As told to Katharine Reece for Inside the Affiliate by Strong Gym co-owner, Matt Reynolds.
Gym name: STRONG Gym
Location: Springfield, Missouri
Year started: July 2008
Estimated number of members: 900
Square footage: 14,000 square feet
Gym co-owners: Matt Reynolds, Paden Stringer, and William McNeely (read more about them here)
Number of full-time and part-time trainers: Four full-time staff who are also coaches, three full-time coaches, and three owners, who also coach
ITA: Tell us the story about how your gym started.
MR: After training out of my two-car garage from 2001 to 2008, our group of competitive powerlifters and Strongmen had outgrown the space. We weren’t a business, but rather a group of training partners. William McNeely and I opened STRONG Gym, in 2008, in a typical industrial space—10,000 square-foot warehouse with no heat, no A/C, no business plan, no insurance—and with no delusions of grandeur. We weren’t starting a business, we just wanted a place to train. And then people started showing up.
Even then, I didn’t think we’d be big enough to market to the strength community, and I didn’t think that community was very big anyway. But by 2012, we had about 60 members, all from totally organic growth. By then, I had my masters degree so I sat down and put hundreds of hours into a business plan. So after moderate 50 percent growth per year, we made a major change, quitting our jobs to focus solely on the gym, bringing on a new partner in Paden Stringer, and opening a 14,000 square-foot multi-million dollar facility in downtown Springfield, Missouri—the hub of business for the area. We’re on what would be your 4th avenue in Brooklyn, with a population of about 500,000 in a 12- to 15-minute radius.
We had a big Grand Opening and we gained 250 members in two days. We went from 60 to 310 on a weekend, and I went home, and cried like a little girl—I literally broke down sobbing. We grew 1500 percent in 2013, and we’ve grown a bunch more in the past year, putting us up about 2000 percent-plus in the past two years.
ITA: How do new members start at your gym?
MR: We have three separate pricing options at the gym: private training, group training, and an open gym membership with guided programming. Private training is obviously one-on-one, so there is no On-Ramp or Foundations-type program, because that’s built in.
We have a Bootcamp class, which is our group fitness program. These classes have multiple coaches, and they’re set up for beginners. We don’t do Bootcamp classes for advanced athletes. By the time a member becomes more advanced, they’re ready to do our programming on their own. In Bootcamp, we teach everyone how to do the basic lifts—deadlifts, squats, benching, and pressing. And then we do bodyweight circuits for conditioning.
And the third option we offer is the open gym membership. If a new person walks in off the street, they’ll have to do two private sessions, where you’re taught how to the do the basic lifts. After that, we don’t provide personalized programming—though you can pay for that if you want—but we provide the basic layout for programs like Starting Strength, and we walk people through what’s appropriate for their goals. For people who want to be generally fit and strong enough, we’d give them a General Fitness Preparedness program with strength components, EMOM stuff with a barbell, and high-intensity conditioning.
ITA: Tell us more about your programming for general populations.
MR: We now have approximately 900 members. About 65 percent of those are “general population” soccer moms and business professional dads. 35 percent are competitive athletes. But all of our members’ primary goals tend to be performance-based rather than aesthetic-based—everyone wants to look better, but it’s usually secondary. They understand that strength is the foundation for whatever goal they may have. Whether you’re a pre-pubescent teen or a grandma, every single person who comes to STRONG Gym performs the four main lifts, and everything stems from that.
We say this on our website, and basically put it on everything, but this is our basic formula: We focus on strength as the primary basis of functional health, body recomposition, and athletic performance. We forge strength through basic barbell and bodyweight training that is simple and effective, but grounded in hard, yet rewarding work, perfect form, and linear progression. All of our members legitimately strength train—every week, they are trying to add five pounds to the bar.
When it comes to conditioning for our general population, we provide stuff that makes people feel better. I don't want my people to feel beat up all the time. I want people to come out of here feeling amazing, and not have a hard time walking because their hips or knees hurt.
ITA: What is your programming like in your Bootcamp classes?
MR: Bootcamp is really simple. The first 40 minutes of the classes are strength-based, and then the last 20 minutes are cardio-based. People come in and do upper body one day, so bench press and press, and lower body the next day, so squat and deadlift. The versions of the lifts are not always the straight versions. Maybe one day they work up to a heavy version of the first lift, and the second lift would be an EMOM lift. Our conditioning looks like mixed-modality circuits—so Airdyne work, bodyweight stuff, inverted rows, kettlebell snatch, toes-to-bar—movements that we feel are a little more natural. We don’t do a lot of dynamic or high-impact gymnastics movements and we don’t teach the Olympic Lifts to this group.
We encourage new people without much of an athletic background to join Bootcamp to get started, and that involves a three-month contract. We tell people we don’t want to keep them in these classes, but want to teach them what they need to know and then move them forward. Demographic-wise, Bootcamp tends to be about 80 percent female. It’s really fun, and is supposed to be fun. We don’t wreck anybody on Day One because we want people to be excited to come back on Day Two.
People often go to gyms based on an emotional decision. Something has occurred to make them decide to step out of their comfort zone and finally walk through the doors of a gym—they have low self-esteem, they can’t fit into that dress that they were certain still fit, a boyfriend or girlfriend broke up with them, they are recently divorced, their dad just had a heart attack, etc. But they hate gyms. Gyms don’t make people feel better—they often make them feel worse. They force high-pressure sales, long-term contracts, meat markets, fake people, no community, everyone wearing earphones, personal training as a baby-sitting model, and most importantly, there’s no results.
We are focused on fixing what is broken in nearly every other gym in the country. We build confidence. It’s something virtually every other gym in America has neglected. We begin tearing down the walls of low self-esteem from the moment clients walk through our doors by making their experience incredible. From the clean, minimalist décor of our store-front facility, to the inviting smiles on our staff’s faces, to the impeccable cleanliness of the building, we focus on a total sensory experience to make sure they know when they come to STRONG, they’re home. Then, we actually change the way people look and feel through incredibly effective training and programming to help them reach their goals.
So our Bootcamp creates the opposite of what someone might experience in a globo-gym, where you’re being sold a long-term, impersonal contract. We can say, “We have something that’s just for you, for beginners, and you’re going to have a blast.”
ITA: How would you describe the community at STRONG Gym?
MR: What I love about STRONG Gym’s community is that everyone feels like they’re part of a family here. We have such a wide spanning demographic—we have some of the top powerlifters and Strongmen in the country. We have 15 guys who deadlift over 700 pounds. But we also have 12-year-old kids, and 75-year-old grandmas, and everything between. We have high-level bodybuilders, Olympic weightlifters, and regional CrossFit athletes, but we also have lots of high school athletes and soccer moms and business professionals. And every single one of them love to wear their STRONG Gym t-shirts, and check into Facebook at the gym, and post on their Instagram, and just feel like they belong. So that’s what we’ve done here—we’ve created a place where people can belong.
There’s obviously not much crossover between bodybuilding and our Bootcamp class, but when a bodybuilding show comes up, for example, our all our members alike put on their STRONG t-shirts and show up at the show to be supportive. I also just love driving through this town, to the mall or grocery store, because I see cars everywhere with STRONG Gym bumper stickers.
We do BBQs, and seminars and classes, which we almost always offer free. We’re open on Saturday from 9-2, so a lot of times at 2pm we’ll have a nutrition specialist come in, or we have a chiropractor come in to talk about correctly foam rolling and warming up, and dealing with hip and back issues. We don't want a bunch of meatheads running around that lift and don’t know any better. One of the things we’re really proud of is that our members are educated people, and we try to give them the power to further educate themselves.
All of my coaches have at least a bachelor’s degree in the field and they all have top-level certifications. CFSBK has the highest amount of Starting Strength coaches, and I believe we’re next. I pay my staff on a merit-based system. I think one of the things David does better than anyone in the country is train his coaches. I came away from meeting with him with so many notes, especially about how to lead and train my staff. So now we really push our staff to invest in bettering themselves. We’ll help pay for certifications and seminars, we’ll have staff training days where we cover teaching the lifts or programming to make sure there’s continuity across all my coaches and that we are teaching things the same way. We have our staff read business books, training books, philosophy books, listen to podcasts, etc. We’re always trying to encourage education, both with our staff and our member base. I think that contributes heavily to our community.
ITA: What are two of your most popular annual community events?
MR: We do a lot of competitions—a huge powerlifting meet in February, June, and October, a CrossFit total every year, and a combo powerlifting and bodybuilding Fitness Convention Weekend we call FitCon. So that means that every other month, there’s a massive competition here and it’s awesome. In the off-month, we always do some kind of community social event, like a BBQ in a parking lot with a band and tailgating. If there’s a movie out, like Bigger Faster Stronger, or Fed Up, we’ll head over to this cool independent movie theater three blocks from the gym and watch the movie together. I think CFSBK does a great job here as well and we are striving to do this better.
ITA: How do you communicate with your members outside the gym?
MR: We have about 10,000 followers on Facebook, so that’s probably our number one way we communicate with members. We also use mass email through MailChimp—every Friday we put out a newsletter, and what it tends to be is announcements from Facebook collated in a single place. We have used mass texting before, which works well. We’re active on Instagram, Twitter, all that stuff too, but Facebook is the big one.
Coaching and Administration
ITA: What does it take to work at Strong Gym?
MR: First off, I’ll say I am a very Type A, driven, goal-oriented person who did well in business, but the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life is train, hire, fire, and shepherd staff at this gym. I’ve learned more in that than almost anything else—maybe outside of my marriage—about who I am and my strengths and weaknesses.
We don’t interview. We tried that for one opening, and it didn’t work. I want people who have an unbelievable work ethic and are sponges, and will let me teach them. People often have to do two-month internships for free, and if you kill it for free, then we have a pretty good idea you’ll kill it for money. So we can go to these kids or interns and say, “Look, we want to teach you how to be a great coach, but you have to show us you want to work hard, and you’re not too good to clean toilets and help out with other stuff. At that point, we’ll probably hire you.” We’ve probably had 90 interns, and we’ve hired four.
I hire for personality first. I can train someone to be a great coach, but I can’t make you work well with people. I can’t tell you how often I meet the people who are brilliant, but assholes. So we look at three major criteria: intelligence—are they really smart; work ethic—do they work really hard; and likeable—are they liked. We’ve found that two out of three will work, and three out of three are the people who will end up owning new STRONG Gym franchises. You have to lock these people down, because they will do this on their own if you don’t—they’re wired to do this stuff. We give them equity in our company and take care of them.
Since we’re starting to franchise the gym and open locations in other parts of the States, I’m looking for staff who want to own and run a franchise. I have one guy who eight months ago was an intern, not getting paid anything, and now we’re in talks about opening a new location in North Dallas with him, and there’s a real chance he’s going to co-own a million-dollar gym.
ITA: Which aspects of your gym's operations are you most proud of?
MR: More than anything, I’m proud of our style of training. Our training is simple, hard, and effective. We have outstanding customer service and our gym is impeccably clean. Those qualities seem so simple, but they’re not. A lot of gyms have great training but are in shithole locations that are dirty—and that’s who we were too, at one point—and some people want that and love it. But when you get heat, A/C, and locker rooms, it’s amazing the people who come out of the woodwork to join. The training we had before and the training we have now is exactly the same, but now we have around 900 members instead of 60.
ITA: What is something you tried that did not work out?
MR: We have tanning beds here, and that hasn’t gone well. We’ve tried selling supplements, and that didn’t work either. We tried having an MMA team at one point, which didn’t work, since I don’t know anything about MMA and the culture of the people we had in the program ended up not lining up with the culture of our gym. So we’ve found that when we invest in the things we’re already good at—training and people—it has continued to grow. When we try to branch out into the areas we’re not great at, we struggle. We do offer massage and chiropractors, and that’s worked well because our population needs massages and some body therapy—it truly is symbiotic and helpful with what we do.
ITA: How can STRONG Gym get better?
MR: The first is how we can get better with staff. I struggle with this sometimes because I’m so goal-oriented and driven, that I’ve become about the business all the time and not enough about the faces and personalities of the people who are my staff. We work on the closeness and community of the members, but we’re also trying to invest in our staff in the same way. Part of it is because we grew so fast, and didn’t expect that to happen. Everyone works hard and is rewarded by good pay and lots of benefits, but a lot of times, my staff just wants to go out and have a beer with the owners. I will work 70 hours a week easily, and now that I own my own business, it’s even harder to turn that off. I’m just wired to work. But I have to remember that everything shouldn’t be about the bottom line.
On the gym side of things, we want to continue to grow outside powerlifting. We have one of the best powerlifting team in the country, but we’re trying to give people top-level choices across the board—if they want to be a competitive powerlifter, they will have one of the best coaches here. If they want to be a competitive CrossFitter, we want them to have that option. If they want to be the best at mud runs and Spartan Races, that’s okay too. We try to be a performance-based gym. But we don’t want to just give the options—we want them to understand this is the best possible performance gym in the country, at every level. I want to constantly raise the quality of all of our programs.
ITA: In your experience, what kind of personality and qualities are valuable in running a successful gym?
MR: Gyms are part of the service industry, so if you’re not likeable or don’t genuinely like people, or aren’t interested in investing in relationships, you can’t make it in this sort of industry.
Beyond that, you have to have a never-ending thirst for knowledge. The smartest, wisest people I’ve met read all the time, every day. I read about two books a week and listen to Podcasts every day. I don’t have time to read fiction or listen to music, just because I want to learn. You also have to have a never-ending thirst to get better. Almost everything I read now is some sort of business book, because I’ve read virtually every training book ever written. I’m one of the idiots that actually read Supertraining. Rippetoe’s stuff blows all the other training books away. If you read Starting Strength and Practical Programming for Strength Training three times each, you’ll know more than 99.99 percent of any coach on the planet.
ITA: What transforms a good gym into a great gym?
MR: The atmosphere. I think a great gym’s atmosphere has to be both encouraging and competitive. If it’s just encouraging, no one gets better. If it’s just competitive, people get worn down. We make as big a deal when a girl bench presses 100 pounds for the first time, as when some guy deadlifts 700 pounds. It’s a constant search for PRs, and celebrating them.
Our gym is always full of coaches, so if someone is struggling with squats, their knees are caving in or moving forward or whatever, the coaches will be there to correct them. But it’s not just our coaches—so many of our members are high-quality lifters, and nobody wears earphones, so other members are often coaching other members. We tell people when they join, if they want a general membership, “Look, you have to be ready to be coached by members. If somebody sees you squatting wrong—you’re not going deep enough or you’re going forward on your toes—someone is going to jump in, and you have to be okay with that.” Our success has snowballed without us in some ways because of that atmosphere.
ITA: Do you have any cool equipment hacks?
MR: I think because of our size and revenues at this point, we just buy what we need. We are certainly a bit OCD about having a place for everything and everything being in its place. Every gym has that corner that accumulates junk, and for us, we want places for every item that could end up in that corner. For instance, we bought really cool wire trashcans and labeled them, for lacrosse balls and roller sticks. We use magazine racks like you’d see in a doctor’s office, and fill them with educational information. We also have laminated sheets—“Here’s how you perform a squat,” and “Here’s all the lifts,” or “Here are basic warm-ups and how you perform them.” Then we’ve got a rotation of updated articles that people can pull from and read. Everything is really clean and laid out.
ITA: What's one thing your gym has that can't be found anywhere else in the world?
MR: I’ve got the best equipment in the world. I have 14,000 square feet of all strength equipment. Our gym is comprised primary of 3 main rooms: the main gym, a powerlifting gym, and an MMA/multipurpose gym. We also have a huge lobby, 8 bathrooms, men and women’s locker rooms and showers, air conditioning, tanning, massage therapists, a small cardio theater, an upper body accessory room, and a lower body accessory room. The main gyms are primarily barbell-based equipment and have everything you could ever dream of using from monolifts to 900lb tires to gymnast rings and rowers. And most importantly we have a community that uses all of that stuff.
ITA: Do you have a gym pet?
MR: No, definitely not. I’m not going to let pets in, it’s too nice now.
ITA: Any parting advice for new gym or affiliate owners?
MR: For the first six years of the gym, no one took a dollar, we just put it all back into the gym. We started small and grew as we needed. Everything we’ve done—from the building, to the equipment, to payroll—has been done debt-free and paid for in cash. I’d encourage people to do that. Start small, grow as you can, pay for what you need as you can afford it.
Read everything you can get your hands on. Read The E-Myth, Delivering Happiness, How to Win Friends and Influence People, The Hard Thing About Hard Things. Read biographies of those who have been there before you and learn from them.
On the personal side, learn that “the urgent is the enemy of the important.” If you spend all your time running around like a chicken with your head cut off doing “urgent” things, then you’ll never have time for the truly important things—family, personal fitness, education, growing your business. These things take an enormous amount of investment and cultivation to succeed, and an owner stuck in the rut of constantly coaching, doing accounting or payroll, cleaning the gym, or being a receptionist will end up being too busy in their business to grow their business.