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Interview with Greg Nuckols

Greg is a strength coach, writer, and elite drug-free powerlifter. His passion is synthesizing scientific research and in-the-trenches experience to stay at the forefront of the strength game, and to become the best coach and athlete possible. With best lifts including a 755 squat, 475 bench press, and 725 deadlift, he knows what it takes to get you strong.

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Note from Matt: This interview was recorded from a skype call with Greg and then transcribed by me.

Matt: You get to have dinner with anyone, alive or dead, and you even get to choose the beverage for the occasion. Besides Mrs. Nuckols, who are you having dinner with and what beer are you drinking?

Greg: What! So many good ones. You’re throwing me for a loop with the first question (laughing). I really like Mark Twain so probably him. We would be drinking either the St. Bernardus 12 or the La Trappe Quadrupel.

Matt: Boom! Great start. So you’ve come a long way in the past few years since you first started producing your own content. You started your own blog, eventually joined the Juggernaut team, and over the last year grown your latest venture StrengthTheory.com. Can you tell me a little about what led to your decision to pursue a career in this industry instead of following your original plan to major in history?

Greg: Strength and fitness was always my passion, but if I’m being entirely honest about it the main reason I didn’t plan to pursue it initially was because of bullshit societal reasons. I never really interacted with great trainers. The guy who got me into lifting, Travis Mash, was great. When I first started he was in my area for 3-4 months and then took a job in Chicago. After that there just weren’t any great fitness professionals in my local area. The trainers I would meet at the local YMCA weren’t exactly the brightest people you’d come across. To add to that, I also had some pressure from my family as well. They were somewhat disappointed that I wanted to simply pursue a PhD in history, get into writing, and be a professor somewhere. They would have much rather me become a doctor or something. My family has a very driven work ethos so there was pressure to go into a respectable profession. I think that fitness is a very important thing but because the industry is so poorly regulated there are a lot of people who either trying to profit and make ill-gotten means or are trying their best but are simply incompetent. Overall, the profession gets dragged down in the public perception. These things certainly contributed, but after my sophomore year in college I just decided to say fuck it. This is what I wanted to do. I’d been out of the house long enough at that point that what my parents said was starting to matter less and less to me. I just made the decision that this is what I wanted to do and this is the path I’m was going to take. They were going to have to deal with it. I’m actually two classes away from finishing a history major and three classes from finishing a Bible major (laughing). I went to a little Christian school as a double major in history and bible studies. Once my junior year started I dropped both of those and started my first exercise science class. I dropped the majors the last possible day that I was allowed to do so and started the exercise science class two weeks late. It turned out to be a good decision. I knew from day one that I had made a good choice because I was actually looking forward to going to class.

Matt: There seems to be a strong correlation between the growth of your beard and the growth of StrengthTheory.com. Do you have an explanation for this or did you simply see a lack of evidenced-based beard bearing men and took full advantage of the position in the market?

Greg: The only things I know much about are getting strong and getting other people strong. It’s really all I do. I realized that my site was growing and I needed some kind of personal brand. I figured there were only two directions I could go with the brand because I’m a fairly boring person in general. I could either be the dude with the beard or the dude who likes beer a lot. Unfortunately Alex Viada already had the beer brand covered (laughing). The men in my family just grow beards. Some people think I did it for attention or something like that. No. My dads family are from the mountains of Virginia. Deep Appalachians. I grew my first goatee and sideburns when I was 12 and have had a full beard since I was 14. The last time I was completely shaven was for prom when my then girlfriend’s, now wife’s, father said that I couldn’t take Lindsey to prom unless I shaved. I simply look better with a beard. Screw it, I’m saying this on the interview now, but I’m only 23. A lot of people tend to, I think, not take me as seriously as they would have when they find out my age. I also look like I’m 12 years old without a beard so I try to avoid that. The beard helps to a certain degree. My wife also likes me with a beard, so that’s a big factor as well.

Matt: Which do you think is more popular at this point in time? StrengthTheory.com, your beard, or your puppy Oswald?

Greg: Man, unfortunately probably StrengthTheory. This is something that bugs me because I feel as if the internet is not doing its job. I thought that the internet was made specifically for cute, furry animals. I make a Facebook post about something boring and lifting related and it will get 300 likes. I share a picture of my dog being fucking adorable and it only gets 60 likes. What are you people thinking?!?! My dog is clearly more important than what I said about powerlifting (laughing). My wife and I have been working like a mad man and a mad women getting our books ready for publication, but we actually have plans to do a social media push for Oswald. Not with any sort of endgame in mind, just because we think it would be funny if our dog became an internet meme. It could compete head to head with Boo the worlds cutest dog who is actually the worlds second cutest dog after Oswald. That’s really one of the fun slash ridiculous parts of working online. There are periods of time when things are absolutely crazy and then periods with a lot of down time. In those periods of time it can seem like a really good idea to make a social media account for our pet.

Just to let you know, I’m going to try to make this interview as much about Oswald as possible. The great thing about Oswald is that he’s like 15 pounds. We’re not really sure what breed he is. He’s a tiny little feisty dog that is soooo cute. He’s such a loving animal to adult humans. You meet him, throw a ball to him twice, and you’re best friends. He hates, just hates, all other dogs and babies. Anytime we have him out in public and a stroller or toddler goes by he tries to tear their throats apart. It’s fantastic. When we do make social media accounts for him it’s going to be dark humor. We’re going to post really adorable pictures of him with really dark captions because that’s what we assume his inner conversation is like. It’s going to be great. He’s nice to adults because he knows we’re superior and that we feed him, but anything he’s bigger than he wants to destroy.

Matt: Man, I can’t wait to watch this unfold.

Going back to your beard and relative youth, you’ve been able to gain a level of respect from your peers at a young age which has been really interesting to watch over time. Can you pinpoint any key moments that helped you become an authority in the space?

Greg: No I really don’t think so. I’m sure that a lot of people do have these really big breakthrough moments, but it’s just been a steady grind for me. I just try to produce great content week in and week out. Same goes with working with my clients. I’ve had a few blog posts go viral, so I’m sure that exposed my name to more people, but it wasn’t an immediate and consistent boost in traffic for me. The viral posts led to a short spike and then it leveled off after that. As I continued to grind more and more people started appreciating the content I put out over time.

Matt: Have you been surprised about the reaction from the fitness community regarding your work?

Greg: I really have. If you would have told me that two years ago that my primary source of income would have been online I would have told you that you’re crazy. I started writing in August of 2012. It took about a year to average 300 hits a day. Now, on a day when we don’t publish anything, it’s pretty typical for us to get 10,000-12,000 hits. When we do publish an article we normally see 20,000-30,000 visits. I never expected that kind of traffic or that I’d have the reach to be able to attract enough clients to make online training a full-time thing. I never thought I’d have the opportunity to be the content manager of a site as big as Juggernaut. I expected to be coaching people in a gym which is still very much where my real passion lies. How everything worked out was quite serendipitous. I was originally planning on getting a job with Mash Elite Performance. While I was in college he moved back into the area and I interned at his gym. I just loved everything about working there. Training people online is fun, but it just doesn’t compare to training people in-person. You can simply do more. You really can’t develop the same type of relationship with someone online. Building a strong relationships is what I love about coaching more than anyone else. Anyways, my wife is a journalism major and she received the top journalism internship in the country getting out of college, the Dow Jones News internship. You don’t get to choose where you go with that so she got placed in Orange County in Southern California. I had no contacts out there and her position was only guaranteed for ten weeks. It’s impossible to set up in-person training for that short of a time span. I had to put my in-person coaching on hold because we’ve been moving around quite a bit since then and it’s still on hold at this moment. I’m still deciding about whether or not I’m going to go to grad school at the moment. Like I said, I never really expected to have an online job or make an appreciable amount of money online. That’s not how my blog was geared when it first started. I’ve been able to grow it and have success so quickly so seems trite to write it all off to luck. I do good work and I caught a few good breaks. About the time my wife and I moved to California things started to take off and I got the job with Juggernaut. Everything just fell into place. The quote ‘I find that the harder I work the luckier I get’ works for this case. I feel as if I’m a very lucky person, but I’m sure part of that is because of the work I’ve put in.

Matt: Moving on to StrengthTheory.com, your website states it only has one goal which is to provide your audience with practical, evidence-based information and resources to help get you strong, jacked, and sexy. You state your belief that strength and fitness has the power to change people’s lives and whatever your readers goals are you can help them get there.

I’m a firm believer that websites like yours are where the industry is headed. There’s so much great information out there and it’s only getting better and better. Obviously the evidence-based community has a big hole to dig out of because of the way fitness and nutrition have been marketed in the past, but I think that Evidence.com and StrengthTheory.com are great examples that prove there’s a demand for quality content and that it can actually make a difference. How do you think that evidence-based content will help grow and improve the industry over the next few years?

Greg: This may a bit of a contrarian position, but it’s kind of in line with how science works in general. I don’t really think that the evidence-based fitness movement adds too much to the conversation. Most of what is going to be uncovered by science to be effective is pretty much just going to be stuff that people have found to generally work over the years. People have been lifting weights since the 1800s and gyms started to be built in the 40s and 50s. There has been a lot of effective stuff being done since the 60s and 70s. Generally effective, whether or not you know the science literature behind it. If you talk to your average bro who have figured out how to get strong and jacked you’ll find that everything they say probably isn’t evidence-based, but fitness, and strength especially, is one of those things where the 80/20 rule is just ludicrously easy to meet. As far as lifting goes apply progressive overload for compound movements. For nutrition, get a good amount of protein, eat a caloric deficit if you want to lose weight, and a surplus if you want to gain weight. That’s the basis of it and whether or not you know a damn thing about science you’re probably going to figure these things out eventually.

The primary thing that the evidence-based content does out there is help via subtraction rather than addition. The evidence community likes debunking, in particular. The posts that are most likely to go viral are the ones that debunk an unscientific practice, like Paleo for example. Alan Aragon had a post two years ago debunking Paleo that went viral and James Fell had another one that called “Paleo, the Scientology of Diets”. That’s the stuff that tends to really take hold in the evidence-based community and it is very effective. It helps because there is an information overload in our market and the more stuff you can get people to stop paying attention to the better off they will be. I really think that’s what this community does best. Exposing the things that aren’t particularly helpful but can be very appealing if marketing right.

Matt: I want to talk about personal trainers position in the market compared to other health and wellness practitioners. We’ve discussed this a bit in a private Facebook group but I think it’s worth discussing a bit further. What do you think is the best method for ensuring that novice personal trainers will be knowledgeable and effective at their new career?

Greg: Oh man, I’m kind of torn on this. On one hand I definitely see a merit to having a higher barrier to entry. The barriers to entry right now are absurdly low and because of that you get people who shouldn’t be qualified to train people doing exactly that. You also have a lot of people getting into it because their first route in life didn’t work out. They see that you can take a weekend course and quickly begin to make a living in this career. It’s also important to note that having higher barriers to entry wouldn’t necessarily make the good coaches better. Let’s say that you’re really passionate and take a weekend certification to get started. If you seek information and have an interest in improving you’re going to learn a lot over the next 3, 5, 10, or 20 years. The counter argument people use to setting a higher barrier is to pull out names of great coaches who don’t have any degrees or certifications at all. Well yeah, it’s because that coach really gives a shit about what they do. So, I think that higher barriers to entry, more than anything, would just weed out the people who aren’t as passionate about doing a great job as a trainer/coach. On the other side you have to be aware that 70ish percent of the population in the US who are overweight and need help. If there are higher barriers to entry it decreases the size of the trainer pool who could help these people. If that’s the case setting a higher barrier to entry could do more harm than good. If you keep the barrier low you will also keep on getting consumers who run into poor personal trainers when working with their first fitness professional. They could be completely turned off to the experience and be really hard to get back. It’s a big ball of yarn and as it exists right now I don’t think there are any 100% correct answers. I do think that higher barriers than today would be a good start when you consider the societal perception of the profession. It’s not really a profession that a lot of people dream about getting into. You don’t encounter nine year olds who talk excitedly about being a personal trainer, you know what I mean? It’s just not well respected in our society so less people, and less top talent, get attracted to entering the field. I think a good analogy would be the education system in America compared to Norway. In Norway they have either the first or second ranked education system in the world. They waffle back and forth with South Korea. Norway’s teachers, if I remember correctly, have to get the equivalent of a Masters degree. Their society treats them with the same amount of respect as doctors and lawyers. You would never think that someone settled if they became a teacher there. It’s a real accomplishment because it’s valued. In the US you may get kudos if you’re a college professor, but usually not if you’re an elementary or high school teacher, which is unfortunate. Because of the way Norway’s system is set up a lot of the best and brightest in Norway become primary school teachers. I had great teachers growing up and respect the profession very much, but when I last checked students who chose to become teachers and earn an education major had one of the lowest average SAT scores when comparing all majors going into college. In Norway they recruit the best and brightest. It all goes back to societal perception and I don’t think the societal perception of trainers will be improved all that much until the barriers are moved to get rid of a lot of the bad actors.

Matt: Great points. The societal perception of trainers is an issue that a issue with a ton of room for improvement. It doesn’t help that the most common first interaction with a personal trainer for your average consumer is through a corporate gym that hires mostly brand new trainers.

Greg: That’s something I think that rolls back up into the barriers of entry issue. Unless I’m just talking out of my ass right now I seem to remember that to be a dietician you not only to have a degree, but you also have to work under another registered dietician for at least a year before you can become an RD and practice independently. I think that a similar program for trainers would do a whole lot of good. As far as formal education goes I’m all for it, but like I said previously the 80/20 rule for fitness is absurdly easy to meet. If you know how to coach someone through basic movements and get someone to buy-in to an exercise and nutrition program you can be a good trainer. More formal education wouldn’t hurt, but as far as return on investment goes requiring some sort of apprentice program would probably do a lot of good.

Matt: Do you think that certifications should be decreasing their focus on the health/fitness science and increase the education regarding psychology and motivation? I recently did an interview with Chad Landers who’s #1 focus with his clients is empowerment and motivation. He has clients who have been working with him for almost 20 years. His shortest client relationships are seven years, which is amazing. They don’t come to him because of his knowledge in exercise science, they come to him because he empowers them and will ensure they build a health/fitness routine in their lives.

Greg: Absolutely. I think it does depend on what type of training you’re doing. For example, most of my clients are powerlifters. I don’t really advertise my online coaching services. The people who train with me have to contact me so I don’t have to work on getting them to buy-in very much. They are self-motivated because they are competing in the sport. The reason they go to me is for my knowledge in exercise science and experience with lifting heavy weights. That’s what I do. For trainers working in gyms there is a shift where getting clients to buy-in and become invested in the process is much more important. I experienced someone who was just fantastic at this over summer. One of the guys I was splitting a house with, Alex, owns a few weight-loss facilities in Huntington Beach. He’s a competitive powerlifter and knows the exercise science side very well, but I believe his background is in marketing. He initially started a consulting company and then decided he wanted to get into fitness. He opened a weight loss facility and his whole system is about getting more and more and more emotional buy-in from his clients. The exercise programs and diets are very basic. 30-60 minutes workouts with simple movements that are easy to teach. His clients eat a calorie deficit and eat enough protein. That’s it. His client retention is absurdly high. He started his first gym 12 months ago and has already filled out two facilities and is having to open a third. He’s making a killing. I can’t give away all of his secrets, but he basically does six week challenges that say if you stick with them you will lose 20 pounds. When I first heard this I did some quick mental math and it was more than two pounds a week. My science brain tells me that this isn’t something that will work. He told me not to worry about it because these people need to buy-in to the process. If he tells his clients to do everything perfect scientifically and they can only lose 6-12 pounds it’s not a vision that’s easy to buy into. Twenty pounds sounds like a big number and last time I checked 68% of his clients did end up losing that twenty pounds in six weeks. 90%+ lost fifteen pounds or more which is an absurdly good success rate. His retention beyond the six weeks is even really high. The clients who signed up eleven months ago have lost 40-50 pounds and there are very few people who have fallen off and regained weight. Not only is he succeeding from the business perspective, but in terms of changing lives and sustaining weight loss he’s doing incredible. He gets them to buy-in to his system in the six week intro and then they stick with him because he’s delivered the results they wanted. By approaching this all from a marketing perspective instead of from a fitness perspective he’s grown something amazing.

Matt: That sounds very similar to what Mark Fisher does at MFF in New York. They have the Snatched in Six Weeks program for new members where they teach new clients kettlebell training and have them eat something like 11 kcals per pound of bodyweight a day? A trainer there told me they pretty much starve their clients (laughing). Because MFF’s clients love the gym experience and see results in such a short time frame they end up staying. That model is only going to become more and more popular. It just works.

Greg: Most trainers biggest complaint is clients who cancel sessions at the last moment. Alex told me the biggest challenge he has is that by the second week 20-30% of the new clients are coming to workout 3-4 times a day. He has to tell them to stay home and limit them to one session a day. To most trainers that’s an absolutely insane problem to have, but it happens with a significant portion of his clients.

Matt: I want to shift the conversation from offline to online training. You’ve been doing online training yourself for a few years now. What do you think the market will look like in a few years? What are the potential benefits and dangers we will see?

Greg: I think/hope that a lot more legitimate people will get into it. This may be a bit off base, but at this point I think a majority of online coaches who get in to it are sold on the dream that this is an easy way to make more money. I’m certainly not against making money, I’m not a freaking communist. I’ve always been of the opinion that if you do good work money will follow. My experiences with meeting various coaches is that most of them are of the same mindset as me, but the first coaches who moved into online coaching seem mostly motivated by the financial aspect of it. To me this tends to lead to lower quality work. What I hope will happen is that a lot more great coaches who currently focus on in-person training will realize that if their primary motivation is to change more people lives than online coaching is an excellent way to reach more clients than before. I hope this will happen more and more.

One of the biggest challenges the market has is transparency. I’m not really sure how that’s going to change or improve. Let’s say you have a coach with 200 clients who’s not a complete idiot. You may get 4-5 awesome before/after photos from that group. If you know how to make a sales page you’ll have enough before/after testimonials to run a sustainable business on. You just don’t have to do bad enough work so that people put you on blast across the internet. At this point there’s really not any transparency and that’s something that the in-person training model corrects for. If you have people that pay a lot of money to go to the gym and continue to train with you it’s obvious to other members of the gym that you’re getting results. Since they are there in the flesh they will talk and realize quickly the quality of trainer you are. If you aren’t doing well at your job with in-person training the only hope you have is to get the fresh meat that comes through the door. It’s really hard to build a sustainable business in-person if you suck at what you do. It’s a bit easier to get by with online training if you’re lacking in certain areas. So I think that things need to improve a lot in terms of transparency, but what trainer that has a shitty success rate is going to volunteer to have more transparency? This is something that I plan to implement with myself and my clients over the next year. If it’s going to become a standard it’s going to have to be a unilateral move and it’s really not a particularly smart move business wise. I mean I’m really good at getting clients to lift 5-10 more pounds each week and lose a pound a week in weight. Good results, but reasonable results. I have a high success rate with a very low failure rate, but if I put that out there people will be comparing me to my average good results to someones outlier great results. Doing something like this would be a good move ethically, but a bad move for business. Fuck it, I’m going to do it anyways because I think it’s the right thing to do. Until it starts happening more and more you’re just not going to have very good transparency in the online coaching market. There’s no strong incentive to do it.

Matt: You’ve released two new ebooks, The Art of Lifting and The Science of Lifting with Omar Isuf, along with your recent Bulgarian Method ebook. What else are you working on this year that we should all be excited about in the fitness community?

Greg: I’ll be honest with you, I haven’t looked too far beyond the book launches. They were 80% written in October and finished up December. I am not a marketer (laughing). I have a very narrow skill set and am good at what I do, but I’m just garbage at everything outside of that. The books and backend stuff (marketing) wouldn’t have been out until November if it wasn’t for my wife helping out and working with us. She’s been amazing at figuring out the sales and marketing side of this all. This project has pretty much consumed my life for the last six months. I wrote these two books to myself 9-10 years ago when I first started working out. The thought I had in my mind was that if I read this when I was a young lad and didn’t know shit about lifting that it would put me on good footing to go from there. These books would keep me from making a lot of the mistakes I ended up making. I think I’ve done a good job at producing that. I’ve had a good sized audience for a while and people were telling me that I needed to start capitalizing on it. I sucked at figuring out how to make money. You have to remember that I’m the worlds biggest tightwad. I don’t spend money on very much, expect for buying good beer. I finally got to the point where I felt it was good enough to start selling. It is something I would actually buy, which is saying a lot. Hopefully that translates to other people liking it as well.

Moving forward, these two were more of a general intro to strength and lifting. The next thing I will probably be working on is a more comprehensive overview of strength training specifically. Chapter one I’d start with you knowing nothing and by the end of the book you basically being an expert and know 90% of what there is to know about getting strong. I think there’s a big deficiency in the information out there and it’s something that’s inherent in putting information together. You have to think about who your audience is. If you’re writing for beginners you have to think about what information you can include because a lot of it could go over their heads. If you’re writing for advanced guys you can definitely include more beginner information but they won’t stay on the page for more than 45 seconds because they will assume they know everything you’ve written. There’s really not an efficient way to move people from “Hey you know very little” to “Hey you know a lot now”. The Art of Lifting and the Science of Lifting aim to do this right now. The Art of Lifting is a basic intro and then you get deeper and nerdier with the Science of Lifting. So, I want to do something similar with more hardcore strength training. I’m going to take at least a month or two to just train and recharge (laughing). Probably around June/July I may get motivated to tackle another big project. We will see.

Matt – Huge thank you to Greg for sharing his time and thoughts with us. If you’d like to read more from Greg check out he links below:

– Twitter – @GregNuckols 
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Matt McGunagle

Matt McGunagle

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

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