So you want to bring on a new personal trainer. With all of the competition in your area now, it might seem wise to force them to sign a non-compete agreement. After all, the last thing you want them to do is build up their clientele, then take all of them to another location down the street.

But is it worth trying to enforce? Noncompete agreements have been around in the fitness industry forever. I’ve heard of some standing up in court, and I’ve heard of some not holding up in court. But all of them end up draining your time, energy, and oftentimes your bank account trying to enforce. ¬†The legalities of which you should discuss with a lawyer familiar with the laws of your city/state.

But what I want to discuss isn’t whether or not it will hold up in court; I want to discuss whether or not you should have a non-compete agreement for your personal trainers in the first place.

Now before I go any further, let me clarify. If you have a proprietary product or system that provides you a competitive edge in your community, some type of nondisclosure is feasible and likely important for you to have with your staff.  The problem I see is that a gym will try to force all of their personal trainers into signing very aggressive non-competes, restricting them from EVER training in the community again. This is not wise, nor is it ethical in my opinion.

You hire Susie trainer to train clients at your gym. ¬†A year later, something happens. ¬†Maybe Susie is offered a great opportunity at another gym, or maybe your gym is struggling. ¬†Maybe Susie wants to open her own studio, or she buys a house and her commute is now 30 minutes instead of 5. ¬†Maybe you just don’t like Susie, or she just doesn’t like you. ¬†Things happen.

Do you, the gym owner, want to try to keep Susie from supporting her family?  Do you want to be seen as the bad guy?

For example, if your agreement restricts the trainer from EVER training within 10 miles of your facility, or from working at another fitness facility in your city, or from working in the industry for 5 years; these will not be upheld in court. ¬†Judges will not allow anyone to deny another person the ‚Äúright to work,‚ÄĚ so the language and stipulations in any agreement should be realistic.

If your trainer’s family and home and livelihood are in your city, you can’t restrict them from practicing their craft or keep them from earning a living. ¬†Even if you have a non-compete agreement in place with them, a court will never uphold it.

I understand that you don’t want your personal trainers to leave and compete against you. ¬†You certainly don’t want them taking their clients with them if they do. ¬†In my opinion, if you feel the need for a non-compete agreement, keep the agreement specific and non-restrictive.

For example, have your contract forbid the trainer from pursuing/recruiting their clients or members of your facility.  Instead of forbidding them to work with any gym in town, forbid them from working with one specific direct competitor.  Forbid them from pursuing/recruiting any of your personal trainers and other staff.  You can also forbid them from revealing or utilizing any information they learned during their tenure with your business, information that would not be otherwise publicly available.

If you insist on putting some geographical or timeline restrictions in your agreement, keep them reasonable. ¬†Maybe they can’t work for another gym within one mile of your facility for six months. ¬†That is reasonable, and the court will likely see it as reasonable. ¬†But making them agree to never train in the city again would not be reasonable. ¬†The shorter the duration and the less restrictive the language, the more likely a court is to consider the noncompete reasonable and enforceable. ¬†And the more likely the trainer will enter into a contract or employed position with your gym.

Oftentimes, your part time trainers will work at your location as well as other locations in town. ¬†If you don’t want this to happen, you should be ready to feed them plenty of leads, or provide a working base until they build up their clientele.

And if you really don’t want to worry about your trainers, make them employees instead of contractors. An employee can legally be forbidden from training at other facilities, in clients‚Äô homes, etc. ¬†They also cannot refuse assignments, and can be instructed to use specific methods and programs¬†specific to your gym. ¬†I prefer to see W2 trainers over contract trainers at a facility because the gym owner is able to control the deliverable. ¬†But this isn’t always feasible.

With the competition in our industry at its highest it’s ever been, you want to be seen as a great employer so that you can attract the best talent. ¬†You don’t want to be known as the gym that has restrictive employment or contract rules in place. ¬†You’ll never attract good trainers with that approach.

Many trainers will plan to use you as a stepping stone, and that is expected. ¬†It’s even okay in my opinion. ¬†It’s a free country and many trainers have that entrepreneurial spirit. ¬†Appreciate the time they spend with your gym, make it a great experience for them, and don’t burn a bridge if/when they leave. ¬†Attrition and turnover is a part of our business.

If you’re a hardass about restricting them, you won’t attract the best trainers, and you’ll get a bad reputation. ¬†No one will want to work for you because the agreement would give you the right to treat them poorly and pay them poorly. ¬†Most good trainers wouldn’t be willing to take that chance on you. ¬†The only trainers you’ll attract will be mediocre at best.

Even if a trainer has plans to eventually move on after working for you, perhaps your working environment is so good that they may decide it’s worth continuing to work for you. ¬†I guarantee however, that if you don’t offer a great work environment, they will eventually leave you, and they won’t provide you with their best effort while they are there.

So my opinion is that it’s okay to have a non-compete, or at least a non-disclosure agreement with your trainers. ¬†It’s perfectly reasonable to have them agree not to recruit their clients or your other members if the day comes that they leave you. ¬†It is not okay to heavily restrict their opportunities if they choose to work for you.

Even more important than worrying about them leaving you or hurting you, focus on providing the best working environment possible for them while they are with you.  That will keep them with you longer, cause them to bring in more revenue for you, keep your members happy, and provide an all-around positive experience for everyone.

If your trainers like and respect you, even if they decide to go somewhere else or open their own facility, they’re likely to do it in a way that hurts you the least, and they’ll communicate with you along the way so that you can make the necessary adjustments. ¬†A trainer who respects you is less likely to burn a bridge with you.

What do you think? ¬†Do you agree or disagree? ¬†Comment below…

    17 replies to "Should a gym have personal trainers sign a noncompete agreement?"

    • Sharon

      In my experience here in California, non-competes don’t hold up and trainers know it. It caused us many problems in the past. We’ve switched our training model (thanks to Curtis). We now pay trainers more than any other gym in town, we aggressively recruit and set up hot prospects for our trainers to close, and we have made all of them W2 employees. We did lose three contract trainers who had a great reputation among the members when we made this change, and we did lose some training revenue initially, but we recouped it quickly, and have almost tripled our training revenue this past year. The program is much more organized, everyone knows their responsibilities, and the only fighting amongst trainers we have now is when someone heats up broccoli in the microwave and stinks up the back office ūüôā

    • Jamie

      HA! Let a trainer try to get out of their noncompete. I’ve taken 3 to court in the past 10 years and I’ve won every time. If you try to screw me over and take my clients, I will have no mercy. But I’ve also allowed honest trainers to leave as long as they communicate their intentions and they do it with integrity. The rest of the sharks I’ll sue. I make it clear from the beginning what will happen. Maybe I’m missing out on some good trainers with this approach, but at the same time my top 3 trainers have been with me for 5-7 years without issue.

    • As a former personal trainer who dealt with a ruthless owner before I opened my own gym, it was a nightmare dealing with the legal issues when he decided to sue me. The court ruled in my favor, but it was a horrible year/chapter of my life. I now have my own personal trainers and I try to make the language very clear for them. I have them initial that every client they take from the gym they would owe me $2,500. It’s in more legal terms of course, but it works. I haven’t had to enforce it legally yet, but interestingly a trainer left me last year and his client paid the $2,500 to leave with him. Ultimately several of his other clients left over the course of a few months, but how was I to prove that it was because he recruited them and not simply because they like him and wanted to follow him. It’s a tricky thing to balance. Thanks for the article.

    • You are correct in the aspect that a non compete if it is the only field they are trained in is the main source of income for a person and their family it will be very hard to hold up in court. With that said the part that will hold up and you will win is the part about your company’s systems and recruiting clientele.

      • Agreed, but how do you prove they recruited the clients? That’s a sticky point too. And yes, if they take your systems or utilize things they learned from you, that’s where they can be caught too.

    • Kyle Taylor

      Really great article. I have struggled with these for a while. I have done them just because you do. I am going to rework it with some of you ideas.

    • Having been in business for 25+yrs. I’ve only had a few 1 problem with trainers leaving and no competes, you can’t stop the clients from leaving! Trainers should do the right thing and a legal doc can help, so I all for the contract.

    • Cindy

      What if the clients want to stay with the personal trainer? Say they want to keep the membership at the current gym but train with the trainer at the new gym? The owner can’t stop with clients from leaving.

      • I’m with Cindy. Many people have a close relationship with their individual trainer. It can be an intimate thing, especially if the client was dealing with health problems or significant physical change. Leave the trainer aside for the moment, the business practice of asserting “ownership” over the client could be a turnoff to the clients themselves.

    • Stanley

      It’s the nature of the beast. Trainers leave, their clients leave with them. You’d find yourself stuck in legal battles all the time if you tried to fight this. Just be the best you can be for them while they’re at your gym, hope they’ll do the same, and you’ll likely experience an easy and amicable split when the time comes.

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