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.
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?
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.
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).
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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