Owning an Underground Gym: Some Insights

The first 18 months of the Terminal City Barbell Club.

Well it has been 18 months since I opened the Terminal City Barbell Club. I could lie and say it has been easy and everything has rolled along smoothly but I thought instead I would share a few hard-earned insights:
- Keep doing work. Do not wait for a "great idea". Digging into the mundane is where inspiration and better ideas will emerge. I have espoused this philosophy in the past when it comes to writing but it only struck me the other day that it equally applies to running my gym. And really, even without an inspired marketing campaign just getting something done ensures that "something" gets done.

- Be very clear on what you want to do and whom you want to train. You are not working for a globo-gym for a reason. Remember that reason. You've got to keep your heart in the work. Also, in this field, it seems like people appreciate a specialized environment. If you are highly-specialized, however, then make sure you have a big enough population base to survive or find a secondary income source. Take away point: pursue specialization but not over-specialization.

- Be open to the unexpected. I was very happy to have a women in her early-60s show up at my gym for her first session and pull out her weightlifting shoes. She was totally keen on the barbell lifts and she was prepared, without me even mentioning the right shoes for the job. What I am getting at, I think, is that despite knowing "who" you are reaching out to you will be surprised by remarkable individuals who do not fit the mould of an aspiring strength-athlete.

- Keep your expenses as low as humanly possible. Rent the smallest space that is practical. You might not need the Eleiko plates to start with. Or the really cool $40 collars (I bought two pairs). Buy the best bars you can afford though, and proper plates.

- Avoid going into debt. Mark Rippetoe and Steve Pulcinella have both written about how hard it is to make a decent living at this game. They are not bullshitting you. If making money is your priority then you might want to find another avenue for making it.

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- Group training is being promoted as the next great thing. The arguments make a lot of sense but I have made more money from private clients. My gym is very small and so I keep the groups capped at 3-4 members. A bigger space would make groups more profitable.

- Another thing about groups: keep the programming on the simple side. Coordination and planning should not be a headache. And simplicity works well in chasing down the training goals anyways.

- I went into this with a pretty undeveloped business plan, just an idea of want I wanted and a love for the coaching. If you are more practical than me you will plan better than me. Good luck and be smart.

Al Heinemann

Al Heinemann trains clients at Vancouver's Terminal City Training. Keep up with his training approach and ideas on his blog, and catch him on Twitter & Facebook.

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