Changing Your Gym: 5 Essential Tips for Fitness Entrepreneurs

From a line of grey hot-air balloons a gold rocket ship flies upward.

In this series, I’m talking about building a client-centric business.

Here’s the hard part: Many of us built our gym around what we like to coach or how we like to train.

This is a picture of my gym back in 2009: It’s dark and it’s covered with concrete dust and chalk. The pirate flag, the “sweat angels” on the floor, the “open gym” time—they almost bankrupted me.

My gym had to change.

When I finally accepted that I wasn’t my own best client, that I’d never attract enough powerlifters who would pay the rate I needed to survive, and that I wasn’t just going to “figure it out,” I sought the guidance of a mentor.

(I recommend you do the same. Click here to chat about it. Change is very hard to do on your own.)

But here was the problem: My members didn’t want to change.

  • Though I only had around 70, they liked having 15 hours of access every day.
  • They liked the hardcore attitude.
  • They liked having me (and only me) as their coach.
  • They liked loud metal and crashing barbells and the very atmosphere that was turning most people away.
  • They did not want to change.

My mentor guided me through the process of change one step at a time. He wasn’t in the gym industry, so I had to figure out a lot of it as I went. Now, though, the 45 mentors at Two-Brain Business own gyms and can guide you through this process very quickly.

Here are some of the steps:

1. Write a Staff Playbook

Get your team doing things exactly the same: starting class precisely on time, cleaning up the same way, answering the phone the same way. Give them rules. Communicate why you’re doing this.

The better you communicate your new systems, the less pushback you’ll get—but you should be prepared for some pushback anyway. Change is hard, and if you’ve made some mistakes in the past, you might go through a bit of pain when you systemize things. The only way out is through.

When we added a staff playbook, we added some rules that would affect the members directly. One was a limit on open gym: We would no longer allow clients to do their “own thing” while classes were running. This was absolutely necessary to remove chaos and increase the value of group classes.

Some members grumbled but immediately saw the benefit. A couple tested our resolve.

One Monday night, a client named Dan was rowing a half-marathon. He started late, and with five minutes to go before class began, he had over 5,000 m remaining. So I reminded him that class started at 6 sharply and he’d have to be off the rower when it did.

He acknowledged me but didn’t break his pace.

At one minute to 6, it was clear that he wasn’t even close to finishing. I asked him to stop. He pretended not to hear me. So I crouched in front of him, looked him in the eye and said, “Open gym is over. Sorry, Dan.”

He let the rower handle slam into the machine, smacked his drink on the floor, threw things in his gym bag and stormed out. He was irate, and he made a big scene. He never came back. It was very painful for me.

But every other client in the gym appreciated it. And 12 years later, I don’t have a problem with classes starting on time anymore.

2. Launch a Mandatory On-Ramp Process

To give everyone their best shot at success, don’t throw people into your group classes without preparation. Teach them the movements, teach them your gym etiquette, and teach them about scaling and safety.

Some one-on-one coaching will benefit everyone. The more “elite” and experienced athletes get, the more they can benefit from individualized attention. Learning your method is like learning a language: All new students should get some tutoring before they join a class of fluent speakers.

Offering a “test out” makes the process subjective.

Some won’t want to go through your on-ramp. And that’s good: You’ll filter out clients who are less responsive to coaching.

3. Hold Frequent Staff Meetings as You Change

Follow the CALM model to explain your changes:

  • Clarity (here’s the problem).
  • Assurance (we’re doing this to help our clients).
  • Leadership (send all questions to me).
  • Movement (we’re definitely doing it, beginning on this date).

4. Change Things for New Clients First

If your rates are too low (and they probably are), raise your rates for new clients first. Then bring everyone to your current rate a few months later. And a few months after that, implement a system of annual rate increases.

5. Prepare to Lose People

Clients don’t like change. So the more things you need to change in your business, the longer your time horizon should be. It took me years to correct the mistakes I made at startup.

Eventually, as your business sheds its skin and emerges as a much better animal, you’ll see that many old clients just don’t fit anymore. Some will stick with you through thick and thin—I have one client who’s been with me over 20 years. But some will say, “This just isn’t what I signed up for.” And that’s OK. You’re evolving in different directions.

When we finally killed our horrible open-gym option, we knew that we’d lose five or six long-term clients. But when we dug in and identified the exact clients who would quit, we found a silver lining: These were the clients who made the mess, who complained about music and programming and everything else, who were roughest on equipment. You know the ones, right? That realization made the change a no-brainer.

You Can Do It!

Change is tough.

With a wealth of fitness business knowledge now available, most gym owners know what they should do. Changing is the hard part. Mentors manage your changes with you and help you take action.

Click here to talk with our team about mentorship.


One more thing!

Did you know gym owners can earn $100,000 a year with no more than 150 clients? We wrote a guide showing you exactly how.