Nobody could have predicted how it would happen.

Nobody saw the coronavirus pandemic shutting down the gyms and throwing tens of thousands of fitness professionals out of work.

But everybody knew something was wrong.

I saw it back in 2008, when I strained my hamstring playing hockey, and was forced off my feet for two weeks. I’d been a personal trainer for four years, working at a top gym with a full schedule. But in the fitness industry, if you can’t work, you don’t get paid.

If something as mundane as a hamstring injury could affect my income so drastically, how could personal training be a viable career? How can you bet on a business where success is contingent on nothing going wrong, when so many things can go wrong?

We’re good at building unbreakable bodies, but not unbreakable careers.

The strongest trainers in the gym are often powerless at work, subject to the whims of their clients and employers.

If anything keeps you or your clients out of the gym—from a family emergency to a global pandemic—you’re out of luck.

How could such a brittle business model survive?

The model was broken for trainers, clients, and gym owners

It’s not just the trainers who get hurt by this broken business model. It doesn’t work for clients or employers either.

Our job as trainers is to remove stress from our clients’ lives, not add to it.

And yet, we sell our services in strict blocks of 60 minutes, no matter the needs or goals of the individual. Doesn’t matter if the client is a detrained novice who would be best served with a 20- or 30-minute workout, or someone with more ambitious performance or physique goals who needs longer sessions.

We fill the beginner’s time with stretching or treadmill walking, or dumb stuff like triceps pushdowns. (Admit it. You’ve done this. I have too.)

"But I can really feel it working . . ."

And for that more advanced client, the one who wants to build muscle or train for a sport, we try to cram 75 minutes’ worth of training into that predetermined one-hour session.

We cut rest breaks too short, and turn strength or hypertrophy work into metabolic conditioning. Yes, they work hard, but it’s still a suboptimal workout for their goals.

And the client had better show up on time, because they’re paying the trainer no matter what fraction of the service they receive.

Consider one of my favorite clients back in the day. (I trained clients in person from 2004 to 2012.) He was a doctor, the head of the emergency department at a major hospital.

Was it fair to tell him he must show up precisely at 6 p.m.? Or if he has to cancel at the last minute (because, you know, things happen in the emergency room), he gets charged anyway?

Now consider gym owners. If the model serves anyone, you’d think they’d be the ones to benefit.

But most new gyms and studios go out of business within a year or two. A person who has the passion to open a gym rarely has the capital, business knowledge, or management skill to keep it open.

Gym goers expect a big, bright space filled with expensive cardio and weight machines, but they don’t want to pay high membership fees. If you open your gym in a relatively affluent area, where people can afford those fees, you’ll pay a lot more per square foot. But you’ll also have a lot of competition, which drives prices down.

Personal training used to be an expensive misuse of talent …

… and it’s time for this to end

Another problem, for both trainers and gym owners, is the need to turn a service like personal training into a lucrative revenue stream. The pressure to sell more sessions leads to high turnover and low morale.

The best trainers work the longest hours, from early morning to late evening, since that’s when clients want to be trained. They burn out and leave, while trainers who aren’t as good at sales get pushed out.

It’s an unfortunate and expensive misuse of talent.

But there’s a better way, one where everybody wins. It’s called online training. You’ve probably heard about it. Unfortunately, there’s a serious lack of understanding as to how it fits into the story.

When there’s an online component the clients get a better service, trainers make more money with better hours, and gym owners multiply their profit per square foot.

I’ve promoted online training since 2013, and I launched the Online Trainer Academy, the world’s first certification program for remote coaching, in 2016.

Online training isn’t about sipping Mai Tais on the beach with your feet up. It’s about resiliency. Online training is about building a fitness business where everybody wins because it allows fitness to dictate business.

I believed that before COVID-19 turned everything upside down. If it hadn’t been a virus, it would’ve been something else. Disruption was inevitable before, and will be again.

That’s why it’s imperative for fitness professionals to build a robust business model that can not only withstand tough times, but thrive in them.

Perhaps the most telling part is that everybody knew this to be true.

A tale of a broken gym owner who failed to act

Case in point: Several months ago, my company was contacted by a gym owner with more than a dozen locations. He wanted us to build an online training operation for his gyms.

It was a smart choice. The new revenue stream, with almost 100 percent profit, would’ve given him a significant advantage over his competitors.

But he turned down our proposal, deciding instead to open another very expensive gym in an extremely competitive market. The new location cost about six times the amount we proposed to set up and oversee his online training business.

COVID-19 forced him to temporarily shut down his gyms and lay off hundreds of employees. Last I saw, he was complaining on social media about how unfair the situation is, and how the government had better compensate him for the lost revenue.

I don’t say that with any malice. I really hope he comes out of this all right, and his employees can get back to work.

The crazy part about this story is how close he came to making the right call.

  • He understood how valuable online training could be for his business.
  • He knew a small investment could generate big returns.

But instead of acting on his vision for the future, he doubled down on his past by opening that new location. And it broke him.

I’ll never know why he made that choice. But I can guess.

One choice represented change. It didn’t matter that it was a cheaper option, with more upside and less downside. Change is hard. It goes against all our instincts to do something new and different when things are going well. Even if you know something isn’t quite right, it’s difficult to recognize your areas of vulnerability.

The other choice, the one with more cost, more risk, and less potential upside, represented continuity. No change.

And for a while, it seemed to work. Things were humming along until COVID-19 exposed his vulnerability.

When preparation meets opportunity – Rhonda’s story

Consider another example:

When her first granddaughter was born with physical challenges, Rhonda Dougherty James’ family was faced with a dilemma: Her daughter needed to return to work to keep her health insurance. But she couldn’t put her baby in daycare because of her health problems.

The solution was for James to fly back to St. Louis every week to take care of her granddaughter, and then fly home for the weekends.

If she’d opened that gym like she’d originally planned, or if all her income came from training clients in person, she wouldn’t have been able to keep working while she commuted.

But because she trained clients online, she was able to work with them from wherever she happened to be. She wrote programs in airports and shot Facebook Live videos in her daughter’s spare bedroom, sometimes with a stack of Pampers boxes visible in the corner.

She did that for a year, and then rented an apartment in St. Louis for another year. Now that her granddaughter is healthy and thriving, she’s back in Florida full time.

There was no way James could’ve prepared for that specific situation. But that’s not the point. The point is that online training gave her the flexibility to step up when her family needed her most.

You can hear Rhonda tell the story in her own words here.

A story about hope

The fitness industry was long overdue for a course correction.

If it hadn’t been a pandemic, it would’ve been something else—something random and unexpected. And, like COVID-19, it would’ve been a catalytic event that exposed the vulnerabilities of our business model, forcing all of us to evolve.

It’s going to hurt. Good people with bad businesses will suffer. Some will come out better on the other end, but some won’t. That sucks.

But let’s be honest. Much of the fitness industry had been on cruise control for a long time.

It was bad, but not quite bad enough to force change. And this is why things were so broken.

Fortunately, we’re an industry that attracts strong people.

Not just physically strong, which is what we’re known for. We’re also strong-willed.

  • We persevere. That’s why we keep lifting while others watch Netflix.
  • We don’t complain when things hurt. We call it DOMS and celebrate it.
  • We thrive when we push ourselves outside our comfort zone.
  • What’s normal for us is too intense for most people.

Our industry is going to come out of this stronger and healthier. And our best people are going to thrive as a result.

Yes, it’s going to be difficult. Some businesses will shut down for good. The sudden loss of income will strain relationships, sometimes to the breaking point.

But it’s going to force everyone to stop gliding. To evolve. To change.

In the words of the esteemed Rocky Balboa:

“The world ain't all sunshine and rainbows. It's a very mean and nasty place and I don't care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain't about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”

This pandemic is a wake-up call

During a time of quarantine and social distancing, online training is our only option. But it won’t be for long. When the gyms reopen, many trainers and gym owners will heed the lesson of COVID-19, and see online coaching as an essential part of their business.

Others will see the pandemic not just as a wake-up call, but as a sign that the industry is broken beyond repair, and it’s time to get out.

You know what? Both are fine, because both result in certainty. No more gliding along in a broken industry, complaining about how things should be, but not doing anything about it because things weren’t quite bad enough to force action.

The choice is yours: Will you step up, or step out?

The pandemic’s effects will be with us for a long time. Even after the threat recedes, it will take months, if not years, for people to return to their gyms en masse.

This kind of fear and discomfort doesn’t just go away. It’s going to be a long time before people shake hands and feel comfortable in crowds again.

I can’t say what the fitness industry will look like when things once again feel stable. But I guarantee it will never go back to how it was. There will be a new normal. And that’s okay, because the old normal was a broken fitness industry.

A lot of people will look back at this crazy time as the moment it all changed. I hope you’ll see it as a time when you were challenged in a way you could never have anticipated, but nonetheless rose to the challenge, levelled up, and evolved.

This is your chance to build a resilient and robust business. You’ve been forced to do what you’ve known you should have been doing all along: Add another income stream, one that allows you to make money while not having to be physically present.

Online training is what allows you to keep training clients when you’re stuck on the couch with a torn hamstring. Or when you have a family emergency that forces you to work from multiple locations, including airports and spare bedrooms. Or when the next crisis, whatever it is, makes all of us change the way we do business.

I, for one, am hopeful for what’s to come. I think it’s going to be beautiful. Because, after all, pressure makes diamonds.

And if you decide it’s time to start online training and learn the best model for delivery and sales, I wanted to now invite you to enroll in the Online Trainer Academy Certification.

We’ve just released Essentials, a more cost-effective version of our world-renowned certification course.

Regardless of whether or not you decide to join us, I hope you heed this call and step up. Our industry needs you now more than ever, and I can’t wait to see what happens.