prefer more of the aesthetic training for bodybuilders, figure competitors, etc. They focus on delivering more individualized programs with more specific knowledge of their niche. The educational level here can vary, from entry level certifications up to graduate degrees and beyond for physical fitness instructors. The key component isn’t necessarily the amount of education the individual has, but how they apply it and interact with their clients.
Some benefits of studios when you’re looking where to work as a personal trainer are that the locations tend to be more convenient to high-density population areas, the additional frills tend to appeal to more of a comfort for the potential clients which increases retention, and there is a relative level of freedom to run the business how the trainer sees fit. More advanced facilities have business managers on site, receptionists to handle payments and scheduling, and tend to have more equipment and more specialized equipment as well.
Some downsides to studios are that the advertising budget is typically much smaller and possibly even non-existent, meaning acquiring clients is much harder. The cost per session or per time investment is typically higher than in industrial facilities, and the cost of facility setup and leasing tends to be higher as a result of the location and type of environment. The limited space can present a problem when the facility is busier, meaning the overall comfort level of both the client and the trainer is reduced. They also have to outsource all secondary services, such as accounting and maintenance.
These facilities tend to have much larger square footages, more equipment variety, and an existing membership base to draw from. To work out in these facilities, members have to pay a time-based membership fee (monthly or bi-weekly), as well as any additional fees for perks like lockers, towel service, laundry, and physical fitness instruction. They also have methods in place to acquire new clients and place them with trainers. They have receptionists, all secondary services are in-house, and managers are in place to handle most membership issues and to provide ongoing coaching and development. Some facilities also have specific services or features, like tennis, swimming, golf, or other services included in their memberships, which can become a goldmine for industrial trainers who want to capitalize on the captive markets.
Some facilities have continuing education calendars in-house, giving trainers the ability to acquire CEC’s without spending any additional money to travel or register for courses, and occasionally bring big names to speak to the staff. They may also provide educational scholarships to their trainers to attend functions that interest them, in the hopes that it increases their productivity and the results they can get for their clients. They tend to pay their trainers a percentage of the cost of the training session performed, and also use a grid system where the more the trainer works during the month the greater the percentage of the session cost they get.
This grid can be very lucrative, or very difficult to earn an income with, which means they also tend to have a higher rate of turnover than in other facilities that offer physical fitness instruction. The grid will pay anywhere between 40% of the session cost to 66%, depending on the number of sessions trained each month.
Some of the benefits of working in these facilities are the ability to begin training clients within a very short period of time, all secondary services and marketing are already handled, and an existing membership base from which to gain new clients. Continuing education, health benefits options, and the potential for promotion all become very enticing. The structured systems involved allow you to have a template to follow, making your job much easier versus trying to figure it out on your own, or hoping the owner of your facility has figured it out. The clientele tends to be much broader, encompassing everyone from rehabilitation to competitive athletes to geriatrics. They also tend to include sales bonuses for monthly thresholds, contests and other benefits t encourage drive among trainers.
Some of the drawbacks include the graded pay system, having to wear uniforms, policies like no chalk use or barefoot training, and having the additional costs of memberships and other perks. On an entrepreneurial note, they tend to also discourage trainers from earning secondary income through supplements, clothing, equipment sales, etc, which can limit the income potential versus studios or Crossfit style facilities. Training is also limited to the confines of the facility as they tend to get trainers to sign non-compete agreements on employment.
While I work in a commercial facility, there are definitely parts that if I have the opportunity to change would be gone in a heartbeat. First, I hate the music we play. It’s god-awful. Second, I would get rid of half the equipment and isolation machines and order about a half-dozen more squat rack and oly lifting platforms. Third, we’d change the payment model used from a session cost model to a time-frame cost model, which would reduce cancellations and no-shows and increase the training frequency and results people saw when working with their trainers, and also provide a guarantee on payment to the trainers each month. The desired result would be retention in the physical fitness instruction program of the club.
One of the benefits I’ve been able to see from working in a commercial facility is the fact that I’ve been able to take on a portfolio handling all the medical referrals in and out of the companies 30 locations. This means I’m working closely with a lot of doctors, physiotherapists and chiropractors, giving me an experience I wouldn’t necessarily get working within a studio or industrial facility. I also have the opportunity to teach a lot of the continuing education courses, giving me speaking experience that helps on applications to speak at various conferences and providing an income stream that is fairly consistent.
Additional perks I’ve received by working with World Health have been winning trips to Cancun 4 times, traveling to various conferences and achieving different certifications, all paid for by the company. I’ve also been able to develop my own career path for Post-Rehab training to help individuals recover from injury and illness, which allows me to grow as a professional and chase a physical fitness instruction career direction that I want to follow.
It doesn’t really matter where you decide to gain employment, be it in your own basement or in a big-box gym. What matters the most is that you find a way to make the situation work for you, and use any limitations that may be present with the specific facility to your advantages, and make it your own.
Continue to increase your knowledge base as much as possible in whichever direction you feel empowers you the most. No facility will ever stop you from reading more, listening to more audio recordings or watching more educational videos, and they will all openly encourage you to form business relationships with providers of similar services. Regardless of where you hang your hat, make it your home and work hard at being the best you can be.
Please pass this on via email or social media to a trainer you know that may be looking where to work as a personal trainer