Fitness is constantly evolving. Consider, for a moment, how the wellness industry has changed in the last ten years. In 2010, interactive, streaming workouts didn’t even exist. Now, companies like Peloton, Openfit, and Tonal are delivering boutique fitness experiences to clients at home. Instagram launched in 2010. Now, Insta-famous trainers are monetizing their accounts to promote products, e-courses, and land sponsorships. When it comes to starting a career as a personal trainer, there are tons of new opportunities available, and a few battle-tested standards that aren’t going anywhere.
(Photo by Form on Unsplash)
When Should You Start Your Personal Training Career?
Right now. Whether it’s something that’s a recent interest or a long-time dream, there’s absolutely no reason not to give it a try. But that comes with a caveat: if you are currently relying on a day job to pay your bills, don’t quit your job. If you’re on the verge of finishing school, and want to make a go at the fitness industry, be prepared to work side gigs until you build a client base.
Justin Thomas Sanchez, who has spent more than 20 years in the fitness industry, started working a side gig as a fitness instructor while in the hospitality industry. It wasn’t long before he realized that he wanted to make fitness his full-time gig; fortunately working in hospitality gave him the flexibility to back off slowly from one field while ramping up in the other.
“That was my pay-the-rent job while I got myself into the fitness industry, specifically personal training and group fitness. It took me about eight months at that time to build up to where I could say goodbye to the hospitality industry completely and be full-time as a personal trainer, as my own business,” he explained.
For anyone considering fitness as a full-time career, Sanchez champions the idea of an income safety net. “You'll talk to any entrepreneur who has ever made it, and their start-ups were always a side gig. It’s really important to remember that you can't just jump... You can't give up everything and jump in hoping that you make it because oftentimes you won't. And there's going to be ups and downs no matter what,” he said.
Where To Find Clients
Many trainers find their clients either (1) working at a gym, (2) teaching group fitness, or (3) word of mouth. The third option is easier if you do one of the first two; in the age of targeted advertising and viral social media, however, it’s possible that you could start a personal training practice without either.
Still, most trainers opt for the first two options.
For example, Brandon Wagner, a National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)-certified trainer, started his career teaching group classes at Canyon Ranch in Tucson. After nine years at the resort, he left to pursue a personal training business. “I started working at a friend's local business, he gave me several of his clients. Then from there, I started building my own clientele, and it was mostly word of mouth,” he said. Wagner attributes some of his success to the fact that he was building a business in his hometown. “It's not a small city, but it's a small community,” he said. Two years ago, he branched out on his own, and began training clients at a studio in his home.
Elizabeth Andrews, an American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and American Council on Exercise (ACE)-certified trainer, started her career as an aerobics instructor in Atlanta before adding on a slew of personal training and modality certifications. “I started in groups in the late eighties and that's still my love. I still teach step [aerobics],” she said. Now based in Seattle, Andrews teaches her bootcamp-style HIIT class, PUSH Training, small groups class, and yoga, in addition to seeing clients one-on-one. “I pretty much do it all. And I love both, but I get really energized in groups because that's where I started,” she said.
Sanchez also recommends group fitness for landing personal training clients. “I've found that teaching group fitness, whether it's a traditional class or small group training, leads to getting personal training clients at a higher percentage than if you just do personal training on its own,” he said.
According to Sanchez, the secret ingredient for landing clients is connection. “Real personal connection with others is massively important in landing the best jobs. What I've experienced is that it isn't what you know, it's who you know that makes the difference. So I recommend that [trainers] get out and network, volunteer, attend workshops and conferences. Make and keep regular contact with as many people as possible,” he said.
Those Who Can, Teach
Personal training is an incredibly rewarding field. It’s also a physically and mentally demanding career path. After years of group classes and client appointments, many trainers choose to diversify into education or recruitment.
On the education front, personal trainers who excel in a specific modality may be invited to train as master instructors, and then educate and mentor other trainers. Sanchez, Wagner, and Andrews all participate as instructors in TRX Academy, teaching aspiring trainers best practices in using TRX with individual and group clients.
Sanchez, for example, said his workload these days is primarily dedicated to group classes in New York City, instructor training for TRX, and producing his wellness podcast, Chase Your Better.
“I'm doing a lot more fitness education and consulting,” Sanchez said. “With TRX, I [teach] courses on the weekends. I used to do the same thing for Les Mills. When I come home, and I'm in New York City, I teach small group training classes for Exceed Physical Culture. I also recruit and develop talent for them. Part of my time is outside of the studio, doing more of the administrative duties—the auditioning, the interviewing and things like that—and then developing the instructors and helping them become better at what they do so the clients get what they expect.”
Let’s Get Digital
Digital channels can also provide trainers with work, but don’t expect to turn into a streaming fitness star overnight. The recruitment process for a streaming instructor is intense because brands are looking for trainers with big personalities who can create safe, challenging, and effective workouts. Sanchez, who helped launch streaming workouts for Life Fitness On Demand, said he auditioned with approximately one hundred instructors before being selected.
His advice for trainers looking to break into the streaming world? Produce and post your own videos online. “That side of it is very easy now. With the cameras on the phones, you can do a lower production video. A lot of people are doing this on social media. Produce content every day and pretty soon someone might see it, and that person might be the right person to say, ‘Hey are you interested in doing this on-demand platform of ours?’ It could lead to something special.”
There’s no single path to creating a successful future as a personal trainer. Whether you choose group fitness or social media to reach new clients, you have to take the path that feels most comfortable for you. But you won’t have a career unless you start, so get started today.