10 Things I’ve Learned in 10 Years Being a Gym Owner

5 years ago I wrote an article “10 things I’ve learned in 10 years of being a kettlebell instructor” It’s now been 10 years that I’ve been a gym owner so I figured it was time that I write this piece. 

Before we begin, let me first say that my gym, Baltimore Kettlebell Club, is a private training studio. We are a StrongFirst accredited gym and we offer group classes and personal training only. This is not the kind of gym where people can just walk in off the street, pay a drop in fee and do whatever they want. 

Given that we are a smaller club, we have much more “control” over our culture. We are very focused on the quality of our membership, and some of the points listed below may not apply to big box gyms who rely on the quantity of memberships.

In no particular order…

1- Community is of utmost importance

We don’t just want “bodies” in and out the door. We want people who take their training seriously and who are respectful. If you can do that, you’re probably a good fit for us. We have a family / friendly vibe here. You do not need to be a social butterfly, but you should be able to say “hello.”

The leader / gym owner sets the tone but it’s the people who create the culture. As the leader you need to keep your finger on the pulse of the culture and direct it. Do you want people who text between sets? What about the use of vulgar language? Political activism? Do dudes take their shirts off at the first bead of sweat?

Some things are going to feel right to you and some aren’t. Figure out a way to promote what you want in your gym and curtail the things you don’t want. As always, have difficult conversations (the sooner the better) privately, politely and in person whenever possible.

2- Smaller is ok

Everybody thinks bigger is better but that is not always the case. In addition to having the right people, a smaller gym allows you to be more flexible to meet people’s needs. 

For example, when the coronavirus pandemic hit, being a smaller gym allowed us to cater to our community. We set our rules to comply with the law, but then we offered times where restrictions were a little tighter for those who were more cautious or more at risk. We also created “timeshares,” where family groups could have the gym to themselves.

Also, during the shutdown (about 3 months) we lent out all of our equipment to our members. Having a smaller, close knit community that’s built on mutual respect, allowed us to do that and have everything returned in a timely manner when it was time to reopen. 

Baltimore Kettlebell Club

3- It’s not only about you

When you go from being a trainer to a gym owner, there needs to be a shift away from you. This is going to put your ego in check. If you think you are God’s gift to the fitness industry and that no one can train people as good as you, it’s probably best you don’t open a gym.

As a trainer, you want people to train with you, obviously. 

As a gym owner, you want people to train with the other trainers in your club. Sure, you may still take appointments and teach classes, but you need to spend time training your trainers and getting them business, too. Otherwise you will become the bottleneck in your own business.

Develop leaders in your gym the same way you develop fitness students. Give people direction, the tools they need to grow, and encourage them along their way.

4- Define your market

When you’re first starting out you cast a wide net because you need the business. However, the sooner you can narrow your market the better.

That does not need to be one of the common demographics of age, gender or athlete vs non-athlete. I think interest or a goal-oriented person is a better target market. It helps to have a student body that has a shared common interest.

Not surprisingly, our target audience is interested in strength, kettlebell, barbell or strongman training. Our members range in age from elementary to elderly. We have soccer moms and soccer players. We have people who have never used a barbell and we have state powerlifting champions. 

Although we don’t market to them specifically, we occasionally get people with weight loss goals. We can certainly help them but because we don’t currently offer nutritional services, so our program is only half of the equation. These folks are often a great fit into our community (serious and respectful) but to advertise to them as having a weightloss program would result in frustration for both parties.

You cannot be all things to all people. Figure out what you’re best at and find the people who are looking for that.

5- New trainers need personal training

It’s best for new trainers to hone their coaching skills with personal training students. If possible, get them as many 1-on-1 appointments as possible before they start teaching classes.

It takes time to develop the “coaches eye” and it’s easier to identify flaws in one person’s technique than it is in a group setting.

Once your trainers start teaching, give them feedback as much as possible. 

It goes without saying that your trainers should be qualified and preferably StrongFirst certified. Trainers do not need to train exactly like you would yet should still operate under the same set principles. 

However, while there might be room for individuality within the training sphere, you will need standard procedures for onboarding, first visits, etc. that everybody follows to a T.

Spend time developing your trainers, your systems and give people ample opportunity to practice their craft.

6- More time working on the gym and less time working in it

You need to spend time marketing, accounting, planning and developing the business. 

It’s easy to get caught up in the exciting stuff like training competitors and writing programs, but set aside time to crunch numbers and do the financials. 

Learn how to run reports, evaluate business software and create systems. These things are essential in any business and unless you are “big time” and can afford to hire a CFO and COO, you’ll need to do it yourself.

The same goes for marketing.You could have the best gym in town but if nobody knows about it, well, you know how that ends… 

Just like you spend time building your body, spend time building your business. You’re a gym owner now – act like one.

7- Take 1 day off a week

You need a rest day. Period.

You will be working long hours, 12-14 hour days for the first couple years is pretty much the norm. Vacations longer than 2-3 days are very unlikely in the beginning.

Though you may be strong and physically fit, 70-80hrs workweeks is unrealistic for an extended period of time. A small business can easily consume every minute of every hour and if you don’t take time off, everything else in your life will suffer. 

Take one day a week to rest, spend time with your family, and enjoy some leisurely pursuits. Recharging your batteries will ensure you bring your best to the gym (whether you’re working or working out).

8- Continue training and leading by example

If you can be in great shape all the time, that’s great. Power to you!

But it’s more important to be real. Practice what you preach. As a trainer, and as a gym owner.

Life throws curveballs at everybody. When they come your way, in the form of injury, loss, or pandemic, be sure you take your own advice.

What do you tell your clients when unforeseen circumstances affect their training?

“If you can’t make it to the gym, do something at home… Something is better than nothing… Just try to stay active…”

Be consistent in your training and consistent in your message. 

9- Continuing education

Keep reading books, attending seminars and seeking out mentors.

This goes not only for training but for business. There’s a lot of fitness business seminars out there that are worthwhile for you to attend.

This was a mistake that I made after years of attending every clinic, seminar and certification I could. My first business seminar was an eye opener for me that helped step up my game immediately. From sales, to lead gen, to relationship marketing; all things that I knew little about.

However, beware of the guru’s who can help you get “47 new clients in 17 days” or whatever. There’s a lot of snake oil salesmen out there. A lot of these guys have never even been a gym owner.

Because it’s really important, I’m going to finish this article the same way that I finished the “10 Things I Learned in 10 Years of Being a Trainer” article, albeit with a slight spin…

10- Create the right environment

People are going to come to your gym for the experience. The training, the people, the atmosphere, the look and feel of the place are all important.

It’s not going to be “right” for everybody, but it should be welcoming to everyone. It should go without saying that your gym should be a place for any person regardless of race, color, creed; but it should also be a place for the new or experienced lifter. The young man or the old woman should be able to train there. If they can train together, you’re doing something right!

I’ve often said that “training is the stuff that changes lives” and when you have an environment where lives are being changed on the daily, you’ve got an awesome thing! 

Keep that going!

Concluding note:

It seems only fitting that in our 10th year we are expanding to a new facility! Our projected soft opening date is July 15th, 2021. The new address is:

4132 E. Joppa rd, suite 100

Baltimore, MD, 21236

We’re looking for highly motivated individuals to both train and be trained. We’re offering pre-sale memberships to all new clients and waving the enrollment fee. Contact info@baltimorekettlebellclub.com