It’s quite stunning the extent to which the world and our lives have been affected over the past one year. The pandemic changed everything, including our exercise routines. Water bottles became weights, exercise bands and mats were suddenly precious, YouTube became an open gym, and your trainers became faces on zoom calls urging you to hit that extra rep.
Even though gyms were allowed to open in non-containment zones in September last year, the pandemic-enforced lockdown for most of 2020 put a huge crunch in the fitness industry. Only now, since the turn of the year, have gyms tentatively opened their doors again. Fitness trainers, who have had to change and learn new strategies to make a living, are slowly returning to work on shifts. Some, who kept their plans on hold to enter the industry as coaches or trainers, have only recently begun their new ventures. But the struggle to convince clients remains the same. The early hustle in a guarded, post-pandemic fitness industry is as difficult as it was before covid-19 hit.
“The biggest challenge that trainers face is still the same: how to change the conditioned mindset of people who come to the gym. Apart from that, the modern day fitness industry demands a good social media game, knowing how to edit videos, and drawing references from other established trainers,” says Kapil Raj, who started working part-time as a fitness trainer in Delhi two months ago. The 28-year-old has appeared in advertisements for Spice mobile and Samsung, and in a short film called Acid Test which is available on Hotstar.
Raj has also worked in the film industry, grinding out jobs for three tough years in Mumbai. His savings, along with some loans from the family, helped him finish a fitness diploma from the K11 School of Fitness Sciences. The course costs over ₹80,000 but comes with approvals and funding partnerships from bodies like the National Skill Development Corporation and Skill India. “The next step is learning how to leverage my social media for producing content that will make someone want to train under me. For that I need a new phone, which is again an investment into my career,” says Raj, who has managed to get two clients over the past two months.
For some, it is their early introduction to a quickly evolving scene on social media that has helped them grow quickly. Chirag Tyagi, 20, started a Taekwondo content page on Instagram which now has 1,44,000 followers. His expertise with social media content spills over into his private page which has nearly 17,000 followers. Tyagi has played national level taekwondo since he was very young, and is fully into calisthenics. Along with a friend, he opened Alphapack Academy, which claims to be the first calisthenics training centre in Delhi.
“I knew how Instagram works and how to target audiences for maximum interaction. On the first day itself, we got a hundred calls for enquiries. I am not sure how many of those became members but it gave us confidence that we had the right social media strategy to kickstart a venture like this,” he says. Tyagi is in the third year of his mass media graduation degree and plans to study digital marketing while running his academy on the side.
“We had decided how we wanted things to work before opening the academy, but when we opened it, it was a completely different ballgame. Adjusting to the levels and demands of clients was a very new experience. Setting their timings, creating batches, and figuring out the cost mechanics was all very new for us.”
Alphapack has flexible fees, very much like the flexible work timings that people have started adopting over the course of the pandemic. They have a six-day week fee structure, alternate day fee structure, and a weekend-only fee as well. This ensures people spend only as much as they want to workout.
“Gyms will take a healthy cut if you are giving personal training to a gym member during your shift hours. If I train someone before or after your shift, then I can keep the entire personal training fee for myself,” says Kapil Raj.
There is another intriguing challenge that trainers face in terms of getting clients. “Most clients seem to want a trainer whose body type they want to replicate. I am 6’4”, so tall people and those who want to bulk up are usually the ones who want to train with me. But that doesn’t mean I can’t teach a shorter, more athletic person to get stronger and faster. It’s just this whole situation of ‘jo dikhta hai woh bikta hai’ (what is seen is what sells) that is something hard to get past in these early years,” he says.
There is also an infallibility attached to trainers. A fitness trainer named Yong Tien Cin wrote in her Medium blog about what is expected of them: “You’re pressured to be someone who can crank out a split as well as bench press five times your bodyweight (essentially crazy strong and crazy flexible at the same time).”
As Raj says, some transparency in the fitness industry would help, which means more streamlined methods of certification, knowledgeable gym owners, and clients who are receptive to learning rather than just increasing their muscle mass. And until that happens, those stepping into the industry as new coaches must remember that the struggle is real. Especially the one where you convince clients that it’s more important to feel good about their bodies rather than just look good.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.