So You Want My Job: Gym Owner

by Brett & Kate McKay on February 2, 2012 · 16 comments

in So You Want My Job

Training Gary Matthews Jr. for his MLB comeback.

Once again we return to our So You Want My Job series, in which we interview men who are employed in desirable jobs and ask them about the reality of their work and for advice on how men can live their dream.

You’re a guy who’s passionate about health and fitness, and you want to make that passion a career. You’ll probably start out being a trainer, working with clients at someone else’s gym. But after years of that, you might want to take it to the next level and create an environment you completely design and run yourself. By opening up your own gym.

That’s what Brad Davidson did. After gaining experience as a trainer, Davidson opened up his own gym: Stark in Orange County, California. Today he shares his advice on how he’s turned his dream into a premier gym for high-level athletes and clients.

1. Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? How old are you? Describe your job and how long you’ve been at it, etc.).

I was born in Honolulu, HI, where my father was stationed in the Navy, and then spent my childhood growing up in McMinnville, Oregon.  I am 36 years old.  I am co-owner and Head LEAN Braniac at Stark–“The Coolest Little Gym in America”–located in Irvine, CA.  My job consists of developing results-oriented training, diet, and lifestyle programs for successful business men and high-level athletes who want to get lean and enhance their competitive edge with optimal performance.  I’ve been enhancing the lives of executives and athletes for the past 13 years.

2. Why did you want to become a gym owner? When did you know it was what you wanted to do?

I’ve been fascinated with weight training ever since my dad bought me my first weight set and taught me how to lift weights in my room when I was in 6th grade.  The fascination stuck through high school when I tried using weights to give me an athletic advantage when I was small compared to my competition.  By the time I was in college playing sports, I began to quickly see the shortcomings in our strength coaches from all my own studies.  I remember arguing with a professor in an Exercise Physiology class about a theory I knew didn’t work in the real world through trial and error.  That was the day I knew I was going to dedicate my life to enhancing others through health and fitness.  I wanted to help people squeeze the most out of life with proven methods–not these ridiculous theories that are still running the commercial gyms today.

3. I imagine that starting a gym comes with many of the same considerations as opening other kinds of businesses—finding a location, getting a loan, etc. Are there any considerations unique to opening a gym that would-be gym owners should know about?

The most important thing I think would-be gym owners should be cautious of is going big too soon.   I am a true believer in starting small and growing to the point of blowing out your seams before opening a larger location.  There is going to be growing pains, and the only reason we survived was by maintaining a low enough overhead to make it through those times. I see it over and over–a trainer opens an amazing gym but doesn’t have the business to support it and the clients don’t show up soon enough, leading to an inability to cover the overhead.

4. Here where I live, it seems like a lot of the independent gyms started by trainers and bodybuilders open and then close relatively quickly due to mismanagement, while one of the most successful independent gyms is owned not by a fitness guy, but someone who also owns a bunch of restaurants. What’s most important in running a successful gym—fitness experience and enthusiasm, or business savvy?

I hate to say it, but you can be the greatest mind in the fitness industry but if you don’t possess business savvy you are doomed!  This is where a majority of gym owners go wrong–they have no real clue how to run a business.  I’ve notice most high-level trainers (this included myself years ago) think we know everything there is to know about running a business because we have read all the books on it, but I got lucky and partnered up with a great business man after barely surviving for 5 years, and it was amazing the difference it made in our success.  Funny thing was the first 6 months of changes were strictly business stuff (cash flow management, proper pricing etc.), and yet we doubled our bottom line in that 6 month period without adding any new clients.

5. What are the keys for successfully competing against the big gym chains?

To be successful against the big gym chains I believe you must have a niche and you must produce results!  Our niche is enhancing high-level executives and athletes by getting them lean first and providing a competitive edge in their careers.  We measure and monitor everything they do every month.  We are paid to get a result and we get the result!

Training Olympic Hopeful Ryan Mertens, USA Bobsled Pilot

6. What’s a typical day like for you?

My days are long and start early, but it truly is what I love doing in life.  I get to play with my passion all day every day, and I am now surrounded by the who’s who of Orange County.  I usually train clients from 5:30 am to 1 pm and will mix my own workout in there somewhere.  I have lunch at 1 pm and then spend my afternoons studying ways to get clients more efficient results and overseeing the development of all our clients’ program layouts.  My main role is to make sure everyone in our system is progressing and the team we have constructed–which is actually scattered throughout the world–does an amazing job meeting each client’s individualized needs and desires.

7. What is the best part of your job?

Best part of my job is watching people’s lives transform.  There is nothing better than watching someone look, feel, and perform at a level they never dreamed possible.  It’s also really cool to watch men enhance their lives at a deeper level; they become better fathers, husbands, employers etc. from being through our program.

8. What is the worst part of your job?

Worst part of my job is the focus on detail and paperwork.  Detail is the major difference between great client results and meager results.  It has to be done, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. :)

9. What is the work/family/life balance like for you?

Work/ family/ life are very easy to get out of balance with this career.  I’ve really had to put a lot of effort into this area now that I am married with kids.  It is very easy for me to get swept away with research and trying to meet our clients’ needs.  I have forced myself to leave the office every night by 6:15 pm to give my kids plenty of dad time and my wife relationship time.  I also have forced myself to not check my phone or email once I pick up the kids until after they go to bed.  The funny thing is I actually get more work done with time restraints than I ever did working crazy hours.

10. What is the biggest misconception people have about your job?

To be honest I hate telling people I am a trainer–they immediately throw me into this stigma of meathead womanizer.  I know the majority of male trainers at the large commercial gyms use their role as trainers to meet women, but there is a small group of us that really take pride in what we do.  My family’s livelihood depends on my gym’s ability to change people’s lives.  There is a lot at stake when a client walks into my gym.  Some of us take your health very seriously!

11. Any other advice, tips, commentary or anecdotes you’d like to share?

This career is incredibly rewarding but is very hard to stand out in.  Be patient and do whatever you have to do to stand out from the crowd.  You walk into most gyms and you will see the same things going on.  Be different and you will be noticed.  Get results and you will be noticed. I am a true believer that one of the things we do well that helps us stand out is the use of technology.  Most trainers don’t document anything they do with their clients. We not only document everything a client does, we have it all built into a cloud system and we use iPads.  So the first thing you will notice at our gym is all our trainers walking around documenting sets, reps, and weights with iPads.  This is a very simple use of technology and an incredible way to stand out.



{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Anne February 2, 2012 at 6:38 pm

My husband and I are both fitness junkies and Crossfit adherents, and we’ve dreamed about doing this one day. Thanks for the reality check!

2 Brent Pittman February 2, 2012 at 7:17 pm

Brad, Great job at building a top gym in SoCal. The competition is tough and people are fickle. Love the different colored weights!

3 Chad D February 2, 2012 at 7:55 pm

I have worked in a health club since I was 15, ten years total, and continue to do so now (though I live in a different state) and one day aspire to open my own gym. I found this article knowledgable and helpful thank you!

4 Luke M February 2, 2012 at 10:57 pm

How do you use the iPads? In the gym I’m a member of, we were thinking of using iPads, iPods, etc. by creating an app. It would let you document reps, sets, weight, diet, and other considerations important to keep track of. It really is the future of lifting, though that doesn’t mean you can’t put in some hard work! Hard work = good results.

5 Ben February 3, 2012 at 12:00 am

Just for your information, Anne, the different colored weights are called “bumper plates” and are used primarily for olympic lifts or lifts where the weights will most likely crash onto the floor as they are rubberized.

6 Zach M. February 3, 2012 at 10:41 am

Luke, I would suggest utilizing an app that already exists, or a few apps in conjunction, as the fitness app market is saturated. This will keep you from investing a lot of capital on just a few features that differentiate your app.

7 Brett D February 6, 2012 at 6:19 am

Brad, Can you give any specific example of some theory you’ve debunked (question 2)?
Great article – seriously didn’t expect find it interesting, but I was wrong!

8 Pernilla Ekberg February 6, 2012 at 6:16 pm

Great article! Would love to see one about what it’s like to be an astronaut:)

9 weight training for wrestling February 15, 2012 at 8:42 am

I remember having arguments with my professors about similar stuff. They were all big “functional” trainers and thought everything needed to be done on a balance pad or stability ball. Then a year or two after I graduated a research study was published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research that showed greater core activation through EMG during complex barbell movements (Overhead Presses, Squats, Deadlifts, etc.) on a standard, stable floor than when performing these exercises on a balance implement. Needless to say, they were still very defensive after I emailed them!

10 Mana February 17, 2012 at 6:48 pm

When observing the 2nd pic with the guy on the bench, that trainer is not doing his Job in paying attention to the client who is lifting his lower back off the bench to help lift the weight… Bad form, and even worse for your lower back…

11 plato165 February 18, 2012 at 7:49 pm

Mana, you must know nothing about lifting weights, other than what you read in women’s world.

12 Aonghus February 20, 2012 at 6:30 pm

No sexism please, plato165…

13 James Petzke February 24, 2012 at 12:13 am

Great article! I’ve always wondered what it took to open a gym. Sounds like it could be a great job, especially if you’re really interested in fitness.

14 Bart February 26, 2012 at 1:54 am

This is a great article and very helpful. I am a current undergraduate student majoring in Sport Management and have always thought the fitness world would a way to apply my major and combine it with a passion, this article is very useful when weighing options. I do have a question however about what types of certifications Brad has and what certifications would be best to pursue first if this is a career path I go after. Also, I was wondering what journals and even websites he might use for research and expanding his knowledge of the field.

15 Cody October 25, 2012 at 4:33 pm

This is a fantasitic article. Thank you very much, for taking the time to write this. I draw many amounts, of inspiration. And i wish you luck on your continued success.

16 Luke April 7, 2013 at 4:59 pm

My gosh, he’s living my dream.

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