Luke Carlson is a familiar face to many in the world of high intensity training, CEO of Discover Strength, the main man behind the Resistance Exercise Conference and the instructor behind HITuni’s The Art of Selling HIT course.
In this post Luke shares his time-tested insights on absolutely essential aspects of effective personal training and operating a successful HIT facility. You will learn the key attributes that make for a great personal trainer, how to recruit the right staff- often a challenge for facility owners in today’s world, and how trainers can stay excited and engaged after years in the industry. Luke also addresses the unique challenges and opportunities we face in marketing High Intensity Training in the 21st century, as well as how to attract the right clients and keep them for the long-term. Luke also highlights the one area attempting to save money in the short-term can seriously hamper your long-term financial potential. In other words, this is a must-read and view post.
The key attributes that make a successful personal trainer
Taking technical skill, knowledge, and the motivation to keep learning and refining your knowledge base as a given, a great trainer needs to be an excellent communicator: it’s not how much you know, it’s how much you can impart to the client. If a client understands what you’re doing, they will stay a client forever. If anyone ever leaves you as a client, it’s because they didn’t understand, they didn’t get it and we can blame the client, or we could blame ourselves. We could say, if I was a better educator, if I had a way of connecting with this client and sharing information in a way that they were able to absorb it, I can keep this client forever, this client would never turn away from this style of training. Being a great teacher doesn’t just mean you’re sharing the information it means the client is actually receiving the information.
The next attribute is empathy, you have to be able to sense what that client is currently experiencing. The best trainers have an empathy such that it’s like they’re walking a mile in their client’s moccasins, they understand what that client is feeling that rep, or at rep eleven, what muscle failure feels like for them. An empathetic trainer has an intuitive sense of where the client is at physically and mentally and the client experiences this as if the trainer is genuinely and seamlessly with them throughout the entire workout.
How to find great members of staff for your facility
You need a funnel that brings the right people towards you. At Discover Strength we have internship programmes where the interns are engaged in a six-week process of learning and excitement, that leaves them on an emotional peak at the end, where they say: I want more of that. This means that when they graduate from college or university, they’re ready to apply and start our application process.
We also communicate very clearly to every new hire that we have ever brought on board, in the very first interview, that this company is built on the “who” first, and then the “what”. In other words, the people are more important than anything else, then with the right people figuring out the “what” is possible. We are going to win with great people, this journey is all about who we go on the journey with.
Number two is we have to attract people that share a similar set of core values to us, we’re very clear in that first interview, these are the four things that we believe and if you believe in these same things, you should come work with us. If you don’t believe in these same four things, it doesn’t mean you’re not talented or intelligent, it just means you’re not going to be happy, successful, or engaged with us at Discover Strength and you will flourish somewhere where your core values are better matched with the company.
We’re very clear upfront about the Discover Strength values, the potential staff member knows themselves better than we know them, so they have the best equipped filter to understand, is this a good fit? Hiring for value fit is essential because you can teach skills, but it is much harder to teach or change somebody’s core values. If the values fit the foundation for doing really great work together is there from the outset.
How to remain engaged and excited about the process of personal training over the long term?
Firstly, it’s important to be reminded that attaining excellence in almost any field requires tolerance to aspects that may be repetitive at times and understanding the biggest enemy of excellence is boredom. It doesn’t matter if you’re practising as a jazz musician, I don’t care what the field is, what the endeavour is, you have to stave off boredom, because it is constant practice, rehearsal and preparation that allows us to be excellent and provide excellence. And frankly, that’s what a personal trainer needs to do, as they’re going to go through the same scenario over and over and over and over, you have to remind yourself that a mark of a professional is you can perform, even though you may feel like this is routine.
You also need to have the empathy to put yourself in the clients’ shoes. While you may have trained 10 people already today, and you may be have done this for 10 years, that client in front of you, this is their only workout of the week, this is the only 30 minutes they have with you. You have the opportunity to be the most enjoyable, rewarding, engaging, 30-minute period of that client’s entire day. It may sound like a silly analogy, but Michael Jordan used to say, when asked how he put so much effort into both sides of the ball on offence and defence, night in and night out over entire seasons. His response would be: Hey, I know each night when I’m playing at home in the United Center, there’s a 10-year-old kid sitting in the 15th row and that is the only time he will ever see Michael Jordan play. That kid is going to base his entire opinion of Michael Jordan on that game. The same is true of our client, our client doesn’t care that for the last 10 years, we delivered 1000s of perfect workouts, they care about their 30 minutes. We need to have an awareness that the only thing that matters is that 30-minute period, we always say: it’s one rep, one set, one client. By that I mean, the only way you can grow a business is one rep at a time, one set at a time and one client at a time.
I also believe that the best way to stave off any type of mental boredom is learning. The best way to foster or reignite passion is to throw yourself into learning. For me, if I’m getting bored of some element of exercise or the business, I’ll just go deep on that particular element. For example, I just bought a textbook on human anatomy that was recommended to me by a colleague, and every Saturday, I’m reading that book for one hour. And my goodness, my passion anatomy has completely reengaged, whatever topic I read on, my passion for that area grows. I’m telling you that could be taking a HITuni course, honestly, I lived through that three, four years ago, it could be reading Ellington Darden’s new book, it could be reading something by Ken Hutchins, you name it, when I read any of this, my passion grows. Then I’m excited to get back into sessions with clients. Also, perhaps related to this point, is the importance of having a passion for your own workouts, we tell all our staff that you cannot be a great personal trainer, unless you also have a passion for your own workouts.
We get to do the coolest thing for a living in terms of what we’re delivering every day to clients and we get to enjoy ourselves doing it. When we have our Resistance Exercise Conference I feel so selfish and excited going into that conference, because we’re putting on a conference where we’re learning how to grow professionally. Frankly, every time I listen to Doug McGuff, or James Fisher, or Jeremy Loenneke, I’m thinking selfishly from the lens of my own workouts, how can I enhance my own workouts? And then I’m reminded, oh, by the way, this is what I do for a living, and it is going to enhance all my clients’ workouts too. I can’t imagine being an attorney or a physician and going to a conference on a topic that doesn’t have any impact on me personally, it just impacts what I do professionally. We’re in this beautiful situation where everything we learn and absorb can be applied to improving ourselves through our own workouts, and in growing professionally, it’s rare that you get to do that.
Dealing with the unique challenges of marketing HIT in the 21st century
We have to be aware that what people think about when they hear the term “intensity” has evolved over the last few years. In 1988, or even 1998, if you said “HIT”, or if you said “intensity”, people in the fitness industry thought about single set training on well-designed strength training equipment, relatively brief workouts, relatively infrequent workouts. Fast forward to post-2010, when we say HIT to our clients, they will say I’ve done hit high intensity interval training, running intervals on a treadmill, or on a rower, or on a bike. Today, bootcamp style classes and similar exercise approaches are considered high intensity too, the term intensity in popular circles has almost become synonymous with high risk of injury. When we market HIT, we have to make sure we’re telling the full story, that intensity doesn’t mean haphazard, high risk exercise. We have to delink those things and from a marketing standpoint say, this exercise we teach can be incredibly safe and it can also be intense.
Now, that’s important to run messaging about what high intensity exercise is, but I think our main marketing message is and probably forever will be efficiency. As much as I think that our customers are enamoured by the scientific approach and understanding the mechanics of the machines, what it comes down to is they love Discover Strength and high intensity training, because they don’t have to do it very often. And I laugh and say “Your favourite thing about us is that you rarely have to see us. You know, it hurts my feelings a little bit.” It makes sense to people, one to two workouts a week that are 30 minutes long, is palatable. The number one barrier for exercise, whether it’s aerobic exercise, or resistance exercise is that people do not have the time and of course, the high intensity approach to resistance exercise, alleviates or overcomes that barrier.
The importance of selecting the right location for a successful facility
While location may be less important to a strength training facility than a business like a fast-food restaurant where I have to see it as I’m driving on the highway, and I have to be able to get in and out quickly. It is still wildly important: we need the right demographic, and we need the level of affluence. We need a dense enough population that matches our target markets, probably access to major thoroughfares so someone can get to us efficiently. We think about the workout being efficient, but the whole experience needs to be efficient. If the workout is 30 minutes, and once per week, that’s efficient, but if the driving and the parking and the accessing of the facility is complicated, and burdensome, there is now a lot of friction there for the client. In this case we are no longer providing an efficient experience anymore, so location matters.
The other thing I would say is, that it is worth it for a high intensity training, gym studio entrepreneur, to spend more money on location. There are so many high intensity training studio operators who, in their efforts to save a little bit of money on their rent, choose a location that will never allow them to grow their top line revenue so they can make money. They are trying to save $1,000 a month on rent, but that is cannibalising or impeding their ability to make an additional $300,000 on the top line, so you have to understand the math. Is it worth it for me to spend $5,000 in this location, if we think we can do $500,000 in revenue? At Discover Strength we know that we want a location to do a million dollars in revenue, so can we spend $9000-10,000 in rent if the location is going to do 1.2 or $1.4 million? We absolutely can.
You have to understand, if I spent a little bit more money on this location will it allow me to do more business. If I’m really trying to save money great, I saved money and my expenses are down. From another perspective: did I just put an artificially low ceiling on my top line revenue? Be aware that you may be saving money on a cheaper location, but it may hurt your ability to grow the top line revenue.
Attracting the right kind of clients to your facility
There are two key steps. If you have a current client base, you just pick the one or two clients, that love everything that you do, the ones that like everything you put on your social media channels. The ones happy to spend money with you, easy to retain as clients and everything that you do resonates with them. Then you say, “Okay, this is our target market”, you name it, and you create a complete list of characteristics around that avatar, that person. When you understand that person who loves everything you do, what they do for a living, where they shop, how they think, how much money they make, their beliefs, what gets them excited, what depresses them, when you understand all those things you have an audience to target, it’s demographics and psychographics.
The second step is having the discipline to only build things for that person. What we mistakenly do sometimes is we attempt to build things for everyone. And as soon as you do that, you’re building it for no one. You need to have the courage to be able to say, we didn’t build this for you to some people. A great analogy comes from Seth Godin, who says, when a company builds left-handed scissors for kids, as a right-handed adult, you’re not upset that those scissors don’t work for you. You understand that they weren’t built for you. In other words, we need the courage to build things that are only for small groups of people, because as soon as you do, every left-handed kid in the elementary school will use those scissors.
We can think about that concept with our niche in the fitness industry: that we’re just building our service for a small group of people. We would rather have a larger share of this smaller group than no share of the general population. Unfortunately, as personal trainers and business owners we often instinctively think general population, how do we have mass market appeal? I don’t think we want mass market appeal I think we want to get real niche and build something for just that one avatar. And the best way to do that is to start off asking who loves what you’re currently doing, who buys everything that you sell, who follows everything that you post: who is that person.
Reasons that clients will walk away from your business
The number one reason that a client stops coming to a facility or trainer is down to apathy from the trainer. There’s a saying that hate is not the opposite of love, the opposite of love is indifference. If a client senses that we are displaying apathy, that we are just neutral about the opportunity to work with them, that we’re bored with delivering the experience, then they’re going to go and work with someone or someplace else where there is excitement around their workouts. A client always needs to feel that you are excited about working with them.
You have got to care for the client, and you have also got to care about what you’re doing. The client can sense if you no longer care if a repetition is performed perfectly. An analogy we always use is Steve Jobs, who by all accounts was a jerk, but he was beloved because people knew how much he cared about what he was building. He cared about the curve of that iPhone, he cared about what the inside of the Mac looked like, and the consumer and the rest of his peers and co-workers understood this guy is obsessed and cares about what we’re trying to do. You have to remember that the customer always knows when we have stopped caring about some of the elements that make up their experience with us. So that’s number one.
I think a second reason is the client becomes bored. They need variation in what they’re doing and for us at Discover Strength we use variation in exercise prescription under a broad umbrella of evidence-based exercise. We are not going to go outside the umbrella of evidence-based exercise, but we’re going to introduce variation within that umbrella. If someone feels like they don’t look forward to their workout, because they are just doing the same thing over and over, they will probably leave and go somewhere else. And that is truer today than it was five or 10 years ago, because there are now so many options for people out there in the fitness marketplace. While physiologically, we probably don’t need a tremendous amount of variation in applying exercise, psychologically I think we do need some variation or the right amount of variation.
The last reason that a client may leave your facility is that they simply have not bought into the methodology you teach. I think we lose clients, we have poor retention, when the client doesn’t understand the why behind what they’re doing. When we lose a client, the mistake that most people make in the world of high intensity training, is they think high intensity trainers are competing with each other. They’re not, they’re competing with every other boutique fitness concept that’s out there. So, your client is not leaving your high intensity training studio or facility, to go train with another high intensity trainer they’re leaving to go to Orangetheory fitness, which is the opposite methodology of what you’re doing. If we can teach the client why we’re doing what we’re doing, we can retain them that much longer. There are subtle ways to do that, over time, we don’t need to regurgitate the entirety of HIT theory to a client during their first two sessions, everything we know we pass on to the client as their willingness to learn grows.
How to keep clients engaged over the long term, in a fitness market that is saturated with options
Reminding the client of the why’s that underpin your approach to exercise are. There is an 18th century author, Samuel Johnson who says, what we really need is not to be educated, we really need to be reminded, and often just reminded of what we’ve already known.
If you’re not constantly educating, reminding your client why you’re doing what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it that way, someone else is going to be in their ear, whether it’s a marketing message, or a friend saying, “You need to try this other thing”. I’ve noticed over the last 20 years in high intensity training people will stray from these basic exercise principles because they’re not constantly interacting with them. You have to constantly teach and re-teach and fuel the passion in the client for why they are doing it this way. We are constantly telling our clients about recent research, such as how over the last few years, about the benefits of resistance training in warding off mild cognitive decline or improving cognitive function with patients who have mild cognitive impairment. That is a benefit we never even would have surmised 15 years ago, now we can teach and tell the story that these benefits are far more robust and that helps keep a clients engaged.
Another way we keep clients engaged is how we prescribe exercise, while I understand that very little variation in the exercise prescription and workout will produce good results, I don’t think that’s how we’re wired psychologically. We have to utilise every conceivable tool, at Discover Strength we’re using many different routine designs, we’re using so many different movement speeds and overload techniques in a given workout. We might use a 10 Second-10 Second cadence, a two second – four second cadence, a 10 second up – 10 second isometric – 10 second eccentric, a 30-30-30 cadence, we’ll do a 60-60 cadence, we’ll do break down sets, we’ll do pre-exhaust, post-exhaust, and so on. We’re going to do everything that falls under the umbrella of evidence-based exercise, if it’s safe, and there’s a foundation of research to support it, we will use it. That way our client knows we are always trying to cook up a new and improved routine or approach to produce better results for them. Ultimately, they have to be excited about their workout and we have to be excited about their workout. If they sense that we’re not excited about what we’ve programmed for them, then I think we’re going to lose them. We have to demonstrate that excitement for what we’ve created, what we have planned for them. I want every client to know when they come in that man, Luke cooked something up for me today, he’s been thinking about my workout, he’s been daydreaming about what my routine should look like.
Luke’s final words of wisdom
Continue to learn so that you can become or move toward becoming a master of your craft. The more learning you do, the more your passion and your interest for that area will be fuelled. I’ve been doing this for over 20 years, and I am as interested today, as passionate today, about high intensity exercise as I have ever been. When we have people coming into town for the Resistance Exercise Conference, I can barely contain myself not because I’m excited about putting on the conference, because I’m excited about learning from the people that are going to be in town. And I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been able to maintain that same passion, but that passion just comes from surrounding yourself with people that you can learn from, the right books, the right articles, so you’re constantly fuelling that passion.