Profit and Passion: The Dichotomy of Successful Gym Ownership

Profit and Passion

Chris Cooper: 


“It’s not about you. It’s about the client. You’re not your own best client. Tailor your business to serve them! But also, you should pay yourself first and you should make sure that you are fed before everybody else, so the business carries on.” How can both of these things be true? They seem like a dichotomy.

My name’s Chris Cooper, I’m the founder of Two-Brain Business. And today I’m gonna talk to you about dichotomies in business, how to build a client-centric business and why you do need to make a good living and think about profit and serve your clients so that they get amazing results . If this episode is helpful to you, please subscribe on your favorite podcast platform so that we know, and I’ll keep making topics just like this.

Jocko Willink and Leif Babin wrote a book called “The Dichotomy of Leadership.” It’s a fantastic book. And when Jocko appeared at the Two-Brain Summit, I asked him a question about these dichotomies and he gave me some really interesting examples, but I’m the kind of guy that I need to have a picture in my head. I need to form a mental model before I can really understand a concept.

And so today what I’m gonna talk about is the difference between the method that you use to get your clients results, and the business model or the platform on which you deliver this method. And I’m gonna give you some examples as we go.

My first gym was not Catalyst. I actually started a personal training business called Focusstrength way back in 1998. I had just come back to my hometown after a couple years working away in Illinois, that area. And I started doing some personal training and I got a job at a treadmill store to pay the bills. And after the store closed, I would go out the back loading doors. And in the parking lot, there would be an athlete waiting for me, usually with a skipping rope.

And we would unload an old barbell from the back of my truck. I might have a pile box. I might have a sled, but that was it. And we would train in the back parking lot. And I called this business Focusstrength, and I printed up a couple of t-shirts, probably whatever the minimum order was, and started an email address.

And that was my entire business, was a little bit of equipment and a couple of t-shirts. I might have hand printed some business cards, but I don’t remember. We did everything one-on-one. I only worked with athletes and I would give them homework.

And that worked for a while until their parents started asking me to train them. And so their parents would show up and they’d say, oh, don’t we have anywhere else to work out? Like, I have to train in this parking lot? And they didn’t really like that, and they felt it was too public. So I made a deal with a gym and the parents would meet me there, and I would train them in this gym. And then I started to notice, oh, when I give my athletes homework to do on their own, they would 100% do it all the time. But these clients didn’t. Huh .

And so I can’t just see them once a week and give them homework. I have to see them more often to make sure that they actually do the work to be successful. And so I started making more appointments with the parents and regular people, non-athletes, and I would see them three or four times a week. And eventually my book of personal training filled up and I decided it was time to quit my job managing this treadmill store and start working just as a personal trainer. And over time, what happened was that I had so many quote-unquote “regular clients” who were looking to lose a little bit of weight, get fit, that I just couldn’t take any more. My book was filled up and that’s because my model was one-on-one training. I was selling my time by the hour. Then I got acquired.

Well, I got hired by a personal training studio and I started working for them. And, you know, again, my book was filled up and I was charging a little tiny bit more. So I was making more money, but I still was running the same model. And so when your book is full, then you can’t grow. You’ve hit the ceiling. The model, I reached the limits of the model of personal training. I couldn’t literally book more clients.

One day I had 13 clients booked back to back for an hour each with no lunch break. And that was nuts. And the methods that I was using were changing. At the time, I was doing some plyometric stuff, I was doing some powerlifting stuff with my clients. I was trying to get them to go, like, do some extra light work. I was calling it cardio back then.

I tried to get them to do some cardio on their own. They probably wouldn’t do it. So my model was fine. It was limited. I reached the end of the business model of personal training. My methods needed some improvement.

And so eventually we found CrossFit and that was our became our new method. And so we were delivering CrossFit type workouts to clients, one-on-one, but we still had the same model, right? So our clients were getting better results now, which was awesome.

They liked their workouts better, also. Very cool. But our model was now the limiting factor. And the model was that we were still booking people one at a time. And so we would sell out our entire book and really, you know , cap out our income.

Then we discovered what we thought was the CrossFit business model and I was wrong, but I won’t go down that path. What I thought was the CrossFit business model was, you just run group classes and you have 12 people, and that’s how the trainer makes more money.

And that’s how you get more clients results. So we opened up a second location. Now thank goodness I still had a lease on my personal training studio, because the second location almost bankrupted me. And so I was running two separate businesses at once.

In one location, I had a great personal training studio. I had maxed out that model. I couldn’t make more money, but I was making an income from there. In the other location, I had this CrossFit gym and I thought, okay, here , this is all kinds of opportunity. I will grow this gym really quickly. I’ll get people in, we’ll put them in group classes. And of course that didn’t work.

And you know, I’ve shared tons of that in my books and on this podcast before. I won’t go down that road. In that case, in the second gym, and it was CrossFit Catalyst, the method was good. CrossFit.

The model was not. The model of, “Run group classes, no Onramp. Just try to get as many people as you can.” That model wasn’t working. I thought it was, because that’s what people on were saying on message boards, but it really didn’t.

And so what happened by, you know, force, was that I had to merge the two models. So in that case, the method was awesome. It was getting results. It was fun to coach. It was great for me, exciting, but the model nearly bankrupted me.

Now I share three business models for CrossFit affiliates that do work. They’ve been proven to work. We’ve worked with well over a thousand CrossFit gyms. At this point, you can get those three models for free if you go to If you just want to coach big classes, there’s a model there that will work for you. If you want to use the model that the most successful gyms in the world use, successful, you know, measured by data, then you can download that model.

And the third model is the full-on hybrid that a lot of gyms are evolving to now.

Just go to, you can download those for free.

Okay? So back to the method and the model. The method is the skills that you’re using to get the clients results. And that could be CrossFit. It could be kickboxing. It could be boot camp , Pilates, yoga, whatever that is. The model is how your business is set up.

It’s the platform on which you deliver that service. Now, the method that you choose will change over time. I guarantee it. No matter how passionate you are about yoga right now, that method will evolve over your career. And so will the model, the model that you run will probably change too. It will also evolve.

These things will not usually evolve at the same time. You won’t change your method a little bit and then change your model to match. Usually one is changing, but at all times one or the other is usually evolving.

Okay ? It’s important to know that while the method and the model both evolve , they’re not the same. Okay ? Your method should be client-centric. That means you choose your method based on what is going to get your client’s results.

And you change your method when the needs of your clients change, or you identify something new that they need. Your method is there to give your clients what they need. Your model should also be client-centric. Your model is the dosage, the delivery, and the price. Your model is there to give clients your service in the way they want to buy it.

And that’s the important differentiator here. The method gives the clients what they need. The model gives the clients what they want. Originally, when I was doing personal training and coaching exercise, clients weren’t getting results. Way back in the day.

And if I’d started my question differently, like what is the method that will get these clients results? Then I would’ve built my business differently.

First off, I would’ve probably started with a nutrition program with the barbells in the back parking lot. But that’s a story that I’ve told a hundred times already. So a few years ago, when we were doing group classes, our model was really solid. We had group classes, small group training and personal training.

We decided that the best way to evolve our method to get clients better results was to include nutrition coaching.

But now we were adding this service without charging more for it. So we were over delivering and my margin really suffered. Again, it fell, like, close to zero. And so I had to change my model to match my method again. I wanted people to do CrossFit or do personal training, but I also wanted them to do nutrition.

And this is where the prescriptive model really started to shine through because it allowed me to prescribe the right stuff to the right clients. So for example, the method is , workout, do our workouts and follow this nutrition plan or this habits guide or whatever. However, not every client needs or wants to do both right now.

And so our business model is the prescriptive model, which means I can tell you what’s best for you. You can decide at what pace you wanna tackle these things, at what price you want to engage, you know, depending on your budget.

And you can also say, I’m gonna do this for now, and I’m gonna do that later. Okay ? Because the prescription changes over time. And so our model reflects that. Our model is plastic. It’s, here is the right prescription for you right now.

So your method might be yoga or Pilates or kickboxing or boot camp or circuit training, or orange theory, or F45 or CrossFit. But the meta model should be prescriptive. How much, how often, how intensely. These should be tailored to the needs of the client. Should they work out one-on-one, or in a group? It depends on the client. Some want to do CrossFit workouts, but they wanna do one-on-one, some wanna do kickboxing, but they only wanna do it in a group.

Should the client do CrossFit or heart rate training or yoga? It depends on the client. You don’t need to provide all of these options, but your model should provide a way for your clients to get them. You don’t have to be the master of all methods. If you want to teach kickboxing and yoga, you don’t have to build both of those in your gym. You don’t have to go get certified in the method and then teach them in the gym yourself.

You could have a partner for yoga, where you refer people out as part of your model. The method should be plastic, flexible and different for each client. But now let’s talk about your model a bit more. In a client-centric business, the options that you sell should be determined by the preferences of your client.

Some clients need more accountability. Some want to be in a group with their friends, some need scheduling flexibility. So they’re gonna book appointments one-on-one instead. Some are on a budget, so they’re gonna choose the group option, which is your lowest budget option. So a method is what your client needs. Your model is how your clients buy based on what they want.

Now, our method at Catalyst has evolved from body building way back in the day to powerlifting, because I love powerlifting, to CrossFit to now metabolic training. The model at Catalyst has shifted from one-on-one only, way back in the day when I was limiting my time that I could sell for money, into group only, into combination of one-on-one and group, into high ticket hybrid, and now to the prescriptive model. And this is where we stand today, both the prescriptive model and the metabolic method that we’re using, our client-centric method provides exactly what our client needs.

The method has evolved with science and experience. And the model is also client-centric. The model lets the client consume our method in the way that they like best. The model has evolved through data from Two-Brain Business, through lots of trial and error, and from feedback from our best clients. So we don’t take surveys and change our model based on the survey.

But we do pay very close attention to the goals and outcomes of our top clients and shift the method and the model to match them. Our clients don’t know enough about training to determine our method, right ? That’s our job. We’re the coaches, we’re the owners, we’re the experts. We pick the method, but we as owners also don’t know enough about what our clients like or want to buy or their schedule or their budget to make those choices for them.

So it’s our job to listen to our best clients and build our model to suit them. In my book, “Start a Gym”, I broke down the difference between the method and the model. Your method will probably evolve slowly, but it will evolve. CrossFit affiliates, I’ll give you guys another micro example . So CrossFit’s method evolved from, “Just spin the hopper every day and every way”, way back, 2001, to constantly varied functional movement at high intensity.

Now, if you were around CrossFit in 2005, you would’ve seen exercises in time domains that you just don’t see today, right? Like a 30 minute row or a virtual snow shoveling they called it, or parkour. For example, the method has evolved. CrossFit’s model started as one-on-one and then two clients to one trainer, two-on-one, and then to small group, and then to larger group. If you were at the original CrossFit gym , you wouldn’t have seen big groups of more than five or six, but the model evolved to big groups. And now it’s evolving again to small groups of about seven to 13.

And that’s how this dichotomy can exist. The model should make the owner profitable. The method should get the clients results. Neither can exist without the other. For long, thousands of gyms have gotten their clients good results and then went bankrupt anyway.

Likewise, many gyms have made a bunch of money in their first year and then just faded away because they couldn’t provide results. The key to long term success is the willingness of the entrepreneur to evolve their method around their client’s changing needs or their changing clientele, and also to evolve their model around the best science and data available.

My gym is evolving its method right now. We’re evolving into a science-based method, which I’ll talk more about another time. But our model at the gym is the prescriptive model. This is the meta platform on which we prescribe activities for our clients, depending on their goals. So we’ll prescribe diet and exercise depending on what the client needs. And then we’ll prescribe dosage depending on what the client wants.

We’ll review those needs regularly, and we will be profitable because the best idea is useless if its flame is snuffed before it starts a fire. So this is how the dichotomy of profitable gym aligns with Help First, do whatever it takes to get the client results. I know that some people want these things to be separate. They wanna say, quit worrying about being profitable.

Just focus on getting the clients results and you’ll be successful. Thousands of CrossFit affiliates would disagree because they’re gone now, right ? They went out of business trying to do that. On the other hand, and this is good news for most of us, the gyms who are mostly just worried about money and profit and they don’t care about the clients, they’re not successful for long either.

And we saw that a few years ago, as people turned to these kind of high-ticket Facebook, cold lead, high pressure sales techniques, there was a bait and switch, right? What happened? Lots of clients came in. Lots of clients signed up. They paid lots of money. 30 days later, those clients were gone and they hated the gym. So these two things have to exist in tandem. And this is actually why we’re called Two-Brain Business. The left side of your brain, the logical side, means you have to make money to succeed.

The right side of your brain, the caring, empathetic side, means that you care so much about these people and your method that you wanna deliver it to them and change their lives. The two things go together and they actually live in harmony and complement one another. They’re not in competition with one another.

I hope this helps you with some perspective. I hope that your method is evolving and I hope that your model is making you get closer to your perfect day every single day. Thanks for listening.

Mike Warkentin: 


This is Two-Brain Radio. Chris is always cranking out the content, so be sure to hit subscribe so you see it all, and hammer a like on this show before you go. Now here’s Coop one more time.

Thanks for listening!

On Monday, Two-Brain Radio presents marketing tips and success stories. Chris Cooper delivers the best of the business world on Two-Brain Radio every Thursday. 

To share your thoughts:

To help out the show:

  • Leave an honest review on iTunes. Your ratings and reviews really help, and we read each one.
  • Subscribe on iTunes.