How to create a team environment and boost retention for your personal training business (and eight systems you can use to keep it going)

Personal training has been a very valuable profession for many years, and as the pace of our society gets faster, people are taking less care of themselves. This is great if you are in the fitness industry, but many trainers end up burning out because they believe that it is the nature of the business to work 12-14 hours per day and live paycheck to paycheck.

I was one of those people just about 14 months ago. My business was going extremely well, and I had a long list of raving clients. I loved my job but realized there must be a better way to help people get fi t and still have a life of my own. I knew that if I was going to continue to help people get fit and lead a balanced lifestyle, I needed to do the same. So I hired a fitness business coach and began developing systems and strategies that allowed me to work about half of the time.

Transitioning from One-to-one to Small-group Training
It was almost one year ago that I officially made the transition from one-on-one personal training to small-group training. I have to admit, I was a bit nervous at first because I was unsure of the reaction that I would get from my clients.

When it came time to let people know about the switch, I made sure to tell them that it would give them the best chance to succeed and give them the best workout while having fun at the same time. As long as you let people see that they will benefit, you should have no problem. Clients were also excited about an almost 50% decrease in cost.

People love social environments, so I really had no objections when it came to the new training system. My foundation of training stayed virtually the same because I base all training on multi-joint movements and athletic-based work. I would simply set up three to four exercises (depending on the number of people in the group) and cycle through a timed set or a specific number of repetitions. The only real changes that I had to make were being aware of space, setting stations closer together in the gym and raising my energy level to motivate five people instead of just one.

How Did You Do That?
The first big change that I made was to begin training small groups instead of one-on-one clients. This allowed me to see more people each day and also maximized the amount of money I could make each hour.

Small-group training is based around the concept of two to six people training together for an hour. Anything more than six is tough, but it really depends on the individual trainer. I group my clients based around the time slots that they want. (I train 6:00-10:00 AM and 4:00-7:00 PM, generally).

I have some niche groups, such as an older group of women, where we focus more on core strength, flexibility and overall strength. Most of my other groups are women and 30- to 45-year-old men.

My training style is athletic-based and it is scaled according to each individual's fitness level. All clients learn how to squat, lunge, push up, perform chin-ups and rows initially; from there, we branch off to more explosive and metabolic work. It is very easy to train people of different levels because people will just be performing variations of those movements and progressing at their own pace.

I also set up the training in a circuit format so there is minimal wait time. For example, a metabolic and strength circuit might include pushups, squat jumps, medicine ball throws and stair sprints. If there are four clients, they will cycle through the circuit three to four times with some rest between each set.

Group training has been a great change for me as well as my clients. People love the group dynamic and the motivation that it provides. Not only does an individual have me there pushing them, but they also have others that are working hard and pushing past their limits. There is also a social aspect because people become friends and look forward to chatting with each other two to three times per week.

The Eight Things that Make It Work
When I made the switch to group training, I then branched off and created some systems that helped immensely when it came to boosting retention and making people feel really welcome and appreciated:
  1. The group element: Two to six people become bonded to each other as they push through tough workouts and see each other succeed and reach personal goals. They are there for each other, motivating, joking and having a great time.
  2. Phone call screening: When someone responds to my Craigslist ads, calls me after seeing my website or sees me in the gym, I go through an entire phone script with them to weed out people I know will drag the group down. I find out their needs, wants and desires, as well as if they can commit to four or five days of training, both with me and on their own -- and if they can afford it. Then I tell them that they need to represent the program as a walking, talking billboard and pump it up to everyone that asks. They need to be a positive member of our training community.
  3. Trial workout: After the screening, I invite qualified prospects in for a trial workout. They get to meet my team of clients, see how the training is conducted and if they can hack it. I always tell them that I'd like them to give me a yes or no after the workout is completed so we don't waste each other's time if they want to "go home and think about it." If they say no, it's probably not for them, and that's okay.
  4. Electronic funds transfer (EFT): When people "yes" after the trial, I put them on EFT right away. I don't have to collect money, I make a new sale each month; and when clients don't think about writing you a check each month, they don't have the opportunity to think that they might want to cancel.
  5. Send-out cards: I have four cards that I use for all clients (set up ahead of time and sent out when needed): Welcome cards send an appreciative message to every new client the week that they join the team; referral cards go out a few weeks after they begin, telling them that my business is referral-based and having great people like them will enhance my training team all that much more; birthday cards go out to every member on their birthday; and congratulations cards go to clients who accomplished something great in the gym or in their life (i.e. hitting a fat loss goal, being promoted, getting married, etc.).
  6. Referral gifts: When a client refers anyone to sign up for my personal training program, they automatically receive two free sessions. This is a great incentive for them because they can train more, plus I get really cool people because I know that people surround themselves with likeminded individuals.
  7. Intensity and fun: I don't use machines or teeny-tiny dumbbells, and there's no standing around. Everyone in my teams learns the basics of squatting, pushing and pulling and eventually they will even push my car for conditioning work. We have challenges every couple of weeks to keep people motivated, such as the "400-Rep Workout" and "Lunges of Death."
  8. Six-week check-in: Every six weeks, team members undergo body fat testing and update their photo. This keeps people motivated, on track and lets them know how they are doing.
All of these small steps have added up to create a tightly knit group of individuals getting into incredible shape. And since implementing all of these systems, my retention rates are close to 100%. People love coming to training because they get to have a good time, get a great workout and feel appreciated!

Callie Durbrow, CSCS*D, is a fitness specialist in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and she is a USA Weightlifting Sport Performance Coach. Her training programs are based around athletic principles and provide fat loss and strength and conditioning for busy individuals. For more information on Callie's programs, go online to


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