RateYourBurn | Is Teaching Fitness a Legitimate Career?

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Nowadays, we, the sandwich generation, are finding many doors closed. It used to be a given that forking up a hefty fortune for a solid school could land ya a pretty sweet job in A) finance, B) law, C) medicine, or D) as a saucy housewife with a hubby who would put a G'DAMN rock on it. But times have changed. My fellow law school grads are jobless and saddled with student loans. My doctor clients are closing their doors because medical reimbursements have dramatically declined. Finance has also been sucking lately. But what about....fitness? Is this tantalizing option actually a career path? Verdict: For a talented few, YES.

is fitness instruction a legitimate career

Preamble: The Motivation Behind This Madness 

I recently gave one of my favorite fitness instructors a lift home. We got to chatting about life, fitness, relationships, mo-money-mo-problems, family, hos-in-different-area-codes, etcetera. And then I learned an upsetting truth: This man, who is my absolute fitness idol, is shunned from his significant other's family because they don't want their baby dating what they perceive to be a "lowly fitness instructor". Apparently, they equate this career with someone who has low intelligence and shallow potential.

I was shocked. Appalled, actually. I mean, I've had my fair share of "daddy doesn't approve" situations as well, but usually that's because I was bringing home the town's gas station attendant or some pot-smothered "I go to every Phish show" dude. But this was something different. How could someone not recognize the talent of a guy who has already climbed his way to the top of the NYC fitness pyramid? My stomach hurt.  

This article is for those of the mindset that "anyone can teach fitness" and it is not a viable or respectable career path. NEWS FLASH: Fitness can be an amazing and deeply rewarding career, and even lucrative for those who put in the work and play their cards right. 

Here are some things I'd like to clarify.

1) Can you be an idiot and teach fitness?

Yes. You can be an idiot and do most things. Take a look around your own workplace, no matter the industry. Is every person a talented genius? If so, congratulations, you're the idiot. Or if you work for a magical happy unicorn company, please tell us about it in the comments below so we can quit our jobs and come work for you.

The sad truth is that you can be a successful IFI ("Idiot Fitness Instructor") in the short run if you are hot, generally charismatic, and talented in the art of mimicry. 

But not in the long-term. There are plenty of One-Year-Wonders in the fitness scene. They seem awesome at first, and then you realize that their classes are the same schtick over and over again, they know close to nothing about exercise physiology, lack authenticity and do not inspire.

These are the people who give fitness a bad name. But this subculture of fakers exists in every profession.

2) Is being hot the main job requirement for fitness professionals?

Um, no.

pretty bimbo fitness instructor suck

Even if fitness instructors experience initial success based solely on their clients' drool, without skills and talent these instructors will soon be replaced by the next hotter thing. There are unfortunately a lot of these "flashfry" phenomena in the industry, but you need to be more than just a hot piece to succeed.

You also need to change more than your clients' muscles to keep your product brilliant. Sustainable fitness careers are built upon knowledge, creativity and the ability to connect and sustain relationships.

3) But don't fitness instructors just follow a formula?

Wouldn't that be convenient! Some programs DO have instructors following a formula (for example, Zumba, Les Mills, proprietary studio formulas). But to stand out from the crowd, the top instructors almost always take some liberties and push the limits of those formulas to create something new. The most successful fitness instructors take on the heavy responsibility of creating a new experience every. damn. day.

Instructors are not selling a pre-made product. They can't recycle yesterday's workout. Teaching always involves trying new strategies, splashing ideas up on the wall and seeing if they stick. The best instructors feel personal responsibility for the safety and well-being of every client, and also feel a responsibility to deliver and inspire. This is a task that may be easy once, but gets exponentially harder once you have clients who come back day after day expecting renewed greatness. 

Instructors also often don't get credit for the amount of time that goes into a class. Much more time goes into the planning of the daily lesson than the actual hour in the classroom. Playlists, class structure, timing, corrections, lighting, props, cues, the list goes on. Not to mention setup and cleanup, which need to happen but also take away from time spent getting to know clients.

how do fitness instructors spend their time

These guys are constantly mixing different class components to develop the perfect experience. The best are constantly creating, constantly striving for something better. It is a LOT of work.

4) But don't fitness instructors deliver the same product to everyone in the class?

Not the ones who make it big.

The best teachers think on their feet, analyzing each individual in the crowd from the get-go and teaching class accordingly. Even if the class format is set in stone, the masters find a way to sneakily tailor the experience by changing up voice intonation, varying their own energy, or maybe even just giving a little extra eye contact to that guy in the back who hadn't been to the gym in 3 months and is clearly paralyzed with fear.

Every class requires an initial diagnosis, assessing the demographic with different needs. What does each client want? Weight loss? Rehab for an injury? Building new muscle mass? Toning? Stability? Focus? Emotional motivation? Camaraderie? Energy? Fun? Stress relief? Instructors can't sit down with each student before class, so they need to intuit these needs and deliver a product that makes everyone happy.

5) Why else should I respect a fitness instructor? 

  • Fitness instructors are both their own product and their own business. They're not just employees; in fact, they are often contractors. But regardless of their tax forms, every instructor essentially runs his own business. Studios may help promote classes, but it's up to the teachers to build a following and get students coming back to class week after week. The teachers who treat their careers like a business are the ones who rise from the ranks most quickly.
  • This is not your typical 9-5 job. Weekends? Time to work. Early AM? Time to work. Happy hour? Time to work. Holidays? You betcha. And even when they're not teaching, this is a seven-days-per-week job, almost round the clock. Reaching out to clients, building relationships, planning classes, negotiating schedules and contracts, subbing, tracking class attendance, being all over social media like white on rice (for you it's a hobby, for them it's a job).  
  • They have immense pressure to stay on the wagon. Instructors are often not even able to afford themselves the luxury of a "cheat day". Rest is important, but feeding the mouth is also important. Not to mention the pressure to look the part. Some instructors perform the class along with students, but others teach formats or styles that don't allow for this - so these guys are clocking their own personal hours at the gym in addition to their teaching time. Not to mention the fact that the best instructors are constantly trying out new trends and instructors themselves to stay inspired and current. This job takes a huge mental and physical toll on the body.
  • Sick days? Think again. If you work a desk job, you probably have a certain number of paid sick days. For the majority of teachers out there, if you're sick, you're not going to be paid for that class you didn't teach. Not to mention the risk of injury/accident.

6) Have I forgotten anything else important?

Oh yeah. Fitness instructors change fucking lives for a living. To a lay person, a class might just be something to fill an hour of the day. But those of us whose lives have been changed by fitness, we know that most instructors are in it for the thrill of making us LOVE ourselves. They empower. They entertain. They make a bad day 1000 times better and they do it by showing us what WE can do, not doing it for us. They're teaching us how to fish, not serving us sushi on a silver platter.

Let's keep it real.

Look, I went to law school. I got the grades. I did the internships and the externships and the Law Journals and the Research Assistant positions. And what did I get when I graduated?  Anxiety, about $250,000 in student loan debt, and a job that made me incredibly unhappy. Was I "compensated" well for it? Unclear. And I was one of the "lucky" few who actually got a job. Is there potential for me to make a ton of money in the cookie-cutter field? Yes. But what do I do in my spare time, what makes me happy? Fitness.

If you're like me, maybe you should start measuring success in happiness first. And for a lucky few with the talent and the tenacity, fitness can even be lucrative (we'll get to that in another article).

abraham lincoln happy as they make their minds up

The truth is, there is a lot of potential for those who really persevere in fitness. The ones who make it deserve all of our respect and admiration, no less than the top attorneys, doctors, CPAs, financial wizards, journalists, and professors. These people not only inspire us by doing what they love, but also change our bodies and lives on a daily basis. They fix people before doctors and psychiatrists have to. They lengthen lives. They make us happy and healthy. 

What in Dodge could be more honorable than that?

Have something to add? Let us know in the comments!


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Comments 19 Comments

Kara Doyle 02/05/2014

Thanks for writing this.  You nailed so much of what goes on behind the scenes to make classes a great experience for those coming, keep it fresh, and inspire many.  There are also a lot of interactions that go on between instructors and students out of the classroom.  Questions over email, helping them with customized workouts when they get injured so that they can continue in some capacity, just to name a few.  Even when I'm out on a Sat night, I'm 'building my playlist' when I hear a song.  Does it fit for Spin or Zumba?  Maybe my core workout?  How could I choreograph it?  It's endless dedication and commitment, but all SO SO worth it.  The reward far exceeds the work in my opinion. In what other profession can you touch so many in an hour and help people feel good about themselves, transforming their bodies to lead healthier, happier lifestyles?  I am hooked for life as long as my body will enable me to continue to teach!

Sweat Pump 02/05/2014

Hey Kara. Thank YOU for putting in the work to make your classes the best they can be. So many just cruise through teaching and don't realize they aren't impacting people the same way. Way to go! Reminds me of how sometimes in law, we get the best ideas for a case when we are in the shower. Or sleeping. It never ends for fitness either! And, also, thx for the comment. I was wondering where the comment love went ;)

Lindesy Clayton 02/05/2014

This is an AMAZING article!  Thank you for taking the time to write this!

Sweat Pump 02/05/2014

Thx, Lindsey! Inspired by the best of 'em, including you!

Jason Tran 02/05/2014

FHAB article Pumps!  xo

Liz Barnet 02/05/2014

Love everything about this. Thank you for the thorough consideration and real talk. The days I just feel like I have too much to do with 6 clients 4 classes playlist making social media whoring researching doing email answering calendar scheduling... this is helpful to remember why I freakin love what I do.

Sweat Pump 02/05/2014

You guys have the hardest job ever. I did it for a day (not even a day. One class. ONCE.) and it was like MY BRAIN. IS GOING. TO EXPLODE. So much to think about. Bowing at ya'll.

FitEsqOSU 02/05/2014

Maybe it was difficult to run your class, Pumps, but you totally dressed the part.

Sweat Pump 02/05/2014

AHHAHA. When FitEsq says "dress the part" he means the class was ass themed. So I purchased ass pad lace underwear from Taiwan and wore them OVER my spandex. Yep. They also didn't fit, despite ordering size Large. So I had to cut them to get them on. True story.

Sweat Pump 02/05/2014

The sacrifices fitness instructors make! haha ;)

Ana 02/05/2014

You nailed it!! I'm a recovering attorney too!  I'd rather be a fitness instructor than go back to billing those hours!!  Thanks for a great article!

Aaron Maibach 02/06/2014

Great article. I love the outside perspective and the overall message.

Noelle 02/10/2014

I've been a CSCS (BS in Athletic Training) personal trainer since 1990 & I find this article very interesting because I can truly see both sides.  While the following is a practical discussion, I do believe that anyone who is accomplished at their chosen profession deserves respect.  There are differences between training & group instruction, but both jobs are limited by how many hours there are in a day, how much $$$ the local session/class market will bear, and how much energy can one person honestly muster on how many sessions/classes per week .  So I get it that a family is less than excited that their loved one is serious with one of "us".  It can be challenging to settle into a strong & stable financial situation in our line of work-to be able to afford the house, car, finances to raise a family, etc.  So many things dictate our ability to earn that are outside of our control, like ownership's desire to maximize their earnings, clients/classes coming and going, & hours of the day, to mention a few.  Many have veered off to sideline income sources such online coaching & workouts, opening their own gyms & studios, presenting at CEC events & teacher trainings and many more creative endeavors, but the ones who really produce a significant additional income are rare when you really look at the numbers.  We all love the work and helping people become more fit, well, there's nothing better.  But the truth is that more often than not, it's a good part time income that ebbs and flows.  When I look at what my friends and clients in other fields have built in the same number of years working, I often wonder if I would have done better choosing another line of work.  I also understand I'll likely be working into my 60's & possibly 70's and while I love the idea of still working in the gym with clients, I wonder if I'll be up for the "hustling" it takes to keep my schedule even part-time full.  Personally, after 23 years in the industry, including opening and owning a small gym for 7 years, I've taken on a 2nd non-fitness related job that I can do from my home office and which can ebb & flow around my training schedule.  I'm developing a whole different skill set in work that I can see myself continuing for as long as I choose along with or instead of training.        

Sweat Pump 02/12/2014

Noelle- really awesome perspective. You've got me going back to the drawing board. I think your experience really sheds light on the benefits and drawbacks, and what life might actually be like if we were to walk in your shoes, or a fitness professional's shoes. Thank you!

Taya 02/12/2014

Hi there!!
Great article. Funnily enough, I too was a lawyer and have also worked as a Fitness Instructor since I was 16! I gave up Fitness when I finally became a lawyer and moved to Singapore. 12 months into the job, I wanted to leave and moved back to Australia to do what I truly loved; inspire people. So, I'm back in Australia, coaching CrossFit, but also studying Physiotherapy - because, well, as your article suggests - I can't 'just be' a Fitness Instructor!! lol

Sweat Pump 02/12/2014

Hey Taya - Really cool story and journey. Thanks so much for sharing. Also nice to see you represent Australia here! Yea, i find in any career it's tough to do just one thing. And fitness people in general are always pushing themselves for more and more. Funny how that spills over for the instructors as well ;) great insight!

Jeri Sue Simon 02/13/2014

Amazing article. Thank you for posting this. So true!

Kristian Turner 02/13/2014

This is a great article - thank you for writing it. Beyond highlighting the work that instructors put into their jobs, I like that you still point out - really as your main focus for the piece - that fitness is empowering and can change lives. I hope that plenty of potential new participants read this, alongside all the professionals applauding your words, and take the plunge to try something new, inspiring and life-altering.


Sweat Pump 02/13/2014

Kristian and Jeri - thank you for your kind words Smile I agree. I hope people considering fitness don't shy away from it because they are concerned about perceptions. In fact, one of the lawyers I went to law school with actually does not practice law, she runs the groupX schedule for 24hour Fitness... and she does pretty well for herself! I just want people to be able to recognize that it takes a lot of worth. And if someone makes it in fitness, they deserve respect, not judgment.