The International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association is the fitness industry's only global trade association representing over 10,000 for profit health and fitness facilities and over 600 supplier companies in 75 countries.



From educational tools and events to promotional programs and public policy initiatives, IHRSA brings you success... by association!

Join | Renew
Pledge Your Support

Search IHRSA Blog
« Healthy Diet and Physical Activity Reduce The Likelihood of Child Obesity | Main | Introducing: The Club Connectivity Score »

Personal Trainers Aspire to Business Expertise


Personal Trainers (PTAs) are seeking MBA smarts to win in competitive times.

Personal training has become increasingly competitive. Today, as a result, trainers need more than just strong technical hands-on skills. They also need to be effective businesspeople.

To succeed in their chosen career, they clearly have to be able to deliver effective workouts, but, to thrive, they must also be able to communicate well, possess sales and marketing expertise, and keep abreast of emerging fitness technologies.

The competition is coming at the individual instructor from so many directions, and in so many forms, that it can seem overwhelming. The number of trainers in the U.S. has increased by 60% over the past 10 years. There’s been an explosion of specialty certifications, boot camps, boutique studios, and online offerings. The types of modalities have increased: We now have, among others, one-on-one, partner sessions, and small- group training.

“Fitness apps, wearables, and watches have introduced an entirely new form of competition,” notes Angie Pattengale, the director of certification for the National Federation of Professional Trainers (NFPT), based in Lafayette, Indiana. “So it’s more important than ever that trainers be able to demonstrate the value of their personal service.”

At the same time, health clubs are demanding that training services be more profitable; better-educated clients with infinite options exact higher expectations; and the medical and healthcare sectors offer new employment opportunities that require greater sophistication.

Business acumen is quickly becoming a basic job requirement for trainers.

“All personal trainers are, in effect, running small businesses,” observes Justin Price, the creator of the BioMechanics Method Corrective Exercise Specialist certification program, offered by the San Diego–based American Council on Exercise (ACE). “They must possess business skills to build professional credibility, attract new clients, develop rapport and communicate effectively with current clients, and generate revenue. Trainers who don’t recognize the importance of developing their business skills aren’t going to reach their full potential.”

Fortunately, there’s a large and growing body of worthwhile resources, including professional colleagues; mentors and coaches; fitness education, certification, and trade organizations; online courses and Webinars; professional tools; and general business courses and workshops. All of them can help trainers to become more business-savvy and advance their careers, whether they work in a club or in their own studio.

Improving one’s game

In some ways, a trainer’s passion for what they do interferes with their acquiring new business skills. Trainers tend to gravitate, instinctively, to hands-on work with clients, and fitness education and certification programs have tended to focus on these practical, science-based skills.

“The delivery of safe, effective, personal training services isn’t contingent upon business skills,” explains Michael Iserman, M.Ed., the director of certification for the National Exercise Trainers Association (NETA), of Minneapolis, Minnesota. “As a result, personal training exams rarely address business-related knowledge and competency.”

But, the experts agree, personal trainers who lack business savvy can unintentionally hamstring their careers. “Trainers get into this business because they love to help people succeed, but many wind up having to close their doors because they fail to acquire make-or-break business skills,” points out Kathie Davis, the executive director of the IDEA Health and Fitness Association, based in San Diego.

“Business skill development goes hand-in-hand with technical training ability; both are critical and one isn’t more important than the other,” says Douglas Brooks, MS, an exercise physiologist, education director for several fitness-product companies, and IDEA’s 2014 Personal Trainer of the Year.

After opening several studios, “The light bulb went off regarding the difference between training at the one-on-one level and running a business,” Brooks recalls. “Today, there’s no excuse for trainers not to methodically develop their business skills, as history, technology, and time-proven templates all argue that business sophistication leads to business success.”

“We need to continue to advise trainers that there’s more to being successful than just good workouts, and demonstrate the value of developing business skills,” concurs Anthony J. Wall, the director of professional education for ACE.

Annie Malaythong can attest to the validity of their argument on the basis of personal experience. “Most fitness professionals enjoy helping others,” says Malaythong, a National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) Master Instructor, and the owner of Fitness Studio 108, in Johns Creek, Georgia. “But I realized that, when I invested in my business education, I was able to make a greater impact. Now I have a team that believes that, together, we can change the world.”

“It’s critical that trainers constantly upgrade their knowledge, skills, and abilities—just to remain relevant in the fitness industry, let alone get ahead of the competition,” says Iserman.

Business basics

The business skills that are regarded as critical by the authorities that CBI consulted include:

Communication: Trainers must master active listening, and be able to offer empathy, rapport, and motivation.

Sales: “The first step toward financial success is to accept and embrace the reality that sales are inseparable from personal training,” posits Iserman. Nick Clayton, MS, MBA, and the personal training program manager for the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), elaborates: “Sales involves the ability to listen, to identify a potential client’s pain points, to present a solution, and to ask for a close.”

Marketing: This component encompasses social media, networking, sharing client results, and cultivating referrals. “You can be a genius at your craft, but if no one knows it, you’ll only go so far,” says Malaythong.

Technology aptitude: Today, trainers must be familiar with and able to utilize a wide range of technologies, including exercise and nutrition tracking programs, a vast number of apps, wearable fitness tracking devices, etc.

Essentials for entrepreneurs: Trainers interested in opening a facility will need to know about such things as accounting, business plan development, real estate, local codes and laws … or hire professionals who do.

Pursuing a PT MBA

Industry-specific conferences, conventions, and on- and off-line courses, tutorials, and tools provide a wealth of opportunity for personal trainers to approximate an MBA. IHRSA’s annual convention and trade show invariably includes a variety of business-related presentations, workshops, and seminars, as does IDEA’s World Fitness Convention and Personal Trainer Institute. NSCA featured a preconference workshop and an entire track on business development at its 2015 Personal Trainer’s Conference, and NETA offers “Prospecting for Clients: Building Your Personal Training Business” at its Fit Fest events.

Online courses and Webinars are offered by these and other organizations, some of which partner with education providers that specialize in business topics. Home studies, such as NETA’s “How to Make More Money in the Fitness Industry,” along with DVDs, facilitate remote learning. Some business workshops and courses provide continuing education credits (CECs), but acquiring new expertise, rather than credits, is the point. “Continuing education relates to the betterment of the individual in their profession, and growth within a skill set, which can encompass many different disciplines,” notes Pattengale. “But a trainer shouldn’t be concerned, necessarily, about whether a course on client communications confers CECs.”

A number of organizations have developed tools and resources that are also valuable. ACE’s online client management system allows trainers to manage their schedules and communicate with clients. IDEA’s Fitness Connect platform connects fitness professionals with potential clients, and includes client motivation and retention tools, such as a customer relationship management (CRM) system, a customized newsletter, automated social media posts, and a blog template.

NSCA publishes the Personal Trainer’s Quarterly, which covers business subjects, and is now preparing a Business 101 series that will explore business fundamentals through case studies. And NASM has a chapter on “Developing a Successful Personal Training Business” in its NASM Essentials of Personal Fitness Training textbook.

Non-industry-specific sources can also prove helpful in elevating the business learning curve. “I’m a big believer in learning from outside organizations and tapping into writers such as Jeffrey Gitomer (The Little Red Book of Selling), Simon Sinek (Start with Why), and Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers),” notes Michele Melkerson-Granryd, M.Ed., the general manager of BodyBusiness Health Club and Spa, in Austin, Texas, and a presenter at IHRSA 2015.

Kelly Whalen, the fitness director at the Maryland Athletic Club, Harbor East, in Baltimore, Maryland, suggests books such as Jim Collins’ From Good to Great, and Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make Competition Irrelevant by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne.

Business smarts can be easily sourced at local colleges and through the Small Business Association (SBA). “Local events hosted by colleges and the SBA provide invaluable education, and also open the door to mentoring and networking opportunities,” points out Clayton.

Mentors and life coaches can provide real-life-based guidance, notes Tim Keightley, the owner and president of the Dallas-based Keightley Enterprises, Inc., and an IHRSA ’15 presenter. “One of my clients was a CEO who allowed me to shadow him and ask questions over a period of many months,” he relates. “The experience was really enlightening and changed my perspective on the critical relationship between fitness and business.”

Whalen reports that she worked with a life coach for two years, a process that, she says, took her from “average to excellent” by transforming her into a successful businessperson.

Trainers who work independently should, at the very least, hire an attorney and an accountant, suggests Joanne Blackerby, a fitness industry veteran, author, educator, and the owner of Spirit Fitness, in Austin, Texas. She learned the hard way when she opened her own studio. “Unless you have a business background, you’re going to need help,” she insists. “Doing it on my own, I wasted time, money, and energy. Now I leave much of the business side to professionals I can rely on for guidance and business planning.”

“The trainers who understand that developing their business skills is just as important as honing their science and movement skills are going to be 10 steps ahead of all the others,” predicts Davis.

Reader Comments (2)

This is a pretty interesting article. It's something I've been thinking a lot about lately while developing my own business. I've found that marketing your business falls under "effective communication". If you can't get your message in front of your clients in a way they'll understand, you won't have a business for very long. Mind giving me some feedback on my website?
January 7, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterzack
Thank you for your article. I found this useful.

Claudia Prana, Life Coach
December 31, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterClaudia Prana

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
All HTML will be escaped. Hyperlinks will be created for URLs automatically.