Gym Management: The Case for Part-Time Coaches

In discussions on gym management and staffing, the argument has long been made that a fitness professional must be a full-time coach.

The purported benefits:

  1. Full attention is devoted to coaching.
  2. Full-time coaches are better educated.
  3. Full-timers can serve clients 40 hours per week.
  4. All time is devoted to areas of passion.

But are those the real benefits of a full-time coach? And are they exclusive to full-timers?

In this article, I’ll share why a coach doesn’t have to work full-time to meet any of those requirements, and, most importantly, why part-time coaches might actually make your clients happier.

What Makes a Great Coach?

I’m a full-time coach. I coached kids as a job in 1996, began personal training in 2000 and opened my first gym in 2005. I was as “full-time” as it gets: 16 hours per day running the gym and over 10 hours per day coaching clients (my record was 14 in a row without a break).

I thought I was the best in town and therefore irreplaceable in my business. I had a university degree. I studied more than anyone else. I spoke to other coaches and gym owners every day.
But none of that made me the best coach in town. The best coach is the person who provides clients with the best results—period.

Do full-time coaches necessarily get better results for their clients?

Let’s examine the above criteria in depth.

1. Full Attention Is Devoted to Coaching

Full-time coaches might have a job that takes 40 hours per week, but most don’t spend all that time coaching. It’s very hard to maintain engagement and energy for eight hours of coaching every day.

Instead, coaches’ weeks are often backfilled with other roles—and they might not be great at those roles. Just because someone is great at coaching doesn’t necessarily mean he or she is great at billing people or sending cards to congratulate a client on a PR.

Instead of paying for a full-time coach, most gym owners wind up paying for 20 hours of coaching excellence and 20 hours of mediocrity at everything else.

2. Full-Time Coaches Are Better Educated

Full-time coaches might be better educated if they have time to dedicate to continuing education and if they choose to study things that will actually make a difference. Reading blogs or watching slow-mo weightlifting videos don’t provide the greatest opportunities for growth.

On the other hand, part-time coaches might not have any time to pursue professional development. If a gym gives its coaches dedicated time to study, access to resources and a clear path to growth, then the full-time coach has a slight advantage here.

Caveat: If the coach’s technical knowledge is a 9 out of 10 and his or her people skills are a 3, more technical knowledge is a waste of time.

3. Full-Timers Can Serve Clients 40 Hours Per Week

Full-time coaches can work predictable schedules. For the gym owner, this is possibly the most important reason to have full-time staff.

Predictability and consistency are more important than anything else. It’s the gym owner’s job to leverage that predictability and use his or her time to build the business.

If you take yourself off the coaching floor, do so with purpose: Level up into CEO roles like sales, marketing and relationship building.

4. All Time Is Devoted to Areas of Passion

It’s a noble purpose for the gym owner to provide meaningful career opportunities for passionate staff. But the owner’s primary responsibility is to provide for family first, clients second and staff third. So if the owner hires a full-time coach but can’t pay himself or herself a good wage, priorities are backward.

In some cases, coaches want only to coach. And that’s great: These are the coaches who should work toward a full-time career with the 4/9ths Model.

If you’re unfamiliar with the 4/9ths Model, the gym owner builds a Career Growth ToolKit with coaches to help them generate as much work and income as they want from the gym. They start with a class schedule, then determine how many personal training sessions, small group sessions and specialty clinic sessions the coach will need.

Finally, they fill the coach’s time with other roles—but only if the coach wants more. They only add roles at which the coach will excel but at the pay rate designated for each role. It doesn’t make sense to pay a cleaner $30 per hour even if he or she runs a fun class, too.

This process will include lots of work in areas of passion, but it’s important to remember that it’s very hard to be a great coach for eight hours a day. Many great coaches find they’re spent after four or five hours and need to fill the rest of their time with other roles.

The other thing to remember: The fastest way to ruin a hobby is to make it your career.

Do Part-Time Coaches Get Better Results?

I remember visiting an affiliate in another city. It was run by a guy just like me: a subject matter expert in fitness who coached every class and ran his gym from open until close. But he was resentful when I showed up early, he kept his hood pulled up for the entire class, and he clearly didn’t want to be there.

Later that year, I visited CrossFit HQ: Every single person greeted me with a hug and smiled warmly at everyone else.

“This is the real magic of CrossFit,” I thought. Most of those people were part-time coaches at nearby boxes.

When I got home, I looked at my morning class schedule and wondered, “Would these amazing people be better served by someone who was less tired and distracted than I am?”

I put a young, bubbly coach on the 6-a.m. class. People loved her. Adherence went up. Then people started coming back. She had a fraction of my knowledge and experience, but people showed up and worked harder for her, so they got better results.

Years later, when I was coaching far less, people began to look forward to my classes again. I was a part-time coach in my own gym because I was working on other projects. But when I showed up to coach the occasional noon group, I was pumped to be there. I did the best coaching of my life when I coached the least—and not because I knew more but because I had more to give.

Gym Management: How to Use Part-Timers

Part-time coaches bring a lot of benefits to your gym.

First and foremost, they’re fresh and eager and don’t work enough to become burned out.

Second, every situation is new to them. Part-time coaches don’t whine about teaching the front squat to the same client over and over again. If you’re in Facebook coaches forums sharing memes about clients who “just don’t get it,” stop. You’re burned out. Hire a happy part-timer.

Their educational development might suffer because they don’t have as much time to learn, but let’s face it: Suzanne Somers and Richard Simmons changed a lot of lives. I don’t remember seeing their certifications listed on the outside of their DVDs. The key: enough education, not maximal education.

Almost every question in your business comes back to this one: “What’s the best thing for the majority of my clients?”

And in this case, the best coach is the happy, energetic trainer who can brighten the client’s day.

How Many Classes Should a Trainer Lead?

The answer is different for each coach. But the best question to ask is this: “How many classes can I coach before the client experience dips?”

In other words, is the client in the 9-a.m. class receiving the same amount of energy and care that the client in the 7-a.m. received?

If the answer is no, a part-time trainer could supercharge the hour and produce happier, fitter clients.

How Much Education Is Enough?

For most coaches, the CrossFit Level 1 is enough education to change a client’s life. Your business then gives them the systems (“show up on time, wear this”), the opportunity (“here are 12 clients who will do anything you tell them”) and the tools (CrossFit or bootcamp or your programming choice).

You should also provide continuing education on group management, empathetic coaching and corrective cues. It should be part of their paid compensation plan, and the training should match the Career Growth ToolKit you build with each coach. Do they need additional coaching credentials? Maybe. But first, they need to master application of current knowledge.

How Many Coaches Do I Need? What’s the Right Mix?

In a profitable gym with 150 members, this mix seems to work well:

1 – owner working on sales, marketing and business growth.

1 – half-time coach, half-time admin or GM/operations manager. These are two separate roles, and they might be spread across two people, depending on skill sets. The staff person who is a good coach and good manager is the exception, not the rule. The person in this role should spend time coaching as well as reviewing programming and leading the other coaches.

3 – part-time coaches, each with different areas of passion, all with sparkling personalities. Hire for enthusiasm and train for skill.

In a gym with 250 members, those roles might change a bit. Here’s one example that’s working really well:

1 – owner working on growth.

1 full-time coach who spends 50 percent of time coaching, 25 percent doing intros and 25 percent doing goal reviews.

1– full-time coach who leads classes and takes PT clients. This coach can also have a role in programming or building specialty groups.

1 – GM or admin person whose roles can include lead management, marketing and Client Success Manager (CSM) duties.

3-8 – part-time coaches. They are led through evaluations and continuing education supplied by the full-timers.

The Best Coaches in the World

The best coach is the person who gets his or her clients the best results—period. Hours of work are irrelevant.

It’s true in fitness and true in business mentorship.

I still coach many hours per day: I coach my staff toward their career goals, I coach my mentorship clients to the upper levels of entrepreneurship (Tinker and Thief in the Two-Brain Business system), and I coach my kids’ sports teams.

Methods and areas of specialty differ, but the truth never varies: It doesn’t matter how many hours you put in.

What matters is your clients’ results.

Read “How to Pay Your Staff”


One more thing!

Did you know gym owners can earn $100,000 a year with no more than 150 clients? We wrote a guide showing you exactly how.