How to Start a Fitness Center

This article is part of our Fitness Business Startup Guide—a curated list of articles to help you plan, start, and grow your fitness business!

You wake up at sunrise to teach the first class of the day at your new fitness studio. You love motivating your clients to reach optimum levels of health and wellbeing. This is what keeps you going when you face challenges or get overwhelmed in the nitty gritty of running your own fitness center.

If this sounds like something you would love to do, then this article is for you! I’ll walk you through how to start your own gym or fitness center, as well as give you the resources to help you start your dream business.

Starting a gym or fitness center is not easy, but it can be extremely rewarding if you’re willing to put in the hard work.

To supplement this guide, I’ve interviewed two successful fitness business owners, Kaylee Cahoon of SMARTCore Method, and Marcela Xavier of Bread and Yoga. What struck me most about both interviews was the clarity and vision the owners had surrounding starting their businesses in the first place, and how specific they were about who they wanted to impact through their fitness services.

How to start a gym divider

The fitness industry in America:

The fitness industry has exploded in recent years. In the U.S., total revenues reached 27 billion U.S. dollars last year. Recent marketing aimed at fighting obesity, as well as trends toward improving health and fitness, have contributed to this market rise.

The low level of market concentration has made a variety of fitness niches accessible in local communities. Only 18 percent of total revenue in 2016 was from the top four largest players in the fitness industry, while small speciality gyms and independently-owned fitness businesses made up the rest.

In addition, many of these gym and fitness centers employ very little to no staff, which makes startup costs and barriers to entry low. With the proper mix of skills, training, and commitment, starting a gym or fitness center can prove a successful business move.

How to start a gym divider

First, ask yourself: Why do you want to open a gym?

Kaylee Cahoon, the creator and owner of SMARTCore Method in Franklin, Tennessee, says that starting a fitness enterprise must come from love and passion, or you won’t last very long in the industry.

With over thirty years of experience in movement, including professional modern dance, choreographing, teaching, and various somatic movement modalities, Cahoon developed the SMARTCore Method to teach clients how to move smarter for optimal health and wellbeing. The method is a blend of somatic movement education, strength, balance, and functional and body weight training.

Her business is driven by her passion to educate clients to pay attention to their bodies for optimal function, not just follow fitness fads and trends that often end up being harmful to the body in the long run. “The fitness world needs to take a much harder look at what’s happening in the body, how the body functions, and how it relates to other parts of the body,” she says.

In 2009, Marcela Xavier, the owner of Bread and Yoga, saw a need for a yoga studio in the Inwood community in upper Manhattan. She started the studio with the intention of creating a gathering space for the community that was inclusive of all ages and people. In addition to the many types of yoga offerings, Bread and Yoga offers a wide array of holistic programs for children and adults aimed at encouraging them to maintain overall health and wellbeing.

Get clear on why you want to start a gym or fitness center

Your reason behind opening a gym will help you maintain the focus, clarity, and drive it takes to become a successful enterprise.

Be honest with yourself. You may find that instead of starting a gym, you want to become a personal trainer or fitness instructor. Make sure you think through the possibilities and determine if starting a gym is really the right choice for you.

Don’t skip the market research phase

Talk with fitness center owners to find out what it took to get their business up and running. Learning from those that are already successful in your given field is a priceless education that can save you lots of time and energy in the long run.

Resources to help with market research:

How to start a gym divider

Step 1: Get trained and accredited

First and foremost, make sure you have the proper training, accreditations, and experience to start your own gym. Your clients will be counting on you not just to help them look great, but to keep their bodies healthy and safe using your services.

There are several different personal training certifications you can choose between, and other types of fitness offerings (such as yoga, Pilates, or aerobics classes) will come with their own certifications as well. You’ll also be responsible for making sure any staff you hire has proper certification.

How to start a gym divider

Step 2: Identify your fitness niche

There are a variety of fitness niches to choose from. Explore these niches below to determine what kind of fitness center you’d like to open.

Specialty fitness center:

  • This niche typically focuses on one specialty fitness class or activity. Some examples include aerobics, yoga, dance, Pilates, cycling, and much more.
  • Specialty fitness centers often offer a variety of class options during the week based on differing levels, intensity, and complexity.
  • Instructors are certified in a particular niche.
  • Specialty fitness centers can often be more expensive due to the boutique experience, intimate design, and quality instructors.
  • Monthly packages or memberships are often offered as an option.

Traditional gym:

  • Traditional gyms often provide a variety of workout options in one location, including fitness classes, strength and cardio equipment, and personal training.
  • They may provide additional amenities including massage, sauna, tanning, steam rooms, childcare, and more.
  • These additional services are often offered for an additional fee.

Medical fitness and wellness center:

  • These fitness centers often provide physical therapy and other medical services to help clients manage, recover from, and prevent health issues.
  • Usually associated with a doctor’s office or hospital that makes program recommendations.
  • These centers often have professional staff specialized in managing, tracking, and measuring the progress of clients.
  • They often provide a variety of educational services for physical and mental wellness, in addition to the typical group fitness classes and gym equipment.

Family fitness and wellness center:

  • Family fitness and wellness centers include athletic and country clubs.
  • They often provide a variety of workout options, including group fitness classes, strength and cardio equipment, and personal training.
  • Family fitness and wellness centers include exercise options for adults, seniors, teens and children.
  • These centers often provide classes and programs for youth such as swim lessons, sports clubs, summer camps for kids, and childcare.
  • May offer additional wellness amenities including massage, sauna, tanning, and steam rooms, sometimes for an additional fee.

Should you start a for-profit or nonprofit fitness center?

It’s worth considering whether or not you’d like to start your fitness center as a for-profit business or a nonprofit.

A nonprofit family wellness center, such as the YMCA, will provide services and programs for community members who cannot afford to pay full price. Often this is done on a sliding scale, based on income; students and seniors also typically get a discount at nonprofit family wellness centers. For-profit wellness facilities do not offer these discounts.

Resources to help you find your niche:

How to start a gym divider

Step 3: Find the location

Once you determine what kind of gym you want to open, you will have to determine how much space you will need.

First, get clear on how many clients you want to be able to serve in your facility. Knowing how much space you will need will help you find a location that best suits your requirements. Do you need street access? Access to parking? Are you in an area with a lot of foot traffic? Will it be hard for people to find you? Are you on a bus route?

Initially, a good location is key to getting clients to your gym. Many gym owners believe that location is worth paying more money upfront so that your business gets seen.

For Kaylee Cahoon, finding the right location was extremely important. She wanted to be in an area that was still developing and where many things were happening. It was also important for her to be around a more highly-educated population, and to have nearby medical facilities since her fitness niche focuses on “educating” the whole body.

Resources to help you choose a location for your gym or fitness center:

How to start a gym divider

Step 4: Figure out what additional staff and equipment you will need

Before hiring fitness instructors and personal trainers, check their training and accreditation carefully. Ask thorough questions during the interview, and consider “auditioning” the person before hiring them. You also may want to consider hiring them temporarily for a few test classes or personal training sessions before committing to keeping them as an employee.

When Bread and Yoga first opened its doors, Marcela Xavier taught about ten yoga classes per week. Eventually, she secured a strong group of teachers so that she could fully focus on the leadership aspects of the business. Finding a strong group of quality yoga teachers was extremely important to her when it came to fulfilling her overall mission and vision, and she did this by holding auditions for yoga teachers to see how they taught, who they were, and what they were all about.

Some questions to ask yourself in terms of hiring staff:

  • Will you be the primary fitness instructor at your gym, or will you need to hire fitness instructors and personal trainers?
  • Will the staff be employees or independent contractors?
  • What are the accreditations and training that potential staff, fitness instructors, and personal trainers must have?

Will you need fitness center equipment?

If you need fitness equipment, you will need to decide whether to buy or lease. Leasing can help you stay current on the latest fitness technology, can give you an opportunity to assess your needs before purchasing, and will often include maintenance of the equipment.

However, if you lease equipment, you give up ownership interest, which might end up costing you more in the long run. Do your research and check with a lawyer before making a decision on whether or not to lease gym equipment.

If you decide to lease equipment, you can check to see if the company is a member of a leasing association such as the National Association of Equipment Leasing Brokers or the National Association of Equipment Finance Professionals.

Resources on hiring employees:

How to start a gym divider

Step 5: Get financed

You will want to make sure your finances are in good shape so that you can get financed. Most financing groups and landlords want to see two previous years of tax returns and financial statements, and before starting your business, you should have enough money saved for personal expenses for at least 12 to 24 months.

Having a strong business plan in place can help solidify funding for your gym or fitness center. Be sure to check out our planning resources, as well as the sample business plans at the end of this guide.

Resources on funding for your business:

How to start a gym divider

Step 6: Market your gym

Once you hone in on your customer base, market and promote your business in places customers spend time. This sounds simple, but it takes consistency and dedication over time to build a solid customer base.

Consider hiring someone to take on a marketing, PR, or social media management role, and if you can’t afford that, do some of it on your own. By coming up with a marketing plan for your gym or fitness center, you’ll be able to focus your efforts and get the word out about your new business.

You may want to offer free guest passes, membership discounts, and other incentives to keep and attract new clients.

Resources to help you market your new gym or fitness center:

How to start a gym divider

Sample business plans and further resources:

These sample business plans are an excellent resource in starting your own gym or fitness center.

Having a well-thought-out business plan can help you solidify your financing and give you the clarity of mind you need to achieve your business goals.

Surprisingly, many people do not take the time to write a business plan and are unable to move forward with their business goals—so make sure you don’t make this mistake.

Below are some free sample business plans to help you get started:

To find out more about various loan options, contracts, and other forms of assistance for small businesses, check out The U.S. Small Business Administration.

To learn about pertinent tax information for businesses, check out the businesses section on the IRS website. You will need to sign up for an EIN (Employee Identification Number) for federal requirement purposes as well.

Find out what documents, registrations, and licenses your state requires for opening a gym online via the Small Business Administration’s Licenses and Permits Resource.

Download your free business startup checklist today!
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Michele Richardson
Michele Richardson

Michele Richardson is a writer, actress and entrepreneur living in New York City. Her writing has appeared in a variety of web sites, and as a published playwright. As an actress, she is currently shooting the indie feature, Serious Laundry. Her newest adventure is developing an online business with her partner, launching in the summer of 2016. She is passionate about creating a life of freedom and meaning for herself and others. For more information, please visit www.inspiredbyamoment.com and www.michele-richardson.com