Building a Gym Family for Better or for Worse

Our objective should be to create opportunities for health and fitness for everyone. Our goal should be to elevate the indie gyms that create supportive, nurturing fitness families.

In the last decade, the fitness industry has seen some major changes.

In the last decade, the fitness industry has seen some major changes. From CrossFit to obstacle course racing to kettlebells to Olympic weightlifting to gymnastic bodies to a general explosion of interest in all things functional fitness, strength sports, there’s been a lot happening in a short span of time.

It gave rise to the box gym, a sort of iron dojo for strength and conditioning, what we prefer to call the indie gym, a place where you can drop weights, shake the foundations of the building and flop onto the floor into a pool of sweat without feeling like any of it is extraordinary.

For a while there, it seemed like we were witnessing the demise of the globo gym and the emergence of a fitness culture that was going to turn everyone into a warrior athlete. However, sadly, as many indie gyms that sprouted up over the years, the same number would disappear. It seemed almost faddish.

But, we don’t want to see the indie gym disappear, we don’t think it will, the genie is out of the bottle and the magic is going to happen. What we may not want is to revert to archetypal coaching approaches. A recent conversation on building an indie gym culture really opened our eyes to what the essence of the indie gym should be all about. You can read about that and see the video of the conversation all below.

What we want to leverage from this discussion is what we don’t want to be. We don’t want to be the person getting screamed at by some macho coach who thinks we are all preparing for war. We don’t want to be the person who needs a pat on the back for doing something as basic as making their first pull-up.

It’s great and all but it’s a blip in your life. We kind of like some of those 30-day challenges but we don’t want to think that they actually have long-term benefits or inspire you to do greater things. What we want to acknowledge is that your fitness life is your life and your life is, we hope, a long, fruitful existence which will, no doubt, have many ups and equally many downs.

We owe this article to a coach who we have known for over a decade and who we have watched build a sustainable business as an indie gym owner the right way. It’s Mike Tromello of Precision CrossFit.

We kind of give him a hard time because he is so passionate about CrossFit and, well, we were kind of over it but, we learned an important lesson, one that we kind of always suspected but never really pushed enough, it’s not the system, it’s the coach that makes the gym.

Mike may be one of the best advertisements for CrossFit out there, the way he teaches it and develops his membership around it. But, it’s not really the CrossFit part that makes Mike unique, it’s his relationship building skills. There are a lot of good CrossFit coaches and there are a lot of good strength and conditioning coaches but, sadly, not all of them are good at building relationships and without relationships, an indie gym ceases to exist, sooner or later.

We have always been about connecting great coaches to great athletes. That was how we started. That’s how we aim to go on. That doesn’t change. However, how we do that has to change because, to be frank, seeing great coaches come and go, stagnate, lose a gym, get a gym, lose a gym, is not fun.

Sometimes, some coaches shouldn’t own a gym or try and run one. Some coaches because of that demon of coaching ego, don’t always think about their students, trainees, members or the people who pay them. It’s almost a distraction as they pursue a golden athlete to train or as they stick to tried and true methods that they have developed over decades.

That’s not the way the fitness industry works. While CrossFit was surging in growth in the early part of this decade, it helped to lift many coaches and their indie gyms on the crest of a trend. That’s not the case today, arguably, because fitness is faddish, it’s fickle. There wasn’t enough emphasis on good coaches and there was way too much emphasis on gym building.

Therefore, it is really, really important that we figure out the best way to keep promoting great coaches and great indie gyms. The globo gym market is, for us at least, the fast food of fitness. The indie gyms are where you get the innovation, the organic knowledge, and expertise that can change a life, make a champion even, or just provide a family to support you on your fitness journey. And it is this sense of family that permeates the best indie gyms, something that you cannot replicate in anodyne globo gyms where the best thing that can happen is you put a membership on autopay and never show up.

Mi Casa, Su Casa

It is about family. We talked to Mike Tromello and you can see his video below where he gets into his philosophy of gym ownership. We can attest to the fact that Mike’s approach succeeds and that all successful coaches that we know have very similar traits. We need more Mike Tromellos and that’s where we feel inspired to pursue a more focused direction in our editorial and our plans for Breaking Muscle.

“I live in a community. I love my community. I grew up in another community. The difference between a community and a family is one very important thing: you can leave a community, but no one wants to leave their family. So, when it comes to building a gym, I wanted an environment that was as supportive as a family. I didn’t want to build a community, that’s a great buzzword, but I did want to build a family.” Says Mike.

He also says, “I have been involved in CrossFit since 2008. I got into an affiliate, Precision CrossFit, about seven years ago. We started out with 30 members, and 20 of them are still here. I know my members, and they know me. I’d say to anyone running a gym that they have to be able to ask their members how they are and know when they’re good and when they’re not so good. Your members should be willing to feel comfortable enough to tell you what’s wrong.

“Sure, that means you become involved with your members, but I also have a line that I don’t cross. Stuff happens. Someone has a bad trip to Vegas and they can’t pay their membership dues. I get it, but that’s not my problem. I am still a business and members have to pay their dues.”

Indie gyms are needed more than ever. We need stronger coaching practices. We need better trainers, mentored properly, and working in secure environments where they can grow over time. We need more people to be aware of the advantages and benefits of indie gyms.

There are great coaches in every city and town, they are, often, well hidden, maybe not out of choice, and they need to be seen. The superficial charge that people get from watching Instagram coaches, athletic and good to look at, is not the same as finding a gym, a coach, a family environment that will nurture and support you for the long term. This is your 60-year challenge.

Fitness Influencers are picked by coaches and Breaking Muscle editors in a purely subjective manner. They are coaches who are known to Breaking Muscle through their posts on the site and or through the recommendations of their peers. We look for coaches who exhibit a dedication to their craft, who have a physical practice that is respectful of all trainees, and most of the time we err on the side of promoting coaches who are probably too shy or modest to be great self-promoters themselves. It’s about supporting the independent coaches and gyms that need our support and admiration.