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Why Trainers Fail

Understanding the Brick Wall

by Phil Kaplan

This article was originally published in Personal Fitness Professional Magazine.

Step one, study for a certification. Step two, sit for the exam. Step three, wait for the mail delivery to tell you that you passed. Step four, apply at the local health club. Step five, get a shirt identifying yourself as a trainer. Step six, the perception you had of a trainer’s life is shattered to bits and pieces, and you question what in the world made you ever believe you could earn a living in this field as you decide whether you’re going to get your real estate license or go back to school. Is that a cynical view of the process? Sure, but is it grounded in reality?


For the great majority of individuals who pursue personal training careers, it’s so real that it hits very close to home.

Can you earn a living as a trainer? Of course you can. Thousands do, and hundreds probably earn enviable incomes in line with professionals of other fields. It is estimated that there are over 400,000 certified personal trainers. In two separate independent surveys I was involved in conducting, 50% will not even bother to renew their certifications. And more than 80% of respondents reported earning less than $30,000 annually.

Switching perspectives, if you know me at all, you know I love this field. I truly believe a dedicated personal trainer can have an immeasurable impact on hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of lives. There are few pursuits as noble and altruistic as personal training. The cynicism I just displayed comes not from any discontent aimed toward the mission of trainers. It comes from three places: Firstly, the subtle and masterful way the health club industry has pushed trainers into a place where profitability becomes a struggle. Secondly, the manners in which advertisers and product marketers have removed common sense from the common public. And thirdly, the unwillingness of those who desperately want to find lucrative careers in our field to step beyond their 21st century sense of entitlement.

The Industry
The health club industry gained steam in the 1970s when Newsweek and Time ran cover stories on “the aerobic craze.” And then, John Travolta and Jamie Lee Curtis joined forces to star in the movie Perfect, putting the spotlight on what had once been a subculture — the “regulars” who frequent health clubs. The larger regional chains grew and consolidated, and a paradigm was established for health club operation. The paradigm was simple.

“Generate leads, get people to visit the club with a free trial pass, and then, use pressure to get guests to commit to annual contracts with irresistible renewal offers.”

Through the 1980s, this paradigm proved highly effective, but despite the quest to quell a need to pay for service costs, within the health club environment, a more professional “service” provider began to emerge. Certification agencies offered courses and credentials, and the term “personal fitness trainer” began to evolve beyond being just a luxury for the rich and famous. Health club operators began competing for a diminishing market share, and as the industry became saturated, independent club owners had difficulty competing with the buying power and price compromises that the large chains prospered from. If there was an opportunity for these clubs to increase revenues without increasing payroll, it had to be considered. The catch was the clubs weren’t ready to change the paradigm, not fully, so they modified it. The adjusted paradigm became:

“Generate leads, get people to visit the club with a free trial pass, use pressure to get guests to commit to annual contracts with irresistible renewal offers, connect them with service staff via a free trial, and then, give the trainers (service staff) an opportunity to sell their services for a fee.”

The paradigm itself was flawed, and from the onset, it devalued the personal training offering. The perception became, “membership is valuable, and the trainer is a throw-in.” Unlike country clubs where tennis lessons are conducted for a fee by “tennis pros” or in golf clubs where lessons are provided for a fee by “golf pros,” the health club industry set up the “pros” as freebies and established a valueless service offering. Worse yet, they failed to provide their trainers with any sales training, so the free-for-all led to a large-scale trainer turnover and a wide pool of job seekers on short stints taking people through machines. To offset the lack of sales ability in their trainers and in hopes of generating some significant revenue, clubs began offering “packages,” where the sessions were discounted in exchange for a commitment.

When an industry begins to mature and spin off from its host industry, as personal trainers in the 21st century are spinning off from health clubs, it’s important to question the paradigms, but trainers seem to want to follow convention. Why do trainers conduct free consultations? Because the health club industry set the paradigm, and trainers believe that’s what trainers are supposed to do. Why do trainers discount their rates in packages (one session for $50, 10 sessions for $350, 20 sessions for $500)? Because the health club industry set the paradigm, and trainers believe that’s what trainers are supposed to do. If you begin to question the conventional practices of “most trainers,” it might become clear why professional earnings present a challenge. Blaming the state of an industry does little to change it; however, I’m suggesting the new paradigm, one which positions trainers as true professionals, which can only emerge industry-wide when an elite few are willing to question convention and break the rules.

The Public
The words “eat right and exercise” ring true, but they appear to be completely impotent in attempting to coax the de-conditioned two-thirds of our population to take consistent action. It’s easy to accuse the folks who are unwilling to maintain an exercise habit of being lazy, of somehow lacking in willpower, but that’s a short-sighted view. The sad reality is people believe they have choices. Eat right and exercise or . . . just take a fat burning pill. Eat right and exercise or . . . just go to the doctor and get a prescription. Eat right and exercise or . . . just buy a device that electronically contracts your abs. Eat right and exercise or . . . just go on the diet of the week. Our population’s struggle with fitness is less of a struggle with willpower than it is an unwitting cannibalization of rational thought. Ours is not a battle of wills as much as it’s a battle for the minds of the marketplace. The idea that a trainer is going to “just take people through workouts” is an idea that severely limits potential for growth. The most successful trainers I know go way beyond the limitation of being workout leaders. They empower their clients, they remove false beliefs, they educate, they coach and they commit to ensure results at all costs.

OK, with the spotlight moving away from the health club industry and the product marketers, there’s one other view trainers have to take if they want to understand why professional failure is so common. They have to look in the mirror. One thing I learned long ago is that I, and I alone, have power over my choices, and those choices can empower me or disempower me. With the recognition of power of choice comes an innate sense of being in control of your destiny.

If you ask to be treated as a professional, then it’s important to recognize that professionals earn their stature. Professionals recognize that acquiring a baseline of knowledge is a vital step, but this is far from enough. Professionals separate themselves by mastering skills that allow them to excel, and if anyone is going to excel as a personal fitness trainer, the willingness to influence, to persuade, to market and to plan is of paramount importance.

Trainers hate the idea of “selling” because of the preconceived notions they hold of salespeople, but nobody’s asking personal trainers to do anything outside the realm of ethics and morality. The threshold that begs to be crossed is the one that brings trainers to recognize that if they’re not willing to “sell,” to spread the word of their virtues, to positively infect people with the desire to improve, then the public will fall for all of the other so-called solutions.

Response-ability, an obvious dissection of the word responsibility, suggests that things will happen, clients will disappoint you, people will opt not to train, although you know they need help, and some health clubs will continue to devalue our profession. Professionals have learned to respond to those obstacles that fall in our paths by trying harder, finding other clients, tapping into untapped markets or finding valuable strategic alliances. Professionals aren’t burdened by convention, aren’t pulled down into the pit of “what others do.” Professionals escalate themselves and operate under their own paradigms of excellence. Mediocrity will continue to exist, but the muddled waters of mediocrity suggest to the successful few that there’s a clear opportunity to rise above.

Many personal trainers I’ve met believe they’re entrepreneurs, and some are to be admired as such, but many fail to understand what this title means. Entrepreneurs live by a code. Produce or starve. I’m not suggesting anyone in our field should put themselves at risk, and granted, there are those few positions available for those who simply want to perform a service when asked, but I am suggesting that for most who aspire to find personal training excellence, expecting an industry or a segment of an industry to hand-feed you sets you up to fail, to blame and to commiserate with others who weren’t willing to wear the badge of professionalism. The bottom line is simple. There is an immense need for fitness professionals seeking excellence, and excellence requires continued toughness since it’s a moving target. Commit to mastering exercise science and human movement, and then, recognize those other skills fitness professionals often lack but desperately need. By gaining some insight into why some of those who might have found excellence opted to step away from the field they once found compelling, you might find a mindset adjustment is all you need to propel you right to the very top.

Phil Kaplan’s fitness career spans two decades, and he’s dedicated to helping personal trainers emerge as true fitness professionals. Find info on his explosively powerful e-program, “Change Your Mind - Change The World” or find a listing of articles and opportunities for high level fitness professionals.



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