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The Economics of Personal Training

Personal training is a growing field. According to IBISWorld research, the personal training industry grew 2.5% between 2010 and 2015. It employs 259,029 people and includes 60,704 businesses. The total revenue of the personal training industry tops $10 billion and the industry is expected to grow by 1.6% in 2015. But do personal trainers make a decent living? And are Americans getting their money’s worth? Find out here.

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Personal Training Basics

A personal trainer is someone who whips you into shape with one-on-one coaching. He or she might stay by your side while you use machines at the gym or visit you in your home to work on a customized workout routine. Some trainers specialize in a certain form of exercise like yoga or pilates, but others are generalists.

If you keep making New Years resolutions to get fit and it hasn’t happened yet, you might be wondering whether getting a personal trainer is worth a try. Or if you love fitness yourself you might be considering a career or a side hustle as a personal trainer. According to a study commissioned by the American Council on Exercise, between 2010 and 2013 the average salary of part-time personal trainers jumped 12%.

What about full-time trainers? How much do they earn? In 2012, CNN Money put the median salary of a personal trainer at $56,000, with top pay of $128,000. Not bad, considering that the median household income in America was $53,657 in 2014 according to the Census Bureau.

Keep in mind, though, that CNN’s $56,000 figure is higher than the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) findings for the 2012 median pay of personal trainers. The BLS put the annual salary at $31,720 per year, or $15.25 per hour. That hourly wage is only 25 cents higher than the minimum wage for fast food workers in New York state.

Salary isn’t the only factor that goes into making a good job, though. Another important factor is job security. Will the job of personal trainer be around for years to come? It sure looks that way. The BLS projects that the size of the personal training field will grow by 13% between 2012 and 2022. That’s right around the average growth percentage for all fields. Personal training is projected to add 33,500 jobs between 2012 and 2022.

Becoming a Personal Trainer

Do you want to be one of those 33,500 new personal trainers? The good news is that you won’t need a college degree to make it as a personal trainer, so you may even be able to skip the student loans if you’re wary of taking on debt.

In fact, you may be better off skipping an undergraduate degree in a personal training-related field. A degree in Athletic Training made CNN Money’s list of “College Degrees That Don’t Pay.” According to CNN Money, graduates with a degree in Athletic Training have a median starting pay of $32,800 and a median mid-career pay of $45,700.

Though you won’t need a BA to become a trainer, you will have some decisions to make as you launch your career in personal training. Will you work independently or be affiliated with a gym or studio? If you work out of your own home you’ll save money on overhead but sacrifice some privacy. If you travel to the homes and offices of your clients you’ll have to factor in transportation costs. And if you affiliate yourself with a gym or studio you may have to pay for that privilege.

These decisions aren’t just about finding the best fit for your personality and work style. They also affect how much you’ll make as a personal trainer. According to the National Federation of Professional Trainers, “The trainer who is just starting out and working for a large health club chain will generally be on the lower end of the range, somewhere between $10.00 – $20.00 per hour; while the trainer working on their own or in a private studio setting is much more likely to be at the high end of the range, between $35.00 – $60.00 or more an hour.”

Related Article: The Best 3 Gyms for Your Wallet

Getting Certified

The Economics of Personal Training

While a certification from an organization like the American Council on Exercise (ACE) isn’t mandatory for personal trainers, it can be an asset. ACE offers three different study programs for those who want to work toward their certificate. The Standard Program comes with a $599 price tag. The Premium Program will cost you $699 and the Premium Plus Program will cost you $799 for study materials.

According to ACE, its certified personal trainers are currently working in 83 countries. Here in the U.S., Washington, D.C., Rhode Island, Oklahoma, Kansas and Maine boast the highest annual income for ACE-certified personal trainers. ACE puts the total revenue generated by personal trainers at $7.2 billion annually.

ACE isn’t the only option for those looking for certification as a personal trainer, though. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) offers study materials for its certificate program that range in price from $135.99 to $800. A course of study with the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) will cost you between $699 and $1,999 depending on what you opt for.

Then there’s the certification exam. An ACE exam carries a price tag of $399. ACSM’s exam costs between $219 and $279, depending on how you take the exam and whether you’re a member. Anyone taking the NASM exam for personal trainer certification will pay $599. Head here for a full comparison of the three certification courses, including length of study time and accreditation information.

Think you’re too old to get certified as a personal trainer? Think again. It’s not uncommon for Americans to turn to personal training as a second career. Mid-life career changes are sending more Americans age 40 and older into personal trainer certification programs. According to a National Academy of Sports Medicine survey, the number of certified personal trainers 40 and older increased by 7% between 2012 and 2013.

Related Article: The Most Fitness-Friendly Cities in America

Big Ticket Trainers

The trainers who charge the most are – not surprisingly – the ones who work with the wealthiest clients. A recent New York Times article about the world of high-end personal trainers quoted a trainer who charges $2,000 per week (plus expenses) to travel with a client and train the client during a vacation or business trip.

According to the Times article, a personal trainer with solid qualifications who makes house calls will cost $120 to $150 an hour. If you’re a trainer who is also qualified to offer nutritional advice you can charge around $200 an hour, while those who have built a personal brand may charge $250 an hour. For contrast, the Times cited the hourly rate of a basic trainer at the fancy Equinox gym chain at $105 an hour or $92 an hour as part of a 24-session package.

As in many fields, building a personal brand can really pay off. Tracy Anderson, personal trainer to stars including Gwyneth Paltrow, has a reported net worth of $110 million. Between the gyms she owns and the sales of DVDs teaching the Tracy Anderson Method, Anderson has turned her personal training talents into big business.

Personal Trainers’ Competition

Personal trainers face some fierce competition in the fitness and wellness arena. For one thing, there are people who work out for free. A person who wants to get fit without spending a dime can follow along with YouTube videos, go for a walk or jog, head to an exercise park or just do some push-ups on the living room floor. Total cost? $0. If you live in a fitness-friendly city can be especially easy to get in shape for free.

Then there are gyms and studios. A self-directed exerciser may decide to pay for a gym membership rather than opt for a personal trainer. The average monthly cost of a gym membership is $58. That works out to $696 per year.

That may or may not be cheaper than seeing a personal trainer, depending on how much your trainer charges and how often you meet with him or her. If your trainer only charges $15 per session and you only go three times a month, hiring a trainer will be cheaper than getting a gym membership, provided you don’t also need the gym membership to have access to your chosen trainer. But if a trainer charges, say, $80, it’s easy to see how the costs of hiring a personal trainer can exceed the cost of a gym membership several times over.

Not everyone is self-directed enough to work out in the park, via YouTube videos or at the gym. Plenty of people like outside motivation of one kind or another when it comes to getting fit. It’s no wonder, then, that exercise classes are so popular.

High-prestige, big-name fitness classes have somewhat eclipsed personal training as an exercise option for those with more money to spend. For example, a single class at Barry’s Bootcamp in New York City will cost you $34. If you buy a 50-class pass and go roughly once a week, with two weeks off, you’ll pay $1,440. That’s over twice as much as the annual average cost of a gym membership, you’re limited as to how often you can go by the classes you can get in to and the program actually recommends going at least three times a week to see results. Plus, you’re not getting the personal attention you would get from a trainer. But Barry’s is hugely successful.

Why would consumers pay more money for a class than they would for one-on-one instruction, which in theory could help with meeting tailored individual fitness goals? Consumers might like the social aspect of working out at a group glass or they might enjoy the sense of belonging that certain fitness classes (SoulCycle, CrossFit) cultivate. On the other hand, they might enjoy a little more anonymity and dislike the idea of all that personal attention and correction to their form.

Saving on a Personal Trainer

The Economics of Personal Training

If you decide you want to employ a personal trainer, there are ways to save. For example, you may be charged less if you book training sessions for off-peak times, assuming your work schedule allows.

Attending a personal training session that’s done online via webcam may also be cheaper than an in-person meeting. Or, you could go semi-private and book a personal trainer to do a session with you and a few friends. This could cut down on the intensity of a one-on-one training session and be a good way to test whether working out with a trainer is right for you.

These days, it’s easier than ever to test out your fitness options. You can sign up for different exercises classes through a service like ClassPass to see what workout styles you enjoy the most.

If you live in New York and want the full boot camp experience without going to the gym, you can hire a formerly incarcerated trainer from start-up ConBody to come to your house and devise a workout system that doesn’t require any equipment – just your body weight and the furniture you already have.

The possibilities are endless, and the fitness business is booming.

 The Takeaway

Whether you’re considering hiring a personal trainer or becoming one yourself, it’s good to know how the job works and how much value the personal training industry adds to the U.S. economy. As Americans continue to struggle with obesity, heart disease and the effects of our sedentary lifestyles, it’s likely that fitness-related spending will continue to climb, whether that spending goes to personal trainers, gyms or whatever the next fitness trend may be.

Update: Do your financial questions extend beyond fitness? SmartAsset can help. So many people reached out to us looking for tax and long-term financial planning help, we started our own matching service to help you find a financial advisor. The SmartAdvisor matching tool can help you find a person to work with to meet your needs. First you’ll answer a series of questions about your situation and goals. Then the program will narrow down your options from thousands of advisors to three fiduciaries who suit your needs. You can then read their profiles to learn more about them, interview them on the phone or in person and choose who to work with in the future. This allows you to find a good fit while the program does much of the hard work for you.

Photo credit: © Chiang, ©, © Ammentorp Lund

Amelia Josephson Amelia Josephson is a writer passionate about covering financial literacy topics. Her areas of expertise include retirement and home buying. Amelia's work has appeared across the web, including on AOL, CBS News and The Simple Dollar. She holds degrees from Columbia and Oxford. Originally from Alaska, Amelia now calls Brooklyn home.
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