“Ian, I’m going to have you train Ana.”
I had to double check with our personal training director Ed to ensure that I understood him correctly. “Your client, Ana?” I asked him.
“Yeah, that Ana,” Ed confirmed. “You’re going to meet her here at 7 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.”
“But Ana signed up with you, and you’re a level-four trainer,” I responded. “And she paid $80 per session to work with you, but I’m a level-one trainer and my sessions are only $40. So isn’t she going to be upset that she’s paying for a level-four training director and getting a level-one rookie instead?”
“Listen,” Ed responded. “You know how to train, so all you have to do is give her some advice while she does her workout, and everything will be fine.”
With that, I was sure that I was quickly becoming an accessory to what was plainly a bait-and-switch scheme. What did it mean about the quality of personal training at Bally Total Fitness if even the training directors didn’t think there was a tangible difference between a level-one or a level-four training session, or at least not enough of a difference that our clients would notice? And if that’s the case, why pay $40 extra per hour for a trainer if it makes no discernible difference to your training?
How much should I expect to pay for a personal training session?
This is a terribly loaded question to answer, because gym executives, managers, trainers and their clients are all likely to have very different philosophies on the matter. Sometimes, though, it can be deduced from the ways in which gyms manage the provision of personal training services, and also based on how they compensate their trainers.
Let’s start with the assumptions baked into the old Bally Total Fitness training model from when I worked there: 1) Personal trainers were paid based on the level they occupied on an ascending scale from level-one to level-four; 2) personal trainers could advance in level by acquiring “education,” either through recognizable certifications or relevant degrees; and 3) personal trainers could also see their level status improve based upon their “experience.”
Naturally, many trainers who were capable of selling the most training sessions were rapidly elevated to higher levels even if they acquired no additional education, which makes total sense from a managerial perspective. After all, why offer a $40-per-hour training session when you could convert it into an $80-per-hour session simply by adjusting the trainer’s “level” and perceived value?
That’s the gist of this revenue-focused hierarchical model. Gyms would like to charge members as much as they can for an hour of the trainer’s time, and have historically used different sets of justifications to inflate that hourly fee. Certainly, the gym gets a cut of the action — usually 40 percent to 50 percent — for providing the venue and the equipment, but this also creates a scenario where established trainers can charge less than the gym is charging while ultimately making more money in the long run if they’re able to provide a venue and the requisite equipment through other means.
Is there another model?
There sure is. Planet Fitness offers personal training to all of its members for free.
Of course, there is a huge catch: When I was a Planet Fitness member, there was never more than one personal trainer in the club at a time, and her time was difficult to book during peak hours. Also, based on my experience with them, the Planet Fitness trainers were able to sit around and do next to nothing during off-peak hours. This is due to Planet Fitness’ customer-friendly model prohibiting trainers from harassing members by constantly asking them if they want to buy personal training sessions.
That said, if you only need access to a trainer in order to learn a few things that you can use on your own, this is probably an ideal model — a very low membership fee with personal training services provided at no additional expense.
Free training is all well and good, but what’s the quality like?
It’s rational to believe that the best personal trainers wouldn’t linger at Planet Fitness and occasionally train whatever clients wandered their way if they could be making far more money elsewhere, and especially if they’re extroverts who don’t mind soliciting 100 club members a day with an option to train. Full-time personal trainers are professionals who want to earn a living just like everyone else.
Speaking of earning a living, most of the base salary ranges I’ve seen for personal trainers place their annual income right around $50,000 a year. If we assume a full-time schedule of 40 hours per week, this means that the trainer is bringing home an average of $25 per hour with a pretty loaded schedule. Again, in most corporate gym systems where the trainers earn 50 percent to 60 percent of the money from a training session, these sessions would cost clients between $40 to $50 per hour.
Is this worth it?
Whether or not the price of a training session is worth it is dependent on a couple of main factors.
First, it’s rare that a personal training client needs to tap into every morsel of knowledge stored within the brains of the most elite trainers. If all you need is someone to count reps, offer suggestions, provide some form guidance and be generally pleasant company, why spend $100 an hour if your workout could have been similarly managed by a knowledgeable kid who would only have charged you $40 (which strikes me as a reasonable price to pay)?
Second, always keep in mind that the possession of elite fitness and nutrition knowledge doesn’t equate to a personal trainer being pleasant to be around. And no one wants to spend their hard-earned money to hang out with an asshole for 60 minutes. A locked-in, serviceable trainer who is working diligently to be of service is eminently superior to a distracted veteran who would rather be elsewhere.
All of which is to say, your trainer can help you work out many things, but your wallet doesn’t need to be one of them.