Working in a commercial gym is one of the best opportunities a trainer can have for expanding their career, honing their style, and building their individual brand. The large base of members, the lack of business expenses, and the ability to be associated with a large brand name can lend itself to starting, and building, a rewarding personal trainer career.
You wouldn't think it works though based upon most of the conversation within the tight-knit fitness community. Tell someone in the industry that you work for (insert large big-box gym here) and they'll immediately follow with some variation of this question:
Why are you still there?
They'll compliment your intelligence and skill set and conjecture that you'd do better on your own. They'll share stories of how scary it was for them to leave their job at (insert another big box gym name here), but they wouldn't change a thing.
The independence is refreshing. The profits are better. The ability to build your own brand without input from anyone else is exciting. It's all gravy baby.
But, they still have to pay to keep the lights on, toilets flushing, the equipment is on lease or has led to big credit debt, marketing is exhausting, and everyone is constantly trying to catch a deal. They are chasing down payments, hiring and firing staff, and dealing with greedy landlords who threaten to take your rent up if you don't do x,y, and z.
Sure, they have control over the music, the decor, the training programs, and the marketing angles...but, with such control comes fiscal responsibility, and once your money depends on every fine detail - so will your time.
That's awesome though. It's what being in business for yourself is all about. It's about being in the ocean with no flotation device and deciding you're still going to swim to shore.
It isn't for everyone though. It most certainly isn't the most logical progression for every trainer on the planet. In fact, I'd argue most trainers will make a better living, enjoy better freedom, and build a larger network if they remain involved with a big-box gym, especially if it is one that is doing well financially, possesses stellar brand value, and continues to show growth over time.
So, if you're a coach who works at a commercial gym - be proud, be great, and keep working to become the center of your facility. Grow your personal brand, your strength of connection, and perceived value by addressing the necessary elements of your business.
The following 5 lessons are the critical patterns of excellence that you must apply to see your career jump to the next level. I'm speaking from experience as I deliver these and I genuinely hope that you take the lessons I've acquired over ten thousand hours plus of coaching and apply them to grow yourself.
1. Marketing 101 - It's not WHAT YOU CAN DO, it's why do you do it?
In personal training it is important to remember that you are the expert on the matter in comparison to your client. You could tell them that their tyrannosaurus raptorus is weak and chances are they'll take you at your word.
Because they are paying you. And they expect that you know what the hell you are doing.
Sadly, not everyone does know what they are doing, but they have a huge personality and a long line of bullshit, and so they succeed - for a little while anyway. It all comes to end for those folks though as eventually the clientele realize that the trainer of interest is all show and no go.
With all this said it's important that your clients understand WHY you became a coach and WHY you want to help them overcome their struggles. They automatically assume you are good at what you do the second they sign up for sessions with you. However, longevity and elite success comes from elevating above WHAT you can do.
It's being able to put your heart on your sleeve at times, share your testimony, and show your clients that you bleed as well. It's about showing them that you are a person who truly cares and not another salesman looking to manipulate them for their cash.
I often tell my clients: If you ever meet another trainer on the street and they promise you that they have the best workout for you, and that they could help you lose a ton of weight in a short period of time, but they don't ask you a single question about yourself and your body....RUN.
That's because these are business hungry individuals who care not who they train - they only want the paycheck. Show your why. Show your skills. Live above the average line.
2. Marketing 201 - Success doesn't occur in a vacuum, be a master connector
A common mistake many trainers make is living in a vacuum. They talk to their coworkers, their clients, and a few select members who they've had conversations with on the floor.
Yet, everyone else doesn't even know they exist.
The people who only take classes have no idea who this trainer is. The people who simply do their cardio and leave don't either. Other trainer's clients don't know them, and the membership sales group rarely introduce prospective clients to them.
Because they live in a bubble with those with which they make money from, or make money with.
It's important that everyone knows your name. Even the weird old lady who still wears the stockings from the 80's should be singing your praises. The guy who sings on the elliptical should know your name. Every single person dancing to "the Shape of You" in a Zumba class should be saying something to you in passing.
This group has more power than you know!
Because even if they never train with you - they'll sport your praises when someone asks for their advice on trainers at your gym. You never know what members discuss in the locker room, at happy hours, or among their group of personal friends.
It behooves you to make sure everyone knows that you are a good-hearted person who is there for them no matter what they need. You'll be amazed to see how easy it is to maintain a full client book when you put effort here.
You can achieve this level of visibility by teaching group exercise classes, offering free or low-cost clinics on the weekends, or simply hanging around and chopping it up with people. As Keith Ferazzi states in Never Eat Alone - "be a master connector".
3. Retention 101 - Deliver results, professionalism, and provide value beyond said RESULTS
Being a personal trainer is so much about being a great person - just like the job title insinuates. You need to be kind, thoughtful, available, and capable of being flexible for your clients.
Yet, being a great person is only part of the equation. In fact, with training you do have to be good at, you know, training.
You should be constantly striving to improve your abilities by studying books, attending workshops, listening to criticisms from coaches who have spent more time in the industry, and be willing to consider tactics outside your norms.
You need to be on time, every time. You should have a presentable uniform, a clipboard or tablet for tracking your sessions, and an organized scheduling system that ensures you rarely make mistakes. Your hours should be well understood, your expectations as a coach too.
Yet, always deliver results. Watch them when they exercise and do more than just count. Give them cues to improve their performance and visuals to help them see the desired outcome. Be sure to prepare their workouts in advance of the session, but build in variability depending upon how they are feeling.
Coach the body they have and not the body they, or you, wish they had. Improve how they feel and not just how they look. Understand that results are so much more than just weight lost, muscle gained, and photos with likes.
As a trainer you must train, and as a person you must be personal, but never forget your professional duties and responsibilities. If you manage these three aspects of your career, then you'll never fight to retain clients.
4. Retention 201 - Add plus services, never discount, and stand strong in your value
People love discounts. It doesn't matter whether your client has been with you for two days or two years - there will be some time in your relationship that they ask for a discount.
And that's OK. Yet, you need to make sure they understand that you don't have to provide one.
In fact, by valuing your time and skills you'll find that people are willing to pay more for your services and invest longer periods of time into your programs. Imagine if you asked the best surgeon in the world for a discount. They'd giggle and send you down the road to a less reputable hospital.
Or, you'd realize that your health condition doesn't hold a price and you'd pay whatever it took to make sure the best hands in the world worked on your issue.
Your clients will too. So, never discount your service. Rather, be willing to add more.
If you are a certified nutrition coach or have experience with advanced assessments such as the FMS, then you could easily layer in these services to your client's current training package.
Offer to take them on a weekend run, or stand next to them as they compete on stage or a lifting platform.
The same attitude goes with your schedule. Clients will want to rearrange times and will often act as though they are the only person in the world. That's OK too. They don't understand how long your days are, or that you have fifteen more folks just like them.
And just as you must be accepting of their requests they should be understanding of your inability to adjust. So, set your hours and be sure that they fit in. Don't compromise out of guilt and be cautious of giving up your personal time.
This doesn't mean that should be a total dick and neglect being flexible. It just pushes you to understand that your clients must respect you role as a professional who has multiple clients. Once this happens you'll be amazed how much more conforming your clients will be to your needs. They'll move to help lighten your days, or choose to workout with someone else on a weekend to make your afternoon more free so that you may have a personal life.
It's this sort of professionalism that keeps clients accountable and builds a rapport that states, "I'm here to work and give you results, so long as you respect my needs too".
5. Leadership 101 - Don't hoard your methods, cultivate those around you
There is nothing more embarrassing than a personal trainer who acts as though they invented exercise. Yes, I said embarrassing.
Whether this person is talking to prospective clients, current clients, fellow coaches, or blabbering away on their social media account - you'd think that this individual invented the industry and owns all of the proprietary information.
Don't be that douche.
Instead, share your methods with all inquiring minds. Be open for debate on what you do and what you believe in. And most importantly, be open to eating humble pie if someone who makes less noise delivers better results and has a more loyal following.
Sure, this person will blast out of the gate and attract clients, members, and trainers due to their swag. And yes, we should all have a certain amount of swagger in our steps because we've earned our place in this world.
However, acting like you are the Holy Bible of personal training is a sure way to be forgotten as others at your gym usurp you.
So, share your thoughts with new coaches. Lead lectures on topics you're comfortable discussing with fellow trainers and members. Ask why people do what they do instead of telling them your wrong. Build relationships built around the sharing of knowledge and tactics in an effort to make EVERYONE better.
What happens in the end is that everyone sort of embodies you after a while. People begin doing exercises and coaching cues that they've gotten from you, people give you respect in regards to their development, and your clients enjoy working with a person who LEADS everyone instead of acting like they are above them.
Like any good education there must be a capstone to this blog.
In my thousands of hours of coaching I've made numerous mistakes. I've bullshit my way through sessions when I was over my head. I've snapped at clients for asking more of me. I've forgotten to answer emails, schedule sessions, and even show up a time or two.
Yet, along the way I learned that being a great fitness professional involves being an honest person who genuinely cares about their clients, fellow coaches, and common man/woman. It requires you to be an absolute professional in and outside of the gym, and to constantly hone your craft to become better at what you promise to deliver.
Inching further we must consider that there are no excuses on our end. We can't always get our clients the results they want because they aren't willing to change their outside-the-gym habits. Yet, we can never call them on it in public. We must always be willing to say, "I could do better to support you on your journey".
Still though, we must hold steady when we know we are just and have done our best. We can't have our clients run circles around us with schedule changes, missed payments, and irrational expectations of our time and energy.
And as we grow beyond our own business we must consider those around us. A meal isn't a feast until everyone's plate is full. I'm not sure if that is a famous quote or if I just made it up, but I like it.
Share the trophies, pass on the knowledge, and grow a facility around you.
Once you become the source of everyone's experience you'll find that you enjoy your profession, are rewarded appropriately, and are offered opportunities that others never see.
Be a great professional, be a better person, but always keep growing!