Physical Culture Study Interviews Jeff Russo from Pro Fitness Program!

In late 2021, I had the honor of speaking with Jeff Russo about his experiences in the health and fitness industry. Jeff has spent the better part of his career helping personal trainers and gyms better serve their clients. As will become clear from our interview, Jeff helped pioneer a new, and thoughtful approach, to training in North America. Still operating in full effect, Jeff and I spoke about the evolution of the fitness industry since the 1980s from someone who helped to drive these transformations.

We rarely feature interviews on Physical Culture Study – largely due to my own laziness! – but I feel like when we do they are worth it. Here Jeff and I talked about his own background, the tireless changes and fads he experienced and his own approach to working with the public.

Introducing Jeff Russo

My name is Jeff Russo and I’ve been involved in the fitness industry since the mid-1980s. I live in Toronto, Canada, I started a fitness business, and I was a club owner for many years.

From Sales to Consulting

In 1998, we decided to start our own fitness business consulting company, the Edge Fitness, business consulting was founded. And what we wanted to do was teach predictable business operating systems to a lot of independent fitness club owners. There were a lot of independent club owners. We wanted to give them those predictable business operating systems because we felt that those owners had a heart for their communities and for their members.

They wanted to make a positive difference in a positive impact. But they weren’t necessarily the best business operators. So one of the first projects that I started I was brought down to Lebanon New Hampshire to the River Valley Club by a guy who was a Canadian. I was brought down to develop their personal training business program and when we started with them, they had about five part time trainers and the club was doing about $69,000 a year in personal training sales. Over a 15 year period we took that club to $2.7 million a year in personal trainers sales, and we brought on board 40 full time trainers.

What you find is that a lot of trainers will graduate with some kind of certification program. But they’ve never learned the business or sales side. So it’s a rude awakening for them when they go in the club. And the owner tells him go on the floor, recruit people grow your own business. I believe that through our programs, I’m getting more people in communities healthy, which takes them off the medical system. It’s not a drain on the community, we’re making a difference in people’s lives in on a big scale. But I’m also providing rewarding full time jobs for people who want to do this in this industry. And I think that’s very important.

Training in the 1980s

So let’s go back to when I started in the 80s and the early 90s, the state of industries changed tremendously. First of all, unlike today, where you have so many different options, we didn’t have the internet. So people wanted to be educated about you know, fitness programs or where to work out. There were very few choices. There might be a couple of television exercise programs.

You go back to the early years when Jack Lalanne got started. Up here in Toronto Canada we had a guy by the name of Ed Allen, originally out of the Detroit area came in there he was one of the biggest fitness gurus during those years. So you had a few television shows, you had some magazines on book stands, but for the most part, people would have to go to health and fitness club to learn about fitness to learn about maybe some basic nutrition and to do their workouts.

There wasn’t the choices and the gyms weren’t equipped like they are today. I mean, you had obviously some basic free weight equipment. And then machines were just starting to get introduced right so You know, people take it for granted all of the different machines and stuff.

But you know, kind of the first lines of machines…  there was Marcy equipment, and then of course, Arthur Jones came in with Nautilus equipment. Jones started educating people. In fact, I think Arthur Jones should have got a Nobel Peace Prize or something, some high type of recognition for his contribution to the fitness industry. So at the time, you know, you had these these resistance to pieces of training equipment.

Don’t forget, when I started bodybuilding in the late 1970s it was very subculture, as you know, it was not very popular, and a lot of the people at the time were looked at, like freaks. And even doctors were not promoting bodybuilding. In fact, they were stating the exact opposite, that overdoing it was bad for your health, there’s health risks associated with it,

In order to influence behavior, it requires a lot of education. It takes time … it’s repeating that message over and over again. And getting that through to so to your point is, I think this is one of the reasons why fitness clubs at the very beginning, needed really strong salespeople to be able to close and get people in there. For the most part, people weren’t going to do it on their own. They had a lot of reticence when it came to getting started, you know, on these programs and with Arthur Jones it did break down barriers, in a sense, because first of all, even to this day, people are intimidated by working with free weights.

It’s not obviously the safest thing to do if you’ve never trained before. This type of equipment protects the joint, right? It stabilizes the joint, it’s a safe way. And I find that one of the things that surprised me, and still does to this day, you get programs and stuff like CrossFit popping up where everybody looks at the CrossFit Games on TV or whatever else, they go into the gym or right away, they’re thrown into CrossFit class without having any foundations whatsoever.

The Cardio Crazes

Young adults using running machine at the fitness club

And then here’s the interesting thing that happened early 1990s, late 80s 90s, there was no cardio at the time, there was no cardio equipment. And then, all of a sudden, you had a few of these stationary bikes that came in. Monarch was one of them… you had these stationary bikes, you had a couple of early treadmills, right. And then you had the step mill.

So the clubs would actually have a separate room for cardio, and they would charge a monthly membership fee for that. There was an actual add on fee. And they were having to educate people in terms of what cardio training was, what aerobic training was. If you look at the 80s, and 90s, in terms of that, you didn’t have a very educated consumer. So when they came into a fitness club, they would be sold. You know, there were massive initiation fees, or registration fees that clubs used to offer, and they would try to upsell all the time. And in those days to a lot of times the clubs would be building a facility, and the facility wouldn’t be ready yet. And it would be pre-selling memberships in a trailer in a parking lot.

So somebody would come in and you have these well trained CSA sales veterans, the seasoned sales veterans that were really trained in overcoming objections and objection handling. And they would hammer people but not only that, if you weren’t successful in selling them used to have a closer a manager, they used to call it the to the turnover, where that manager would come in hammer the person, close them on $1,000 or $1,500 fee.

Barriers for Personal Trainers

I mean, you know, a lot of times actually, they would have maybe one trainer floating that would give orientations would write up workout programs. These are these were floor paid hours hourly, in order for training, and I’ll tell you, when it first started, forget about the rates … some of the big cities, you know, trainers are charging 100 120 $130 An hour and up.

In those days, it was hard to get $10/$15 a session for a person, people did not value it. Number one, they didn’t know what training was. So if you don’t know what it is, and you don’t know what solutions training provides, it’s very difficult to sell it to build value.

So at the time, you know, you would get a trainer was mostly for a few sessions, do some kind of orientation, and people would go out on their own, they didn’t have the vision, you know, that they have today. And again, that’s one of the biggest changes, right in terms of that approach.

And believe me, when I tell you that there was nobody doing assessments and evaluations, and prescribing large packages and phases and programs. That wasn’t going on, you know, but most facilities like I said, we’re just selling memberships. They might give you an orientation with a trainer for a couple of sessions or whatever else. But for the most part, personal training business was non existent.

I think there was, there was a turning point about 1996/97. And I, you know, I’m gonna take some credit for this one, because that’s what I dedicated my life too when I saw the need for that. You can sell two things in this industry, there’s only two things you can pretty much sell, you can sell memberships, or you can sell fitness, and you’ve got to choose.

If you try and be all things to all play it people and play the middle of the market usually don’t succeed in any business. So there’s two things you can sell, you can sell memberships, or you can sell fitness. And so to give you a contrast, in today’s day and age, you’d see a chain say like Planet Fitness to charge us 10 bucks a month. In Canada, we’ve got one called Fit for Life that’s run by the Good Life Fitness franchise, the largest one in Canada. They sell, they sell memberships, they sell you simple access to a space and facility with a lot of equipment with no service support. And that’s it. It’s all up to you at this point.

Okay. And so the turning point for me, I was working with a gentleman in Canada, who was actually Mr. Canada. At the time, his name was John Cardillo, and he was starting a chain of fitness clubs with another gentleman named Steve DaCosta called Premier Fitness. And so John spent some time in the United States.

One of his big kind of mentors and gurus guys he looked up to was Arthur Jones, who invented the Nautilus equipment. John started investigating a new approach to start selling education and results, not just memberships, and developing a health center program, a back end department so you’d have your membership.

I was learning a lot from John. John could take a piece of Nautilus equipment apart, strip it down, rebuild it put it together. He was astute when it came to all things. He was good at marketing and advertising and sales. So here’s a guy who can combine the entrepreneurial skills … the business skills with his passion for bodybuilding  and put it together and started to say, Look, we’re not just going to sell a membership here.

Basically, we are going to sell, in addition to the membership an educational package. And so I started to run with that later on. We started our company in 1998 and said, I want to take this to the next level, I want to start teaching people across the United States and Canada not to sell memberships, but to sell education, fitness service and results. We have – and I coined this phrase years ago – a moral responsibility to sell the truth, results and education not just memberships. So at that point, I said, I’m going to commit my business career and start my fitness business consulting company to develop a system and teach independence how to do this.

Biggest Surprise in the Fitness Industry?

Curves through a curve for our industry and our organization. I mean that’s a study unto itself. Here’s a small little club that opens up and you’ve got a one circuit of hydraulic equipment.

So you’ve got this this one circuit of hydraulic equipment, and you’ve got this franchise … it’s growing in leaps and leaps and bounds.

That’s attracting a certain type of clientele. Again, the de-condition dependent exerciser which drives most fitness club businesses. And it’s attracting people and I don’t know why we never figured it out prior to this, because these individuals want to be around like minded people.

They want to be very comfortable, they want to be accepted. The workouts weren’t that hard. It was like saying, you belong here. Thanks for showing up. That’s what it takes, right? You just need to show up, be here.

Let’s get together feel comfortable, feel accepted. And they did a wonderful job. However, in the long run, it wasn’t not effective in terms of getting people results and so forth. Right? And that was the thing and as the consumer got more and more educated But it was really, really surprising.

And then you had these other franchises starting to pop up like the Planet Fitness just basically came in with this low priced model. Right. So they’re basically saying is what we’re in. And I remember being at a conference where I was talking about my brand of selling education. And you had the other person debating the other side, which was one of the chief executives from Planet Fitness. And he made a very valid point, he said we’re in business to provide a space to workout with great equipment.

And I respect that right off the start, because at least they knew who they were and what they were trying to be. But that really surprised me having come from the background, I did, and I thought the evolution was going to work more towards, you know, people spending more money and investing more in training, whatever else.

And then, of course, more recently, Lifetime Fitness. So when Lifetime Fitness landed, it was kind of a planet fitness model. But at a much higher price point with all the bells and whistles and all the amenities a as super club.

Well, that took the industry by storm as well. And I had always been saying we’re under selling our services because you think about this … Can you walk into a building and if you want stay there 12 hours a day, you use their hot water, use their electricity grid, a great workout, plug in your computer, hang out there 30 days of the month and pay 59 bucks?

Home Fitness and the Future of the Industry?

I think the big change Conor is it’s no longer going to be just one thing. For example, virtual training is not going away. It’s not like we could say this is a fad and virtual training is never going to exist anymore.  Once this whole pandemic passes us in home exercise is still going to be with us.

You know, equipment like the Peloton, it’s not going to go away, it’s here to stay. So that’s one thing we could say for certain. The other thing we could say for certain, I believe is that human beings are social by their very nature. So that’s not going to change either.

When you’re around other people who are training, you’ve got the social experience, that motivation, that human interaction, that’s very important. So that club environment first of all, and then of course, working one on one with a personal trainer, as we said before, for all the reasons we identified all the problems and the obstacles, those are not going away either.

So there’s no way like there’s going to be tiers and levels. So the way I see it, this is a good challenge for fitness club owners out there who might be worried about the future of their business and so forth.

I think they’ve got to have a bigger picture and a bigger perspective and not to be worried. I think this is an opportunity to respond and think about their business in a little bit of a different light. So first of all, if you’re going to be a fitness club owner that’s just going to sell memberships. I don’t think you’re going to stay in business. I don’t think you could compete anymore on memberships because there’s too many people cutting into the pie, taking pieces of the pie.

You have got to service and phrase I use is let’s go deep, not broad. We’ve got to go deeper, not broader. We’ve got to get people who value education support and service, attract them and service the heck out of them and get them to invest more. So you’re looking at more investment per member going deeper, not broader, maximizing your dollars per square foot in your space.

And looking at that scenario, I think the other thing that club owners should start to think about, because let’s go back to what I said earlier in the 70s, and 80s. We had the monopoly, we had the market cornered, if you wanted to do something related to health and fitness or weight loss.

Well, the place you could go was a fitness club. Okay, there wasn’t the Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig’s, and all of these other options and opportunities that came out. So we had the market, and we let it escape from ourselves.

We let it get away, why I blame ourselves, and I blame the industry. And I try to re educate them, but they wouldn’t hear the message at the time. I said, Come on, guys, we can’t just sell memberships, you got to educate, support etc.

Let’s give them nutrition. Let’s give them training. Let’s let’s give them the whole package. Now. The challenge for me now becomes, or the challenge I’m going to give out to you know, fitness club owners to say, why can’t you be the Amazon of the fitness club industry?

Amazon has cornered the markets one stop shopping for all your needs, whether it’s Amazon Prime, they just bought Whole Foods a few years ago for organic food. Amazon owns them, whether it’s grocery shopping, online shopping, they’re buying more locations in different areas or whatever. They want to basically provide every single one of your needs. And it makes a hell of a lot of sense.

I think it’s a very, very significant message that we could be the Amazon of the health and wellness industry, including chiropractic physiotherapy care, nutritionists on site … why not create that one?

And I think the future for the fitness club is about the experience, the social experience, and the overall experience the One Stop Shopping approach. But if you’re a gym where you could come in, maybe get a haircut, get a shave, maybe get your dry cleaning done for you, okay, maybe go into a spa, maybe get some physiotherapy treatments, maybe watch a movie in the sports bar, get a cappuccino, and do your work there and hang out with other people.

So it just becomes this place where you hang out, you socialize. So now we’re talking about the future for me is forget the gym, it goes back to the club, it almost comes full circle, it almost goes back to the days of the squash clubs in the rock club. But now you add on the health and fitness component, you do that much better than you’ve ever done before. And you combine both of those, but you create the club experience. And you know what, for families, you have to have services for the children, the kids, maybe you have, you know, arcades, bowling alleys, whatever, the club can be that place, right, because a lot of people today don’t want to go to bars anymore. There’s no nightclubs, there’s no dancing, the fitness club could be the new social place to connect and hang out.

Check out Jeff’s Company Here.

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