Thoughts on the Fitness Industry

No wonder my knees hurt now.

You probably don’t know this, but at 31 years old, I have already been in the fitness industry for 17 years. Yep, I got my start in the summer of 1995 at age 14. I was helping to clean and answer general questions (like, “where’s the bathroom?”) at my stepfather’s gym in Bedford, VA. I continued helping during summers and breaks throughout high school. At this point I, sadly, thought weight training was limited to bodybuilders. I’m pretty sure my program back then was as strict dose of DB chest press, lat pulldown (yes, the behind the neck version was cycled in regularly), leg extensions, leg curls, biceps curls (the Preacher curl was my favorite, thank you very much!), and triceps pushdowns.

At Virginia Tech, I worked as a personal trainer in the Rec Sports Department. At this point, I had very proudly gained my first certification… it was ACE, of course! At Tech I got to work a few hours here and there helping fellow students move towards their goals. This was hands-down the best paying on-campus job, I was pretty proud of that, too, because it meant I only needed to work half the time to make the money I needed. Thankfully, my eyes were beginning to open to a variety of modes and methods of training, but just barely. I still felt like training/coaching was a very two-dimensional, black and white, type of job. Fortunately, I was getting a sinking feeling that programming might be waaaaay more detailed than I first thought.

After graduation, I worked at the 19th Street Gym in New York City. This place was pretty cool. After all, I was the ONLY female trainer there and ALL the male trainers were fitness models. Not a bad part-time gig. I was paid cash for my sessions. Even though my full-time job was a fancy office job in a prestigious design firm, it fell a bit short in the earnings department. I couldn’t afford a gym membership, so I figured I’d fall back on my certification and kill the proverbial “two-birds with one stone” by earning extra income and a free gym membership. This was around the time when I read, of all things, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding. I’m rolling my eyes at myself as I type this… Anyway, this book helped me embrace the importance of nutrition in the pursuit of performance and body composition changes.

From NYC, I became a full-time personal trainer at Life Time Fitness in Fairfax, VA. The pressure was on there. All us trainers were 100% commission. I quickly learned that I can survive virtually any situation and thrived under the sales-heavy position. Being the quick-study that I am, I managed to move to management (and a more secure paycheck) within about a year. My very first day of work here fell on a staff meeting, and I will never forget the massive disappointment I felt when the meeting finished and all we talked about were sales numbers. No discussion of training methods, client success stories, or anything related to our actual craft.

Around the time I secured a management position, I was offered the part-time strength and conditioning coach position at George Mason University. I jumped on the opportunity and fell in love with the work.

This newfound professional passion was unlike anything I had experienced since entering “the real world” and I made the decision to commute to Richmond daily to work as a GA in VCU’s S&C department while working on my master’s in Sports Administration.

Thankfully, my eyes were finally opened to the methods, ideas, and principles that we use today at SAPT.

So, it took me around 10-years in the fitness industry (3 full-time years) to finally find the guidance and mentorship that a young professional in the industry needs to really become good at their craft.

This makes me think there is something fundamentally wrong with the fitness industry. Why in the world did it take me so long to find this guidance?

Well, at this point and station in my career, I know the answer(s) and they don’t paint a very good picture of the ever growing health/fitness industry:

1. Too much focus on sales in the private sector. Sadly, if you accidentally walk into a commercial gym, you’ll probably be accosted by the money hungry trainers. Please forgive them though, it’s management’s fault. This focus on sales means that experienced trainers have little, if any, time or interest available to help mentor those just entering the workforce. Plus, even the experienced trainers have probably stunted their continuing education efforts and defaulted to refining the sales pitch. Now, don’t get me wrong… you can’t have a business without clients. So, SOMEONE has to do sales at some point, but respect should be given to the fact that strength coaches and trainers didn’t spend tens of thousands of dollars on their education to feel like used car salesmen.

2. Poor pay in the public sector. I’ve seen job postings that state “master’s degree required” for a position that pays just over $30,000. Are you kidding me? With low-pay like this, why would one be motivated to go the extra mile in personal/professional growth to continue to learn and share their expertise with a know-nothing coach or lowly intern?

3. Low barrier to entry. You – that’s right, Y-O-U – could take a test online and earn a personal trainer certification practically overnight.

4. Poor skill training for bachelor’s degree students. The only interns I’ve ever had that know how to teach the basic movements (squat, pushup, deadlift, pushup, plank, etc.) are all self-taught in terms of techique and coaching skill. For the most part, my 4th year interns still can’t coach their way out of a wet paper bag when they arrive on day 1. Why is this a problem? Well, it perpetuates that lack of direction, skill, and technique of the vast majority of strength coaches and trainers. In many cases, it’s the blind leading the blind in an internship situation. I used to coach with someone who taught the hang clean from a “break at the knees first” position, it made me want to bang my head against a wall. How could he not know how wrong that is? And yet he is now a Head Strength & Conditioning Coach at a D1 university.

5. Bizarre competitiveness between professionals. I assume this stems from a lack of confidence, but it truly is weird. The result is everyone thinks their method is so special that they don’t want to share it with anyone. Again, a complete stoppage in the guidance needed for young coaches and trainers.

All of these points feed into a general poor perception by the public of fitness professionals.

To improve the public’s perception of the health/fitness industry, those of us practicing must bite the bullet and strive to make progress in the areas of: reduced sales focus, improved pay and benefits, implementing a state licesening process, making year-long intensive internships mandatory for college students, and finally, we all need to get off our high-horses to work together not against eachother.

I know we have a fair number of readers who are strength coaches and trainers, so I hope you find this some worthwhile food for thought. If you have anything to add to the discussion, please consider posting in the comments!