What scares you the most about becoming a personal trainer?
Facing day one with zero clients, I’d say.
I know having zero clients is scary because that’s what students in our personal trainer certification program tell me.
And I know it’s scary because I’ve started from zero myself—at least 10 times.
Here’s the good news:
Gaining clients is a learned skill, something that gets easier.
Take me for instance. I’m an accidental personal trainer.
After retiring as a pro athlete (soccer goalkeeper), I of course ate ice cream for two weeks. When I signed up at the local gym, it was demoralizing—retirees and shift workers trudging around a machine circuit.
Nothing like the collegiate Division I strength-and-conditioning facilities I was used to.
But I heard some awesome beats from a spin class in the corner, so I hopped on a bike and found a new team to compete with.
If you show up, sit in the front row, and sweat like crazy enough times, you get asked, “Hey, have you ever thought about teaching classes?” After some training, that’s what I did for a couple of years, before and after my day job.
Here comes the “accidental” part.
A spin participant told me, “My legs are torched, but what do I do for my arms? I need to get rid of these wings!”
I looked around—no trainers in sight—so I showed her a few things she could do with dumbbells.
She was my first client.
I built my book of clients from my spin classes and realized one day that I was busy enough to quit my day job.
All of my “start from zero” moments grew out of moves to different gyms and different cities, noncompete clauses and opening my own studio, moving across the country and back again, and shifting into education while still running a club.
You get the picture. Life happens, and you adjust.
One thing remained a constant: Rebuilding that client list.
Client acquisition is a sales job, sure, but it’s also unique.
In this two-part series, I’ll share with you specific strategies for gaining your first personal training clients in a gym.
Part one is this: Get noticed.
You have to be seen by someone before you can convince them to hire you. So let’s start there.
Step 1: Be the gym concierge
Think beyond programs and coaching. I’m talking about things like a clean gym, a friendly smile, and deep knowledge. Your goal: Provide an unforgettable experience for everyone you work with.
Do that, and you will absolutely gain clients, retain clients, and generate rave reviews.
The reason: You’re focused on the experience, not the result. But more on that later. First, let’s go to Montreal.
My cousin was a concierge in a five-star boutique hotel. A chauffeur met me at the airport and my beautiful room had a handwritten welcome note. I thanked my cousin for the personal attention, but she assured me it was standard procedure for all guests.
I accompanied her on shopping trips she made for guests: baked goods, wine, lingerie, jewelry.
“My job is to ensure our guests have a wonderful stay, not just in our hotel, but in our city,” she explained.
I began to change how I thought about service.
“At the end of the day, it’s simple,” my cousin said. “Either we provide what our guests desire or they go elsewhere.” Exceed expectations and they’ll return—and send their friends.
Our goal is the same: We want people to pick our gym, keep coming back, and refer us to friends.
Here’s a checklist for you, a budding gym concierge.
Related: “How to Become a Personal Trainer”
Is the gym clean and well-maintained?
Taking pride in the place you work shows you care and builds a positive reputation.
Put weights and equipment away—yours and any others lying around. All the time.
Pick up stray paper towels—on the gym floor, in the parking lot, in the changerooms. Same goes for spills, dirt, and dust.
You have janitorial staff? Great! Pitch in and help.
Don’t turn your nose up at something that’s so simple yet important. It affects the members’ overall experience.
If a piece of equipment is broken or wearing down, do something immediately. Tell the boss, post a sign, and log it.
Safety is a huge priority. If it’s an easy fix, do it yourself. A quick turnaround shows members that safety and maintenance are priorities.
Do you help create a friendly and inclusive culture?
Make eye contact, smile, and say hello. To everyone! If possible, introduce yourself and ask their name. Meaningful conversations start with simple outreach.
I’m serious—try to say hello to everyone. I’ve worked in clubs that serve between 300 and 1,200 members a day. Say hello in a genuine and friendly way 1,200 times in a day and then tell me you have trouble gaining clients.
If someone asks for anything—the triceps rope, the ab wheel, bands, whatever—never wave over to the corner and say “It’s over there.” They clearly don’t know the gym well enough. You’re being handed a golden opportunity to do something meaningful—don’t pass it up.
Are you an expert on your gym?
You don’t need a Ph.D. in anatomy, but you do need to know everything about your gym. Such as:
- How to use all the equipment
- Names of all the staff
- All of the classes offered so you can recommend a good fit for whoever asks—beginners to advanced participants, older adults, or people interested in cardio, strength-focused options, and recovery.
- Know about new products, upcoming events, and amenities: Member Appreciation Day, outreach in the community, new supplements, special promotions, the 60-day Challenge. Even towel service.
Working at a gym is a partnership. You are your own brand and business, of course, but the brand and business of the facility you work in is part of your image.
People probably pick the gym before they ever meet you. If they know more about the gym than you do, then your credibility suffers. Promoting the services and amenities of your club is a big opportunity for you.
My cousin the concierge once pulled out a box of invitations to the best restaurants in Montreal and had me pick one.
The restaurants were eager to impress the hotel staff, so they’d steer business their way. We had an incredible meal—shark and savory vegetables, rib eye for her, and chocolate lava cake for dessert. A memorable experience.
The point: When you take pride in creating an unforgettable experience for everyone you work with, you will land clients who stick around and who send more your way.
At the gym, focus on the experience.
Step 2: Show what you do as much as possible
Here’s something I really hate to see: trainers leaning on the desk checking their phone while they wait for a client to show up.
Or sitting in the lounge waiting for their afternoon sessions. Or standing behind the front desk chatting while they wait for a task to be assigned.
Catch my drift?
I’ve worked at and managed a fair number of gyms, so I know downtime exists. But it still kills me that members might witness this low-energy behavior.
The member is only there a short while, so everything they see forms an impression. Keep that in mind.
A mentor once noted that at Starbucks, if a staffer is in view, they’re always working. On a break, they’re out of view.
As a personal trainer, you should be that focused and efficient. Except that your “making coffee” is changing peoples’ lives through fitness!
So what is your real work? It’s this:
- Giving clients your undivided attention in training sessions
- Communicating with and serving members
- Cleaning up
I can hear 20-plus years of pushback as I type those bullet points. What about writing programs, getting my workout in, eating, time between sessions that I’m not getting paid for?
I get it—I was a full-time trainer for more than 10 years. I know what the job is.
But this article is about how to gain clients. You work at Starbucks, you make coffee. You want to gain clients? Do the real work.
- Do you know every single person’s name in the gym right now?
- Do you know every single person’s fitness goal?
- Do you know every single person’s obstacle or opportunity?
If the gym is clean and you’re not with a client, you could be gathering those answers. You could be introducing yourself, asking for names, goals, and obstacles. (And if you did, they might let you make them a coffee.)
Keep busy so potential clients see you
These tips worked for me when I was new or low on clients. You want “spectator prospects” to see you in action—they really will come up to you and say “I’ve seen you working with clients …”
- Offer free sessions to staff members. This gets you on the floor training. Remember, front desk staff, managers, and group instructors frequently refer members to a trainer. If they like training with you, they’ll feel honest recommending you!
- Invite some friends or family to train with you. Just tell them it’ll be strictly professional—a specific time, and no kidding around because they’re friends. Look the part. And if they like it, ask if they want to become a paying client.
Show your work online
Post videos of your own training, because we should walk our talk. Curate your posts to attract your desired client base.
With permission, post videos of yourself training clients. This emphasizes that you’re offering personal training services. (And it can make clients feel good—that’ll help retention.)
Post videos where you explain how to do an exercise to flash your communication skills. Try this with another trainer—it’ll go faster and help you improve your camera skills
Post tips about time management, nutrition, lifestyle, or strategies—the kinds of things you educate your clients about.
Step 3: Connect. Pay attention. Follow up.
Okay, you’re acting like a gym concierge and you’re making yourself seen. It’s time to connect.
Most sales happen after eight to 10 points of contact. But most salespeople give up after one or two points of contact.
That was me, starting out. Hearing “no” was a major bummer and I felt uncomfortable talking to someone after they had rejected me.
Things changed when I started paying attention. I delivered more value-added points of contact. Here’s how:
- Introduce yourself by name.
- Remember members’ names.
- Greet them by name.
- Remember details—goals, obstacles, opportunities.
- Educate, encourage, and check up on those details.
Example: I met John when I was putting dumbbells on the rack where they belonged.
He finished a pretty heavy set of incline presses and we made eye contact. I smiled and he nodded.
I said hello. He pulled out his earbuds, so I repeated myself.
He replied and gave me kudos for organizing the weights.
“Sure, it always bugs me when the weights aren’t where I think they’re supposed to be. Nothing worse than having to go searching when you’re trying to do a drop set, you know?” (I don’t really train that way, but you gotta play to what you see in front of you!)
We commiserated and chatted. I asked how long he’d been a member, what got him into fitness, and what his favorite shoulder exercise is.
“Probably barbell overhead press, but I haven’t done it for a couple of months now. My shoulder started bugging me.”
We continued chatting, and I learned of his shoulder surgery and his hobby, painting. Holding the brush too long sometimes aggravated his shoulder.
Aha! I told him of an architect client with a similar problem who had benefited from extra warmup. This led to a discussion of TriggerPoint balls, and we agreed to meet the next day so I could demonstrate.
I’d found John’s need and a common link, and volunteered to help.
You think I sold him training the next day, right? Nope.
But the TriggerPoint ball worked and I encouraged him to bring any friends who might also benefit. This led to a new client, then his wife, then her sister, and then her daughter.
Not bad for a 10-minute TriggerPoint ball demo!
For more tips on how to get clients, check out part two: “Adopt a Sales Mindset.”