- Penny Smart is a personal trainer who owns a gym on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, New York.
- She started in group fitness at 22 and now she only does one-on-one training for up to $140 an hour.
- Despite the demand for virtual training started by the pandemic, she says she can’t stand doing it.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Penny Smart, a personal trainer in Manhattan, New York. It has been edited for length and clarity.
I opened my first gym in 2004. The current location, which is my third gym, is very near Central Park on the Upper West Side.
I started working out when I was 17. I actually had to lie about my age in order to join a gym because you had to be 18. I got kind of addicted to it and started teaching fitness classes when I was 22 while going to school. It snowballed into continuing education for trainers, as well as teaching myself, and then eventually owning my own gym. At this point, I only do one-on-one training.
I’m definitely very social. I like meeting people. I’m very interested in how the body works, making people stronger, and seeing them improve.
The average independent trainer in New York City charges anywhere between $75 and $150 an hour
A lot of it has to do with the circles they end up in and how good they are. Trainers in commercial gyms make somewhere between $25 and $50 an hour. I charge between $115 and $140 an hour.
I had my oldest daughter when I was pretty young, and the career I was aiming for was social work. But at the time, if I went into that line of work, I would’ve paid a babysitter more than I would’ve made. So what I was doing made more sense to do as a mom.
I had a little more control over my schedule as a trainer because it wasn’t a 9-to-5 sort of thing. I would teach a couple of classes, have a break, then teach a couple more classes. I was able to juggle the things that were most important to me.
I usually get to the gym around 8 or 9 a.m.
I’ve managed to not have to get there so early myself because I have around 20 trainers who work for me, but usually I’ll work with three or four clients in the morning. Then I’ll have a break to eat and do administrative stuff — upkeep of the gym and addressing if something needs to be repaired. From 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. I have another block of clients before heading home, but every once in a while I’ll leave even later.
Some of my clients train four days a week, and some train one day a week. They average between 20 and 50 years old. I like to maintain my schedule and still have the ability to run my business, so I teach around 25 to 30 sessions a week.
Training people is what I want to do most
But you’re limited by how many hours a day you can work, and I wanted something that wasn’t totally dependent on my hours. Opening my own gym was a career shift within a career.
During the pandemic, I was closed for five-and-a-half months, but I did virtual training. I hated it and my clients hated it, but it was better than nothing. If I were smarter, I would be pursuing this more for my business because there’s somewhat of a demand. The problem is that I can’t stand it.
I moved into my current gym in October 2021, and it’s been rough. But as of a couple of months ago, the business is out of debt and moving forward — we’re doing better all the time. It’s definitely still affecting business, but we’re doing much better than last year.
I offer both Pilates and personal training. For the most part, if it’s somebody who’s looking to lose weight, I want them on their feet doing traditional weight training, as well as interval training, circuit training, that sort of thing. But if somebody has postural issues or is maybe postpartum, I point them in the direction of Pilates.
Anyone who’s interested in becoming a personal trainer needs to get certified
There are a number of organizations that are reputable, so definitely get certified because nobody’s going to want to hire you if you’re not — that’s number one.
Number two would be to start at a commercial gym because that’s where you could gain experience and get referrals. Most of my trainers, myself included, started at a commercial gym.
I worked at many commercial gyms for many years in group fitness. I’d only been on staff as a trainer for one year at a commercial gym before I became an independent trainer. From that point on I rented space at the training gym that I eventually bought from the owner.