So You Want to Be a Fitness Professional?


Welcome to Planet Cosgrove.

If you're a current or aspiring fitness professional – trainer, coach, gym owner, entrepreneur – who wants to live here, you have to play by Cosgrove's rules. You have to abandon whatever theories you have about training clients and running a business unless you can prove they work.

Not "works for me," or "should work," or "will work if the client is willing to do exactly what I say no matter how much it disrupts his life." Not "all my friends think my hardcore warehouse gym is the shit."

In Alwyn's World, it's only useful if it works for the clients you actually have – people with jobs and families who give you, at most, three hours a week to get them into the shape they want to achieve, not the shape you want them to achieve.

Alwyn has been talking a lot lately about the business of fitness: personal training, athletic coaching, gym ownership, you name it. His latest book, 55 Fitness Business Strategies for Success, is a lot like his training philosophy: try everything that makes sense to you and might help your clients. If it works, keep it, refine it, and integrate it into the other practices and protocols that produce results. If it doesn't, fuck it.

Starting with a successful run in martial arts, winning a European tae kwon do championship, Alwyn has spent almost two decades as a coach and personal trainer, working on two continents and both U.S. coasts. In between he earned an undergraduate degree in sports performance in his native Scotland and an honors degree in sports science at the University of Liverpool. Along the way he's picked up more than a dozen certifications from various fitness organizations.

That's in addition to coauthoring two recent books – The New Rules of Lifting and The New Rules of Lifting for Women – and running a successful gym, Results Fitness in Santa Clarita, California, with his wife, Rachel.

If you've ever thought about making a career in the fitness biz, then you'd be wise to start taking notes, because we got Alwyn to take some time out of his busy schedule to talk business.

T-Nation: This article is about the fitness business, but I happened to get an email from you this morning about a special project you have going on. Let's hit that topic real quick.

Alwyn Cosgrove: For those who don't know, in June 2006 I began a second go-around with Stage 4 cancer. I had a complete bone marrow and stem cell transplant.

Basically, they kill you with chemotherapy, radiation, and drugs so your body is completely wiped out, then they rebuild you from scratch. They call that "day zero." It's like a second birthday, like every cell in your body is starting over.

Well, this week was day 1,000 for me. I had a check-up this morning and everything is good. Like I said, I was completely rebuilt a couple of years ago. I'm actually only 1,000 days old. I drink a lot of beer for somebody so young!

T-Nation: So after your two battles with cancer you started the LiftStrong project. Tell us what that is.

AC: Going through the treatment, I started realizing that the endurance community does a lot for cancer research. I thought that the strength-training community should come together and do the same.

So I emailed a bunch of friends in the profession and said, "Hey, could you contribute a short article or something for me? We could sell it as a little manual and let the proceeds go to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society."

I got a great response. Fifty-five people got back to me and the little book ended up being an 800-page manual. [Authors include T-Muscle contributors Chad Waterbury, Chris Shugart, Eric Cressey, Dave Tate, John Berardi, Mike Boyle, Lou Schuler, Mike Robertson, and TC.] It was so big we had to put it on CD to keep costs down. All the money went to charity.

So getting my scan done this morning it hit me: Right now the government is dishing out billions of dollars to banks and financial institutions that basically just did a bad job. But cancer research is still funded mostly by individual donations. It kind of boggles your mind when you think about it.

So I decided to ask all my friends to help me promote the CD one more time to those people who haven't heard about it.

T-Nation: Very cool. Here's our bit: Hey, T-Muscle readers, go check out LiftStrong if you haven't yet. Eight hundred pages of muscle-building info for 25 bucks, all of it going to help smack cancer in the ass and call it girl names.

Now, let's jump into the subject of this interview. Why the new project to help people be successful in the fitness biz?

AC: I noticed on the T-Nation forum and at seminars that I was getting asked more and more business questions about running a facility and being a trainer. So, just like any smart businessperson, I listened to the audience and I delivered a product.

There are a lot of good trainers out there who are just so bad at business that they'll never succeed. They have a good understanding of physiology, but they don't have any understanding of financing or marketing or strategic planning for their business. And that was really the idea: to provide them with a bridge between the passion that they have for training and helping people, and the nuts and bolts of running a business and actually making a living.

T-Nation: As a coach, trainer, and gym owner, I'm guessing you learned the hard way with a lot of this stuff, huh?

AC: The 55 fitness business tips are really just mistakes that Rachel and I made and how to avoid them.

Here's an idea: Take a good trainer and double his training knowledge. How much more money will he make? Maybe 1% more. Now, take that same trainer and increase his business knowledge by 5%. Now he might be able to double his income.

Some trainers become obsessed with assessments and external rotators, yet they're unable to have a business conversation with a client or settle a contract. So they never actually succeed. If I was to start dropping names of guys in the field that I know who are financially hurting – not because they're not good, but because their business is not in shape – a lot of people would be surprised.

T-Nation: Most people get into the training business because they love working out and studying nutrition, but very few make the kind of money it takes to pay the mortgage and put their kids in braces. Can a person really make a comfortable living as a trainer?

AC: Yes, absolutely they can. I'd say that if you don't have an excellent income you aren't excellent at what you do.

But don't confuse working out and reading training manuals with what you do for a living. Being a trainer or a gym owner is a lot like owning a Pizza Hut franchise. It's unrelated to how much you love pizza.

It's a business, right? You don't just get to work out four hours a day and read T-Muscle articles. You actually have to work with people and get results. You have to enjoy helping people. You have to enjoy coaching people who aren't as motivated as you. It's a different demographic.

T-Nation: What's the biggest trainer cop-out you hear?

AC: Here's the biggest joke: If the client doesn't get results, the trainer blames the client for not following his advice. That's a cop-out. Maybe your advice is shit! Maybe you aren't a good coach!

The babe maker: This client trained with Cosgrove for two 12-week sessions, with a four-week break in between ... while she was attending law school.

T-Nation: How much of this business is about being a "people person" and speaking the right language?

AC: It's irrelevant how much physiology you know if you don't have your psychology down.

A few years ago, an employee had a female client who told him she didn't want to get "too big." He told her, "You don't need to worry about that because of Testosterone, IGF-1, growth hormone, blah blah blah."

What that female client heard him say was, "Fuck your idea." She had a genuine concern. She didn't know about hormones. He was belittling her concern. It's actually insulting to someone.

So what I usually say in those situations is, "I understand. 'Too big' is a relative term. What I think is too big and what you think is too big could be different. So I'd like you to bring in a picture of what you want to look like and a picture of someone who's a little too big. And I will guarantee that my results are exactly what you're looking for."

Now, I'm not lying to this client. I'm just building a relationship. I'm speaking her language and I'm starting to get her to buy in that I'm her coach and I'm there to help her.

T-Nation: Sounds like the key is empathy, putting yourself in her shoes.

AC: Most of us grew up in the gym. I think I probably did my first set of squats before I even kissed a girl. The gym isn't a scary place for us, but for some of these people it's terrifying to walk through the door and meet you.

I'm not saying lie to the client and tell them, "Oh, this is a toning and shaping exercise and it's going to give you that long, lean look." I'll educate them, but I use words they're comfortable with. I don't want anybody to feel threatened.

You have to be able to relate to clients and really get a buy-in. Get them feeling like this is a team effort.

T-Nation: I know a few trainers who love working with people, but they refuse to do sales, contracts, or any of the parts of the business that can be shady. Can a fitness professional be successful without resorting to sneaky fine print and "sign over your firstborn" contracts?

AC: I hear a lot of trainers who're like, "Yeah, I don't do contracts." Well, you don't make any money! Try to get a mortgage or a car loan without a contract. Take that to the bank and you'll get laughed out of there.

I mean, if you hired a guy to build an addition on your house and he gave you no paperwork and no estimate and nothing in writing, I think you'd run from that guy.

A contract is just a term for an agreement. I'm going to offer a service to you in exchange for you paying me. Here's the agreement, and this spells that out.

What I used to do is have everybody pay me up front. So if you wanted to hire me for three months, you had to write the check right then for the entire amount. A written agreement allows people to finance it. They can hire me more often, or for a longer period of time, without having to come up with the money up front.

That's the benefit to you. You don't have to pay it all up front. You have protection. The benefit to me is that we have an agreement.

T-Nation: That makes sense, and leads us right into the next question: What do you think is the number-one mistake made by people who go into the fitness biz as a career?

AC: First, not understanding that it's a business. Second, not understanding the client's mindset.

Ask all the personal trainers you've ever met if they have a trainer themselves. Who writes their programs and trains them? I bet less than 2% of them have a trainer.

They want their clients to understand that a trainer is useful and effective, yet they aren't convinced themselves. You're trying to sell personal training to someone who needs it, but you don't think you need it?

T-Nation: That's interesting, because in other fields this is common. A lot of psychologists see therapists because they believe in their worth.

AC: Exactly. And I don't mean a trainer to supervise your workout and count reps for you, but someone who'll review your program. If we all wrote our own programs, you know what they would look like, right? We would just be doing all our favorite stuff! You'd never do anything hard.

We've all heard overweight women say, "I'm going to lose some weight, then I can join a gym." That's their mindset. Some people don't think of trainers and the fitness business as a solution to their problems, particularly with obesity. When they think, "I have to lose weight," they think Weight Watchers. They don't think about us.

You grew up in a gym and you train all the time, so you have a completely different mindset. The phrase that we use in the martial arts world is "black belt eyes." If you're a black belt, you're looking for a martial arts school where there's blood on the floor and peoples' teeth are getting knocked out and there's full-contact sparing. But that is not the place you're going to take your daughter, right?

So a lot of us create businesses that we would like: a small, hardcore gym. Well, no one joins. It's rare that you'll make that work.

T-Nation: Here's a trend I've seen a lot in commercial gyms: giving a client a "fun" workout, rather than a truly effective workout. But will a personal trainer go broke if he prescribes squats instead of Bosu Ball hip-hop balancing lunges, or whatever?

AC: I think that it's a balance. No one wants to train with the guy who's a prick, right? So it does have to be fun.

I always think you should make training fun, but don't make fun of training. And that's what these guys do with a lot of that stuff. It's just becoming jokey. It's not going to work.

They may be gainfully employed, but their turnover in clients is huge. They have to keep marketing because they never get anybody in shape. They never have the before-and-after pictures.

There's nothing more fun than a client getting into her skinny jeans for the first time. There's much more fun that day than anything you can come up with.

On the flip side, if you can get clients sweating and smiling and just enjoying the workout, you're doing a good service. What I've found interesting is that some clients are coming in now with something that they want. They just don't come in and say, "Hey, I want to lose some fat." They're like, "I want to do kettlebell classes."

Perhaps my immediate reaction is, "That's not what you need. You need something else." Instead I say, "Okay, this is what you want, and I'm going to give that to you, along with what you need." You've got to make the training enjoyable.

Break out the skinny jeans: This client lost 19 pounds of fat and gained 5 pounds of muscle in 12 weeks.

T-Nation: So trainers are doing all that goofy stuff for the clients?

AC: If you're adding something to make it more enjoyable for the client, that's okay. But I see a lot of trainers working with eight clients a day, five or six days a week. They're the ones getting bored, so they start looking for something new to do. Some clients might be fine with doing squats, lunges, rows, and presses. They're happy. Sometimes they don't like to do new stuff because it makes them feel awkward.

The primary question we use to drive our business is, "Will having this service or product enhance our clients' results or the delivery system to get those results?" If you can't answer yes to that question, then it doesn't belong.

I can justify post-workout nutrition, for example, because this will enhance the overall experience and improve results. I have no doubt there, so I add that in. But I can't justify putting plasma screens on the treadmills. I think that detracts from the results. It may enhance the experience, but it doesn't enhance the delivery of results to the client.

T-Nation: Makes sense. I was working with a girl recently on her training program. I knew what she needed, but I also knew that she wouldn't stick to what she needed. What she did like is (dare I say it) that CrossFit stuff. So I designed her a smarter CrossFit-style workout plan. Perfect for her? No, but she'll do it. I think this helped me understand what personal trainers and private gym owners go through.

AC: I think you're right on. Look, I can give any client a diet she can't follow because it makes her miserable. Like "get up at three in the morning and have three ounces of boiled fish." Let's see how long that diet lasts.

I'm going to fail as a coach if I just use the hardest stuff that I can. A trainer has to think, this is what she needs, this is what she wants, so where is my compromise?

And why did she hire you? If she hired you for a result, your job is to educate her and provide that result. But sometimes they hire you because they want to learn some fun new things to add to their workout. If you took her money and told her you'll do what she asked, then absolutely you have to deliver that.

How long would you have to do that before this client really buys into you? A few weeks, right? It's all about getting that relationship with the client and getting the result. If I don't get that psychological trust, if I don't build that rapport with her, then it doesn't matter how good my conjugate squat-loading protocol is because no one shows up to do it!

I think Charles Staley said it like this: Everything works, some things work better than others, and not everything works forever. So if you have a client who comes in and does some kind of squatting – whether it's with body weight, a kettlebell, or a barbell – you're in the ballpark.

I think it's funny that we argue about which is the best fat-loss method. More people died in America due to obesity last year than of malnourishment. So arguing about whether back squats or front squats are better – well, most people don't even squat! Let's just get people doing something that helps them.

T-Nation: Here's another trainer dilemma. Some clients demand to be sore. They think they're just not getting a good workout unless you bury them. On the flip side, I heard about one gym that said they'd fire their trainers if a client complained about getting sore. They had a "no soreness" policy!

AC: That's just stupid. If you're my client, I have you one hour, three days a week. I can't control what you eat and how you sleep, or how you went out clubbing all night and you got no recovery. You will be sore the next day.

A lot of it is educating the client. At my gym we do each workout for a month. Week one is an introduction week, which is lower volume, lower intensity. Week two is base week. Week three is overload, and week four is shock. The shock week is when I just crush you.

What I've found is that the first workout always gets them sore anyway, because it's all new exercises, and we work a lot on their weaknesses.

Now, I don't get it if someone really wants to be sore. That's easy to do. There's no skill in that. Getting them is shape is a skill.

T-Nation: Don't some clients expect to be sore?

AC: Absolutely. This is going to sound sexist, but if you can make a female client's ass and abs sore and get 10 pounds off her, you will have her as a client for life.

So I'd still have her do an effective program, but I'd put in an exercise that's designed to make the problem areas a little more tender. High steps-ups paired with deep Bulgarian split squats. Crazy abdominal stuff to really accentuate the eccentric. Things like that. I'm not chasing the soreness, I just know it will come.

T-Nation: Let's talk certifications. How important are they?

AC: With certifications, we're confusing education with expertise. There's a difference between a NASCAR driver and a kid who just passed his driver's-ed class. And certifications are on the driver's-ed side of things.

All certifications show is basic competence that you won't hurt someone. It doesn't make you an expert. It just shows that you're not an idiot.

Some people think that certifications are worthless. Yes, probably, but it's hard to not pick them up on the way to becoming good. If you told me that you did martial arts for 30 years and you're not a black belt, that's kind of odd, right? You haven't picked up any sort of third-party recognition of your ability.

Let's say you come to me for a job and you've never had a certification in your life. It doesn't look impressive. I would expect somebody who's good to pick them up.

So I don't put any faith in them at all, but I've learned something with every class I've been to and every book I've read. You're not going to become dumber by going in and taking another class. You might learn one thing. So if you're a professional and you're trying to get better, you're going to pick these things up. But in absolutely no way, shape, or form does a certification equal expertise.

T-Nation: What certifications would you recommend?

AC: NSCA is number one. Now, don't confuse that with me saying that they're excellent, but I don't think anybody is better.

If you want to get into assessments and stuff, Paul Chek has an in-depth course. It's more like a graduate degree. Charles Poliquin's certification is similar. It's not a weekend certification. It's a serious amount of study.

If you want to become a trainer, go and intern with someone in your area who's good. Work for a while and soak it up. Then take a certification to get the paperwork done and be able to get insurance.

In part two, Alwyn reveals how he gets clients to stick to the program, the difference between promising results and promising comfort, and why aspiring actors should stick to waiting tables.

Chris Shugart is T Nation's Chief Content Officer and the creator of the Velocity Diet. As part of his investigative journalism for T Nation, Chris was featured on HBO’s "Real Sports with Bryant Gumble." Follow on Instagram