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Fitness Industry Interview with Dan John

Matt: I recently realized that you were the source for the best piece of advice that I use every single day at StrengthPortal, “The goal is to keep the goal the goal.” It just fits so perfectly whether you’re talking about health and fitness, running a business, or working with a team in any situation. Can you tell me where this piece of advice came from?

Dan: I adopted it from a military phrase, “the mission is to keep the mission the mission.” When I was an administrator, back in the mid 90s, I would be invited to a congress with 1500 people. You’d be provided with drinks, brunch, and lunch at an auditorium with up to 25 speakers over two days. You would be sitting there and would repeatedly find yourself stuck in these conversations that had no connection to what the purpose of the gathering was. We would spend hours just spinning on the same topics over and over. So, I started to ask myself questions such as, “Ok, what is the intent of this congress? What is the intent of this meeting? What is the focus of this newsletter? What is the focus of this day?” So, that became the mission. Go do the mission. The mission is to keep the mission the mission. If you want to be America’s greatest ab coach, for example, and you’re getting into an internet debate with some 18 year old jackass from Nebraska you’re missing the point. You’ve lost the mission (laughing). At some point I realized that this was Sports 101. I’ve been at football practices that have gone on for hours beyond the point where we were getting anything away from it as a team and it hurt us on the game nights. The extra two hours we dawdled around earlier that week in a long practice didn’t help us do anything related to winning the game. The goal is to keep the goal the goal. If you want to be a better discus thrower then you better be doing full turns with the discus because the goal is to throw the discus farther. But I’m telling you Matt, if you’re coaching a discus thrower at some point your athlete is going to turn to you and say that they don’t mind all the lifting, but they want six pack abs and big arms as well. Your job as their coach in that position is to tell them that abs and big arms have nothing to do with throwing the discus farther. It might even be counter-productive. When you apply this advice to business, I hate to be so blunt, but the goal of running a business is to generate profit. Now that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in charity work. It doesn’t mean I don’t believe in communal work. I absolutely do! But if you’re running a business, what’s your goal? A buddy of mine had a kettlebell only gym and one day a powerlifter showed up and asked if the owner had an Apex squat rack. The owner goes “No, this is a kettlebell only gym.” The powerlifter goes, “Well, if you had one of those I’d join your gym. I’d pay you $80 a month if you bought this squat rack.” Well, as a business owner you have to stop right there before you go out and by that $2000 squat rack. This one gym member and his specific needs won’t pay off the investment in this squat rack. If you have a kettlebell only gym then that’s who you are. What always happens is that people just start to drift and drift. They see a squirrel and go running. They forget that the goal is to keep the goal the goal. Once I became a totally goal-centric coach, around the same time as when I was an administrator (it’s funny how life always informs other aspects of life), then I just started to say no. I realized if we want to be this, then this is what we have to do. That’s what I came up with this thing i call the prisoner’s dilemma. If for some reason you only had three 15 minute periods a week to work on your goal what would you do? If I asked Josh Hillis (link to interview), who is a great fat loss coach, he’d say that he would chop veggies and prepare meals because fat loss happens in the kitchen. As a discus thrower I’d probably do full turns throwing something into a wall, maybe a few kettlebell swings, squats, and power snatches. So, if you ever watch me coach and you don’t see any full turns then you should come over and slap me. Why? Because I’ve lost sight of the goal. So, that three 15 minute sessions a week idea is a wonderful way to remind you of what you should be focusing on. Even for your business, what would you do in those 15 minutes? That will tell you what the most important action is to help you win the game.

Matt: I really just need to put that on my wall right above my desk (laughing), I love that so much. So I looked back at our last interview which was six years ago, a few months after we started StrengthPortal. As usual you’ve stayed busy. You’ve released several books, built up your online business even further, done a million podcasts, and even recovered from a major hip surgery. Can you give us a high-level recap of what your focus as a fitness educator has been for the last few years? What have your biggest lessons been while the industry has continued to evolve?

Dan: Ok, there’s a few questions in there. I work with pretty elite groups and I don’t necessarily talk about it a lot. To prepare myself I have Murrey Institute LifeLong Fitness Club. It’s an intentional community where people from all over meet at our home gym at 930 every morning. I just ask whoever shows up what they need to work on. From there I’ll organize a training program based on your needs. No matter what comes out of your mouth I’m going to figure out a way to help you. It’s a mixed group. We could high-level military members, one guy has a Super Bowl ring, one guy was a MLB All-Star, grandmothers, grandfathers (I need to quit using that title as cavalier as I do), people in college, someone who is trying out for Cirque Du Soleil, cancer survivors, and pretty much anyone you can imagine. By working with this diverse group it allows me to experiment. Really quick, I have this theory. One of the things I ask you to do if you work with me is to adopt an underserved community. You’ll notice that most of my content is in close-caption because I work with the deaf. That’s really important to me. I also work with a few people who have MS. Taylor Lewis works with people who have cystic fibrosis. Mike Brown says he works with people that are age 50+, but it's more like 80+. We find that if something, a teaching cue for example, helps someone who is deaf, or someone who has cystic fibrosis, learn faster then we will go try it out on the 1% elite fitness groups I work with as well. If it works there then we figure that it has to work with everyone. So, what I try to do is come up with new ideas, practice different things, develop different things, see if it sticks in my little setting, and then see if it sticks at the next levels. If it does then I write a brilliant article about how brilliant I am! If it doesn’t, then you’ll never find anything on it because I won’t write it (laughing). I bury it in a deep hole. I’ve had a few stupid ideas along the way, but we’ve come up with a few real gems as well.

Matt: So you’re still experimenting after years of training, that’s really cool to hear. To connect back to the first question, what we’ve focused on as our goal for StrengthPortal is that we want to build a software platform that helps make personal training a profession where you can have a full length career. As of right now the average personal trainer career is less than two years. Having said that, in the last ten years we’re seeing a lot of progress across the industry to change this. Gyms are investing more and more into their personal training onboarding and education. Personal trainers are becoming better and better at growing their own independent businesses if they move beyond a big box gym chain. Online personal training has grown like crazy since we first built StrengthPortal. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the current status of the personal training profession.

Dan: One of the issues we have in our field is that the bar to entry is so low and that’s where I try my best to help out. I get asked by personal trainers all the time what they should do next. I always think, “You took the job and you’re asking what to do next?” Don’t take that wrong. My point on this is that I taught history, political science, religious studies, and economics for years. I never went to my Principal and asked if I should go learn about the Middle Ages (laughing) because the bar is set a little bit higher. So one of the things I’m very happy about is that the educational options out there are much better than before. With John Beradi’s Precision Nutrition course you can take his course at home and fill your nutritional knowledge gaps. The kettlebell certifications all kind of cannibalized each other, but you can still get a good weekend course. I’m a big fan of Nick Rians FitRanx. I love all of these things! For context, I’m just talking about this from an educational standpoint first Matt. One of the things that hurts us in this field is that because the bar is so low to enter it’s possible to be the most tenured personal trainer in the gym and to have big gaps in your fitness knowledge. You may have never spent any time learning about the Olympic lifts, never moved beyond just focusing on bodybuilding, and have some voodoo knowledge with nutrition. Maybe you watched a Youtube video and now you think you’re an expert in nutrition. So, in the area of personal trainer initial certification and ongoing education we’re an odd field because you almost have to insist upon it. You have to allow the personal trainers to learn on the job. The average personal trainer at a big box gym is very different than when I teach at St. Mary’s University in London. Those students come in with bachelor's degrees in this field and then work on their Masters. They work with the national sports teams, so when you talk to those guys about things they come in with a breadth of knowledge. So, the next area where we need to help personal trainers is on the economics side. Jared Garcia wrote a book about the business of personal training a few years ago and said that only 25% of being a personal trainer is the actual training. 25% is recruiting, 25% is retention, and then the other 25% is good old fashioned business. Most personal trainers are only really good at that one quarter of the business, the training part, and disasters in the other parts. So, to go back to your original question, the industry is investing in the right areas with continuing the education of trainers and improving the economics. As an industry we need to continue doing that.

Dan John Strength Coach

Matt: With Covid-19 we’re seeing gyms and personal trainers move to online personal training overnight and it’s really highlighting just how important this flexible and cost-efficient training service is. What are your thoughts on how far this service has grown since we last spoke? Where do these services go from here?

Dan: Let’s do this, I’ve been an online professor for 22 years. I started in 1998. At the time students didn’t know what a PDF was so we had to send them a link to the free Adobe program so they could download the syllabus in the first place. In 1998 I was told that maybe one time a year I would have up to 20 students to teach and I ended up with close to 500. Why do I bring this up Matt? I’m bringing this up to share that I have a lot of experience with online education. There are a few things I want to warn your audience about. First, you have to be able to answer this question. How many noons are there on the planet Earth at noon today? 24! So, when put up on Instagram ‘join me at noon for my workout’ only 1/24th of the world knows what you are talking about. So the first thing you have to understand when you train online is that it’s asynchronous. There is no time. Time is when your clients click the button, or when they download, or when they log on. So you have to be careful with how you talk about time. Number two, all the work has to be done before you put it online. If you’re going to have 12-15 exercises in a workout online then you have to have 12-15 videos ready to include with them. Even with the videos, people are still going to screw them up (laughing). So once you put your program up there it has to be completely finished. Not only that, when you put the program up there you should probably have 3-5 regressions for each exercise in case your clients have injuries or if they lack equipment. Number three is the equipment issue. So Matt my home gym has two hip thrust machines, a squat rack, two olympic bars, 26 kettlebells, 6 TRX machines, about 6-7 kind of things for loaded carries including sleds, every kind of thing you would need for highland games...oh my gosh….mats, pads, bands….you name it we got it. Is that an unusual home gym? Of course! So if we did a follow along workout from Dan John’s home gym I can guarantee that no one would be able to follow what I do. If you go to my website the first question on the workout generator you’ll see is “Tell us what equipment you have.” Number two it will ask you what you know how to do. After that it’s pretty simple, but when I talk to personal trainers about this they stare at me like they never thought about it before. That brings me to the biggest mistake I see people make. Now, I do follow along workouts online. If you look at them you’ll notice that they are hyper-repetitive with lots of people participating. That’s very different compared to someone I saw the other day who was doing a KB complex that started with a power snatch, dropped the KB to the back of her neck, then performs a squat, flips the KB over to the front, then a squat, then a press, then a good morning, then a row, and then does a deadlift. Follow me! Well, there’s no way that anyone can follow that! So those are the warnings I’d like for trainers to think through from my experience. There’s this idea, it kind of comes from that BeachBody company, where you stick in a DVD and people follow along. You know, I don’t know how good the workouts are. I’m not going to judge it, but those DVDs are worked on for 9-12 months before they actually start to sell them. Everything comes in one package. If you’re going to teach online you don’t necessarily have to have the level of content quality that BeachBody has, but you have to provide all the content a client needs as soon as they click the button. That’s a very tough thing to do.

Matt: There’s a ton of valuable insight in there that matches with how we have to approach building software at StrengthPortal. Whether you are designing software or a personal trainer offering online training you have to be able to empathize with your customer and put yourself in their shoes. You have to think through the entire customer journey and it takes a really long time to do well. Thank you for breaking that down for our online coaches.

So I noticed recently that your daughter is starting her career as a fitness professional. What is this like for you as a father and fitness professional yourself?

Dan: Both of my daughters have done this as sideline jobs for a while. It’s fun for me to watch Lindsey, she’s in a really good place. She was a Division 1 athlete, which I think helps. She’s a strength athlete. You know, one of the problems one the female side is that there’s a huge focus for training everyone like they are a bikini model. Normal women lift weights and we don’t see enough of that. This industry can be very cruel and I’ll just leave it at that. If Lindsey wants to bank in on the last name that’s fine (laughing), but I don’t think she needs to because she has a unique voice and is really fun. She views things very clearly. She’s grown up in a house where every single member of the family knows how to snatch, clean and jerk, squat, and bench press. Everyone in my house, except my wife (although she is a state record holder in lifting), is kettlebell certified. What’s nice about that is that it’s a lot easier to coach when your toolbox is full. One of the things I love to do with my family is to go out to a field and do a workout. It’s nice because you’re not going to carry out a barbell or anything like that half a mile in the field. If all we have is a few kettlebells, an ab wheel, and a few yoga mats...well let’s get this workout done. I really try to teach my daughters that you have to be constantly adapting. It’s just like the human body. Adapt and accommodate, adapt and accommodate. The job of a trainer and a good coach is to be like the human body because the situation always changes. Six months ago if I said you’d be spending a few months sitting on your butt in your house you’d have said I was crazy. And yet this is the new normal. If you’d have told me when I was younger that Indian Clubs would come back I would have laughed at you. I thought they were worthless years ago and yet I have friends now who swear by them. Kettlebells disappeared years ago and only the Soviets kept using them deep into the 70s and 80s. So who knows what piece of equipment I’ll be spinning around in a few years? But my job and your job as a trainer is to look at these things and decide what is a piece of crap and what is something I might use in the future. To answer your question, we’ve all been doing this for a really long time as a family and it’s fun for all of us.

Matt: To wrap this up, what are you currently working on and what are you excited about for the industry overall?

Dan: Well I am pretty fired up about DanJohnUniversity. Bryan is the guy who does all the work (laughing). He’s inside my brain man! He gets me. We’ve put together a workout generator. The inspiration behind it is that I’ve been answering emails for twenty years and the frustration from answering each of them has been solved with this workout generator. If you have personal trainers on your team just sign up and steal it man! Just go in and plug and play. Go print out the workouts for your clients, I’ve done the work for you. So I’m excited about that. I will probably be coming out with another book pretty soon.

Regarding the future of the industry, I think we’re finally getting back to focusing on real people again. As an industry it was just a circus for a while there, we were just a freak show. I would go to kettlebell certification courses and people would do all of this “look at me” stuff. You can just go to Instagram to see what I mean. And I get it, I know some personal trainers are reading this and saying that they have to become famous to make a living. Well, the quality of your work is your best advertisement. What’s going to help you move ahead in this industry, in any industry really, is your commitment to quality and to continual improvement. Your commitment to being the best you can reasonably be. Now I didn’t say the best you can be, I said the best you can reasonably be. Readers, I’m begging you, stay balanced. Don’t live in the gym. Don’t have every meal from a microwave in the trainer's room. Get a life man. Because it’s all the other parts that the great insights come from. When you’re on a bike ride or hanging out with friends.

Matt: I think that really rings true. I’ve told you this before, but when my brother and I were first getting into strength and fitness in high school we found your books. The quality of the work and your message really had a big impact on us. My brother eventually went on to become a strength coach and I started StrengthPortal and we’ve always felt a strong connection to trainers who work with regular people. Trainers can have an incredible impact on their clients and their local communities and we just want to see more of that. I just want to say thank you once again for your work and your consistency throughout the years.

Dan: One of the things I try hardest to be is the same person. The traditional way to say that is integrity. I told my daughter this morning that I would totally sell out for her, just to make a lot of money for her. She said, “You can’t do that Dad. You can’t sell out.” And that’s good to hear, she gets it (laughing). So just keep focusing on yourself, focus on constantly improving, and if you do that you really won't be far from being successful in this field. If you’re able to do that you’ll be very happy.

Matt: I couldn’t agree more! Thank you once again for sharing your time Dan and I look forward to doing this again in the future.

If you’d like to follow Dan please check out the links below:

Matt McGunagle

Matt McGunagle

CEO & Founder of StrengthPortal. Working hard to help you in between deadlifts and jiu-jitsu!

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