Why Some Personal Trainers Work More but Still Make Less Money

Are you passionate about fitness? Want to start your own personal training business? Here’s why some personal fitness trainers make less money despite working more…

Levi, a master trainer used to train between five and eight clients every day, five or six days a week plus two or three on Saturday and three group fitness classes a week. “I was up before the sun and [went] to bed late.”

Levi had stretched himself as thin as he possibly could at his job while still maintaining his sanity and some semblance of a personal life. He says the most he ever made in a single month was $7,000, and that was “before taxes, on a very, very busy month.” He had convinced himself that only such martyrish dedication could lift him to the top of his profession. Now he had reached the mountaintop and gazed out at the horizon—and found he didn’t much like the view.

Levi cultivated a warm rapport with his wealthy clientele: housewives able to afford “an arm and a leg” in membership fees, top managers at tech firms.

While clients pay an average of $60 to $70 per hour, according to the National Board of Fitness Educators, on average trainers receive only $25—less than half.

Levi explains, “You are an employee of the company, but the meat and potatoes of it is that you’re operating in the manner of an independent contractor, you just have a company taking a percentage.”

Fitness chains often hire trainers at an hourly rate—typically at or close to minimum wage—which is supplemented by a system of commissions on each training session, with rates that escalate with experience.

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You have a quota you have to reach—for signing up new clients—and a certain amount has to be new sales. Sales of personal training sessions were a bigger cash cow than new memberships. Promotions inside and outside the gym would encourage members and nonmembers alike to sign up for free consultations with trainers, and trainers were also encouraged to approach members who were struggling to bench press or fumbling with treadmill controls in order to pitch their services.

Such quotas are common for trainers. Personally, I have never come close to missing a quota. From my observation, the trainers that consistently miss the quota are lazy and do not try. While sales is part of the job, our culture is to provide a great service and help clients reach their goals.

While clients pay an average of $60 to $70 per hour, according to the National Board of Fitness Educators, on average trainers receive only $25—less than half. In between sessions, while helping restock towels or handle paperwork, few trainers earn more than the hourly base pay. And, Levi says, rising fees to clients for training sessions don’t always mean rising compensation for the trainers themselves.

Fitness workers face a range of occupational injuries, according the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, including sprains, tears, cuts, and bone fractures.

In the past decade, trainers and other gym employees have filed multiple labor suits against nearly all of the major fitness operators—many of which center around squeezing costs. Among the most common labor violations of these chains, according to three lawyers who have leveled class-action suits against them, are misclassifying workers as management in order to exempt them from federal rules covering overtime pay.

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Says an attorney “we see instructors not being reimbursed for expenses they incur” and “instructors working off the clock.” “They are not paid for putting together a CD [to play during sessions], for meetings, for time spent before and after class talking to club clients. They aren’t paid for the marketing. These aren’t one-off cases. It’s pretty standard practice at those gyms.”

Few choices are available to trainers who find themselves unhappy in dangerous and dysfunctional workplaces, especially since many only have high school diplomas or associate’s degrees: They can quit, stay and fight (while risking getting fired), or suck it up and deal. In the immortal words of many a fitness instructor, no pain, no gain. Convinced that better times await, they may dream of going independent.

“You got golden handcuffs. Everything was shiny and clean and sterilized, but you’re under that roof, and you’re their employee. Every good trainer goes private at some point.”

But building a private clientele can be a more daunting prospect than it first seems. Many big box gyms seek to quash any potential competition from their former employees, so they require trainers to sign “noncompetes,” clauses in their employment contracts that prevent employees from working as independent trainers within, for example, 10 miles of one of their gyms. “They clip your wings,” Levi says.

Savvy trainers often try to get around these stipulations by referring to themselves as teachers or motivational experts or bloggers until the noncompetes expire. “You don’t want a big box to come after you,” says Levi. “So you get stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

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Some trainers settle for those golden handcuffs, of course. By remaining at a big box gym, you’re more immune to fluctuations in the economy. “If there’s a financial crisis, there will always be the membership to draw from,” says Levi. “But if you go out on your own, it’s a big scary world out there.”