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February 2012

Secrets to Making Money as a Personal Trainer (and What NOT to Do!)


By Carrie Myers

When Ethan Kopsh, performance specialist and owner of Bird Rock Fit in La Jolla, Calif., decided to open his own studio, it was for two main reasons: to help people and to make money. What also motivated him was not being able to find a studio he really enjoyed working out at in his neighborhood.

“I realized there were quite a few really great studios,” he says. “It just happens most of them weren’t anywhere close enough to justify driving to.”

After deciding to open his own business, Kopsh went around to many different gyms and small personal-training studios, taking the bits and pieces he really liked from each location, and being sure to note the things he didn’t like. “I started to meet some really great fitness professionals who shared my same philosophy on training. They also weren’t the ‘typical trainers.’ You know the ones I’m talking about. They flex when they’re talking to you so you know they are amazing trainers,” he laughs. “Anyway, I wanted a place big enough to host classes and personal training, but small enough to be a private studio. I honestly opened this studio because I genuinely want to help people.”  

Within its first year, Bird Rock Fit showed signs of success due in part, says Kopsh, to his “non-sales” approach. “I believe we are successful because, for one, we are not pushy about sales; we make it easy for people to train.”  

He credits much of this ease of training to their payment system, which is based on a monthly set-up. “Our payment system is set up to benefit both the client and trainer,” explains Kopsh. “My clients choose how many times a week they would like to train—once, twice or three times. If they miss a session, they must make it up sometime within that month or they will lose it.”

Kopsh has found this system of payment instills more accountability among his clients, while decreasing cancellations and helping clients stay on track. There is also another benefit of a monthly system (versus having clients purchase individual sessions or packages with no “use by” date).

“There is never that moment when you have to ask your client for more money. Nobody likes doing that,” he says. “It takes the whole sales part away from me.”

Other trainers are also jumping on the alternative payment bandwagon. “I offer my services in the form of a personal-training membership,” says John Ashworth, M.A., owner of The Fitness Nomad in Madison, Wis. “As such, clients invest in training each month at a base rate, and their time with me gets less expensive as they attend more sessions.”

Ashworth does protect his bottom line, however, so that he makes a minimum amount, even for clients who train the most per month. “I make sure I’m billing at least $80 per hour for my time at all times. This recurring method of billing and membership for personal training will transform your cash flow as a small business owner.”

Policy Protection
Amy Neighbors, M.A., an ACE-certified Personal Trainer in Los Angeles, Calif., and developer and owner of the Level Method, also works off a monthly payment system. She and all the other trainers who were interviewed for this piece instill one primary policy, as well: a 24-hour cancellation notice.

“It’s my main rule,” she says, “and it’s fair for both trainer and client.”

Jim Massaro, author of The Complete Coaches Manual of Sports Performance, agrees. “The first thing I make clients aware of is my 24-hour cancellation policy. If they don’t give notice within that timeframe, they are charged for the session.”

Massaro does make exceptions, however, for things such as sudden illness, being stuck at work or inclement weather. He also says he has learned many tough lessons over the past few years, including putting a time limit on clients’ session packages.

“Some of the hard lessons were at first, letting clients take as long as they wanted to finish a session package. That policy cost me too much money and the client didn’t get much from their training. This was my biggest mistake, and since I have changed over, the retention rate has increased, results have been much improved and my bottom line has increased.”

Kopsh says his big lesson as a trainer was in getting too caught up on the sales part of the job. “I feel a lot of trainers just starting out begin at large gyms where they are just another number to try to increase revenue. I think people get really turned off when they feel like you’re trying to sell them something they may not actually want or need.”

Instead, he says, he learned to get to know his clients and give them only the information they wanted to hear. “I got into this profession because I really wanted to help people and improve their quality of life. I think it is extremely important to be sincere and enjoy what you do. As a result, it makes it easy to be successful.”

It’s All in the Marketing…or Is It?
Marketing and promoting your business are, of course, important aspects of selling your services. But is it really necessary to take out expensive newspaper or radio ads? No, says, Ashworth. Instead, become your community’s “go-to” fitness person.


“I’ve wasted a lot of money on marketing that doesn’t work,” he says. “I think one of the biggest secrets to your success is in your ability to network, and become a true and lasting resource in your community—someone people go to when they need health- and fitness-related advice.”

Ashworth also recommends word of mouth, referrals and opportunities to make public appearances where you can clearly demonstrate your expertise. “This is an often-overlooked method for gaining new business.”

Kopsh uses Facebook as one of his primary networking tools, not only to announce classes, but to also ask health- and fitness-related questions to get members involved and interacting with each other. In addition, he posts video snippets of classes on YouTube and Facebook that have a professional quality about them, but are taped and edited by a friend. The videos are set to music and feature on-screen narration, drawing the viewer into the virtual class. This not only gives potential participants an idea of what a class is like, but it motivates them to want to be a part of it.

The “Extras”
In a world where trainers can take on the role of ordering clients what to do based on what he or she feels is best (we are, after all, the “experts”), Kopsh feels the top secrets to his success are 1) not talking down to his clients and 2) towels.

“What I mean by not talking down is I don’t act like I am elite or above them. I try to get to know my clients on a personal level so I can better understand what they actually want when they come to see me. I try to listen to what they want, rather than tell them what they need.”

And towels? “The other reason we’re successful is we provide the little things, such as towel service, which apparently is not very common in Southern California. We have a very clean, modern and friendly atmosphere.”

Kopsh also feels that as a business owner, his goal is not only to bring in more business, but even more importantly, keep what he’s got (a.k.a. client retention). “I don’t really go through a revolving door of clients,” he explains. “Most of my clients are still with me long-term, because I get them to a point where they actually enjoy the workouts.”

One approach he uses to keep current clients satisfied is to incorporate many “toys.”

“I believe having a wide variety of equipment shows clients that I don’t want them to get bored at our studio. I make sure each session is never boring. I ask as many questions as I can to make sure they are enjoying their workouts and ask what I can do to constantly improve.”

And this is ultimately any trainer’s secret to success.

“I feel the number-one secret to my success has always been paying close attention to client needs,” says Massaro. “I realize that one training program does not fit all and each client comes in with specific goals they want to achieve. My job is to help them achieve their goals through education and motivation. Always put your client first and your ego on the back burner.”


Carrie Myers is owner of CarrieMichele Fitness and author of Squeezing Your Size 14 Self into a Size 6 World: A Real Woman’s Guide to Food, Fitness, and Self-Acceptance. Despite having a 24-hour cancellation policy, she had issues with one client regarding “no-shows,” at which time she began charging her for two sessions for each no-show. This client no longer has issues with no shows.


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