By Adam Campbell
This article originally appeared in Fitness Marketing Monthly, a subscription-only print publication for personal trainers and gym owners.
Alwyn Cosgrove is among the most well-known experts in the fitness industry. Even if the name isn’t familiar, you’ve surely experienced his influence.
During the first decade of this century, he established himself as a pre-eminent fat-loss expert. In the second decade, he’s emerged as a thought leader and top business mentor for brick-and-mortar gym owners.
But when I first met him in 2000, he was a complete unknown.
Since then I’ve watched him rise from an obscure personal trainer at a gym in New York City to a highly sought-after authority who owns two thriving businesses with his wife Rachel: Results Fitness, a commercial gym in Santa Clarita, California, and Results Fitness University, a business mentorship program for gym owners.
Which made us wonder: What can we learn from his journey? Are there key steps you can replicate as a fitness pro and business owner?
The answers are “a lot” and “yes.” But before we get to the details, Cosgrove wants you to know this: “I didn’t set out to become known. I set out to become better.”
The Making of an Expert
In 1994, Cosgrove’s mother passed away from a heart attack attributed to obesity.
“Before her death, she’d been trying to lose weight by loosely following a fat-loss program I’d written for a college course,” he recalls. The plan included what was then the gold-standard prescription for weight loss: 20 minutes a day of low-intensity cardio performed in the mythical fat-burning zone.
“In my class, the exercise program received an A,” he says. “But in reality, it was an F. I became obsessed with why the traditional guidelines and certifications didn’t work. Most didn’t even address fat loss.”
That’s where Cosgrove started on the road to expertise: with a passion to find a better way. Passion was a catalyst for expertise, and expertise was a catalyst for becoming a well-known coach and a highly successful business owner.
Here’s how you can follow his lead.
Learn as Fast as You Can
When I first met Cosgrove, he told me he read a book a week. It showed. If I mentioned a training method, he could tell me its origin, whether it was three sets of 10 (Dr. Thomas DeLorme), five sets of five (Bill Starr), or anything in between. If I brought up a book I liked, not only had he read it, he could recommend three more I might enjoy.
He once told me he followed this advice from Earl Nightingale, a radio host and motivational speaker in the 1950s: “One hour per day of study in your chosen field is all it takes. One hour per day of study will put you at the top of your field within three years. Within five years you’ll be a national authority. In seven years, you can be one of the best people in the world at what you do.”
That relentless drive to study and learn is why I sought him out so often when I was an editor at Men’s Health magazine. In addition to bachelor’s and master’s degrees in exercise science, he was certified by every organization I’d heard of—NSCA, NASM, ACE, ACSM, ACE, ISSA, USA Weightlifting—and some that were new to me.
“Back when I started out, the only educational courses for personal trainers were at certifications,” he says. “It was less about the certification itself and more about the opportunity to learn.”
He then recites this famous quote from Arie de Geus, a longtime Shell Oil Company executive: “The ability to learn faster than competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.”
Meeting the Movers and Shakers
It wasn’t just knowledge he sought when he crisscrossed the country to get those certifications. He wanted to be in the room with the industry figures who were prominent enough to lead the courses. Same with those who presented at conferences and seminars.
“I always had an agenda to meet people at these events,” says Cosgrove. “I would schedule a lunch, offer to buy them a coffee, or just try to get face time.”
That face time can be as simple as waiting until after a presentation to ask the speaker a question, or telling her how much you enjoyed her talk. Today, thanks to social media, it’s even easier to get acquainted and connected. Shocking as it sounds, even well-known people tend to remember those who compliment them and take sincere interest in their work.
But there’s more to it than meeting the speakers. Some percentage of your fellow attendees will be industry leaders in five or 10 years. Everyone who presents at premier events like the Perform Better Functional Training Summit started out in the audience watching other people share what they know. It’s not a coincidence that many of them met and befriended each other long before any of us knew who they were.
One more point that relates to my own experience as a fitness journalist:
If you’re a presenter at a medium to large event, there’s a pretty good chance at least one fitness writer is in the audience. Some of the most interesting and useful information I shared with readers came from the conferences and seminars I attended. Those articles usually quoted the instructor, or at least identified him.
Even if a writer doesn’t use your material in the article she’s working on at the moment, she may keep you in mind for future stories. The bigger the impression you make, with your content as well as your personality, the better your chances.
Everything we’re talking about here—from networking to presenting to being quoted in articles—begins with the quest for knowledge. After all, if you want to achieve mastery in your field, you first must understand what everyone else does, and why.
Don’t be embarrassed by your answer. See it as a call to action—to read more, to get out more, to connect more, and to learn more.
Invest in Yourself
If you’re in the early stages of your career, you might wonder how anyone can afford all these books, courses, and conferences and workshops. The answer is you make it a priority.
“The one thing I’m most proud of is, regardless of other finances or obligations, I always invested whatever money I made on my Friday 1 p.m. training spot into education,” Cosgrove says. “That hour with a client was 100 percent invested in myself.”
It seems like a no-brainer when you think about in those terms. Let’s say you make an average of $40 per training session. You can earmark $160 a month, $1,040 a year, for getting better. And it’s a tax-deductible business expense.
Or maybe you’re an online trainer who charges $200 a month. Try dedicating one client a month to your personal development fund.
Cosgrove maintains his strategy even though he’s no longer paid by the hour. “I invest 10 percent of my personal income into self-improvement,” he says. “But we also invest 10 percent of our business earnings into staff education, since their development is just as crucial to our success.”
Prepare for Takeoff
Cosgrove has spoken to tens of thousands at NSCA, Perform Better, T Nation, and Elite FTS conferences and seminars. At each event, some percentage of the fitness pros in the audience envision themselves in the front of the room, and wonder what it takes to get there.
If that’s your ambition, the last thing you want to do is start working on your public speaking after you’re booked.
“Surprisingly, many good coaches are terrible at presenting onstage,” Cosgrove says. “It requires more than your knowledge base. It’s a different skill entirely.”
That’s why, years before he got up in front of hundreds of his peers, he enrolled in Toastmasters. Twice a month, he gave a speech to his fellow members, who were mostly local business people. They gave him feedback on his talk while he critiqued theirs. It all happened far from the public eye, but put him in position to excel at public speaking when he got the opportunity.
He followed the same process as he moved on from one-on-one personal training, which he could see wasn’t scalable, and couldn’t produce the kind of income he wanted. He also knew that becoming a business owner would require new skillsets.
“Training expertise is 10 percent of running a fitness business,” he says. “For every training book you read, you should be reading a business book. Same for courses and seminars. Don’t wait until you’ve launched your business to acquire the knowledge you’ll need. Prepare now for the opportunities you want later.”
Look for the Similarities
When most people look at fitness or diet approaches, they focus on the differences between them. Cosgrove, on the other hand, focuses on the similarities. He believes this instinct has helped him succeed in both training and business.
“You see it all the time: Two seemingly different methods both lead to success,” he says. “Why is that? What’s the common factor? Often I’ve found it’s the answer I’m looking for.”
Compare a vegan diet to a very-low-carb diet, for example. Done right, both emphasize produce and whole foods. By eliminating highly processed foods, they reduce total calories, and people lose weight. People who restrict calories and maintain a lower-than-average weight tend to be healthier and live longer. So what matters more: the difference in methods, or the similarity in outcomes?
“When I was trying to create better fat-loss programs, I asked myself, ‘What do all effective fat-loss programs have in common?’” Cosgrove says. “Likewise, when building my business, I asked, ‘What do the world’s most successful businesses have in common?’ Not just fitness businesses, but all businesses.”
The answer he found can be summed up in just two words.
One of the many inspirations for Cosgrove’s business model is … McDonald’s.
If that surprises you, consider this: “McDonald’s has achieved industry domination because of consistency,” he says. “A Big Mac is the same, whether you order one in Los Angeles or Tulsa. Customers always know exactly what they’re getting, and that’s because McDonald’s has systemized their processes. Same goes for Starbucks.”
Cosgrove sought to bring this type of consistency to his gym. “If I wanted to grow the business, I obviously couldn’t train every client,” he says. “I had to get my training knowledge out of my head, and into a replicable procedure. It could no longer be about my individual skill. It had to be that every client would achieve the same results no matter who worked with them.”
He developed a staff training manual and an interactive Excel spreadsheet, which helped design plans automatically based on input from client assessments.
He also set out to systematize every client touch point. “When a potential customer calls, emails, or visits, we always use a preapproved script,” he says. “You wouldn’t wing it on a client’s workout program, so don’t do it here, either.”
By operating with the same procedures in every situation, he eventually accumulated enough baseline data to run tightly controlled experiments with meaningful outcomes.
“You can change just one thing, and measure the effect,” Cosgrove says. “If it improves your results, you make it standard procedure. This is how you continually refine your processes and get better over time.”
You can also manage risk as you scale your business.
Let’s say for every 20 phone inquiries, you know you’ll schedule 10 gym visits. And from those visits, you’ll acquire five new members. Of those five new members, you know one will opt out at three months, one will stick around for six months, and the other three will stay with you for a year.
That’s an average lifetime value of nine months per new member. To grow your client base, you can work backwards from these data points.
“If you want 10 new members instead of five, you need 20 gym visits, and that means 40 phone calls,” Cosgrove explains. “So you invest in marketing to generate those extra calls, and use what you know about lifetime value to set your acquisition budget.”
Systemic uniformity also drives Cosgrove’s marketing campaigns. Once he knows how well one approach performs, he can make one adjustment, and measure the results. If it outperforms his existing model, it becomes the new baseline.
Market What Makes You Special
What compels people to choose your products or services over someone else’s? Differentiation is at the core of marketing, but it’s something many fitness professionals struggle with. Those who can’t separate themselves from others within their market are often left trying to compete on price, while a few resort to making outrageous claims or using ridiculous training methods.
Cosgrove uses something that’s both simpler and more powerful. “Our approach to marketing has always been to just tell our story,” he says. “If we do it right, customers clearly see why we’re special.”
One highly successful campaign begins by citing a California law, which they then use to their advantage:
“Legally we can’t say that we’re the best gym in Santa Clarita—no gym can. But before you talk to any trainer, sign up with any gym, or consider any bootcamp, consider the following …”
The ad, as you can see, goes on to describe the accomplishments and accolades of Alwyn and Rachel Cosgrove.
“Using only facts, we showed people why they could expect better results from our services than every other gym in the area,” he says. “Once you convince people you’re the best, it makes price comparisons much less of a factor. You can charge more and still win the client.”
Put Your Reputation Above All Else
In the early 2000s, Cosgrove became one of the first trainers to sell products online. He also became a prolific affiliate for other people’s products, earning tens of thousands of dollars with each email campaign. But it wasn’t because of his copywriting skills.
“For affiliate sales, I used the same copy as everyone else,” he says. “The difference was the trust I built with my audience. They believed when I said a product was really good, it was really good.”
He maintained that trust by turning down far more affiliate opportunities than he accepted. “I resist the ones I can’t fully stand behind,” he says. “It’s not worth damaging my customer relationships for a single-time sale.”
That’s why he finds it so odd when fitness pros aren’t even comfortable standing behind their own products. “A lot of trainers say to me, ‘I’m not good at asking for money,’” he says. “What they’re really saying is, ‘I’m not good enough to charge.’ That’s a self-worth problem, and it goes away when you’re confident you can deliver results.”
Which all comes back to the knowledge and skills you develop. To achieve what you want, there’s no substitute for putting in the reps—training clients, writing programs, communicating with customers, networking with peers, contributing to fitness magazines and websites, presenting yourself and your knowledge to an audience, or, like Cosgrove, all of the above.
If it’s worth accomplishing, it’s never too early to start preparing yourself for the opportunity.
Adam Campbell, editor in chief for Precision Nutrition, is the former chief strategist for the Personal Trainer Development Center. Before that, as chief content officer for Rodale, he oversaw the largest brands in fitness publishing, including Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Prevention, and Runner’s World, along with the company’s bestselling books and digital products. In his 18 years as a fitness writer and editor, he wrote five books and won two National Magazine Awards.