Pete McCall by Pete McCall

fitness professional career directionCongratulations! You’ve worked hard, studied, and have finally passed your ACE Personal Trainer certification. Now what?

While many health club companies do offer personal trainers the opportunity to progress through education-based levels so they can earn a higher pay rate per training session, once an individual has been a personal trainer for a while, there are only a limited number of options for advancement. In my experience, good personal trainers who do not receive guidance on how to progress their careers will work because they are dedicated to their clients, but will eventually leave to start their own business or take a job in a completely different industry — all due to a lack of career opportunities.

But, there’s hope. If you are a motivated self-starter who sets your own goals and has the drive to achieve them, it is possible to have a challenging and rewarding fitness career. There are plenty of job opportunities in the fitness industry to find a career path that matches your interests.


Traditionally, in most health clubs, the only option for advancing a career is to progress from training clients to managing the fitness department. And often, the most successful trainer or group exercise instructor is promoted to manager on the (misguided) theory that he or she can help others run a successful business. Or, the gym hopes he or she can make all the classes as popular as theirs.

The fact is that often times, a good trainer or instructor is not successful as a manager because running a department, managing a budget, supervising a staff (including communicating expectations and holding staff to them) require completely different skill sets than training clients or teaching classes.

Taking on a management responsibility does mean extra work, but usually comes with steady compensation that does not depend on clients showing up for scheduled sessions, benefits such as paid holidays and sick leave along with a bonus structure for achieving production goals. Some health club companies provide excellent training and support and in this case making the move from a trainer to manager can be a rewarding promotion. However, some club companies fail to provide the proper training on critical managements skills and when a trainer does get promoted to manager, he or she is simply given the keys to the facility, some instruction on how to do payroll and is then left to sink or swim based solely on his or her own innate abilities.

Tips for Becoming a Manager:

To identify opportunities for progressing your fitness career with your current employer, start by asking your direct supervisor what options exist and what you need to be doing to be eligible for a promotion. In my experience once a good boss knows of your interests they will work with you because they want to see you succeed.

Fitness Educator:

If you decide that you don’t want to advance into management, another challenging option is to move into the education side by teaching continuing education workshops. That’s the path that I forged for myself, so here’s my personal experience:

I actually went a little backwards by starting in club management (first as an assistant GM then as a GM) before becoming a full-time personal trainer and group fitness instructor. While I really liked training and teaching, I found that I also enjoyed learning. I discovered that one of the most effective ways to learn was to help others learn, which led me to become an educator.

I was working in the Washington, DC locations of a large health club company that experienced a period of rapid expansion — from five DC area locations when I started in 1998 to 18 by 2006. Working for a large, multi-site company opened doors to teach the orientation and ongoing continuing education workshops for trainers. Eventually, my time was split evenly between training clients, teaching group fitness and teaching continuing education workshops. From there, I got my master’s degree and became the Director of Education for a different health club company before being hired by a personal trainer certification organization based in San Diego. (Obviously, I’m talking about ACE.)

Tips for Becoming an Educator:

If you work for a large, multi-site organization, ask how you can become involved in educating new staff or teaching continuing education workshops. You may need to start as an assistant teacher helping with practical portions of the education programming before becoming a lead educator. If you don’t work for a large company then ask your employer if you can develop and teach a workshop for the other employees.

In both cases, you might need to offer a couple of complimentary workshops to demonstrate that you are an effective teacher and that the other trainers would be able to apply what you teach them. After you have led a couple of workshops with good results, then it is time to write a proposal to ask for compensation.

Volunteer at Fitness Industry Conferences:

Volunteering at fitness industry conferences is another way to break into the education side – you will be able to meet top fitness educators and learn from them, too. This may mean losing some income in the short term, but the payoff can be huge.

From 2002-2005, I volunteered at the ECA conferences on the east coast — New York and Miami — and this helped me meet and learn from top fitness educators who offered invaluable advice about advancing my career.

No matter what your personal goals are in this business, you can achieve them. The first step to achieving your goals is to write them down. Former NFL player Darrel Green said, “A goal is nothing more than a dream until you write it down.”

You can do anything you want in this business — whether you want to get into operations and management or educating and teaching — but you will have to put in the effort to make it happen. Ask the people doing what you want for advice; in my experience, I’ve found they’re more than happy to help.

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