Alexander is a personal trainer located in Hollywood California. In addition to training clients in-person he also coaches online with John Meadows of the Mountain Dog team and writes for EliteFTS along with his own blog.
Note from Matt: This interview was recorded from a phone call and then transcribed by me. Some parts may be edited slightly for an easier read.
Matt: So there’s some serious competition out there for this, but where do you think you rank in the standings for best hair amongst the online fitness community?
Alexander: I’m not even going to be remotely humble about this. There’s no one out there with nicer hair. Long hair has been a signature of mine going back to when I did dance and ballet. At every single gym I’ve worked at it’s always helped me be instantly recognizable. If anyone out there is thinking that they can make a run at the crown, good luck. You’re going to lose.
Matt: Are you allowed to put a crown on top of that hair? I feel as if that would take away from the show.
Alexander: You’re right. You need to just let it go wild.
Matt: Boom! Ok, so for the readers of our blog who haven’t come across your work before can you give us a bit of background on how you first got involved into the strength and fitness industry and let us know how it lead to the career you have now?
Alexander: Like probably every other guy in the world the reason I first started to want to go to the gym because I was skinny. Specifically, I was dancing at the time and there was a girl I thought was really pretty. She saw me take my shirt off while changing and told me that I was super skinny. I was 15 ½ and it hurt my feelings deeply (laughing). I got a gym membership, did every machine under the sun, and put on ten pounds of muscle in a year. I don’t have great genetics, but I had some nice shoulders and was feeling good. I came back to dancing the next year and the same girl said I looked great. I decided right there to just never stop doing this (laughing). Relative to getting into the industry, I was a natural in the way that I was one of those kids who would read the magazines but also wanted to know the information behind what was being written. From the start I always did my one research. By the time I was about 19 I did not have a terrible understanding of health and fitness in comparison to most teenage boys. I was in the bodybuilding/bro camp, so to speak. I got my first fitness job at 24 Hour Fitness in 2009 and it was the first real job that I had ever had. This was my sophomore or junior year of college. I haven’t stopped training since.
To add to that, I’ve been interacting with online fitness communities in various forums/boards since 2006 so I’ve watched all these fitness pros come in and out of the game. It’s given me some great perspective about what I want to do with my career and what not to do. I got into personal training rather accidentally and was kind of aimless when I first started, just like most people are when they start. Most people have no idea where they are going with personal training after 3,6, or 12 months with it. They don’t know how to take it to whatever the next level is.
Matt: You have a really interesting background for a trainer coming from a background of dancing and ballet. How do you think your previous experiences have helped you with your clients and as you’ve grown your career?
Alexander: It’s been a massive advantage for me. I’ve written about this at length, not on popular fitness websites per say. A little on EliteFTS, but not too much. I started dancing when I was 15 and my experience as a teenage man was very unique. I was around young women in a female dominant environment. These girls had body image issues, eating disorders, and lots of insecurities. I was exposed to all of that and witnessed it at a very platonic, intimate level. I don’t think most guys would ever get an opportunity to see that. In college I was surrounded by women as well and I was seeing all this behavior/interaction that men never got to see. When I got to training I had a pretty good handle on female psychology and when you combined that with my perspective on movement (my degree is in performance choreography) it put me in a very unique position. A lot of trainers are former athletes who go to college to get their kinesiology degree and want to train athletes. I’ve approached this job with a very whole-mind perspective when it comes to fitness and diet. It’s put me on an edge, especially for communicating with clients. So many trainers and coaches struggle with this. They tend to focus too much on getting good at the programming side of it or the biomechanic side of it. That helps to a degree, but the teaching aspect, the biology aspect of it, these tend to get neglected. Later on, trainers and coaches have to play catch up. They have the training part down and need to learn the personal side of it. I sort of did it in reverse. The gaps I had to fill where the trainer technicality stuff.
Matt: So right now you train clients in-person, coach online with the Mountain Dog team, and write for EliteFTS and your own blog. What’s a normal day look like for you?
Alexander: I’m pretty consistent with scheduling so a normal day for me starts at six with training clients. I’ve always done this for the simple fact that I’m forced to get up. It helps create structure, you know? I’ll wake up between 5:30-7 depending on my clients for the day. I’ll train 2-3 people each day and then spend a few hours catching up on emails. I write a lot. A habit I picked up from Alwyn Cosgrove a few years back was to follow each training session with writing a dialogue on what happened. Not the training stuff, but my personal thoughts on the interaction. What could have gone better? What could have gone worse? Is there any teaching concept I can extract from what just happened? I’ll put that to paper and then from there it’s kind of just Q&A all day nonstop. I’m not really sure what my online client load is right now,maybe 30-40 people? I get emails 24/7 so I’m just answering various questions about exercise or nutrition all the time. A lot of my blog posts come from these questions, actually. I might send a client a 2000 word essay on a subject to make sure they get it (laughing) and then realize there’s probably some useful information in there to share with others. A lot of my clients are personal trainers themselves, at this point, so that’s obviously a very different dynamic. This is why more of my content is geared towards the professional side of the industry rather than the consumer side. I like to put the information out there for more professionals to utilize.
Matt: When you first added online coaching to your fitness services what surprised you about the new medium? Did you feel prepared when you first started?
Alexander: The thing that will surprise you when you start sending out workout programs and nutrition plans is that you will get questions that are completely unexpected. The reason for this is that you’re doing a very poor job of explaining things to that specific person because it’s solely through text via email. When we work with clients in person there’s so much more going on when you explain something beyond the words exchanged so it’s very difficult to replicate that efficiently. We write from our perspective so it makes sense to us, but the client could be reading your message and taking something away that’s completely different than what you intended. Say you have a client who asks something extremely simple like if they could substitute quinoa instead of white rice. I could say sure and assume that me and the client are cool, right? I’ve realized over time that I have to set up the counterpoint and context as to why I’m giving that answer. Often, you have clients who are doing things and not knowing why they are doing them at all. Going back to the hypothetical food question, I’ve said sure and the client has no clue as to why I’ve given them the ok. I could say yes to them because at the stage of their diet I’m not concerned about the speed of digestion when eaten with chicken breast. Because of that background info it will be easier for the client to understand why I’m saying yes. On the other side, I could say no because the client is in a contest prep phase because digestion is one of the things we want to be mentally cognizant of. Also, the fiber content of the quinoa might gunk the client up because they’ve had digestion issues in the past. All of these things lead me to say no. Other coaches I talk to might think that all of this extra info is over-explaining it, but to me it isn’t. Now when my clients think about future food choices in the future they are going to have a much better contextual knowledge base to work from because I’ve explained this to them myself. Online coaching really is this involved if you want to make it work and make money in the long-term.
Matt: You said you started working with John Meadows and the Mountain Dog team last year. How has it been working with them and what’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned?
Alexander: I’ll answer the last part of this question first. In regards to learning from John I would say the most beneficial thing is that everything in fitness has a place and has merit depending on the situation. Everyone likes to fall into absolutist camps of thinking because it makes it easier to organize your thoughts. This is yes, this is no, don’t do this, don’t do that, and so on. When you have someone like John who has been training and coaching as long as he has he’s seen everything that isn’t supposed to work actually work and he’s seen everything that is supposed to work fall apart. Whether it’s viewed as bro science or whatever at some point every ridiculous thing that’s put forth probably worked for somebody. It gives you that overall perspective that’s often lost on younger trainers. I’ve talked to John about this on multiple subjects and after sharing my thoughts he will tell me that he understands my thinking, but that I should take a further step back. Often as young trainers we miss the forest for the trees. We get caught up in intricate details of subjects that we lose sight of the principles that you’re really trying to understand. That’s the most important thing I’ve learned from John over the past year.
Relative to being part of a team that’s just that excellent, synergistic, and like-minded you’re able to really discuss things and get answers you would struggle to find before. These are subject matter experts, if you want to use that term, and by discussing these questions together we all benefit. You can’t replicate this experience if you were doing this all on your own.
Matt: That’s awesome. It’s been really interesting to watch the growth of online coaching teams over these past few years. My brother actually works with the Shredded By Science team over in the UK and it’s a huge advantage to everyone involved. Instead of having to wear all the hats each team member can focus on their speciality and build the brand together. This is only going to grow in the industry.
Alexander: Absolutely. For someone’s potential job growth if you are working purely hourly as a trainer you are going to be very limited in how far you can take your income and grow as a trainer/coach. In order to grow you have to access more people and building an online presence by yourself or with a team is a great way to do that. It expands your potential because at a certain point with in-person training you can’t fit in any more clients in the day. You just can’t do it physically. You need to figure out a way to put forth your ideas and content to help others without your physical presence actually being there.
Matt: You’ve written some excellent blog posts on EliteFTS about personal training and the industry that I wish I wrote myself (laughing). Twenty years ago personal training wasn’t seen as a job that you could make a real career out of and is just now becoming viable with new services and revenue streams being proven over the last few years, online coaching being one. I’d like to hear your thoughts on the current landscape for fitness professionals and what you think needs to be done to move this profession forward and make it a sought after career?
Alexander: Oh that’s good. I’ll put it this way. The fitness field, as it exists right now, is a massively rich field filled with very small-minded people. That can probably be taken the wrong way and sound insulting. Let’s look at what fitness is which is the betterment of health or health enhancement and the western society we live in. Two thirds of the population is overweight and one quarter is obese. We have a market at large that needs to improve their health. If you look at the cost of medicine, the cost of treating these diseases caused by obesity, it’s in the billions of dollars. People spend billions and billions and billions of dollars each year to try to solve these problems whether it’s through diets, supplements, surgeries, etc. So, we have a multi-billion industry comprised of hundreds of millions of people but the fitness industry as it exists in terms of who’s popular and who’s putting out content is the same 1000 people who all know each other. Every single one of us work small-scale. So, there’s a huge industry to occupy and all of are working on a very minute level. Everyone complains (I’m speaking generically of course) constantly about how nothing ever changes. Meanwhile, the dropout rate for new PTs is super high. Something like three quarters of all trainers stop after 6-12 months in the industry. How can you have millions of people that need help and have trainers that struggle paycheck to paycheck? How does this get fixed? How do we close the gap? To answer the premise that I just set up, trainers often don’t think of themselves as being worthwhile and worth the investment from consumers. Even though a few of us make a good living, personal trainers too often undervalue their skills and obsess on improving in the wrong areas. People don’t treat this enough as a business. We get scared about charging people because we don’t want to rip them off! I’m not talking about making crazy money so I can be filthy fucking rich, but there is a gap in society that qualified professionals can help close by delivering the necessary skills to help people. Fitness doesn’t get defined in these terms nearly enough. There are enough people in the industry that think like that so that it drags down the whole profession. This is why there’s constant complaints about unprofessionalism. If we’re going to create change we need to upgrade how we think about our field, level up our place in the market, and give some clear definitions as to what personal training truly is. We are not doctors, we are not therapists, we are not strength and conditioning collegiate coaches. Why would you want to be any of those things? They are focused on small markets. Your market, as a personal trainer for general population clients, is practically unlimited. You have the necessary skillset to succeed in a market that is untapped. So, if I was to break down that long soliloquy into a few sentences I would say 1) Everyone thinks poor. 2) People don’t have a true understanding of how large the market potential actually is. 3) People need to take the profession more seriously. I know this sounds ironic coming from me because I make fun of it so much, but in practice what I do I take very seriously.
Matt: Last question for you. What are you currently working on improving with your own coaching services?
Alexander: With online and in-person there’s a few things. From a training standpoint I’ve gotten much more precise with using biofeedback to asses workouts and performance. I’ve been doing this for a long time before the time became popular, but after listening to a few podcasts last year with David Dellanave he clarified a lot of things for me that I was doing without really thinking about it. Regarding training as whole, I’ve gotten a lot more focused on the psychological aspect of coaching which is a difficult subject because there’s not very much material about it written for personal trainers. What I want to do is maximize every single interaction that I have with my clients. How can I do that? I have to look into different fields to learn and improve such as medicine, psychology, sports psychology. The challenge there is that the material is not written directly for you, but with the proper context it does have relevance. Reading these various materials won’t make any of us a scientist or doctor, but it can help us out with our personal challenges as trainers.
Matt: Big thank you to Alexander for giving me his time and sharing his story. If you’d like to follow Alexander further check out the links below:
Personal Website: http://alexanderjuanantoniocortes.com/
EliteFTS articles: http://www.elitefts.com/author/alexander-cortes/
Mountain Dog Online Coaching: http://mountaindogdiet.com/
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