It’s no secret that the fitness industry has a high dropout rate. A few years ago, when I was doing research for a presentation, I read that fewer than 1 percent of entry-level personal trainers are still doing it 15 years later. Even the best ones are like the fire that burns twice as hot and half as long.
So if you’re a fitness pro with doubts about your career prospects, hey, I get it. But I also know your career doesn’t have an expiration date. That’s because I’ve been doing it for a quarter-century now, with clients who’ve been with me for more than 20 years.
Unlike most trainers today, I just kind of fell into my career. I had a degree in kinesiology, but until I moved to Las Vegas in 1992, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it. (Personal training wasn’t really a thing back then—at least not in the Midwest, where I grew up.) In Vegas I happened to meet a guy who was opening up a private studio in L.A. He needed trainers, and that’s how I started.
I won’t pretend I knew it was my calling the first time I put a barbell in a client’s hands. Like anyone who’s starting a new gig, I went into it with my mind open to a full range of possibilities.
As it turned out, I was good at it. Clients started referring other clients to me, and like I said, some of those early clients stayed with me for many years. That’s how my business grew—one satisfied client at a time.
There were slow periods, when the economy shifted and clients moved on. That’s inevitable. Sometimes money was so tight I wondered if I should just ditch it and become a firefighter.
But I didn’t. So why was I able to stay in the job for so long, while so many others fled? I think it comes down to these six factors.
You have to know why you’re doing it
Once I realized what a positive effect a trainer can have on his clients—physically, mentally, emotionally—it became the reason for pushing through lean times.
The best example is my client Barbara Garmon, shown with me in the photo above. (I talked about her at the end of this article.) In the 24 years we’ve worked together, she’s donated a kidney to her sister, shattered her arm in a freak accident, survived breast cancer, and had lymph nodes removed. After that last surgery doctors said she’d never be able to lift her arm again. After she broke her arm they said she’d never lift more than five pounds with that hand.
But we worked through all those things, and she’s now a record-setting lifter, winning the IPF World Bench Press Championship for her age group in 2013.
How your clients feel determines how much you make
I’ve mentored younger trainers who told me they needed a second job, only to realize how hard it was to find one that paid as well as training. Inevitably, they’re better off working a little harder to land a few more clients, and to keep more of the clients they land.
Don’t underestimate the value of retention. I’ve seen trainers who, from a nuts-and-bolts standpoint, had no business training people. But their clients loved their personalities despite their mediocre, if not dangerous, program design and coaching. Why? Because the trainers made the clients feel good about themselves.
If you’re struggling to make a living, ask yourself what you could do to improve your people skills. You have to give clients a reason to want to spend more time with you.
READ ALSO: Personal Training as a Second Career
You have to earn respect
Personal training, historically, hasn’t been a well-respected career. “When are you going to get a real job?” is a question you can expect to hear. Trainers who work for me have heard it from girlfriends who wanted to get more serious.
Please don’t waste time seeking other people’s approval. What matters is that you do the work to become someone worth respecting. Coachability is an underrated trait. If you’re willing to listen and learn—and take what you learn to heart—you’ll do well long-term.
Trends can get you in trouble
Trends come in hot and bright and feel like the future. It’s always tempting to lock into the newest one and try to own it. But you have to be prepared for what happens when the trend fades. And they always fade. This year’s hot new boutique cycling studio was last year’s CrossFit box. The year before it was a Pilates place. Next year it might be an empty storefront.
I’ve never been a fan of early adoption. But I don’t turn a blind eye either. For me, strength training is the foundation and the rest is window dressing. I like to take some time to see what might or might not work for my clients.
As a wise person once said, “The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.” I like to be the second mouse.
Avoid the temptation of debt
I was in the first generation of college students who were actively pursued by credit card companies. They sent me all kinds of offers, and it was so tempting. I could have a VCR right now, without saving up for it! (Yes, I’m that old.) Credit can give you a lifestyle you can’t afford and haven’t earned. Who doesn’t want that?
I wish I hadn’t. If I could go back and do it again, I wouldn’t have been so eager to put the VCR and TV and Sega Genesis on a credit card. Why? Because being debt-free allows you to make choices. Especially if you want to open your own gym eventually.
I’ve seen young trainers making steady money for the first time in their lives squander it on a flashy car. I’m sure it makes them feel good about themselves, but what happens when a couple of clients bail and they’re mortgaged to the hilt? Nobody’s impressed by a repossessed Porsche.
Build and maintain your support system
Remember the girlfriends I mentioned, the ones pressuring their men to get “real” jobs? They’re forcing those guys to choose between a relationship and a profession. No matter what choice they make, they’ll resent it. Everyone loses.
I’m lucky. One of my clients back in the day agreed to become my wife. She understands my work and what I need to do to be successful at it. I can’t say enough how important it is to have support at home. Businesses can fail and revenue streams can dry up, but you can always depend on a good partner.
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