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Back in the Trenches

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Theory vs. Practice

This was a pretty big year for me—there’s no denying that. While technically this blog started in 2009, I really didn’t “break out” into the larger picture of online fitness until after my first full program debuted in February of 2010.

From there, I really started getting more involved in this world in all phases.

Some fitness professionals differ on this point, but I feel that my blog, my books and my online presence are all intimately related: in order to have a book that sells well, you have to have a fairly strong following; in order to create that following, you have to put out a lot of great information; this requires blogging pretty frequently, and that of course requires time.

When I made the decision to transition online, I recognized that while I AM pretty awesome, I was not, unfortunately, awesome enough to add hours to the day. (Alas!)

All of which is really just a complicated way of saying that, from Day One, I realized that a shift towards the Internet would require a tremendous time commitment—meaning that I’d have to cut down on a few other areas of my life in order to free up the time for the online push.

I’ve spoken before about how in the initial stages (leading up to the Launch) my personal life took a hit—since I’ve covered that in other blogs, I won’t discuss that here.

Instead, in this instance, I’m talking about the time that is required with the maintenance of a website and an online business. Like any business that you personally run, working online is time consuming.

To focus on one business, I needed to make changes in another. To that end, I stepped down from managing my facility on Long Island. As things continued to grow, I stopped taking on new clients at all. This didn’t initially seem like a big change, but as I’ll touch on later, it had some implications.

Fortunately, my online business continued to grow, and out of both necessity and desire began to dedicate more time to it.

At this point, in addition to not taking on new clients, I also began to phase out some of my existing ones. This was a decision that was made not only so that I could sit and write more frequently, but also because keeping a full schedule became impossible with all of the travel that the new business required.

Sacrifices need to be made—and so, from March 1st to June 30th, I wound up reducing my roster from 26 active clients for a total of 47 training hours per week down to 8 clients for a total of 11 training hours per week.

I didn’t “fire” any of my clients; that’s not really my style. It was more that when packages expired, I’d explain to my clients that I had to close up spots for the time being, and would recommend other trainers I thought would be a good fit for them.

It must be mentioned that a lot of this happened pretty organically. The nature of the business is that I’ve always had a bit of a (slowly) revolving door when it comes to clients. I start people off at 2-3 sessions per week and start cutting down to 1 or 2 as soon as I can (usually over a few months) and then eventually “graduate” them.

I ran my business this way because I believe that if you are a great trainer, you should be TEACHING your clients as you train them. If someone is training only for aesthetic purposes* and you’re good at your job, chances are you can get them there in 6 months.

If you’re really good, by the time they leave you (in my case usually less than a year), they should be able to maintain the results on their own.

NOTE: Those recommendations and generalizations are for people looking for aesthetic results. When working with high performance athletes, generally they stay with you much longer; as they should.

So, beginning in March, when new spots would open up as clients graduated, I simply refused to take new clients.

By the end of this summer, I was down to training about 5 hours per week.

Before I go any further, I want to say now that I do not consider ANY of this a mistake.

I believe that a good number of these changes were necessary—in every sense of the word. Which is to say, I believe that a few changes (such as stepping down from management) were so critical that my online business and presence simply could not have survived, let alone thrived and grown to the extent that they have had I not made those changes.

Others were probably not necessary in the most literal sense of the word. I’m certain, looking back, that it wouldn’t have completely disrupted the Order of Nature if I hadn’t gone out of may way to avoid new clients, or take two weeks off from training nearly every month between June and October.

And so, to reiterate: I believe that some of these changes were essential, and others merely helpful; but I do not regret any of them.

However, I am going to aim for a near COMPLETE turn around beginning in March of 2011.

You see, having toned down my training business—and the choices that led to that—turns out to have been an incredibly valuable experience for me, because I learned a lesson that I am here to share with you.

(Stay tuned, I’m about to actually get to the point!)

And that lesson is this: being in the trenches matters. God, it MATTERS.

To put it in personal terms, I find that I am a much, much better trainer when I am with clients frequently; that of course should not be surprising. Practice makes perfect, as they say. Additionally, as I touched on earlier, the more often I work with new clients (both clients who are new to training in general, or client whom I’ve simply never worked with) is a great experience.

Moreover, the move I work hands on with clients, the better I become as a programmer—and that has tremendous carryover to my online business.

We all stand on the shoulders of giants, and I must make mention of the fact that I put a lot of stock in the education I’ve received that led me to achieve a high level of programming proficiency. However, as much as I believe in formal education I’ve been lucky enough to experience (both at the university level as well as all of the manuals, documentation, books and journals) and feel that it helped build a strong foundation, I’d be foolish to think that anyone coming out of a “course” (be it for a degree or a certification) is immediately going to be a great programmer.

That takes time, dedication—and most importantly, experience.

Over the past 10 years, I’ve been cultivating theories learned from books and personalizing them based on my hands-on, real-life, in the trenches experience. I’ve developed my own “style” if you will.

And I’ll say with confidence that I would not have done so if not for all of my experience.

Controversial Opinion Forthcoming

If I may go off on a very quick mini-tangent, there is a disturbing trend in the online fitness world, and that is this: there are people writing programs who don’t train clients. And to a certain extent, I guess that’s okay—I don’t have a problem there.

But then there are people giving out fitness advice online who have never trained a client. As in, they have LITERALLY never sat down and done an in-person assessment. They have never had that awkward first session with a person who isn’t sure if they’ve made the right decision. The have never had to make a last second decision about what exercise to sub in if a client is complaining of some pain.

Basically, they have no fucking idea what they are doing.

Some of these people have some impressive letters behind their name, and perhaps in the strictest sense of the word they have the education that indicates they are perhaps “qualified”—but SHOULD they be giving out fitness information to the masses?

Absolutely not—like, seriously, not even close.

At a seminar I attended in 2009, Mike Boyle, who is one of the most highly regarded coaches in the world, gave the Keynote speech. During his talk, he brought up using a rule of thumb for proficiency: 10,000 hours. Yup, ten thousand hours of experience.

Mike simply looked out at the room and said, “if you haven’t trained clients for 10,000 hours, do us all a favor: don’t start a blog. Don’t write an ebook. Get some more work in.”

While I feel that Mike is, perhaps, asking a bit too much, his meaning is clear: you need to know what you’re doing in person before you can start giving out information to anyone with access to Google.

Okay, rant over.

In my view, all other things being equal, people that have experience training clients in person are going to be better and write better programs than those whose experience is a limited to the academic and online realms.

I feel this way because I’ve seen in myself: the more often I’m with clients, the more often I’m forced to think creatively. I have the option of knowing when a program is a bit “too much,” of sensing when the client is getting a bit bored.

All of this helps me design programs that are more interesting and, in truth, probably a bit more effective.

Perhaps I’m overstepping my bounds a bit here, but I feel this would remain true for ALL trainers—and I mean that pretty much without exception.

Does this mean that people who train clients in gyms are automatically better trainers or more qualified than those writing programs online?

Of course not, I am not saying anything like that.

As I said earlier, there are a number of great online fitness pros who used to train—and those who still do.

If you look at a guy like Vince Del Monte, he’s a trainer who worked with people in person for over 6 years before his online readership simply demanded too much of his time. Vince made the decision that he could help more people by focusing his attention on his online business.

Eric Cressey is a top-notch coach who works with everyone from fat loss clients to pro-athletes, and manages to have a pretty strong online presence which includes churning out 2-3 blog posts a week, writing for other magazines and websites, and even making fun of the Jets on his Facebook page.

So, again, I am NOT saying that ALL trainers who work in gyms are immediately better than all trainers who don’t.

What I AM saying is that working with clients makes a trainer better. I firmly believe that as good as Vince is, he would simply be a better version of himself if he was still training hands on. Similarly, I think that Cressey is as good as he is, in part, because he is in the trenches.

What I AM saying is that, simply, there is a difference between theory and practice. When it comes to training, everything we do in practice should be based on theory—but it must, MUST be practiced if we are to prove whether those theories are truly relevant.

This all brings us to the point of this post: while I’m extremely proud of my programs, complacency isn’t in my nature.

And so I’ve decided, as the title of this post implies, to get back in the gym nearly full time.

What does this mean?

It means that after FPFL 2.0 comes out (March 15th), I will be re-dedicating myself to building my in-person business and re-focusing on the things that helped to make me successful.

This DOES NOT mean that I’ll be taking time away from online business; quite the opposite. In fact, ideally I’d like to blog more frequently and send out even more newsletters in 2011 than I did in 2010.

How can I do both, when time was such a problem previously?

I will be, for all intents and purposes, pulling a Cressey on my business. Which means I’ll be exercising epic time management.

I won’t be able to train 47 hours per week as I used to, of course. Instead, I’m looking to train about 20 hours per week, and blog at least twice per week. Which means I’ll have to cut a few things out (like screwing about on Facebook all day).

More importantly, I’ll be cutting out a lot of aspects of my business that are too time-consuming or unsatisfying. For example, I tend to spend about 3 hours per day on email, and I simply don’t enjoy it.

There are a lot of other things I’ll be shifting around in order to make this all happen (including a possible relocation), but that’s all boring nonsense and up in the air for now.

The important thing is this: in 2011, I’ll be doing my best to become a better coach so I can continue to help you kick ass.

To do this, I’m jumping back in the trenches.

And I promise you: the programs I’ll release because of this…are going to blow the doors off of this place.

About the Author

John Romaniello is a level 70 orc wizard who spends his days lifting heavy shit and his nights fighting crime. When not doing that, he serves as the Chief Bro King of the Roman Empire and Executive Editor here on RFS. You can read his articles here, and rants on Facebook.

  • Ted

    Tom, I am totally with you on there being a need for some type on consumer protection, or at least customer education, in the fitness industry. But, do you know what industries are heavily regulated? Airlines and credit card companies, to name a few. Do you trust them? Do you even like them?

    I think the online fitness industry needs a Rotten Tomatoes. A place where the products can be assessed and reviewed by pros and schmoes. Not these assed up “scam” websites which are just ad copy, but a real, open format, where the opinions you read about a product weren't written by the guys selling who are selling it to you.

    Or maybe, we as consumers, need to be a little more intelligent and demanding, and say, “you know what? I really like your new e-book, and I'd love to buy it from you…on Amazon, or even eBay.” Where, if you are selling something crappy, you will go extinct very quickly.

    I think those forums, where the seller is directly accountable, are extemely powerful. You and I can get what we want, and if there is some buzzard out there trying to pull one over on us, they can get the public flogging they deserve and we get to watch.

  • Tom

    Ted,

    Not sure what happened to my previous response to your comments here, but I will make this short and sweet.

    I agree with what you just wrote and I guess it really comes down to opinions on what folks or our customers we train believe constitutes a good trainer from an excellent trainer.

    I still believe when dealing with people's health or fitness, the fitness industry needs to be more regulated, then it's up to the consumer whether they have a good fit with a certain trainer or not.

    In any event, I feel Mr. Romaniello is doing a great service to his clients by putting more time in the trenches like all of trainers should be doing.

    Take care.

  • Ted

    Tom, I agree with a lot of what you said about wanting to see some credentials behind someone you are trusting with your fitness, however I have a few observations about the topics of 10,000 hours, expert, and credentials.

    I read Gladwell's book Outliers, where he looked at all types of people who were extremely good at something and came to the publishable conclusion that they worked really hard to get that way. The finer point was that these indivuals engaged in “progressive practice,” which means each hour they spent working on their area of expertise built upon the what they have done before and added to it. They don't really practice, per se, as much as they relentlessly improve. So just because somebody spent 10,000 hours doing something, doesn't mean they spent them well.

    Also, those people he looked at, the Bill Gates/Beatles types and the guy with the world's highest IQ, were outliers in a field of outliers. The book should have been called “Freaks.”

    The other point about the idea of 10,000 hours is that people don't go into a chrysalis at age 18 and emerge at 28 with an aura of light surrounding them. Chances are they did some pretty cool things on the way and it would have been great to be around when they did.

    Now about experts. Lets take doctors. Those guys are experts right? They do all that schooling and then all those hours of residency and probably hit the 10,000 mark faster than most. Does this mean the are all good at what they do or have your best interest at heart? If they're so great, how come they're always screwing people over in the movies? I mean, if it weren't for Grey's Anatomy and Patrick Dempsey, I wouldn't feel safe taking Advil, much less getting my appendix taken out by a hottie like Katherine Heigl (but I'd sure let her do the exam). The point is, Katherine Heigl is way too hot to be giving anybody medical advive because a person can't concentrate on their uvula when she is taking. Plus you'd do anything she said, even, if it was “dip your toe in turpentine, stick it in your mouth and blow,” and say it helped just to make her happy and maybe then she'd drop that scrawny,no talent loser Josh Kelley.

    No, wait, the point is, 'expert' is a term that can easily be strobed in your eyes so you miss that fact that the individual in question has the title, but little else.

    This links in with credentials. How do people get credentials? They spend time doing formal training and they take tests. Fine. Have you ever taken a test for credentials? How about for your driver's license? Did that make you a better driver? If those tests are so effective, how come all those little oriental ladies in Camrys are still careening around out there in the Walmart parking lot?

    Seriously, I recently took a recertification test for my profession. It was a 4 hour journey into the statistically improbable. I am now fully recertified in stuff I will never do or see. But I got the plaque…

    I think that education, titles, and training are all important, but they are only part of a persons success. In a service industry or anything really, results matter, customer commitment matters, affability matters. Roman has these in spades and you know what? People talk.

  • Tom

    I am new to your site and tried to email you so not sure if you got it.

    After looking at your site and you discussing your years of experience and education, I noticed you don't mention what type of education, certifications, etc… you have, what are they if you don't mind me asking?

    I am asking because, I agree with what Mr. Boyle stated at that seminar you attended.

    The old “10yrs or 10,000 hrs” of experience in ones field is highly needed in the field of health and fitness, especially when so many so-called “experts” are floating around online via blogs or fitness marketing sites.

    The industry could do away with this if folks not only had the education and certs., but if the fitness world was “regulated”.

    Similiar to general contractors working on real estate. They need to be licensed and bonded, be registered with labor and industry depending on where you are located, and before doing a job, they have to have an inspector to make sure their plans are up to code.

    Now, I am not saying the fitness industry has to be anal retentive, but I do believe when trainers are out there messing with folks bodies either thru exercise or diet plans, the trainer should be licensed, insured, and maybe go thru an extensive academic or training program for say 3-4 yrs before being allowed to work on people.

    This is where the regulated issue comes in. Something needs to happen.

    A perfect example is when celebrity trainers like Biggest Loser, P-90X, or any other trainer out there online or blogging calls themselves an expert, given out advice or tips or training, but yet they don't even have the 10yrs or 10,000hrs of experience, nor a degree in exercise science or even a PT certification…..but we as a society still buy their crap or listen to unsound, unhealthy, and bogus information.

    I think if other fitness professionals would police the industry like yourself and make sure the guys and gals you associate with actually have the experience and up to date credentials both academic or certs., then I think more folks in the industry would see they too need to get back in the trenches like yourself instead of hiding behind their so-called expert title in a blog or online training programs.

    What say you Mr. Romaniello?

  • Two thumbs up for everyone kicking more ass all around!

    I'm looking forward to what you have in store for 2011, Roman! Keep up the excellent posts, bro (I mean, bru).

  • Hey Roman,

    Great post. over the past year i have had more 'admin' duties at work and it sreally started to piss me off. One of the guys who works under me at the gym asked if i had read a recent T nation article and i was embarrarsed to say i hadn't! that hasn't happened to me in over 4 years. time for a change, im off on my next adventure – taking a massive pay cut (probably) and heading to the far east to get back in the trenches and simply PT again. thats why i started in the industry – bring on 2011!

    Go jets!! i dislike the patriots.

  • Jessica (Aust)

    Hi Roman,

    Happy 2011. I love these start of a new year posts of yours – shows you’ve been doing the thinky. Hope the brain isn’t hurting too much!

    Hmm sounds like Mike Boyle’s been reading “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell and has applied “The 10,000 Hour Rule” to personal and online training. It’s an interesting benchmark and what probably equates to (assuming an 6-8hrs of training per day) 4-5 years of nonstop training clients before opening your mouth, so to speak online? The book, by the way, is a fascinating read if you haven’t picked it up already.

    The balance between theory and practice is an interesting challenge in all types of science. Often theory pushes the science forward but all theories ultimately need to be empirically tested in order to see if they have any real world relevance. Equally the accumulation of data from many individual and different scenarios can also lead to the development of new theories. Personally I don’t think it matters which comes first – the data or the theory but a field is always stronger with the two working together rather than operating independently of each other.

    Ultimately though I would have thought that while it is amazing to see (in the form of before and after photos) and hear stories of success from hundreds if not thousand of online clients, it may not really compare to the satisfaction of working directly with someone and experiencing their success/failures with them. Surely that’s the “personal” part of “personal training” and that’s not just for the client but also for the trainer. So while it will be fantastic for your future programs and online business to work back in the trenches with clients, there must also be a large personal satisfaction quotient to this equation for you too?

    Besides I’m sure you’ve missed torturing people!

  • This post was very helpful to me thanks!

    I'm in the process of getting certified, and part of MY process is busting my own booty to get in sick shape myself. I know I'll be a better trainer if I go through all the work of getting the body I want (and when I get into the routine of it I really enjoy it)

    I do have a blog and but it is mostly about me and my path to reaching my fitness and career goals. I do give some tips as well, but I never ever portray myself as an expert. I just write about what has worked for me with my life experiences (pregnancy, PCOS, childhood obesity). In my view, the things I'm learning and doing through blogging will help me be a better trainer.

    I am very excited for the coming years :D

  • Roan-Paul Spölmink

    GO GO GO ROMAN!

    Always do what you love man. Keep on dreaming and keep on improving.

    Besides, I think you'll make some people really happy when they have you as a trainer.

    Also, I can't wait for the FPFL 2.0. I am now at a maximum muscle gain workout + nutrition plan and gonna cut to a real low fat % after that. Just don't make it too much, else I can't afford it, being a poor student and all.

    Let's make 2011 a great fucking year. :D

  • pedude

    Roman,

    You are right on, as you are with most everything else awesome. You are who you are because of where you've been. I think digging back in is only going to take you to the next level. If that is possible. The men in the trenches are always the most important ones in war and football and obviously in fitness. Good luck! Looking forward to FPFL 2.0.

  • Nate

    Hey Roman,

    Great post, kick ass in 2011

  • Jameson

    Thanks for sharing your business aspect of things roman, it helps young Personal trainers out tremendously!

    Not only does it make you a better trainer but its more fun in which you're forming physical relationships with people daily instead of cooped up in your apartment constantly on your macbook day in and day out. (with exceptions of course).

    I still want to do both as well and believe that online presence can have an enormous effect on offline.

    Cheers

  • Andrew

    Roman, just keep it real.

    I know you will because you drink sophisticated beer. I must say that your blog, and your videos are freaking awesome. Thanks for reaching out, and being yourself.

    I think it's great that you are “pulling a Cressey”. He is fantastic. I've never met him, but I have learned a lot from his articles on different sites, and his blog and his different videos.

    Don't cease to be yourself, you arrogant bastard.*

    *this is meant as a complement, as you are sophisticated.

  • Great post! I think we might need to start a support group…

  • Ylwa

    Over the past year and a half I've felt like I belong to the last percentage of 20-year olds who don't have a blog, doesn't really know how to videoblog and has a twitter account but never learnt how to use it. And not living in a clay hut on the african savannah.

    Oh, I've thought about it. About 5000 times. But I never get to it, for several reasons. But the most important one is knowing your limitations and be humble about your own shortcomings. I could not agree more with mighty Boyle on this one.

    I've been in the business for less than a year. Suffice to say I've only scratched the surface when it comes to clients and experience. I haven't started up anything online because I simply don't think I'm a good enough trainer. Yet. Will I most certainly do this in the future? Yes. At the moment though, I feel like I have more to lose and less to gain on such a project.

    Having a blog and coaching online doesn't make you a good trainer. Everybody knows that. The big difference is that it's a lot easier to sell somethin you're not and get away with it. This is where your point gets crucial and what I personally use as a measurement for if someone is the real deal: Are you training clients hands on too?

    When all other things equals, this is what does it for me. I think it's one of the main reasons why I still keep on reading your blog requently compared to Joel, Vince and Braig (apart from the fact that you're also ruder and way hotter) and take your advice. You can always, always tell when someone is in it primarily for the lifestyle and a true love for what they do or if it's “just another business”.

    I know you're real, so Roman please stay in the trenches

  • Jonathan

    Good decision. I'd hazard a guess that the satisfaction you get from helping someone in person is greater than that of an 'online client', which probably helps fuel your passion for being a better trainer. In any case, I wish you success. ;)

  • Great post, Roman, I appreciate your honesty and candidness.

    The one thing I learned from taking a year off (in 2009) from training clients in person was how much I dearly missed it. The fulfillment from seeing clients progress, and the energy I get from being in front of a group, is a natural high.

    Having been back in training full time, I can honestly say that no matter where I am in my life, I will always have that need to fulfill.

    I think this is awesome for you (cyber high five!), and look forward to some great posts.

    Ciao!

    Sirena

  • Rick

    Sounds like a great plan for 2011 Roman! Thanks for all you do to help so many people!

  • I can dig it, Roman.

    I too have found that the programs that I write for my online clients are better as a result of my in person experience with clients. God only knows how horrible those online programs would've been if I had no practical experience.

    Eric is like the Neo of time management. I know I'm not at a level where comparing my time skills to his would be productive because it still makes my head spin thinking about how much he gets done, but I'm getting there, oh I'm getting there…