Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Interview with Alwyn Cosgrove

I am honored and humbled that Alwyn Cosgrove knows my name. Pretty heavy right? That's alot of accolades and respect to give to one person. Truth is, there is no one that has helped me grow as a professional more from the "inside" than Mr. Cosgrove. I have been training clients for money since the age of 22. I am now 36. And every-time I read Alwyn Cosgrove's work or receive coaching from him, I am amazed and flabbergasted and how much I don't know. I have managed 3 fitness departments for 3 different facilities; have trained clients for over a decade; and have educated over 200 students over the last 6 years--but I still miss many key ingredients in successful business and training models. Alwyn Cosgrove is my light, my GPS system, my navigator. From his humble beginnings in martial arts, his battle from life-threatening disease, and his career spanning across the fitness spectrum that includes: highly sought-after speaker, author, presenter, trainer, and business owner & coach---Alwyn has become a positive asset to the fitness industry. I had the chance to ask Alwyn some questions regarding his business practices, training, and personal endeavors in this exclusive interview. Enjoy!

JOHN: Alwyn, you've performed alot of work with fitness professionals over the years helping them develop into effective exercise program designers and lately, business-minded individuals. What would you say are 3 things you have seen change within the typical (or not so typical) personal trainer over the last 5 years?

AC: Great question. I think that we've seen a massive shift in good trainers realizing that they need to know more about business, coaching, communication, customer service etc. The ability to just teach exercises and count sets and reps isn't going to cut it anymore - particularly in today's economy.

I don't like to focus on the negative stuff, but for a while it seemed that the fitness 'business' had forgotten that there were real clients in gyms who needed help. There were people who wanted instruction, and that didn't just mean downloading an ebook or buying a book.

So I guess I'd say that:

1) it's an understanding of the entire picture of what being a professional entails. Not just marketing and sales, but customer service, your core values and your overall professionalism.
Good coaches and trainers are getting it. Those that aren't getting it are dropping by the wayside pretty fast.

2) there has been a move towards a systems based approach to program and teaching exercise. For a long time trainers would "customize" every workout for every client. The problem with that is, there isn't a consistent experience for the clients. How can you build a business when the experience of training with you is more of an art form than a science?

The answer is to start with a system so each client can experience the best you have to offer, while taking into account their personal goals, assessment, injury history and time frame to achieve their goals.
I think this is why assessments, the functional movement screen etc are so popular now.

3) I think the standards are getting better. We're still not there yet, but I'd say 5 years ago the average trainer had an 18 -24month career cycle. Basically there were very few trainers anywhere with more than two years in the field. The pay wasn't there, the job security wasn't there, and the happiness wasn't there. So we lost people.

For a long time we had expert trainers who maybe had 3-4 years experience. That's not a lot of time in (particularly when you think of Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours to mastery rule) so it was hard for us to be taken seriously as we were a young profession with the bulk of our members being inexperienced. I mean, a guy with 4 years experience in martial arts may not even be a first degree black belt yet - but 4 years as a trainer you'd have been at the relative top of the field a couple years ago.

Now, when I'm on the road with the Perform Better crew or at some other event, I see trainers and gym owners who I've known for 5-6 years on the circuit. It's not uncommon to meet a bunch of trainers with 5,10 or even 15 years in the field. That was unheard of even a few years ago.

Basically I think it's too hard to make it as a trainer unless you're good - particularly as we've just experienced the worst recession in a long time. Mediocrity quite simply cannot survive. Lots of gyms are closing and lots of trainers are giving up and moving into other areas. As a result - I think our profession is starting to get better.

JOHN: You lecture around the country and abroad. Do you see a difference in the personal training industry on the East versus West Coast?

AC: You're trying to get me in trouble here John!!

I'm going to make a couple of very broad generalizations here, and I'm sure there are a ton of exceptions to this rule -- guys on the East Coast attend more educational events, and as a result get better faster. Yes I know there are exceptions (my own staff attend 4 events each year, and we bring in 2-3 presenters for in-house training each year) - but the events on the East Coast are typically bigger and better attended.

Again, this could be coincidence - maybe there are more events on the East Coast so it just ends up seeming that way, but I'm calling it as I see it. A guy with 3-4 years experience in the Northeast is typically better than someone in LA or similar with the same experience.

To flip that - I think the business practices on the West Coast seem to be a little further on. Most of the trainers I meet on the West Coast are embracing multiple service offerings - private training, semi-private, small groups and bigger groups (bootcamps etc). There are some guys killing it on the East Coast of course, but generally I see more 'either-or" offerings there. Trainers are either doing exclusively one-on-one or bootcamp stuff - and vigorously defending why what they do is superior to the other - instead of realizing it's about what clients may prefer to do.

So as a whole, the training questions are a little more advanced on the East Coast, whereas the business education from the Midwest and further west is slightly ahead.

Again - lots of exceptions to that stuff. Please don't send me hate mail people!

JOHN: Your training facility, Results Fitness, LLC, has become outstandingly successful based on your business model. You started in a much smaller space and grew in square footage and customer base in a matter of months(?). At what point, did you realize that things were beginning to "click" on the business side of things and what priorities did you put into place for your staff, you and Rachel (your wife)?

AC: Yes we opened in 2000 with about 650 sq feet of gym floor and maybe 8 members.We now have just around 7000 sq ft, 12 staff and nearly 300 members!

The priorities have always been to develop a business that was in line with our core values. So always learning and improving was the single biggest factor.

Honestly John, we must have went to more seminars than anyone I've ever met. But our breakthrough - our turning point - was when we started to learn business and spent as much time on that as we did on exercise physiology.

Another core value of ours was "have fun and a sense of humor". You won't survive around me too long if you can't have fun. I watch trainers make workouts so hard or so serious that I watch clients walking into the gym as if they are dreading the session. It's OK to have fun! Take it seriously, but you don't have to make it serious.

A phrase that Thomas Plummer drummed into us was "We are the best part of our members day, everyday". When we truly embraced that, and started to think about how we could make Results Fitness the "third place" in our members lives - that was when we just kept growing.

People in today's world typically only have three places they go to - work, home and one more place. In the 80's this was embodied by Cheers - the local bar "where everybody knows your name". In the 90's it was "Central Perk" from Friends - the local coffee shop.

So today as a fitness trainer you are competing for people's time with Starbucks, golf courses and places like that. You need to be somewhere where they not only get great results from their efforts, but they truly enjoy the process and have fun doing it. When you can honestly say that, you're on your way to something big. Focus not only on getting clients great results, but also delivering a fun environment to deliver those results. And remember too - peoples lives are changing, they arrive in worse shape than they did even 5 years ago, they spend more time sitting than ever, and they have less available time than ever before. So your programs better be evolving too.

But here's the thing that a lot of people miss... they tell us how lucky we've been!!!

Let me break it down:

We opened in 2000

In 2001 our apartment was broken into and amongst other things our laptop, with all our programs, seminar notes and marketing (all on the laptop) was stolen...

By the second half of 2003 I was sick all the time. Couldn't figure it out but ended up taking a lot of time off...

In 2004 I was diagnosed with stage IV cancer and had to take the rest of the year off...

2005 I was recovering and could only work part time...

In 2006 unfortunately I relapsed. I had to have a bone marrow and stem cell transplant. My wife Rachel and I left the gym for most of the year...

In 2007 I was in remission and took a year off to spend time with Rachel.

In December of that year we had to fire our manager...

In 2008 - came back to work. Just as the economy tanked. We expanded...

In 2009 - there is a recession. Economy is in the dumpster. We expanded again...

2008 and 2009 were the best years ever in terms of income. And we were named one of the top ten gyms in the United States by Men's Health magazine...

The first quarter of 2010 has been our best ever!

We still grew the gym and increased our profits while taking time out facing cancer and coming back to face the recession.

I didn't feel too lucky during that time you know what I mean :) We just did a few things right.

JOHN: That is awesome! Learning about your struggles and triumphs really motivated me and I'm sure motivates the readers! Tell us what the process is like when you hire a new trainer to join your staff. What is the interview or vetting process like? What steps are niched into the process of working for someone like Alwyn Cosgrove?

AC: We hire for personality and train for skill. We all started somewhere so I'm happy to train staff in what we expect from them. I can send them to courses, give them books and DVD's to learn from and overall just "Fast-track" the skill set.

But you can't train personality or work ethic! So that's what we really look for now.

It's a multiple step process:

1) Send a resume and cover letter
2) Phone interview
3) In person interview
4) A six week internship
5) Join the team with a 90 day probationary period.

We probably see a drop off rate of 50% at each stage, and even completing the internship (where you will be trained in how to do everything in our facility - but you will be working) doesn't guarantee you a job. We have a strong team though and someone has to be good to get on the team. If you're not going to be a major addition to our team, then you won't make it through the steps. However, if you would be a good addition, we'll get you on our team even if we don't really need anyone at that time. One of our current staff was hired just because we weren't about to let him slip away and join the competition!

Tony Hsieh of gives $2000 cash to anyone who completes the first week of staff training if they'll quit right there! Can you imagine the culture in that business? It's not really a surprise that Zappos was acquired by Amazon for so much money.

JOHN: Customer service is something that was almost lost a few years back. It is something that is coming back to the forefront for business minded personal trainers. I always tell my students that if they are introverted and don't like to talk to strangers, chances are the personal training field may not be for them. What are some mistakes personal trainers make in regards to customer service that you've seen in the past or within your competitors that can simply be tweaked and return positively 10 fold?

AC: First off I need to recommend that anyone reading this pick up a copy of Thomas Plummer's newest book "Where did that member go?" which is subtitled " rediscovering the lost art of customer service". It's the single best source for fitness professionals.

The first thing to understand is that it's not about you. It's about your certifications, your preferences, you getting your workout in -- it's about delivering a WOW experience every single time a client trains with you. In the book Peak by Chip Conley he points out that clients have baseline expectations that need to be met. This is where customer service ends for most companies. But the next level is meeting their desires - and the final level is meeting their unrecognized needs that truly separates great companies from others. there can be no "run of the mill" sessions anymore. That' doesn't mean you become an enter-trainer (I think Mark Verstegen came up with that word!) but it means that the game is changing.

If you knew you had to deliver a killer session in the next hour or you were going to lose the next client - what would you do?

You should be doing that already, as quite honestly you might lose them anyway.

Try to exceed expectations at every step of the way. Most trainers have never read the book "Raving Fans". It's premise is that satisfied customers are not enough - we need RAVING FANS. The book is 17 years old and most companies still don't get it.

Think about airline travel -- it's awful. The companies no longer care, the TSA security lines are terrible and filled with rude employees. you have to take off your watch, belt, shoes, unpack your toiletries -- but people continue to put up with it because our base expectations - a (relatively) on-time flight is usually enough to keep us "satisfied".

I recently had to fly to the UK at the last minute. On my return trip I checked in for my flight with Virgin Atlantic (I am a frequent flyer with them) and was directed to an elevator that led me to a private security line. Now granted this was because of my FF status, but I managed to avoid all the delays and hassles. If I'm ever going to fly out of London, I will ALWAYS fly with Virgin as they met my unrecognized needs - a hassle free experience.

Ask yourself - did you just deliver the greatest training session of your career? Did you deliver a WOW experience for the client? Were you the best part of their day today? How many compliments did you give to your gym members today? Have you ever given a client a gift or even printed out an article on something they are interested in - to let them know that you're on their team?

Or was a client 5 mins late for an appointment and you berated them? Are they not following your "Advice" on their diet and you're upset with them? (Hey - maybe your advice isn't great - maybe it doesn't work for that client - have you asked them?) Did you just spend the last hour complaining about the economy to them?

What would you have to do to be the greatest trainer of all time? Who would you have to mentor with? What books would you need to read? What DVD's would you need to watch? Who's seminars should you be at?

You know the answer to these questions already. Just get it done.

JOHN: You've written many articles (including books) that have influenced many fitness professionals and enhanced the way they carry out exercise programs. Where was your first ever article published and how did you feel once it was published and received? Also, can you take us through the process of how you go about constructing your articles (topic birth, research, referencing, humor, etc, etc)?

AC: The first one was probably a report on a taekwon-do tournament that I wrote for a martial arts magazine in the UK! The first fitness one was a two-part article in muscle and fitness with my friend Mike Mejia though - just a training program for athletes.

At this point I'm fortunate enough to be a "work for hire" and am assigned articles by companies such as Mens Health. I tend not to submit any ideas.

I guess my most well-received article has been the "hierarchy of fat loss" where I kind of flipped the general public's approach to fat loss (ie start with low intensity aerobics and gradually build up), upside down (ie I suggested doing only weight training if time was limited). That one has been republished in a lot of places which is good to see. The hardest thing of course, is that now over three years later, I'd have written a completely different article! I'm not ashamed of that though - if I took anyone's articles or training programs from 3+ years ago - they should have changed. If you haven't changed your opinion on something over that time then you either weren't studying or you were retired! I handed in the workouts for "New Rules" in 2004 before I was sick. The book was delayed a bit and came out in 05. But we're talking about six years since I wrote those. That's nearly a third of my career! You can bet I'd do things differently now.

A good rule of thumb that TC Luoma taught me was that for any article you are really writing about two things - what are people doing wrong (or could do better) and how can we fix it. If you're not writing like that, then maybe your article isn't ready yet. Just showing a new workout is OK, but unless it drastically improves what the target market are doing - then it's a waste of time. Similarly just pointing out mistakes without offering a solution is pretty much just whining :)

The other thing is to remember the target market. If you are writing for Mens Health, then the reader is probably 35-45 male. A magazine for MMA competitors or trainers requires a different voice and content than for example Mens Health or your local newspaper - so your message and tone has to reflect that.

Adam Campbell also taught me that you need to write for a seventh grade level. If you can't "Dumb down" the material so a seventh grader would understand it, the article won't work. Obviously an article for a scientific journal would be different, but Adam's point still stands.

Lastly - is your article going to be educational or entertaining? Ideally both but if you can't definitely say one or the other then don't write it.

Now though you're going to see less and less from me on the writing front I think. I am running some business seminars and have a great business coaching group that take up most of my time. There just aren't enough hours in the day anymore. Although New Rules III will be out in January 2011.

JOHN: AC, tell us what you think the future is for the conventional 1-hour personal training session? Does it still stand a chance, or are group training and bootcamps ready to rule?

AC: Oh it definitely is still a valid service offering.

Our problem has been that for too long it's the ONLY thing we've offered.

Most people don't join a gym or fitness center. I think we are around only 15% of the population right now. And of those that do - IHRSA has shown that one-on-one training has approximately a 3% penetration rate. Basically you'd need 100 people to join a gym in order to pick up 3 personal training clients. In other words, a club with 1000 members would only have around 30 regular personal training clients.

By comparison, group exercise has a penetration rate of 30%+. This is skewed because in most clubs these group programs have traditionally been free, but it tells us what our members actually want.

So it's not that the one-on-one session is dead - it's just appealing to such a small demographic that it's a dumb business practice to focus exclusively on that market. The only way to increase your income as a trainer in that market is to work longer days or put your fees up.

It's appealing to a small percentage of people who want the one-on-one attention and can afford it, but there are a lot of other potential clients who just aren't being serviced that we could focus on.

I think the small group or semi-private model is probably the future of our field as our primary offering. It allows the trainer to reach more people, and make more money. It allows the client to get great attention and coaching without the high price of one-on-one. If the trainer wants to make more money - you can add a third or fourth member to each session without increasing your work hours.

But the best part is that we can still individualize the programming and deliver great service. It's not generic programming.

Bootcamps are good and they appeal to a certain demographic. The hardcore group-ex or boot-camper loves the big group dynamic, likes fun workouts but doesn't want too much attention and won't pay a lot. The problem I see (and I see this nationally when I do consults) is that 1) you have to charge less and 2) because - due to numbers - you can't individualize the programming - results are always less than you would get in a smaller group. This leads to higher turnover. Lower fees and higher turnover isn't a great business model, just as high fees and a very small client base (one to one training) isn't perfect.

I think the small group is the perfect compromise but my best advice would be to stop choosing. Offer different services to your clients, and let them decide.

One-on-one is like doing in-home training sessions. There will always be a demand for it - but it's a very small percentage, and it's not scalable.

JOHN: There is unbelievable information coming out of this interview. Let's wrap it up with a "take home" lesson. What are 3 mistakes a person commits after becoming a personal trainer; and what tips can you provide to steer them onto the correct path?

AC: The biggest one John is thinking that they are "done". I'm learning every day - my programs are changing all the time.

Here's the thing -- this is a young field. 5 years ago our abdominal programs included a ton of swiss ball crunches and reverse crunches etc. But in recent years because of the great work by Stuart McGill and others - we have realized that repeated flexion is not the best method of training the core - stabilization work is actually safer AND more effective.

It's not that we were "wrong" per se before -- it's that we know more now. If you're not aware of these changes, then quite simply you're out of date.

Michael Boyle (who you interviewed recently) has done an excellent job of making us question whether bilateral squatting is an appropriate exercise for a lot of our clients. With unilateral work, we can get the same leg work, without the spinal loading - and in my opinion it may be even more demanding from a metabolic standpoint.

So number one - be aware that we're learning more and more all the time - and you need to evolve. You should be embarrassed by programs you wrote 5 years ago.

Secondly - understand that the client is changing. We opened Results Fitness in 2000. The average new member walked in with a few imbalances, and a few pounds to lose.
Now - only ten years later the average beginner is in worse shape. We measured and tracked functional movement screen scores and body-fat percentages from day one. On average, today's new member has an FMS score of about 3-4 points less, with way more asymmetries and is 5-8 percentage points of body fat higher.

So not only do our programs need to evolve because we are learning more -- we need to evolve because our clientèle is arriving in worse shape! We used to be able to add weight training to a client's life and we'd make major differences. Now - the session with us is often all that they do - so we need to work on soft tissue, movement, corrective exercise, strength and metabolic training. Our skill set has to grow, and we need to be aware of our clients needs.

Think about it - we didn't need to do "fat loss programming ten to fifteen years ago. Whenever someone was overweight we just got them to move more. We copied endurance athletes (the aerobics era) and then we copied bodybuilders (the Body For Life era). Nowadays we're understanding that we need to create pure fat loss programs - not just basic exercise programs - they are not enough anymore.

Lastly - and this spins off the other two. I'd say that the time challenge for the client has increased. People work longer hours these days with longer commutes. It wasn't uncommon to see a client in the late 90's or early 2000's who could give you 3-4 hours per week (and they also were active on the weekends etc). Today? Maybe 2-3 45 min sessions at best - more likely two. We need programs that are time effective, and have no redundancy in them, and very little down time.

And as a bonus I'd add that we need to understand the business side of what we do. You are running a business. It's the same as program design - you can't wing it - you need measurable markers and objectives. You have to have a plan to running your business.

So - our field is evolving and we need to keep current. Our clients are changing, their goals are changing and we have less time than ever. Basically we need to evolve constantly.

As Jack Canfield (author of Chicken soup for the soul) says - "find a wing and get under it". Everyone needs a coach or a mentor. Stop trying to do this on your own and get someone to help you.

One of the problems our profession faces John, is that unlike most other fields - most trainers have never hired a trainer themselves!! They have no idea what it's like.

Do you think a trainer is valuable?
Do you think a good trainer can get you to your goals faster than you could on your own?
Do you think a good trainer is worth the investment?

I bet all trainers answered yes to those questions. So who's your trainer?

Don't tell me that you think it's a valuable investment - but not for you! That's a sign you don't believe in your own service.

"If you can see John smith through John Smith's eyes, you can sell John smith what John smith buys"

Most trainers have a real problem with understanding the mindset of the clients.[END]

For more information on Alwyn Cosgrove, please visit or visit his facility Results Fitness at:

24420 Walnut Street
Newhall, CA 91321
Tel: (661) 799-7900
If you would like more information on business coaching, please check out:


  1. Fantastic read John as always. I read everything by both you guys and this was a great read.

    Love it and thanks so much, just copied about 3 pages of notes into Evernote for review.

    Cheers and thanks


  2. Thanks for reading Rob. I appreciate it and enjoy your work too!!


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