Originally written in 2006 by Alwyn Cosgrove & Jason Ferruggia for EliteFTS
Over the past year, we have both received tons of emails and phone calls that go something like this: “I have listened to you for a while now and have purchased several products from you. I’ve watched you and your reputation grow.”
Or like this: “What was the one thing you did or the one step you made that took you from being a ‘personal trainer’ to a more accomplished fitness expert? Basically, what got the ball rolling for you and got you that first break? How did you leap frog the competition? What advice would you give someone aspiring to do the same?”
Normally, we have no problem answering these questions, and we have helped many trainers with their businesses. Recently, however, there has been an alarming trend that we’ve both noticed. People seem to think that the “in the trenches” experience is a step they can skip.
AC: Prior to anyone in the field having “heard” of me through products, websites, or magazine articles, I had been financially successful as a trainer full-time for over 10–12 years. I had opened my own fully equipped gym with four full-time staff and saw close to 300 members 2–3 times per week. While I do make money from writing articles, etc., the bulk of my income comes from my gym. The current line of thinking seems to be that training people and getting results is unimportant and not really required to become a well-known trainer. However, it’s the only thing that IS required.
JF: I didn’t leap frog any competition, and I am far from an overnight success. People see my column in Men’s Fitness or see me on the staff at EliteFTS.com, and they wonder what I did to get there and how they can do the same. The people asking me this question have usually trained three people and have been in this field for about a year.
Do you want to know how I became successful, got in the magazines, and got people to pay big money for my advice and buy my products? Do you want the simple formula for becoming a big success in this industry?
Ok, I’ll give it to you. Start training people when you are 19-years-old and going to college. Continue to do so until you’re done with school. Read a book a week for the next 13 years, go to countless seminars, and do internships. Pay anyone you can find for advice; some of it will be good and some of it will be bad. Use every possible method and system of training you can find or invent one for yourself first and your clients second. Train literally hundreds and hundreds of clients for 6–12 hours per day for ten years. Get great results in your own training and with your clients CONSISTENTLY.
When you have done that, you will have achieved your “overnight success.” That’s when you should start writing articles. Alwyn and I were both in the trenches for at least ten years before we ever wrote an article. We both believed that we had no business trying to spread our word to the masses until we had paid our dues and earned that right. For some reason, this is the only field where people don’t seem to follow that same line of thinking. How long do you think Paul Tuttle of Orange County Choppers worked on bikes until he got a TV show? A year or two? Come on now, we all know better than that. How long do you think Chris Garver was tattooing before Miami Ink debuted on TV? Chris was recently quoted as saying, “It seems like anyone can become a tattoo artist these days, but it takes a very long time to become a good one.”
I agree 100 percent. I’ll add that it seems like anyone can become a trainer, strength coach, or internet guru these days, but it takes a very long time to become a good one. In the shop where Chris Garver works, there is an apprentice named Yoshi. Before they will allow Yoshi to tattoo anyone, he must learn from the masters and pay his dues. This is how it should be in our industry. You shouldn’t be able to get in the magazines or on the websites if you haven’t paid your dues. It’s that simple. If you’re going to trust someone with your body, who do you want putting your tattoo on you—Chris Garver or some art school graduate who can talk a great game and even has a whole portfolio of Marvel Comics characters he drew to show you? By the same token, if you trust someone with your body in a different way (i.e. getting training advice from them), who are you going to listen to—someone who has spent the last 15 years in the gym and has amassed over 10,000 hours of working time with clients or the guy who just got into this field a year ago, has received 28 certifications in that time, and can quote everything Mel Siff ever wrote word for word?
Now don’t get us wrong. We are all for helping everyone that we can. There are plenty of up and comers in this industry who will tell you that we’re always willing to answer their questions and do whatever we can to be of assistance. We don’t blame anyone for trying to make a living, and we love to see people succeed. It’s just that if you’re going to write about training people, you actually have to TRAIN PEOPLE!! And not just for a few years. That does not make an expert. Get a successful training business up and running, put in the time and effort, and then you may be ready to speak to the masses.
The problem is that we both came up the hard way, the old-fashioned way I guess. We spent thousands of hours in the trenches and experienced many ups and downs and hard times on our way to the top. It was never easy, and we struggled to make it many times. But, we persevered and earned our spots. The thing that pisses us off sometimes is the fact that nobody wants to do that anymore. People expect to come straight out of college, get in the magazines, write a few books, charge $400 an hour, and become a superstar. It’s a little disrespectful to guys like CJ Murphy, who has busted his ass in the gym for close to 20 years working, learning, and getting unbeatable results. He is so busy that he barely has the time to even turn on the computer, never mind becoming an internet guru. Murphy will never starve because he is doing things the right way and always has. If the magazines decide not to pay him anymore for his very limited time, he’ll be fine. The guru’s who have based their whole career in this industry on writing and selling products but haven’t done time in the trenches will one day be exposed and left with no choice but to find a new career path. Like Ice Cube once said, “You better check yourself before you wreck yourself.”
So, more articles and more products do not necessarily equal more success. Just keep that in mind. Don’t confuse “publicity” with being good at what you do. There are several well-known “trainers” out there. We were making good money actually training people FIRST. THEN, magazines started asking us about training and people asked about products. The articles and products came as a result of our reputation. They didn’t help us get clients, or get good at our craft.
Good trainer first, marketing second.
AC: I mentioned this once to a “business adviser” in the fitness industry. I had commented that Trainer X literally had no clients. Not one. Yet, he was positioning himself as some sort of expert in the field, working harder to get magazine articles published and products released than he was getting clients and actually doing what he talked about.
I thought it was a valuable point, but the “business adviser” disagreed. He said, “I think it’s great. He has skipped all the bullshit and is making some money and a real name for himself.”
But it’s NOT great. It’s deceitful.
What these people really do is journalism, not training. This is fine, but they’re claiming more than just writing skills. The best journalists and magazine editors we know have never said they were trainers.
If training people and mastering your craft is “bullshit,” then I don’t know what this industry will become. There seem to be several guys out there who are excited at having “skipped all the bullshit” (their words). They are now writing articles and selling products without having spent any time “in the trenches.” Why are they proud of this? They should be ashamed of it.
How can you “skip” the “in the trenches” experience? That’s not an option.
It’s also a key indicator or CLUE of their real intentions. We all got into this for the same reasons—because we have a huge passion and want to help people get better. The best way to do this is face to face, and it’s also the best way to make a difference. If you skip this step, then what difference are you really trying to make? Why are you in the coaching business anyway?
We know guys who have little to no real world experience training people, yet pride themselves on how many articles they have had published. Are you kidding me? The guys with no experience are some of the biggest names in the field. You’d recognize their names if we published them.
If you just won the lottery and needed to invest your money, would you go to a kid that is green in the business with zero money of his own? Or would you more likely trust the guy with a few million in the bank who has been helping clients for years? If you knew this, would your decision be based on experience or publicity? What if the new guy had all kinds of nice looking ads in the paper with a daily column? Would this influence your decision? Or would you go with your gut and seek the guy with the money and experience?
It’s almost as nuts as a guy who has never trained any tennis players or no more than a few high school kids EVER writing an article about training tennis players. Crazy, huh? Oh wait…
Honestly, we have more respect for some of the personal trainers who are working long hours at 24-hour fitness facilities and are actually getting people in shape. They are putting food on the table for their families based on their ability to get results, not just their marketing.
Now, we want to be clear that we don’t think “paying your dues” means taking a shit job, or making shit money. But recently it seems that guys think putting your time in, actually getting good, and spending time on developing your skills in the real world is a step that can be missed.
Unfortunately, becoming a high profile trainer has recently been marketed as if it were a separate issue from just being really good.
It’s the equivalent of starting karate and saying, “I need to skip all the bullshit between yellow and blue belt and just tell people that I’m a black belt. If I skip all that, write some articles, and make some products, I’ll be making black belt money!”
The problem is that you can buy the black belt, make a certificate, and “act as if” all you want. But when push comes to shove—and eventually it will—you’re going to be exposed as a white belt. In other words, you’re a liar.
Before you even focus on trying to expand your business, or your profile, make sure that you’re technically really good at what you do. Everyone thinks that they need business development, and this is true, but most of the trainers I’ve met need to get better at training first! You can’t skip this step. Being really skilled at what you do is the only guaranteed way to improve your business. Marketing and business practices are very important but will only take you so far. Great marketing and a great image will be exposed if you can’t back it up by producing real results with real people.
If you’re just a good personal trainer, start educating yourself rapidly. The more you learn, the more you can earn. It’s that simple. And it’s important to understand your limitations. We all have limitations when it comes to experience. For example, we’re not powerlifters. We don’t train powerlifters, and as a result, you will never see us posting in the Q&A on EliteFTS.com in any areas we do not feel comfortable. We’re not the strength experts. That’s why we ended up seeking out Louie Simmons and Dave Tate and their educational material. It’s ok to find someone to help you. We’re not the diet, supplement, or drug experts either. We might not even know as much as you do. But, we definitely know someone who knows more than you, and all we have to do is call him.
We DO have years of experiencing training athletes and regular people. This is what we do, and what we love to do. This is what we know.
If this step is something that people are looking to skip, then they are in the wrong field. So what do you do? Up until now, this has been little more than a rant. Well, that’s not us. Here is our plan of attack to take your career up a notch.
1. Set benchmarks of success that you want to hit. If you work in a club, maybe you want to become the head trainer or the busiest trainer? Perhaps you just want to have a full client load or charge more money?
Maybe you want to go out on your own or open your own place? (Keep in mind that although it seems like a goal, opening your own place or even working for yourself is maybe not the way you want to go. There are some GREAT trainers who have made a name for themselves working for someone else. Martin Rooney and Stephen Holt come to mind.)
If you’re just starting out, seek out a mentor to help you. Offer to assist them for free or even pay them for their time. It will put your experience and education on the fast track to a level far beyond any financial investment you may make.
2. Establish a level of excellence in everything that you do. How’s your exercise technique? How’s your client’s exercise technique? What if you’re not there?
Your client’s exercise form, without your supervision, is a window into your abilities. If you took a vacation and Dave Tate was supervising your AVERAGE clients’ squat workout (not your star client!), would you be proud of their form, or would you have the excuses lined up?
3. Create a replicable system of program design. There has been a backlash against formal program design recently. The attitude has been “I don’t know what I’m doing exactly until I get to the gym.” This is acceptable when it comes from an experienced trainee, but in business, systems are everything. We should be able to write a program exactly as you do, without your input, by merely following your directions. This is the first step into hiring staff or increasing your business.
4. What are the results of your TYPICAL client? We all have the superstars that we can hold up and say “this is our work!” Well, guess what. ALL your clients are your work, even the “athletically challenged.” It’s easy to show us a picture of a pro athlete who you work with or a Men’s Health cover model and take all the credit (even though these guys were pro athletes or models before they even met you). Your reputation is built on improving the average client, getting Johnny off the bench and into the game, getting 30 lbs of fat off of Suzy. Raise the standards of your results across the board.
5. Think about the type of clients you want. You may want to train baseball players exclusively but right now only 10 percent of your clients come from that niche. How can you target more in that market? Maybe it means offering your services to some local kids for free to build your reputation?
And what kind of clients do you have? If you were to classify them as A, B, C, or D, with A being a highly motivated client in your target market, who trains hard, never cancels, is a great ad for your business, and refers other clients, and D being “you need the work to pay your bills,” how would you classify them? (You can use any system of classification that you want but hopefully you get the picture.) Every three months, you should be able to “trim the & fat” and get rid of the bottom tier of clients. If this isn’t the case, then it’s doubtful that your skills are where they need to be.
6. Start studying the ancillaries of your profession. For example, if strength is your forte, then make sure you have a basic understanding of nutrition, mobility, energy system work, flexibility, and injury prevention/rehabilitation. The goal is NOT to become an expert in all of these areas, but to build a basic level of competence so that you can communicate on the topic and establish who the experts are in these areas. You want to look for THE expert and also the LOCAL expert. This helps build a network for you to consult. It has basically been the impetus behind the Elite Fitness advisory team. To be quite honest, until you are good at what you do, no one cares about your ability to write about it or wants to view your new DVD on it!
7. Now it’s time to study business. Magazine writing and product development all hinge on your abilities as a trainer. Getting good is not a step you should want to skip. If you want to get away from training and coaching, then maybe this field is not for you. Coaching is why we all do this. Don’t be in a hurry to get past that stage.
8. If you want to write, STUDY writing. Some of the top journalists in this field, such as Sean Hyson, Adam Campbell, and Lou Schuler, have spoken to more top trainers than anyone else. These guys know a great deal but NEVER pass themselves off as trainers. Don’t be disrespectful to these guys and think you know how to write. Learn your craft.
9. Business book number one has to be The E Myth by Michael Gerber. Your goal should be to read this book ASAP. A good goal is to read a business book a week, alongside studying training.
The second book to read is Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. It has about 15 chapters. Keep reading this book. Read a chapter a day every day so that you basically read it twice a month.
10. While we’re on the subject of reading, a competent trainer should be reading Entrepreneur magazine, Fortune Small Business, Inc, Fast Company, etc. You should also be reading all the fitness magazines and websites. You can make fun of the fitness magazines all you want, but it’s what your clients are reading and you should know what’s out there. And face it, there’s not a single trainer out there who wouldn’t love to have a column or article in a national magazine. Read the magazines.
(I once read some criticism on an internet forum that said, “Do you think Alwyn Cosgrove will hurt his reputation with his recent book deal and Men’s Fitness column?” Yeah, right. Every trainer on the planet would hate a mainstream book deal and a column in a national magazine because it might hurt their reputation on a forum.)
11. Attend any and all seminars in your area. You’re not that good that you can afford not to attend. We’ve never got dumber from attending any educational event. In fact, the networking alone is worth more than the seminar fee. And don’t limit yourself to only training events. You want your butt in all the business seminars in your area also.
So overall, getting to the next level takes time. There aren’t any steps you can skip or moves you can make to leapfrog the competition. You just need to have a methodical plan to improve your skills and therefore your business, and do everything in your power to execute that plan.