Fair Personal Trainer Compensation Ideas Vary in the Fitness Industry

Personal trainers and group exercise instructors account for the majority of jobs in the fitness industry —59 percent, according to 2013 data from the American Council on Exercise (ACE)— and the ways in which trainers are compensated continues to vary.

“We get a lot of fitness professionals asking us what’s normal to get paid,” Anthony Wall, director of professional education, ACE, told Club Industry.

Although the average full-time personal trainer’s salary did not increase from 2010 to 2013, part-time personal trainers reported an average of 12 percent more income in those three years. Part-time group exercise instructors, by contrast, did not show an increase from 2010 to 2013.

Although personal trainers like seeing the ACE survey, the average often doesn’t apply for people on the East Coast or West Coast, Wall said. The survey’s 2013 numbers (the latest data available from ACE) reveal the greatest salary increase took place in the Southeast and Southwest, with average hourly incomes of $27 and $28, respectively.

”If you don’t live in the average area, [you could be] earning more or less,” he said. “A family of four living in New York City is very different.”

How Trainers Are Paid

Most personal trainers earn more doing group personal training than one-on-one training, and the trainers at Franco's Athletic Club in Mandeville, Louisiana, are no exception, said Emily Ruffino, fitness director. Small group training sessions yield a higher commission because each person is paying a flat hourly fee of about $30, Ruffino said.

“If the trainer chooses to train only one-on-one sessions, their pay reflects that, which means they do not live a lavish lifestyle but are still able to make ends meet,” she said.

Ruffino has three full-time trainers, who receive health insurance, a 401(K), dental insurance, and free club membership and discounts. Her 20 part-time trainers earn an increased percentage based on education and experience. For example, someone who has worked at Franco’s for three or more years, has two personal training certifications as well as a college degree in a related field can go from earning 52 percent per session (the lowest pay) up to the cap of 70 percent.

However, most of the part-time trainers work at a 52 percent commission rate and average $25 to $35 an hour. Those are paid commission only, with no base hourly, Ruffino said.

Wall said benefits packages for trainers have in fact increased over the last decade.

“The labor market is tighter now, and you want to retain your staff longer,” he said. “If they are more successful and stay longer, your membership will stay longer and be more successful, too.” 

The ACE survey released this summer shows that 5 percent of part-time personal trainers reported receiving full benefits, while 6 percent reported partial benefits. Seventeen percent of full-time ACE survey respondents said they have benefits.

Five-year-old Mark Fisher Fitness, New York City, offers semi-private training and group exercise classes. Owner Mark Fisher pays his three part-time trainers an hourly rate for teaching classes. The hourly rate varies based on how long the trainer has been employed there. Semiprivate training is paid based on the number of clients who show up. His 10 full-time trainers are salaried because they help with other work, such as administrative tasks.

“It’s an interesting model; even for me, I go back and forth on it,” Fisher said. “I almost put everyone on salary this year, but the trainers don’t want that because if there’s a risk-return, they stand to make more on that hourly rate.”

At MZR Fitness, San Luis Obispo, California, owner Mike Z. Robinson’s trainers with four or fewer years of experience get a 70 percent/30 percent split. With more than four years, it’s 60 percent/40 percent, while trainers with a decade or more under their belts come in at 50 percent/50 percent. Of Robinson’s three full-time head trainers, only one is at 50/50, and the other two earn 60 percent/40 percent. Their average salaries range from $48,000 to $66,000, he said.

“We pay more than other gyms in the area and that was something I consciously wanted to do,” Robinson said. “As an owner, you never want to be too greedy, and remember that you can never get far without your team.”

Robinson’s full-time trainers are salaried and have health, vision and dental benefits, plus responsibilities beyond training clients, such as helping with marketing and aiding newer trainers. MZR Fitness’ four part-timers are paid hourly. Robinson says offering benefits boosts employee loyalty.

“We want them to feel invested in the success of the business,” he said. “We get tons of applications per week; if I wanted, I could have 60 trainers working here.”

Fisher does not offer benefits to his part-time employees, but “they have total control of their schedule, and they don’t owe us any availability,” he said, adding that there has been “virtually no turnover” on his training team. Full-time employees receive health, vision and dental insurance; a 401(K); a pre-tax Metrocard; and an education stipend.

Robinson’s part-timers tend to “come and go” at the rate of four to eight a year, but he added that his gym just had its six-year anniversary and his full-time trainers have all been there a few years or more.

Club owners who offer continuing education stand apart from gym owners who do not, Wall said.

“It works best to create growth opportunities and encourage people to reach certain goals,” Wall said. “If the club gets less of a split, I may get less of the cut, but I am getting more from him or her in terms of allegiance, buy-in, integrity.”

Trainers who have designs on earning more may want to advocate for themselves by way of asking his or her employer to foot the bill for continuing education.

“When the education is paid by the gym, they feel the organization believes in them.” Wall said. “On the flip side, many clubs don’t want to spend the money in case the person leaves soon after.”

Ways to Move Up

The ACE survey reports that 75 percent of personal trainers hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, and 52 percent of respondents said an advanced certification has allowed them to earn $1 to $2 more per hour. 

“If you have some sort of advanced credential and can demonstrate increased knowledge, that’s an advantage to you from a monetary perspective,” Wall said.

Robinson said his trainers are happy, and “some of them make more than enough,” despite the idyllic college town’s high cost of living. Two of his part-time trainers have other part-time jobs; one is a teacher at nearby California Polytechnic State University. He also has some employees who run boot camps for marketing exposure.

Fisher, for whom 65 to 70 percent of his expenses are payroll-based, said some of his trainers do health coaching on the side. He said he does not fear the day when one of his trainers starts his or her own business.

“I’m cool knowing that some of them will want to go and run their own space,” Fisher said. “I know there are financial limits as an employee.”

The ACE survey, conducted online, went out to just over 3,200 fitness professionals. More than half of those professionals have at least 10 years of experience. The length of their training careers was not surprising to Wall.

“That certainly speaks to the value of the position and that you can have it for a long time,” Wall said. “The question is often asked of us, ‘Can we make a living doing this?’ The answer is ‘absolutely.’”