The contest is “who can build a sustainable gym that pays you really well?”
I’ll never tell anyone to read fewer books. I was raised by teachers. I have hundreds of books in my Audible account and hundreds more scattered between my office and my home. When I find a book I love, I buy 20 copies and hand them out to Workshop visitors.
I read a for nearly three hours every single day.
And it’s not enough.
I still can’t read everything. So here’s what I’ve learned:
When it comes to reading business books, I encourage everyone to read more intensively, not extensively.
Here are my rules for reading business books:
1. Don’t Plan to Read the Whole Book
Paraphrasing Nassim Taleb, “Most books would make a great blog post.”
Most business books follow a new format: one central idea, some supporting evidence, and stories of the idea being put into practice. I won’t explain why here (but I write about it more on the Two-Brain Media blog).
That means it’s really easy to understand the author’s point. But it also means you don’t need to read most of the book.
Read the intro and then the first few chapters. If you understand the idea, you can skip to the middle of the book—or even the end.
If the first few chapters make you excited to read the rest, keep going. Every chapter should sell you on the next one.
2. Don’t Pass the Halfway Point Without Action
When you hit the halfway mark in a book, pause and reflect.
Ask yourself: “What action have I taken since starting this book?”
If the answer is “none,” put it down. This information isn’t moving you forward.
If you can clearly point to an action you’ve taken or a habit you’ve created since starting the book, keep going.
And put it in your pile to read again in six months.
3. Avoid the Novelty Bias
When you finish a book, ask yourself:
“Does this book complement something I already knew or does this book replace something I used to believe?”
In other words: Is this new, supportive information or did it change my mind?
We’re all wired to believe that the last thing we read is the best thing ever. That’s a logical fallacy, and it keeps us constantly consuming more and more (but acting less and less).
I love buying books but force myself to go back through my library every three months and ask, “Should I listen to any of these again?”
If I’ve done a good job filtering in #2, the answer is often obvious.
4. Make It Stick
Summarize what you’ve read as soon as you’ve finished.
Pretend you’re teaching the book to someone else. How can you concisely sum up the book?
When you teach something, you get to learn it twice. And focusing on the key insights will make them stick in your brain longer.
This is why I started writing my first blog to help other gym owners in 2009: I was really just taking notes for myself in the most effective way. Dontbuyads.com translated the top lessons from business books into directives for gym owners.
If you had to tell me about the book in 1 minute and pass along its key lessons, what would you say?
These lessons aren’t just for books. Use them in seminars, webinars, podcasts, courses and even mentor meetings.
We used to have a “Books” page on this site, but I took it down. I wrote “Founder, Farmer, Tinker, Thief” to help entrepreneurs filter through the noise, beat overwhelm and take action. You don’t have to read all of it.
Just take the test to determine where you currently sit on the entrepreneur’s journey.
Then read the intro and that section.
Which stage of entrepreneurship are you in? Take our 20-question quiz to find out and get the exact steps you need to take your business to the next level.
We received a lot of great feedback on the article from gym owners, and several companies contacted us to let us know they were working on improvements that would bring their products closer to our standards.
But gym owner and coach are different jobs that require different tools, so a separate review of coaching software is more than warranted.
Software That Solves Problems
The largest problems facing gym owners: attracting clients and retaining them.
We’ve got marketing and intake systems that help solve the first problem, and we’re constantly helping gym owners hire staff and implement processes to increase length of engagement.
In essence, retention comes down to helping your clients get results and then showing them those results over and over again. Retention is less affected by having fun, making friends, following the best programming or having the best community. Results are what really matter.
As a microgym owner, if you can show that you’re providing results for your clients, you’ll stand out from the “experience” gyms like Orangetheory Fitness and SoulCycle.
Unfortunately, results haven’t always been the focus of the fitness industry or the software companies that build our online tools.
We hope this review will help change that. To start the process, we evaluated seven platforms in detail: CrossFit btwb, Exercise.com, SugarWOD, Trainerize, TrainHeroic, TrueCoach and Wodify.
In the meantime, we’ll keep supporting the community with mountains of free content, advice and data people can use to grow their business and create their perfect day.
For a package of our best resources, enter your email address below.
Now, on to the software.
Key Elements of Coaching Software
To help the microgym owner, coaching software should be designed to produce and track results.
To determine the best software tools for coaches, we need to know two things:
1. What results our clients care about. Clients come to gyms to solve problems. So what are those problems?
2. The best way to measure and show off results. Once we know what problems clients have, we need to know how we can prove that our businesses are solving those problems. We need to measure progress and then illustrate that progress for each client.
What Do Gym Clients Care About?
Gym clients care about exactly three things: They want to look better, feel better and perform better.
Each client has a different combination of goals, and not all clients care about all three.
For example, a client who wants to look better might want to lose weight, gain weight, tone up or get a six pack.
A client who wants to feel better might want to have more energy or notice improvements in mood.
A client who wants to perform better might want to improve at a specific sport or be able to lift his or her kids.
Most coaching software in the microgym space focuses solely on performance. A few focus on looking better (by measuring weight or body fat). Almost none focus on feeling better.
Software needs to be able to track and report improvements in all three areas if it’s going to help a gym serve all clients.
The Best Way to Measure and Show Results
Once you’ve figured out a client’s goals, you need to figure out the best way to accomplish them.
Successful fitness programs have three key elements: training, nutrition and recovery. Coaching software must be able to track all three.
That said, the number one thing that determines a client’s success at the gym is compliance. The program, coach and equipment don’t matter if the client doesn’t show up.
How many times did the client show up and complete a workout?
How many days did he or she follow a nutrition plan?
How many days did the client get the recommended amount of sleep?
In order to get the client to continue showing up and sticking to the plan—compliance—you must keep him or her motivated.
We know motivation follows success, so we need to show the client that the program is producing results: quick wins that produce the motivation to keep going.
That means we need to track a second thing in addition to basic compliance: bright spots.
How many days in a row did the client show up?
Has he or she earned a PR? Bright spots can include a new load lifted, the first successful performance of a movement, the first successful completion of a benchmark test, and so on.
Has the client lost or gained weight or body fat?
Has the client’s mood improved over time?
How does the client compare against himself or herself six months ago or a year ago?
Does the data reveal other positive things the client is doing well?
Highlighting bright spots will keep clients motivated, making progress and showing up. Trainers need software that tracks bright spots and makes it very easy for clients to see progress. Also important: the ability for the coach to note the bright spots and offer congratulations, high fives and fist bumps right on the platform.
Coaching Software Evaluation Criteria
Our coaching software evaluation is broken down into five different categories.
Function—Does the software fulfill the needs described above? Will it track data that shows how people look, feel and perform? Does it track training, nutrition and recovery data?
Reporting—Are the reports useful? How easy is it to find the data you need? Can you create and run your own reports? Does the software highlight bright spots for you and your clients? Can clients see progress through the software even if they can’t see it in the mirror?
Usability—Is the software easy to use by the owner and the trainers? How about by the clients? Is there an app? What about the user interface (UI)? Does it make you feel warm and fuzzy when you open it or does it give you a headache? The product’s look and feel also factor into its usability.
Communication—Can coaches and clients communicate easily? Does the software allow emailing and texting? Are you forced to use the app for all communications?
Integrations/Bonuses—Does the software platform play nice with others? Does the program integrate with other tools a gym owner or coach would use? Does it have an open API so you can add things as you see fit? Does it have any bonus features that make it stand out?
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Strava—This is the top exercise-tracking app in the world. It provides an amazing experience for athletes both during and after exercise. Most tracking apps only provide feedback after a workout; Strava makes the workout feel like a game. But there’s no coaching platform on Strava yet.
TrainingPeaks—This solid coaching software is primarily focused on distance athletes—cyclists, specifically.
Zen Planner—This gym-management software offers workout tracking, but its parent company recently acquired SugarWOD, which we reviewed in detail.
One of the most-established workout-tracking platforms, btwb has evolved over the years and is now the official CrossFit app.
This platform does a ton of stuff. You can create group workouts and individual workouts and track lifestyle markers such as sleep, hydration, mobility work and even fish-oil intake. Workout tracking is thorough and detailed.
CrossFit btwb offers tons of reports: You can track overall gym performance, individual PRs and performance, weaknesses, imbalances, etc. You can also see how fit you are based on an overall ranking and use the leaderboards.
This is where the system struggles. CrossFit btwb has lots of clicks and confusing screens on the website, and entering workouts is not super easy. The company acknowledges this and offers a service that will enter workouts for you based on a spreadsheet. The app is a lot better, but the number of options feels overwhelming.
Limited options here. You can push workouts to your clients and comment on their scores, but that’s about it. You can’t send individual messages to clients, and the social feed can only send emojis. For some reason, you can only communicate with your friends if you create a squad rather than communicate with the whole gym.
You can automatically add programming to your gym from lots of different vendors, and CrossFit btwb integrates with WordPress. You can easily export data, but it would be nice if the platform had an open API or Zapier integration.
Cost: $80-$250 per month.
CrossFit btwb is a solid system with tons of features and options. With a UI refresh and greater clarity on some of the options, this platform could easily be the winner.
Chris Cooper’s notes: The founders of CrossFit btwb are very smart and strongly plugged in to CrossFit HQ. It might be a wise bet to track on this platform as the CrossFit Health initiative gains ground. It’s not clear how that program will benefit affiliates yet, but with a greater focus on nutrition at HQ and doctors working to make blood tests simple and affordable in CrossFit gyms, btwb will most likely be the first to integrate those features. They’re also most likely to offer coaches a “health” dashboard for clients in the future.
Originally a system for logging individual programs, Exercise.com has recently expanded as a business-management software.
Now an all-in-one solution for coaching and business management, Exercise.com allows coaches to create programs and workouts for 1:1 clients and groups. You can easily add your own exercises, videos and movements. The platform integrates with MyFitnessPal, and you can track recovery metrics using assessment questions, measurements and progress photos.
Users can generate reports based on attendance, measurements and workout performance. The platform has a handy “snapshot” mode in the client profile so users can see all completed workouts and stats for each client.
Exercise.com’s online interface is functional but basic. It can be hard to navigate, but you are able to add workouts and create programs fairly easily. The robust nature of this software means it’s tough to use/navigate until it’s tailored specifically for you, and a customer-service team will set up a custom app with just the options you want after a discovery call.
Limited to email and in-app alerts. We would love to see a text notification and a client communication dashboard.
Exercise.com does not offer an open API, but users can connect to Mailchimp and ConvertKit to send broadcast and autoresponder emails, Stripe for payments, MyFitnessPal for nutrition, and Zapier for just about everything else.
Cost: $199-$499 per month (pricing is for the entire system, including gym management).
This is a solid system overall, and there’s a lot more under the hood than you can see at first glance. Though Exercise.com started as coaching software, the new additions (charging clients, scheduling, etc.) make it a solid choice for managing the entire gym.
SugarWOD started as a way to post programs for group classes and interact with members on a social platform. In May 2019, SugarWOD was acquired by Daxko, parent company to Zen Planner.
With regard to workout tracking for gyms, SugarWOD is a solid 8. Unfortunately, it doesn’t offer 1:1 programming or nutrition tracking. For a gym that only offers group fitness coaching, this is a great solution. But we’ve seen many gyms move toward more personal fitness and nutrition coaching, and we need software that works in these applications as well.
The reports are minimal, but—refreshingly—SugarWOD does focus on bright-spot metrics such as attendance and PRs without excessive emphasis on technical details. The reports for on-ramp athletes, benchmark improvement, PRs and so on are all useful for coaches.
Ease of logging is the number one issue with coaching software, and SugarWOD does a great job with a simple app and straightforward interface. Entering workouts is very simple as well. We’d love to be able to easily fist-bump or direct comments to people on a list (as in a Facebook feed) instead of using extra clicks for each task.
It’s straightforward: Everything goes through the app. People can get notifications, but SugarWOD does not provide text/email options or messaging.
SugarWOD has an open API, so it will send data to a variety of systems if you know how to code. It also has a workout marketplace so other programs can be delivered directly through the system. Native integration is limited to Zen Planner, PushPress and a couple of other systems.
Cost: $19-$119 per month.
Overall score: 31/50
SugarWOD is a good app for group-class management, and it’s very strong on usability when logging workouts.
Chris Cooper’s notes: We’ve been using SugarWOD at Catalyst for years, and I look forward to chatting with its founders every year at the Games. They’re great people, and they provide a constant reminder that software companies should focus on doing one thing really, really well instead of trying to be everything to everyone. I hope SugarWOD’s founders (Drew and Shayna Larsen) can help Zen Planner raise its game. They’re amazing people and very smart.
Pure coaching software, Trainerize is mostly focused on personal trainers in a 1:1 setting. Chris Cooper uses this at his gym, Catalyst.
Trainerize offers lots of great functions. You can create custom programs, custom exercises, nutrition recommendations, goals and groups. The platform features a coaching app and a member app, and you can assign programs and charge for them using Stripe. One big drawback is that a person with a group program can’t receive individual programs, which prevents customization of programs for individuals who are part of a bigger group.
Reports are available for workouts, nutrition, weight and sessions, and Trainerize allows you to send automated messages based on the reports.
Smooth, for the most part. Nothing is super confusing, but the volume of options makes it tough to know where to begin. The overview videos really help when you’re getting started.
Trainerize really focuses on communication with in-app alerts and the ability to call or email a client directly from the app. The program even integrates with other systems to allow video calls.
You can integrate Trainerize with MyFitnessPal to track calories/macros, Fitbit to track steps, YouTube or a video drive to store your exercise videos, and Zapier for everything else.
Developed by coaches for coaches, TrainHeroic started as a training marketplace and was built into a full training system.
TrainHeroic offers lots of fun stuff. You can enter workouts or entire programs for a group or individuals, and you can define as many groups as you want for different purposes. It also asks questions about readiness and mood before each session, but unfortunately it doesn’t track anything related to nutrition.
The reports are pretty basic but focus on the things we care about, including compliance, readiness, history and performance.
TrainHeroic offers a simple, straightforward interface. It’s easy to create a workout and a program, and it’s easy and even fun to log workouts as an athlete. When athletes start a session, the platform asks them several questions to assess readiness, then starts a timer for the entire session. Users log the scores, then TrainHeroic asks them how it went to provide feedback that can be shared with other athletes or coaches. The UI is well thought out, and set-up was easy, too. We were able to go in and add individual workouts for people on the fly by clicking on them. TrainHeroic also has a leaderboard you can post on a screen.
The platform mainly offers email and app alerts. The notes were simple and clear, and it was easy to see what’s going on.
TrainHeroic has the ability to use programs from lots of different coaches through the marketplace. The platform seems to integrate only with Pike13, and it doesn’t have an open API.
Cost: $45-$150 per month.
TrainHeroic is a really solid system with a simple interface and great features. We got excited because we could actually see this platform in use at our gyms. The only thing missing is the nutrition element, a problem that might be solved through integration with a platform such as MyFitnessPal.
Formerly known as Fitbot, this software is focused primarily on the coach, which helps users manage personal-training clients and small groups.
Users can easily add workouts for groups or individuals, and the platform features lots of sections for notes on equipment, nutrition, limitations, planning, etc. TrueCoach offers your clients a good app with messaging and other features, but we would have liked more of a social component to group-training work. As it stands, it seems like communication is only possible between client and coach.
Reports seem to be limited to compliance, which is the most critical factor. Clients and coaches can pick a metric to track over time, such as body fat or back-squat weight. This data must be entered separately and isn’t tracked with workouts, but a nice graph can be created over time.
TrueCoach is pretty simple and easy to use, without a lot of “extras” in the way. The UI is friendly and makes you want to make entries. Users also have the ability to link to their own demo videos, which is handy.
We liked the messaging app and how the coach can see a feed of all client workouts and messages on one page, like a Facebook feed.
TrueCoach does not appear to integrate with anything, help with programming or provide an open API. However, it’s easy to use, so you might not need integrations.
Cost:$19-$99 per month.
If you’re a 1:1 trainer, this is a great app to start with. It’s not as solid for groups because the group members can’t interact with each other.
Wodify is a true “do it all” type of system, with member management, billing and workout tracking all in one. It was also included in our member-management comparison, which you can find here.
Wodify is primarily a gym-management app, with workout tracking built in. At the time, it was a revolution, but more useful workout-tracking apps have appeared. The Wodify system is still solid, and it lets you create and publish benchmark workouts to clients and have them log into the system itself. This creates some unique capabilities in terms of tracking attendance and flagging clients you haven’t seen in a while. The platform does not offer any mood/energy tracking, but Wodify does feature a nutrition journal, and a coach can review the client’s log.
Wodify offers basic reports that show benchmark scores, weightlifting numbers, gymnastics performance, etc. It also has a variety of attendance-tracking reports.
Entering workouts wasn’t as straightforward as we’d like, and the system has tons of options. However, it’s trying to serve two purposes, so we won’t ding it much for the lack of focus. The app is pretty straightforward as well.
You can email and SMS clients, but they have to opt in. This functionality is somewhat buried in the system rather than at your fingertips.
Wodify integrates with a few different systems, it has online programming on offer, and it manages your members. Lots of bonuses!
Cost: $79-299 per month.
The “all in one” solution is the biggest draw here. Wodify is not the best coaching software, but it is the best platform if you want a single solution for coaching, billing, client relationship management and member management. Wodify’s goals are ambitious, and we’d all be using this system if the company nailed every aspect of its offering.
Chris Cooper’s notes: We’ve done a lot of work with Wodify this year, and its people are always amazing. Wodify has done much for the workout-tracking industry: It was the first to set a high price for service, the first to use screens in gyms, and so on. It’s tough to be the biggest player in a niche, but Wodify is on top for a reason.
We spent over $30,000 in time and testing to produce this objective guide.
We also don’t accept partnerships from software companies in this space because we want to remain objective.
Our purposes in publishing are twofold:
1. Help gym owners find the best tools—Your key differentiator, as a microgym, is coaching. Big chains, like Orangetheory and the various bootcamps, sell an experience. They have scoreboards and apps. But they can’t plot client arcs from current spots to goals. They can’t provide nutrition coaching or accountability or bright spots. Their systems aren’t built to accommodate 1:1 relationships.
At Two-Brain, we teach gym owners to build their systems around 1:1 relationships. The tools we use must strengthen those relationships. If they don’t, they’re superfluous.
As soon as it was published, both Wodify and Arbox made heavy investments to hit our targets. I was really impressed with both. Each said, “We want to win next year.”
The result of that investment will be improved products for gym owners.
I hope that happens here, too.
Software companies are product companies. They respond to consumer demand.
The best ones respond quickly; the weak ones die.
Which will evolve with microgyms to provide the best tools?
I have my opinion, but we’ll see.
This review will become even more important every time we do it.
CORRECTION—Sept. 4, 2019: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Wodify does not have a nutrition-tracking feature. Wodify does offer a nutrition journal athletes can fill out for review by their coaches. Which stage of entrepreneurship are you in? Take our 20-question quiz to find out and get the exact steps you need to take your business to the next level.
In “Supertraining,” Mel Siff makes a case for “imperfect training”: occasionally varying the balance of loads, stances, speed and others to better prepare an athlete for sport.
Older coaches will remember Paul Chek’s “balance” training for the “core” in the early 2000s. For years, parents visiting my gym would cite the value of “training the little muscles in the core” while talking about their kids. Heck, “core” is STILL a buzzword in training circles of lower educational average.
Obviously, the nature of sport is unpredictable. But can the training room best prepare an athlete for that unpredictability? Is the scope of unpredictability different for each sport, and therefore trainable only on the field or rink?
“Imperfect training,” in my mind, can be spread across a broad spectrum: – inherently unsafe, with little value (risk > reward) – inherently unsafe, with moderate-to-high value (risk = reward) – inherently safe, with moderate-to-high value (reward > risk) – inherently safe, with little value (risk + reward = 0.)
It’s irrelevant to our purposes to discuss activities which create no reward. But all training carries an element of risk. Small “injuries” – including muscle tearing, elevated blood pressure, glycogen depletion and exhaustion – are necessary to spur super compensation.
In that light, where is the line between “small injuries created on purpose” and “small injuries that are a side effect”? What about small injuries that cause no real limitation or long-term damage, like blisters?
“Imperfect” training raises the risk associated in training. BOSU balls were popular toys (but not with Siff, nor with me) for years. The unstable surface of a BOSU ball was argued to create more stability around the ankle and knee joints. Higher risk for a reward or arguable value.
Where do box jumps fit into the risk/reward picture? Low-rep box jumps done from on high? High-rep box jumps done from a medium height? Where is the “safe” line in either scenario?
The common answer is, “It’s the duty of the coach to know when to hold the athlete back.” But HOW do they know? Is it subjective? What experience — short of causing injury — tells the coach, “This far and no further?” With individual variations in back musculature, injury history and deadlifting exposure, how can a coach determine that any one posture is “bad” in the deadlift?
But exposure to success leaves clues: the *best* dead lifters do it with an anteriorly-tilted pelvis, extended back and elevated chin. Except for the ones who don’t, like Andy Bolton, the current world record holder. Yet no one would presume to say, “Andy, if you backed off the weight and fixed your form, you’d lift 1100lbs instead of 1008lbs.”
Most arguments in the fitness world sound like this: “Bad form is dangerous because it’s bad form.” It’s circular logic. When pressed, the fallback seems to be, “It’s just bad! Everyone knows that!”
Here’s Tony Budding explaining CrossFit’s perspective on “safety vs intensity” and what constitutes good form:
The problem for coaches making the “bad form” argument is that technique occurs on a spectrum. Danger occurs on another spectrum. What’s dangerous for one person can pose no threat to another person. Experience changes the spectrum; load and intensity change the spectrum. What a coach must consider when correcting technique isn’t variance from a hard-and-fast line, but the average of averages.
We can say that, on average, a lifter whose knees collapse inward will have less power in the squat. We can say that, on average, a lifter whose torso tilts forward will place more stress on their lower back; and a lifter whose torso stays too vertical will place more stress on their knee. But we cannot say that a barbell must be vertically placed at 64.3% of femoral length relative to the pelvis at the start of the squat, because your legs are longer than mine.
Without a clear and present “perfect” form, what range of variance is acceptable?
Is “good form” an arbitrary decision?
What’s bad? What’s good? How do we know for sure?
We’ve been running our Gym Checkup for two years. Thousands of gym owners have completed it.
Most finish the checkup and book a free call with me to discuss their answers. Sometimes we invite those callers to mentorship.
Some of these guys are generating over a million in gross revenue per year. Some are looking for a lifeline to make it through the month. Most are in the middle. But almost ALL gyms, rich or poor, give us this answer on at least one of the questions in the Checkup:
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t know my goal for this business. I haven’t really thought about it.”
“I don’t know how long a client stays with me.”
“I don’t know what my coaches want.”
“I don’t know my profit margin.”
“I don’t know how I’m going to retire.”
….in fact, many gym owners bail out of the Checkup partway through, use the “phone a friend” button, and book the call anyway, because it’s obvious their business is out of control.
You manage what you measure. You control what you know.
As a coach, you’d never let an athlete post an estimated score. “I think I did Fran in under 3:00.”
You’d never guess at their body fat percentage. “I think you’re around 30%, and I think you used to be around 33%. Great work.”
You’d never accept a guess. “I bet I could lift 500lbs.” You would test, and retest. You would KNOW.
When you open a business, coaching isn’t your job anymore; it’s your service. Your business provides a platform for that service. Your job is to build that platform. That means it’s your job to know your ARM, your LEG, your profit margin. It’s your job to know what your coaches want: is to more work, or less? Has that answer changed in the last two months?
We can blame poor software options for our lack of knowledge, but they just report what their users ask them to report. We can blame HQ for lack of “best practices”, but most owners don’t record any metrics on what’s actually working. We can blame our teachers for bad math, preachers for bad prayers, banks for bad fees…
…but it’s our responsibility to KNOW.
The answer that keeps me up at night is “I don’t know”. It scares me because, in my efforts to keep this Movement going forward, I see gym owners being swayed by bad advice. Without data, advice is just a guess. And without data, the gym owner can’t tell the difference: we’re just pawns to their game.
The Checkup provides a piece of our data–the largest and most comprehensive data set in the world. Ongoing mentoring calls with hundreds of gym owners provide the rest.
Start here: take the Gym Checkup. It’s free. Write down the questions you can’t answer. Then start finding the answers, with these four taking priority:
Coach’s “Perfect Day”
ARM (Average Revenue per Member)
LEG (Length of Engagement)
Those are the four answers most gym owners tend to “guess”–or assume, or estimate–most. Guesses aren’t good enough anymore.
We know, from dozens of stories, that coaches have the unparalleled potential to change cholesterol, blood sugar, cortisol and a host of other blood marker levels.
But how can blood testing potentially affect the business of coaching?
In early December, we decided to find out. Members of the TwoBrain mentoring team, as well as 10 coaches and clients from Catalyst, surrendered our blood to answer the question, “Could this help the clients of CrossFit gyms?”
I’m not the first one to experiment with blood testing in a gym. But my intention wasn’t to tweak the minute training of a Games athlete; mine was to answer the question, “Would this help CrossFit gyms keep members longer?”
First discovery: I’m not good at fasting. But I take the test more seriously because I’m forced to fast.
Clients and coaches lined up at 6:30am. I brought in a phlebotomist to take our blood. She set up a centrifuge in our Athletic Therapy office, and stacked rows of test tubes and syringes on my intake desk. The air in the waiting area was somber, as if we were waiting to see a doctor (and anticipating bad news). Most brought a snack for after the test; I already had my order in at the Workshop cafe next door.
It took around ten minutes per athlete. Then the phlebotomist packed up her things and the waiting began.
Second discovery: How I behave and think while wearing the client’s shoes.
Our results arrived a week later. An email notification arrives with “Your Blood Testing Results are Here!”
I clicked through, and away we went.
Here are some screen shots. I won’t share the name of the company we used outside the TwoBrain family, but you might catch a glimpse in the pictures.
My test was a full one; many of my coaches and all of my clients used a version around the $200 range, which wasn’t quite as comprehensive.
Most of my markers were in the “Optimized” range, so I’ll focus on the interesting ones–the “At Risk” markers.
Here’s how the 5 “At-Risk” markers were presented to me:
Nearly all were in the “Metabolism and Weight Control” category, so here’s a more detailed view of just those markers:
…if I clicked on the “LDL” picture above, I got this:
…and if I clicked “Shopping Basket”, foods and supplements that would help with my “At Risk” categories were sorted and prioritized this way:
(I’m not sure why it says “Fish Free”, except during the intake survey I clicked that I only ate fish once per week or less. I don’t dislike fish, but my wife does, so we rarely eat it at home.)
Just for fun, I clicked the “Cognitive” link and saw this:
Nothing crazy. But being on the other end of the testing put me into the client’s shoes. And when I analyzed my own reactions later, I chuckled a bit.
My first response was to justify my current behavior instead of asking, “What do I have to change in my lifestyle to fix these numbers?”
LDL cholesterol and cortisol levels were both high. The tracking service suggested I cut back on the intensity of my workouts. Since I’ve been scaling most of them lately, they’re nowhere near my usual level of intensity. So I pointed the finger at my stress level.
Now, I’m not stressed out. But I’m very busy: we happily add 4 new gyms to the TwoBrain family every 3 days. We just released our 2018 curriculum for gym owners, and compiling data to support what we teach was a LOT of work. We have three massive R&D projects running at major expense. All good things (eustress) but still: all.of.the.things. Our gym went through a management restructuring around Christmas time, and while we now have all the right people in all the right seats, their learning curve puts demands on my time that I don’t really have.
So I rationalized: cortisol and LDL are high because of stress; this stressful period will eventually pass; I’ll just do nothing and wait it out. And that’s how a client would probably react.
Next, I asked what the “hacks” were to solving the problem. What supplement can I take? What can I eat MORE of (instead of asking myself, “where do I need to cut back?”) Now, my friend and UpCoach mentor Craig Hysell has changed my view on “hacks”, so I immediately realized I was trying to avoid change. But most clients wouldn’t.
Finally, I tried to use my tried-and-true avoidance technique: “I might be unhealthy, but this is the price I’m willing to pay to feed my family.” This is a sticky lie, and I know it. More sleep and more time skiing instead of working will make me a better husband, dad and mentor. So why am I writing this review at 4am, and then working on another big project this morning? I don’t know the answer, but I believe our clients will do the same things.
In other words, they need a coach.
Third discovery: I automatically trust the people who provide the data.
When the guys behind the software said “Eat more rolled oats”, my first thought was “Wow, I’ve been wrong about that for a full decade.” I immediately mistrusted what I knew about myself because these guys have white lab coats.
The Zone Diet works really well for me. I focus on cognitive performance instead of physical performance, because winning the Games doesn’t help other gym owners (but mental acuity does.) I don’t eat rolled oats in the morning because even small amounts make me less sharp.
But when presented even a shaky chain of logic (my LDL is high; high LDL is dangerous; LDL is best controlled by diet; people who eat more rolled oats have lower LDL) my knee-jerk reaction was to buy into whatever the computer said. Never mind that not all of those things are necessarily true, or that correlation doesn’t equal causation (people who eat rolled oats are probably also more likely to exercise)–I was reaching for my grocery list before I even clicked the “Next” button.
Fourth discovery: I need an impassive expert to tell me what to do FIRST.
But most clients won’t look for a filter: they’ll just take the recommendation of the computer.
I emailed the results to my RD, who happens to sit in the office two doors down from mine. I’ll walk through it all with her on Monday. Then we’ll decide if I need to do anything different; I’ll probably add some aerobic work into my week (I usually ski all winter and bike all summer on top of CrossFit, but I’ve been missing it this year.) When the software said “Cut back on exercise intensity”, I said “Nah, the Open is coming up.” But I know many exercisers would see this as the golden ticket to the treadmill.
If your gym is operating under a Prescriptive Model (which we teach in the Incubator), blood testing could be GREAT. For example, if the client received the results of the test, and their COACH received the recommendations, that coach could filter and curate their knowledge to apply working solutions for the client. Under the prescriptive model, it’s totally fine to say “You need to come to CrossFit twice per week and cycle twice per week, instead of coming here every day”. But if you’re just selling group memberships, downgrading a client’s visits is a threat to your revenues. I believe this prevents a gym owner from making the best coaching decision for their clients, and will shorten their LEG (it’s certainly been true in my case.)
Being the keeper of the data should increase LEG. If you base a client’s progress off their Frathey can go anywhere else, because everyone has a clock. But if you’re the only one tracking their progress through deeper means–like an Inbody test, or blood testing–they won’t be able to see their progress anywhere else.
Blood testing can make the “invisible” changes–blood sugar levels, cholesterol–more visible to the client. That means more Bright Spots. And the way the data was displayed on the tester’s website was really appealing and exciting – I’ve gone back 5-6 times since. I can even project changes, which feels like a game.
The price might deter some gym owners who struggle to charge what they’re worth. But objective data (from an InBody, blood testing or even measurements) will help the gym owner show the client what they’re actually providing, instead of just selling group exercise. I wrote about this at length in “Help First” (walking around the table).
Is this scalable? We’ll see–TwoBrain gyms could see a custom option from this testing company by the end of 2018. A few doctors are already being tested to give me their opinion. And we’d have to be very careful about scope of practice, but working with an out-of-state testing company might help there, too. Heck, in North America, most doctors don’t have time to take blood tests and sit down to review the results anyway.
How deep can the prescriptive level go? To the depth of the paper prescription pad–or a few millimeters beneath the skin?
Many of my Personal Training clients pay $15,000 per year for private clinic access. In Canada, our healthcare is “free” (but largely unavailable, or a dangerously slow process). So people who can afford better will enroll in a private clinic, and do testing twice per year. It’s mostly basic pushup tests and skin fold measurements, then a blood panel. They hire weekend-cert Personal Trainers to do the physical testing (and make them wear lab coats–no exaggeration.) Then they hire Registered Dietitians to prescribe the Food Guide (which, as we know, doesn’t work.)
WE CAN DO THIS–but we can do it RIGHT. The barriers are access to technology, and the mindset of the coach.
That first barrier is coming down fast.
Want to hear more from the scientists and developers of the blood testing regime I went through? Respond to this post in “Comments” or just hit “reply” to this email, and I’ll invite them to the podcast.
I remember when I was young enough to know everything.
I was 100% sure that my way was the ONLY way. I thought that MY experience should be the same as everyone else. I knew that what I liked was what others would like, too.
I opened my gym thinking dozens of local powerlifters would want coaching. They did not.
My first website was dark and scary. I thought all the hardcore athletes in town would want to do CrossFit. They did not.
I tried to attract local firefighters by criticizing P90X–which they were all doing at the firehouse. I thought they’d see the light because of my infallible logic and science. They did not.
Eventually, I got tired of making bad guesses about what other people wanted, and started asking them. I’ve refined the technique now, and we teach it in the Incubator: which questions to ask your coaches, clients and spouse to find out what they REALLY want from you.
Most of us opened a gym because we wanted to coach. A year later, we might have wanted something else. But we made guesses about our clients based mostly on what WE wanted, or what worked for US.
I like training in a group. Many of my clients don’t. That’s fine.
Some people prefer a private introduction to CrossFit. Some people do not. That’s fine.
The answer depends on the client. And that’s why so many real experts in ANY field, when asked a question, will answer with, “That depends…”
The only ones who are ever absolutely sure that their opinion is correct to the exclusion of everything else are the newcomers. The evangelists for one training style, or one business “best practice” are usually the newcomers. They’re also usually the loudest, because they’re so assured of their conviction that they’re comfortable shouting it from the rooftops.
Data? Not necessary. Experience? That takes too long.
A sure sign of maturity–as a coach, a parent or even a mentor–is the willingness to consider that all options COULD be right, depending on the situation.
Our job–as coach, parent and mentor–is to compare the starting point of our clients against the “gold standard”, and see what fits.
My gym does around $240k per year in Personal Training. Every client starts 1:1, because we’re selective about our clientele and, frankly, we can afford to slow our intake process.
A gym owner in Manitoba, Canada called me yesterday. She has a waiting list (rightly so!) Some of those people would prefer a 1:1 intake. Some don’t want (or need) it. Forcing 20 personal training sessions on those folks is counterproductive.
Establishing a set of “industry best practices” is my passion. That means careful (and very expensive) collection of data from a broad sample set (we have the largest in the industry.) In 2018, that will mean a total investment of close to two million dollars on my part–because it’s the right thing to do. And no one else is going to do it.
But even with ALL that data, we’ll never make a blind prescription to any client, because we’re not the same.
Your clients trust you to make the best prescription for them–not just give them the same prescription as everyone else in your gym. You can lean on science to make those decisions. There are reams of data supporting or contradicting the best and worst methods in fitness.
My clients trust me to do the same. My experience and context are merely the lenses through which I view REAL data about what’s working in the gym industry. I hate “opinion” given without that base of data and sold as truth, just like I hate the “super weight loss shake” zealots who want to sell crap in my city.
One final story about the power of asking people what’s right for them, instead of making assumptions:
A year into owning Catalyst, I thought a key staff member was close to leaving. I’d heard a rumor that he was going to open his own gym, as I had done in 2005. I called my partners in a panic. One said, “Have you asked him?”
That was 2006.
He’s coaching the 7pm group at Catalyst tonight.
Guessing doesn’t work. The fitness world has lots of data; your job is to translate it. The business of fitness is mostly lacking data; most can’t afford to collect it (or simply don’t want to.) We are. But in the absence of data, the most important question you can ask is, “What do you want NOW?”
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