Marisa Allen, a personal trainer based in Houston, knows that looking great isn’t what motivates her clients to push through burn and fatigue with her week after week. What does? The incredible feeling that newfound strength brings.
“When their focus shifts from chasing a number on a scale to feeling strong and healthy, I know they’ll hit their goals,” Allen said.
It doesn’t echo mainstream gym and diet culture, but it’s what Allen believes—and it works. Each of her clients is different, but feeling strong and healthy, inside and outside of the gym is a goal she has helped many of them reach since starting Marisa Allen Fitness in 2020.
Allen shared with us how she left her previous employer during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic to go out on her own, the challenges she faced running a business for the first time and what her plans are for the future.
A Corporate Culture Clash
Allen worked at a prominent commercial gym for two & a half years. She learned a lot from her former employer and is grateful to them for giving her a start, but disagreed with their approach to personal training.
“It all contradicted what I learned in school and as an athletic trainer,” said Allen, who has a BS in kinesiology with a focus in sports medicine.
Per her employer’s guidelines, Allen’s private training sessions consisted of a brief “warmup” on a treadmill, followed by a 25-minute workout. It was hardly enough time for a personal trainer who emphasizes injury prevention and prefers a solid 60 minutes for a warmup, strength workout, cool down and stretching.
It didn’t help that Allen also had to train everyone as if they were “aspiring athletes.” Her bosses would go as far as to reprimand her because her clients “weren’t sweating enough.” While unlocking elite athletic potential is an incredible achievement, Allen knew that it wasn’t everyone’s goal.
Everybody—every body—is different.
She tried to incorporate different exercises and sneak in a few extra minutes with clients where she could, but it was difficult with her bosses always around. Allen grew frustrated. How could she justify the amount of money her clients were paying, so little of which ended up in her pocket?
“I was making less money than when I waited tables in college,” she said. “It wasn’t fair for either of us.”
A Blessing in Disguise
March 2020. The Coronavirus pandemic had temporarily closed Allen’s gym. She found herself, like so many trainers and gym staff, on furlough, contemplating her future. She battled the uncertainty the way many do—with exercise. Houston’s public parks provided her with all the space she needed.
It wasn’t long before Allen’s old clients started contacting her. They missed their personal trainer as much as she missed them. Per an agreement with her employer, Allen couldn’t charge clients for classes or lessons outside of her job. But, there was no stipulation about inviting them to free workouts in the park.
“I have a lot of exercise equipment, so I figured I’d just bring it to the park and whomever wanted to join, could,” she said.
Taking the Plunge
Many did join, week after week. Onlookers eager for a good workout since their gyms closed also started taking part. Demand grew so much that, in addition to her regularly scheduled park workouts, Allen started offering virtual training sessions via Zoom, as well as live workouts on Facebook and Instagram.
She crunched some hypothetical numbers.
“I realized that I could start a training business if I charged for all these sessions,” she said.
Allen’s gym reopened in June, but she quit after a month to go into business for herself. To her surprise, most of her clients followed her.
“That spoke volumes to me,” she said. “It told me that I was doing something right.”
A Juggling Act
Allen’s advice to personal trainers thinking of going independent is the same that she gives to new clients: Be prepared to put in the work, especially in the beginning.
Allen’s days were spent promoting herself on social media, returning calls, scheduling appointments, and trying to get her website up and running. She became her own marketing guru, and is proud to say that she never had to buy a single ad.
“I was never really the center of attention, so I had to learn to talk myself up,” she said.
Still, wearing so many hats was draining. Allen felt like she had barely enough time and energy to devote to clients. She recalled spending large chunks of time reminding people of her schedule and rates and booking their appointments.
“I thought, ‘you shouldn’t have to break a sweat just to book a session’,” she said.
Finding the Right Business Partner
Vagaro’s personal training software saved Allen and her clients a lot of sweat and time. Her booking page functioned as another website where people could find her working hours and prices, and easily book appointments. She could quickly generate liability forms and other documents that looked more professional than the PDFs she developed herself.
Best of all, Vagaro’s business calendar enabled Allen to dynamically change her schedule, block off time for events, or take some time off when she needed. Being able to finally ditch her physical planner was liberating.
“I love Vagaro’s software,” she said. “It took a lot off my shoulders and made everything so much easier.”
Today, Allen can devote most of her time to training a fast-growing roster of clients, running fitness classes and expanding her knowledge. She obtained her Pain Free Performance Specialist Certification (PPSC) and is also certified in the Barbell Rehab Method. Both emphasize personalized exercise selection and proper form.
Speaking of form, Allen is a stickler for it, requiring virtual clients to send her video clips of them performing a certain exercise so that she can critique their movement. She keeps detailed notes on their progress.
These form checks are as much about safety as they are about making gains. Many of Allen’s clients live with injuries or disabilities. Some are older, or immunocompromised. She helps each unlock functional strength that translates to a healthy, pain-free life.
“I am 100% confident that I can work with these populations and that’s something not everyone can say,” Allen said.
Building on a Brand
This differentiator is a major part of Allen’s brand, which she has big plans for. Currently, she works out of a privately owned gym in Houston that rents exclusively to personal trainers. It is spacious, well equipped and, in many ways, ideal. But it’s only temporary. Allen says that her goal is to open her own facility and staff it with personal trainers who share her values.
It seems far away sometimes and the prospect of adding “manager” to her list of titles can feel a bit daunting. But every long-term goal, in fitness and in business, begins with an affirmation.
“To make anything happen, you have to speak it into existence first,” Allen said. “You have to be your own hype man.”
Vagaro is a cloud-based scheduling software commonly used by beauty, fitness, and wellness businesses to manage booking, credit card payments and processing, marketing, payroll, inventory management, reporting, and much more.