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Fitness Industry Interview with Equinox's Director of Education Matt Berenc

Matt McGunagle: Matt, thank you for sharing your time. I like to start off our fitness industry interviews by asking what led to you first becoming interested in health and fitness? When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in the industry?

Matt Berenc: My interest in fitness was driven by my family. I have three older brothers and they were really physical with me when I was young. Around the age of ten I was chubbier than they all were and at one point they cornered me and said, ‘You have two choices. Either we can keep beating you up or you can start working out.’ We had a weight set in the basement at my parents house and I started working out. I ended up really enjoying it and just never stopped. At one point I even convinced a PE teacher of mine to let me bring in a barbell for our class so I could demonstrate some movements. It was something I just viewed as being really fun, so naturally when I went to college I decided to pursue fitness as a career. At the time, in 1999 when I went to college, personal training was not seen as a viable career by many, my parents included. They actually sat me down and tried to convince me into pursuing a career as a physical therapist instead. I knew I wanted to follow my passion, so I got my degree in Nutritional Science with an emphasis in Exercise Physiology from the University of Missouri. I’ve been working in or with fitness facilities for almost twenty years now.

Matt McGunagle: What were your experiences like as a young personal trainer? What led to you eventually moving into more of a managerial position?

Matt Berenc: I’ve worked in a variety of facilities. One of my first jobs was in a sports facility where my main role was to execute the programs that were written for the athletes. In hindsight, it was one of the best opportunities I’ve ever had because it allowed me to learn by doing. Coming out of university then, and I’d venture it’s largely the same now, you get your certification but there’s not a big training component. You have the theoretical knowledge, but very little experience. So, that job working at the sports facility was huge for me. I’d train the athletes, learn from them, and I’d pick the brains from the trainers about the programs to see why they were organized the way they were. That on-the-job training really helped me. That led me to my next position at a facility where I was doing similar training with athletes, but I had the opportunity to work with general population clients as well. From this experience I learned how to put together programs for different types of clients to meet their personal needs. To give a bit of background on my approach to my career, I grew up as a landscaper. My family prides itself on always having a job and staying busy, so I’ve been working in some way since I was 11 or 12 years old. Whether it was selling pretzels on a street corner or mowing lawns, I’ve always stayed busy. I have distinct memories of selling newspapers on a corner on a Sunday morning while people drove by (laughing). So, that was what led to me having the foundation for the type of service that is required to be a good personal trainer. Many trainers don’t want to acknowledge this, but we are in the service industry. You should be taking the same type of approach to your service as someone who works in a restaurant or as a concierge does for a hotel. I’ve always brought the mentally to my training that I should do whatever I can do to ensure my clients have the best experience. This motivated me to keep learning and ask questions throughout my various jobs and my career.

After I’d gained some experience one of my brothers convinced me to move from Missouri to Los Angeles. I didn’t have much interest in living in LA to be honest, but Missouri wasn’t exactly the Mecca of the fitness industry (laughing). Equinox was a lucky break for me. When I moved to LA I’d never heard anything about their facilities or their reputation. I dropped off ten resumes when I got to California and Equinox happened to be the first company that called me back. I was hired on October 6th, 2005 and I’ve been working for Equinox ever since. When I started working at the Santa Monica club there were only three Equinox clubs in California. I dove in head first. I’d start work at 5am and stay til night. I worked really hard to build my client base and helped each of my clients become successful with their own health and fitness. I was really lucky to have some great managers and eventually one of them challenged me by encouraging me to take on a mentorship role with other trainers. After establishing myself at the club I started leading educational workshops. At the time I didn’t really have any interest in becoming a manager, I just had the mindset of continually asking ‘what else can I do to help?’ If someone asked for help I never said no and I think that helped me a ton. I wasn’t concerned about getting anything in return or what the outcome would be, I just wanted to help. So when our manager ended up moving on I was recommended for the position. Our Equinox club in Santa Monica was the second club at the time to have Tier 4 (now it’s called Tier X), our highest level of trainers. I was marked to manage the Tier X program and I decided to take it on because I saw it as an opportunity to do more of the work I really enjoyed doing. In this position I was able to keep on training clients of my own, to continue to work with other trainers, and to develop educational materials for our teams at the best facility Equinox had to offer at the time. I worked in that role for 8 years before I transitioned to a new role within our company.

Matt McGunagle: I’m laughing over here because in addition to our names we have some other similarities that you just touched on. I’m also one of the four boys, the oldest, and we were encouraged to always be working from an early age as well. We had lemonade stands, sold mistletoe we went out and knocked out of trees, and when we were strong enough we all worked with our father with his furniture business for deliveries. My Dad told me at a young age that the key to doing any job well was to always focus on the work at hand and when finished ask what we could do next. Just that one tip has opened so many doors for me.

So I want to make sure that this fact isn’t missed by those reading this, you’ve had an incredibly long career in the fitness industry with one of the biggest brands in our industry with Equinox. When you first started to work with the company in those early days as a trainer and eventually a manager, what did Equinox look like compared to how it does now? What exactly was it that led to the company's growth and success?

Matt Berenc: As a company Equinox has always made sure that we are looking out to the future. Even in 2005 when I first started Equinox was constantly looking at companies outside of our industry to see what we could do to keep evolving. We wanted to know what other leaders were doing that was working, like Apple in the tech industry for example. Even though we are in the fitness industry we always wanted to try to position ourselves as being in a category of one. That’s always been the mentality for the brand.

Within the personal training program specifically, we’ve always been hyper-focused on the quality of our programs. How are we designing the programs, what type of results we were getting our clients, and so on. We really cared about not just churning and burning clients, we were documenting outcomes that we worked with our clients to reach. It seems like an obvious thing, but back then that wasn’t very common. Even today it’s not nearly as common as you would think. You see a lot of trainers just freestyling or doing a workout of the day, for example. It’s a very different mindset to focus on a specific client's needs and to tailor each session to help them reach their goals. Additionally, and this was probably the same reason as to why I’ve stayed around for so long, is that Equinox was hyper-focused on education. The Equinox EFTI program, the Education Fitness Training Institute, started in its first form two years after the company was started. Equinox was founded in 1991. EFTI has continually grown over the years to what it is now and I’ve had the honor being the Director of Education for EFTI for the last five years. This program is something that very few gym chains had then and even now. It’s an established curriculum that we take our trainers through to improve their knowledge. It’s not about sessions or numbers, it’s about completing educational courses so you can get promoted. There is a business component to it, but we’re not like other companies where it’s just about hitting your sales number at the end of the month as the promotion criteria. Equinox cares about whether you’ve upskilled your knowledge base. We want to ensure that at each level of training that a trainer can move up to they can offer an even better service than before.

Matt McGunagle: That is super fascinating to me. Equinox is obviously a private company, but it’s speculated that the Equinox training program from a revenue standpoint might be the largest and most profitable personal training service in the world. I’m a bit younger than you, but the big thing that shocked me when I first came into the industry is that companies didn’t make large investments into their personal trainers or programs. I knew, as someone who has multiple personal trainers in their family, how much value a personal trainer has to a client of theirs AND to the gym. You’re saying that Equinox has been heavily investing into their personal trainers and the program overall since 1993. That program is almost 30 years old and look at how the investment has paid off. It’s incredible. Equinox’s profitable personal training program has led the company to be able to expand to as many locations as it has now. Not only is it an incredibly profitable service, but I’m sure it’s one of the core reasons for why Equinox gym members retention is as high as it is as well.

Matt Berenc: That’s exactly it. When you think about the business of training what it really boils down to is whether a client can see themselves working with you. In essence, they are saying that they like you enough to want to spend time with you. It’s a hard pill to swallow because as trainers we spend so much time on the education and the science of our jobs, but once you hit a certain baseline of knowledge clients are really just looking for a connection with their trainer. Now, the reason they stay with you is because of what you can do for them. That’s where the science and educational value kicks in. I think for a while in our industry there was a really strong focus on just becoming friends with your clients so you could sign them up, but in the long-term if you don’t get them results that relationship will start to erode. Clients won’t throw money at you month after month to just hang out with you a few days a week. As a personal training program Equinox trainers focus on first building the rapport with our clients to develop trust and then working as hard as possible to prove to them that this was the right investment for them. We want to lead our industry in getting results.

Matt McGunagle: The onboarding and educational process is something that I’m very familiar with and I’ve seen the value that it has first-hand. My brother and my partner both started working for Equinox after college for their first personal training jobs. Each of them were really successful in building their client base and getting results. It was incredible to watch each of them grow.

I’d love to dive into the details of the program a bit further. As the Educational team what are you focused on within the first 3-6 months when onboarding new trainers to your clubs across the country? What specifically are you doing to best position the trainers to build their confidence and their client roster?

Matt Berenc: If you look across any industry you’ll find that the most successful companies have a strong onboarding process, so we knew just how important this was for us at Equinox. When someone is joining, the first thing we want to let them know clearly is exactly what it takes to be successful at Equinox as a personal trainer. What does our uniform look like? What is the intent behind our assessments? How do we approach workout programming for our clients? How do we interact with gym members on the floor? We go over everything, regardless of what a new trainers background is. Everyone starts off at the same place and our goal is to let them know what our expectations are. We need them to understand this because Equinox anchors itself to the quality of its service. To use programming as an example, trainers still have the ability to program whatever exercises that they see as the best fit for their clients, but the program itself still has to meet certain guidelines that ensure we are delivering the level of quality service we want to as an organization. After this foundation is established with our educational process we do have paths for trainers to leverage their prior experience to customize what their educational process will look like from there, the fastrack process. Trainers will take an exam so we can tell what they know now and what we need to focus on to backfill their knowledge. If someone is brand new to the industry they don’t even have to worry about taking that exam, we will build them from the ground up. They will go from Tier 1 to Tier 2 and so on. If someone has prior experience, like I did when I joined Equinox with a degree and certification, you can test out of Tier 1 and go to Tier 2. Even with all the experience I had when I started I still went through the proprietary Equinox training onboarding education so I knew what was expected from me. From there, I was able to fastrack my education and tiers. We do want to respect the experience that trainers have coming in and not get in their way. A baseline is set and then we ask what we can do to continue to invest in them and support them in the long-term. So, that’s what the first 3-6 months look like and then we will outline what your educational path looks like from there through Tiers 1, 2, 3, 3+, and so on.

Equinox Fitness Clubs EFTI Program Matt Berenc

Matt McGunagle: There’s so many nuggets of wisdom in the process you’re describing. Everyone starts off on the same foot, so there’s a shared experience which is really powerful when building a team. But from there you’re making sure not to hold anyone back and instead ensuring that each trainer's personal needs are met from an education standpoint, just like you would for Equinox gym members with their programs.

To continue on this train of thought, let’s talk about what it looks as an Equinox trainer progresses through the tiers. How is the system designed to ensure they are continually benefitting from their growing experience and knowledge? What opportunities are there for trainers to continue to increase their impact within Equinox?

Matt Berenc: Once you’re established with your business, your educational path, and your skills are continually improving we want to be able to offer opportunities for trainers to move forward as well. Whether it is becoming an Equinox Manager or an Equinox Master Instructor that mentors other trainers in the club, we create different paths for the trainers to follow so there’s not a ceiling with the training tiers. Specifically within EFTI, the Master Instructor program is designed to take our trainers who are the best of the best and teach them how to be facilitators and educators. It’s a great fit because the vast majority of trainers first get into the industry because they love training and the fitness side. They very rarely think of themselves as teachers. I feel that a trainer is just a teacher in a different type of classroom and there’s a ton of value in that. The Master Instructor program goes really deep on the education of how to lead a class, how to teach each trainer effectively. One of the most important things we say is that it’s not about showing other trainers how much you know, it’s about getting them to walk away motivated with how much they can do with these new skills they are being introduced to. Master Instructors really are the heart and sole of the EFTI program. They are actively involved on a regional level helping trainers as they build their own careers. It’s a really powerful relationship. You get the opportunity to watch the trainers you work with eventually become Master Instructors themselves or Managers at our clubs.

Matt McGunagle: So StrengthPortal and Equinox have partnered and been working together for just over two years now. You and I have worked closely together to replace the old system, which was powered by spreadsheets. Now, with StrengthPortal, Equinox has a software platform that allows your trainers to leverage a standard exercise and program template library across 100 locations to be used for all workout programming and tracking with your gym members. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how adding StrengthPortal to your educational and programming process has helped Equinox as an organization.

Matt Berenc: Being able to add StrengthPortal has been huge for us. It’s allowed us to elevate the quality of service that we can bring to our clients. Just as you were saying, historically like most companies Equinox trainers were using Excel or Google spreadsheets for sharing templates and writing workout programs. When I started working at Equinox there was a pamphlet that we used to write everything by hand (laughing). That works to a degree, but transitioning to using StrengthPortal allows us to be more organized with how we are writing our programs and how we are able to engage our clients with their programs. You called it out in the question, but the importance of having a standard Exercise and Program Template Library is huge for us. We’re seeing personal trainers get younger and younger when they come into our industry to start their career. Just like I was saying before, I was really lucky with my first personal training job where I was able to learn from having someone else write the programs I was executing and gain my experience from executing the workouts with the athletes. StrengthPortal allows us to do that same thing on a broader scale, at more than 100 clubs. When a trainer comes into Equinox on day one instead of saying go write a program from scratch with no experience they are provided with a workout program template in StrengthPortal. The template isn’t designed to be used over and over again so that trainers are executing the same workouts for clients across all of our locations, instead it can be personalized to match each of their client's specific needs. Over time we want our trainers to be able to take our templates, make them their own, and to be able to continue to refine and improve upon them. Overall these templates are a huge time saver for us on the EFTI team and our trainers. On our end as EFTI, we can create a new workout program template and immediately share it with all of our training teams at every club. These templates help show our trainers how they should be thinking about structuring a program, how to regress or progress certain movements to match your clients needs, and so on.

Matt McGunagle: I think this was something we both anticipated prior to rolling out the platform at Equinox, but it was really interesting to see it play out exactly like that. Now we can see the data across all of your clubs which shows that Tier 1 and Tier 2 trainers at Equinox really do leverage the templates as their starting points for programming and the higher Tiers tend to write their programs from scratch.

Matt Berenc: And that’s exactly what we want. As someone becomes more experienced in the industry we want them to take the reins. I can’t remember who I heard this from, it's been a few years, but the analogy between training and restaurant jobs with the cook, sous chef, and the chef really fits here. If you’re the cook you essentially follow the recipe that you’ve been given. If you’re the sous chef you add your own spices and twists here and there. If you’re the chef you create the recipe and that’s where we want our trainers to get to. That’s Tier 1, 2, and 3 for us. Tier 1 trainers, they trust the process and follow the recipe. Tier 2 they start tweaking and adjusting. At Tier 3 go ahead and build your program. You’ve put in the time with your education and built up your experience. Write your own recipe.

Matt McGunagle: I love that, I’ll have to remember that one.

Continuing along those lines, what other benefits have you seen from working with StrengthPortal so far?

Matt Berenc: One of the features that's been a big help is the ability to build and customize a standard exercise library that trainers can access across every location. As you know, when you come into the industry as a personal trainer you likely know the basic exercises, but there’s a lot of variations that you may not be familiar with. With StrengthPortal we’ve built our exercise library and have exercise groups that show the available progressions for specific movement patterns. This gives our trainers another resource to grow their knowledge and can give them new ideas for programming with their clients. We’re able to put in our own branded Equinox videos and write in the instructions on how to coach your clients through the exercise. The nice thing is that we can continue to grow and improve this exercise library over time, it isn’t static. The resource will become more and more valuable to our trainers with new techniques and options being added all the time.

Matt McGunagle: Another key feature that StrengthPortal has that was important to our partnership with Equinox is the ability to be able to leverage our API to connect to your pre-existing platforms and apps. Now an Equinox trainer has the ability to not only write programs and track workouts with clients for their in-person private training, but they can also send workouts to their clients to track on their own through the Equinox gym member app. So this really opened the door for Equinox for the first time to have a scalable training service that extends beyond the gym. Can you share your thoughts on these new training services and what that means for Equinox in the future?

Matt Berenc: It’s a huge value add to our clients. Prior to having StrengthPortal trainers would simply share spreadsheets, emails, or a text of workouts to their clients for homework outside of the gym. I even did that when I was a trainer and manager (laughing) and it never felt quite right. It never was a seamless experience. Now, receiving that workout within the Equinox gym member app is just a better user experience overall which is exactly what we are aiming for. Not only is this better for the client, but it also opens up the door for our trainers to get even more data from their clients than before. As a trainer I can see if you actually did the workout, the workout data you saved, and if you had any feedback on the workout. If the trainer and the client are only meeting 1-2 days a week now I have access to the data when you’re not meeting with me and can clearly see if we’re making progress to hit your goals. We have more engagement than before and this helps keep the client accountable. We’ve found in the past that one of the reasons it was hard for clients to stay active when they weren’t able to make it into the gym was because they didn’t know what to do or didn’t want to do the wrong thing. It’s not that they didn’t have the desire to workout, but they didn’t have the answers on how to do it on their own so they would tend to do nothing. It’s similar to how someone might have a New Years resolution. You will start working on building a new habit, gain momentum, and eventually will miss one day and everything falls apart. So we look at trying to prevent those roadblocks with our trainers. If we have the ability to share workouts that are personalized by our trainers with videos it helps us prevent those roadblocks when a client is working towards their goals.

Matt McGunagle: Absolutely. To go high-level with that, the outcome we’re aiming for with Equinox and StrengthPortal is to strengthen the relationship between the trainer and the client. From a business standpoint, the stronger the relationship is between a trainer and a client the longer the trainer will retain that client. This will help the trainer with their own personal income and the company's revenue overall.

Matt Berenc: Yes, we’ve seen this across our clubs for years. The more engaged a gym member is the longer they will train and the more likely they are to reach their goals. My goal as a trainer in the long-term is to make my clients self-sufficient because if they are dependent on me then they won’t feel comfortable working out on their own. As trainers we almost want to work ourselves out of a job, but ultimately what happens is when our clients reach their initial goals they start to ask what else they can do. What new goal can they set for themselves next? That’s where the relationship and the trust from the trainer come into play, the client will trust you to help them with building their skills and reaching their next goal.

Matt McGunagle: So obviously we’re in a really interesting time in the industry right now with Covid-19 having shut down gyms around the world. Clubs, gyms, and studios are all adapting on the fly to try to continue to offer their members value and online training has been the answer for me. With that in mind, at StrengthPortal we’re big believers that one on one private training will always be the most valuable type of training service, but hybrid and online training clearly can be great complementary services to offer as well. How is Equinox looking at this as an organization? What changes are being accelerated across our industry?

Matt Berenc: I think you’re spot on, to me the future really is hybrid personal training meaning a combination of in-person and online training for our gym members. For the longest time Equinox has been focused on our brick and mortar in-person training experience and we’ve been very successful at it. With all of our clubs shut down we’ve had to pivot to virtual training as well and we are taking the same approach as we did with in-person training. Our EFTI team is asking how can we deliver the same type of quality training experience through this new service. When our clubs open back up it’s not going to be the same as it was before. We’re not going to be able to pack as many people in the clubs as we once had, so we’ll have to figure out how to continue to engage with our members outside of the club and hybrid personal training is the perfect fit. Our trainers will be able to schedule their sessions with their clients and deliver workout programs to the Equinox gym member app with StrengthPortal. Covid-19 accelerated our plans and it’s clear that the online component of our business is here to stay.

Matt McGunagle: To connect that back to what we were talking about earlier, the reason that gym members will be coming back to Equinox gyms is because of the relationships with their personal trainers. It’s a byproduct of how much Equinox has invested into their personal training teams. Now, we’re going to see just how valuable the role of trainers are within your organization as a whole when the lights turn back on.

Matt Berenc: Exactly, those relationships are incredibly powerful. To add to that, I think that the online coaching experience is opening up our gym members eyes as well. With being sheltered-in-place we’re all seeing how much we miss the in-person experience and sense of community we can find at a gym. I think our members are realizing just how much they appreciate working with our trainers and when they come back the hybrid training option will result in a better overall experience with more flexibility for them than before.

Matt McGunagle: I agree, hybrid training is one of the few win-win-win’s. The gym member has more flexibility than before, the trainer has more flexibility than they had before and can work with more clients, and the company as a whole benefits from the trainer retaining the client. In addition to adding these hybrid and training services, what other projects are you working on at Equinox that you’re really excited about?

Matt Berenc: With EFTI in particular we’re always evolving since we’re constantly revisiting our curriculum to see if it can be updated or improved. Just like we’re doing with our training, I’m really excited to see how we can evolve the virtual component of our education. We’ve been working on this for the last few years and Covid-19 has shown us that we can go even further. Previously there was a strong emphasis on doing education in-person. Now we want to back that up with more content that’s available to our trainers to access from anywhere. We want to set ourselves up almost like a University where you have your core curriculum, but you can pursue whatever paths (like your electives) you want to. By investing in this content it allows our trainers to take more ownership over their education. It’s one of the differences from educating children versus adults. Adults want to have autonomy, the ability to follow the educational path that aligns with their own personal interests and needs. I think that just like we’re seeing with our gym members, adding this strong virtual component to our educational services for our trainers will really increase their engagement over time.

Matt McGunagle: I think it says a lot that when I asked that question this is what you focused on. There’s a reason that Equinox trainers are some of the highest paid in the industry and have longer careers. Just as you said in the beginning, Equinox really cares about making investments into their trainers and the systems that help them do their jobs. The EFTI program has been a model for gyms around the world and it’s because there’s such a strong desire to continue to improve it further and further.

That’s probably a good place to wrap this up (laughing). I just want to say thank you Matt for all the work that you do. It’s been a pleasure for us at StrengthPortal to work with you and I really appreciate the passion you have for your trainers.

Matt Berenc: And thank you. It’s been amazing to partner with StrengthPortal so we could evolve the tools and abilities of our trainers. The StrengthPortal software platform is touching close to 3000 trainers company-wide and has had a huge impact for us.

Matt McGunagle: We really appreciate that and are looking forward to working together for many more years to come. Cheers!

If you’d like to connect with Matt Berenc or learn more about Equinox 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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