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Real People Money Diaries: Personal Trainer

How do you build up a business when you’re making 10 bucks an hour and bartending on the side?

In this series, we explore how different people make ends meet in an age of increasing inequality and job instability, by looking at what they do, how much they make, what the job is like and what their hopes are for the future.

Name: Zach Pello
Age: 35
City: Indianapolis, Indiana
Job: Personal trainer
How long: 16 years
Career goals: Helping clients and being present with family 

Getting Your Foot in the Door

I always enjoyed doing sports due to the competitive nature of it. I was always trying to improve something in my performance: my time in the 100-meter dash, for example. When I reached college, I was kind of scrambling to figure out what I wanted to be. I opened up the book for Ball State University that tells you all the degrees they have, and I saw “Exercise Science.” I thought, Holy cow, that’s what I’m doing!

While in college, I started personal training in 2003 at a gym in the area. I got hooked up with my old wrestling coach, who was the owner of the gym — that’s how I got my foot in the door. I loved it right from the start because I’ve always been a people person, so it was a natural fit.

I probably started out at around $10 to $11 an hour, and all the clients were provided for me. I didn’t even have to write up the workout plans — I just took people through the workouts. It was a good environment for starting out. As a trainer, you want some sort of support, you want a place that’s gonna bring you clients and someone who’s going to mentor you, and that’s what that first place was for me.

Self-Employed and Working a Second Job

I got my degree in exercise science, but I knew I didn’t have a lot of upward mobility at the gym I was at, so my wife and I moved to a more affluent town. In the town we were in, it was hard to run a business, so we moved and I went to a gym where I was basically running my own business right out of college, paying rent at a gym.

Being self-employed was tough initially, primarily because you don’t have clients being fed to you. If you don’t have the drive, you’re not going to get clients. I got stuck with like 10 to 15 hours a week. Then, over time, it slowly grew, but there were probably five years where I had to get a second job — I bartended. 

I’d probably be at the gym from 6 a.m. till about 5 p.m., then I’d go to the bar and work from 7 p.m. to midnight. A schedule like that was weird because even though you’re at the gym from 6 to 5, if you’re not really busy, you might only have five people in that block of time.

Training and bartending actually went together surprisingly well, because working at night doesn’t affect your training hours, and you don’t want to take away the opportunity to get any new clients. Bartending was cool, too, because personal training was always a conversation piece that was brought up. It was social and a great way to make connections. In fact, I’m still connected with the clients I got from it. 

Fighting Burnout

After five years in college, then five years of going kind of slow and increasing my client base, now for the past five to six years I’ve pretty much been booked solid. At one point I was doing between 40 to 50 client hours a week. Eventually, you get burned out. It’s hard to schedule people back-to-back, so your days are really long: 12-hour days consistently. It can be a drain. So after doing that for a while, that’s where personal training gets interesting, because it’s like, what do you do from there? You’re running like a mouse on a wheel, spinning as fast as possible — you’re getting paid by the hour but you can’t improve that hour. You can’t become more efficient.

I’ve definitely changed gears. Now, my goal is to keep my training hours down to 30 or less per week. I’ve been trying to grow my business in a way that’s not just hourly based but service-based, so instead of selling 12 sessions, instead I’ll write up your workout plan and check in with you via email once a week. Then it’s a matter of getting the job done, which someone values at X amount of dollars. I can exponentially increase my revenue per hour but still give a value that people appreciate.

So now I do 30 hours in person a week, and then my online stuff, like client check-ins, which adds another 15 to 20 hours a week. Still, I work seven days a week: Saturdays and Sundays I don’t go to the gym, but that’s when I’ll check in with clients and write content.

Income and Expenses

The main pricing decision to make as a personal trainer is, are you going to go really low and try to compete with Weight Watchers? Or are you going to go higher and provide more service, more customization? That’s the direction I’ve gone. Typically speaking, my hourly rates are about probably $70 to $80 an hour. In our city, $60 to $80 is probably where most people sit, for one-on-one personal training. 

Where I train people, I pay rent. It’s not a big corporate gym, but it’s a locally owned large facility. Basically, about 25 percent of my in-person income goes toward rent; from there, there’s really no other in-person training expenses outside of maybe an accountant. All the equipment is at the gym. I’ve never advertised — I’ve always grown my business organically on social media, just posting content every day. If you’re good at networking, you don’t need to advertise, in my opinion. For online training, software can cost you about $100 a month.

Career Goals

Lifestyle-wise, things are great. You can definitely make money in this profession, but the problem, again, is if you don’t have clients, you’re not making money. At most gyms where they’re handing you clients, you’re not going to make that much — you might make $20 an hour at a place like that.

The real key for me is to be present with my family long-term. That’s actually my top goal. A lot of my business decisions right now are geared toward efficiencies and boundaries, like, now when I go home I’m going to work on turning my phone off. I just bought a regular alarm clock so I don’t have to bring my phone up to the room anymore.

Right now, my main work goal is to help people and connect with them — there’s a difference. I can help a lot of people, but I want to be able to connect and change people’s lives, as many people as I can. I’m limited because I feel like in order to connect with people, I need to spend more time with each individual. I’m not worried about becoming some huge star, [but] I do want to grow my income over time — 10 percent per year would be excellent.

I love seeing progress. I feel my clients’ successes, and it’s so cool to see! I primarily work with women, and to see a woman deadlift 100 pounds or bench-press 100 pounds for the first time, that feeling you see them get, you can see it in their eyes. I feel it too and it’s so cool!