This all depends on your experience and your options of gyms to choose from. If you have a great gym to work for, then I would say to do it – especially if you are just starting out.
The Best Learning Opportunity
There is no better way to get a leg up in the business than by working for a gym. You get the protection of a guaranteed pay check, the clientele you train is completely varied and those you work for want you to learn.
If you’re new to the business, you can see how the big guys do sales, you can get familiar with their different administrative systems, contractual agreements and, in general, get first-hand experience in the industry. Usually if someone is going to be a fitness trainer, they’ve already spent some time in a gym, but they’ve not cleaned machines from top to bottom, explained a contract to a potential client or dealt with scheduling trainers to cover group fitness classes and personal training sessions.
You can get the experience of all of this without the risk of losing your clients. But you aren’t getting paid the same cash as you would being an independent trainer.
So this is why most trainers go independent. I used to be able to easily handle 5-7 of my regulars at one time. This was when I was working for a gym. We grouped people with a single trainer based on personality and how well the clients did together.
In that scenario, 5-7 clients kept me on my toes, but I didn’t feel like I was giving anyone less attention than I should. These clients were paying anywhere from $30-$40 per hour (based on what payment plan they were on) and I was sometimes making the gym anywhere from $150-$280 for that single hour of my work.
This was a far cry from my hourly wage. But these guys also built me up and invested a ton in me.
I was going to college and I had to have a job to pay for my living expenses so it was a no-brainer to be a trainer. The gym sent me to get certified in all sorts of different things. I came with my own personal trainer certification already. We had our community. I made a name for myself and became one of the top trainers in the city.
But I wasn’t making serious bank. But now I could make serious bank.
It took a couple of years to turn me into a fire-breathing trainer and that is why you have to do some sort of internship under some seriously experienced trainers. I worked under people who had multiple certifications. They critiqued my coaching, taught me things I would not have known and really just took the time to make me better at my trade.
I would not give that experience up for any amount of money.
I was satisfied at the time because my paycheck was steadily increasing so I felt no pressure to start searching for a way out. I didn’t feel backed into a corner. I worked hard and kept getting more and more money.
Due to various reasons I ended up moving to a different city and working independently. I was completely prepared for what was coming because I was a seasoned trainer, far ahead of anyone else my age.
The Benefits of Networking
There are benefits of jumping into an ongoing scene and getting to know so many people all at once. This was the nicest gym training the affluent professionals in the city.
Your own personal contacts will explode and you’ll have opportunities pop up that you didn’t even know you needed. I found myself in need of a new car so I talked to the car dealer I trained. I had to get a lawyer at one point so I just asked one of my regular clients.
Adding up all of the discounts and perks that I got ended up averaging out the pay cut I was taking in working for a gym. But I also had several certifications (entire trips out of the city) paid as well. So in the end I averaged out pretty well. It is rare that you’ll get paid to get educated, but I was in a beautiful position.
How I Picked a Gym
I started out working as a janitor and then they taught me to be a trainer. But when I wanted more hours and more pay, I just went to the nicest, most exclusive gym in town. They were looking for another trainer and most trainers are self-absorbed know-it-alls. I wasn’t. I was studying Exercise Science as my major in college and wanted to work for a nice gym with nice people in it. I was willing to accept any wage that was offered. And I told them I would help with the cleaning. It was the opposite of a self-absorbed trainer telling someone that they needed to have him in their gym.
The benefit of working with the most exclusive gyms in town is that the trainers are good. These are the guys who are going to teach you. I’ve always heard a saying about “If you want to be smart, surround yourself with smart people.” Well, I just surrounded myself with really good trainers. I knew I had a ton to learn and these guys wanted to teach me and they wanted to pay me for it. It was kind of an easy decision.
This was not one of the major chains of gyms. It was locally owned. They were looking for an additional member of the team. Independent trainers at a gym aren’t die-hard team players. They can always pack up their clients and leave. If you sign on as a member of the team, you will be taken care of and get the opportunity to develop your own personal contacts with the most affluent members of your city.
The Employer’s Viewpoint
Your employer knows exactly what you are getting and may even be apprehensive about training a person up to the point where they know everything about their gym. Once you’ve got that, then you’re liable to go use this information elsewhere – and if he hires a real shyster, the guy can run off with a percentage of his clientele.
But it is your job to learn and do what they say. If you don’t want to be there, then quit. If you are there, then learn absolutely everything you can – and then some. The more you learn the more valuable you are to them. Also, if you learn everything there is to know about a gym, you can start your own one day. You do want to eventually be the guy on top, don’t you?
The Perks of Independent Training
I couldn’t complain to management when I worked for management. I couldn’t say “The gym equipment was dirty and in-operational!” They would just say, “Go fix it and then clean it.”
As an independent trainer, you pay your fee to use the gym and as part of that agreement you get clean and operational equipment. You can complain to management and the cleaner and repair man will be all over it.
There is no responsibility of opening or closing up the gym, worrying about security codes or if a desk is messy. There are a ton more things that you worry about when you are “staff.” If you’re not staff, then you are just in and out.
You can run your own business. You don’t necessarily need to do your calls in the gym but if they have a space for you to use, make yourself seen by people. Someone may come up to you and ask for a few sessions to help get them started. I’ve never turned them down. Be approachable.
There are other perks of being independent. You often get a free membership, discounts, etc. But you also have your relationship with the guys in the office, the guys selling, the receptionist and even the janitor.
You watch their back and they’ll watch yours. If you have an idea to get a bunch of people into the gym, share it with the sales guy. Help him for free. Once you give him an opportunity to make some commission money, he will send you every person he can.
You can almost have a closer relationship here, than at a gym where everyone is staff. This is because you aren’t being friends out of necessity, you’ve chosen to work to benefit each other. It is a choice.
So don’t think you’re giving up any sort of community. Take on the viewpoint that you create a community wherever you go. Work on a way to benefit everyone around you – even the janitor – and you’ll get it back tenfold. The janitor will recommend you to his mom and she’ll be your newest client. The salesman will suggest you over any other trainer. The manager will see the cohesion and how well the group is now working together and appreciate you for being there.
And of course, your clients will be shining examples of fitness goals attained.
But I wouldn’t have been able to do well at an independent setup without my earlier experience being part of the bigger gym.
The Downside to Being an Independent Trainer
There are stupid people in this world.
For some reason, there are trainers who think that there aren’t enough people outside of the gym, so they cannibalize other people’s clients. These are people that need to be labeled as pure venom and treated as such.
My way of getting around them is to make my stance very clear: They are not to talk to my clients in any way, shape or form. If something needs to be said, it is said to me in private where the client cannot hear.
I take a firm stance with them and if it gets messy, I get management involved. I give a detailed report, in writing, of what went down and I give management an option: either the scumbag goes or I go.
And if the gym wants the scumbag to stay, then I happily pick up my things and leave. Life is too short to get into fights with idiots. Oscar Wilde said “You can always judge a man by the quality of his enemies.” I’ve dealt with the low-lifes. It is best just to sever communication.
Other than that, I can’t say that there are a whole lot of other downsides. The freedom of being able to come and go in and out of the gym with no responsibilities was something for me to get used to. I was an independent trainer, not an employee.
If you are an independent trainer, you will want to pay for your own liability insurance. Some fitness certifications require you to be a member and with that membership comes a certain amount of liability insurance. Check into your certification to see what options are there.
If you work for a gym, then the gym will likely be the entity targeted in any legal action. This needs to get sorted out from day one if you are really paranoid. Ask them what kind of insurance they have in this scenario and if it covers you as a trainer on their floor. Add this to the things that a gym employee doesn’t have to pay for.
Or you could just be a really good trainer and not injure anyone. If you see an accident prone person who is actually trying to hurt themselves, just refuse to train them.
I have refused to train people and been threatened with legal action. It is much better to be threatened with legal action for not training someone than to be sitting in court for injuring someone.
On a separate note, I would consult with an attorney on structuring your fitness business under an LLC so that in the event of you being attacked, your personal assets are off limits, but the assets of the LLC are the only thing able to be gone after in court.
I’m talking from my experience in this and please don’t consider this direct advice. You need to work out what is best for you under the laws in your area. I am only saying to look into it to avoid a potentially bad situation.
Personal Freedom and Time Off
Whether you are working for a gym or on your own, it is always hard to get away from your clients.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Clients aren’t horrible vampires. You just have to get creative about how you are going to organize this and you’ll be fine.
The difference between working for a gym and doing your own independent thing is that at a gym, everyone is responsible for the clients. If you’re independent, you are the one responsible for your clients.
But don’t worry, I’ve got solutions for this, too.
If you’re independent: Make friends with other trainers. Find one that is trustworthy and good and let them know that you’d like to have a business arrangement with them that benefits you both. This is where you tell them that you will stand in for them if they are sick or have an emergency. Tell them you are looking for the same. This also extends to vacation time and time spent going off and getting further certifications or continuing education credits.
If you work for a gym: Make friends with other trainers (same as above). Here, you are just getting agreement to cover each other and you don’t have to work out compensation, you just have to work out schedules. There is much less stress when you’re in this position because someone at the gym will have to do something to service these clients, even if it comes down to just giving them free credits for time missed.
But in either situation: Plan ahead. The slowest part of the year for a personal fitness trainer is around the holidays. The slack time ends in the New Year.
If you are trying to decide to work for yourself or work for a gym. I would say to do both.
Take a pay cut now and become a sponge. Learn everything you can from working in a gym with less stress. Put in extra time and work on building up your contacts.
Leaving a gym like that can be touchy, but you can do it ethically by not telling any members of that gym that you are going to another gym. You let the owners know that you are leaving to make more money as an independent and that you’re going to start from scratch. Be honest about it.
And you can be an ethical, moral fitness professional the likes of which has rarely been seen.