Matt: Raphael, really appreciate you sharing your time. I’d love to kick this off by hearing about how you first became interested in health and fitness and what led to you wanting to pursue a career in the industry.
Raphael: When I was young my parents were a little bit on the hippie side, health nuts. They were eating seaweed, bee pollen, wheat germ, and so on before anyone was throwing this in an acai bowl (laughing), so I was exposed to the concept of eating healthy at an early age. My parents ended up getting a divorce when I was in fourth grade and it totally flipped my world upside down. With everything going on I started to eat a lot and just wasn’t thinking about what I was putting in my body. I’d eat two bowls of sugary fruit loops for breakfast and have another bowl at dinner. The 555 deal at Dominos was a Friday night order just for myself. I couldn’t eat all three, but I would definitely eat at least two of the pizzas. I was gaining weight and was in the husky category. Kids would tease me about my weight. The big turning point for me was getting into sports. In high school one of my friends convinced me to join the lacrosse team. I hadn’t played lacrosse or any organized sports since before my parents divorce. I just said sure and went for it. The first day of conditioning was brutal. Half the team ended up throwing up and I was sore for two weeks just from that first workout (laughing). The DOMs were intense. The second year we had a new coach and he was adamant that we spent time in the weight room. He was a great guy and I started taking weightlifting really seriously so I could compete with everyone else. Half of the kids were just getting out of spring conditioning for football so you really didn’t want to be the smaller guy in practice. That was a big motivation for me. One day my coach pulled me aside and it was one of those life-changing moments for me. He said that if I kept up the physical regimen I was doing that there was no reason I shouldn’t be a starter the next year. From that point on I became truly obsessed with fitness. I was working at CVS as a cashier at night while in high school and I would take every single fitness magazine they had to read in between helping customers (laughing). I brought Arnold’s bodybuilding encyclopedia to work and would take notes while reading. I still have that book. I made sure to do a workout every single day and this went on for years. I went through a big physical transformation and it did a lot for me. I became more confident. It just proved to me how amazing fitness is. If you put the work in, make the right nutritional choices, and are consistent it shows that you really are in control of all of this. I decided that I wanted to help others experience this, to be able to go through a similar transformation, as I did. I wanted to help others avoid all the mistakes that I made from reading all the fitness magazines in high school. When I was at the University of Florida I ended up taking a course on how to become a personal trainer and was hired to be a trainer at their rec center.
Matt: Looking back, what went well for you as a young personal trainer when you started to work with clients? On the flip side, what challenges did you experience?
Raphael: From the moment I started the personal training program at University of Florida I was always open to receiving feedback, whether it was from other members of the staff or from clients. I was very open to the idea that I could be a better trainer. I think that a lot of young personal trainers get their certification and let it go to their head. They get stuck with applying one approach to their clients programs and end up struggling to adapt to their clients needs. New trainers can think that just because they are fit that they have all the answers. I started asking for feedback from others right from the beginning and it led to me improving quickly. Looking back, the biggest challenge at the early stages of my career was developing the confidence to tell people what to do and to guide them. I had to learn how to ask questions that would guide my clients to the conclusions that I knew were right for them. It’s a big step to go from working out with friends to being a professional where you are way more accountable for results.
Matt: What were the next steps you took to further your career after this first personal training job?
Raphael: So I started with running assessments, training, and then also started to teach group fitness classes. I eventually became the manager of the personal training program, which was my first experience mentoring, educating, and running the business side of things. Ultimately I decided that I wanted to pursue this further. That led to me getting a job as a graduate assistant at the University of Florida to manage the group fitness programs and to work on earning a Masters in Exercise Science. Two years later I took another leap of faith and applied to ClubMed, which was the first all-inclusive resort. I got a position in the Dominican Republic to open their first fitness center. ClubMed had received an investment from a Chinese firm to revamp their business and the Caribbean was their testing ground for new ideas and programs. I was really lucky to be there in the beginning. At the fitness center we offered personal training, small group training, and nutrition coaching. I would teach classes in different languages, work with clients from Europe and South America, and just worked like crazy (laughing).
Matt: It’s obviously a big jump to go from working with your own clients to managing a team and running the business side of a gym. What were the important lessons you were taking away during that time frame?
Raphael: Like many personal trainers I first pursued a career in the fitness industry because I just wanted to help people. If you take the step beyond just focusing on training and go into the business side you learn about everything else that matters to run a successful gym. You are exposed to the importance of marketing, retaining gym members, managing budgets, and so on. I knew the concepts from getting an undergraduate degree in business at the University of Florida as well, but it was a big leap to actually doing all the work. Now, at YouFit, I’m primarily in an education role and I refer back to my time managing personal training teams as a big help for learning a lot about the personal trainer psyche. Training requires a lot of psychology, but there’s also an art to building confidence in trainers ability to help their clients. You have to find the balance between building their confidence, but also being able to tell them very directly on how they can improve. At ClubMed the experience I gained from learning how to coach up trainers and mentor them was huge for me. I learned how powerful it was for me to help my trainers and in turn see them help their own clients improve.
Matt: That’s fun to think about, the multiplying effect that a fitness manager can have. So, to continue along your personal journey, what led you to current position that you have with YouFit as the National Head of Fitness Education?
Raphael: I’ve been working with YouFit for just over four years now. From my experience at ClubMed as a personal trainer and manager I knew that my favorite part of the job was the education side. I loved having the opportunity to mentor trainers and to lead education across different departments, so I was looking for an opportunity to continue that for the next step in my career.. I was able to join YouFit Health Clubs at a really interesting time. The personal training department was switching from a contracted service to becoming an important department within the company. Our team had to establish career paths, develop education to help onboard and further trainers skill sets, and build systems to ensure that our trainers were delivering the quality of service that we want them to as a company. I’d gotten my PTA global certification back in 2010 and YouFit was using PTA as their main educational tool, so it was a perfect match for me. Not only did I now have the opportunity to educate trainers on a larger scale, but the customer base for YouFit was exactly who I wanted to work with. At YouFit we focus on general fitness and the quality of our customers lives, not just on trying to improve their physique. This aligned really well with my own background and motivations.
Matt: I’m fascinated by the process of building these systems from scratch for a gym chain with as many locations as YouFit has. When you were first approaching this role what was the most important thing you focused on to ensure that there was a variable career path for trainers at YouFit?
Raphael: I think the biggest thing was establishing clear KPIs, Key Performance Indicators, for the career progression of a trainer within YouFit, very clear objectives that trainers would be required to meet before they moved up. Before I started it was kind of the Wild West at YouFit. Certifications, sessions totals per month, and standards were all over the place across our gym locations and regions. We had to show people when you joined us at YouFit, whether you are certified or not, here are the exact steps you have to take to get to higher pay and higher status. I think it’s really important to remember that Millenials aren’t just looking for jobs, they are looking for a long-term career path. As the education team we have to be able to paint that picture for our job applicants and newly hired employees. Establishing a really strong onboarding process was huge for us. We brought in a LMS, a Learning Management System, for the first time with blended learning. We take our trainers through courses online and also have a match program for their first 30-45 days to ensure they are set up for success. We work really hard to ensure they have the tools they need to succeed.
Matt: What does the normal ramp up time look like for a YouFit trainer? What are the indicators that you’re looking for where you can feel confident that a trainer is going to have a long-term career with your company?
Raphael: Sure, so for new hires that don’t yet have a CPT it’s typically a 60 day process. If we hire someone who does have a CPT it’s usually a 30 day process. Within 90 days it’s fairly easy to tell from a manager's perspective if that individual is going to be successful. We look at indicators such as are they able to acquire clients, retain clients, etc. We look at their workout assessment measurements and workout programs to ensure they are utilizing the education we’ve provided them.We want to make sure they know the value of the education we’ve given them because we know that it works. Our goal is to take as much of the guesswork out of the equation as possible. The end goal would be to take someone who is new to personal training and get them to what we call our Master Trainer. This is someone who has a full-time schedule with their gym training sessions and also has education and mentorship responsibilities. We want them to be the fitness expert at the gym and to be able to take new trainers under their wing during onboarding. A YouFit Master Trainer can shorten the ramp up time for new trainers and get them to the point where they have a full client roster. Beyond that, we do have a Master Trainer role at the regional level as well who’s overseeing those Master Trainers at each club.
Matt: Very cool. So obviously the main outcome you’re shooting for is to get your trainers to a high enough income where they are able to have a long-term career and break the average career for personal trainers of less than three years. I’m curious, are there additional career paths that are offered to personal trainers beyond Master Trainer?
Raphael: Yeah, so the Master Trainer position was inspired by wanting to fill the need for trainers who wanted to have a long-term career but still focus on personal training and working with clients. I really believe that our training teams have so much potential to move up to management positions, whether they are mid-level or senior level managers, but their real passion is training. YouFit wants to encourage that because there’s an incredible amount of value in having long-term trainers in our company. Additionally we have career paths into fitness management such as the positions for Fitness Director and Assistant Director for each club. Their job is to really focus on the business side of the gym. They need to make sure the gym hits TCR, that we’re retaining our clients, recruiting and successfully hiring new trainers. If you’re a trainer who wants to focus on these aspects of the business, move into a salary position, and earn a % of the entire revenue for the YouFit Club it’s a great opportunity. From there you can become a District Manager or Junior District Manager where you are overseeing several clubs in addition to your own. With those roles you can work up to managing up to 12 locations. We also have Senior positions that these District Managers can move up to over time. One note to add to that, a lot of our corporate office team members worked in the field first, so that’s a very real opportunity for our trainers in the long-term as well.
Matt: I love seeing how strong the corporate team's connection is to their training team and extended employees.
To loop back to the training side, one on one private personal training has historically been the big money maker for gym chains with strong training teams. Over the last few years the industry has been making a transition by adding scalable training services to their gym services, such as hybrid personal training and online personal training. Can you walk us through how YouFit is thinking about these training services as a company and how you’ll incorporate them in the short-term and long-term?
Raphael: If there’s anything we’ve learned from the last six weeks dealing with Covid-19 its that the future is happening much faster than we thought it would. Companies are going digital with their client management systems where a client can log into an app, look at their program and measurements, and interact with their trainer all through this one user experience. So once gym chains get these platforms set up they really will have to realize that their trainers aren’t limited in the way they were before by only training their clients in the gym. As trainers we’ve all experienced situations such as our clients going on vacation and losing that connection. Hybrid and online training solve the problem where trainers were just losing out on that income previously. The flexible training services open the door for our trainers to stay more consistent with clients, even with situations like this, whether they want to work out at home instead of coming into the gym.
Matt: You touched on it a bit, but obviously this is a really challenging time for the industry as a whole right now with the Covid-19 crisis. To flip the perspective a bit, what positives are you seeing across YouFit despite all the challenges in our industry right now? What’s making you really excited from what you’ve seen from your trainers and gym communities?
Raphael: It’s amazing to see how strong the relationships are between our trainers at YouFit and their clients. To me that’s the ultimate sign of a successful trainer, to be able to build a strong level of trust with your clients. Trainers have been incredibly active with reaching out to their clients and even to each other on the training teams. The bond that our training teams have formed is really special for me to see. When something like this happens you can either see the worst side or the best side of people and we’re seeing the best side of our trainers even with everything changing day after day. At an organizational level, this crisis has really accelerated a lot of our plans. There’s so much validity behind some of these initiatives that would have been sitting dormant without this experience. We’ve had the opportunity to pause for a second and focus on what we can do to move these projects forward. When you’re so busy running a daily operation it’s tough to take time to make changes. We have the opportunity to be a better company and offer a stronger experience for our clients when our gyms open their doors again.
Matt: That’s incredible to hear. We’re big believers at StrengthPortal in the power of the trainer and client relationship and the effect it has on gym member retention numbers. I think we’ll really see that play out when the lights are turned back on at gyms across the country. The trainers are going to be the reason gym members want to come back compared to switching to another gym, studio, or online coaching only service.
Obviously the industry as a whole is in survival mode, but looking out in the future what are you excited about with where YoutFit is headed and for the industry as a whole?
Raphael: Technology and its impact on our business is the most exciting thing to me. There’s always new equipment that comes in and that can be exciting, but the new technology and systems that we will have to implement for easy access all departments will be a giant step forward. As an organization our online presence is growing as well and that’s something YouFit will continue to capitalize on. On the training side pausing allows us to diagnose our current systems and ask the hard questions whether we are really running everything to the best of our abilities. We’re looking at compensation, operations, what does the passoff look like when someone first walks into the gym from the front desk all the way to meeting their first trainer, and so on. For me personally, being involved with management and education, it’s really exciting to find opportunities to improve the efficiency of our company across every location. The end result is that we’re going to be able to have an even bigger impact on our clients.
Beyond YouFit, I’ve read some research lately about obesity and chronic illnesses that show their negative effects can be reversed with proper exercise and nutrition. I think all of this will open up a lot of people’s eyes to exercise and thinking more about their nutrition than ever before. The significance of this research could make our industry bigger than it ever has been. Whether it’s at home, at a gym, or walking outside it’s a great message to spread. People are waking up and realizing that they can be healthier and it’s maybe not as difficult to exercise as they previously thought. During the crisis people have more time on their hands, so that’s not the barrier it usually is. I love the amount of apps and content that I see every day that are reaching more people than ever before. It’s easier than it’s ever been to find someone that you relate to and to start on your fitness journey.Ultimately this all comes down to people’s motivation to want to continue to exercise. What we can do is focus on training people as people. You need to individualize your approach to each client and find out what really motivates them. What are they really looking for? I think that if we focused on this more as an industry we’d have a much bigger impact than we’ve had in the past. People may say that they come to the gym for a 6pack, but what they really want is the feeling they think that comes from having a 6pack. As fitness professionals the funny thing is that we even if you get a 6pack it doesn’t solve all of your problems. I know that from personal experience from losing weight. The underlying cause for obesity usually stems from how people feel about themselves, but as fitness professionals we can focus on making exercise fun and approachable for the people who are looking for help on their own journeys.
Matt: I couldn’t agree more. Raphael I really appreciate the time and can’t wait to watch what YouFit does from here. Thank you for the time and best of luck from here!
If you’d like to learn more about YouFit or connect with Raphael please check out the links below:
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