Almost weekly I get asked one of two questions. Either 1) how do I get myself in the position you’re in? or 2) how do I “make it” in the fitness industry. I’ve told quite a few people I’d do a blog post about it, so here goes. However, I’ll warn you from the outset, this probably won’t be what you’re expecting, and it’s pretty long.
- Spend at least an hour a day for at least 5 years reading things that challenge you. This probably isn’t what you wanted to hear from the outset, but it’s necessary advice. It takes you 5 minutes to register for a blog, and not very much effort to parrot information from other sources. You may think it’s neat, groundbreaking stuff, and you may find 30 readers who agree, but most people will check out your site once, realize you’re really not adding anything to the conversation, and not stick around. Good design and marketing may attract people to your blog initially, and they ARE important (more on that later) but people typically won’t stick around without solid, original information, or at least cogent opinions that actually add something to the conversation about current and relevant topics. Now, just to make myself clear, when I say spend 5 years reading things that challenge you, I’m not talking about the articles on mainstream websites or mainstream magazines. Those may be challenging reading for a few months, and it’s never a bad idea to skim them to keep up with current attitudes and trends, but eventually you need to seek out experts in the field, read textbooks to understand the basic mechanisms in play, and eventually get to where you can comfortably read and understand the primary scientific literature. This should become a habit.
- Start writing (once you complete #1). A lot more goes into writing in the fitness industry than most people realize on the surface. Knowing a subject well is not sufficient. You need to be able to communicate things on a level that your audience will understand. Unless you’re writing specifically to other fitness professionals, that often means you need to be able to distill complex scientific processes into language that the average gym bro can understand, all without sacrificing the actual message. Before I started my blog, I was already proficient at writing essays and speeches, but formal writing (i.e. what you learn in school) doesn’t translate very well to media such as blog posts or mainstream fitness articles. It took me at least 6 months to develop a “voice” that’s, I think, at least fairly readable. Another benefit of writing is that it’s a way of vetting what you think you know. You may think you understand a topic well, but when you put pen to paper, you become immediately aware of assumptions you’re making and gaps in your understanding. You know you need to develop a more robust understanding of the topic before you broadcast your ignorance to the entirety of the internet. Also, if you didn’t know, the internet is usually a harsh and unforgiving place. If you say something stupid, you WILL get feedback about it. Don’t take it personally. Use it constructively to better understand the subject.
- Make connections. You could take this in a Machiavellian direction, I suppose. The more people you know, the more doors you can open, and the more green you can make. Such is absolutely the case. However, more importantly, if you want to stick around and not instantly be labeled as a shill and an overly ambitious but ultimately vacuous social climber, building a network is good (I’d even say essential) for having people to bounce ideas off of. You can’t be an expert in every facet of fitness. Strength is my thing. I’d like to think I understand programming, specific adaptations to various training stresses, and the squat better than most people in the industry. I’d also like to think I have a decent grasp of nutrition, supplementation, recovery modalities, corrective exercises, biomechanics, ect. However, those aren’t my specialties or specific areas of expertise. I have friends who ARE experts in all those areas, though, so if I want reading material about a specific topic, or if a client asks me a question and I’m not 100% sure about the answer, I can ask someone who REALLY understands the subject inside and out. Likewise, they come to me with questions about things in my wheelhouse. In my experience, a lot of people in this industry are really open to discussing their areas of expertise and building connections, as long as it’s obvious that you’re legitimately trying to learn and not just trying to freeload and get their programming/diet/consultation services for free. This is also really helpful when you’re trying to sort through the massive amounts of BS floating around out there. If someone writes a programming article, I can usually tell pretty quickly whether it’s legit or drivel simply for the purpose of getting something published. If I come across a piece on endocrine dysregulation due to changes in gut bacteria colonization on the other hand… wellll… I know enough to say I’m familiar with the topic, but it’s definitely helpful to have people to run it past. And if it’s legit, those same people can usually recommend further sources they’ve already vetted if it’s a topic that I’d like to know more about. Being a good coach is 100% about constantly learning, and the more experts you network with, the more information you can be exposed to.
- Learn basic design skills or make friends with someone who has them. This part sort of makes me sad. For a long time, this blog was black text on a white background with very few pictures or videos. I wanted it to solely be about the information contained in the text. I’m an unrepentant bibliophile, and I have a peculiarly strong affinity for the power and elegance of the written word. However, this is a world inundated with multimedia, so my simple ways eventually had to change. I changed my layout to one with more color and tabs, started focusing on adding pictures or videos regularly, and my regular readership doubled in the span of about 2 months. I aim for the quality of information on this blog to continuously improve as I learn more, but the growth in readership in that short of a time span surely can’t be explained solely by incremental improvements in writing. As you start making a little money, don’t be afraid to invest some into website improvements, HD video capability, some professional-quality pictures for things you send out to people, etc. That’s something I’m working toward now.
- Coach people. This one should be imminently obvious, but there are swarms of people out there giving advice in spite of the fact that they’ve never trained a single person. A lot of things seem to make sense in your brain, but application is what really separates the useful stuff of the interesting-but-ultimately-worthless theory. You will probably not make money doing this at first. Initially, you will be your own guinea pig. Then, you may have some training partners who will allow themselves to be your guinea pigs. Seek out internships with coaches who work with the populations you want to work with. Coaching is a skill that must be practiced. It can’t be circumvented just by having book knowledge. More book knowledge helps you have a broader base of understanding from which you can draw when you’re writing programming or needing to make tweaks to a workout on the fly for various reasons, but it doesn’t motivate people, or instill confidence in your athletes, or build the type of relationship necessary for your athlete to benefit the most from your guidance.
- Don’t expect to make any real money for quite some time. I’ve been seriously studying various aspects of strength and fitness for about 10 years now. I’ve been running this blog for almost 2 years. However, I’m JUST now starting to make any real profit from coaching or training people. Using conservative figures for how much time I’ve invested reading, coaching, getting experience under the bar, writing programming for free, and being mentored by coaches I looked up to, I’m making about $0.40 an hour so far. Now, to be fair, a lot of that time was while I was a teenager, and most people don’t want to pay a 15 year old for programming (though, for context, the two things at the top of my Christmas list when I was 15 were Supertraining and Science and Practice). But the point remains. Between continuously building a knowledge base, getting internships, growing an audience, doing pro-bono work for experience, etc. you should expect to work a lot for very minimal pay for at least a couple years. You can “cheat” the process by taking a personal training certification course and, within a month, get unwitting clients at a local gym to pay for your “coaching,” but in my opinion that’s deeply unethical. Don’t do something just because you can make money off of it if you don’t think you’d be providing a quality product or service to the consumer. For example, I just started really selling programming about 2 years ago, but for 6 years prior I’d been writing programming for free for anyone who wanted it, just to get practice so I’d be able to eventually provide a service I deemed good enough to put on the market. If you have a decent sized readership and you market your services, some people will probably buy them whether they’re good or not. It’s on you to be honest with yourself about whether you’re charging someone for a product that’s worth the price tag.
- Learn to value respect over profit. This is one that most people don’t get. It’s not hard to make a buck. There are a lot of suckers out there who don’t know any better and will spring for a product as long as it’s marketed right. Talk about how your system is “revolutionary,” sprinkle in conspiracy theories about how other coaches don’t want people to find out your “one secret,” and promise to help people reach a common goal (add 2 inches to your arms, 50 pounds to your bench, get a 6 pack, lose 30 pounds, etc.) in a ludicrously short amount of time. If making money is your only goal, then all you need to do is learn how to design a sales page, make up testimonials, and write crappy ebooks. Conversely, if you want to be taken seriously by other professionals, you need to learn to count your value differently. Not in profitability, but in how often your articles are shared, or how often you’re quoted as an expert source of information. Those are the types of things that really matter. From that base, you can build profitability, but gaining respect should come first. You HAVE to assume it’s more satisfying as well. When someone comes to me for programming or a consultation, I think it’s because they can tell I legitimately want to help them and that I have the knowledge and ability to do so. If I was making money hand over fist because I’d duped people, I don’t think I’d be able to feel good about myself or my earnings. However, to quote DanielTosh “who says money can’t buy happiness? Money can buy a wave runner. Have you ever seen someone frowning on a wave runner?”
- Don’t stir the pot just for notoriety. Controversy sells. If you talk junk about a prominent coach, people will read and share what you write because they know it will brew a poop storm, and poop storms are fun to watch. If you want cheap page hits, then be my guest. If you’re playing the long game, then behave professionally and never burn any bridges unless it’s absolutely necessary. And “so-and-so says something I don’t agree with” isn’t a reason that constitutes necessity. Behave civilly. If you have a problem with someone personally or something that someone’s saying, take it up with them privately.
- Deal with people as individuals, not as merely part of your “audience.” It upsets me every time someone adds me on Facebook, messages me a question, and then is surprised when I actually answer it, because they’ve asked other people who never took the time to get back with them. Ostensibly you’re in the fitness industry to help people (I mean, the whole point is to help people reach their goals, be healthier, feel better, etc. Right?). If you ever get to the point where you see yourself as Moses on the mountain delivering the Truth to all the insignificant people below you, then your priorities have become skewed. If you get popular, you will get busy, but never forget that any success you achieve is because of the people who helped you, and the people who read you work and buy you products and services. If someone’s asking you a question, they’re probably one of the latter (or strongly considering it), and they’re giving you an opportunity to be the former.
- Pass it on. I’m just now getting to the point where I can start doing this, and I love it. Most of the time, getting a leg up in the fitness industry is about who you know in addition to what you know. I have no problem admitting that I didn’t get where I am now on my own steam. Lots of people mentored me or helped me get exposure along the way. That’s how it is for everyone. Once you start becoming “somebody,” help out other people who are trying to come up. Give them constructive criticism on their writing, videos, or website. Help set them up with editors of fitness websites. Help them get guest posts on blogs of people in the industry. Share their stuff around to help them get exposure. Don’t rise up and then try to keep others from doing the same to stifle competition. That DOES happen, and it’s a sign of lack of confidence in one’s own abilities as a coach. The way I see it, a high tide raises all boats. The more talented people there are in the industry, the more people we can ultimately reach and help.
That’s about all I have. And since this sucker is sitting around 2500 words, I’m sure you’re tired of reading it too. This is not meant to be a criticism of any particular people, but rather of common practices I’ve seen. It’s also not a roadmap – everyone’s road will be a little different, but since people ask me how I did it, my personal story is the only honest answer I have for them. If you walk away from this with anything, let it be this: your best chance at success comes if you’re doing things for the right reasons. Value knowledge, respect, and the pride of helping people over flash and profitability, and you’ll probably find yourself headed in the right direction.