Coaching Credentials Didn’t Save My Gym Business

A photo of a sinking paper ship made out of a U.S. $100 bill.

My functional fitness gym almost sunk in the mid-2010s.


I had very good coaches and lots of credentials.

But I didn’t know anything about running a business properly.

The short summary: We had too many classes with too few people, and my labor costs outpaced revenue. We had no plan to generate more revenue by increasing client value, adding more clients or retaining members longer.

At our lowest point, we lost $5,000 in a month. I was scared.

And my ability to spot an early arm bend in a snatch didn’t help me at all.

A head shot of writer Mike Warkentin and the column name "Pressing It Out."

As a young gym owner I fell into the trap that’s all too common: I spent almost all my time coaching and learning more about coaching.

I was convinced that would make my gym successful.

I, like you, heard all the assertions that great coaches attract clients without even trying to do so. And I heard that bad gyms were ruining the fitness industry and hurting clients. More fitness education was obviously better … right?

As I prioritized coach development, the business’s finances got worse.

The local market became more competitive. I definitely retained a few clients because of strong personal relationships built on trust and effective coaching, but I realized that even great coaching wasn’t enough to stop a client from joining a gym 30 minutes closer to home or work. Despite that, I still paid for more coach education with funds from the dwindling savings account.

I wasn’t dumb enough to think everything was fine, but I didn’t know how to solve my problems.

  • I didn’t have a clue how to raise rates that were obviously too low.
  • I didn’t know how to tie staff costs to revenue generation.
  • I didn’t know how to help trainers make more money when we couldn’t afford to add more classes for them to coach.
  • I didn’t know how to analyze attendance and kill or fill classes that were costing me money. In fact, I was horrified by the idea of cutting a slot: If people had less access to my outstanding coaches, they’d be more likely to leave, right?
  • I didn’t know why people were leaving or how to get them to stay longer.
  • I didn’t know how to find new clients to replace the departed.

I became stressed and angry—and of course the quality of my coaching declined. The very thing I’d prioritized was being eroded because I couldn’t figure out how to tilt the balance on my monthly profit and loss sheet.

It was a disaster. And my situation wasn’t uncommon. Many of my peers had similar experiences. Some survived and suffered, and others closed their gyms. A few got help and started to thrive.

Eventually, I got help running my business, too, and we stepped back from the edge of the cliff.

But we couldn’t have done it without business help.

Experience, Stories and Data

Over the last weeks, I’ve seen a lot of talk about coaching credentials. You have, too.

Here’s what my experience taught me:

  • More credentials don’t guarantee better coaching. I’ve seen amazing coaches with one basic credential and horrid coaches with half a dozen sought-after credentials. The ability to pass a test or ace an evaluation doesn’t guarantee success in the gym, where the client’s hand actually meets the barbell.
  • More coaching credentials will not help you run your business. How could they? Teaching a squat is nowhere near putting together a quarterly marketing calendar specifically designed to acquire high-value personal-training clients who want to lose weight.

That’s my story, and you should take it as just that: One person’s experience over 13 years running a fitness business.

Now that I’ve learned more about running a business, I know that stories aren’t all that important. Numbers and data are better.

So I’ll point you to a recent article by Chris Cooper. It’s got a simple diagnostic tool you can use to evaluate your business in about five minutes.

Check out the article and use the tool. If you do that and realize that you absolutely require more coaching credentials to improve your fitness business, acquire them.

But if you realize you have greater problems than coach education, address those first, with help from a mentor if needed.

The article and the tool can be found here. Use these resources to push past opinions and stories to get to the truth.


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.