The fitness industry has been growing steadily—about 1 percent a year for the past five years, according to IBISWorld, with gross annual revenues of about $9 billion. With numbers like those, you’d think we’d all be able to easily make six figures as a personal trainer.
Obviously, we’re not. The average income for an entry-level personal trainer is $16.70 per hour or about $34,000 per year. The average for all trainers is about $42,000, with only the top 10 percent exceeding $76,000. (Those numbers go up or down depending on where you live and work.) These stats are further confirmed by the PTDC's personal trainer salary survey results.
I made $35,000 my first year—about average at the time for my area. And even that was a struggle. Personal training is hard, especially when you’re just getting started. But by the end of my fifth year in the industry, I was making more than $150,000.
So how was I able to more than quadruple my income in five years? It wasn’t easy, and I made a lot of mistakes along the way.
The eight I’ve listed below represent what I wish I’d known back then. I hope you can learn from my missteps and find a smoother path to earn six figures as a personal trainer.
Mistake 1: Not knowing what type of gym is best for your career
There I was, a young person with a personal training certification, ready to conquer the fitness world. The only problem was, I had no idea where to start. And while I was figuring it out, I lost valuable time.
These are your primary options.
Option 1: Big box gym
A personal trainer six-figure salary starts out just like any other profession: by getting your foot in the door. And for most entry-level trainers, that door is probably attached to a big box gym.
Working at a commercial gym can be a great experience. Consider these advantages:
- Low barrier to entry
- Employee benefits
- Help obtaining clients
- Access to equipment
- Little or no overhead cost
- Few administrative responsibilities
You see why this can be a smart pick for rookie trainers. It’s a low-risk way to build a client roster, get experience, focus on becoming better, and build a career where it’s feasible to earn six figures as a personal trainer.
But it also has some significant drawbacks:
- Little to no control over what you can charge
- Pressure to hit sales targets
- Sometimes onerous rules and systems
- Low pay
Before you apply at the local gym, try to get a sense of the vibe. Are employees happy? Do you think you’d like working with the members? Can you imagine yourself working there? If the answer is yes, go for it.
Option 2: Private training facility
Working for a private facility tends to come with more prestige, especially if you land in a high-end place like EXOS, Results Fitness, Cressey Sports Performance, or Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning. These jobs connect you with industry leaders, potentially opening up opportunities like writing gigs, photo shoots, and speaking events.
The downside? They’re harder to get into. Job openings tend to attract top candidates. If they hire an entry-level trainer, it’s usually a former intern, and getting into those internship programs can be extremely competitive.
Even if you land a job at a private gym or studio, you’ll often be expected to bring in your own clients, and the membership may be less diverse than you’d find in a commercial facility. That limits the range of populations you can work with, which may be detrimental to your development as a trainer.
Option 3: Self-employed
The autonomy of self-employment can be rewarding, but it’s not easy for those starting out, especially when you’re trying to make six figures as a fitness trainer.
As an independent trainer, you can rent space from a commercial gym, or buy or rent your own space and equipment—a near-impossible proposition for beginners with no client base or steady income. Of course, you could try in-home or online training. But those, too, are tough when you’re building a client base from scratch.
Bottom line: This tends to be more realistic for those with some experience and an established clientele. After all, the more time you spend attracting clients, the less time you have to hone your training skills. And you’ll need those if you want clients to stick around.
Mistake 2: Poor time-management skills
Personal trainers work long, irregular hours. Busy times tend to occur before people go to work in the morning (starting as early as 4 a.m.), during their lunch break, and after they clock out (from 4 to 7 p.m.). Working 12-hour days isn’t unusual, particularly early on.
Learning to manage your time efficiently is vital to avoid burnout. Plan ahead and bring your own meals and snacks (otherwise, you will blow your money on takeout). Figure out the best time to do your own workouts and develop a to-do list for the hours between clients.
You also need to set boundaries with clients. When I started, I allowed clients to text me at all hours of the day and night—even on Sunday, my only day off. It was exhausting, and over time I began to lose focus, compromising my clients’ results.
Obviously, you can’t make six figures as a personal trainer if you burn out so much that you stop training clients. Plus, is “the grind” really worth it if you never take time to recover and enjoy yourself? Just as with exercise, recovery is important for career growth. Prioritize it.
Mistake 3: Failing to budget for unpredictable income or diversify
Because of the erratic nature of the job, your paycheck can vary from week to week.
Case in point: Early in my career, out of nowhere, three clients went on vacation, two took off on business trips, and one got sick. Just like that, I lost more than half of my weekly sessions. And because I was booking just 20 hours a week back then, you can imagine how big a hit that was to my bank account.
For a recent example, look no further than the pandemic. Obviously, no one could have expected this to happen. But, as trainers, many of us had to completely revamp our client schedule and shift to 100 percent virtual personal training. Those who were able to keep business thriving were the ones with a safety net and a secure diversification plan.
The bottom line is, life happens, and you need to plan for it. Try to anticipate slow periods or holes in your schedule and set aside savings to cover your bills. Even if you have to find other streams of income outside of fitness, a little early planning can help you eventually drop those and make six figures as a personal trainer.
Mistake 4: Having a subpar marketing plan
This might be the most frustrating part of getting started in the fitness industry. Yes, your employer may push clients your way, but you’re expected to retain those clients, and eventually generate new ones.
I’ve had a lot of success attracting clients through my social media and website. But there are plenty of strategies, and you should find what works for you.
The easiest strategy to make six figures as a fitness trainer? Start with what you have right in front of you—asking clients for referrals.
Strangely, this low-tech, low-risk strategy is one most trainers avoid. I understand it can feel awkward, but it doesn’t have to. Keep in mind that you’ll be asking clients who like you and are happy with the results you’ve helped them achieve.
Simply asking for referrals won’t change that. But it might just get you a new client.
Mistake 5: Lacking confidence in your sales ability
I come from one of the poorest counties east of the Mississippi River. It’s an area where you’re lucky if you make more than $10 an hour. So the idea of charging $69 for just one hour of my time confused the hell out of me. How could I be worth that much? I couldn’t convince myself, much less others. Even the thought of trying to sell my services terrified me.
Gradually, I realized my worth and the value of the service I was providing. And I realized something else: The area I was now living and working in had a much higher standard of living. To many of the locals, $69 was not outrageous at all. It was a bargain!
Sales are about confidence. Remember that you have the skills and the training required to help people achieve their goals. And for people looking to change, that service is worth the cost. It’s going to be impossible to earn six figures as a personal trainer if you don’t value your time accordingly—there’s just not enough of it. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you’re worth.
Mistake 6: Poor client retention
Results are the key to client retention. If you can get good results for your clients, they’ll stay with you throughout your career.
But getting results isn’t always a linear process. Even the best, most carefully crafted training plan won’t work if client compliance is low. Progress is even slower when the client is reluctant to admit it.
Encourage your client to be honest with you. I’ve had clients over the years who owned up to a lack of commitment, and each time we were able to work together to find strategies that stuck. The clients stayed and eventually hit their goals.
Realize that each client is unique and will present different complications. But if you show persistence and prioritize problem solving, you can succeed with even the most challenging clients. And there’s no better feeling than that.
Mistake 7: Not investing enough in continuing education
Like so many new trainers, I used to see continuing education as a burden. After all, it costs money and takes you away from your clients. You do it because you have to, not because you want to, right?
Then I realized I was looking at it all wrong. Continuing education is not an obligation. It’s an investment toward the coveted “personal trainer six-figure salary.” As any successful person will tell you, you need to spend money to make money. These days, I spend more than $10,000 a year on continuing ed—far more than I need to stay certified—and I’ve seen firsthand the dramatic difference in income it can make.
If you’re not learning, you’re not improving. And if you’re not improving, you’re not doing the best for your clients, and you’re sure not making more money.
Mistake 8: Falling for gimmicks
If there’s one thing new trainers don’t take seriously enough, it’s reputation. After all, how can you appreciate something you don’t have yet?
But just because no one knows who you are doesn’t mean you aren’t building a reputation for yourself. The process begins on your first day on the job. And in this industry, your reputation means everything.
When you’re living paycheck to paycheck, the promise of a fast buck can be tempting. But most of the time, it’s risky and not how to actually make six figures as a personal trainer. Be wary of multilevel marketing schemes, particularly those peddling miracle pills and quick fixes.
The truth is, there are no shortcuts to success. Like your reputation, it builds gradually over time. If you’re willing to put in the work, it’ll be worth it.