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I’m going to address a subject that I’ve covered more than a few times, the subject of compensation.  More specifically, I want to address how Personal Trainers are compensated in relation to the financial “value” of the service they provide.

This isn’t an easy subject, as there are hundreds of variables that play into “value,” and many of those variables are specific to the individual.  Consider my perspectives as simply, “the view from here,” the opinions of a man who spent his entire adult life as a personal fitness trainer.

As I consider my peers, the handful of true fitness professionals who have stayed the course over a decade or three, mastered their skill set, and found their own levels of excellence and professionalism, I find a similar emotional course, a journey that, although unique to all of us, has a similar thread running through it.   I‘ll do the best I can to share the commonalities of that course, and then I’ll contrast “average personal trainer pay” with professional compensation

We begin our careers with passion, with enthusiasm, and with a blissful and na├»ve sense that everybody’s going to like us. We expect that as long as we do the right thing, people will recognize our virtues, and then . . . those of us who won’t settle for mediocrity, strive for excellence.  We become students at ever-higher levels of conventional and unconventional learning, and we weigh and measure the immediate and long term value of everything we study, believing that if we get better at helping people, better reward will ultimately come our way.

It’s no wonder we grow up with an expectation that “if we do for others in the best way possible, we will be praised and respected.”  In childhood the gratification is instant.  You hit a homerun, the spectators applaud and you get pats on the back and lots of congratulatory expressions.  You hit an outside shot when you’re down by one with seconds to go and you’re celebrated.  You catch the fast kid who’s all alone heading for the end zone and protect your team’s lead and you’re a hero.  You achieve, others offer praise, and it feels good.

Scholastically it’s a bit different, but not much.  You do a good job and you hope you wind up with a good grade. If you strive for excellence, you usually wind up with the grade you hope for.  After all, there is typically a right answer to each question.  You’re not subjected to opinions.  If you take a test that asks whether George Washington was the first President to walk on the moon, it’s a clear yes or no.  Know your subject and find praise.  The praise may not be as immediate or as grand as the homerun applause, but it’s probably longer lasting in its value.

Go on to college and you’re in a different ball game.  Things feel competitive.  The grading is more biased.  It’s not as easy to stand out as it was when it didn’t seem to matter that much.  In college we make life decisions, although in many cases we may be ill equipped to take such responsibility before we’re fully baked.  I believe that’s around the time that we begin to assess what we deserve.

We cannot consider “fair compensation” without developing a sense of what we really deserve.

There are two ways people choose to assess what they deserve.  The first bases itself upon what was invested, the second upon what was delivered.

It would be nice and easy if those two always aligned, what we invested and what we deliver, but life isn’t always as just and fair as we’d like it to be.  As soon as we find a modicum of success, it appears as if the whole world changes.  The applause is there, but the critics emerge.  The baseball player who hit homeruns in high school hears fans yelling “you suck” when he flies out in the majors.  If he’s going to stay in the game, he has to consider that he’s not going to be loved by everyone all of the time.   Eventually he settles in to make peace with the premise that this is his career, and it isn’t about pleasing all of the people all of time.

The family who loses a family member on the operating table will condemn the surgeon, even though he might have finished at the top of his class at Harvard.  The prosecutor with a winning record is torn apart in the newspaper when he loses a case to an overly sympathetic jury.  Professionals who opt to determine what they deserve by their investment of time, perhaps their investment of money, and the volume of effort they put forth can usually sleep well even when they are not on a celebratory platform.  Add a track record that includes some strong successes and they can justify their value, even in the incidence of less than stellar outcome.

So, if we’re going to consider professional compensation, we cannot expect that it’s purely about “doing well all of the time.”   It cannot be subject to every opinion and every affront we may run into.  If this is to be your livelihood, your source of sustenance, you cannot ensure your own financial security if you waver in your estimation of your deserved compensation.  I believe, ethically, it should be solidly based upon the value we deliver, and there’s the grandest challenge in determining “just pay.”

The physician who fails some of his patients doesn’t adjust his fees.  The lawyer who doesn’t bring the desired outcome all of the time is still compensated for his services.  Here’s the question that begs to be asked.  Did they provide their services as promised, at the desired level of agreed upon commitment, and did they do the best job they possibly could, and if so, does that in itself determine value?

Whether the fans think a player sucks or not, if he brings a crowd to the stadium, creates a winning mindset among his teammates, and delivers in line with the team’s needs, he will be compensated accordingly.  If his salary becomes public, the sportscasters will call him overpaid and criticize his performance, but what he “deserves” is between his manager, the owner, Major League Baseball, and the player.  By that token, if you work in a health club or for any independent entity that hires you as an employee, “making members happy” is not enough.  Much as the professional baseball player, you have to provide value to the entity that employs you.  A personal trainer who increases club revenues by $200,000 annually is likely going to be more valued than one who barely covers his or her own compensation, and most of the trainers who work for health clubs are disposable.  The exceptional performers who bring value to members and the facility, not only in terms of demeanor and presence, but in real dollars and cents deserve to be paid as professionals.

An independent study I conducted revealed that, in a sampling of 150 health club employed personal trainers, the average compensation is $12.50 per hour.

I’d expect you’d like to believe you deserve more than that.

I started in this field paid under $5 per hour, elevating to an independent trainer charging $15 per session.  That was 25 years ago.  From $15 I went to $35, and months later I had established my fees as $75 per hour.  When I had a full calendar and hired a staff I began charging $150 ($75 to work with my trainers).  When I wrote my first book and did my first media tour I raised my rates further, and I have never, ever, not once in my entire career, had a client who failed to find extreme value for their investment.  If I charge $350 per hour, and deliver extreme value, does that mean the average health club trainer is underpaid?  I’d have to say no.  The average health club trainer is anything but a true professional.

If you take issue with this, I understand, and while years ago your opinions might have bruised my ego, caused me to re-evaluate, please trust that every word I commit to an article is genuinely based on “the view from here.”  I’ve been slammed many times, most often by people who barely know me, sometimes by people who thought they knew me better than they did.

I remember when I ran my first full page ad for my Personal Trainer Business Forum, I received an email that said, “Phil you sold out, all you care about is money.” I read it aloud at the conference.  It revealed a flaw in the mindset that permeates our field.  It’s almost reminiscent of the “starving artist” mentality, a thought process that says we should do what we love because we love it and not for pay.  That’s certainly a noble thought, but an absurd one if it’s applied to our chosen profession.  Somehow, because I was able to teach others to earn in line with their value, an assumption was made that money was my primary focus.

About a year after the “sold out” email, I received another from a personal trainer who attended my Breakthroughs seminar with an audience of 1200 people, most of them regular people looking to better understand how to improve.  Rather than expressing anything positive about sending 1200 people . . . well . . . 1199 people back into the world empowered, the email asserted, “You like to call yourself a trainer.  If you were really a trainer you’d be on the gym floor every day, training people one-on-one.”

Then there are the things I’ve heard people say about me:

“He doesn’t care about anyone unless they’re young, fit and rich”

“He only works with older unfit people.”

“He’s all about being in the media, a walking infomercial.”

And finally, there are the dismissals.

“I’ve learned everything I can from Phil.”

Let me share some perspectives “from here.”  For the remainder of this article I’ll stick to the broad and important topic of money and compensation.  In two consecutive follow-ups, I’ll address target market, followed by my perspectives on learning.

A recent episode in my life opens the door to continue on the topic of “what is just” in terms of financial remuneration (pay).

The Pothead Turned Lawyer

I have a friend I haven’t seen in well over 25 years.  When we were 16, he was the guy who knew where to get the best weed.  I guess that was his primary “value” back then.  Through the miracle of Facebook, we reconnected, and on a recent trip I took to New York, we decided to get together and catch up.

We had a few beers at the lobby bar at the Renaissance Hotel in Times Square and laughed for hours reminiscing.  We spoke about divorce, about money, about kids, and at some point all the barriers came down.  Everything was on the table.  There’s a lot to talk about when you have a 25-year-span to cover.

I told Artie about the $250,000 debt I incurred from a legal battle gone bad, about my climb back to being solvent, and about the shifts in financial condition that caused me to find my own resilience.   He had a very different 20 years.  He embarked upon a straight course and it’s served him.  We both expressed gratitude for where we are today, but Artie told me his challenges over the past two decades were rooted in an overwhelming sense of pressure.  He suffered severe periods of depression and anxiety, but today all is good.  He charges $350 an hour as a partner in a prestigious NY law firm.

As someone who has paid attorneys far more than anyone should ever have to, the question I wanted to ask got stuck in my throat for a moment.  I finally coughed it out.  “Do you deserve it?”

There was a silence.  I suspected he was offended by the question but he appeared to be considering the best way to answer.  His voice raised up a decibel or two.

“Of course I do!  I worked my tail off for 8 years of college, then as an intern, and I worked 70 hour weeks until I finally earned my partnership.  When I started in the firm I was a slave, and I lost a good part of the enjoyment of my life because I gave this 100%.  Of course I deserve it.”

It’s interesting he didn’t say anything about the value he delivers.  I believe his assessment of what he deserves is fair.  It just isn’t the way I’m wired.  I feel good knowing I’m being paid well ONLY if I’m making a positive difference in someone’s life, only if I know I’m delivering more value than any of my clients expected.

This perspective puts me in a place where I can teach trainers, not only to strive for excellence, but to align their internal wiring that says, “we have to do the right thing,” with a true valuation of the service they deliver.

Based on the same study I referred to earlier, the average independent trainer (I only considered trainers who acknowledged submitting tax returns with personal training as their primary source of income) earned $26,750.  The average per hour fee reported was $45 (considering the “package” rate) but clearly the math suggests that isn’t the case in a 30-hour work week.

So in our field, compensation is all over the map, and despite anything the hyped up “guru” ads claim, there are only a few places on the map where $100,000+ is a reality.

I want you to think about your career, and perhaps consider a bit of re-evaluating.

Let’s go with my proposed determinant, based not on time invested, and based not on having everyone like you all of the time, but on the true value of the service you deliver.  If you change people’s lives for the better, and you are an expert with the ability to ensure your clients find extraordinary value, how much do you deserve?

Well, what are the people willing to pay?

I’ve heard some speakers at the fitness conferences use the term, “what the market will bear.”

“What the market will bear” is simply an examination of what those who have preceded you have found.  I believe it has little to do with the value you deliver.

Know this.  Most personal trainers are NOT earning the type of money you hope to, so if you do what most personal trainers do, you’ll be disappointed, frustrated, and you may wind up on a path to regret. You have to be different than most, and saying you’re different isn’t enough.

Let’s be really honest.  If you’re focusing primarily on an aesthetic, on helping someone find leanness, are you playing a role of extreme value?  You can be a fantastic adjunct, an incredible coach, and a spark that leads them to a great outcome.  How do you put a number on that?  You can consider how much people are willing to spend for liposuction, for gastric band procedures, or for absurd arrays of purported fat burning supplements, and you can easily determine that, because you’re teaching and empowering, you’re saving them from fruitless investments.   Let’s put a number on that, just for the sake of discussion.  Let’s say there’s a $75 per hour value for that service, one-on-one training aimed at helping someone reshape a healthy body.

Now let’s go a step further.  Are you looking at the person as a whole, going beyond the aesthetic?  Are you helping them alleviate back pain?  Helping them lower blood pressure, reduce risk of heart disease, and improving ease of movement?  There has to be more value in that then simply helping someone get lean, so let’s say this perspective takes you to $100 per hour ($25 more per hour in a 30 hour work week amounts to an additional $37K in a year).

Now let’s take it a step further.  Suppose you could reduce inflammation, reduce likelihood of metabolic syndrome, reverse blood sugar irregularities, and help improve endocrine function.  Stack this on top of helping with fat loss, the aesthetic want, alleviating pain, and improving movement and now we’re talking about extreme value.  Now we can consider medical costs, medication costs, health insurance costs, and the intangible cost of “feeling bad,” and the value takes on an entirely new meaning.

I reached a point where I charged $350 per hour for a consultation.  Today I charge $2425 for a program that involves 6 hours of my time over an 8 week period and I have a waiting list.  I’m not suggesting all personal trainers should charge over $300 per hour, but I am suggesting that my evolution has radically increased my value, and if the average health club trainer is earning $12.50 per hour for teaching people exercises, that trainer is in an entirely different category than I.

The question for you is, what is the true value of the service you deliver? You don’t have to do a 3-hour assessment as I do, nor do you have to collect biochemistry reports (lab tests) to evidence improvements in insulin efficiency, thyroid function, and sex hormones, and it’s perfectly OK if you want to limit your offerings to purely “fitness,” but know what you deliver and know what you honestly believe that service is worth.

Let’s look at some of the hypothetical numbers I outlined.

Average health club trainer: $12.50 per hour

Average independent trainer: $26,750 annually (reported $45 per hour fee)

Independent trainer with a track record of aesthetic improvement: $75 per hour

Independent trainer with expertise in movement patterns and biomechanics: $100 per hour

Independent trainer with ability to improve aesthetics, health, and ease of movement: $200+

So what is fair compensation?  I’ll give you “the view from here,” and leave it to you to decide.

My employees are hired at $25 per training hour with very real opportunities to increase their rates based on a multitude of factors, all playing into the “value” they deliver.  We charge $50 for in-club training, although our trainers may charge up to $125 per hour with time and development.

After a trainer works with me for 12 weeks, proves competent, and can document hard “results” data, they can raise their rates by $10 per session.  The club would then charge $60, the trainer gets $35.  As a trainer continues to grow, the “per session rate” can increase, but the club only keeps the same $25.  The lion’s share goes to the trainer who has proven valuable.

We, as the employer, provide ongoing trainer training, we maintain an exceptional facility, and we provide our trainers with benefits including medical and paid vacation.

I don’t believe any of my trainers ever found the pay sub-adequate.

For in-home training with a member of my staff I charge $75 per session, the trainer gets $50, with the same escalation opportunity with time and proven value.

I personally charge $350 for a one-hour consultation (with a money back guarantee), and then $2425 for 6 predetermined sessions over an 8-week period.

There are likely a handful of trainers who charge more than I do, and if they’re getting it, you better bet they’re delivering value.

If you wanted a simple answer, you’re not going to find it.  You have to find it within you, and then match your perceived value with the fees you collect, always being sensitive to the balance between your time and energy investment and just reward.

Complicated?  Perhaps, but shouldn’t it be?  After all, the trainer who earns $13.50 per hour doesn’t likely see the gap between what he or she does for a living and what the established mature fitness professional with an extraordinary service ability does.

Honesty will help you find your value, and if honesty proves disappointing, that’s OK.  Increasing your value is a given if you commit to an ongoing path of continued improvement.  I would safely say that when I charged $15 a session, it was difficult for me to ask for pay.  I realize now I wasn’t really confident that I was worth that much.  Today it’s simple to ask for the fees I command and deserve.

Consider your value an upward curve and you can literally write your own paychecks with diligence, adherence, commitment, and honesty.

Next to Come: Target Market – Do You Follow the Opportunities or Your Heart?

Preview: There are plenty of athletes, plenty of energetic individuals seeking physical challenge, and they offer immense reward for personal trainers who enjoy driving people toward betterment.  There is, however, a much more opportune and lucrative market, one that is more responsive than ever if you’re positioned in the right way, and this market will generate hundreds of millions of dollars over the next five years, a good portion of it being funneled into a very small segment of our industry.

And Then: On Learning – When Do We Know Enough and How Do We Navigate When the Ideal Path Is Unclear?

I not only encourage, but request feedback including perspectives that may align with or differ radically from my own.  How much are you paid?  How much are you worth?  Do the two match?  Should they?  Why?

Comment at the Bottom of the Be Better Blog Page or send an email directly to [email protected]

Note: Phil Kaplan founded the Be Better Project in 2005 to help fitness professionals elevate to find professional reward and compensation.  The Be Better curriculum runs 8 months and is only open to career-minded fitness professionals able to articulate specific desires for the future.  There are a handful of openings in the current Be Better group.  If you have interest in mastering sound and fail-proof success principles specific to personal trainers, email[email protected] with the Subject: I Want to Be Better.

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