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The Burden of the Modern Fitness Coach

The Burden of the Modern Fitness Coach

September 8, 2020



When I originally became involved in personal training in 2005, the fitness landscape looked a lot different than it does now. At the time there were essentially three types of services:

  • Regular gym memberships
  • 1 on 1 personal training
  • Follow the leader style classes (think body pump, spin, etc…any time the instructor stands up at the front of the class and the participants work in unison with each other and the instructor).

Since then the fitness world has exploded with all new types of services and formats. Sadly, I often look at many of these services and wonder if they were designed with the benefit of the client in mind, or if they exist to simply extract more profit out of the consumer. Personal training certainly has its drawbacks. Even high end trainers in big cities may only make $60-70/hr after the “house” takes their cut. Realistically you can only do so many sessions in a single day. Personal training can also be fairly exhausting for the coach. Whatever you have going on in your life that day, you have to shelve it, and bring the best you for your client. The client had a hard enough time getting motivated to even show up, so if you aren’t highly motivating, excited, and energetic, it’s unlikely that person will continue to re-book with you. Maybe your dog just died, or your significant other left you, or something is simply stressing you out. You have to shelve it for that hour, put on your game face, and then do it all over again when you start the next session.

Since most people either train early morning before work or when they get out from their 9-5, the personal trainer’s schedule can be tough. Lots of action on the bell ends of the day, and a lot of down time in between. This coupled with the energy you have to bring to the job makes it one of the most underrated jobs out there in terms of difficulty. This naturally lead to trainers shifting from personal training sessions to “semi-private” sessions where a coach may be working with 1-3 people in that hour. The client pays a slightly reduced fee, but the trainer doubles the amount they can make in the hour. This naturally gave way to small group training, and then full on group training with things like fitness bootcamps, CrossFit and Orange Theory.

While these systems make it more affordable to work with a coach, you are still often doing a somewhat generic training program. Ultimately as we’ve said many times on our blog and in videos…there is no such thing as a perfect gym. Every system has its pros and cons, and ultimately it’s up to the consumer to decide which level of investment works best for them in terms of what they receive in return, but every once in a while it’s important to highlight the unsung hero: The Modern Day Fitness Coach.

Regardless of what kind of gym you are working in, how successful you will be will come down to two major things: Your personal relationships with clients, and the results you can help them to achieve. Seems straight forward, but I can promise you, it’s no easy task. Think of all the various personalities you’re responsible for managing on any given day, and consider that the fitness coach probably doubles or triples that number. Furthermore we’re asking people to do things they are often unfamiliar with or possibly even uncomfortable doing. What may be highly motivating to one client may be interpreted as aggressive or cruel by another. A good coach has to be able to switch gears pretty quickly. Every hour if you’re doing one on ones, or by the minute if working in a group setting.

Think that there couldn’t possibly be that many different personality types? Check out Conscious Coaching by Brett Bartholomew where he outlines about 3 dozen different categories of people and how to coach each one differently. And that’s just from an interpersonal perspective, that’s not even addressing the science of training various bodies with various goals. And when it comes to science, good trainers and coaches will have a knowledge base that comes quite close to that of a physical therapist, chiropractor, and in some cases, even medical doctors, yet when comparing the levels of compensation across those professions, the fitness coach is in dead last, and often having higher levels of education in exercise science doesn’t yield higher pay, that’s why so many people with PhD’s in exercise science can be found not in a gym, but in a high school or college classroom. When making this comparison I often think about to one of the first clients I ever had, and how some simple exercise and tweaks to his diet were enough to get him off of the blood pressure medication he had been on for years. I did something his doctor wasn’t able to get him to do. I was paid $8.75/hr at the time.

When it comes to getting your client results, you’re again facing an uphill battle. This is mostly due to two factors, first creating change in the body simply takes time. Often you’re helping a client to undo years or even decades of sedentary habits and poor nutritional choices. The second factor is that consistency outweighs just about anything else, and building new habits is challenging for adults with their own list of responsibilities, roadblocks, and stresses. As coaches we notice the little differences day to day in our clients, but many times this progress is not visible to the individual themselves. Nothing motivates people quite like progress, so even if you’re the cheerleader type of coach, it’s can be challenging to help clients see themselves in a positive light.

And as the world continues to change, more burden is put on to the fitness coach. A new industry has exploded and that is coaching coaches on how to coach/do business. Take a stroll through my personal Facebook feed and you’ll be inundated with ads and messages all promising the same thing: Six figure income while working a fraction of your current workweek. Ironically I get these ads for photographers as well. Indeed there is a whole industry funneling money out of  the pockets of personal trainers with these promises. Right now the hot play is obviously the online training. The concept is that your market now becomes world wide instead of local to wherever you are. The only downside is now your competition is world wide as well. That’s not to mention that online coaching is objectively worse than in person coaching. I’m not downplaying it, for some clients, online training makes the most sense (which is why it’s something we offer) but it’s lacking a lot of the things that make having a coach a great idea in the first place:

  • Real time feedback
  • Personal rapport
  • The ability to easily see your client move from different angles
  • Camaraderie of training with your peers
  • A dedicated space for exercise (only applies to those training at home)
  • Safety

Even if a coach was fully dedicated to working with clients in person, the way the industry is marketed has also changed. Websites, while helpful are not the prime driver of traffic anymore. Fitness coaches feel compelled to film their own training sessions or take time make content for social media, which is as you probably know, a nearly insatiable beast. The distraction of filming your own training takes away from the training itself, and trust me, staying fit as a fitness coach is important, because unfortunately many people do judge a book by its cover. Social media may seem like a fun way to share what you’re doing with friends, but for someone using it as a marketing tool, it can be an incredibly time consuming and stressful process. Did you post at the right time of day? Did you optimize your hash tags? Did you take time to respond to comments and engage with other people on the platform? Did you post to every platform? Did Instagram change their algorithm and you have to relearn how to do everything all over again? For small businesses and those trying to build their personal brands…it can be a nightmare.

We still haven’t touched upon if a trainer happens to have an “entrepreneurial seizure“.  Now the hats you were wearing as scientist, motivator, quasi-therapist, and digital marketer will be expanded to boss, accountant and bookkeeper, handyman, manager, educator, and all around problem solver. Just like being in really good shape doesn’t make someone a good fitness coach, being a really good fitness coach doesn’t make you a good business owner. That’s why many small gyms in our industry fail.

Just like we tell clients to find their “why” for wanting to get in shape, it’s important for coaches to know their “why” as well. I think back to jobs I’ve had where I was compensated fairly well, but I couldn’t muster the motivation to stick with it: I didn’t feel like I was making a difference in people’s lives, and that has always been a big motivator for me, and really I think it’s a prerequisite in this business. That’s why I’ve been involved in it for 15 years now. That’s why I started my own business, and that’s what motivates me to keep going, no matter the ups and downs. Whether its a heart condition, a pandemic, or something else, the “why” is what gets me excited to talk to someone about the science of nutrition for the thousandth time this month, or to teach someone how to do a basic kettlebell squat for the hundred-thousandth time in my career.

When I think about all the amazing relationships I’ve been fortunate enough to develop over the years in this business, it makes all the challenges worth it. As a coach you have to accept the fact that you simply cannot help everyone. Whether its your coaching style, the services the gym you work in offers, clients that come to you who aren’t truly ready to make a change, or whatever the case may be, you simply cannot help every person. That’s ok, you’re not supposed to. All you can do is be kind, try your best, and stay positive, no matter what life throws at you.

Happy Labor day to all the fitness coaches of the world.


Dr. Brett Scott


Arkitect Fitness

“We Help Athletes And Active Adults
Lose Weight, Get Fit, And Optimize Performance.”