The fundamental principle behind CFSBK’s pay philosophy is that staff is our most important investment in the gym. Without offering competitive and sustainable wages, an affiliate owner will not be able to hold onto highly skilled professional coaches. Anyone with experience working in traditional commercial fitness facilities has observed the high turnover rate, especially with the most talented trainers. One of my proudest accomplishments since starting our affiliate is our low-attrition rate with staff. In the past five years, we’ve only had one coach we’ve hired leave the gym. Hopefully, that means we’re doing something right, and so I’d like to talk about how we structure compensation for our coaches.
Let’s divide a coach's income into four basic categories:
Personal Training and Special Programs
In this post, we’ll be discussing Group Classes, and in Part 2, we’ll address everything else.
Our coaches receive a flat rate for all the group classes they teach. The longer a coach has been with us, the more he or she will make per class over time. I believe it’s important to increase this figure and compensate your staff for their time and talents. If the gym is growing, it’s not just because of you—it’s presumably also because of your coaches—so everyone's base rates should also increase. Group classes act as a steady stream of income for your coaches, which complements their income from the other categories.
The other somewhat common approach with group instruction of any kind is to pay the instructor based on the attendance of the class—the more people who show up, the more the coach’s hourly compensation increases. The logic is that a studio or gym never loses money if class turnout is really low and the coach is not taking home a sizeable chunk (or even a surplus) of the gross income that’s coming in for the hour. You could spin it and also say that the coach is being compensated better for large classes that require more “work.” This system may seem logical, but I personally dislike it because I think it has some fundamental problems.
The coach who is paid out per head is in a constant state of flux as to how much money they're going to make that day. I want my coaches thinking about how they're going to run the class, not calculating what the next hour of their life is going to put in their bank account. To an extent, the coach who thinks this way begins to correlate bodies in the class with dollars in their pocket and that might take their attention away from the teaching objectives. The coach stuck teaching an off-peak hour class may also end up resenting the gym and their peers who are making more money teaching at popular hours.
Your coaches will appreciate it if you can give them a consistent sense of how much money they will make each week or month from group classes. If a coach feels fairly compensated, it will be reflected in their attitude and willingness to anticipate the needs of students and the overall gym. You're paying for the coach’s time and their talent. A professional, inclusive, and effective class should be expected from every coach regardless of whether two or 20 people show up. Keep the compensation consistent and expect the same return in quality coaching.
Of course, it's a reasonable concern for the gym's owner(s) not to be losing money based on how many people are showing up for classes versus what they're paying the staff. But if this is a legitimate strain on an owner’s bottom line, the gym most likely is offering too many classes or may have expanded their staff too quickly. By offering fewer classes scheduled at peak hours, owners can keep class sizes large enough to remain profitable while still paying coaches a fair rate.
At CFSBK, I started with one class per week that I taught, then very gradually added classes and coaches, only as demand for them required. This was one really important way I prevented our expenses from ever surpassing our income. We currently offer 58 group classes—not including Foundations (12-16 classes per week), our strength program, yoga, gymnastics, and active recovery. Because we’ve grown our schedule and number of coaches so gradually, I don’t need to stress out about what we're making at every hour of the day. This enables my coaches and me to focus on teaching classes and responding to the specific needs of our membership.
A logical next question in the context of this article is how much I pay my staff. For the sake of our coaches’ privacy, I’m not going to discuss those numbers. But in principle, I would suggest starting with an affordable, competitive rate for group classes based on the coach’s previous experience and the number of classes they’ll be teaching. On a semi-regular basis, you should increase it to acknowledge that the coach is getting better and developing professional autonomy—which is an asset to you as an affiliate owner and demonstrates your appreciation of them.
I’m grateful to one of the coaches who’s been with our gym the longest, Christian Fox, for sharing his perspective on coaching as a career and his experience at CFSBK in particular:
“When I discovered CrossFit (post-college, and after having worked in the "globo gym" world for a few years), aside from my fervor over this "new" way of training, I envisioned myself on a path to owning and operating my own affiliate at some point. When I first communicated with David about the possibility of working with him for a while, I was very open about these intentions. Although he told me that he had no employment opportunities at that time, I started attending classes at SBK anyway in large part to introduce Jess (my wife) to CrossFit, and to learn how a CrossFit gym ran. I was looking to borrow a successful business plan. In a short amount of time, I did in fact wind up working for David, still though with the intention of eventually opening my own affiliate. It's been five years now since we met and I couldn't be happier working for him. Opening our own box at some point is not out of the realm of possibility, but I'm in no rush to do it. At first I saw it as the only way to make a decent living wage in this business, but David has proven otherwise. From early on, I respected that his values made his decisions for him, not a desire to make a profit. Everything from the way he's invested thousands of dollars right back in to the gym in equipment and employees, to the parties and events we throw for the community, all of it is value-focused and done in the spirit of being better. David and I share many of the same values. As a personal trainer at my previous place of employment, I was awful at "selling" my services. I focused on doing the best I could do and trusted that if I was good at it I'd do well financially. At the end of the day, CrossFit South Brooklyn understands that a happy staff will more likely create a happy environment for its members. My colleagues and I (including my wife, who's been on staff for over a year now) enjoy a competitive salary, a positive work environment, and the ability to have a say in our work week. It's a progressive place to be a part of for sure, and the longer I stay the harder I envision it to re-create elsewhere.”
What do you think is the most ideal way to handle compensation for group classes, either as a coach or as an affiliate owner?