Directions toward a career in fitness – part 1

2009 November 12
by Alan Aragon

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.

Many possibilities

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.

In retrospect

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.

Next up…

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]

Microsoft Word - AARR wide banner 1.doc

82 Responses
  1. November 12, 2009

    Great first post Alan.

  2. JMo87 permalink
    November 12, 2009

    Awesome blog Alan, keep fighting the good fight 🙂

  3. November 12, 2009

    Good stuff, Alan. Keep it coming.

  4. November 12, 2009

    In complete disregard of the content, I’m quite pleased that “the background color is a tribute to chocolate milk.” That alone was worth the click. On a less chocolately note-I’m looking forward to reading more from you outside of AARR. Thanks for sharing your info and perspective-always good to see thru clear lenses 🙂

  5. #1alanfannohomo permalink
    November 12, 2009

    in for epic blog…keep it coming

  6. Mike L. permalink
    November 12, 2009

    Very insightful first post, Alan. Excellent summary of the pros and cons of self-employment. It can certainly be rewarding, but many are not cut out for it. I know I wasn’t!

    Keep up the great work.


  7. November 12, 2009

    lmfao @ “#1alanfannohomo” – You can take the man out of the misc, but you can’t take the misc out of the man. [/insideBB.comjoke]

    I’m glad you like this post, everyone. I really should have started blogging when the Surge hit the fan.

  8. November 13, 2009

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  9. November 13, 2009

    *cue kung fu voiceover*


    I see you have returned. This battle will not end in jubilation for you.

  10. November 20, 2009

    “I see owning a gym as sort of like owning a restaurant – lots of potential for prosperity, but also a lot of headaches.” It has it’s up and downs. I owned Total Body Fitness, which was definitely not the run of the mill gym, for almost 12 yrs. I was really enthusiastic about going into work for ab0ut the first 7-8 yrs. I was working in the gym 60 hrs per week and loving it, but this passion eventually died and I became more interested in conducting seminars, promoting MMA, doing research and outdoor sports. The last 2-3 yrs that I was in the commerical gym business I was miserable, working 70-80 hr weeks.

    The thing I miss the most about my gym was the serious training environment and the Ass-kicking I witnessed and participated in on occassion. Numerous Combat Sport Champs, Reality Tv Star, Pro Bodybuilder & Olympic Alternate Bobsledder and even a World Champ trained in my gym on occassion. I also had one of the top Olympic Weightlifters in the World visit my facility.

    I wouldn’t trade my experiences, but at the same time I wouldn’t place myself in the situation again.

    Jamie Hale

  11. November 22, 2009

    Great detailed post…

  12. November 22, 2009

    Thanks Mike.

  13. Pier permalink
    January 25, 2010

    Interesting blog!

    Ive just been laid off at work after the attorneys I was working for downsized. I am now 22 and at a crossroads with my life. I am having trouble deciding how I want to spend the rest of my years, I thought health and fitness possibly nutrition may just be the path for me…

    Can’t wait to read more…

  14. June 30, 2010

    Any thoughts on continuing education courses? Best, worse?

  15. July 1, 2010

    Pier — Best of luck to you in your jouney.

    Luke — I attended a 3-day Perform Better seminar a few years ago, and thought it was good. Not sure how great PB is for nutritional stuff, but the training stuff was good. Aside from that, if you can attend the annual conventions by the major certifying bodies (or at least the one you’re certified by), then you’d pretty much have your hands full. I’ve heard good stuff about the IDEA convention as well. There’s not a lot of good stuff out there in the nutritional vein that I’m aware of, unless you want to attend the shindigs of the ADA. I haven’t heard much about the ISSN’s conferences, but I imagine they’re worth checking out since they keep up a decent journal.

  16. chris permalink
    August 7, 2010

    hey im 19 and am in the exercise program in college. I am going to take my nasm certification to become a cpt. the only thing is, im disabled. I was born with only 2 fingers on my left hand and my left arm is a little shorter. can i still do it? in my head im thinking that it will inspire ppl like if i can transform my body so camn any one. any thoughts on it?

  17. August 7, 2010

    Chris — Don’t ever doubt your potential to achieve.

  18. charles Thomas permalink
    September 22, 2010

    I like what you had to say makes sence . I have a question I have a chance to get my personal training cert. with a in the field ,but its cost alot more than just getting certified.
    Do you think its worth 20,000. for the degree ,will it help ? there is alot of compition out there ,I would like to have the advantage besides the fact that I bodybuild and look the part .

  19. September 22, 2010

    Charles — If you have the time & the money to get it done, then that would be the safe thing to do. In order to succeed on just a certification, you have to be very marketable otherwise, and this includes looking great & communicating well. The more “star” qualities you have, the less academic credentials you need (look at Richard Simmons & Suzanne Somer). Of course, this applies mostly to entrepreneurship; when you’re talking about employment, more academic creds will give you an edge in the selection process of your employer.

  20. Shell permalink
    October 20, 2010

    What is the best way to become a personal trainer?? Are on-line schools good or bad?? Any suggust on schools?? Thank you!

  21. 4evergreen permalink
    November 22, 2010

    Going for the master certifications from issa, and while I’m very defined, I’m not that big. Doesn’t matter, I am also working on 3 different levels of yoga certifications which is becoming more popular by the day. Great way to keep muscle, infact build muscle you never knew you had. Great post loved it. My father’s a doctor and mother is a nurse so it’s a constant battle over academia, however a healthy lifestyle (let alone a passionate interest) requires less expenses in my opinion. Thanks for the support!

  22. November 28, 2010

    Great post Alan, funny I am in the process of opening a fitness studios that cater to independent trainers and you stated that they dont last long, why is that do you think? I live in Delaware and have been training for several years and thought this type of facility would be great because it is not offered here.

  23. December 2, 2010

    A.Adams — I think that most independent-trainer-focused studios fail because they fail to properly communicate with their patrons & practitioners. People need enough incentive to stick with you, and keeping up with the exact needs & desires of the trainers (in terms of equipment, amenities, policies, etc) is something that studio owners don’t bother to do. I think you’re in a good position to make this type of thing work, since the competition in your area is minimal.

  24. January 28, 2011

    Good stuff, friend!!!!

  25. September 6, 2011

    Thanks Alan, huge fan of your articles. Excellent knowledge even at this point in my career, thank you.

  26. September 21, 2011

    Hey Alan – Great insights into the employed or self employed question. like you my training business has seen all variations. One thing I think is important for trainers to understand is your business is YOUR business. I know when I was working in large box clubs, it’s easy to fall into the trap of waiting for a new client slip to be handed to you.

    often trainers complain about not having clients as thought it’s the gyms responsibility to build their business. If you understand it’s YOUR business despite what the sign out front says your business will be better for it.

  27. January 13, 2012

    Thanks Alan. Very interesting post. Working for others has never suited me, but I think if I owned my own gym – by the sound of what some of the guys are saying – I’d have to be extremely dedicated and probably double up on anti-cortisol supplements (hate mental stress).

  28. Larry Hinex aka FitDeizel permalink
    February 26, 2012

    This was some good info. Thanks a lot!

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    Feel good to read the post. I think it’s pretty awesome. Keep coming with the post like this Alan.

  32. July 15, 2013

    Hi there, you have have posted really informative stuff.

  33. August 15, 2013

    Will definitely good back to the gym after giving birth. I need to shape up again and keep myself physically fit.

  34. September 4, 2013

    “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.”

    How common would you say that is with gyms? I would absolutely hate having to do that as a personal trainer.

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    This is a good article. Their are obviously pros and cons about being in the fitness industry. I think you have the passion for something, then youll persist with it. I am partaking in a cert 3 fitness course in Brisbane and im going to see where it takes me.

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    I like your thoughts Alan. Unfortunately, the way the fitness industry is portrayed in the media (beautiful bodies and beautiful people) many younger people are entering the industry for all the wrong reasons. It is like any others small business. You need excellent people skills, marketing know-how and be willing to keep on learning and expanding your knowledge. It is a hard gig with working hours that don’t suit a lot of people (especially if you are not an early riser) and your job security is only as good as your own marketing skills. Having said all that I find it still very rewarding.

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Trackbacks and Pingbacks

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