Mike Doehla is the founder of StrongerU.com that’s S T R O N G E R u.com. Like all of his 35,000 clients, I found Mike through word of mouth. His program simply works. But more than that, people become raving fans. Today I’m going to talk to Mike about nutrition coaching, what people actually need, which diet works best and how he scaled from his little CrossFit garage gym up to this massive worldwide company, including a nomination for the Inc. 500 Fastest Growing Companies list. It’s an amazing interview. Mike’s a very caring guy. I’m sure that’s part of the success, but he has a lot to teach us and he’s also an amazing teacher. You’re going to pick up a lot about nutrition coaching, what it takes, what people need and how you can help them best. Enjoy. Welcome to Two-Brain Radio. I’m your host Chris Cooper here every week with the best of the fitness industry. Got a sec? We would love to hear from you. I write emails to my mailing list every day and it’s a highlight when somebody takes the time to respond. If you’ve got feedback on my show or a guest you’d like to hear on Two-Brain Radio, email email@example.com. And don’t forget to subscribe to Two-Brain Radio wherever you get your podcasts. Mike, welcome to Two-Brain Radio.
Thanks for having me, Chris. How are you?
I’m doing awesome man. It’s so awesome to have you here. And I want to get straight into the Stronger U story because I found it crazy interesting, but I think a lot of other people are gonna find it interesting too.
Yeah. So, I’ll tell the story. I’ll try to keep it quick and concise and maybe interesting. But my quick story is first my name is Mike Doehla. I’m from Newburgh New York. I was what I like to call a career under achiever, not really knowing what the heck I wanted to do with my life. In my young thirties, into the fitness stuff. Found CrossFit, thought that I could open a garage gym, grow it into a bigger warehouse place or space and live happily ever after. 13 months later, didn’t really happen. Nobody really cared. I wish I knew more about you at that time cause I probably could have learned a lot and probably have done things the right way. But it didn’t work out. It didn’t really work out, but I pivoted to what I thought more people needed help with in my world, which was nutrition. So I, you know, I had my certifications, had my education, had my experiences and ideas that I needed to give to more people. So I went online and almost five years later now we’ve had 35,000 members in 50 countries, almost entirely through word of mouth, just getting people to do the things that matter and ignoring all the nonsense and confusing and difficult parts of nutrition.
All right, well, we’re definitely going to get into that. But you know, one of my favorite things is that you’re a nice guy and more and more in this industry it seems like the loudest guy wins. So how did you grow with word of mouth to 35,000 clients?
Dude, I mean, I don’t know. There’s probably some crazy tactics that I do and that I think of that I might not even be realizing, but I think that might be the thing. I definitely go out of my way to help people out, to make sure they know I’m genuine, to show that like I’m not here just to take somebody’s money. I don’t want that at all. I want to see people succeed. And a big part of this, like it’s funny because I wanted to be right about nutrition. I wanted to show people that they didn’t have to make it so complicated. There’s a million different books out there, there’s a million different methods and a lot of them just bring them to one place, weight loss, and they have no idea how to keep it. They don’t know even why it works. They don’t know if they had to even do those things. And we’re just like, Hey, it’s a lot more simple. It’s not easy, but it’s a rather simple process.
So let me take you back to 13 months into owning your gym, right? And you decided something’s got to change, I’ve got to do something else. I think we all hit that point. What made you decide like online nutrition coaching is the thing that I’m going to do?
I think I started to realize that people were getting good workouts all over the place in our area. There was some amazing gyms and I was thinking, I’m not the guy that needs to do this here. I can make a bigger mark helping people with the food and I can complement the work that these gyms are doing and the work that the people are doing in those gyms.
That seems really insightful on many levels, you know? And it makes me wonder why more people don’t have that epiphany. Is it because you’ve had experience with nutrition in the past yourself or is it just the way your education was set up or?
I think it was like a lot of the cards kind of fell into place. Like I was still working full time in human resources at the time. So even with the gym, and part of the reason I think it didn’t work out well was because I could only do it a couple of hours a day. So, you know, the effort was like 15% effort when I really wanted to put like 120% into it. So that alone, like I couldn’t really do it. I started thinking like, well what do I know best? And it was the nutrition stuff. It was the strategy. I like to think I’m a pretty emotionally intelligent person and I can kind of see how people are thinking and why they’re doing things and I can create solutions for those things. Cause that’s what I think is the missing piece. It’s not the information, it’s the application and understanding how people live, even if I’m not like those people, and fixing the issues and challenges they have.
That’s actually maybe the biggest problem in the whole fitness industry is understanding that you’re not like your clients. And so, you know, were you starting to do nutrition coaching with the people who were already clients at your gym or people in your workplace? How did you get started?
Yes. So my first client officially was a gym owner that I met through like a CrossFit competition, relatively local to us that pretty much just saw some of my posts online and I became friends with her and she’s like, Hey, I’ll hire you. And I was like, Holy crap. Like did I just create another job? And I wanted to do it, but I was trying to give people advice for free and nobody was listening. It’s an interesting point when you say, Hey, pay me a little bit of money. There’s that investment into themselves at that point. So I had her and she did well, I mean like textbook results. Exactly what I was hoping to see, I saw, and people she knew saw it as well and they were like, wait, I need to get you over here as well. And then it just kinda like started snowballing.
That’s really interesting. So I want to start there with, you know, I have to charge somebody money for it. So there’s a blog post coming out, it’ll probably come out the day before this interview goes live. And I’m talking about charging for nutrition advice, because you and I know back in the olden days of CrossFit, it’s just like, well we talk about the Zone after class and that’s our nutrition coaching. Now I find that if I’m not paying at least $150 a month to a nutrition coach, I just don’t pay attention. I don’t listen to what she says, you know, so that’s one element. Like people have to pay for it and you see better retention or better adherence or what because of that?
Yeah, I think people just know that it’s like the sunken cost thing. They don’t want to throw money at something and not do something about it. So like if you buy—and you know, it backfires with the food stuff because sometimes people will spend money on a bag of chips, only want a serving, but they’re like, wait, now I gotta use this thing. I spent money on it so I’m going to dig into the chips. And that’s a lot of this stuff we talk about is, you know, buy smaller serving sizes and things like that. But with the nutrition stuff, it’s like, yeah, it’s like anything, when someone’s watching you and you’re paying for it, you’re just going to behave a little bit better.
So that’s interesting. And we haven’t talked about like a nutritional philosophy or anything like that yet, Mike, because that’s not really what you do, right?
No and that’s the thing, I was on actually—I got interviewed on Sirius Radio one time and the lady was asking me, she’s like, I don’t get it. So what do you tell them to eat? And I’m like, that’s it. We don’t. We don’t tell people exactly what they have to eat cause that’s not the problem. And we had—it was funny, we had a bunch of our members listening in and they were like, man, I don’t know how you kept your cool. She was just like throwing that at you over and over. And I say, because we’re so trained to think that we need to be told exactly what to eat and yeah, there’s a bunch of stuff we should probably eat. The nutrient-dense whole foods mostly. But there’s no reason people can’t enjoy a little bit. They just have to be more mindful of it.
Okay. That’s interesting. Would you still call yourself a nutrition coach or would you call yourself more of a behavioral coach or a coach or something else?
I like to think like, you know, when I started I’m like, I’m nutrition guy and then I was like, wait, I’m like food strategist. That’s more of what I do. That’s more of what I enjoy, is not so much like, I’m not trying to get into the weeds about like what the pancreas is doing and digestion all that like, yeah, sure, I know about it, but that’s not the problem. You know, you might get people asking about those things. Like the whole, you know, the insulin argument flies all over the internet and it’s like, hey, it’s probably not the insulin. It’s that you drink wine every night. You eat in an inebriated state, you go out to eat five nights a week, you sleep like crap, you’re stressed out. Do you really think it’s insulin or is it just too much food somewhere because of a lack of structure? That’s what it is.
Okay. That’s amazing. And I can actually give an example as a client of your program. Jody told me maybe two days ago to use MyFitnessPal backward. She said, put the food in that you intend to eat for the day first, see where you fall and then do your meal planning from that instead of just logging your stuff like, you know, after the fact. And that to me, that little epiphany made a massive change. Like that’s worth the price of admission to your program right there. What are some of the other things that people take away from your program that they’re not getting from books or diets?
I think just having support there for their journey. That’s the thing. And like, you know, it’s funny and we could talk about it, but I’m currently writing a book now, but if you buy the book and you don’t have any stake in the game or you don’t really care to do it, it’s not going to work. And I think that’s the problem. And with these books and with these programs and everything, you don’t really know who to listen to. And again, I’m just another one of the people that is throwing my hat in the game and saying, hey, please listen to us. But we have the evidence, we have the proof, we have the people that are growing the business, not tricky marketing and false promises.
Do you find that’s most effective though? It’s not like paleo versus Zone, it’s just do this one thing?
I think it is. It’s really hard to get people’s buy-in though because those things sound exciting and they also kind of outsource responsibility. So if we say, well, hey, here’s what you need to do and here’s why it’s going to work and it falls on their behaviors and their decision-making and choices, it’s a little more painful to accept that as a person, saying like, oh crap, like that was me. That was my decision-making because. Because like the paleos, the ketos, the intermittent fasting things, it’s saying it’s something else and we’re saying, hey, it’s you. That’s okay. It doesn’t make you a bad person. Just means we have some self-awareness things to address.
And when somebody starts your program, I know you understand your client avatar really, really well. When somebody starts your program, have they already come to that realization or are you kind of coaching them through that as they’re warming up to buy or?
I would say most people haven’t come there yet, cause a lot of people, like they’re very hesitant to track intake. They’re like, I don’t want to track, I don’t need to track. Just tell me what to do. And we’re like, Hey, that’s what led you here. You can go out there and try another thing and it might work. But I want to find out what’s going on and tracking, you know, checking macronutrients and things isn’t about being perfect. It’s just about, you know, taking the blinders off and seeing what the heck is actually happening. And it’s no different than if you go to your financial advisor or your accountant and you’re like, Hey man, I’m broke every month. What is going on? And they say, well, come back next month. Show me what you’re doing and we’re going to go over your budget and you go back next month and you say, I didn’t do it. And he’s like, why didn’t you do it? You say, I didn’t feel like it. Well, and then he says, then you’re always going to be broke. Until you start tracking what’s happening, you’re never going to know what’s really happening.
Do you find a lot of people kind of have that epiphany as soon as they start with you? Like just the act of tracking makes them better?
Yeah, I mean it’s funny, man, it’s again, it’s not even like the macros that matter. It’s that, Holy crap, I’ve been blowing it at breakfast every day or holy crap, I’m eating, you know, 50 grams of fat while I’m watching Netflix and I didn’t even realize it. That’s what tracking does. It’s hardly about, you know, cool. You have 160 grams of protein. I don’t give a crap. It’s like, what are the behaviors behind that 160? What do you have to do to hit that? What does that change when you do that now? And that’s again, you know, like you can track calories, but when you’re tracking the macronutrients, you have control over the influence a little bit better as well.
it definitely stopped me from having a second pancake yesterday, I’ll say that. Do you find—how important is like personal experience to your coaches? You know, as they’re related in these messages to your clients, do they have to learn those things from other clients or do most of them have—have they gone through it themselves?
Yeah. So most of our people, well not most, but many of our coaches were clients. Most weren’t, but they’ve experienced this world themselves. So I don’t think, you know, coaches don’t have to be this like Greek god of a statue and be in the most insane shape in the world, but they need to know what their clients are going to be going through. They need to know what the challenges are. They need to know, like, you know, walk through a grocery store, see what’s out there, get into MyFitnessPal, play around. You know, what is their social life like? Do they understand what it’s like for the busy mom? Do they know what it’s like for the CrossFit athlete that could actually get by on really crappy nutrition because they work hard. You know, those are some of the most difficult ones. But yeah, I think that, you know, the coaches are great because they have done everything they ask their clients to do.
All right. So that leads us back to that discussion on, you know, are we coaching habits here or are we just teaching some kind of knowledge? What do you look for when you’re selecting these coaches out of your current clients?
This is such a hard question and I was actually thinking about this yesterday. Like if anyone ever wants to make me uncomfortable in person, ask me how they get a job at Stronger U, cause I’m like, I don’t even know. So it’s like, I think the—and this goes back to the emotional intelligence thing. I think there’s like all these characteristics I look for in a Stronger U coach. Knowledge and experiences is, you know, number one, without that, you can’t help anyone with this stuff. Second is like, what type of person are you? Are you available? Are you nice? Do you have great customer service? Can you listen well? Can you problem solve? Can you be a detective for people? And then it’s like if the stars align and we’re looking and those people are looking for a job, then maybe we can go to the next step.
I noticed you have a lot of, you know, former CrossFit gym owners as coaches, or maybe that’s just my perception because I recognize them. Is that true? And you know, are they still doing their gym thing as well as coaching for Stronger U or what’s typical there?
Yeah, we have quite a few. Usually how it happens is they come on board with us as a client after one of their members were on the program and they’re like, what the heck are you guys doing? Like, this is cool. My members are great, I want to do it. And then they just fall in love with it. They’re like, Holy crap. Like this is where you really see crazy changes in people. And then we just, you know, become friends. We talk a lot and then they just come on this side. Some of them actually close down their gyms because this was their primary thing and they like to work from home. Other coaches do both still.
That’s really interesting. I know more and more gyms are getting into nutrition. We’re actually really encouraging that too. Where do you see nutrition fitting as part of a gym owner’s business?
I think, I mean, it’s tough. There’s a ton of different ways to do it. They could try to do it themselves, they can outsource it, you know, to people like us. But they need to do something with it and they need to be consistent. I think that’s, you know, if I can say anything about the consistency in the gyms or out there anywhere, it’s you have to stick to what you know and what actually matters, because a lot of people in the gyms will bounce from thing to thing and then the members are like, wait, but what is it? What am I supposed to do? And if every six months the gym owners are telling them something different, the trust factor kind of gets lost there. So definitely stay consistent with the messaging.
That’s interesting cause I can remember going through that, you know, everybody was paleo for a little while and before that everybody was Zone perfect or whatever you called it and then now everybody’s keto. Right. So number one, how important is it for the gym owner or the coaches to model the same thing? I guess we’ll start with that.
Within each other? Like the owners and the coaches?
Yeah. Like what happens if I’m an owner and I’m doing Zone and I’ve got a coach doing keto, what should I do around that messaging?
Yeah, that’s a difficult one because the—again, the consistency. It’s like if our coaches are saying different things, the members will be like, wait, Mike said this and Cindy is saying that and Derek and Glen are saying this and it’s like, okay, who do I listen to? And that’s where you have to think of like what actually matters, right? Like calories matter the most if we’re talking about like fat loss and body composition, macronutrients. And then you could get into like food quality, timing, all that stuff. So if a coach is saying, Hey, keto is the way to go, but six months earlier or someone else is saying it’s paleo, well then how do you find out the answer? And that’s, I don’t know, man. That’s a tough one. It’s a really tough question to answer.
I had a conversation with a gym owner this morning about meeting them where they are. So he said that 80% of his new clients came in for weight loss. But what he really wanted to talk to them about how to move better. And I said, you know, that conversation can deepen over time as your relationship does. Do you find over time with clients that you need to get deeper in the advice that you give them? Or are you always staying kind of at like the macro calorie service level?
So I think it’s a combination, but it really depends on the person. So that kind of goes back to meeting them where they are. Some people, they, you know, they just want to lose fat and they don’t need to know all that stuff. But some people, if they do know that stuff, they’re going to lose fat better because they’re going to trust you more because you’re giving them the why behind everything. So yeah, I like to get, you know, kind of deep. I don’t like to just say like, Hey, trust the process, do this, do that. I kind of hate that term, but yeah.
Okay. So is there a kind of like, are you telling the coaches at Stronger U work more topics into the conversation, educate the client as you go along? Or are you just saying, wait and see what the client wants answered?
I think it’s a combination of both. Tell them, you know, give them the stuff that we have and the resources and things, but coach them based on how they need to be coached. Otherwise it’s just another cookie-cutter program. So everything is about how the relationship and what the needs of the client are.
I asked you how you identified staff, but how do you prepare them to work with clients under your model? Like you know, the one thing that they can’t do is like copy your care, right?
Yeah. And that’s it. Like it’s, you know, the macro thing was like the hot thing. I think it’s now teetering into the keto IF thing, but we’re not changing the way we do things. So if we can just, you know, have our coaches onboard properly, you know, it’s like a six-week onboarding process after they get through all the interviews and everything. So not easy, but we make sure they are good to go. They’re well prepared. They have all the tools they need. I mean, we have, you know, our workplace group is like 70 of our staff just talking all day long about challenges and opportunities and things like that. So we can coach any individual.
That’s great, Mike. All right. Tell us about your book.
Oh man, the book.
Why are you writing the book, let’s start there.
I’m writing it because I have so many thoughts in my head and so many things I need to say, and I’m kind of sick of just putting everything on Facebook or Instagram. So I think this book is not to try to become like a New York Times bestseller or anything like that. It’s to simplify nutrition and just tell people what they need to know. I’m not going to go too deep and make it look like a science textbook. It’s like if I’m trying to build the perfect eater and they’re like, all right, I’m ready to go. They pick this thing up. They know why they’re going to do things, they know how to do things, they know how to adjust things, transition from fat loss to maintenance, they know how to handle any situation they’re going to get into and they just kind of become the person that they always wanted to be. It’s not just lose weight, it’s lose weight, keep it off, and just be okay with being that person. So that’s it in a nutshell, I guess.
That’s great man. So let’s say that, you know, I’m a consumer at the store. I buy this book. I say, this is great. I’m convinced that I need coaching and I belong to a gym and I go to that gym owner and I say, hey Mike, man, I need some accountability here. And the gym owner’s, like that’s a great idea. I’ve never sold nutrition before. What should they do?
They should probably reach out to us directly. And I would love to talk to the gym owner or the members. We can come and do seminars. I mean, whatever. I just—my whole thing is like, we have something that’s working really, really well for tens of thousands of people and still nobody even knows about it and I need to get it out there.
Yeah, I can definitely attest to its power and you know, I’ll be honest, Mike, I knew we’d be talking, and so that’s why I signed up for the program. I wanted to test it out, but it’s really great, you know, I love it.
I’m glad you like it. And it’s weird. I’m in a weird place where I always think like, I still get surprised at how happy everyone is. It’s still like, you know, I see these reviews and these comments and I’m like, Oh my God, it is working and I’m still five years in. I love it man. It’s so cool.
Let me ask you this, since you brought that up, because you know there people at like our Tinker level who are listening to this right now. You get 300 great reviews of the day, right? You get one like troll who’s like, this can’t possibly work. Macros are BS. Which one sticks in your brain and how do you get that troll out of there?
You know, my answer. The one that is like, this is stupid, blah, blah, blah. I mean it’s—and I think we’re hard wired as humans to think about that cause in some way it’s like a threat, right? So we’re like, no, survive, recognize the threat. I just try to go back, and we have some things we’ll tell our coaches, like save those really awesome messages because when things aren’t going well or you’re having a bad day, if you look at all the people you’re affecting positively, it just overshadows the negative.
Well that is $1 million lesson right there, Mike. Thanks so much for sharing that with us. I’m going to have links to all of your content below. If people listening to this podcast want to get in touch with you, what’s the fastest way?
firstname.lastname@example.org, and that’s the letter U.
Thank you for listening to Two-Brain Radio. I’m Chris Cooper and I’m here every Thursday. Every Wednesday, Sean Woodland brings you the best stories from the fitness community, and every Monday, we’ll bring you marketing tips and success stories from our clients. Please subscribe to Two-Brain Radio and share this show with any friends we can help.