Posted September 11, 2015

Why I Still Work in a Commercial Gym

“Why do you still work at a Globo Gym?”

I get variations of this question probably at least once a week, and I figured it would be a good opportunity to answer it, plus also give an idea of what is driving me, and also what opportunities could exist where you may not see them at first.

First, I’ve worked in a commercial facility (World Health clubs in Edmonton, Alberta) for the past 11 years. Initially the company was 15 clubs between Calgary and Edmonton, then we purchased another chain of clubs in Edmonton and grew to 20. There’s also a sister company which is entirely women’s only across Edmonton, meaning in total the company was running 25 or so clubs at one point. Then an investor came in to purchase just the Edmonton clubs, leaving the women’s only clubs to the main office in Calgary, meaning the company I work for now has 10 clubs across the city.

A lot of trainers start off with commercial facilities and for good reason. They can take trainers in who have little to no experience, get them used to training systems, give them clients to train instead of having to find them themselves, and they have a support network  of managers who can help them grow and develop. Some companies (like mine) have internal continuing education calendars to help trainers expand their knowledge base and develop new skills. Others may have scholarship programs (like mine) where a trainer can petition to have the company pay for a workshop, certification, or any professional development opportunity to help expand their abilities further.

A downside a lot of trainers find with commercial facilities is the fact they have managers, the focus on sales aspects and the business of fitness, and having to follow protocols they may think are silly. For instance, being a commercial gym we cater to as broad of an audience as possible, and as a result we try to keep cleanliness as a mainstay. For this reason, we don’t allow chalk in the gym. This can hamper a serious lifters ability to grip the bar when doing a lift, but it’s a sacrifice the company decided to make to capitalize on their target market.

Because commercial gyms tend to hire new or unexperienced trainers, a lot of trainers who don’t work in commercial gyms tend to look down on them. This is somewhat strange as if you were to ask them where they started out, they would likely state one commercial gym company or another.

That being said, the belief that commercial gym trainers aren’t as good as a trainer who works at a private studio or athletic facility is somewhat fallacious, as I’m pretty sure they went to the same schools in many cases. We’ve had trainers within our company who have held multiple degrees, finished masters and PhD’s while working there, and also completed professional designations (one former co-worker finished physiotherapy school, another worked very casually while completing med school.) That, and I’ve seen some trainers who run private studios do some very questionnable things too.

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With that in mind, there’s a couple of distinct capabilities that have lead me to stay. Some of which involved creating a niche for myself, and becoming relatively indispensable to the company, which increased my value in their eyes, and lead to them pursing means to retain me. This lead to my current situation, which I’ll outline later.

One of the best benefits to staying with a commercial facility has been the ability to create larger scale change when needed. In a private studio, you have the ability to promote change within the membership and clientele of a single location, whereas within a commercial facility that can be magnified many times. For instance, I helped to develop a medical referral program with a large number of health care professionals who were able to refer their patients to us and in return we referred clients to them when appropriate.

This referral process meant I had to develop a business plan to convince the senior managers that my plan had the legs to not only make the company money, but to do so consistently while minimizing the expenses required to institute it. In any business, money talks, so if you’re looking to make change within an organization, the powers that be have to see that it benefits the bottom line, their reputation, or preferably both, while minimizing risk to an almost non-existent level.

This opportunity to create change lead to me learning how to develop business plans, understand organizational theory from the inside out, and use it to my advantage for future projects and, including the development of different products and coaching programs.

Second, I saw an opening for our continuing education calendar that could be significantly expanded. When I started, there were roughly 4 classes being offered, which were the same 4 classes being offered for the past decade. I decided to put my hat in the ring and developed courses for things like special populations (diabetes, hypertension), beginner fitness assessment, and eventually post-rehab essentials for personal trainers. I’ve included a few more along the way, such as Ruthless Mobility, Advanced Core Training, and even a few one-day special operations.

This helps me in a couple ways. I get to have a large hand in developing a lot of trainers thought processes about certain things that they might otherwise not have exposure to, and help them improve their abilities with their clients. This means that the culture of trainers at my company develops differently compared to if there wasn’t a continuing education calendar, and empowers trainers to learn more about what they’re doing, all while building more of my relative value in the eyes of the company.

Second, I get practice teaching workshops and seminars, which comes in very handy when I attend conferences and host workshops. Before I had charged for a single workshop or seminar, I already had over 300 days of experience under my belt, teaching workshops between 6-8 hours in length, running certification courses, and essentially building a skill set of public speaking that would benefit me massively down the road. I’m confident in saying that without this experience behind me I wouldn’t feel as comfortable teaching the workshops I’m currently teaching, and the experience for the attendee would suffer as well.

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Me teaching Advanced Core Training in New York City.

A benefit not too many people know is actually a benefit is that by being an employee instead of a facility owner or business partner, there’s a lot less stress at the end of the day. Let me say, my hat is off to anyone who takes on owning their own facility. It’s a ton of work with very little upside until the place starts being significantly profitable, which could be years. You’re responsible for every detail of the day to day operations, managing other trainers, equipment upkeep, and making sure clients are happy and inspired to continue coming to work out in your facility.

To start a facility is a sizeable financial investment. Just doing some of the work in my tiny basement, a 600 square foot space to drywall and lay out rubber flooring alone was over $2000, and this didn’t include plumbing changes beyond the rough-in (facilities have to have toilet and water on site), demolition, engineering, permits, leasing, legal, and accounting set up. Then there’s the cost of equipment, which can get into the thousands by itself, plus marketing, logos, and any other number of small details that add up to big costs.

With that in mind, a simple facility could cost over $100,000 in start up costs and provide a cushion for living while the facility is developed before it can start earning any income. Without a bank loan, investors would have to be involved, which means your profits are significantly affected each month. With a loan, payments are due each month, whether you’ve had a killer month or whether there’s a cold bug causing half your clients to cancel unexpectedly. It’s a significant stress.

As an employee, I don’t have to worry about any of that. At the end of the day, I go home, and that’s it. I don’t have to worry about operations, developing systems, managing different personalities, or worrying about environmental or landlord factors that could seriously hamper my business. Also, I know a bunch of very successful trainers who don’t own the facility they work in, but still have a massive impact on the industry as a whole, so owning a facility isn’t tantamount to success.

Similarly to why I don’t own my own facility, I’m hesitant to go work for someone who owns a private studio or similar space for a couple of reasons. First, many trainers open their gyms without any specific business experience, meaning you’re essentially hoping the person you wind up working with knows how to keep a profitable business enough to keep the lights on so you can pay your bills. A facility that’s been successful for a few years can be a good sign, but in some instances personalities can clash, especially when the owner requires things to be done their way, which is different from what you would see being successful.

Also, working in many independent facilities have a rent concept where you pay a certain amount each month regardless of how many sessions you train. For the schedule I have where I would travel for workshops and reduce the time I spend in the club, that could be troublesome to my bottom line compared to a system where the session pay is a percentage of the session cost without a set monthly rent. Sure, in months where I wasn’t travelling I would kill it by exceeding my rent payment, it’s still a concern, especially depending on whether there is session accounting provided or not.

As an employee, I have zero expenses and all aspects of business are covered. There’s systems in place for accounting, payroll, benefits, human resources, and followup for each and every employee. From my own small business with one employee, I can attest to how much it can cost to go through these processes, and that always eats away at the bottom line. For me to work as an independent, I would either have to develop or use a paid system to track sessions and payments, or do it by hand, which would increase the amount of time I spent doing stuff like that and not let me do other things as easily, or cost more money than necessary. If I worked at a facility that provided that, even better, but I would have to hope it all worked out well.

Speaking of payments, I’m doing pretty well with how my income has developed over the years. The processes of building value and also being consistently successful at generating sales, happy clients, and building something of a culture within my club means I have a bit of a different pay scale than most trainers.

A few years ago I received a promotion to Master Trainer within the company, at the time a title held by myself and one other trainer who has since moved. While I don’t consider myself a master of much, this meant that I was able to have a payment scale off the normal grid system most trainers have to tend with, where pay is commesurate to the number of sessions trained that month. The more sessions trained, the larger the percentage of the session price the trainer gets.

This also means the percentage of each session cost I get paid is higher than most trainers. Many trainers within commercial facilities will expect to earn about 50-65% of their session cost at the top level. I’m a little higher than that. There’s also the consistent benefits of commissions for each months sales, vacation pay, top earners bonuses, and other fun things that may not be available elsewhere.

So to recap, I work in a commercial facility because it’s significantly lower stress than owning my own facility, fewer costs of doing business, greater expansion abilities within a multi-facility model, a vehicle to hone speaking skills and development of workshops, and a business system where all of my bases to being successful are covered. They also allow me a lot of freedom to do things like write this blog, teach workshops all over the world, and film videos within the club whenever I want. Plus I have a sweet office.

While the commercial gym experience may not be for everyone, it seems to be working well for me. I have no complaints. It doesn’t work for everyone, which is why if someone says they want to see what it’s like to work elsewhere, I usually encourage it. By seeing what’s on the other side of the fence, you can get a good idea of where you want to be. By staying on one side and wishing you were on the other side, you can grow to resent your situation. In the end, as long as you don’t burn your bridges, you would have no issues no matter where you went, as long as it was the right situation for you.

Hopefully this help shed some light on my decision to stay at a commercial gym and outline why it’s a good fit for me. Let me know what you think with a comment below.