5 Lessons I’ve Learned and Used to Build My Dream Gym

I created Lift Lab Co a little over three years ago. This is the second gym I’ve owned, and prior to that I was teaching and coaching at Purdue University. Before that, I was in coaching purgatory—a globo-gym where my fate had not yet been decided. My route to owning a weightlifting gym was somewhat circuitous, but the more I learn about business, then the more I learn paths are rarely direct.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the things I learned from earlier opportunities drastically helped me build one of the largest weightlifting gyms in the country. I’m beyond proud of what I have and continue to build. I’m extremely humbled to be asked to share some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way.

Know Your Strengths, Be Patient, and Trust the Process

When I coached at Purdue, we were uniquely positioned to specialize in the development of athletes, solely for the fact that we were competing against Michigan and Ohio State, who are schools that traditionally attract five-star talent. With that in mind, we chose to recruit lesser known talent with the understanding that we would develop our team into the athletes we desired.

That coaching situation was a great fit for me. I loved, and continue to love the developmental process. I’ve never been a quick fix, get rich fast, or lose 30 pounds in 30 days type of guy. I’ve preferred to capitalize on who I am, which is a hard worker who puts in consistent effort day in and day out.  

And our weightlifting team reflects that. I recently went on the JUGG LIFE Podcast and I compared our weightlifting club to theirs. They recruit national level top talent and work to develop those athletes for world teams. Conversely, we recruit local talent with the same end goal in mind. We just know that it’s going to take a little bit longer to get these athletes to the world team level.

Understanding that time table is crucial for everyone’s success. I’m like everyone else in the fact that I wanted people to notice what I was creating from the day we opened. I wanted to have national champion athletes and a huge club. However, that was not the reality of the situation, and the reality is it took me a few years to build the gym and the athletes.  

I was mentally telling myself to be patient everyday. My conversations with my business partner were centered around being patient and diligent in the developmental process. You have to have faith in yourself that you can create the level of athlete that you want with your process. I knew my process would take time, and I just needed to give it that time. If we tried to recruit national talent from day one, then we probably wouldn’t have built the foundation we have today.

Being patient is something I’m still working on. I want to develop Olympian and world team members, but that takes time. I keep in mind that with every four years that pass, I have the ability to see how close I’m coming to meeting that goal.

At the End of the Day, It’s a Business

Almost all of the coaches I associate with got into the coaching industry to help others. Being a coach naturally lends itself to being at the disposal of others. However, helping others doesn’t need to be a charitable act.

When I first wrestled with the idea of starting a gym that was centered around weightlifting, I looked around at the current landscape to see what was being doneI quickly realized that if I ran my gym like other people were running their clubs, then I wouldn’t be in business for long. It’s almost impossible to have a full-time job as a weightlifting coach if you are charging the bare minimum for your time.

So I looked at other sports in my area. I took a look around and saw club soccer coaches making 80k a year, while club volleyball coaches were making even more. I looked at lacrosse, wrestling, and baseball too. The story was all the same, and it was that these people were all making a living coaching the thing they’re passionate about.

I kept digging, asking how much dues and fees were, and I realized getting people involved in a sport for 150 dollars a month was not only doable, but it was a steal.

Initially, I was met with some criticism and blow back in my own weightlifting community. Coaches that had been around for a while thought that the price was too high. Some even went as far as to accuse me of only being involved in the sport for the money, which is laughable.

This didn’t discourage me in any way, as I had the mindset that if it were over priced, then people wouldn’t pay, but they were, and still are. What’s important to point out is that going to a higher price point was something I needed to do in order to create the gym and coaching staff that I wanted.

I also felt like I had to deliver on a greater value than what people were getting in the past. I took this opportunity to undersell and over deliver. People would show up expecting to get thrown into weightlifting right a way, but we didn’t that.

How to Build a Strong Community and Make Sure the Shoe Fits

We still use the same process today for developing weightlifters.When someone reaches out to us we follow a three step process.  

First, they fill out a history of training form, along with a goal setting form, then this initiates the process of the coaching staff getting to know them.

Step two, they’ll come in and go through a full assessment, which is composed of part movement, and part Olympic weightlifting. It’s important to note that we’re not coaching them through the assessment. While they’re going through the assessment, we diligently note what they do really well (so we can build on that), as well as identifying specific weaknesses.

Step three, we then invite the athlete to come back to the gym two more times for coaching. These sessions are heavily coached and designed to show the athlete what we can provide them. From there, we have the conversation about money and expectations, which is just like you would with any other business transaction.

Offer a product, show the market what you have to offer, and execute on the offer. Run your gym like a business, and not like a place where you hang out and workout with friends.

Why Masters Athletes are Your Greatest Asset

Masters aged weightlifters are an interesting group. Often times they are undeserved, but this isn’t shocking. If you start a weightlifting team, then you may have aspirations of producing a world team member, or an Olympian. And someone just getting into lifting at the age of 40 probably doesn’t meet that demographic. This is when you have to sit back and take a second to consider what Masters athletes have to offer.

I’ll start with the most basic. First, they have jobs and have been around long enough to understand quality of service.  Not only are they capable of paying your fee, but if you deliver on your service, then they’re going to bring other athletes to train.

Masters athletes are the population who are going to tell their kids, nephews, nieces, neighbors, and other friends about the awesomeness of Olympic weightlifting. I’m sure they’ll mention something along the lines of they wished they had found the sport sooner. When they’re out and about, and talking you up, then you can guarantee other people will begin to check out your services.

Second, masters offer you a unique perspective to really dive into training, along with the science of training. Young coaches can gain valuable experiences working with masters athletes because they’re unique in terms of experience, hormone level, and occupation, which makes planning a program for them extremely fun and challenging. As coaches we love to be challenged.

Don’t be surprised if your first youth, junior, or national level champion came from a referral by a master’s athlete.

Construct an Environment With a Contagious Energy

I saved the best for last. This point is probably the point I’m most passionate about, because I’ve been around enough people who want to break down other coaches.

There are two ways to go about having the biggest building in town. You can build your building bigger than everyone else’s,or you can destroy all the other buildings around yours.  The same can be said for your weightlifting gym .

I continue to choose to build my facility a little bit bigger each and every day. I don’t need to bring down anyone else to feel good about myself and what I’m doing. A good example of this comes from athletes who come from other gyms. Sometimes they want to start by telling me what their former coach did to piss them off, or not help them.

When this scenario occurs, I quickly try to change the tone of the conversation. I usually explain to them that their coach probably had a reason why they did the things they did, and maybe the communication wasn’t the best. But I always remind them that coaches are trying their best. I don’t like to bring down other coaches because I wouldn’t want that done to me. I choose every day to improve slightly better than I was the day before, and add another story to my building.

Positive energy is contagious, but so is negative energy. You can see this everyday at the gym you train in. I’m sure you notice that there are people you gravitate towards to train with, and others you avoid like the plague. Be positive and help that message spread in your gym to others.

There is an old saying that goes, “A rising tide raises all ships.” Grow your gym with positive energy and it will spread to others. The more competitive the community, the better everyone gets.

In Closing

When I set out to grow the gym that I’d built in my mind, I was told that it was impossible. No one thought you could make any kind of money centering a gym around weightlifting. My dad later admitted that he was skeptical, and didn’t think I could succeed.

It may sting a bit to think that my dad didn’t believe in me, yet I don’t view it in that matter. My father, maybe like yours, is an extremely pragmatic man. He grew up in the generation of corporate security. You get a good job, work for a company till the day you die, and you live a nice safe life. I fully understand his point of view. He wanted safety and security for me, but that’s not what I wanted. I wanted to pursue the thing I love most. 

If you’re reading this and weightlifting isn’t your calling, but you feel a deep passion to create your own thing, then I strongly suggest you go for it now. It may fail, but it may not, and you just might end up with the business you’ve always wanted. Being afraid is okay. Remember, the hero and the coward always feel the same — the hero just pushes past the fear.

Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Feature image from @lift_lab Instagram page.