Bryce Lewis is the founder of The Strength Athlete (TSA) which is an internationally recognized online coaching company. In addition to running TSA, Bryce is a competitive, drug-free elite powerlifter in the 83-105kg weight classes. He holds records in both the USA Powerlifting federation (USAPL) and American Powerlifting Association (APA), and strives to promote the comprehension and love of powerlifting training throughout the world. Through his success as an elite lifter, Bryce’s dream is to pass on his knowledge and skills through The Strength Athlete powerlifting coaching services online. By these efforts, Bryce hopes to help raw, drug-free powerlifting gain more prominence and acceptance internationally. Today, Oct. 7th 2015, also happens to be the two year anniversary for TSA so we want to give a big CONGRATS to Bryce and the team for working so hard to get to this point.
Note from Matt: This interview was recorded from a phone call and then transcribed by me. Some sections may be edited slightly for an easier read.
Matt: I heard that you have an athletic background and played volleyball in college. When did you start to take an interest in health and fitness beyond the sports you were playing?
Bryce: It really began during my freshmen year in college at San Francisco State. I started to look into lifting as a way to get stronger for volleyball since I was smaller than everyone else at 5’6”. I stumbled across the Bodybuilding.com forums and found a few templated programs to follow. I just started to work up from a really, really low level of fitness (I was curling like 15 pounds at the time). Before this I had already been introduced to weights when my parents bought me a combo weight set at a young age and had participated in weight room classes in high school, but it wasn’t until I was 18 where I really started to get consistent with it.
Matt: What led to the weight room becoming a bigger part of your lifestyle?
Bryce: So I had been lifting for a while with these general programs, running, and doing volleyball. I started to build up a group of friends on the forums of Bodybuilding.com and at one point came across a picture of the winner of a local novice class California contest. I figured that I could do that. It just seemed reasonable to me because all I had to do was diet down, compete, and then I could beat him. I think when we’re first starting off part of us is a little competitive. We only want to spend the time to succeed at something if we know we can do well. So that was it. I started dieting down and followed the standard cut diet at the time. Chicken, broccoli, almonds, and blueberries or something (laughing). As bro as you could possibly get. I went to the competition and happened to meet Eric Helms and Alberto Nunez of 3DMJ who were competing as well. I ended up doing 4-5 shows over the next two years and then started to make the switch into powerlifting.
Matt: Was that around the time that you started interning with Eric and 3DMJ? How did that relationship grow over time?
Bryce: The internship happened much, much later. Eric has been coaching me for around five years and still does. At some point I expressed an interest in coaching myself and was curious what the backend of 3DMJ’s system looked like. I wanted to see what they did to respond to clients needs, manipulate training approaches, and so on. It was really important to me to see what it took to become a good coach instead of someone who just put numbers on a page. These were all parts of the coaching process that 3DMJ excelled at in a huge way. So, Eric and I co-coached a client for a while together who eventually went to the IPFs Worlds for the UK after working with us. Our relationship just continued to grow from there.
Matt: So you were a philosophy major in college which is very unique for a coach that’s reached the level that you have. Did coaching simply start as a hobby of yours and grow into something more?
Bryce: It did start as a hobby. Even before I created The Strength Athlete I was getting asked by people if I would be interested in taking on athletes to coach. Around this time I was sort of at a crossroads and considering coaching as something that could be a viable career path. I was really passionate about it and wanted to give back to the powerlifting community. At the same time I was following another big interest of mine and was enrolled in my first semester of working towards a second undergrad degree in biochemistry. The goal of this was to then earn a Masters in Neuroscience and eventually a PhD. It was a path that would have led me to a completely different life than the one I have today. I reached out to 3DMJ to hear their thoughts on pursuing coaching, got a boost in confidence, and eventually started The Strength Athlete. It was originally something that was supposed to be temporary while my wife got a job in Public Health and Policy while I pursued studying something in Education. The plan was to then switch to where I could get a job and she would go back to school for her passion in AstroPhysics (laughing). The plan we put down on paper doesn’t always happen and I’m actually happy that things turned out the way they did. TSA is now an absolute passion of mine. I feel very accomplished and proud that I can work with other amazing coaches and train athletes around the world.
Matt: Over the past few years you’ve grown an incredibly strong brand. It really shows through the traffic you get on your website and social accounts. Thinking back to the early days when you were just starting The Strength Athlete, what advice would you give other coaches who are looking to build an online brand of their own to advance their professional careers?
Bryce: That’s a good question. I’ve been asked it a few times by coaches who were looking to go down a similar path. When I was first starting off I believed it was very important to appear as professional as possible. Before you even start you need a full website, processes, and branding. When people come to you it should appear that they are almost coming to an organization, not just an individual. It should feel very cohesive. Two weeks before I was ready to launch I reached out to everyone I knew that were influencers and that had similar audiences as me. They all announced on the same day that I was doing coaching services in addition to a Youtube video I did. That initial announcement really helped with my credibility and drove traffic to my site.
Matt: So even though you were all in the same space there wasn’t any concerns about promoting another coach because of the relationships you’d built up.
Bryce: Exactly. It’s not really competitive. There are plenty of athletes who need effective coaching and lots of room for good coaches in this marketplace.
Matt: I completely agree. To add to that, what are your thoughts when you see other coaches out there bashing on personal trainers as a marketing strategy in an attempt to separate themselves from the crowd? There seems to be too much of focus on this instead of simply focusing on delivering a high-quality service and producing great content.
Bryce: Bashing other coaches isn’t going to get you anywhere. It’s not going to build relationships, or friendships, which are incredibly important to have. It will only cause problems down the line.
I understand why it happens so often though. Online coaching is a fairly new market and we’re only just seeing fitness professionals view it as something that can be full-time job instead of an opportunity for passive income. For my own business, I work hard from 8:30 in the morning til 9 at night. It’s my passion and I breath this. That’s what it takes to deliver a high-quality online coaching service.
Matt: Regarding The Strength Athlete, I want to commend you for the content and free resources that your team and yourself have produced. I’ve looked at hundreds of websites and TSA’s really stands out. Did you start doing content marketing from the very beginning? What benefits have you seen from spending the time to produce this free information?
Bryce: I guess we did start it from the beginning with the Youtube videos I was doing. Basic videos showing how to do mobility work, tips for technique, and so on. Regarding the digital content, we really didn’t start til later when I got interested in Excel and creating tools. For readers, you can go to www.thestengthathlete.com/freebies to check this out. It was just something where I would make a tool for an athlete and realized it could help a lot of athletes besides my own. As a coach you have to ride that line between thinking that this is my intellectual property and that this is something I feel comfortable giving out to people. Personally, I think that it would be selfish to keep all of these tools within TSA. Our team really wants powerlifting to succeed as a sport and to do that it needs a lot of resources. We’re focused on making our contributions the best out there to push the sport forward. So, we’ve put out our information out there and have had lots of positive feedback. For example, we’ve gone to competitions and found out that numerous athletes we’ve never worked with are using our Attempt Selection aid. Giving back to the community is something TSA will continue to focus on in the long-term.
Matt: That’s super cool and I really hope more coaching teams follow your approach.
So now the team has grown to the point where you have five coaches overall as well as an intern. Can you tell a little bit about how the team came together and how it’s helped The Strength Athlete operate as a whole?
Bryce: Yeah. Number one, as far as the business operating a whole, I definitely would not be the coach I am today without an amazing team with me. We’re not just individual coaches under the same umbrella. We all talk, every single day, through a running Facebook chat that gets about 500-1000 messages a day. We talk about our clients, what we’re dealing with, and what’s going on in the industry. Creating a real team has helped so much. I know all of our coaches very well and have seen their coaching first-hand. Each of us co-coached a client to start so I could their process and provide guidance. I think if you ever plan to bring on someone else you should be extremely selective. Never add a team member just for their name or reputation, but for who they are as a coach.
Matt: Can you tell me a little bit about what the coaching process looks like for The Strength Athlete when your team starts working with a new client?
Bryce: When someone gets started with TSA we have a Skype call with the whole team. We want to connect, face-to-face, and get to know the person beyond the application. The initial application gives you a good idea of what’s going on and what they want, but the skype call allows you to fill in all of the gaps. Our goal is to create a training approach that not only reaches their goals, but ensures that they will enjoy the process as well. This call also helps us find out if their goals are even reasonable. We sometimes have advanced athletes that say that they want to add 100 lbs to their total in eight weeks. We need to keep the goals within reason so we don’t run into issues down the road. We’ve even gone so far as to recommend athletes to just continue what they are doing without our coaching services right now because they are currently making such great progress. When that happens we tell them to just reach out in another 6 weeks or to reach out when they start stalling. That’s really powerful and builds trust even further. We’re not just looking for high-level athletes. We’re looking for people who are dedicated, have good communication, and that are interested in building a long-term relationship. We’ve turned down lots of clients who who simply would be better off continuing what they are doing or who weren’t in our wheelhouse as coaches. So, beyond the initial call we do an interim two week period where I have them collect data on their training, nutrition, and send us videos of their workouts. During this phase we begin to put together their approach and continue to talk on a weekly basis. Just a note on the video, we do this because the sport is extremely technical and we want to see where we can provide guidance. We have our clients take video for all their movements, not just the main lifts, to get started and then taper this down over time once we’re both comfortable. So, when we check in each week we will make adjustments to their training based on what we see and hear from the athlete. It’s a relationship where both parties work together and put in effort throughout the whole process.
Matt: I hope that more coaches take up the practice of having a stronger filter with their clients and stay within their coaching expertise in the long-run. I think it’s finally started to trend this way from the conversations I’ve had with other people in the space. It just makes so much sense in this industry if you want to have a long-term career as a fitness professional.
Personally I really appreciate the balanced approach you have with marketing yourself and your brand. Many fitness professionals out there fall into the trap where they think that you have to appear to be focused 100% on fitness and health all the time to get results or to make a career in this industry. You, on the other hand, can get about as hardcore as anyone but share a ton about what you’re doing with art, design, and take a lot of awesome pictures with your dogs (laughing). Do you think that this more balanced approach has helped your relationships with your clients and your business?
Bryce: Absolutely. I think people like to see that you’re not just a powerlifter and have other stuff going on in your life. It’s ok to share a little bit of your personal life, even if you’re more of a private person, and talk about what you’re doing on weekends, what you’re reading, etc. People love that. It’s not just about putting out an image of who you are. It’s about connecting with people.
Matt: What else are you working on right now beyond The Strength Athlete?
Bryce: Well, the main thing is making sure my wife, Sarah, isn’t losing her mind while she goes through her grad program (laughing). I like cooking and spend a lot of time on that. I’m reading a lot on neuroscience and psychology in my spare time. Graphic design is another fun way for me to spend my time and I’m working on a few projects for friends at the moment. Getting out in nature to explore and do photography is fun for Sarah and I. I’ll also add video games to that list (laughing).
Matt: As you’ve grown your business has it been difficult to balance your time between being a competitive powerlifter and work?
Bryce: Balance has been extremely hard, but balance between lifting and work hasn’t been a challenge at all. The one thing that I’ve never made sacrifices on is my training. I’ve never said that I’m so busy with work that I have to skip a workout on. I’ll skip workouts here and there to do fun stuff on weekends or to travel, but not much else. Having said that, I am horrible when it comes to balance in other areas of life. I have a feeling that I was more time efficient I’d be able to stop working before 9pm each day and spend more time with my wife and dogs. That’s one of the things I’m continually working towards. To not be so tied down to my desk and schedule which is really my own fault. I’ve seen how lots of other coaches do it and even asked for advice. There’s lots of different solutions out there, but I’m just not ready for it yet. I’m not a good example for balance at the moment (laughing).
Matt: So what does a normal day look like for you as an online coach?
Bryce: I actually just handed off some of the admin duties for The Strength Athlete to one of other coaches which has been a huge relief to me. Handling billing, signing up athletes, handling all the backend stuff. That all used to be big part of my day. When you first building a “startup” you do everything unless you have a team. You’re the marketer, the accountant, the executive, the coach. All these roles. So, now I start in the morning with emails and check-in with coaches. Once they’re are all set I’ll work with my own clients and just do whatever is needed throughout the day.
**Matt: We’re starting to see some solid examples as to how online coaching will fit into the fitness market in the long-term. What are you and your team doing to ensure that The Strength Athlete will be around for many years to come. **
Bryce: We’re focused on keeping the quality of coaching high and continuing to get our name out there as much as possible. I think that as long as you deliver a quality service you have the opportunity to have a long-term business. One person I look to as a great example is Boris Sheiko who’s been a powerlifting coach for years and years. He’s a household name and has coached everyone from low-level athletes to athletes who have won titles and world records. If you’re thinking of coaching at the highest level and having a long-term career Boris is a great model to have.
Matt: I completely agree. One of the first individuals in the fitness space that my brother, a strength coach, and I were exposed to was Dan John. As a result we’ve held the view that quality coaching is something that’s impossible to replace and will always a place in the market.
So what else are you working on for The Strength Athlete for the next few months and for 2016?
Bryce: We’ve just put out a free intermediate 9 week program and it’s right around the time that the first batch of people who followed it should be finishing up. I’m excited to see the results, get feedback, and see if we can make any tweaks to improve upon it. We are also organizing a seminar, possibly, with OSU which will be our first one as as team. That’s going to be awesome once it’s all put together. Lastly, we’re just continuing to focus on putting out high-level athletes. We’ve got a number of athletes who finished at the top podium for Nationals and a few who have the chance to make the USA Worlds team. It just makes us excited in a huge way.
Matt: Awesome! I can’t wait to see what happens and will continue to follow the team. Thank you so much for sharing your time and story today Bryce. To follow more from Bryce and The Strength Athlete check out the links below:
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