Directions toward a career in fitness – part 1
Through rose-tinted lenses
The fitness field is so appealing to so many, and why wouldn’t it be. The combination of looking good, staying healthy, performing better, and affecting these changes in others is quite idyllic. Given this, it’s not surprising that one of the most frequent questions I’m asked - other than how many milliseconds are allowed to elapse between meals - is how to secure a career in fitness. A fair amount of people who follow my work want to eventually do what I do. That’s very flattering, and the least I can do is offer some insight into the process that led me to a place where I feel empowered enough to talk about it.
In this article series
I’ll start by discussing the pros & cons of being a gym-employed trainer and a self-employed trainer. I’ll do the same with nutritional counseling (yes, I’ve done both), then I’ll cover lecturing. Next, I’ll give you the amusing scoop on how my writing career snuck up on me. My aim for this article is not to provide the end-all set of answers. What I can do is offer my own experiences to give you ideas and a solid framework for making decisions. There’s a lot to cover, so I’ll break this up in parts, and wrap it up with some action steps and resources.
Training or nutrition…or both?
The question of how to build a fitness career comes from a wide range of people – both students and professionals who’ve already succeeded at their original careers. Rather than folks asking about the mechanics of succeeding, they’re stumped about what direction to take at the start. After all, fitness is a very indistinct field. Many people have an equal interest in nutrition and exercise. Unfortunately, there’s no simple or direct path to a career that equally involves the two areas. This is where the confusion and frustration lies for many who want to pick a focus, especially college students who need to pick a major (and somewhat commit to it). Having been in that same position myself, I can recount the steps that have been fruitful.
Being equally interested in nutrition and being interested in the work involved with a nutrition career can be two entirely different things. The same can be said with training, and I’ve had a chance to walk down both roads. I remember the precise point that I made the decision to major in nutrition after deliberating over that, or going into exercise science. My girlfriend at the time suggested that I kill two birds with one stone by getting a nutrition degree and a personal training certification. It sounded logical to me, since I was well aware that trainers with a quick certification earned comparably to dietitians. I proceeded to work as a trainer while getting my nutrition degree.
Those who are more inclined towards exercise can do the opposite of what I did, thanks to a recent sports nutrition certification by the ISSN (I’ll talk more about certification specifics in an upcoming installment). There are many other possibilities for involving yourself in both training and nutrition. You can choose to steer clear of universities and just grab certifications, granted you can market yourself beyond the lack of degree – which is pretty easy to do if you have a compelling physical presence. Or, you can get your undergrad degree in one discipline, and a graduate degree in another. Let your preference of day-to-day work dictate the focus you choose.
Personal training: health club employment pros & cons
I began my fitness career training at an upscale health club chain. The main advantage was that all you had to do was show up and do your job. Advertising, new client flow, accounting, and a fully stacked facility were taken care of. Everything was systematic and relatively predictable. Full-time employees received medical benefits. Everything was convenient, from the breakroom to the in-house cafe, to the free membership. If you’re a people-person, you’ll have plenty of face time with plenty of people. The camraderie among the staff kept things fun, as did the competition over who could be the most productive.
The cons of employeeship boiled down to two things for me: the goofy-assed uniform (picture a bright teal-colored polo shirt tucked into frumpy black shorts) and the pay. Although the earning potential as an employee in a health club has increased since my day, it still falls in the range of $20-$30 per session after the club takes their cut of about 50-60%. My earnings eventually became insufficient to compensate for what evolved. It’s a given that the employees are pressured to sell sessions, which is fine. However, some gyms are more militant about this than others. Luckily, I never experienced the “used car lot effect” felt by many trainers in commercial gyms. One thing I shouldn’t forget to mention is that some health clubs have an overpriced supplement product line that the trainers are forced to sell whether they like it or not.
Personal training: self-employment pros & cons
After gaining some experience at the club, the next logical step for me was to go out on my own. A big advantage was being able to charge triple what I was paid as an employee. As for earning potential, a friend of mine who mixes in-home training with training at a studio charges $90 a session, and does roughly 30 sessions per week. In my observations, this is near the upper limit of what independent trainers can expect to charge. Charging into the triple-digits per session is not unheard of, but it’s an unrealistic expectation unless you’re able to maintain a steady stream of super-rich clients. A much more common scenario for independent trainers is charging $45-75 per session. Where you fall in that range depends more on geographic location than academic qualifications.
By far, the biggest benefit of being self-employed is that it fit my personality much better than having to answer to a boss. When you’re in charge of all the conceptual and operational decisions, they get done fast. Gym employees can also impact company-wide changes, but these generally take forever to happen – if they happen at all.
With that said, the cons were numerous. Training people in their homes entailed lugging around my own equipment. Some people had home gyms, but most didn’t. The time and expense of traveling ate up a good portion of the extra money I was able to charge beyond my health club pay. In retrospect, it would have been better to find a good personal training studio that catered to independent trainers. Places like these either charge rent, or take money off the top of each session. However, a common problem with many of these studios is that their existence is temporary. Although It was gratifying to see clients reach their goals, I grew to not really enjoy the day-to-day work. At the same time, I know people don’t bat an eye at training 50 hours a week, and seem to love every minute of it. I just wasn’t cut from that same cloth.
I could have set up my own training facility, but opted out of that path. Those of you who know the work I put into AARR each month might find this ironic, but I’m a stickler for simplicity and low stress levels. I see owning a gym as sort of like owning a restaurant – lots of potential for prosperity, but also a lot of headaches. I may be a little extreme in this regard, but my career goal has always been to not only avoid having a boss, but also avoid having any employees of my own (ooh, I just heard some eyes bug out at that statement).
The newer personal training business model of holding bootcamps and getting a lot more buck-for-the-bang really was pretty far under the radar back in the dark ages of personal training. Bootcamps may have struck my interest more than owning a gym, but it still wouldn’t satisfy the independence, operational simplicity, and intellectual engagement that I crave. Once again, this is merely my personal preference and perspective. I’m sure Alwyn Cosgrove would disagree that owning a gym is more of a pain than it’s worth. He’s expanding his own facility, and also buying and/or controlling other facilities. Different strokes, for sure.
In part 2, I’ll move on to my experiences as both a club-employed nutritionist, and then a self-employed one. Along with this, I’ll talk about my decision to skip becoming a registered dietitian, and my decision to go through with a master’s degree in nutrition, and how this impacted my career. I might even fit in corporate wellness consulting, continuing education lecturing, writing for Men’s Health, and other projects. One thing’s certain — this post has been long enough. Stay tuned for Part 2, I gotta get some work done. [see part 2]