I have been in the fitness training industry now for 10 years where I’ve served as a Group Fitness Trainer, Personal Trainer, Remote Coach, Coach of Coaches, Gym Owner, and now CEO. I have also served as a hedge fund trader “in a former life” and I’d like to fancy myself as a lifelong athlete but that’s fading fast haha.
I mention this because my perspective is merely one of many in the market when it comes to saying if a fitness trainer is a good career or not. We must agree that to understand if being a fitness trainer is right for you and a good career, we must put some specifics to our analysis.
Table of Contents
No, fitness training will in most cases pay you poorly in the beginning
There are a few big reasons why fitness training and coaching doesn’t pay well up front.
Fitness training lacks a barrier to entry. A surgeon requires upwards of 8 years of training after a 4-year degree. There are fitness trainers all over the world that take a nonsense certification course or 2-day seminar and call themselves a trainer. Because there is such a low barrier into the industry, the credibility will lack value. That means gyms won’t pay highly for a new trainer because that trainer hasn’t proven they can retain clients or bring new clients in.
In a similar light, many trainers lack employment prospects in other industries so they need to accept a lower salary or commission because they lack options. Some trainers have prospects in other industries, but they are so interested in training people for a living, they simply don’t care about what they get paid initially.
Fitness training has a very deep pool of new trainers starting in the industry every year. In the United States, alone, there are now over 300,000 according to multiple sources including the Bureau of Labor Statistics. With more and more fitness trainer certifications popping up such as NASM, ACE, NSCA, ISSA, and OPEX, the barrier to entry of “education” is allowing more trainers to come into the industry year after year. The deeper the work pool, the less employers need to pay new trainers. Get an education that will make you stand out amongst the crowd here.
Many fitness gyms are racing to the bottom in terms of their pricing. With gym memberships such as Planet Fitness costing $10/month, and with numerous group fitness gyms offering bootcamp or intense group fitness classes very cheaply, those gyms do not have enough margin per client to pay trainers well enough. For a trainer to get paid well, the gym must make a good profit from the client or group that the trainer instructed or coached.
(Resource: Learn how to make more money as a coach when you download our free Coach’s Toolkit here.)
Often you will not get benefits initially. In the long-run for you to enjoy benefits, you’ll likely need to work for a larger company or build your own company and give yourself benefits.
To be fair, it’s challenging to give a definitive “you’ll get benefits” or “you won’t get benefits” when you begin in fitness. The first question is whether you’ll be “employed” as a 1099 contractor (in the United States) or as a W2 employee. If you are a contractor, you will most likely not be offered benefits unless there is some form of stipend that you could use to get your own insurance. If you are a W2 employee, it will come down to the organization that you’re working for.
At the time of this blog writing, these institutions offer health benefits to their fitness trainers – it isn’t a comprehensive list, just a taste:
Some gyms that I looked into that didn’t mention health insurance benefits as a company expectation whether it be in corporate gyms, franchise gyms, or licensed gyms – please note that this may not be the most up to date and individual gyms may break the mold, so please do your own research:
We have run polls in the past where we’ve asked newer fitness trainers and coaches whether they have health insurance or not. Pretty consistently we see 10-20% of trainers claiming to have health benefits. With the rise in micro gyms, more trainers are going directly to smaller gyms, and it would seem that many of those trainer positions do not carry health insurance with them.
If we discuss health care, we must also discuss retirement benefits such as 401k matching. In short, my research did not turn up too much when it came to large percentages of gyms offering 401k benefits to trainers. Likely you would not expect to see 401k benefits in your early fitness trainer positions.
Both health insurance and 401k programs exist as trainers move up to head trainers, master trainers, and trainer managers, but from my research it doesn’t look like most gyms offer strong benefits throughout a fitness trainers career.
More and more fitness trainer roles offer some form of paid time off and maternity leave, but those programs often are unpaid and/or short term.
This issue is very similar to benefits. Because there is such a large pool of fitness trainers, and because the barrier of educational entry is low, many fitness trainer positions aren’t considered high level in the beginning of a trainer’s career. In that light, long-term paid paid time off (PTO) is not often a perk early in a trainer’s career. As gyms such as Lifetime and Equinox build out longer-term trainer education, they will continue to offer bigger benefits those higher end coaches.
Why do those “higher-end” trainers often get better access to both benefits and PTO? Quite simply, they command higher price points for either classes or personal training. With more revenue comes more margin to work with to “pay’ trainers more.
One other tough note lies more specifically with personal trainers in that when a personal trainer is not training people on the floor, they aren’t earning revenue. This is an inherent flaw in the role – it’s why an OPEX Gym delivers personalized fitness coaching, ie the evolution of personal training, which does not require a coach to spend every minute with their clients. If you are getting into personal training, be cognizant of that challenge so that you can set up your yearly schedule to earn the money you need while also taking some time off here and there.
In the long-run, like most all other things, you must make yourself a greater and greater asset to your gym. You must earn more money so that they have more cash to give you benefits and paid time off. Take the first step to becoming a greater asset for your gym here.
Most trainer jobs offer a short amount of vacation time, often 10 days or so.
We must revisit the question of whether you will be classified as a 1099 contractor or if you’ll be classified as an employee. Why this becomes important is because often it determines how you’ll be paid on a monthly basis. If you are a 1099 contractor and you get paid by the hours coached or the classes instructed, theoretically you can take off a bunch of time because you won’t be paid for it.
Sidenote – Of course it’s not just that simple, though. If you are a contractor, technically your boss or gym cannot “control” your schedule anyway or show “power” over you. What does that mean? If you’re thinking “how can I teach classes or have the gym control my schedule and still be a contract?” Wellllllllll….it’s grey at best. Many accountants or tax pros have told me that that is not allowed under US employment laws. Because I am not a lawyer or a CPA, I don’t intend to say what’s right or wrong, but I do intend to say that you need to be careful.
Now, as a W2 employee, you should be very clear on what your vacation allowance is prior to ever signing on as an employee. I wouldn’t anticipate more than a week or two of vacation from most gyms when you sign on, but throughout the course of a career you should see this number creep up every few years you’re with a company.
One thing is for sure on this, you need to be able to take some time away from the gym. You will put your heart and soul into this job, and it’s rather challenging from a physical demand standpoint – if you’re a quality trainer. Set your vacay up right away and you’ll be happier for it.
This is entirely dependent on how long you stay in the field – which is often rather short – and your ability to earn more money per hour in terms of clients or classes. Learn how you can make more money here.
This is a topic near and dear to all fitness trainers hearts. Perhaps you didn’t get into fitness training initially to make “big money” but we see time and time again that after a few years in the business you will recognize that you must earn more money. You have no choice. Do you want to get married, travel, have kids, save for retirement?
Teaching class example – $20/hour * 4 classes per day * 5 days per week * 4 weeks per month (factoring in a few days off per year) = $1,600/month * 12 months = $19,200/year.
In this example, you have a few levers you can pull:
The challenge is that if you aren’t increasing the revenue that the gym brings in on that hour, they won’t have the ability to pay you more. That means that you either need to coach more people in that hour or you need to earn more revenue per client per hour, and then you need to negotiate more pay for yourself! But, have you looked at what then happens? It’s very challenging to coach more than 6 classes/day for the rest of your fitness training career. If we agree that’s the case, that’s one lever gone. If you don’t bring in more revenue to the class, you also won’t have the higher dollar/hour lever to pull.
Coach on a salary example – More and more fitness trainer roles are beginning to pay a monthly/annual salary regardless of the number of classes taught. Let’s look at that for a moment. Virtually all salaried positions in gyms are either associated with a minimum number of classes or personal training hours instructed, or the role is associated with doing other operational or logistical roles such as desk hours, cleaning, folding towels etc. In this situation, there are also levers that you can pull to earn more money. Those often look like:
Notice what I’m trying to say here. Either you improve and earn more money in terms of the client revenue per hour of work, or you get out of coaching over time because you won’t continue to earn more year over year.
Even if you coach clients remotely where you make a percentage of client revenue on a monthly basis, your levers are still connected to earning more money per client (unless you continue coaching more clients each and every month). To earn higher price points, you must always work to retain your clients for longer periods of time and promote your gym and yourself. The combo of value shown to your clients and the popularity of your profile will economically improve your audience’s willingness to pay for your service.
At the end of the day, if you want to earn more, prove more value – in dollars – to your gym and you will build great leverage to ask for, or demand, more money.
Historically, coaches and personal trainers don’t stay in the industry for more than a few years. From our conversations and research, it usually comes down to having to get out because they aren’t making enough money or don’t see any upward mobility to go make more money in the future.
On the flipside, many gyms, particularly micro gyms, do not provide a lot of job security. This often happens before the gym ever hires you. Yep, you guessed it, if you get hired on as a 1099 contractor getting coached per class, there won’t generally be great “runway” for job security behind it. Not only is it easier to remove a contractor as a business, because they are paying you by the class, they could drop down the number of classes as a way of forcing you out of the business.
Now, let’s say you get hired on with a better pathway to success, it all comes down to revenue again. If you are a great coach who not only retains clients but also brings in more clients, you will make your own job security. However, remember that the pool of new coaches who are wizards on social media (which no matter how much you want to deny it does help acquire and retain clients) grows by the day. I don’t say that to scare you; I say that to prepare you that, like most jobs, you better get better at what you do or your job security will not be there
Frankly, yes a fitness trainer job carries more risk of liability than many other jobs.
Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t seen a large aggregate number of lawsuits come against fitness trainers, but when you look at fitness trainer lawsuits compared to something such as building websites, selling Nike shoes, or designing Teslas.
Why do you face this risk? Simply stated, you are having normal people do physical training and you aren’t a medical doctor or certified physical therapist or registered dietician most likely. If you do something that is considered out of your scope of practice – i.e. like if you told a client that you could fix their pain but you aren’t a certified physical therapist – you may get yourself in trouble. Also, if you have your clients do something, they get hurt, and you are found negligent, you are at risk.
It’s really important that you stick to your profession which is fitness training. Should you want to fix pain, prescribe deep nutritional fixes, or do medical related work with your clients, you need to go through the proper education channels as well as the certifying bodies. Even if you are extremely intelligent and considered a great coach, if you stray from your scope of practice and somebody comes after you, you could lose it all or more.
Yes. A fitness trainer job allows you to impact people and to improve their lives perpetually.
The only reason I do not put this as a 10 because the market will view being a doctor as creating more impact. I can’t deny that doctors can do absolutely amazing things to help people, but something so powerful about being a fitness trainer or coach – a great one – is that you can help people before they ever need a doctor.
I have had the distinct privilege of working with clients from 3 years old to 90 years old. When you treat your clients with competency, consistency, and care, and when you help them become aware of what they are doing in and out of the gym, you can positively impact people for decades.
I must make a statement here though. Just because you are a fitness trainer doesn’t mean you’ll positively impact people. Showing up to the gym, showing up to a 60 minute personal training session, and certainly not folding towels impacts people effectively. You must meet your clients where they are and help them move step by step forward. That requires ongoing relationships. That requires proper ongoing assessments to meet them where they are in that moment. That requires you to give them a training program that is correct for them and progress them forward. And, you must do all of that day in and day out.
If you intend to impact people, build their willingness to pay, and retain them for decades, you need to continue to educate yourself and take care of your people. When you do, there isn’t too much of a better feeling
Generally, no, but many of the gyms in today’s fitness market are beginning to remedy this, so I am bullish on this improving.
I define upward mobility on this sliding scale:
For great coaches, I am not a believer that being promoted should change their role in a substantive way. Great coaches who effectively take care of their clients should continue doing that for decades. A promotion that still allows a coach to coach people isn’t what most traditional promotions resemble.
(Resource: Learn how to market yourself as a coach here.)
Something that would be great for you to look at if you were or intended to become a fitness trainer was whether or not you’d be able to get promoted to managing and educating coaches. A coaching lifecycle for a true professional coach often demands transcendence where you follow a path that looks like:
The business will need to grow year over year or get and stay large enough where coaches can be at this upper echelon – having earned it – and new coaches can continue to come in.
Something to think about here. You can do all of that coaching lifecycle and not get tangibly promoted to do so. While I am all for there being a longer term lifecycle, the real game in coaching is to build a great clientele who will pay anything to work with you because of your relationships and the results of their training.
Assuming you don’t want to own a fitness business – which is another conversation entirely haha- you can build your own following and life cycle of success whether there is tangible promotion or not. That said, if you were to choose between scheduled pay raises or incentivized pay raises vs not, and if you knew that you had upward mobility in terms of mentoring other trainers, I’d recommend heading down that path and enjoying it.
Yes, fitness is strong and is still on an upward trend even with all of the technology out there.
Year in and year out for quite some time, the fitness industry has been increasing the number of gyms – both globo gyms and micro gyms – as well as the total revenue flowing into the fitness industry has been going up. Shockingly enough, as the population gets more sick, the fitness industry continues to boom. And, just like with many commodity products, people will need to do fitness perpetually, so the industry will stay strong.
But, be careful, the industry will stay strong, but I am referring to the entire fitness industry. In my opinion, there is never anything that is a sure thing, so you will need to watch the trends for how people want to “consume” fitness. We’re seeing some major trends hitting the fitness industry right now:
In the same vein, group gyms and personal training in person continue to grow, but it’s never a sure thing. For now, though, the industry is strong and people are trending into more lifestyle based fitness enjoyment which is good for all of us.
Annual hours are often not too bad, but your working hours can be challenging because many clients want to train earlier in the morning or later in the evening.
There is a true dichotomy in the fitness trainer profession when it comes to working hours. I know countless trainers, coaches, and instructors who would do anything to work more hours. Those trainers are often on the paid by class or hour contractor pay, and they want to train more people but don’t know how.
On the flip side, I also know a lot of trainers, coaches, or instructors – many of whom became business owners only to realize that there is a lot of work that comes with that – who have found some level of success but then they find that they are working very challenging hours. When I say challenging hours, I am referring to:
If you are aware of these pitfalls, you can setup your schedule in the way that works best for you. Me for example, I never minded the early or the later hours, but I didn’t like doing both of them in a day especially if I had to do it multiple days in a row – which I did for 2 years straight as a gym owner.
Something that I also think is important is to mention the difference between fairness and hard work. I believe that you should be paid fairly for your work, but I also believe that you owe it to both yourself and to your gym to push the envelope, work hard, and grow the business. Many coaches are so worried about the fairness side that they don’t push their knowledge or credibility forward by outworking and outthinking other more lazy coaches. The way that you can set yourself up for success is with a few step process:
When it comes to hours, as long as you are properly structured to go grow your business, let the hours slide, go build your business, and then drive your client’s willingness to pay up by earning it, and then bring your hours into an even better place.
The structure of the job will not likely challenge you, but your clients will challenge you. Some of those client challenges will be amazing experiences, and some of them will be very challenging on your psyche. Get the education you need to deal with future challenges in a professional manner here.
I’d like to break this question down into 2 main parts:
Your fitness trainer role isn’t complex in terms of the environment that you are in. If you can use simple web applications, if you can keep things clean, if you can show up on time, and if you can present yourself in a positive light, you should be just fine. Imagine the difference between a fitness trainer and a school teacher. The school teacher faces a lot of challenges from the school district, the parents, the state, the kid’s testing bodies, etc. It doesn’t make school teachers better or worse by any means, there is just more complexity and stress that is brought by the environment that teachers work within. By the way, that’s one of the reasons why full time teachers often have more job security; everything has tradeoffs.
In terms of the stakeholder interactions, being a fitness trainer is as interesting as it gets. While you are not a psychologist by any means and should stay in your lane, you will undoubtedly notice human being’s highs and lows on a daily basis. People unload emotional baggage on fitness instructors, and you must be prepared to receive it, process it, and help that person forward. That is one of the reasons we believe so deeply in helping people find awareness in their actions. That removes us from acting as any type of psychologist, but the simple act of being more aware helps those clients identify what is holding them back. Ultimately it’s up to them whether they do something about it or not.
Now that we’ve identified the two parts to this system, we have to ask what is “good.”
For the professional fitness trainer, they love the fact that they have interesting and potentially complex relationships with others, and many of them love that they have simple structural systems around them from a physical work environment side. If you do not get satisfaction out of working with people who go through a myriad of emotions, a fitness trainer role will most likely not be a long-term one for you. For those folks, they end up feeling stress from those relationships as opposed to taking pleasure from them.
No, it will not. You can earn that over time, but you will not have it in the beginning.
Status is something that matters if you want to make any job a career. We must agree on this point to move forward. If you are looked at as the “runt,” you will find it harder to advance your career.
On that same point, you will similarities as it relates to how your peers and community views your job role or title. I worked 5 years as a hedge fund trader prior to opening my first gym. When I was a trader, the “world” looked at me very differently. They thought I was in the upper echelons of society. I saw this in what events I was invited to, who wanted to interact with me and my friends, and even how banks either gave or removed credibility in the form of whether they’d offer me a mortgage etc. When I went into the fitness arena that status was erased quickly. I had to work my tail off to change my community’s perception of who I was and the value that I offered back to them.
When we think of status, we have to think of it from a few realms:
To build status, you must build those three pieces. Now, you may be asking “why the hell do I need status, I just want to help people?”
It’s a fair question, but we’re talking about making a fitness trainer job a professional career. To become a true professional, all three of those status points must rise, so you may as well build them from day one. As long as you know that you won’t have them day one, but you can grow them, you will have the awareness and motivation that you need to make your own decision of how you’ll grow them. Take the first step to becoming a professional fitness coach with this free course.
It should be, yes. Is it always? No. Make your choice as to where you’ll fall on this spectrum
It would be nice if I gave you a straightforward yes or no, wouldn’t it haha. Well, we’re in the real world, and it always depends. The sooner you learn that, the better you’ll be for it.
In terms of whether being a fitness trainer is healthy or not, it depends on you. We’ll discuss 3 buckets of people here:
Overweight and out of shape fitness coaches:
Truth be told, I find this appalling. Yes, those are harsh words, but how am I supposed to find you credible if you can’t take care of yourself. Of course there are medical challenges that some people cannot control, but for the coach who lazily let themselves go, good luck because I’m going to take all of your clients. Being out of shape as a fitness trainer is like a financial advisor who is bankrupt; would you put your money with them?
How do coaches let themselves go? You guessed it; it depends. I have known many coaches who believe they are too busy to “train hard.” The funny thing is that the longer you’re a high-end fitness trainer, the more you’ll realize that you don’t need to train more than 45-60 minutes doing simple weight training and movement, eat well, and reduce stress. Another reason I have heard is the fitness trainer who says something like “I trained so hard in years past, I just need a break. Again, I go to the fact that if you believe in health and wellness and your profession, you know that is a nonsense argument. If you fall on this spectrum, you need to get deep into your soul. If you believe in your craft and what you’re peddling to others, you must find consistent inspiration, and you must become your product.
Overtrained and burned out fitness coaches:
Did you even think about this type of fitness trainer when I brought up unhealthy coaches? More and more with the growth in intense fitness, bootcamps, weekend “tough guy” courses, etc, coaches are training really hard really often. Sure, it can feel great in the beginning. I did it for a number of years myself. What we’re seeing more and more from coaches we work with is that they are massively burned out.
What does burned out mean? We are seeing more coaches who can’t sleep through the night, males having erectile problems, have very “jacked up” nervous systems, have messed up guts, have low testosterone or progesterone, etc… If that scares you, do some research into it. Just because you want hard training to work, doesn’t mean it does in the long-run. You must monitor how much stress you put on your body, and training is one of those big stresses. There is a time and place for some intense training, but you must manage your overall stress load.
Fitness trainers who are training people on the gym floor for 6+ hours a day and training for 3+ hours a day, especially if they are heavily supplementing, may find that they begin experiencing the issues I mentioned above. You need to be careful on this because it’ll take away from the energy that you can put into your clients and work.
Healthy fitness coaches:
This is what it “should” look like. With a quality work/life balance, with a deep care and enjoyment for your work, “using” the fitness service that you’re selling, and managing your stress levels should be the pinnacle perk of this job, but it is up to you to put this into play properly.
Yes, it should be. Even with the challenges you’ll face, it can be a beautiful job to enjoy for a long time
I saved this for last because it’s so near and dear to my heart. A large percentage of fitness trainers get into this business because they love fitness and want to help people. Gosh is that a powerful combo if put to the right use. What could be better, right? You get to wake up, go into the gym, help people achieve confidence, strength, power, etc, go do your own training, learn how to optimize people’s performance, eat some cashew milk ice cream and head to bed haha.
What fitness trainers often find is that the job requires a lot more effort in the relationship game than they were prepared for. After a year or two in the fitness game, trainers realize that the training “should” look less complex and their client’s lifestyle should look simpler in as many places as possible. The coach becomes the guide in the relationship. The “arrows” in the trainer’s “quiver” are fitness programs and conversations, and both matter a lot. The fitness trainer who respects and enjoys both sides of that equation has likely found a career they’ll want to stay with forever. The fitness trainer who doesn’t like constant interaction with clients likely hasn’t found a career best suited for them.
I want to end this article by asking you this question.
After walking through all of these points, are you more or less interested in this career? My hope is that you don’t judge yourself one way or the other. If I can help you by giving you helpful information about what the job really looks like, then I am happy.
At OPEX Fitness, we love helping coaches grow every day. No part of that goal includes pulling the wool over fitness trainers’ eyes. You must have a real idea of what this field looks like. Many of us have gotten into it not knowing all of these things, and it’s worked for us, but if you know this right away you can set yourself up to succeed earlier and for a longer period of time. Set yourself up to succeed even further by getting a proper coaching education with this free Coach’s Toolkit.
Enjoy your journey!
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