You Are Never Too Good To Work in a Commercial Gym
I’m still in London at the moment.1 I’ve been having a blast taking in the sights and hanging out with my wife and little man. I’ve done zero writing.
Fret not. I coaxed another friend of mine – with a handmade coupon for a redeemable tickle fight – to write a guest post for the site while I’m away.
Kevin Mullins nailed this one. Couldn’t agree more with what he has to say.
The fitness industry is rife with opportunity these days.
It seems that anyone with an interest in health and wellness, human performance, or aesthetics is a personal trainer. The qualifications are just as diverse with individuals having degrees in kinesiology and nutrition or certifications in personal training, strength and conditioning, or bathroom lighting management.
It seems that the industry is expanding upwards and outwards at an exponential rate each year.
This landscape of opportunity is both thrilling and concerning as the fitness industry has become a sort of “Wild West”.
On one hand, every day thousands of people begin studying for their personal training certification, converting their Instagram profile into a business, and launch transformation groups for low introductory rates.
The addition of online training has surely changed the game as so many fitness professionals have never trained an in-person session.
In a similar manner, thousands of talented minds who have acquired multiple degrees and certifications in the field pour into the workforce each year – all looking for the same things.
Determined that they are “above-the-fray” these educated individuals apply only to small facilities owned by the top coaches, become interns for universities, or begrudgingly accept jobs at a local gym until they get found. The lure of the strength and conditioning arena, in addition to working at exclusive locations, convinces an entire population that there are no other options.
And holding steadfast and steady remains commercial fitness.
Oh yes, that commercial fitness – the dreadful, evil corporations that employ trainers by the dozens and just throw them onto the gym floor with an iPad and biceps veins in search of profits.
These are the brands that hire you because you look the part, are willing to be taught, and can work the early mornings and late nights.
The hours spent training for a commercial brand nets a trainer invaluable experience in programming, problem solving, sales, and patience.
If you can build a business that persists for years on end while employed with a commercial brand, then you are certainly capable of doing your own thing, applying to an “elite” facility, or interning for your favorite sport.
The workload that you must have to meet standards and pay your bills is exhausting, but invaluable as your work ethic develops at an exponential rate. Each facility like a proving ground where the challenges range from the complexity of a special populations client to the arrogance of a client who no-shows and still wants their sessions in their account.
It’s also the very same commercial fitness that gets disrespected when you submit for publication, an opportunity to speak at a conference, or work side-by-side one of the industry “legends”.
It’s the arena where no matter how incredible you are at your job there is always someone who thinks “well, if you were any good you’d just open your own spot”. It seems that you can only be great at your job if you are doing your own thing – as if being a business owner is a desire of all who join the field.
Plain and simple, commercial fitness is hard.
And it demands respect from new trainers and industry legends a like.
Far too many people look past it and its merits as though being a personal trainer for a commercial brand is the worst thing that could happen to your career.
Hint: It isn’t and here is why:
Generalist Before Specialist
Working the last seven years for two lifestyle fitness brands, Sports Club LA and Equinox, I’ve literally trained everyone.
Congressmen, pregnant women, young students at George Washington University, budding high-school athletes, retired old ladies with scoliosis, retired old men with multiple sclerosis, young guys with poor posture and no legs, CEOs who master everything I teach them, and the run-of-the-mill “I just don’t want to be fat” person. From disability to amazing ability, I’ve seen clients all along the spectrum.
And it taught me that you must be good at everything before you can become incredible at something specific.
If you would have poked at me when I was graduating college and asked who I wanted to coach, then you would have heard “I want to be a baseball strength and conditioning coach”. I still do today, but I’m so happy I wasn’t given an opportunity to be one early in my career because I would have bobbled that chance like a barehanded double play exchange.
It wasn’t because I was dumb – I had just graduated from University of Maryland with a degree in Kinesiology, had obtained my USAW level 1 and a personal training certification in one summer, and had spent time learning directly from some great coaches. I would have failed because I had never trained anyone, experienced the gut-wrenching moment when you over-program someone and get them hurt, or learned what personal training actually is.
See, commercial fitness and its wide variety of clients help you isolate which variables in the fitness spectrum matter and which ones don’t.
Calculating a geriatric client’s one rep max doesn’t cross my mind, nor does a push up repetition test.
You want to know what does?
Assessing their hip and ankle mobility, lower-back strength, and posture. So too does strengthening their posterior chain, moving them in three-dimensional space, and accounting for the challenges of falling well, and getting back up correctly.
But, tell a young trainer who wants to start his own gym at 22 that he needs time to learn how to train and you’ll be met with a list of qualifications, their body fat percentage, and some pseudo-motivational quote about how Einstein found the theory of Relativity at age 26. I love the fire, but we need to learn to control the flame.
And that is where the experience of training people of all ages, sizes, goal-types, physical conditions, and viewpoints on Michael Jackson’s contribution to music is critical.
You must be able to train the person in front of you and not force the person into your program. You can’t even be “specific” if you don’t know what is general in the first place. Thus, the greatest gift commercial fitness provides a good trainer is the ability to shape-shift programs to the unique aspects of the unique individuals you are presented with.
Hard Hours and Rapid Experience
In the gym by 5:30am and out by 9pm – that was my life for the last eight years (I’ve recently limited my evenings to only two nights per week). The alarm clock goes off five minutes after you set it, or so it feels as your days turn to nights and nights to mornings before you do it. Each morning a series of three or four people in a row, with no breaks, and a night schedule that isn’t much different.
Sure, you get the middle of your days to workout, study, take a nap, binge Netflix, and generally live your life while everyone else is at work.
But you work when others don’t.
You often bill five or six hours before noon – an incredible realization at times. Your meal schedules are all jacked up and you have no idea of what shows other people watch at night because you’re still at the gym training.
But that is what is so amazing about commercial fitness.
If you are good at your job and you are capable of building, and maintaining, a client base, then you’ll undoubtedly work these absurd hours. While it is absolutely exhausting, and at times nauseating, this schedule builds character, work ethic, and hours of experience in quick fashion.
In my nine years of fitness I’ve done roughly fifteen thousand one-on-one sessions, a few thousand group fitness classes, and have taught a couple hundred hours of lectures in-house.
Point of that last sentence – is that I’ve worked a lot over the years and that experience is now invaluable as I teach other trainers, write text like this, and coach my clients on what works and what doesn’t. This is how it works at commercial fitness facilities – you grind and grind until you either burn out, get promoted into management, leave to do your own thing, or go back to school.
I know coaches with double my experience who still show up everyday and deliver amazing work.
So, if you are new to the industry – full of energy and hope, then it is imperative that you spend time working these hours. First to build your work ethic, but then to build your bank of training assets. Only weeks of thirty or forty sessions can help you refine your craft so quickly. Success in personal training is so dose dependent, for the trainer and the client, it is absurd.
A great trainer from a commercial gym knows what a real workday feels like, has been humbled by the stress of meeting standards, has thought about leaving to do something else at least hundred times, and knows that squatting on a BOSU ball is as useful as cooking in a freezer. All of this is invaluable.
Group Vetting and Growth
Working alone, at least in your early years, is one of the worst things that could happen to your career.
While you may be proud of your independence and feel empowered by business acumen – you will not get better as a trainer until you’ve had other trainers see you in action. For one, knowing other people are around keeps you from doing dumb shit that has no place in a training session. But secondly, and more appropriately, the camaraderie of a fitness club allows for healthy discussion on a variety of topics and methods.
I remember my early years well.
I was loud (still am), always trying to do things in the front of the gym and trying to find the most spectacular way of doing things possible. I wanted the members of the club, my peers, and the world at-large to know that I was there to train, and it was going to be awesome. Except this behavior caught the attention of some veterans who pulled me to the side and metaphorically slapped me back into reality. I still look up to these people as mentors no matter how much I’ve accomplished since those days.
Being in a commercial setting means you aren’t in a bubble and someone can observe you at all times (both members and trainers alike). This responsibility makes you pause when you program and ensure you are doing the right thing.
Moreover, knowing eyes are on you should make you pay extra attention while your client is moving. You’ll focus on cueing instead of counting and cheering them on. You should be adjusting and only programming movements that make sense for the individual in front of you.
Throwing burpees at the fifty-year-old lady who just wants to lose a few pounds and feel better when she wakes up?
Well, this isn’t going to go well for you when I see you around the desk later. Want to let your client deadlift two plates with a spine that looks like an egg? That’s cool – we’ll talk about it during the next meeting and make you own your suck in front of everyone.
Afraid to coach harder exercises because you don’t quite understand what you are doing and fear hurting someone? No worries, we’ll sit down and discuss the biomechanics and then workout together to make sure you got it down.
See, it does take a village and every trainer should experience the phenomenon of the group vetting process. If you are great at what you do, then you’ll have no issues, but if you are not – you’ll know about it and quick.
Emphasis on Training
The final point emphasizes how different being a trainer is from being a business person. The two can absolutely overlap, but one does not make the other better inherently.
This fact is why many great coaches have business minds involved, or partnered with them, in their endeavors. Just because you can coach the shit out of a deadlift doesn’t mean you can manage the books, design a successful marketing plan, and maintain inventory of your toilet supplies well.
Being a business owner is admirable and a goal of many coaches out there. Yet, being a business owner does not mean you are a great trainer. How many people are out there making stupid amounts of money selling lies and poop-on-a-stick? Those folks are great business people but horrid trainers.
So, with that said, one of the perks of working in commercial fitness is that your focus is on training first and foremost. Sure, you need to manage your clients and stay on-top of their billing and session counts, but you aren’t paying the electric bill, dealing with equipment maintenance, and handling new member acquisition. You aren’t figuring out how to pay debts, pay yourself, and have enough left over for growth. Instead, you wake up and put on your pants and train your ass off until you can take them off.
Which is perfect for those formative years where you need to learn how to train.
In time you’ll find yourself asking managers for a better look at the big picture or sitting in on meetings that discuss profit margins and retention. You can read the works of Pat Rigsby or spend a day interning for guys like Tony – where you are a fly on the wall and simply watch how a trainer runs a business.
But, when you have a few hundred hours of training experience you need more training experience…not your own spot.
A Message to the Top
I think it is important for some of the coaches who do the lecture tours and the brands that host them to realize that being a commercial trainer isn’t a kiss of death. You aren’t less than someone who runs their own business just because you don’t want a mountain of debt. You can be an incredible strength and conditioning coach even if you aren’t being paid in T-shirts and light beer at a division II school.
Sure, there are some “not-so-good” characters at every gym that are doing the unthinkable. Yes, commercial fitness can make trainers care more about session quantity over quality. And of course, there are way more divas and ego-lifters flexing in the mirrors of these gyms then there are SC coaches or business owners.
But, it isn’t a wasteland.
I’d argue that the advent of online training brings greater concern than commercial fitness when we factor in that no one is overseeing the actions, or programs, that are being implemented. That doesn’t mean online trainers are bad, or that training online is bad, but it does acknowledge that bad online coaches have no checks and balances.
I think is imperative for the industry to rethink how we view commercial fitness. Instead of mocking it and the people they employ – let’s look to build up the new trainers, refine the veterans, and harvest the skill-sets and experiences of the best in the bunch to only further our industry. Like anything we must retain our fine-tooth comb and brush away the noise. But we don’t have to shave the whole head.
Great trainers, private or commercial, must be at the helm of the crazy landscape that is the fitness industry. Where you work means much less than how you work. Let’s never forget that.
About the Author
Kevin Mullins, CSCS, is a personal trainer and group exercise instructor at Equinox Sports Club in Washington D.C.
Kevin utilizes a listen first, coach second strategy to ensure his clients, and programs, are exceptional…and not his ego.
When he isn’t training clients or writing content Kevin can be found deadlifting, Bicep curling, or finding new, corny ways to emphasize squeezing the glutes. Kevin maintains his own personal site at KevinMullinsFitness.com.