This summer I ran Strength & Performance, a warehouse gym based in Manchester in the United Kingdom. This gym is owned and run by Zoran Dubaic and Sean Keefe and has been open for six months. Because Sean was getting married, they had to leave their new business in the hands of a 22-year-old medical student. Crazy? Maybe.

I spent two weeks at Strength & Performance, in which time I think I learned more about coaching than I had from all the books, blogs, articles, and videos I’d studied in the last three years.

Here’s what I learned:

Coach, coach, and coach some more: Within two days, I’d perfected my goblet squat coaching. All the useless cues and poor explanations were gone. Imagine how good you could get in two years? A lifetime? Every coaching process became simple. The cues that worked with one client worked with the rest. This ‘hands on’ experience really focused my attention on the important parts of the coaching process. This is a great example of Pareto’s law—20 percent of your actions give 80 percent of your results. The goblet squats were awesome. Within five minutes, a beginner was squatting pretty damn well. The three best cues—sit back, knees out, chest up. Who knew squatting could be so simple?

Every client from professional athletes to new starters needed glute activation. They all spent too much time sitting, so it isn’t any surprise. Glute bridges and hip flexor stretching were performed by pretty much everyone.

An athlete looking at competing in powerlifting/Strongman had serious problems with his squat form, particularly hitting parallel. In addition to lots of goblet squats, I had him do hip mobility and glute activation in each warm up and between lifting exercises. By the end of the two weeks, the athlete was hitting depth without any back rounding and he was squatting much more quickly. We found that this drill really helps the athlete stay tight and sit back. I think he just needed to relearn how to load up his hamstrings.

To get big, you have to eat. I thought I ate a lot, but after hanging out with a guy 30 kg heavier and a hell of lot stronger than me, I realized I need to eat more. This is true for strength as well. Get out of your comfort zone. Hang out with guys who are better than you and ideally have achieved the goals you have for yourself. This will make you realize what you need to do. Note to self—stop being a pussy with your training and have double portions at meal time.

Track everything for your clients’ benefit and your own. The gym is a huge study from which you can learn what works and what doesn’t. Individuals experiment on themselves and learn over a lifetime. With 50 or more clients, you can see patterns and trends much sooner.

Owning a gym means you can read something about training and then literally go try it out right away. Instant feedback. Awesome.

Women need and take fewer rests than men. I noticed that the women rushed back to get back under the bar. This is a great attitude, but sometimes more rest is required. I found programming mobility movements in with the lifting programs stopped this while giving the clients something to do. I found the men had the opposite problem. If this is the case, get a stopwatch and track the rest period.

This is what makes running a gym worth it:

Client: “My knees haven’t hurt since our session on Monday.”

Me: “Oh right, how long have they been hurting?”

Client: “Oh about two years.”

Clients need goals. With goals you can show them success. With client success comes more clients. Plus clients are more likely to part with their money every month if they see themselves succeeding.

The So You Think You Can Bench?” series at EliteFTS is awesome. I watched the videos and used the exact method with two new clients. Result—one guy benched 25 kg more than he ever had done before after one session. Crazy stuff.

People wanted to be strong yesterday. If you fail at a weight, it isn’t necessarily that you’re not strong enough. It’s just that you aren’t old enough. What I mean by this is that you need to give it time. Training is a long process and the people who succeed are those who have two-year goals, not two-week goals.

Push the clients to increase the weights. I noticed that some clients would stay with the same weight if not prompted to increase it. If form is good, up the weight!

My favorite quote of the week: “I’m going to get this damn Prowler to the end if it kills me!”

Overweight people shouldn’t do jumps.

If you’re thinking about owning a gym, make sure you have a lot of songs on your iPod. The same 50 songs get old fast! Machinehead = good. Soundtrack from Glee = awful. Note to gym owners—never let someone else put their iPod on without checking the songs.

Women want to be sore. Make of that what you will. Positive—women work hard and will do any session that you put in front of them. Negative—being sore isn’t the goal and shouldn’t necessarily be the aim.

Think about how you could provide a better service. A few small changes could increase the value of your product without increasing costs. If the product has more value, it appears cheaper at a given price. The nature of semi-professional group training is individual programming. Providing a better service increases this individuality.

Assessments are crucial to start the training process. There isn’t any point designing a program without finding out what the needs of the client are. Here’s a clue—hip mobility and glute activation.

Have a feedback/suggestion box. The clients have great ideas and this is a vital way to track the progress and success of your gym. If you have a certain demographic that you want to train, focus on the ideas of that demographic. What will draw more people into joining the gym?

Always try and improve client’s form. Any reps done with less than perfect technique are grooving incorrect movement patterns. I found that with higher reps form got worse toward the end of the set. Lower the rep range and demand perfection!

The amount you learn when you coach is huge. This experience is vital. When you first start a gym, the gym will be empty at certain times until client numbers pick up. Use this time! Offer to coach local schools or teams for a small fee or even for free. Use this as coaching practice until paying clients are coming in the door. The resulting videos and word of mouth will be great advertising. Some of these people may even sign up!

I want to say thanks to the guys for trusting me with their gym, business, and livelihood. Running a gym is a challenging experience but thoroughly worthwhile. The clients’ work ethic was impressive. Seeing them achieve their goals makes all the 14-hour days worth it! So, do I want my own gym? Hell, yes.