Most information on business for personal trainers is short-sighted. They all promise the best ways on how to build a fitness business, but in reality, the personal trainer only ends up learning how to (maybe) get a client or two. While that’s great for really short-term gain, it’s less useful for the long-term goal of growing a successful fitness business.

Think of it another way: Personal trainers want quick results, too, just like literally any person on earth. If our clients want to get in shape, we tell them they need to work hard, be consistent with the necessary habits that help them, and put forth that effort, day-after-day, over a long period of time. Yet most of us fail to follow our own advice about consistently doing everyday steps toward building our ideal fitness business. (Step one is to create your personal trainer business plan.)

You need habits of your own, and the right kind, too.

In this article, you will learn the four principles to building your own fantastic sustainable fitness business. These aren’t the sexy marketing things you might be used to seeing. Don’t get me wrong: marketing is important. However, without a strong base of results, continual improvement, time management, and intelligent networking, even good marketing inevitably leads down the same dark road: job burnout and dissatisfaction.

Principle 1. Always be learning, but be strategic with how and what you learn.

There’s no shortage of opportunities and resources to build a better fitness business or learn more about exercise protocols, biomechanics, and physiology. With the ease of producing and distributing education materials, more successful trainers are creating their own resources to teach the next generation of fit pros.

This is great, but that means there’s just that much more information--good and bad--to wade through and consume. It forces you to be much more selective with your continuing education dollars and time.

Which should you choose: Online classes versus in-person workshops?

One of the first things to decide is whether you want to pursue online classes or in-person workshops, or conferences. Each has its pros and cons. According to Eddie Lester, owner of Fitness Mentors, online courses may seem like the most convenient, but you shouldn’t blindly choose to do all of your education online. Lester goes on to note a basic rule of thumb: “If a topic is very hands-on, it is probably better studied in person.”

At an in-person workshop, you actually get to practice the very skills you learn on site, but can also meet many other like-minded, driven professionals. The sheer networking potential cannot be overstated (we’ll talk about building a strong inter-professional network later in the article).

I offer both online and in-person education at The PTDC because I believe they’re equally as valuable. Our Online Trainer Academy (OTA), for example, is a comprehensive business development certification course for online personal training. OTA students get a textbook and workbook mailed to them, along with getting access to video lessons, worksheets, scripts, templates, and much more, available 24/7 anywhere in the world. The benefit to an online course like OTA is that a trainer can study entirely on his or her own schedule, anywhere in the world at his or her own pace.

Meanwhile, at The PTDC’s annual conference Strong Pro Summit in Toronto, I bring in fitness professionals from all over the world to a two-day immersive experience that’s complete with lectures, networking, and hands-on training. Speaking of conferences, you should be attending multiple fitness conferences and seminars each year. It’s not just about attending, however, you should go in with a strategy to get the most out of your time, money, and opportunities.

How to maximize your time at conferences in 3 easy steps

The commitment to attend a conference is usually larger than committing to an online course because you have to be physically present. As such, you should do everything that you can to attend the right conferences and get the most out of it.

Every conference seems important. They can be, but maybe not necessarily for everyone. For most people, it may be the presenters themselves that attract them to one fitness conference over another. When deciding which events to attend, the first thing you need to consider is the return on investment (ROI), according to David Crump of Spark Fitness. Crump also makes the point:

“Your return on investment is relative to your needs. Regardless of how inexpensive or expensive some information is, it’s worthless if you can’t use it. Likewise, some information can be priceless if you can put it into practice immediately and deliver better results." - David Crump

Be honest with yourself: Are you wanting to attend one event over another because you feel the information will actually help your career, or because it's interesting to you? Topics like advanced training strategies, certifications for using obscure training apparatuses, and so on may be fun for us to learn, but their applicability to our clients' programs is low. As such, they have a low ROI. No problem if you want to attend and learn, but look at it as a personal expense and not a business expense; and weight the pros and cons appropriately.

Once you've decided what event to attend, here are the three steps to get the most out of it: meeting speakers, networking with other attendees, and making sense of the information itself.

  1. Meeting speakers

Typically, if you like a speaker, just about everyone else does, too. At the conference, you’ll have to vie with many other attendees for the speaker’s valuable time and attention, both before and after their talk. Penetrating the wall of other attendees and the speaker’s distracted attention isn’t easy.

Here’s what you do: Your networking starts well before the event itself, thanks to this idea of “pre-introducing yourself” I learned from Rebecca Knight in the Harvard Business Review. The concept is simple: send an email to a speaker or, ideally, get an introduction from a mutual friend or colleague before the event starts. To extend on Knight's point, I'll add that the best way to connect with busy people is to find the platform that has what I like to call “the least amount of friction.” That is, a platform that the person uses but isn’t his or her most busy.

Email or Facebook might seem like good places to start, but popular presenters get a lot of messages and yours might just be another one in the pile. For many people, Twitter is perfect for outreach. It usually has the least amount of friction; most have an account with very little interaction, but still get notifications and alerts on their mobile devices. Something as simple as a Tweet saying that you’re looking forward to meeting at {conference name} is enough to have a warmer introduction than a cold (and distracted) one at the event itself. This way when you meet the presenter you can say, "Hey, it's Jon, or jon_ptdc, from Twitter." And if you want to get a laugh add in, "here {you strike the same crossed over arm pose that 99% of male trainers have in their Twitter photos} this is what my profile photo looks like."

I also liked Beverly Hosford's key advice to get involved in the expert’s community well before the event itself. That means being the person that comments on their articles on Facebook saying you enjoyed it, retweeting their material, and interacting on Instagram. In other words, prove to them that you’re a fan first. Jayson Gaignard of Mastermind Talks is also a fan of becoming a person’s biggest fan to build a strong relationship, even before meeting. If the presenter has a book, buy it in advance and Tweet a picture to the presenter of you and the book, saying that you cannot wait to meet him or her at the event. The more support you can show a presenter before an event, the more likely the presenter will be excited to meet and spend time with you when the time comes.

  1. Networking with other attendees

The real value of any event is not the speakers, but the other attendees. The other folks in the room are forward-thinking professionals like you. Not only will they be interesting to talk to, but there’s a good chance that they will become movers and shakers in the industry.

The problem is that arriving at a fitness event can be an intimidating experience. Conferences get quite busy and people stick with those they know, making it hard to meet other professionals.  So be one of the first to arrive at the venue. I originally learned this point from John Spencer Ellis. When you arrive early, chances are that other attendees will be seated by themselves, which will make it easier to go up to them and say hello. Start a nice conversation: ask where they are from and what kind of training they specialize in. As more attendees arrive, you’ll be the one to know thanks to all of the connections you have already been able to make.

  1. Making sense of all the information

Any time you attend an event, you might be so invigorated by everything you learned and heard that you just can’t wait to take action when you get home. But what really happens? That notebook you so excitedly filled up with great intentions and ideas gets shelved, next to all the other notebooks, as soon as you get home. The issue isn’t that you didn’t get inspired enough; you just didn’t know where to start.

Jennette Holzworth of 5:17 Total Body Transformations LLC advises that you prioritize notes by your needs. Holzworth brings a series of highlighters with her to an event with different colors for prioritizing different types of information (e.g., programming, nutrition, and physiology). While a presentation on ankle mobility might be interesting, your business is going to benefit more from the session on social media marketing, for example. When taking notes, have a different color highlighter for both types of info. When you go home you can easily reference both, giving you a better chance of putting the information to action to build your fitness business.

Other professionals even go so far as bringing separate notebooks to an event for different types of information. Lindsay Vastola suggests bringing four different notebooks:

  1. Actions to implement immediately.
  2. Ideas to implement in the near-term.
  3. Ideas to consider in the future.  
  4. Miscellaneous information and key takeaways.

Your education is the most important thing to spend your professional development dollars and time into and conferences are a big part of that. Be careful which events you attend and take the time to strategically meet the speakers and network with other attendees to get the most out of your valuable time and money.

An important piece of advice to build your fitness business: Always be reading, no matter what.

No matter how you choose to learn, the single most important and cheapest resource is books. I advise all trainers to read each of the best books that I personally curated for personal trainers. Cofounder of Cressey Sports Performance, Eric Cressey, suggests always having one fitness and one business book on the go, at all times. Ignite the Fire (written by me) shares everything I know about building a successful personal training career and is a must-read. When it comes to business books, a few that I recommend off of my list are Ultimate Sales Machine and Linchpin.

Those who follow my personal page on Facebook know that I’m always reading, but I dig into a wide variety of books--from fiction to business to fitness. The most interesting trainers are almost always some of the most well read and well-rounded human beings.

In short, books are the most economical way to learn, not just in fitness but everything. For a few dollars, you get access to an organized view of somebody’s accumulated knowledge that took them years to build. Books are the best deal and investment in the world. Never hesitate to buy a book and always make the time to read.

Principle 2. Build your inter-professional network the proper way.

One of the best-selling books of the past few decades is Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point (another business book on my list). The book title describes the eponymous phenomenon, called the “tipping point,” in which a social trend very slowly picks up momentum at first, but gets faster and faster until it eventually crosses an unspecified threshold, where it begins to spread uncontrollably. The ideas within can just as easily be extrapolated to a personal trainer’s business and reputation.

What’s discussed less, however, is the 1970s study, titled The Strength of Weak Ties, upon which Gladwell’s book is based. The study concluded, amongst other findings, that a person’s success is more dependent on the number of weak ties that person has to other people than any other factor. Not everyone agrees with the methodology of the study, but the phenomenon is unmistakably real.

Whether you agree or not, success is about luck. You can influence your own success by increasing your odds of catching a lucky break. The key is to create and maintain as many “loose connections” (like a Facebook friend who you hardly know in real life) to others as possible.

As Tim Ferris pointed out, “Your network is your net worth.” If you’re serious in learning how to build a sensational fitness business, understand that building relationships and supporting other fitness professionals is paramount to your success. In this sense, it can take a lot of work for a long time. Jordan Harbinger, described the exact process perfectly and succinctly: “Be patient, and be smart.”

The right way to build your network on social media

Of course, nowadays with so many connections it’s very difficult to keep track of all of the important details in each person’s lives. Still, remembering important events, interests, and other miscellaneous facts about people will make you truly memorable.

In order to keep your contacts and their details in order, the team at Amaven recommends keeping a spreadsheet. This is nothing new, but it's one of those obvious little things that we sometimes need a kick in the butt to actually do; so here's your kick in the butt. Previously I shared my spreadsheet for keeping track of my clients with the following details: name, spouse, family members, vocation, major life/family events, special interests, miscellaneous notes, and any other interesting details. If you’re serious about networking, use software like Contactually that lets you tag users based on location and interests, syncs with your social media, and reminds you to follow up if you haven’t interacted with somebody in a while.

As John Romaniello of Roman Fitness Systems puts it, “People remember the 1% that makes you different, not the 99% that makes you the same.” In other words, connecting with people on the odd things or interests that you have in common with a person is more powerful than saying, “Dude, I like fitness! You like fitness too? Cool. We should be friends because we both like fitness.”

The right way to network locally

All of the good trainers in your area should know and support each other. Back when I worked for Body + Soul Fitness in Toronto, we had a standing appointment every Friday afternoon. Any local trainer was invited to come meet others, practice exercises, and discuss business from 2-4 p.m. Not only did I get to meet other professionals, but it gave me more confidence when I was with my clients because I could openly talk about and practice methods and techniques before using them on a paying client.

If there isn’t an existing community of trainers in your area, then take it upon yourself to organize it. Sol Orwell of did just this a few years ago. After meeting some local Toronto fitness professionals, he created a Facebook group aptly named Fitness Toronto. Any member was free to invite other local fitness pros. So whenever the opportunity for a group meet-up arises, a message is just a click away. It’s not hard to do; somebody just has to take the initiative (hint: you).

An example of an impromptu local meetup that happened in our Fitness Toronto networking group on Facebook

If you want to meet more local fitness professionals, Brad Cusworth and Frank Smarrelli of PT Business Coaches discuss the importance of seeking out and attending local community events to find them. Attend farmer’s markets, health fairs, and anything else that might be relevant to your business. You could set up a booth and try to get clients; or attend for free, take in the atmosphere, and chat with other fitness professionals who have paid to promote themselves.

Join these online fitness networking groups.

While it’s important not to get so wrapped up in online trainer communities that they become a timesink, I recommend taking the time to support others as a way of strategic outreach.

The easiest and most common way to do this is to join any number of trainer-supported online groups. A few that I recommend are Alicia Streger’s- Fitness Business Freedom Formula, Will Levy’s- The Education of a Fitness Professional, Jodi Rumack’s- Fitness Business Leadership Think Tank, and my own Online Trainers Unite. You can interact with so many smart, experienced, and like-minded individuals.

An example from Charity Majors in my group, Online Trainers Unite, of bringing coaches together to support each other. Within a day, there were 30 responses all organizing a group call.

Above all, don’t forget to support others.

Perhaps the most powerful and underutilized way to improve your network is by supporting the work of others. Jordan Syatt of Syatt Fitness is a great example of somebody who would have otherwise been successful, but was pushed forward much faster because he supported others. He shared other people’s work on his Facebook page and website often and always, and has been doing so for years.

Each week here on The PTDC, we publish a collection of the best fitness articles on the Internet. It’s both a way for me to reach out to fitness coaches doing great things and build a relationship with them.

Principle 3. Value your time above all else.

When people ask me how they could build a fitness business that keeps growing for years to come, my first answer is almost always: you need to be in control of your time, not let it control you. Look at time as your most valuable asset. Once it’s gone, you can never get it back.

A trainer’s schedule is going to be somewhat erratic. You work different hours than most other professionals, but Todd Bumgardner of Strength Faction simply tells you to “embrace the fray.” Training in a gym comes with an erratic schedule, at least to start. Over time, as you become more established, you can schedule your sessions together better.

Your time is valuable, but when you’re just starting out you may inevitably be faced with the decision of whether to give free ‘taster’ sessions. Well, there are conflicting theories.

Should you give free personal training sessions?

According to Pete Dupuis, the co-founder of Cressey Sports Performance, coaches shouldn't offer complimentary assessments. He used the free session conversion stats given to him by another coach to make his point:

"He recently explained to me that only 30% of the members who were offered a free consultation with a personal trainer upon opening a membership actually took advantage of the opportunity.  This may be a solid conversation rate from the perspective of the commercial gym owner, but not for the independent contractor who doesn’t see a single penny of the monthly membership dues these potential leads are paying.  A 30% conversion rate tells me that 7 out of 10 people decided that something for nothing was actually worth nothing." - Pete Dupuis

According to Dupuis, blog posts and online content are free, but training itself is and should be a professional service. On the other hand, Sherri McMillan from Business of PT is a proponent of free training sessions, which she uses to close sales. McMillan points out that training is a hypercompetitive market and hiring a trainer is an important decision for a client, stating:

“Let’s imagine you’re on the market for a hot, new vehicle – a convertible sports car.  Would you make the investment without a test-drive?  No way. You’ve got to get a feel for it. How does it ride? Does it handle the corners well?  How fast does it go from 0 to 60?  Does it satisfy all your needs?  Do you look good in it?  These are all important questions that need to be answered before you start dishing out the cash!” - Sherri McMillan

Sometimes whether you offer free sessions has more to do with your personal position in the marketplace than anything else. For example, Dupuis and other established trainers have all earned respect from years of results and free blog posts. You may just be starting out and need another way. According to John Spencer Ellis, the only time that a trainer should offer a free session is if that trainer has problems drawing interest in any other way.

To help you decide, Steven Gourley of PT Direct writes in his article, The Myths of Personal Trainer: “If you don’t have assets, then you have to trade time.” In other words, think of free sessions as trading time. If you want to have an amazing fitness career, you first need to create assets to trade. And before that happens, you’re forced to trade time.

If you’re a new trainer who hasn’t yet built a reputation, I advise you to get good at converting free sessions. Once you become more experienced, respected, and sought after, you shouldn’t resort to giving free sessions in order to sell your services.

How to best manage your time

Despite what you might have been led to believe, time management has almost nothing to do with fancy productivity tools. Weekly planning, according to Jeff Buxton of Fit Pro Solutions, allows you to make progress in all areas of life, including non-work ones. According to Buxton, a week is long enough to see the big picture, but small enough to focus on the detailed events of each day.

Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are important promotional tools for trainers, but they can also be a huge time drain. Don’t just blindly switch on Facebook and start scrolling; have a plan. Molly Galbraith, creator of Girls Gone Strong, strongly advises having blocks of time for social media. Block off 15-30 minutes in your schedule each day or few days to log on, post about fitness, respond to messages, and send out a few random hellos to people you haven’t spoken to in a while. You can also get special software like Buffer and Tweetdeck to help you preload posts days or weeks at a time.

Finally, I love the “touch it once" rule. While the idea has been circulating in productivity blogs, I first learned of it from Michelle Roots of Core Condition. The rules states that if you touch something--a note, email, status update, etc.--then it must be dealt with right away. If it’s time for you to process your email, filter it quickly. Block off some time and give yourself a minute or two per email, remembering to only touch it once. If the email is opened, you must either delete, file, or respond to it.

Want to make the process fun? Install the email game into your Gmail. You get a happy face if you process an email quickly, but an unhappy face if you take too long.

Principle 4. Make your successes known to everyone.

Many readers will recall my now famous two golden rules:

Rule #1: Do a great job.

Rule #2: Make sure that everybody knows about it.

Getting amazing results with clients is important, and for some, that’s enough. But for most trainers who want to build a fitness business, it’s important to establish systems that make sure other people know about your great results. The first thing you must do is shift your mindset.

Specifically, you should start thinking about selling what you can do for a client, not just selling what you do. This tiny shift in mindset is best illustrated by legendary fitness business development trainer Thomas Plummer, who likens it to a story about selling a drill. Very few people go to a hardware store to buy a drill. They go to the store to buy whatever the drill is going to fix or build. Same goes for your clients. They don’t go to the gym to squat or to press. They go to get the results that the squat or press gives them---to feel better, look sexier, have more confidence, and so on.

Another oft-overlooked part about selling is the importance of being liked and trusted in the gym. Jonathan (Fitpro) Hertilus had the brilliant idea of becoming a ‘trainer on duty’ when starting out at a new gym. Basically, Hertilus recommends making signs that say you’re available for questions at certain times; and have a shirt that says ‘trainer on duty’ and be present at the gym. This simple act of making it known that you’re willing and available to help makes you more liked and trusted in the gym. As a result, you’ll soon become the go-to trainer at your club.

3 ways to show off your results

There are three ways to “sell” your results: testimonials, human billboards, and referrals.

  1. Testimonials

I put this first because testimonials are something all trainers should be accumulating over their careers. When a new client comes to train, your odds of making the sale increase if you can show them an example of somebody similar to them who has had success.

Aim to have at least one high-quality testimonial from every type of client you train and every type of client goal. Of course, asking your clients for testimonials can be a bit awkward, especially if you want to do it more than once. I suggest you don’t ask for a testimonial, but to ask for feedback. You can download this example form to give to your clients here to gather testimonials for your business.

Ideally, you will have these testimonials written out and a picture to showcase. If you want to go the extra mile, get a coffee table book with your testimonials printed professionally by Zno. It’s easy, costs less than $20, and would make a huge impact.

  1. Human Billboards

When you’re starting out, you may not have results to sell. So the first step is to get them. Steve Hochman calls your first clients (whom you train for free or for very little) “human billboards.” In other words, get some initial clients results that "showcase your business" for free and encourage them to refer others in exchange for your time. For boot camps Hochman advises promoting on free listing sites like Craigslist that people can join for free with the condition that they refer at least one paying member each month.

  1. Referrals

According to the team at Zen Planner, a fitness professional can expect to have at least a 20 percent churn. This means each month, you can expect to lose 20 percent of your clientele for reasons outside of your control. That's why it's important for you to have a solid program in place where your happy clients consistently refer you others.

But referrals don’t just happen automatically most of the time. You need to ask for them. "Many trainers have too much pride to ask their clients for recommendations/referrals, thinking that it somehow reflects failure. This is the furthest from the truth," says Shawn Garcia of Shawn Rev Fit. Business of any kind depends on referrals and word of mouth. Your clients know this and won’t think of you poorly if you ask for referrals.

The next thing to consider is when to ask for referrals.  There are many times when it might be appropriate, but my take is, ask your clients for referrals often. Ask both at point of sale and throughout the training. Once a client registers with you, it’s a great time to ask if they know anybody else who might be interested in your services. Your client hitting a goal or milestone is another perfect time to ask if they have a friend or family member who wants to crush their fitness goals as well.

Like so much else of what I’ve discussed in this article, what’s most important is how prepared you are. Eddie Lester of Fitness Mentors suggests having some tangible referral documents to use that could come in handy. Beyond that, follow up. Follow up. And follow up some more.

Play the long game

None of what I’ve shared with you here is magic. There aren’t any secrets when it comes to building a fitness career that keeps growing for years to come. Real professionals do the right things day in and day out, consistently over time. Real professionals play the long game.