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The 3 Biggest Mistakes I Made as a Personal Trainer

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How to Work Smarter, not Harder

We are FINALLY at the finish line—today, I’m going to conclude my 3-part blog series on the origins of my business. (Click through for Part 1: How I Failed My Way to Success and Part 2: 4 Unexpected Ways to Be a Successful Trainer)

By way of giving a brief refresher, the main thing to remember was that I had decided to make more money, and realized I had no real plan for doing that.  Further to that, I only had a vague idea of why I was as successful as I was.

As I mentioned in those posts, I built a large following and made a good living almost accidentally, simply because I happen to have a few personality traits that translated well to running a service-oriented business—personality plays, and when you’re working with people, it plays heavily.

Anyway, one day I decided to start treating my business like a business, and to make more money.

But I didn’t much know how to do that because I didn’t have a firm grasp on business principles, how I wanted my life to look, or even how to identify the things I was doing right.

Since I had figured that to some extent, whatever I was doing was working, the only logical thing was to do MORE of what I was doing.  As it turns out, this can be (and was) effective, but with the benefit of hindsight I can see the glaring mistakes I made and how I could have done it different.

And so, without further delay, here are my Top Three mistakes.

1. Not Taking the Time to Examine the Relationship Between Time and Dollars

WHAT I DID:

When I decided that I wanted to make more money, I did what seemed like the logical thing: I just worked more.

At the time of the Great Realization, my hours of operation were from 8am to 7pm.  My first client was at 8, and then I was pretty booked (with some breaks in the 2-4pm “dead zone,” when I would take the time to work out) and my last client would start at 6pm.  I’d finish at 7, do cardio, and go home.

My life would start at 7:30.  I’d go to bed at around 12, giving me 4.5 hours to read, have dinner, and hang out.

After the decision to make more and work more, I expanded my hours to 6am to 8pm—and filled those spots immediately. This meant I’d get to the gym at 5:50 for my 6am client, and would be booked pretty much all day (again, with a break in the dead zone).  Now, my last client started at 7, I’d finish at 8, do cardio and head home.

My life started at 8:30, but because of the earlier days I was going to bed by 10:30.

So I signed up for 15 extra hours of work and cut my free time down by 50%.

(That’s just stupid.)

But here’s the thing you have to remember: I come from blue collar, middle class, Mediterranean-imported stock. I grew up on stories of my one grandfather working as a telephone operator and moonlighting as a cab driver, and another putting in 80 hours a week in a contracting business.

So, when I voluntarily decided to work a 14-hour day, that decision doing seemed positively normal.

The reality was, my perception of “normal” allowed me to get in my own way.  I mentioned in my last post that I simply DON’T have a problem with hard work or long hours.

Well, a good work ethic is a blessing in most regards, but it’s a double-edged sword if you are working on the wrong thing or in the wrong way.

This is a huge one, and I really hope most of you avoid it.

I want you all to know I truly believe in working hard, but I eventually came to believe in working smart.

WHAT I SHOULD HAVE DONE:

Looking back, I realize now that money wasn’t really objective—success was my objective, and money was simply the only metric I considered when trying to measure and quantify that success.

Now, I look at things much differently, and I realize that my definition of success, in a lot of ways, is directly related to my ability to enjoy it.  So, while I wanted to make more money, I don’t think I wanted to make it at the extent of so much time.

I was charging 70 per hour at that point, and training about 9 hours per day, or ~40 hours per week.  That was grossing me 2800, and after paying my rent, I was netting 2500.  (Of course, a portion of that was earmarked for taxes and all that).

I wanted to increase my weekly revenue, so the move was to increase hours to the point where I could train 50 hours per week.  I did that, and was then making 3500 (netting 3000), effectively making 20% more money.

What I should have done was increased my rates to 80 for existing clients, and 90 for incoming clients.

Assuming I lost even 10% of my current clients because of the increase, I’d still be training 36 hours per week, I’d still be making more money without any increase in hours.  IN FACT, I’d be working less hours.  My gross would have been 2880 and my take home would have been 2520.

At the time I would have felt weird or bad about that, but now I realize that your clients get invested in you, and don’t mind investing in your business.  Many blogs that teach fitness professionals how to make more money have great systems for teaching you to painlessly raise your rates with very little drop off.

Without any expansion in hours, I could have then taking on new clients at 90 per session for the remaining 4 hours (and the waiting list was long enough to guarantee this), brining another 360 gross/320 net into my weekly income.

This would mean I would have been grossing 3240 and netting 2840.

Even if I had been smart enough to reason all of this out, I still would have been dumb enough to point out that in the 50 sessions per week model, I was netting 3000.  I hope you’re all smart enough to see that it’s not a good plan to work increase your workload by 20% just to increase your income by 5%.  The math isn’t there—especially when you’re reducing your free time by 50%!

The best part is that even if I didn’t take on any new clients at 90, just by raising my rates to 80 I’d be making more with less work.

Now that I’m in a business that involves sales and marketing quite a bit more, we look at this in terms of “conversion” vs. “performance.” When you raise the price, you may not sell as many units, so you’re “converting” less leads into customers.  However, at a certain point, your higher price point will “out-perform” the lower one, which means that you’ll make more money with fewer sales.

This is exactly what I should have done, which would have allowed me the money I wanted to make without working too much.  Had I done this, I could have expanded my hours just a tad, continued raising my rate until I saw too much drop off, and increased my income by as much as 40% without a lot of trouble.

The Takeaway:

I mentioned earlier that all I knew was that I wanted to be more successful, and to me, that meant making more money.

Now, I don’t think I would have any such delusions.  Money is nice, but to be honest, I do not find it that interesting or really that motivating.  I was making enough to live a lifestyle that I enjoyed, but I wasn’t enjoying it enough.

After reading Tim Ferriss’s The Four Hour Workweek, I could really relate to a lot of what he said regarding designing your lifestyle.  Opting to work 14-hour days just to make extra income didn’t leave me with a lot of time to do much else.

So, solution was clearly not to work a bunch of extra hours and limit my ability to enjoy myself.  Instead, I should have found ways to bring the income up and the hours down.

2. Doing Everything MYSELF, Or Not Doing It At All

WHAT I DID:

The second mistake I made has a lot to do with not seeing opportunities, or understanding that there are other ways to run a business than just being a one-man-show.

As I mentioned, I was an incredibly busy trainer and usually had a waiting list at least 15 people deep.  Even when I increased my hours of availability and filled those slots, I still had tons of people waiting.

However, I never wanted to be the type of guy that made people wait for results—if someone wants to train and get healthy, I didn’t want them to have to wait because I was busy.

So, I got into the habit of interviewing the people I couldn’t take on as clients, and then recommending a trainer who I though was a good fit for them.

That’s it.  Just, “oh, you should see if you can work with Anthony, I think he’d be the perfect fit for you.”  And that was that.

Big mistake.  I left TONS of money on the table, and really wasn’t being fair to myself.

I had built my reputation to the extent that the gym I worked out of was known for its personal training—the place was a destination, mainly because of my hard work; in fairness, I deserved to be paid for that.

I just didn’t know how to do it.

WHAT I SHOULD HAVE DONE:

With the experience I have now in terms of talking to people, dealing with employees, and affiliate marketing, I would do things much differently.

What I should have done was offered trainers (those I thought were good enough) to work under the umbrella of Roman Fitness Systems.  The way I’d work it now is sort of like an affiliate program.

In exchange for working “for” me—which really just means being associated with my brand—trainers would be set up with some of the runoff clientele that I was unable to take on.

They could determine their rates, but I’d encourage them to match mine or for 5 bucks below me.  In exchange, I would take 20 per session for the first 3 months, then 10 per session for the next 3 months.  After 6 months the client belongs completely to the trainer and he keeps 100%.

This allows me to make money without being unfair to the trainer, and allows the trainer to pick up new clients, building his business and getting the benefit of my association.

It would have been a great system that would allow me to make a great deal of money during the peak hours of operation, instead of turning clients away.

As my business and reputation continued to grow, we’d all make more money.

The Takeaway:

The bottom line is that when you’re great and the word of mouth leads to an overflow, you often have to be willing to take on help.  It’s either that or miss out on the client entirely.

In my case, it was just inexperience—I didn’t realize that when you’re a draw, you should make money on your reputation and referral.  Now, I’d have 2-3 trainers working for me and everyone would be doing well.

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3. Waiting Too Long to Offer Other Types of Training

WHAT I DID:

For nearly the entirety of my training career (at least when training in gyms was the bulk of it), I did 1-on-1 training for 60 minutes. I did this exclusively from the time I was 19 until I was about 25.  At that point I started offering 30-minute sessions.

I didn’t offer semi-private training until the year that I was pretty much shutting down 80% of my training.

This was unwise, and I could have made more money.

WHAT I SHOULD HAVE DONE:

Well, first and foremost, I shouldn’t have waited so long to offer 30-minute sessions.  These eventually came to be my bread and butter, and I enjoyed them quite a bit more.

30-minute sessions have a number of advantages: 

  • You make more on a minute-per-minute and therefore hourly basis.  Instead charging 80 for 60 minutes, you can charge 45 for 30 minutes.  Your hourly earning went up 10 bucks.
  • Because of the lower price point, you have a greater overall penetration rate and higher conversions.  If your philosophy and business model is that you encourage clients to train twice per week, 160 per week can be a bit of a turn off for some people.  However, 90 per week might be in their wheelhouse.  You’ll probably pick up more clients overall and make more money on each one.
  • Losing a client hurts less.  Now, I hate to break a client down into a number, but for the purposes of this convo it helps.  If you’re doing mostly 60 minute sessions, then each client is “worth” 160-240 per week to you, depending on how often you train.Once, fairly early into my career, I lost three clients within two weeks—two trained three times per week and the other trained twice per week.  So, I lost 8 sessions per week at 70 per session, meaning my gross income dropped 560 per week and my net dropped 480.This hurt.  At the time it happened, I was busy, but trying to figure out an income drop of 2k per month is a stressful thing.When I started gearing my training business to be made up of about 65% half hour sessions, I would take great comfort in the fact that while I loved all of my clients and wanted to take care of them, if any one left it would be a much smaller dent in the whole operation.

The one draw back of shorter sessions is obviously less time.  So, you don’t gab as much (a fun part of the training) and you have to structure things differently.  Doesn’t work well for muscle building, but for fat loss, it’s ideal.  You just have to be really strict with your clients showing up early to foam roll and all that.

Anyway, I would have offered these from day one, and probably would have made quite a bit more money.

The next thing to discuss is semi-private training.

There’s this idea in a lot of people’s minds that you need to have the complete attention of a trainer or that you somehow have to be in the hands of a professional.

Alwyn Cosgrove tells a story about his cancer rehab and mentions that 20-30 people groups of patients were under the care of a single doctor. Cressey uses the example of professional and collegiate sports teams—50-60 athletes are being managed by just 2-3 coaches.

And yet, when people walk in a gym they assume that THEY need a trainer to work with JUST them.

The bottom line is, none of us are that special, and can really work in a group quite well.

The Takeaway:

By offering different types of training, you can tailor the experience of the client to what they want.

Half hour sessions allow you to work with people who can’t or don’t want to spend as much money, and these sessions protect you financially.

Group sessions of 2-3 clients allow a trainer to put people with similar goals and experience levels together, and it’s amazing what happens.  Clients pay less and get more, because they feed off each other, encouraging one another and picking each other up.

Plus, trainers make more, because allowing 4 clients to pay 50% less than your “standard” 1-on-1 rates still nets you twice the money.

In the long run, you offer a more versatile service and can make more money, which in turn will allow you to work less and maintain your income level.

Closing Thoughts

Over the course of my career, I had to learn a lot of things, and it seems that although I didn’t necessarily learn them the hard way, I did learn them way later than I should.  Had I learned these things sooner, I would have been able to grow my income, and perhaps bring more attention to my business.  It’s possible that this would have prompted me to make the online transition earlier.  It’s also possible that it would have made the transition easier.

While I’m certainly happy with the way everything turned out, and I have no complaints about where I am in my business, it pains me to think of the fact that I worked hard and long instead of smart and strong.

However, I value the experience a lot and, in the end, if you learn from mistakes, you’re ahead of the game.

Thanks for reading, and for allowing me to diversify this blog.

SO! I’d like to hear YOUR thoughts on my top 3 business mistakes as a personal trainer.  I want 50 COMMENTS here – questions, insights are fair game.  And please let me know how I can help you in YOUR business or YOUR fitness goals.

About the Author

John Romaniello is a level 70 orc wizard who spends his days lifting heavy shit and his nights fighting crime. When not doing that, he serves as the Chief Bro King of the Roman Empire and Executive Editor here on RFS. You can read his articles here, and rants on Facebook.

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  • Ian

    Although this post is from years ago I’d be curious about what your packaging was for personal training sessions. Did you sell packages of 10, 20, 30 sessions? And if a client bought more sessions did they get a discount as an incentive? Did this apply to group sessions? I’m wondering because it seems that the bookkeeping could get a bit cumbersome, unless of course you always had a flat price regardless of sessions purchased.

  • chad e

    Real good post.Thanks for sharing.Also your post about the cave was wicked awesome.I’m not a huge gamer,but can totally relate.Old school wrestling was one of mine.

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  •  I love that post! It is so true! I am thinking on doing the same thing! I’ve done the same mistakes as yours, and I am starting realizing them. I know it will be a long way to fix it but I think that everybody who wants to have his own business should realize this as soon as possible! Great post!

    Ines

  • What a great blog! I have been in the business for 8 years, and I love what I do, but i'm always looking to do it better, and make more money. I am doing fitness business courses, but your blog has summed up what a lot of business people take a lot longer to explain. Have you thought about starting a separate business, training trainers work smarter and not harder? Again, great blog. Keep up the good work

    Derek

  • This is solid advice. This is the difference between a shopkeeper and an entrepreneur. Most small business owners never discover these “secrets” that you just gave away for free.

  • Stacia

    Roman, I thoroughly enjoy your blogs and this was no different even if the subject matter deviated from the norm. Thank you for sharing some great ideas. I need to diversify and offering the option of shorter sessions may help to bring in people who cannot(or will not) invest in what I currenty offer.

  • Awesome! Good luck and let me know how i can help!

  • Thanks so much man. Alwyn is next level. If I can help ONE person in business even 10% of how much he's helped me, I'll consider myself a success.

  • I do my online coaching entirely through email. Sometimes through phone. It works really well, but you need to be pretty dedicated to it.

  • Terence

    Great post. I'll have my personal training cert in a few months, this gives me guidlines to follow

  • Jen

    Thanks for sharing your experiences! It's always interesting to see/read how other trainers developed their businesses.

    Best,

    Jen

  • Awesome content once again Roman! Great info, I am going to take a lot of this and present it to the owners at my gym! I am sensing some good potential here, thanks a lot!

  • Jennifer Kraft

    Thank you for sharing your successes and also your mistakes with all of us. Humility goes a long way, especially in this business! I am hoping the shorter training sessions will work for my clients with children. Thank you for a great blog….it was great reading. Best, j

  • Hey, Roman, this was really a great post. I'm not a trainer like you, but I am a life coach with an interest in fitness. While I put in some good hours at the gym, they are for me. I learned a few things that I can use to further develop my business even though it doesn't focus on physical coaching. I think I'm going to see who I can network with. You know healthy mind in a healthy body is a good thing. Thanks for posting these lessons!

  • jacky

    thank you a lot's for your hindsight about how to work smarter not harder… I am starting to be a personal trainer and I will take on board your advises and build my business at the best of my ability….thanks again JACKY from New-Zealand

  • Marie

    One word: Awesome (with a capital A).

  • Alex Guillien

    Awesome post Roman. This portion of three mistakes particularly in my mind are very simple but when you are in the meat of what you are doing and doing it well, it's difficult to change. You said it yourself, you were making enough money and working long and hard hours was something engrained in your psyche. The lesson I took away was to analyze situations when problems arise objectively. You lost those clients and were down 540 but changing it to 30 minute sessions would have been a great way to flip the switch right away. Great to read a fellow man's perspective on success and the up's and down's associated.

  • Cathy

    Great post Roman. Although I'm not currently a personal trainer, the business advice you have given is helpful to me in my field and I appreciate it!

  • Roman, thanks so much for sharing about the lessons you've learned. I, too, have had the same ones with my business, and it's nice to know I am not alone in my quest (which is similar to yours, I imagine)! Awesome post, awesome blog – keep 'em coming, please!

  • irene

    i can appreciate your analyzation of your business practices. my husband recently purchased an automotive repair shop and has many sleepless nights figuring out how to expand his bottom line. good luck and may you have continued success!

  • Daniel Wallen

    This series has been very helpful. Thanks, man.

    I second Andrew's question: online training is something I have been pondering as a secondary source of income and an already-friendly trainer friend suggested using Skype when I mentioned it to him. Do you have any thoughts on this?

  • Great series. How can you help me? Well, outside of getting me on the fast track to a writing job in the industry, and posts dealing with tips for getting published would help.

  • It's been really cool reading about how you got started, and also heartening to read about your success in SPITE of not being as money hungry as you could have been.

    Roman, what are your thoughts on online coaching, through Skype or similar?

  • Rocky

    I know you credit alot of success to your personality but you had to of been getting crazy results with your clients to be that backed up with clients.. and that's Awesome!

    what'd you read/study/do to be soo good at what you do?

    any book reccomendations or somethin of the like would be very much appreciated =)

  • Leo

    Although not a coach (and not planning to be one, for now), reading your business series has given me a wider perspective of fitness & business. I've always thought that I needed the complete attention of a trainer in order to be successful in the gym. Your blog posts and online coaching have taught me otherwise! Thanks for the awesome posts, and sharing your knowledge.

  • Revised:

    Loved this series! I will be completing my CFT from ISSA this week and this series especially this last episode has given me so much to think about! Love your work and hope to see something soon about programming for beginning clients.

  • Loved this series! I will be completing my CFT from ISSA this week and this series especially this last episode! Love your work and hope to see something soon about has given me so much to think about programming for beginning clients.

  • Chris

    Roman you mention different pricing for half hour sessions – so you think it would be good to charge more for a than half your hourly rate for a 30 minute session? E.g. 70 for an hour but 40 for 30 minutes.

    Just want to clarify here on this. I can see people asking me why it costs more for a half hour session. I used to do a lot of 1/2 hour sessions, but then began pushing more full hours. Your post has made me consider going back.

  • Kyle

    GREAT one today Roman (not like it isn't everytime), but this one REALLY hit home. I have made the mistake of working more lately, insteasd of smart. Thanks for the insight as always!

  • Josh

    Is there a place where a person (say myself) could get a sample type 30 minute workout? I would really be interested in how you structured these sessions.

    Did you make use of circuit training? Density training? Basic supersets with little rest? Giant sets? All of the above?

    Any info on that would be appreciated. Thanks if you get around to answering this.

  • Mary

    So disappointed in the Clothing Thoughts, was expecting you to point out some of the fashion mistakes you made along the way! ;-)

    Seriously, this is a great posting and answered a lot of the questions I had after blog post #2.

    Thanks so much for sharing; it is through our mistakes that we learn the most. Now your readers have the advantage of learning through your experience, so you've just added another dimension to your practice!

  • Dan

    Great stuff!

    I loved this series. You should write more business posts every now and then as you chug out more fitness posts!

    Two questions, now that you basically explained everything. Knowing you, you've read quite a few non fitness books for your business. What business books would you read if you had to start all over again?

    Also, what other books would you read? Like networking, coaching, psychology. Stuff like that.

    Thanks!

  • Posts like this, and Cosgrove's really help me out. I'm just starting out and it really helps to see what others have done and how they are evolving. Thanks for the info Brah and keep hustlin.

  • Joe

    Should Clothing Thoughts be “Closing Thoughts”? Or am I missing something?