When you’ve been behind the curtain of the fitness industry as often as I have, you get used to the smoke and mirrors. You lose count of how many people and companies aren’t doing as well as they appear. Fortunately, there are also a lot of individuals and brands who legitimately and consistently outperform the market.

Those that do have one thing in common: They defy industry norms.

You can’t get ahead in this industry by attempting to do the same thing as everyone else, only just a little bit better. The way to make more money is to innovate. Find a new problem to solve. Solve an existing problem with a unique approach. Market your products with a novel hook. Challenge the way you’re “supposed” to do things by creating your own category of one.

Once you position yourself as the obvious choice, price becomes irrelevant and customers line up, begging to buy whatever you have to sell, which only happens when you offer something that’s different from others.

Now, these are all nice-sounding platitudes. But if you aren’t already doing those things, how do you start? How do you figure out which industry norms need defying?

Two factors must be in place:

  • You know your market well.
  • You’re able to fail.

Infinity vs. Finality 

This post is from the inaugural issue of Fitness Marketing Monthly. FMM is an analog newsletter in a digital age, a throwback to a bygone era when people looked forward to receiving information, instead of feeling overwhelmed by the pursuit of it.

For me, it’s the next step in a process I started in 2011. That’s when I launched the Personal Trainer Development Center from my one-bedroom apartment in Toronto, with the goal of publishing material to help trainers do a better job, and make more in the process.

The audience grew from one reader in Canada (my mom) until the PTDC became a global resource used by millions of fitness professionals a year. With a bigger audience came a responsibility to provide better information. We responded with investments in editing, design, and product development. That’s why the site continues growing, attracting hundreds of new readers every day. Many of them become customers for our products, which include The best book for trainers, the Online Trainer Academy, and now this newsletter.

The online world has changed a lot since 2011. Not only did blogs proliferate and social media explode, giving all of us the opportunity to share every element of our lives, but so did cell phone technology. Today each of us carries a mobile recording studio in our pocket, giving us the power to produce and upload content for our social media, podcasts, and YouTube channels anytime, from anywhere.

The paradoxical result of infinite content is that it becomes harder to use. With no finality, there’s always one more thing you must know before you can take action. There’s always another opinion, another resource, another tutorial. Your focus is splintered between the last thing you read and the next thing you should read, which means you struggle to retain information from the thing you’re reading right now. You can’t tell what’s worth your time and what isn’t until you’re deep into it, and by then you may have skimmed past the most important parts.

That’s the problem FMM sets out to resolve for you. We believe time is your most valuable asset, and we developed FMM to give your time back to you. We do that by providing the information you need, carefully curated and edited by a world-class staff. Every word in every issue matters.

If studying each new issue of FMM is all you do to develop your business and marketing acumen, you can rest easy knowing you’ve done enough. You can always do more, of course, and there will certainly be times when you should. Our goal is to make sure you rarely need to. We’ll do that by providing not just information, but finality.

You’ve Got to Know the Rules Before You Can Break Them

I started as a personal trainer, as you probably know. Like so many other bright-eyed, excitable young fitness pros, I put all my efforts into my program design. I wanted to periodize, undulate, and taper with the best of my peers.

It wasn’t until four years into my training career that I realized none of it mattered.

My clients didn’t care. They came to me because they weren’t happy with how they looked or felt. They wanted to lose fat and gain muscle as quickly and easily as possible. It didn’t matter how their problem went away, as long as it did.

This disconnect between how trainers approach our jobs and what clients actually want from us gnawed at me until, in 2012, I published an article called “Personal Trainers Shouldn’t Periodize.” Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:

We built masterpieces. Every workout, exercise, and rep was planned out down to the tempo. The programs would transition every four weeks to a planned new micro-cycle. I read every book on the subject I could find, ranging from Periodization: Theory and Methodology of Training by Tudor Bompa to Block Periodization by Vladimir Issurin. I became an expert in theoretical periodization and started presenting workshops on it. Then one day I had my first epiphany, and everything changed.

A few sentences later I drove the point home:

Theory and practice rarely intersect. We’re dealing with real people who have real lives and real stresses. Working out is not your clients’ first priority. In fact, it’s usually somewhere around 15. Why the heck was I spending so much time programming for clients when they forget to tell me about their vacation smack dab in the middle of a mesocycle?

My article told the world that maybe all the stuff we were taught about better programming being the key to better personal training was wrong. It caused waves. It brought me a lot of adulation and a lot of haters. It was the turning point for my career.

At the time, I was lucky to see 100 hits a week on the PTDC blog. “Personal Trainers Shouldn’t Periodize” changed all that. It defied an industry norm, and by doing so, it struck a chord.

With a bigger audience, I expanded my footprint in fitness education and digital publishing. And with that expanded footprint, I began to see the many ways those institutions were failing their customers.

What we’re doing with FMM is inventing a new medium. Or, more accurately, we’re reviving an old one, an analog format that we believe will serve you better than digital content ever could. Better still, this new medium contains no outside advertising, no long-winded narratives, and, as I said, no wasted words.

We can’t think of a better way to bring you substantive, highly curated, and skillfully edited work from the best marketing and business-development minds the fitness industry has to offer.

Still, no matter how confident my team and I are, or how much we’ve prepared for this launch over the past two years, there’s no way to know with 100 percent certainty if FMM will succeed. You never know how the market will respond to a new concept, product, or service until you put it out there.

It’s a calculated risk; breaking the rules always is. The only way to pull it off is to know the rules long before you try to break them. And even then, you have to put yourself in a position, as I did, where failure is an option. The more audacious the idea, and the bigger the norm you set out to defy, the bigger that risk becomes.

What I want to leave you with are the steps you must take before you attempt your own risky venture to put a new idea into the world.

Putting Yourself in a Position to Succeed or Fail

Bruce Lee once said, “It’s not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.” He also said, “Simplicity is the key to brilliance.”

If you’re going to defy the fitness-industry rules that bring everyone to the middle, you must first reduce your business life to its simplest form. Your audacious plan doesn’t stand a chance until you free up the time and space to give it your all.

The first step is to define the problem. How much money do you need each month for you and your family? I call this your Freedom Number. In The Fundamentals of Online Training, the textbook of the Online Trainer Academy, I describe it as the number that allows you to focus your time and attention on something other than the business that provides this bare minimum. The Freedom Number is the combination of housing (rent or mortgage payments, utilities, maintenance), food, transportation, insurance, and what I call my “do something special for my beautiful wife” fund.

Before I had that beautiful wife, my own Freedom Number was pretty simple:

Rent = $1,900/month

Food = $500/month

Extravagance = $200/month

The total came to just $2,600. Looking back, it’s a laughably small number, but that’s what my life was like when I was a young, single trainer who’d recently graduated from college but didn’t have any loans to pay back.

But my point isn’t that your number should resemble mine. It’s that your number is your own, and it doesn’t matter what anyone else’s is.

What matters is what I wrote back then:

“Once you hit it, you’re safe and free to pursue more risky options or strategies that have a lot of development time.”

With the problem defined—how much money you need each month to be safe—the next step is to reduce your working life to its simplest form. How can you work the fewest hours, with the most flexibility, and still hit your Freedom Number?

Let’s say you need to make $4,000 per month. You can hit that with 20 clients who give you, on average, $200 a month. Or you can make it with 80 hours of training at $50 an hour. Or whatever best describes the way you make a living. Once you do the math, you’ll see one of two realities.

  • You realize you’re already earning more than your Freedom Number says you need.
  • You’re not yet making enough to free up your time and attention.

If it’s A, and you’re making a surplus beyond your current needs, you can begin the process by reconfiguring your schedule. Chunk together your work or training sessions with the goal of opening up a few big blocks of time throughout the week. If a client doesn’t fit into your new schedule, pass her along to another trainer.

If it’s B, and you’re not yet making enough, focus all your energy there until you get to your Freedom Number. Pursue work that pays the most in the least amount of time, and ignore everything else. For most fitness pros, that means getting more clients. It’s not scalable, and it’s not as sexy as creating marketing funnels, but it’s the most straightforward path to your goal.

Do whatever you need to do, for as long as you need to do it, until you get the clients you need. (It’s probably 10 to 20.) Call anybody you can, pound the pavement, knock on doors, message people through social media, ask clients for referrals.

Once you reach your Freedom Number, and you can sleep easy at night knowing your bills will be paid and loved ones looked after, anything can happen. You can confidently invest time into personal development, allowing you to pursue projects with potentially large payoffs down the road, or smaller ones that bring you passive income now.

At that point, you’ve already defied the norms of fitness industry. You act different because you are different. Few of your peers would ever define the problem and simplify their business the way you have. That’s why they remain stagnant, complaining to anyone who’ll listen that they never have enough time or money.

But you know the problem isn’t that they don’t actually have those precious assets. It’s that they’ve never done what it takes to free them up, and then use that time and money to read the market and find better solutions.

They’re reactive, zigging when everyone else zigs, and never freeing up the time or money to read the market and find a better solution.

But when you zag, beautiful things can happen.