Personal training is not a get-rich-quick business. But with the right moves and a little luck, training clients online can be a rewarding and lucrative career.
According to our salary survey of more than 1,000 personal trainers, one in five trainers earn $75,000 or more per year. One out of every 10 trainers earn six figures or above. Those odds are slightly better than you’ll find in other careers. But there’s a lot you can do to improve your position.
For one thing, top-tier trainers were more likely than modest earners to train clients online in some form or another. Some trained clients online exclusively, while others did online training in combination with in-person training.
We wanted to see what the most successful ones had in common. So we asked eight online trainers, all of whom earn six or seven figures, about the attitudes, behaviors, and strategies behind their success.
They all work hard, as you’d expect. But the key to their success, as you’ll see, is working hard at the right things.
1. Work on your communication skills
Jordan Lark wasn’t trying to reach six figures when he left his secure management-level job to become a full-time trainer. His focus was on his clients’ success. That’s especially important in the early days, because growth relies on word-of-mouth referrals.
“I have clients in 60 countries now,” says Lark, “and I could, like a family tree, plot them all back to the first 10.”
The key to good results: establishing clear, continuous communication between you and your clients.
That’s vital not only for convincing clients to trust your methods, but also for building a relationship in which they feel comfortable sharing pain points.
Try the girlfriend test: Pick a close relative or friend who represents your client—for Lark, whose clients are mostly women in their 30s, that’s his girlfriend—and whenever you contact clients, ask yourself how that person would respond to the message. Adjust the phrasing until you’re sure it will be well received.
And put a moratorium on emojis. You’ll be forced to make sure your words convey the right intention, thus honing your communication skills, Lark says.
2. Get organized from day one
You can’t build a house without a solid foundation. (Not one you’d want to live in, anyway.) The foundation of your business includes administrative details like your business license, tax forms, and insurance policies. Get those out of the way immediately, says trainer Roxie Beckles, owner of RoxStar Fitness.
Next come your basic business systems and practices. Write everything down, says Mike Doehla, founder of Stronger U, the nutrition-coaching juggernaut. Keep spreadsheets of your personal training clients, noting when you last touched base with them and when you’ll follow up.
Once all that is in place, you can scale up without short-changing your current clients.
But don’t try to systemize everything, cautions Lark. You need systems for repeatable processes like referrals and lead generation, but actual coaching demands a custom response.
READ ALSO: How Do I Get More Personal Training Clients?
3. Practice progressive overload
It takes time and patience to build a business. That slow progress can be frustrating on any given day, but the gains add up over time. And when an online personal training business finally clicks, there’s no limit to how fast it can grow.
“Think about it this way,” says Jason Helmes, owner of Anyman Fitness. “If you had a ‘normal’ job, a 10 percent raise would be phenomenal, practically unheard of. But 20 percent [annual] profit growth in this business is extremely achievable if you focus on the right things.”
Helmes speaks from experience. He made $2,500 his first year, training his initial clients for free and surviving month to month with little to no income from coaching. (He was also teaching middle school at the time and picking up extra jobs to get by.) Two years later, he hit six figures, and revenue has been climbing ever since.
Once you hit six figures, you still have to put in the work. Running a fitness business includes sometimes tedious, repetitive tasks like responding to emails and reaching out to prospective clients. Helmes likes to think of these tasks as “reps.” Get in your reps, and your business will grow.
Be patient. Those six-figure trainers from our salary survey? Eighty percent have been at it at least five years.
4. Pursue knowledge
Hang with highly successful trainers long enough, and you can’t help but notice their unabashed love of learning. For some, that means seeking higher education. (Trainer Sohee Lee, who’s pursuing a PhD in sports science, saw her business triple the same month she earned her master’s.)
Not all successful trainers hold advanced degrees—or any degree at all. In fact, education as a stand-alone variable didn’t correlate with income in our survey. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t relentlessly curious and inquisitive.
“I’m always learning,” says Michael Beiter, owner of Pillar Coaching Services, who has taken college-level courses in exercise science but never actually earned a degree. He reads and writes for two hours every morning, and credits that habit for his business success as well as his personal growth.
READ ALSO: The Best Books for Personal Trainers
5. Treat social media like your virtual gym floor
When you run a business online, you must work that much harder to connect with people.
“Consider how long it takes to build a face-to-face relationship, and multiply that by a hundred,” says online trainer and nutrition coach Arpita Boyd, who posts three times on social every day. (To pull it off, she schedules all posts in advance for the coming week.)
To Lark, producing content is as close as an online trainer gets to walking the gym floor and chatting up potential clients. “You want to create content that makes you approachable,” he says. That way, when you put out a call to action, people already trust you and perceive you as someone who can help.
For content ideas, seek inspiration outside the fitness industry, he adds. Look to pop culture, psychology, comedy—whatever you like. Expanding your consumption helps you find fresh ideas.
And don’t overthink it. Lark spends about 15 minutes on each post, keeping them short (10 lines max), easy to digest, and representative of who he is and what he offers.
READ ALSO: Five Ways to Dominate the Gym Floor
6. Talk to actual people too
Strong people skills are essential for attracting clients, engaging with them, and knowing how to motivate them, Doehla says. “You have to know how people think, what they want, and how they feel.”
In addition to connecting with clients on social media and coaching calls, Doehla makes a habit of getting out and talking with real-live humans in their natural habitat. Whenever Doehla is out in public, he’ll start a conversation—not to make a sale, but to build his emotional intelligence and try to understand people a little better.
“A lot of people in the industry don’t want to do that,” he says. “Those are the ones who are struggling.”
It’s easy to become dependent on electronic communications. But what seems efficient can also be impersonal, and ultimately limit your growth. The game-changing moment for Ashley Crooks, an online trainer and business coach, was when he stopped trying to sell online and started talking to people on the phone instead.
READ ALSO: How to Sell Personal Training in Five Steps
7. Make friends with other trainers
While you’re working on those people skills, try using them with other online trainers. They’re not competition. They’re teammates. “Other coaches are an amazing resource,” says Lark. “Most love to help. Plenty are happy to refer. And they’re often huge supporters of your success.”
Befriending other trainers is also a great way to find a mentor, a valuable asset in any career. “If you’re going to ask someone to mentor you, they should be someone you know,” Beckles adds. The best guidance will come from someone who has seen your potential and trusts you to put their advice to good use.
Start by joining Facebook groups for trainers, Lark advises. Find trainers who resonate with you, and ask questions about what they do and why they do it. “The worst case is they don’t have time to respond.” In that case, you’re no worse off than if you hadn’t asked.
Just be sure to reciprocate, he adds. “Don’t just be a taker. Give at every opportunity.”
8. Invest in yourself
Not every continuing-education investment is a good one, as pharmacist and gym owner TJ Allan notes in this article. If you’re operating on slim margins, it makes little sense to add thousands of dollars to your credit card balance by attending pricey conferences and seminars.
But there are lots of ways to invest in yourself while staying within a budget. A perfect example: In his early days, Alwyn Cosgrove would use the fees from one training session a week for personal development.
If you’re an online trainer who charges $200 a month, you could designate one client’s payment to your education fund. That’s $2,400 a year, which goes a long way when you invest in these categories:
Gaining advanced and specialized personal training certifications is one way to learn, and in our survey, it was correlated with income. Trainers who make $100,000-plus hold an average of seven certifications, vs. five for all respondents.
Business and marketing resources
The The Best Books for Personal Trainers are worth many times their cover price. Beckles says these books helped her make the mental switch from “independent contractor” to “entrepreneur”:
- The E-Myth by Michael E. Gerber
- The Conversion Code by Chris Smith
- Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill
Still not sure what you’re doing, or how to get from where you are to where you want to be? Do what your clients do and hire someone to help. Helmes says the best thing he ever did was hire a business coach to help him with Facebook ads and marketing strategy.
9. Make your own rules
Google “daily routines of the super-successful,” and you might think the only way to get ahead is through highly structured days. Beckles calls BS on that idea.
Each of her days is different. She might start working first thing. Or she might go to the gym, spend time online, meditate, or just chill out for a while. “The way we’re taught is very masculine-energy-driven,” she says. “‘Go go go! Never sleep!’ That’s good for people who like that energy. But I like balance. And I run my company with balance in mind.”
Doehla can relate. He prefers less structure so he’s always available to staff and clients, and has more flexibility to react. “A lot of young trainers see this stuff and think ‘Oh, I need to do that,’” he says. “There are no rules to this. Do what you want, and see what works.”
10. Don’t limit your options
Seen the ads for Equinox Hotels? Beckles has. “All the comments are ‘Oh my god! I can’t wait to go there!’” she says. “No one is saying ‘But you’re a gym. Why are you a hotel now?’”
Her point: Trainers need to think outside narrow definitions of what a fitness business can offer. “Bring your uniqueness to the game,” she says. Just because no one else has done it doesn’t mean it can’t be done. For Beckles, that word doesn’t exist. “Unless you physically can’t do something, you’re only limited by what you think.”
Optimistic? Maybe. But it’s a sentiment shared by many of the successful online trainers we spoke to. You can’t win big unless you dream big.