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Interview with Rolando Garcia III RKC-II, CK-FMS, Manager, Motivational Speaker, and Author of The 4 Competencies Method

Dragon Door: When did you begin as a personal trainer?

Rolando Garcia: I started as a personal trainer in 2008. During that time, I realized why many people get started in personal training—they believe their hours will be flexible and they will be doing what they love in an environment they enjoy. Personal training is often described as a dream job and many people—myself included—are drawn into personal training for this reason. I remember thinking, "I’m already in the gym all the time to work out, I’ll help someone by giving them advice, spotting them, and making some recommendations—while I make $100-150 an hour—how hard could that actually be?"

I entered the field with that attitude, and my eyes were opened very quickly. On the job, there was not a lot of the energy you experience when working out. Soon I understood that personal training is also about managing a successful business. And that will completely take away the notion of doing what you love—unless what you love to do is running a business. I saw many personal trainers who loved their job, who were very qualified but who still failed because they had not accepted the fact that they were running a business. And many of those well qualified trainers actually quit.

After about three months as a personal trainer working for the company that currently employs me, I had about 26 clients. A year later, in 2009 I was in the top 100 out of 1,600-1,700 trainers employed at that time. In 2010 I was promoted to my first managerial position, then 7 months later I was promoted to my location’s head of division for personal training. When I inherited that division, it was at an all time 11 year low. I wondered how I could hire more successful trainers who were "like me". This was a dangerous idea because I did not know what "somebody like me" meant. I also did not know if hiring people like me was even desirable. In the process of trying to understand what would turn my division around, I had to investigate what really drives the success of a personal trainer.

At first I thought it might be a level of education, a proficiency in certain exercises, or a particular personality. But, I could hire based on those qualities and sometimes the trainer still would not be a good fit for the job. That is when I asked myself a very serious question—did I know what made a successful personal trainer? When I broke it down in terms of competencies—the components that drive the success mechanisms of personal training—I found four: technical expertise, customer care, sales, and business development and strategy. I soon realized that 75% of what drives success in personal training had nothing to do with personal training.

From that insight, I created a strategy for hiring, screening, and developing top producers. A year later we had double digit growth, and the following year we produced the highest revenue in the history of our location. In my current division, I am applying the same model and we are looking to break our all time division record. I have only been assigned to this location for about a year.

Dragon Door: What was your background before personal training?

Rolando Garcia: I was a mixed martial arts instructor with a background in classical theater. As I mentioned in The 4 Competencies Method book, I do not have a business background. But, I am an autodidact—someone who self-educates. When you are under the gun, trying plans and strategies which are not working, the only thing you can rely on is your ability to create strengths and competencies on the spot. That was the situation when I managed my first division. My personal philosophy is, "If it must be done, then it can be done." I had to create my own strengths in order to improve my capacity. I had to educate myself while I managed and transformed the division.

Dragon Door: How did you narrow it down to four competencies?

Rolando Garcia: I looked at the daily tasks of a successful personal trainer. Part of the initial allure of the job is being at the gym, wearing a uniform, training clients, high-fiving, and encouraging clients. The reality is that the successful trainer is doing a lot of other things. Investigating those tasks and processes helped me understand and identify the competencies. While a trainer might be working a 10, 12 or 14 hour day, there are only training clients for about 4-5 hours. The trainer is doing other things for the remaining 5-7 hours. The most successful trainers know how to manage their time and focus their efforts—they interact with gym members, reach out to potential clients and are really implementing a customer service model whether they know it or not. Successful trainers are also working with a sales model and know how to manage any possible objection. But, I found even the very best trainers do not have a full grasp of how to manage their own careers by thinking one to three years ahead. So, by observing what was actually necessary for success and growth in the industry, I came up with these four core competencies.

Dragon Door: Many personal trainers seem to struggle with the idea of financial success and have negative feelings about money, sales, and pricing. How would you help a trainer overcome this?

Rolando Garcia: I was at a workshop a few years ago with about 30-40 fitness professionals. At some point, the speaker asked the entire group if they liked sales. Only two hands went up which was very concerning. After thinking about how some personal trainers view the job as only helping a client bench press, stretch, or stay motivated, we must ask, how did they get that client? Obviously there is a sales component that involves determining what the potential client needs, communicating what you can offer and a price. Problems arise when the personal trainer considers their offerings as part of their own identity. It is also problematic when they feel that they are putting a dollar amount on themselves and saying, "I am worth $150 an hour or I am not worth $150 an hour." The problem in the industry is that personal trainers attach this dollar amount to who they think they are and their perception of their intrinsic value.

In personal training circles it is common to hear people say, "You should raise your rates, you are worth more than $100 per hour." When a trainer considers their primary offering as intrinsically tied to who they are, then they are not running a business—they are a very accomplished hobbyist sharing their knowledge. If someone approaches the personal training field with the perspective of running a business, they know that the business is a separate entity from who they are. The primary problem that fitness professionals have is that they do not identify themselves as business people managing a completely separate business entity with its own life, growth, and value.

Since a business has its own life and value, when a cost structure is offered to the client, the trainer is offering the price of products and services. When a personal trainer is capable of making that clear distinction, they are offering a service or product with a dollar amount inherently tied to the growth and success of their business. It can be $1 or $100,000, whatever amount insures the business is feasible and sustainable—instead of just the amount of money that a personal trainer wants. Trainers often have a problem making this distinction because it contradicts the initial mission of helping people. Helping people is very different from business productivity and profitability, but the productivity and profitability of the business insures that this original mission is fulfilled and accomplished. If a trainer does not understand that they are actually managing a business, then they will always have problems with pricing. When a client says $80 an hour is too expensive, the next thing you know, the trainer is willing to accept $40 hour which is not a feasible price. This not only devalues the product, but the trainer is no longer really training a client. The client is training the trainer.

Dragon Door: Of the four competencies you’ve identified, which one is the most important?

RolandoGarciaPortraitRolando Garcia: The best way I can answer is to start by defining what personal training is now. The personal training industry essentially started with people working out in a gym who ended up helping others. Then in the late 1990s, it was seen from the trainer’s perspective as a really nice freelance side-business with flexible hours. However in the past two decades, health and fitness has come to the forefront of the national discussion. If someone is healthy, then they are more productive, more willing to contribute to their employer. They will be more effective in their roles at work and in their lives. When a client wants to improve their productivity and effectiveness through choices in health, fitness, and lifestyle change, they are looking for someone who will help them in that mission.

They want someone who will partner with them and a trainer needs to approach this relationship as a partnership. The trainer of today has to be thinking, "I am going to partner with this person, not just tell them what to do—even though they need my advice and might be absolutely out of shape. I need to encourage and inspire them to make the right choices, and think the right way so they are motivated to make those choices on their own." A trainer needs to develop a leadership skill set in order to guide the client towards their goals.

To answer your question, the most important competency is the one which allows the trainer to connect with the client. With this connection, the client will believe in what the trainer says and the partnership will grow towards the client’s goals. So, it may be any one of the individual core competencies, but it must be one that encourages the partnership between the client and the trainer. It could be customer service, business development, sales, or technical expertise, but the real answer is that the trainer must be cognizant of their actual leadership role.

A personal trainer is no longer just someone who helps you work out, or someone who is looking for a job with flexible hours. Personal training is now a legitimate profession in a billion dollar industry. When a trainer can admit that this profession is that lucrative and important, then they can accept the significance of their leadership role in the lives of their clients. Acceptance of this role best serves the client as well as the success of the trainer’s business.

Dragon Door: How else do you define leadership in this context?

Rolando Garcia: Many leadership books only describe leadership qualities i.e. a leader has vision, and can do the right thing. The one thing that I have yet to read in a book is a clear description of what the leadership experience is, or what it actually feels like to be a leader. This leads to another important question—how come there are so few leaders? How come so few people sign up for it?

If they are in a reactive mode, most trainers will look for a client’s compliance with their program and will run through a checklist, usually finding that the client is not adhering to the program. In this situation, a trainer is technically doing the right thing and coming from a place of authority—but how are they making that client feel? There is now a disconnect from the client to the trainer. In the same situation, a leader will ask the client what happened instead. A leader can connect with the client on a very human level. And if the client made a bad choice in regards to program compliance, the leader is able to connect with the client at that point—not where they want them to be, but where they actually are. Leadership is the ability to motivate and inspire people and clients in their current situation. A leader cannot tell a client how frustrated they are, or what sacrifices they have made in designing the program.

The essential experience of leadership is isolation—you are alone in your experience. That is why there are so few leaders. Someone capable of accepting that isolation and endure the pressures of it—instead of venting—is a true leader. A leader's role is actually very dangerous. A leader can actually see the truth, sit on it, and act on it without necessarily bringing the truth out. True leadership carries enormous responsibility. And when the client is able to overcome their challenges and meet their goals, it is not about how good the trainer is—all the praise goes back to the client.

Today, clients are not necessarily looking for a trainer with an exceptionally high level of technical competency. Twenty or thirty years ago, the situation was different because only a few had access to the same level of knowledge or information. When I was giving a lecture to a group of newly hired trainers at our company, I told them that most of their clients will be older and with a history of injuries and surgeries—usually involving the knee or shoulder. From the experience of the surgery and physical therapy, the client may know more about the structure and actions of the injured joint than the trainer. So, now the target market has access to the same information or more than the trainer.

This is particularly dangerous for a personal trainer who is primarily invested in their technically expertise. Since the target market is no longer full of dummies, the market is very capable of choosing who to work with. The current target market does not necessarily seek a personal trainer with more knowledge, but the trainer who is capable of listening to them when the going gets tough. This is why customer care becomes one of the determining factors when a client is deciding to choose a trainer. The client wants to work with someone who will listen to them.

Dragon Door: Who needs your workshop or book the most?

Rolando Garcia: They are only for the serious fitness professional who takes success in this business very seriously. These strategies are for someone who is working on a sustainable career, and also understands that fitness professionals have the ability to impact clients on every important level. These are the trainers who want to make the most important and lasting changes in their target markets.

Dragon Door: It seems like many trainers have technical expertise, but need to develop their business skills. How should they begin?

Rolando Garcia: Knowledge is only powerful if an individual can express it as a powerful message. Any knowledge that lessens the trainer’s ability to connect with their clients is useless. That type of knowledge turns a person into a machine. While machines can have very efficient algorithms for making training programs, it cannot motivate someone to actually workout and follow the program. Technology has the capacity to make any endeavor more efficient, but it cannot manage the fluctuations of the human experience. It does not know what an up day or a down day is like. And we do not want to become more proficient in our technical expertise if it makes us incapable of connecting with the human experience. Personal training is a shared human experience that requires a lot of communication so that the client receives motivation and inspiration when they need it the most. A machine cannot do that, but a human can. A personal trainer must understand the reality and significance of their role in order for them to succeed for themselves, and with the clients that they are helping.

Dragon Door: While there are many fancy apps out there, they don't seem to be truly replacing personal trainers.

Rolando Garcia: They are not, because apps are only aiming for efficiency and convenience. A particular segment of the market may be looking for that type of convenience, but if we take a look at what is required for most people to achieve their goals, they need inspiration. If there is something inside a person that does not want to change, the only way for that change to occur on the inside is on a human level. That is why personal training is still relevant. It takes another human being to help another human being change.

Dragon Door: In your book, you reveal a very interesting insight, "The journey in fitness is an adventure in our essential struggle to master and come to terms with our own humanity." What led to that realization?

Rolando Garcia:
At some point in our lives we have felt that what we are doing is not enough. We try to do a little bit more and become aware of our capabilities, strengths, and abilities. Next, we want to test these capabilities. The essential human journey and experience is to answer questions like, "What am I made of? What can I actually achieve?" One of the best ways to really find out is to challenge ourselves. This is why people all over the world put themselves through all kinds of challenges—to see what they can do.

It is within our essential human nature to expand, grow, and venture into possibilities. A potential client might come in to train, look at a weight and say, "I could never lift that." A trainer could introduce himself or herself then say, "Let me show you how." They strike up a friendship. Then this trainer is now capable of showing someone how to progressively master that weight and essentially help them master their initial fears. Every human being wants to overcome their fears so that they can live as boldly and adventurously as they please.

The gym experience is not really about sweating or getting a good workout, it is about overcoming your initial fears so that you can plumb the depths of your own humanity—your strengths, weaknesses, and your ability to overcome.

Dragon Door: What compelled you to share these ideas?

Rolando Garcia: To help people who want to help others in fitness and exercise. If a new trainer understands their role and is armed with an efficient, effective method as they enter the field, then they can succeed. If a personal trainer does not have a method in mind, then no matter how well-intentioned they are, they will lose in this industry.

In The 4 Competencies Method, I do not talk much about my own experiences because it is not about me, it is about the trainer who wants to succeed. The saddest thing I have experienced as a manager is seeing a very well intentioned candidate come in full of vitality, eagerness, courage, education, and the desire to help others, but because they did not know the lay of the land, or have the necessary tools, they actually left with a terrible experience. Now, they are not only turned off from the business, but are also turned off from fitness and exercise. And as fitness professionals we do not want this to happen to anyone. I have to share The 4 Competencies Method because just as much as I have seen people succeed using this method, I have seen people fail when they did not use it.

RolandoGarciaZercher thumbnailRolando Garcia, III works in Manhattan, NYC, managing one of the most exclusive fitness facilities in the USA. He can be reached at