Chances are, there’s been a time in your gym experience where you’ve considered working as a personal trainer because you love fitness. That is a fantastic starting point because, who doesn’t want to make a career out of wearing gym clothes and spending hours breathing a mix of creatine dust and other people’s sweat?
On a more serious note, personal training is not always a lucrative career choice, especially in the beginning. This doesn’t mean you can’t be relatively successful — and you’ll soon learn key steps to increase your odds. But, in general, personal training isn’t a fast-track to a six–figure salary.
Many people quit early because they don’t end up making as much money as they expected or they discover that being in a gym for 10 to 12 hours a day isn’t as fun or easy as it sounds. The daily process is often quite hard and it doesn’t live up to the fantasy of “getting paid to lift weights all day” while miraculously attracting celebrity clients.
Loving fitness is a great start, but you need to also love helping people and doing all the work that goes into it. We’re talking about cleaning the gym floors, getting up early, and staying late at the gym.
You’ll face plenty of obstacles in your early years as a personal trainer, so make sure you clearly define why you’re in it. If you want to really be successful, you will need to be in it for the long haul. Here’s a look at what it really takes, from A to Z, if you want to make a living as a trainer.
How to Become a Personal Trainer
To become a successful personal trainer, it’s first necessary to define what a personal trainer is, and then work backward. A personal trainer is somebody who provides fitness training services to a paying client. Simple as that. The most practical way to get a paying client is to start at a commercial gym.
Some trainers transition out of the gym and train clients privately, but one thing that all experienced personal trainers can agree upon is that you must start your journey as an employed personal trainer at a gym, ideally a well-known commercial gym. There are some trainers that are exceptions to the rule but, statistically, you’re likely not one of them.
So to “reverse engineer” further, you need to determine which gyms you would like to work at. Again, commercial gyms are usually going to be your best bet compared to a relatively small-scale private gym.
Find a busy gym you like that has a thriving community. If it’s close to where you live, that’s even better, but don’t overthink this step. Most trainers will “outgrow” their first gym quite quickly if they play their cards right.
Once you choose a gym, you need to figure out which personal trainer certifications they accept. You can find this information by searching online or by talking with a manager in person. Smile and look confident while you’re at it, because that will likely be your first boss before you know it.
Next, you need to obtain one of the certifications they accept. The more accredited and recognized the certification, the more likely your desired gym will require it. This is also why accredited certifications are more expensive.
So save up and study hard to get your first certification. The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA), or the American Council on Exercise (ACE) are all reputable, time-tested organizations that would be a great choice for your first certification — nearly all gyms will accept these credentials. If you have some sort of higher education degree in the sports and fitness field, even better.
When you’re just starting out, getting any certification credential is frankly more important than how much you actually know. This is not to say education isn’t important, but it’s urgent that you get your foot in the door so you can get started gaining hands-on experience.
Ensure that you study the material thoroughly. You can usually take practice tests online to be confident before taking your official certification test.
Sales and People Skills
Even though training is fundamentally about exercise, the ability to “close a sale” is still incredibly important to being a successful trainer. You might be lucky to have a gym that gives you some clients freely, but you can’t depend on this. You need to make a living and build a client base fast. Not to mention, gyms are primarily looking for your sales and people skills when hiring you.
To build your toolbox, learn about human psychology and practice selling. It will take you much further as a personal trainer than reading another PubMed paper on protein or arguing online about biomechanics. Ultimately, your salesmanship and people skills will help you attain and retain clients, which will allow your service to help more people.
Learning more about people also allows you to target their emotional pain points, empathize, and find ways to improve the client on their own terms. Many clients don’t really care that you have a scientific six phase warm-up or that you can lecture them about deadlift technique. They simply want to get into a decent exercise routine and have a relatable person hold them accountable along the way.
Most of your clients will want to look better, but they’re not often trying to compete. So it’s certainly a line to walk when it comes to understanding the individual’s desire for physical changes without steering them toward bodybuilding or powerlifting. If you can communicate the perfect balance, you should be able to build a reliable clientele.
Once you pass your certification test, congratulations, you’re now a certified personal trainer… on paper. To be an actual personal trainer, you need at least one paying client. This is where you start applying for a training position at the gyms you were scouting earlier.
This also circles back to why commercial gyms are so important. Sure, they’re an industrialized conglomerate that will take over 50% of your paycheck, but the benefits still outweigh the drawbacks.
When you’re first starting off, the benefits that a commercial gym offers are critical:
- Mentoring you through the process of selling, attaining, and training clients.
- Directing new members to your training services.
- Providing more foot traffic for you to apply your sales and people skills.
- Delivering consistent pay for all the hours you work, even when clientele is slow. This may mean additional responsibilities such as walking the gym floor and cleaning up or doing new member assessments and gym orientations.
- Creating other potential income opportunities like teaching group fitness classes, doing paid member assessments, or filling in as coverage when other trainers are sick.
- Depending on the gym, they may even cover the cost of your continuing education credits or recertification (presuming you succeed as a trainer long enough to need recertification).
In 2023, the personal training industry took a big hit from COVID-19 as gym shutdowns led to many trainers leaving the field. (1) This can actually work in your favor, as many reopened gyms are looking for new trainers.
Some gyms can even give you a decent stream of clients or leads, if the gym is busy enough. Years ago, you had to earn clients by trying to cold sell each member individually, even after you were hired by the gym.
Say Goodbye to “Normal” Hours
Your everyday life will change drastically, and this could be why many personal trainers quit. For starters, your income won’t be great and it likely won’t even be the same amount from week to week. That means vacations, fancy living, and social outings will all be put on hold.
In addition, you will work unconventional hours. Most of your potential clients will be working 9-5 jobs, meaning their available time to train with you will either be early in the morning or later in the evening.
You may eventually be able to transition away from this, but the more sacrifices you make earlier in your training career, the more likely you will succeed in the long-term. That’s why this nasty split-shift is almost always inevitable.
As you work your shift, you will essentially be training any client that you can schedule a session with. If you have few or no clients — which is understandable and expected as a new trainer— you will be doing lots of sales, new member orientations, and odd jobs like tidying up the gym or re-racking weights.
During the middle of the day, the typical gym will be slow. This is a great time to get your own workout in, text any clients to check up on them, or create business-related social media content.
Early on, it’s important to take as many opportunities as you can because it’s a hard business and there’s a lot of painful internal growth that needs to take place. If you are feeling burnt out, you’re probably doing something right. As politically incorrect or unsustainable as it might sound, nobody has ever truly crushed their career without beginning with disproportionate sacrifice.
Like it or not, it’s extremely important to have an online presence in the fitness industry. It can be another avenue for getting clients but, most importantly, it allows you to have your own business card in the background. It’s (literally) free advertising that only costs a bit of time and effort.
Making content and building your social media following is a long-term play. Most of your first personal training clients will be your friends, family, and people you talk to a lot at the gym because they’re the most readily available to you.
But if you invest time into your social media, eventually strangers (meaning: potential clients) from across the internet can start to know, recognize, and trust you as a fitness authority. And if they happen to live in your area, or anywhere reasonably close, they could contact you for paid personal training services.
Dedicate 30 to 60 minutes per day to make content, post, and engage with your audience using your professional social media account. It will also set you up to potentially take your business online in the future.
Commit to as many platforms as you can handle, but be realistic. You don’t need to film a 45-minute video for YouTube, and then pull a quote to post on Threads, and then turn a video clip into a gif for TikTok. If you can make a simple, quality post each day on Instagram, great. Consistency is the most important part of your online presence.
Again, approach it as a massive long-term play. All of the crazy “fitfluencers” you see with thriving businesses training celebrities, while they apparently waste time doing viral dances in the gym, are far and few in between.
That’s not the norm for 99% of trainers. You will likely bust your butt building an online presence with little to no return for at least a year or two. You will have to film stuff at odd hours and squeeze in content-making between clients. Sometimes you’ll work while you eat lunch and sometimes you’ll work instead of eating lunch.
Once you’ve built up a stable clientele and you’ve moved up the ranks for higher pay as an employed and experienced personal trainer, there’s nothing wrong with staying at a commercial gym. If you’ve developed an effective pattern to find and retain clients, that’s great.
However, that is not the end game for many personal trainers. They often don’t like the restrictions of working at a commercial gym — whether it’s interpersonal drama with other trainers or just dealing with limited equipment. And many trainers certainly don’t like splitting their pay with the gym management, since the gym will always take a portion of the trainer’s fees.
Trainers Going Solo
Most personal trainers would rather be their own boss, so here’s how you transition from training in a commercial gym to working with clients privately.
First, you need a new space for the workouts. The most common option is to seek out local private gyms that rent out space to trainers. Usually, you either pay for each hour you actually work with clients or you pay a monthly fee to use the space regardless of your client load.
The good news is, you can now charge your clients whatever you want and keep the rest. So any added costs can be rolled into your rates.
Alternatively, you can build your own space somewhere, like making your own garage gym. This generally takes a lot more money upfront, but you can save down the road by avoiding overhead like commercial gym fees and gas for travel.
Whichever method you choose, build as big of a clientele as possible before officially transitioning to private training. If you’re considering this step, you should be making a pretty good income with a steady stream of clients.
You also need to have a backup marketing strategy in place because you won’t be able to rely on leveraging the commercial gym for new members. This is where social media, referrals, and new leads can become increasingly valuable.
But when you’re ready to make the transition, let management know. You should also be the one to tell your clients where you’re headed. Let them know the benefits of training with you privately. In addition, inform them that the gym will try to retain their business by giving them to another trainer.
If you’ve built enough rapport with your clients, at least half should transition with you. Naturally, some will want to stay because of logistics like pricing, gym proximity, etc. That’s normal and you certainly shouldn’t try to coerce anyone to go. That would also build a bad relationship with the gym, which is not good for your long-term reputation.
So you will likely take a big hit in income as you lose roughly half your clientele with any transition, but if your systems for referrals and attracting new business are in place, you should build up your clientele again within a few months. And now, you’re in a position to thrive on your own terms without being locked down as an employee at a commercial gym.
Most personal trainers eventually get worn down trying to physically train as many clients as possible. You only have so many hours a day to be face to face. With the rise of social media, everybody is transitioning to online coaching.
It allows you to have even more freedom and not be bound by location. It’s a natural desire for many personal trainers to free up most, or all, of their in-person hours by going virtual. If you absolutely love personal training, you can still keep a small roster of in-person clients.
Transitioning online is all about social media. This is where the long-term accumulation of an established online presence can help.
To first make the transition online, you should offer free or discounted online coaching to your friends, family, and social media audience. In return, they have to give you a testimonial and their before/after transformation (should they make one).
This allows you to build your online coaching systems and get familiar with online coaching because it’s a lot different than personal training. Get organized on what you offer, how to communicate with clients, and how to help them reach their goals.
From there, you market those before and afters and start building a clientele online. Clients’ progress photos will be your number one marketing tool, but you should still consistently ask for referrals. And always keep making content on social media.
Once your online income starts to outweigh your in-person income, you can decide how much you want to transition over. If you want to fully transition online, you’ll need to give your in-person clients notice.
About half might follow you online and the other half will likely prefer the familiar in-person coaching. As you can see with any transition you make as a trainer —from commercial gym to private or private to online— it’s generally safe to assume around half of your clients will be retained.
For your remaining clients who don’t want to transition online, you should find another reputable local personal trainer who would be a good fit. Negotiate a deal with the trainer where you’ll direct your clients toward them for a referral fee.
With the rise of online coaching, many people don’t realize your best bet in the fitness industry is to lay your foundation as a personal trainer. Between the pandemic, the general state of the economy, and the competitiveness of the fitness industry, personal training is more challenging than ever.
But this can be good news. If you do your job well, you will stand out. Here are some first-hand tricks of the trade that can make your personal training journey even more successful.
- Client retention is critical. A majority of your success comes down to retaining your clients, not attaining clients. Fortunately, the only two things clients care about is progress and rapport. Make sure they see progress and, along the way, build plenty of genuine rapport with them.
- Care about your clients. In a world where everybody is always trying to do less, the best thing you can do is more. Really pay attention to your clients. Make yourself available outside of the training session. Check up on their fitness and their personal life. Remember their birthdays. Take them out to lunch randomly. Go the extra mile. This point cannot be stressed enough.
- Keep learning. Take your education seriously and always try to improve your craft.
- Get organized. Organize your schedule. Organize your client files. And have a good accountant to keep your finances in order.
- Be professional. Stay in shape — research shows this absolutely matters, especially in the eyes of prospective clients. (2) Show up on time. Wear clean clothes. Don’t check your phone or eat during sessions. These may sound obvious, but they’re not always so obvious to a lot of new trainers.
- Be unique. Give exercises funny names. Have inside jokes with your clients. Offer beverages. Print out a picture of your client’s celebrity crush to motivate them during the session.
The Next Generation of Personal Training
Personal training is becoming rarer because the personal side of life is dying in society. Everything is digital, automated, and impersonal. But these issues are exactly what can make good personal trainers even more successful. They focus on the personal side of things rather than the training side.
What you know is certainly important, but how much you care about your clients is so much more important. When they notice that you text back faster than most of their close friends, it means much more to the client than how many bench variations you know.
- Bratland-Sanda, S., Mathisen, T. F., Sundgot-Borgen, C., Sundgot-Borgen, J., & Tangen, J. O. (2020). The Impact of Covid-19 Pandemic Lockdown During Spring 2020 on Personal Trainers’ Working and Living Conditions. Frontiers in sports and active living, 2, 589702. https://doi.org/10.3389/fspor.2020.589702
- Boerner, P. R., Polasek, K. M., True, L., Lind, E., & Hendrick, J. L. (2021). Is What You See What You Get? Perceptions of Personal Trainers’ Competence, Knowledge, and Preferred Sex of Personal Trainer Relative to Physique. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 35(7), 1949–1955. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000003027
Featured Image: PeopleImages.com – Yuri A / Shutterstock