Whether you work in a big gym, a little gym or own your own private studio, here’s how to make a great living as a personal trainer in 2020.
I started as a personal trainer in 1998. In 2005, I opened my own studio because I needed to make more money. In 2008, I added a CrossFit gym as a second location. That gym wasn’t always profitable, but my personal-training practice always was. My problem was time: I could literally fill as many hours as I wanted to work, so I worked a ton. I had other trainers working at my studio, and they also worked a ton because I didn’t understand how to scale up my time.
In this article, I’ll tell you:
- How to get your first clients.
- How to get more clients who can afford you.
- How to scale up your coaching without spending more time.
- What tools you can use to make your life easier.
In the next article, I’ll tell you how to start your own gym—if you want to.
After that, I’ll tell you how to do online training (with help from Jonathan Goodman, who’s been doing it successfully since 2013).
How to become a Personal Trainer
First things first: To start training people, you’ll need insurance. And to be insurable, you’ll need a certification of some type.
If you work for a chain gym, they might offer you an in-house certification course. They might also cover your insurance. Both are huge gifts you shouldn’t take for granted.
If you don’t work for a big chain, you can become certified and insured elsewhere. We built our First Degree Coaching program to serve this need on TwoBrainCoaching.com.
How to Get Your First Clients
If you work for a big chain, part of your training in fitness will include training in sales.
You’ll be taught how to cold-call the gym’s client list and how to approach people in the gym to sell personal training.
Learning to sell might feel uncomfortable, but the training is actually a huge gift. You’re going to need to sell yourself, so you might as well get trained to do it well. And access to the gym’s client list is priceless; gym owners routinely pay up to $1,000 every month to build lists of potential clients.
If you want to own your own studio, the best way to get your first clients is to make yourself famous.
We call this the Founder Phase of entrepreneurship, and I write about it at length in my book “Founder, Farmer, Tinker, Thief.”
To get your first clients, you must act as your own PR firm. You must publish videos or blog posts every day. And you must get them in front of people: Post them in your gym or in a members’ Facebook group or send them to local newspapers. You must make content and get it in front of potential clients.
For example, when I was trying to get clients, I wrote editorials for three local online news sites. The sites were eager to get them because they sold ads on each page. And I got my first few clients really quickly: I wanted to train athletes, so my articles were about athletic training. If I had wanted to get weight-loss clients, I would have written about that topic but used the same process.
The important thing: You can’t wait for other people to “find” you and then tell their friends. Neither will happen quickly enough.
How to Get Your Next Clients
You need your first good clients to refer their friends, family and coworkers.
I know: You don’t like selling. Neither do I. So I created the Affinity Marketing strategy to help.
You can follow the process step by step if you read this blog post (and there’s even a free 76-page guide to download here).
The other top strategy I used was assigning homework. All my clients needed to exercise more than just inside the one or two sessions per week they did with me. They would usually do this homework at home or at a local chain gym.
I made sure to give them printed homework sheets with my logo at the top (a big green arrow that said “Catalyst” on it). These sheets attracted attention: They were carried around the gym or pinned to the fridge at home. Other people would ask what my clients were doing or look at their homework plans surreptitiously. And they’d see my logo and website first.
How to Scale
This is where I almost bankrupted my PT business (and myself).
I knew I had to make more money in the same amount of time (or, preferably, less). So I opened a second location where I could sell group training.
And that was the near-fatal move: I jumped from training one person to training 12 people. It was nearly fatal because:
A. It takes a completely different skill set to train 12 people than to train one person (and that’s what our Second Degree Course focuses on in Two-Brain Coaching).
B. The equipment and space necessary to train 12 people required a massive financial risk that I didn’t really have to take.
C. I needed at least six or seven clients in each group to earn more than I was earning 1:1. And that didn’t happen fast enough; I was losing money on every class with two or three people in it.
Instead, I should have gone from 1:1 training to 1:2 training, and then to 1:3 or 1:4 training. I could have earned a lot more money without any extra expenses at all.
We teach that process in our Incubator program, and I’ll write more about it in my next post, but here’s a preview.
The other option for scaling is to add a secondary service or revenue stream, like nutrition coaching. You can charge separately for nutrition coaching, and—let’s face it—that’s what most people need. Your program should center around accountability instead of a specific “diet.”
You can also sell supplements. We like Driven Nutrition if you do.
The Tools You Need
I firmly believe that the best trainers don’t need a ton of equipment. When I started Catalyst in 2005, I had $16,000 to spend (so I spent all of it). I bought lat-pulldown and cable-crossover and leg-extension machines … and one barbell. Guess what I used? The barbell. The rest has been in storage for a decade.
If you had to train a client and you owned a plyo box, a medicine ball, a kettlebell and a soft mat, I bet you could train him or her for a full year, get great results and never need more equipment.
You need a general prescription that will get results for the average person but which you can personalize for each client. “Personal training” doesn’t just mean coaching people one at a time; it means customizing workouts and diets to match goals. You should have a firm philosophy and flexible delivery. And unlike group programming, you can’t buy an individual program from someone else and deliver it to your clients.
The more people you’re training at once, the broader and more general your method must be. I use CrossFit for larger groups, but you can choose anything that produces results for your clients. Combine kettlebells with a spin class, push-ups with a pool, or calisthenics with a set of rings and you can cover a lot of bases. But you should be certified in your method of choice.
You need a system that will help your clients pay online and book their own appointments. Those two things will save you time and awkward conversations about overdue bills.
Secondarily, you might want some software that will allow you to deliver “homework” to your clients. I’ve always liked Trainerize.com because you can build an app that looks like your own, start sending out homework with how-to videos, and upsell nutrition coaching very easily. You can literally set it up in less than two hours, and it looks great. I don’t make anything for recommending Trainerize, by the way.
Many Paths to Success
The cost to start as a personal trainer is pretty minimal. Almost every gym in Two-Brain (over 800 of them!) is looking for someone to deliver 1:1 or small-group training (here’s the map of Two-Brain gyms). Start there.
Imagine being provided all the tools you need, a roof over your head, access to a big client base, built-in marketing and sales systems, insurance coverage, and pay that’s usually around double what you’d get at a big chain gym. Amazing!
Alternately, you could work for a big chain, get trained on sales and slowly develop a client list before leaving to open your own studio.
A third option is to open in your garage, slowly build up clients with no time pressure and pay for studio space when you’re ready.
Fourth, you could open a gym. That’s what I did. I didn’t do it the right way. I’ll tell you the right way to do it in the next article.
Other Articles in This Series
How to Coach Forever
How to Open a Profitable, Scalable Gym
How to Start and Online Training Business, With Jonathan Goodman