It may have been two years ago or so that I came across a Facebook post from a coach I knew from the early 2000s. His post was about how he is selling his gym after more than 12 years in the business. He explained his reasons why and it hit home for me and bothered me at the same time. It bothered me to see that the very thing he loved so much was now destroying him.
His reasons for selling? He had enough of the stress it put on him, both emotionally and physically. He was not going to allow the stress to come further into his home and family life any more than it already had and continue to destroy his relationships with his wife and kids. He spoke of how his physical fitness had gotten worse and worse as a gym owner, how the emotional stress made him resent his gym, and that he did not want to continue down this path.
I thought to myself, Good for him. Don’t let your work destroy your life. Then I also thought, Holy crap, the very thing many of us love is destroying us. This was not the first time I had heard such stress from gym owners, and I have experienced my fair share of stress as well.
After seeing this post, I realized at that point, more so than before, that this guy is a GREAT coach. He cared for and loved the people he trained. He LOVED his members. But he loved his family more, and so he had to make a decision. This was another moment that I learned how being a great coach did not guarantee a great business. And so it did break my heart to see this Facebook post.
Around that same time, I saw another gym owner post on Facebook a photo of himself in the hospital ER. He wrote how he admitted himself into the ER because of chest pain. He spoke about high blood pressure and his heartbeat racing. He spoke about stress that felt like it was killing him. Again, I thought to myself, How is the very thing we love becoming the very thing that is destroying us?
When I say “us,” I am talking about coaches and gym owners. What about me? I don’t consider myself part of the fitness industry. Have you seen more and more ads for growing your gym and gaining 30 to 50 leads a month versus more ads for how to get strong? The guy talking about growing your business looks like he is 23 years old, and you’ve been training for 23 years. There you go. That’s the fitness industry: People telling you how to run a gym when many of them have not done so themselves.
I wish it was that easy, but it’s not. Running a gym is hard, and there are ways to do it according to what is true to your heart. I know that sounds corny, but for me, I have a powerful gut instinct that drives me in a certain direction. Even if that direction means less money, there is a huge part of me that refuses to take a path that I am not connected with in my heart. I consider this not selling out. It’s simply being true to yourself.
Every time I have strayed from this path it was like getting hit in the teeth with a two-by-four. It would negatively impact my emotions, my relationships, and my overall happiness. As corny as it sounds, you must do what you love, not what others tell you is right or wrong. And so, this article is all my opinions and experiences. I am not telling you what to do or how to do it.
If you’ve ever seen the movie, A Beautiful Mind with Russell Crowe, that is how my mind operates with strength training. I see things or places, and I begin imagining how I can lift them. I see hills on the side of the highway, and I begin thinking of hill sprints and what volume I would give for football players versus wrestlers. I see a torn-up guardrail on the side of the road, and I imagine how I could cut that steel and weld it into a bunch of sleds for a sports team. Stay with me.
And so a week ago, I sent Dave Tate a text message about writing this article. The reason why I wanted to write this article is because this past year, I’ve seen two gym owners commit suicide. I am not saying the reason is due to owning a gym, but I did see these coaches share some of their thoughts on social media expressing how the stress of running their gym is destroying them in all areas of their life.
It broke my heart to come across those posts. I knew I had to write something as we’re seeing Facebook and Instagram ads for growing your gym into the most profitable gym giving ever. There are many successful gym owners out there, and it is not easy. And during my changes through the years, I have learned a lot about who I am and who I am not. I felt many elitefts readers could resonate with this message and so I asked Dave to write this article.
Why write for elitefts and not on my own website? I know my roots and respect my roots. You see, before I even owned a warehouse gym, I was training athletes from my parents’ garage.
From there, my fiancée and I bought our first home together. The house was a complete redo, and so the first thing that was fixed was the two-car garage from which I began my training business. We did not even live in the house for the first year, as we had to fix everything.
During my early years and to this day, I tell others how I devoured all the articles on elitefts. I printed all of the Westside Barbell articles into a three-ring binder and read them daily. I purchased all The Westside Barbell VHS tapes from elitefts and called Louie Simmons and Jim Wendler on the regular. I wanted to write for elitefts knowing who and what gave me my roots in strength and conditioning.
Today, I feel that younger strength coaches have a million options to learn from, with not all of them being effective or even truthful, and in turn, they get confused and misinformed. I was lucky as my early days the options were limited for online learning resources and even luckier that I came across elitefts and Westside Barbell. I immediately connected with the message of elitefts. I remember reading the articles and the Q&A thinking to myself, I am home.
Today, the information is so abundant that many strength coaches believe it or not do not know who Louie Simmons is; they don’t know about 5 x 5 methods, etc. I see Division I strength coaches allowing athletes to bounce off the box during their version of box squats. These are Division I weight rooms — not the local gym! I studied the original Westside Barbell VHS tapes while my own children fell asleep in my arms.
So here we are in 2019 and with all the training and business information so freely available, I don’t see more happiness or less stress among coaches. Instead, I see the opposite. With inspirational quotes all over IG and FB talking about doing what you love, not needing college or other cute tag lines, do you even know what your definition of success looks like? We’re so busy looking at what others do and say that many people today are lost and living according to someone else’s values.
I caught myself years ago getting caught up in things that did not make me happier or things that did not line up with my values, and so I exercised my discipline and put an end to those things.
What I believe in and what I love to do is for me, not necessarily for you. Remember, these are just my opinions and my experiences. My experiences gave me enough opportunity to realize what really makes me happy, what really makes me feel successful, and what ultimately is best for my family.
Almost 20 years ago, Alwyn Cosgrove and I exchanged hours of messages and emails, and the big lesson he taught me is that no amount of money can buy back lost health and lost family time. What price tag can you put on your health and family? My answer was simple: There is no price tag.
To parallel this, I have conversations with coaches at the university and pro-level who tell me they would much rather make less money so they can have more time with their family.
My various coaching experiences and owning multiple gyms taught me some great lessons. The big lesson was when I realized that owning a gym wasn’t what I really loved. And I will explain why.
I also want to share the transparency of what’s going on in the strength and conditioning industry. Going back to some of the social media posts I came across and seeing coaches breaking down emotionally and physically, I realized those voices and messages were not being heard. But I see these messages on the web, and they come directly to me sometimes.
I didn’t see too many people addressing other ways (do you have to own a gym?) you can do what you love without letting it destroy you or those you love.
My first warehouse location opened in 2007. I actually had no plans of doing so. I was very happy teaching elementary physical education and then coaching athletes from my garage two to three hours a day. Very happy!
I had zero plans of leaving teaching. I did not want to train anyone and everyone. I did NOT want to train adults. In fact, the only athletes I wanted to train were those who were ready to run through a brick wall. I loved the Fight Club feeling of my garage gym: Invite-only. Parents were interviewed, and athletes had to try out to see if they were tough enough.
But as my business grew online along with weekend seminars, I found myself waking up early to work before going to work as a teacher. I worked through my lunch and prep. Then I coached. Then came home late and then worked some more. I got to a point where ALL I wanted to do was have breakfast with my family. That’s all. “Simple Kind of Man.” Listen to the song if you don’t know it.
One day, Dave called me and told me he had to send me a 2 x 2 elitefts rack. Someone purchased the rack, the bench, and the box, and right before it was about to get shipped, this man had a stroke and was going to be unable to use this squat rack. He called elitefts, and now elitefts had an extra rack in the warehouse.
Dave said he had no room in the warehouse, and he was shipping it to me now. I tried to convince Dave against this, but he reminded me that there was no room in their current warehouse, either. I had been on the elitefts Q&A team for a year or slightly more at that point, if memory serves me somewhat correctly.
I told Dave I had no room in my garage and I couldn't take it. He replied, “Dude, all you ever do is talk about training athletes. Store it in your parents’ garage — I really don’t care. The way you’re talking about training athletes all the time, you’re gonna open a gym in six months guaranteed.”
Well, six weeks later I signed a lease for my first warehouse space, and Dave was right. I had outgrown my two-car garage, and it was time. At this point, the warehouse gym phenomenon had not exploded. Joe DeFranco had his location, as did Jason Ferruggia. I don’t know if there were others in New Jersey doing this, and there were a few handfuls of coaches in the states with a warehouse gym. I did not need to learn to advertise with social media. I simply had to be a great coach.
I did, however, invest heavily in my business knowledge. Every month, I was receiving newsletters and CDs on running a small business, and it was an investment close to $1,000 per month. I was studying business and training aggressively.
I signed the lease for the warehouse when my garage gym income was double that of my rent. I had a plan — kind of, sort of. My gym started off busy with the athletes from the garage, and lots of people, of course, began giving me advice: “You have to train adults. You have to do this; you have to do that.” These people were neither coaches nor business owners.
My heart speaks to me when it comes to the weights. You see, I know what it means to love the gym. I would go to the gym seven days a week as a teenager. I did my homework at the gym counter just so I could be amongst the weights. I loved hearing those deep-dish Ivanko plates rumbling and hitting the floor. The gym was a second home to me.
I still love that sound. It is music to my ears. If I am stressed out, I tell wife, send me to the gym to deadlift and I’ll come back a better person. Things changed about seven years ago, right after Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey, when I went through a downturn. I speak about it sometimes on podcasts and such, but it’s important that I share it more.
Right before Hurricane Sandy, I was looking for a second location closer to my home. I lived 45 minutes from my first location, and after about one year of looking for a warehouse, something opened up two minutes from my house. It was exactly one month after Hurricane Sandy. I wasn’t looking at space in my hometown. I was looking 15 to 20 minutes away, and ironically, I found a spot a bike ride away. I signed the lease, and my family and I got to cleaning this warehouse — a lot of cleaning.
Without boring you with the details of the exact timeline, I remember feeling run down after two weeks of cleaning, painting, cleaning some more and painting more and more. I felt tired all day long.
It dragged on for three weeks or so and I still felt shitty. I was wondering when I would start to feel better. I was on the couch every day. I barely ever sit on a couch. I didn’t know what was going on health-wise because I avoided going to the doctor but I do know that I was stressed out and felt weak both physically and emotionally.
Having two gyms stressed me out. I identified the stress and it was all the behind the scenes management of the gym. I don’t want to manage people because I expect people to manage themselves. I realized I was not a good manager. I did not want the coaches to have to ask anyone about payments but with me being away so much, my coaches were now asking kids and their parents about money. I knew that was wrong because I hired these guys to be coaches, not bill collectors.
Luckily, a year or so later, I came across the people at Wodify, a gym management software company that was used in CrossFit facilities. We met up and grabbed some coffee, showed them my gym and during our conversation, I told them I am going to sell 1 of my gyms because I cannot stand managing the billing and all the behind the scenes work of the gym. All I wanted to do was coach.
I did not want to manage anyone or anything but myself. Wodify didn’t have any strength and conditioning gyms at the time; they just had CrossFit gyms, but it sounded like they had all the missing pieces I needed. Long story short, I signed up with Wodify and got rid of all papers at my gym. Only the coaches and I only coached. The computer handled billing, attendance, etc.
I realized at that time that I was not in love with being an entrepreneur or running a business. I knew, deep down, my true love was being on the ground floor coaching. And so I immersed myself even more so into performance training for athletes.
With billing issues, I hired someone to follow up with failed billing after Wodify did so three days in a row. If it didn’t work, I just removed them from membership. Anything or anyone that was stressing me out got the ax.
Fast forward a few years, and I was hired at Lehigh University to train the wrestling team. It was about two hours of driving each way and not one day of those long drives bothered me. I was in my element. I loved it.
This experience was another reminder to me that my passion was coaching, not running Facebook ads for my gym or deciding if I should do a three-week challenge or a 30-day challenge? Maybe six weeks is the secret? I wanted nothing to do with people who need a 30-day challenge or a six-week challenge. Again, that is my opinion. They are not bad people for wanting a challenge; that is just not for me.
I know who I want to work with and I know what gets me fired up. This is what Dan Sullivan of Strategic Coach calls “finding your unique ability.” Everything else outside of your unique ability is what you want to outsource or step away from. Do you see where I’m going with this? I just want to train athletes!
But unfortunately, it’s not what it used to be anymore. The best coach doesn’t have the most students in his or her gym; the best-known coach does. And so that is the game. And if you don’t play the game, then the game plays you. So how do you play the game? I will explain, keep on reading...
As the gym business and fitness industry evolved, I evolved my business strategy to continue achieving my goals of training athletes. It was getting tricky and required me to learn more business and advertising, which didn’t excite me at all. As a business owner, you need to be tough. It does not matter what you like. Your job is to change lives and to build your income. Again, do not feel bad for making more money. You should be inspired to make more money.
Regardless of the need to learn more marketing, I kept attacking. I kept moving forward. I figured things out, but the stress was turning me into a person I did not like. My training was declining and my emotional stress was climbing. I remember thinking, Here you are, allowing the very thing you love to destroy you.
I was coming home from the gym in a bad mood. I was stressing out when a kid would gain 30 pounds training with us and then would leave for mandatory high school weight room run by an unqualified sports coach. I took it all to heart — not good. I paid attention to how we lost athletes as well as how athletes found out about us to keep me dialed into how and where I should direct my efforts. Seeing the changes in how we lost athletes to unqualified sports coaches and mandatory team lifts, I began seeking ways to work with schools, not independently of them.
A big lesson that took me a long time to learn was to stop stressing over things that I could not control. I could not control that parents were not educated enough about us in comparison to what happened at school. I could not control what others wanted to do. But I could control my own efforts. I always, always, always had the kids being the No. 1 priority. I learned this as a coach from my late teens and never let it go. All decisions must benefit the kids first and foremost. By giving the athletes my all, this was always in my control. I also knew that my passion would scare others off or be misconstrued for being too aggressive.
Listen, when you genuinely care about athletes and have passion running through your veins, the people who are punching the clock have no clue what that feels like. It scares them. But on the other hand, passionate people can and will connect with other passionate people. To us, that is normal. To everyone else, we are considered weird or strange.
During the years where I began realizing more and more that if I wanted to be happy and to have the best impact on athletes, I knew I would have to be inside a school or university setting. I would have to see athletes year-round, not just during the off-season or when it was convenient.
There were many meetings with ADs, principals, coaches, booster clubs, and others. Things would almost work but money was always an issue. Everything was expected to be free or discounted. I knew this was not good. If I helped build a trend of cheap, free, and discounted coaching, then I would only be adding to the problems in this field, not helping solve them. So, I stayed away from situations where people wanted special discounts or free coaching.
I never go to a restaurant for free food; they would think I’m crazy. As a professional, I chose not to be discounted, and since Day 1, I was never the cheapest. When team discounts were given, the parents did not value coaching and training. You must learn from those experiences and move onward and upward. I saw a trend of gyms trying to get members by charging $97 a month. I knew this was a great way to get people who focused only on saving money versus truly investing in themselves.
I kept attacking and did what I did best: Coaching with all my heart. I kept an eye on job postings for strength and conditioning positions and saw a post in South Carolina. I reached out to the school and got in touch with the football coach. Man, was he psyched to hear from me!
It was beyond refreshing to receive such positive feedback from someone, especially a football coach. He told me to apply for the position and that he would speak with the administration.
A few days later, I received a phone call while away with family. They called me three times, and I told my wife we needed to drive home instead of fly home to see the area. Unfortunately, the area didn’t seem best for my family and I reached out to the secretary to let her know that we drove around and decided to pass on that opportunity.
The secretary told me they would have driven us around to show us around and help us find housing. I was amazed at how in certain areas strength coaches are highly respected and in other areas, not so much. Lesson learned: Never assume!
For five days a week, I stayed with my boots on the ground coaching. I loved coaching and so I stayed the course. One thing I did realize, however, was that my gym was not a business that I could sell to someone else. A businessman would say, “This is not a business; it is a job.”
Again, I am staying true to me. I am a coach. I wasn’t interested in starting morning adult groups or evening adult groups. Athletes only. Stay true to you.
I had seen enough coaches who loved strength and conditioning tell me they trained zero athletes. As a business move, yes, that is smarter. But I found ways to develop multiple streams of income since Day 1. It allowed me to do what I wanted to do.
At this time, I had two locations. Both locations were very busy and we were doing great training for the athletes. I always hammered home our mission to the coaches: We need to change the lives of athletes by developing strength beyond the gym. The minimum effective dose is to change lives by building confidence, character, leadership, and work ethic into these kids.
I often say that lifting weights not only saved my life, but it also gave me a life. I have never stopped training since 1989 — no layoffs and no time off. I applied the same grit to my coaching, and honestly, I don’t see this too much in coaches. I hear a lot about burn-out and hating their gym. I didn’t want to go down this road, and any time I strayed my own path, I felt it in my gut that I was doing something wrong.
And so during this hectic time of running multiple locations of my gym, I received a text message from Rutgers’ wrestling coach: The strength coach is leaving. We need you.
Boom. Here we go. I got started a few days after this message and I was in my element, coaching athletes and not worrying about anything else except building beasts. That was my one focus. I didn’t have to hire people to manage billing. I didn’t have to create videos to be in front of people who are thinking about training with us.
I was in a position to do what I loved. That is what you must figure out. What do you love? What fires you up so much that you want to rip the steering wheel out of the dashboard? Find that thing and do all that is necessary to achieve it.
I was at a point in my coaching career where I knew that this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to show up to a place and get paid for my skill of coaching. I did not want to have 100 behind-the-scenes things to do just to get someone to show up to try my gym and see if they like it.
Anytime I slightly veered from my path, I would call myself a sellout. That’s right. I did not want to do anything but live my calling. My friend Joe DeSena calls this “your True North.” I believe you need to find your True North, and your True North will find you.
Fast forward to today, I went back to teaching in the schools last year. The pay for 10 months of teaching was more than a Division I university’s 12-month payment. If a college weight room has a multi-million dollar facility, and they pay you a salary that is best suited for living at home with your parents, you need to decide if that’s what you’re worth.
A big reason why coaches stress is because they do all of the things that eat away at their heart. Companies like Two-Brain Business and Strategic Coach teach you to outsource anything that is outside of your Unique Ability. Why? Because we are not supposed to live a life feeling stressed, angry, and overwhelmed. So if you’re going to build a gym, then you need a mentor!
I have seen enough red flags to know that running a gym should give you a life, not take away your life. Your gym should give you freedom, not imprisonment.
The other option is to build something private. I have two locations now. One is more private with minimal hours and the other is run full time with staff, managers, etc. Which is right? It’s the one that makes you happy and gives you a life.
I know it’s not cool to say this, but there is nothing wrong with having a “normal job” and then running your gym two hours an evening.
Instagram might not agree with me but Instagram and the Internet show you only the best of the best. There are real-world ups and downs with owning a gym. Many of the people teaching how to build your gym got out of the gym business. It’s easier to tell someone how to run Facebook ads versus doing that on your own and experimenting with what works and what doesn’t while paying for it all.
The hard work is showing up and doing the damn thing. You need to know who you are and who you are not. Are you the entrepreneur? The coach? What makes you happy? What adds value to your life?
Gym 1 has fewer hours than ever before and isn’t hurting financially or with member numbers, either. I returned to running my gym the way I did on Day 1 from the garage. Interview the parents and the athletes will try out. If you slack off or disrespect your parents’ money, you are out. We chase no one for billing. The software system handles all the billing emails.
It took a while and it took a lot of stress that negatively impacted those I love for me to figure things out. I had to realize who I really was in addition to being completely happy with the fact that we evolve. That’s right, people change! I used to love all the business aspects of running a gym but after a while, I didn’t.
You see, I know that I love training and I refuse to let my hobby, the thing I love, become the very thing that destroys me. I will not allow my gym to destroy my training and my passion. I created a gym that feeds my passion and changes lives. It’s a win-win.
I also wanted to be me. I am a strength and performance coach. I do not want to train people who want to get ready for summer with a six-week challenge. I want people who prefer to always be ready. I can’t pretend to be something or someone else, even if you pay me to do it.
If that’s you, then by all means, be you. Do not let others tell you who to train. I am the type of guy who does not allow the money to determine what I do. I don’t want money that I did not earn.
One of the first things I learned about running a business is that the priority is to make money. And let me emphasize, there is nothing wrong with making a lot of money. But for me, I cannot live a life doing something that doesn’t light up my soul, even if it pays me a lot.
As of this writing, I was hired as a full-time strength coach at a high school. It has taken me probably seven years of meetings, making videos, podcasts, writing, interviewing, and working my face off to be in this position. And guess what: we all need a little luck. Being in the right place at the right time helps!
I want to say this to all the coaches and gym owners out there. Take a breath. Go somewhere quiet — no phone, no Internet; maybe go camping for two days. Figure out what really lights up your soul. What is your perfect day? What do you do on the perfect day, and of course, what do you not do.
Stay on the course to live your perfect day. You’ll need to stop wasting time looking at what everyone else is doing on the Internet and learn to control your time. Most coaches are wasting time on Instagram and YouTube looking at what everyone else is doing.
When we’re 70 years old, I guarantee you that we will not pump our fists in the air and say, “Yes, I am so grateful that I wasted hours on end every day on Instagram!”
Don’t let the thing you love destroy you.
If you or a loved one needs help, reach out to these resources. All hotlines listed below are available 24/7 and are confidential unless otherwise noted. In case of an emergency, call your local authorities.
- The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (U.S.): 1-800-273-8255
- Crisis Text Line (U.S.): Text "START" to 741741
- National Domestic Violence Hotline (U.S.): 1-800-799-7233
- Veterans Crisis Line (U.S.): 1-800-273-8255, press 1
- Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network/RAINN (U.S.): 1-800-656-4673
- The Trevor Project (U.S. crisis intervention for LGBTQ+ youth): 1-866-488-7386, text "START" to 678678, or instant message a counselor at thetrevorproject.org/get-help-now
- TWLOHA (U.S.): Text "TWLOHA" to 741741
- Free online chat-counseling and therapy from trained volunteers (international): 7cups.com
- International lists of suicide hotlines and resources: suicide.org/international-suicide-hotlines.html and twloha.com/find-help/international-resources
Zach Even-Esh is a Strength & Performance Coach in New Jersey and the founder of The Underground Strength Gym and the creator of The Underground Strength & Sports Performance Coach Certification. For more info, go to ZachEven-Esh.com or follow him on social media @ZEvenEsh.