What It’s Really Like to Be a High-End Personal Trainer
Low pay, no vacation, predatory clients. The job is so much harder than the workouts.
Will Hansen and two colleagues spread out in a tiny conference room, wire up their laptops to a flat-screen TV, and get to work. Spreadsheets pop up with deadlines, contacts, and sales numbers. There are flashes of event logistics software. Discussion ensues about social media strategy and “synergy” with product partners. A color-coded calendar streaks past the screen, so chaotic with appointments that it looks like modern art.
here’s little to give away what the three actually do for a living, other than their taut physiques, their head-to-toe fitness ensembles, and the kale salad Hansen downs to fuel him through a day that began with a client at 6:45 a.m. and is scheduled to run through 7:30 p.m., when he will meet with three new prospectives.
Hansen and his colleagues are high-end personal trainers at Golden Home Fitness in Boston, and they are part of an industry that thrives on a carefully cultivated image of effortlessness and self-assurance, poise, and patience.
“Show me a successful personal trainer and I’ll show you somebody that’s abusing caffeine.”
But the reality is far different: Trainers earn, on average, $19.15 an hour, or $39,820 a year, according to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) reports that 54% of trainers work part time, and even some trainers who are in the business full time hold down second jobs to make ends meet. “So many people have side hustles,” says Hansen, who is 24 and has been certified as a personal trainer since four days shy of his 19th birthday. He also works as an operations manager for the gym. One of his colleagues is a bartender when she isn’t working with clients or training for bodybuilding competitions.
Personal trainers know you think that all they do all day is work out. Geralyn Coopersmith, former senior director of the Equinox Fitness Training Institute, laughs so hard at this it takes her a moment to respond. “That’s not what happens,” Coopersmith says.
Many trainers start their days at 4:30 or 5 a.m. to set up for 6 a.m. appointments, and don’t knock off until after 8 p.m., says Coopersmith, who trained private clients earlier in her career. After that she was global director of performance and fitness for Nike and chief talent officer at Flywheel Sports before moving to Equinox. “Show me a successful personal trainer and I’ll show you somebody that’s abusing caffeine.”
Many gyms require trainers to meet quotas for personal training sessions and pay them largely through those commissions. Different gyms have different quotas, and until trainers reach those numbers, they are paid a flat hourly rate.This system is near the top of things that stress trainers out, judging from their complaints on job review sites. (“Glorified sales job,” one former Equinox personal trainer from California griped on Indeed.com.)
“I’d be there for 10 hours and get paid for four of it,” says Tony Maloney of early in his career when he worked at a Gold’s Gym and spent most of the time wandering the machines, hustling to sign up clients. He’s since risen up the ranks to oversee 12 other full-time instructors as manager of the 69,000-square-foot fitness center at the National Institute for Fitness and Sport in Indianapolis, though he still does solo, semi-private, and group training.
Trainers typically also don’t get benefits such as paid vacations; if they take two weeks off, they lose two weeks of income. Some gyms, including Equinox, offer health insurance; others don’t. Many who want to start families can’t make the hours work. “The days are long and grueling. All of those things at some point cause people to ask themselves, ‘Why am I doing this?’”
Only about a third of personal trainers are over 35, the ACSM says. The ones who stay in the game often go out on their own.
Today’s elite personal trainers need to know anatomical facts like how the trapezius muscle supports the arm through the occipital bone and scapula, as well as motivation psychology and nutrition. They tailor their schedules around a wide variety of clients for whom they spend long and unpaid hours devising workouts and creating playlists. They struggle with a high burnout rate and the imposter syndrome that makes them doubt their own levels of swoleness. They have to fight their way up a hierarchy not only among elite gyms, but within them.
On top of that, personal trainers today are expected to have massive social media followings with daily photos of their chiseled physiques. Some personal trainers have become so visible that Equinox and SoulCycle have teamed up with the talent management agency William Morris Endeavor to represent them in the same way it does actors and musicians.
“Instagram has exploded the industry, and not in a good way,” says Hansen, who has a degree in business administration with a concentration in entrepreneurship and organizational behavior. “People want you to fulfill the stereotypes they have of you. They think you’re all about working out and that’s all you do.”
Breaking through the ranks is difficult, and often the path forward requires trainers to spend their own money. Most take tests to be certified by one of several industry associations, but — like personal trainers themselves — the standards vary widely, depending on the credential: CPT, CSCS, or an alphabet soup of other qualifications.
For instance, to become a certified personal trainer, or CPT, through the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), candidates need only be 18, have a high school diploma, and know CPR to be eligible for the $435 exam. Certified strength and conditioning specialists (CSCS) like Hansen are required to first have bachelor’s degrees, though they can be in any subject. That test costs $475. Just over half of trainers are graduates of four-year colleges or universities, according to the ACSM.
“If I’m your trainer and you’re my client, I’m here to help you. I don’t want you to be thinking, ‘This guy’s dealing with all this other stuff.’”
As personal training gets more sophisticated, so have the requirements. The NSCA is currently phasing in a rule that future CSCS trainers will have to first earn bachelor’s degrees in strength and conditioning-related fields from universities it has formally accredited. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is also considering a tightening of its guidelines after some training-related mishaps involving college athletes, including the death of 19-year-old University of Maryland offensive lineman Jordan McNair, who collapsed after a team workout.
On top of these organizations is another layer of accrediting agencies. Most gyms require trainers to have certifications accredited by one of three of these organizations, all of them nonprofit: the National Commission for Certifying Agencies, the National Board of Fitness Examiners, and, for online programs, the Distance Education Accrediting Commission.
Trainers can’t let any of this pressure show. “They don’t want people thinking, ‘Hey I’m frazzled all the time.’ If I’m your trainer and you’re my client, I’m here to help you. I don’t want you to be thinking, ‘This guy’s dealing with all this other stuff,’” says NSCA spokesman Mike Hobson.
All of these conditions contribute to an extremely high turnover rate. Around 30% of newly minted trainers don’t return for the required recertification three years later, indicating they’ve moved on, according to the NSCA.
For trainers who master the system, the payoff can be worth it. But it takes a lot of work. Mike Urso is 36. He has a wife, two kids, leading-man looks, a fitness blog, a podcast, and — after nearly 10 years moving up the ladder at Equinox and Life Time Fitness — his own personal training business with a website that quotes Benjamin Disraeli. (“The greatest good you can do for another is not just to share your riches, but to reveal to him his own.”)
“You don’t see a lot of 40- or 50-year-old trainers working in gyms,” Urso says over hot green tea; he’s just come from a session with a client, one of six he’ll have before the day is over. “I developed my own style over time. I think a lot of trainers do that. And at some point you want to take the show on the road.”
Urso was in his 20s and waiting tables in New York when a friend prodded him to go to the Equinox Fitness Training Institute, an industry-leading, 150-hour program covering anatomy, nutrition, exercise and cardiovascular physiology, kinesiology, orthopedic injury, and how to design a workout program for a client. He was hired right out of the institute by Equinox, though he kept his restaurant job while he got busy as an entry-level upstart prowling the floor for personal training clients.
“I learned to differentiate myself,” says Urso. “I needed to be somebody who was indispensable to the client.” Urso moved up and into management at Equinox and then at Life Time, where he helped develop education programs for, and hired, other trainers. Then he set out to find clients on his own and became, officially, Coach Mike. “I needed to have my own identity, my own brand,” he says.
That isn’t always easy. Trainers who work at boutique gyms are required to sign noncompete and nondisclosure agreements. Equinox sued three of its former trainers in New York and a former fitness instructor in California in 2013, and Life Time sued one of its former executives in Houston in 2016, all for opening competing gyms. Most of these cases end up dropped or settled, but they’re warning shots for people who might consider poaching clients.
Urso began from scratch. Today, as a one-man show, he strategizes weekly over Zoom with six other fitness entrepreneurs (from a part-time Barry’s Bootcamp trainer to a lifestyle videographer) who share ideas to build their businesses. They call themselves the Mastermind Group.
Urso studies other industries to pick up customer recruiting strategies. He uses LinkedIn for sales leads. When he signs up new clients, he explains that he expects them to make referrals if they’re happy with his work. Many other trainers don’t do this, he says, because they find it awkward. “It puts the heat on me to deliver the results,” he says. It’s also landed him a full slate of 20 in-person clients, plus five he advises remotely.
The trainer-client relationship can be intense. “You get to know these people’s heartaches, what stresses them out at work, their family problems,” Urso says. But “some people do need more therapy than you can give them as a personal trainer. You have to know where to draw the line.”
Lauren Korzan, 44, a longtime trainer who now manages a corporate fitness site in Atlanta, says that “sometimes it’s hard for them to connect with friends and family. So they connect with the people they’re with, including trainers. We become substitutes for friends.”
Or not even substitutes. Coopersmith has been a bridesmaid at a client’s wedding. Another told her she was pregnant even before she shared the news with her husband. “It’s hard not to become trusted friends,” Coopersmith says. “You’re with them all the time. You’re stretching them. You’re seeing them when they’re sweaty and not wearing makeup. You see them when they’re vulnerable.”
“I’ve had female clients flirting with me, asking if I’m in a relationship. You just deflect, basically returning the conversation to the exercise at hand.”
Hansen has worked with clients dealing with depression or anxiety or who are bipolar, and he regularly coached one through panic attacks after she moved away, by Skype. “Sometimes people don’t want to see a therapist, so they hire a personal trainer.”
But some push the envelope too far. Coopersmith had male clients who “would say inappropriate things or slowly shift the conversation to, ‘Let’s become more than client and trainer.’ You can shut that down in a polite way. If it continues, you may have to fire those clients. I have.”
Hansen has had this happen, too. “I’ve had female clients flirting with me, asking if I’m in a relationship. You just deflect, basically returning the conversation to the exercise at hand.” At Maloney’s gym, trainers politely decline to give clients their phone numbers.
Some may not take no for an answer. One California fitness instructor has alleged publicly that her 67-year-old client — Philip Green, billionaire chairman of the parent company of Topshop — groped her so often during sessions that she had to cover herself in extra layers of workout clothes. She has not pressed charges. Another pilates instructor has also accused Green of assault; prosecutors in that case have charged him with four misdemeanor counts of assault.
But some of the closer client-trainer relationships are truly meaningful. Hansen had just spent part of his weekend running along with a cancer survivor client in her first 5K.
The inward relationship can be tricky, too: Personal trainers can suffer from self-doubt, especially about their own conditioning. “Imposter syndrome is massive in fitness. People think they’re not fit enough to be a trainer, that they need to have a six pack,” says Hansen.
After all, says Maloney, “You wouldn’t go to a broke accountant, or a woodworker who’s missing fingers. The clients have to feel that you practice what you preach.”
That leads to the trickiest problem: having a life outside the gym. Maloney gives himself Saturdays off to chill out and “go to an all-you-can-eat buffet and get banned for life,” though he admits to first looking around to make sure no clients are watching. “Then on Sunday you eat clean again.”
That’s how Hansen got into the business in the first place. Too much sitting on the couch and playing video games as a kid added extra pounds, so instead he began to run boxing drills in the backyard, play Wii boxing until he was drenched in sweat, and take his friends through workouts at the Y when they were 14.
For people like him, being a trainer is the best job you could have. He loves the gym. “It’s a disease I call one-more-rep-itis. And then I’m late for whatever the next thing is,” Hansen says.