Personal training in a commercial gym gets a bad rap.
It’s viewed as an entry-level, low-paying, micromanaged position. It’s looked down upon by trainers who work independently or at private studios. Many trainers would rather give up their entire protein supply than work in one.
None of those things are true in my experience.
I worked in a commercial facility in Edmonton, Alberta, for close to 14 years, and only recently left for reasons I’ll explain in a moment. During those 14 years, I built a pretty solid career and list of accomplishments. At the same time, I helped my fellow trainers earn more and learn more, while also—and this point is important—helping the bottom line of the company we all worked for.
Here’s some of the stuff I did:
* Brought in close to $2 million in personal-training revenue. That put me in the top five in company sales for 11 years.
* Trained over 15,000 sessions with clients.
* Appeared in dozens of print and online publications, taught workshops around the world, and had speaking opportunities with some of the best-known organizations in fitness, all with the blessings of the company.
* Developed and expanded the company’s continuing-education program for its trainers.
* Developed a medical advisory board for allied health professionals, which served two important goals: They helped educate our trainers, and also referred their patients to us for exercise programs.
* Certified close to 300 trainers, some of whom worked alongside me at the club.
Some of the things I did were specific to my situation, and may not be possible for you. Different gyms have different rules. My goal is to show you some of the opportunities I found that you may not have considered, opportunities to increase your own income while also making your employers happy. Happy employers are more likely to give you the fitness career freedom you need to build your business and expand your personal brand.
But first, a word from our sponsors.
Your Employer’s Goal Is to Make Money
I know this seems obvious, but you’d be surprised how often trainers fail to connect the dots.
Consider the employer’s view:
When a gym hires a trainer with little to no experience, all the risk is on the employer. The trainer doesn’t have to worry about overhead expenses, like the cost of putting a roof over your head, filling a room with commercial-grade equipment, and keeping the lights on and water running.
The employer takes care of insurance, payroll, and whatever it costs to get people in the door for you to train. If the trainer does something stupid, it’s the company that gets sued.
That’s why they take such a large cut of every session your clients pay for. You earn a higher percentage of those fees when your clients get good results and you get more clients. It’s like any other field. You start at the bottom and earn more when you produce more.
While that’s a good arrangement for new trainers, more experienced fitness pros may need more room for professional and personal growth. I know I did. That’s why I came up with so many ways to expand my role at the gym. Some worked, some didn’t.
I’ll spare you examples of the latter, except to say that when a proposal was rejected, it failed to satisfy these three criteria:
- What’s in it for the company? Does it help the owners make money while making a difference in the lives of their members and clients? Does it fit their core values?
- What will it cost? And whom will it affect? Does it require administration from managers who may already be overworked? Will it need buy-in from multiple departments, each of which has its own (limited) budget and priorities?
- What does it do for the members? Does it improve the user experience in a measurable way, help the company get more members, or at least give the existing members a reason to stay?
Now let’s look at some of the ways I was able to make more money both inside and outside the club, all without ticking off management.
1. Create Online Content
I started training before Facebook and YouTube existed. If I wanted clients to do exercises on their own, I would make picture cards for visual reference.
If your artistic skills transcend stick figures and smiley faces, go nuts. If not, do the modern equivalent by making videos and writing blog posts. It’s incredibly easy, and your clients can’t lose them on you.
With drawings or videos, the goal is the same: to give my clients stuff to work on between workouts, or when I couldn’t train them in person.
When you do this while representing your company, it can have far-reaching benefits.
The biggest benefit goes to you: Your videos, blog posts, and Facebook chats work as a feeder system into in-person and online training, consultations, and writing and speaking opportunities. All of those things increased my income significantly, to the point where today in-person training is roughly 30 percent of my professional income.
They also gave me a library of stuff I could refer to without having to reshoot it. Back in the analog days I could share the same picture cards with 50 clients. Today I can share YouTube videos with everyone—clients, gym members, other trainers, and even the media. (Editors love having videos of the exercises you contribute to their articles. It makes their jobs a lot easier, and reduces the number of words they have to write to explain the movements.)
When your company shares your content—with your permission—you not only become more valuable to them by providing a benefit to their members, you also get new business from clients who wouldn’t have thought to train with you.
2. Train Clients Online
Online content gives readers snippets of information that’s interesting, useful, and of course accurate. But that’s all it is. For those who want the application of that information, I offer distance coaching.
As it happens, my gym didn’t offer online training, so there was no conflict, and I was free to turn my side gig into a successful business that didn’t interfere with my in-person training. I’ve now worked with hundreds of clients in dozens of countries—82, at last count.
Unlike the job at the gym, online training is portable, and gives me something productive to do during my downtime in airports and hotel rooms.
3. Build a Network of Health Professionals
One of the smartest and most unique things I did was forge connections with local physical therapists, chiropractors, massage therapists, and dietitians.
The connections worked two ways: We referred clients to them for services outside our scope of practice, and they sent their patients to us for rehab and fitness training.
They also received complimentary memberships and a few training sessions. In exchange, they did in-service presentations and helped us out when we had specific questions about individual clients—what should we do with a client who has a rotator cuff injury, or low-back pain, or symptoms of an eating disorder?
It could also work with other products and services. A fresh-food provider could offer your clients a small discount or preferential treatment, a potentially massive benefit to your weight-loss clients. Or a sporting goods store could offer discounts on shoes or workout gear, with benefits for all: Your clients get better stuff at a lower price, the store gets the business you send their way, and the store in turn refers their customers to you.
All these relationships cost your company nothing while improving services and benefits to its members.
In my case, working closely with allied health professionals brought in new clients who were ready to buy as soon as they sat down with me, increasing revenue for me and the club.
It also allowed me to develop content within our continuing-education calendar, and eventually led to me developing courses that I now teach internationally. These courses helped me develop a reputation as someone who knows a thing or two, leading to more speaking opportunities, distance-coaching clients, and marketable products.
4. Create Workshops and Seminars
I do a lot of presentations. Eventually, they led to a workshop series with Tony Gentilcore that we’ve now done in 40 different locations in North America and Europe. Not only has this generated substantial income, it’s allowed me to travel to a lot of places I wouldn’t otherwise have seen.
Teaching these personal training workshops/seminars raised my value in the eyes of the club owners. They had a trainer who was lecturing other trainers in exotic locations like Tulsa, St. Louis, and, believe it or not, Calgary.
It goes without saying that my clients enjoyed hearing about the trips. I mean, who doesn’t love a good “when in Calgary …” story, or hearing about that time I was stuck in Amsterdam for a night? (Pro tip: If you’re going to get stuck someplace overnight, try to make it Amsterdam.)
Here’s the important part:
All of this started with in-service presentations at my gym. I did close to 200 workshops within the organization before I did any teaching outside of it.
Sharing information, either inside or outside your company, is the best tool you’ll ever have for professional development. Create as many teaching opportunities as you can, and take advantage of the opportunities that come your way.
A lot of facilities already have a continuing-education budget. You just need to ask what courses you could teach, or come up with your own based on demand for information in areas where you have some expertise and you’re comfortable speaking about the topic. This not only allows you to expand the knowledge of other trainers, but there’s no better way to truly understand a topic than to teach it to others.
Another option is to set up a club-level in-service program, with trainers taking turns researching and speaking about topics that expand your collective base of knowledge. An hour-long meeting every week, or alternate weeks, helps galvanize your team while establishing you and your fellow trainers as experts in the areas you know the most about and are most interested in.
For me, it was a chance to hone my speaking skills, which led to opportunities outside of the club. Those outside speaking gigs in turn put me in a position to ask for, and receive, more money for my in-house seminars.
5. Turn Your Side Gigs into Your Job, and Your Job into a Side Gig
Over time the income from my side gigs eclipsed what I made from in-person training, and I left the gym a few weeks before writing this. I currently train clients part-time as an independent contractor at another facility in Edmonton.
It took me 14 years, but I finally have what every trainer wants: I get to work with clients and create content without being at the mercy of schedule conflicts, flu seasons, summer vacations, or the occasional global economic disaster.
It worked out for me because all my ventures enhanced the others. Training clients in person made me a better trainer, and made my online programs that much more effective.
Creating online content led to opportunities to train more clients, both in person and online, as well as chances to write for a long list of magazines and websites.
Building networks with other health professionals, and doing presentations that included information I learned from them, contributed to four different revenue streams:
- in-person training
- distance coaching and consulting
- seminars and workshops
- freelance writing and salable information products
Everything worked as a feeder system into everything else. The better it worked, the more I could demand for my work in every part of the system.
I could ask my employers for a higher percentage of training revenue. I eventually moved off the grid into my own category of pay.
I could raise my rates for online coaching, and see demand increase.
I could charge more for workshops, and get more attendees to sign up for online training.
And in a perfect world, I’d even get paid more for articles. (In the real world, you’re lucky to get paid at all.)
Your Next Move
So what can you do now?
If you’re just starting out, it’s too soon to ask your employer for more money, or to launch new initiatives like I just described. Your focus has to be on your clients. Their success is your success.
But you can and should plant your flag online with a website, Facebook page, YouTube channel, and any other social media you like to use. Build a base of content now, when you have time. Develop a unique voice in your writing and the way you present exercises in your videos.
Try to do something every day, whether it’s a video tutorial, an in-depth article, or a touching before-and-after story of a client’s success.
Online training is another option, if it doesn’t violate your company’s policies, or compete with services they offer. You can start the way I did, by giving my clients programs to use on their own when they couldn’t train with me in person.
All of this can happen while working in a commercial gym. As long as you remember your employer’s bottom line along with your own, almost anything is possible.