How PTs can thrive in today’s competitive market

James Alexander-Ellis is a WBFF Pro Muscle Model, a SCI-MX & Pursue Fitness Athlete, and a Personal Trainer in west London. James also offers online coaching for people training for fitness competitions and sells training products online. He also has a very strong presence on social media, and is quickly approaching 1 million likes on his Facebook Page.

In this interview we speak to James about how the PT market has changed over the past 6 years, how a PT can differentiate in this saturated market, and the 3 main options for PTs wanting to create more scalable revenue streams through online platforms.


How have you seen the PT market change in recent years?

I’ve been a PT for about 6 years, and PT’s have definitely become little more than a commodity in the gym environment. Now they’re more readily available to the general public and more affordable. Almost all gyms have their own way of developing income from their PT base, which normally happens in one of three ways:

 1. The PT pays an overhead or licence fee to operate at a gym

2. The PT pays a percentage of their takings from every client to the gym

3. The PT may be part-employed, where their main role is as a fitness instructor with PT on the side.

This is obviously a really good revenue stream for clubs; they can’t really lose. 5-10% of their members might take up personal training. Another thing PT’s provide is membership retention. Personal training has been proven to retain members better than anything else because two things happen when you get a (good) personal trainer: You get better results slightly faster, so you’re more likely to stick to your training regime and sign up again at the end of the year, and it also helps members to enjoy the experience and feel more of a part of it.

Basically it’s a second tier way of making money out of personal trainers. Charge them to work there or take part of their earnings and get the extra benefit of retaining members, which is the secret hidden bonus no one talks about.

Why do you think that there are more PTs than ever before?

Personal training is more available in all clubs and more people are having training. The agencies that run these things have worked out that there’s probably a maximum capacity before supply and demand starts to go wrong.

Most clubs and gyms have between 10-30 personal trainers. When I first started out as a PT I was the 5th PT at the gym; I think we went up to 11. When I joined my current gym a few years later, I was the 13th PT, and within three months there were 20 of us. That’s a common number for a gym to have today.

That’s the capitalisation and consumerisation of the product of personal training. With that comes a very different and broad skillset, much like with everything. There are lots of very good, experienced PTs and also lots of very new ones. This calls into question the importance of gym brands ensuring that their PTs are top dollar through things like the interview process, requirements for qualifications etc. In my experience, many of these chains prioritise the commercial benefits to the club over the quality of the PT.

What do these changes mean for Personal Trainers?

The main thing is that it’s become easier to be a PT; there are now training courses by the dozen that will give you that ‘qualification’ in as little as two weeks. Even someone who has never been in the gym before can qualify quickly and be on a gym floor in a matter of weeks. It’s a crazy idea. Luckily I was already a gym fanatic and the gym floor was a second home to me. For me the qualification was just a bit of paperwork so I could get insurance.

There’s certainly a proliferation of under-qualified, under-experienced PTs across gyms. To an extent this waters down the quality of the product, but there are ‘advantages’ as well. If PTs were all more experienced and more expensive, not everyone could have it, so you have a pecking order of hourly rates and clients that are perhaps a little less fussy or experienced.

We’re also seeing a skills divide and skillset separation, with PTs specialising in certain things. We’re now at a point where there’s so much on offer that you’re in trouble if you don’t specialise. You have to have a specialist skill. For example, if you’re an ex-Olympic athlete turned PT, there’s a client base for you because they want those particular skills, and the same goes for boxing, strength and conditioning, and competition prep in my case. So there are more PTs, and a broad skillset divide.

How has this changed the dynamic on the gym floor?

The general problem is that the industry as a whole has not realised how much of a thriving market the fitness competitions are. Gyms are a bit behind on this because they’re worried about scaring the members off, but hang on a minute, most of your members want to do this!

If someone is in brilliant shape and can go on stage and prep other athletes, get in shape and show people how to do it, he’ll probably deal with Joe Bloggs better than the average PT. Other PTs try to pigeonhole but in my experience the bodybuilder knows best because he knows more about body composition and how to change it.

90% of people have a vanity-based goal like losing body fat and building muscle, and 10% have a functional or sports-specific based goal. Bodybuilders know most about eliciting the changes required for a vanity-based goal. It’s just ignorance that these PTs are pigeonholed to deal with a very specific group. It’s like the gyms and PTs are creating a situation where everyone has their own little space in the gym.

How do you differentiate yourself?

For me it’s the next level of knowledge about physiology and nutrition and how those things can be applied with a scientific backing to body composition changes, that’s answer number one. Answer number two is that I have experience in not only helping the average Joe change his body, but also high level experience of helping an elite pro level athlete make tiny changes to tweak their strength and endurance and body fat. I have a track record of success at both ends of the market.

The knowledge and skill base isn’t there with new PT’s. So if you say to new PT’s, “3 sets of 10”, they’ll say, “Yeah that’s fine.” “Why 3 sets of 10 out of interest?” “Oh, erm because that’s just the best muscle building range.” “Can you explain a bit more about that, tell me why?” They won’t be able to tell you.

I would like to be in a position where if my client asks me why, I can answer it or research it and get back pretty quickly. As a PT you need to be able to explain why, not just what and how. This enables your client to become more self-sufficient. If they understand the concept behind it, they’re much more likely to get better. I spend a lot of time talking during rest periods so that I can educate and motivate them, particularly if they’re new to training.

Surely being in great shape has also helped?

Being in shape has certainly helped with my career, but I’ve also noticed lots of less statuesque PTs do well, as long as they have personality. You’ve got to have a brain and be able to talk as a PT. I’ve had lots of aspirational young male clients come to me just because of my appearance, my competition history and modeling portfolio, and you must use every string to your bow to compete in this industry where everyone’s going after the same clients. But I’ve certainly seen PTs do well that are good at building long-term relationships, have good rapport with their clients and make them feel at ease.

We’re seeing the online PT model start to explode, what’s your experience with that?

Really there are three different approaches:

1. Online coaching

Trainers such as myself get a large number of enquiries from people who are usually quite experienced but maybe preparing for a competition and have deemed their local personal trainers as insufficient for their needs.

I speak to athletes initially over email, work out if it’s something they can afford and discuss timeframes. Then we move onto a Skype consultation, get to know each other a bit, there’s a lot of Q&A, then we start a phased system whereby over say 16 weeks I deliver them sets of programmes and diet plans, adjustments and check-ins. The check-ins are very important. You’re basically selling them high-level knowledge and support.

2. Workout programmes with some 1-to-1

These use a very robust IT interface, where everything is automated but there is some personalization in the membership areas and through automated emails. If you spend say $150 a month the most you might get is a personalised 10 minute Skype chat with your trainer. The rest of it is all totally automated, and there’s no real way to make it fully bespoke, but I don’t think people expect it to be.

3. Workout Products

These are downloadable training programmes which are goal-specific. These are low price, high volume. They may be tailored towards a specific goal, such as a woman wanting a bikini body or a man wanting to bulk up. Once you have a robust IT platform, payments systems in place, good SEO and a strong social media presence, you can generate good revenue that is totally scalable but not personalised.

You can give the Average Joe a one-size-fits-all approach, but as you go up in terms of physique development, and when the goals get harder and harder, that’s when you pull away into a more bespoke approach.


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