Interview with personal trainer, coach, and Tier X Equinox manager Michael Urso. Michael shares with us his thoughts on what makes new personal trainers “stick”, how he journals everyday, his top 3 fundamentals to master, how to celebrate your wins, and so much more!
On with the interview with Michael!…
Michael Urso – Boston, Massachusetts
Hi Michael, thanks for coming onto ‘What’s New Coach?’! What excites you right now?
A lot of things! But right now, I’m charged up when helping develop the mindset of young, novice trainers. Turnover is such a huge problem in the personal training arena and so many trainers are entering the industry thinking it’s all sunshine and rainbows.
Little do they know that the prospective client pie is only so big and if you don’t reach in with both hands before everyone else, you’re going to be left with crumbs.
I’m trying to guide trainers to discover their values in life, attach it to their career, help shape their beliefs, and align goals and rituals that have them inspired to show up for work and crush the competition!
Why do you think trainer turnover is a problem? What do you see as the #1 issue?
It’s interesting because we drop two trainers into the same gym, in the same environment, and give them the same tools to work with. Why is though that one can never ramp up a solid business and the other shoots out of the gate like a bat out of hell?
I think it comes down to work ethic and especially mindset. Some trainers just don’t have the grit necessary to deal with rejection from members, long erratic hours, and little money in the beginning.
The trainers I see succeed sometimes don’t even have the education that other trainers have, they just aren’t willing to sit around for the perfect moment. They fire their shot first and course correct second. Fear of failing cripples a lot of people and the best of the best simply aren’t willing to accept failure. I think you need to develop a leader mentality vs an employee mentality.
The employee mindset is the mindset of control by others. We are all leaders because we have to lead ourselves first.
I had to recently adopt a Ready, Fire, Aim mindset since I wasn’t getting a lot of my ideas into reality. It’s what propelled this website in fact since I’m kind of a perfectionist. How did you fire away and get started in this field?
It started for me in NYC. I was working in some very nice restaurants around the city and seeing all these artists and musicians who were going to countless auditions and grinding away each and every day to try and make a name for themselves. I was making good money at my job but just feeling unfulfilled in my contributions.
My lightbulb moment happened over a beer with a friend one night after work and I decided to immediately enroll in a personal training academy offered by Equinox. Literally, the day after I graduated I began a job to start training at one of their clubs. I met my future wife at that club and we found ourselves in Boston a year later.
I entered into the Tier X program, formerly Tier 4, shortly thereafter. Only a few short months into my role as a coach, I was asked to become the leader of our current Tier X team and we proudly accepted an award from my company as the top Tier X program last year.
I knew it would be a huge task to lead a team of coaches who are the best of the best at what they do, but as a former three-sport athlete in high school, I welcome any challenge that pushes me out of my comfort zone. That’s the only way to grow right?
Can you tell me a little bit more about the Tier X program you run? How is it different from the lower tiers?
Tier X is an elite level of coaching offered by Equinox. At its basis, it’s a lifestyle coaching program that focuses on optimizing human performance through 3 pillars of health and wellness, Movement, Nutrition, and Regeneration. We use a very comprehensive assessment process to capture the client’s current state of health.
We take it far beyond the type of service you’d get from your typical personal trainer because we believe every client has the right to be the best version of himself. We operate as a team and a community within the club. The coaches I have are all at the top of their game. Most of them are also Master Instructors of our continuing education curriculum and mentors within the club and region.
One common theme you see with the top coaches is that they don’t like to settle. Even though they’ve reached the highest level of training we offer and are some of the most educated in the industry, they remain the hungriest. I believe you are a product of the five people you spend the most time with, and I’m certainly spending my time in good company with these folks.
What’s an obstacle that you faced and how did you overcome it?
Probably the time I decided to quit my job at the restaurant and went all-in on a career in coaching. Making a career change was hard. Especially since I had to work twice as hard as everyone else. Having no college education in exercise science or physiology, I dug my heels in on the practical.
I ferociously read everything I could get my hands on, interviewed and modeled the top trainers, and attended every continuing education seminar or workshop that my free time allowed.
I had visualized in my head already being successful and building a successful training business before I even started. Because the belief in myself was unwavering, my potential increased and I continued to take massive action on all the little steps that needed to be taken to get the result I wanted.
Believing in yourself, for me, is non-negotiable. And if someone tells me they have any doubt in me doing something, I’ll work even harder to prove them wrong. It’s something that athletics has instilled in my DNA.
I’m the guy that prefers to have someone chasing after him and not looking back over his shoulder versus being motivated trying to keep pace with someone else. A great lesson I learned from the late UCLA coach, John Wooden, and a big reason why his teams won so many championships, has to do with stamina.
If you can be disciplined and conditioned better than everyone else, it doesn’t matter how much more skillful they are, you will eventually tire them out. And when the game’s on the line, you’ll still have the most fuel left in the tank to overtake them.
I approach many aspects of life with this mantra.
If you can be disciplined and conditioned better than everyone else, it doesn't matter how much more skillful they are, you will eventually tire them out. And when the game's on the line, you'll still have the most fuel left in the tank to overtake them.
What is something in the fitness industry that you wish you knew when you were starting out?
To stick with the fundamentals. There’s this continuum I see trainers go on where they begin their career learning the fundamentals, then they start doing all this flashy, sexy exercise prescription, only to realize their clients aren’t getting results and end up coming back to the basics.
I believe it was Coach Mike Boyle that said: “There’s a reason there’s a box.” Most trainers want to think outside the box but they don’t even understand the basics. I was guilty of this early on in my career. First, know the rules before you break them.
What would you consider your top 3 “fundamentals?”
First and foremost I think it’s repetition. Dan John calls it showing up. You won’t always have great workouts, but momentum trumps everything for getting results. Whether it’s perfecting your kettlebell swing, learning guitar, or being a good cook, you have to bite off a small piece every day.
Second I believe it’s to always be assessing. This doesn’t seem fundamental at first glance, but it’s necessary to make sure you’re traveling along the path you intended. We should be assessing every minute of every day. You can call it reflection or analysis, but you should always be constantly checking your work to make sure it’s doing what it’s supposed to.
Lastly, I think it’s staying focused on what’s working and knowing when to progress. I need my clients to own a movement before we move on to the next progression. I see too many young trainers and coaches who allow shitty form and I just don’t understand why they’re willing to accept that. Don’t settle, because you’ll always get what you tolerate.
What’s one book that changed your practice/mindset, etc… and why? What’s the one thing you took away from it?
Intervention by Dan John has infinite wisdom in it from not only a coaching standpoint but in it’s application to life itself. Dan has an amazing way of simplifying complex ideas into mind cementing metaphors that stick with you. I’ve read all of his books, but this one for me has the most insight into life.
If you haven’t yet read “To Grad from Dad” by him, go out and find it. It was a book Dan John wrote for his daughter that shares so many wonderful insights and lessons that will undoubtedly improve your life.
My biggest takeaway from “Intervention” is, “The goal is to keep the goal the goal.” I don’t think you can sum up the focus it takes to accomplish anything, as well as this quote says it. I don’t know the source, but a great acronym for FOCUS I’ve heard is Follow One Course Until Success. I love that.
Can you talk about a breakthrough with a client, and what led up to it?
One of my clients came to me weighing over 230lb. At 5’9″ he was certainly considered obese. Before he came to me, he had failed so many times before, starting up a routine, then quitting. Eating well, then falling back off the wagon. He had literally no belief that he could lose the weight he so desperately wanted to get rid of but was willing to take what seemed like a last ditch effort, with me as his coach. We started slow and methodical, nailing down the basics, decreasing his joint pain.
Transformations don’t happen overnight, and that it’s consistency and momentum that cast away the self-doubt. One day I noticed he just seemed to be firing on all cylinders and I could just tell a switch got flipped in his head. So I asked him something along the lines of “You seem like you’re really excited to be here today, more so than in the past. What gives?” He told me that because I had invested so much into seeing him succeed and the belief that I had in him was so deeply rooted, that he didn’t want to let ME down.
My energy and commitment had motivated him to begin believing in himself. It cemented my drive to continue staying 100% invested in my clients well being because sometimes you need someone else to believe in you first before you believe in yourself.
Can you tell me what were a few of the basics you nailed in the beginning with that client? What’s he working on now?
Adding in good eating habits. I didn’t have him remove anything from his diet. We simply added in some good clean stuff. In addition to that, it was about creating momentum in his workout frequency. We trained 3 times a week and running another 2-3, and consistently.
It was hard for him because the first month or so was slow moving, but I assured him to be patient and keep punching the clock. It’s not as easy to notice a big shift in weight when you see someone that often, but one day I looked at him and couldn’t believe the transformation he had made!
It seemed like it was overnight, but we both knew it was a culmination of all the hard work he was putting in and that realization ignited him to charge forward even harder.
That’s when the magic began to happen. Right now he’s around 165lbs at 19% body fat, deadlifting over 200lbs and swinging a 32kg kettlebell with ease. It’s so incredibly gratifying to see how far he’s come and without a doubt one of the dearest clients to my heart.
What’s your favorite question that you ask a client?
When a client gets stuck and I see self-doubt creeping in, I like to ask, “If that thought didn’t exist in you, how would you feel?” Then I follow that up with “What are three things you’d then go do?” These questions help them solve their own issue and help them visualize a solution.
It’s a great way to shift their emotion to a more positive, inspired state by seeing the results in their head.
What do you wish people knew about you but probably don’t?
I’m not afraid to get silly with my two daughters. I have two young girls so I know all the songs and words to Beauty and the Beast, Little Mermaid, Frozen, etc…
We get silly and dance around the house. I have such a soft spot for them both. I know how much my wife and I mean to them and don’t ever want to let them down. These are by far some of the best moments of my life.
Will you share your proudest moment with us?
Becoming a father. Hands down. Case Closed. End of Story. Nothing else comes close.
Thinking ahead, what piece of advice do you think you might give your daughters before they go off to college, you know from Dad to Grad?
Well right now they’re only 1 and 2 years old so I think I have some time to think about that! Really, though, I would say stop and appreciate. Appreciate the good qualities of the people you meet. Appreciate the world around you.
Appreciate the path that others blazed before you. If you think of how you feel when someone shows you genuine appreciation, it’s easy to feel like we should be reciprocating those feelings every day.
How has your programming changed since last year?
I’ve simplified things considerably. Most of the focus this past year has been on client psychology and behavioral modifications than the need to have elaborate programming. I’ve tried to eliminate what I don’t need and use the essentials.
At the end of the day, the best program in the world isn’t any good if the client can’t button up their nutrition or show up consistently.
Have you been to any continuing education recently that you really enjoyed?
I’m currently in the thick of the Precision Nutrition Level 2 coaching program. It’s a year-long course that involves daily lessons, case studies, mentor accountability, and a lot of self-reflection. It expands far beyond nutrition coaching and has made me take a deeper look into my own life’s purpose.
There’re so many important skills that a coach needs to be equipped with to handle all sorts of scenarios with clients and this coaching program leaves no stone unturned.
What did you enjoy about PN level 1 that led you to take level 2?
It’s how easy results come when you focus on doing one thing well. PN1 provides that simplistic approach that just works. PN2 was an opportunity to take that approach and build on it to enhance my coaching not just with clients, but with my coaches as well.
My listening skills have improved and I even see the new skills I’ve developed trickle into my relationship. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to be a better communicator and facilitator. I think anyone can use those skills.
What’s one thing that you think is really easy, but works well with many of your clients?
Analogies and metaphors are very easy for allowing clients the ability to visualize, hear, or feel a physical connection to something. I’ve never struggled to make connections with a metaphor or analogy.
I think everyone’s perception is a mirror of their past experiences. If you get to know your client’s life, hobbies, etc well enough, you are able to cue up very clever associations to make that learning experience happen more efficiently.
If you get to know your client’s life, hobbies, etc well enough, you are able to cue up very clever associations to make that learning experience happen more efficiently.
Can you give me an example of an analogy or metaphor that has recently worked well with one of your clients?
I think the realization that different clients have different perceptions is a huge part to consider when selecting your communication. Nick Winkelman is a wizard at this and recently taught me the “anatomy of the cue”. Now I try to tie an analogy or metaphor into a movement cue and it’s literally been magic in a bottle.
For example, I have a client who drives a beautiful new Porsche and his knees were buckling when we started into more plyometric based jumping. I told him to pretend his knees were headlights that were pointed into the woods. His stability and power increased immediately, and now if the movement breaks down at any time, I can simply say “flashlight” and he falls right back into place.
This cue probably wouldn’t work with other people, but because I knew my client’s background and interests, I found something that resonated with him exclusively. Everyone’s perception is different based on their life experience so it’s important to connect with them in their own language.
What would you recommend a client not to do?
This is something I picked up from Dr. Matt James, who’s an integrative health psychologist. Clients shouldn’t celebrate their wins at 100%. They should celebrate at 90%. I say that because think of a teacher who tells you that you’re guaranteed an “A” on the exam the day before the test. You may show up to class the next day, but you won’t stay up all night studying because you already have an A.
When you get to 90% completion of your weight loss goal, for instance, your unconscious mind lets off the gas pedal a bit, because you already got an A. That’s mainly why the last 5lbs are the hardest to lose for most people. They should be celebrating at 90% then immediately setting their next goal so that those last 5lbs become the first 5lbs of your new goal.
This works wonders.
What are the first 3 things you do in the morning and what’s the last 3 things you do before you go to bed?
I have quite a list of things I do in the morning but I would have to say the 3 I can’t start my day without are writing in my gratitude journal, 10 minutes of meditation, and a cold shower. The gratitude journal is just an amazing place to start the day. It’s nearly impossible to feel hate, anger or fear if you’re experiencing gratitude.
The meditation is a way of training my mind and body to be present and focus on command. It most definitely has kept me happier throughout each day. I have bad moments, but because of this daily practice, I never let it ruin an entire day.
Then there’s the cold shower… honestly, it’s a love/hate relationship with that. It’s a ritual of mental toughness and me telling myself that I have control over my own brain’s decisions. Besides the physiological benefits of it, it’s simply a way to force yourself into an extremely uncomfortable place each day. If I start my day like that, I figure what could possibly go wrong that would phase me?
My nights are far less structured. I usually watch re-runs of The Office (Scranton, PA is my hometown!), read my kindle (right now I’m reading Crust It! by Gary Vaynerchuck) and usually check into social media a bit to see what the rest of the world is up to.
How do you start your gratitude journal off every day? Is there a specific sentence you use that gets you going? Do you journal anything else?
I use a journaling app on my phone called Notes To Self. It starts off each day with a positive quote that I try to focus on putting meaning to. Then I write three things I’m grateful for, a reflection of something good, and finish with a random act of kindness I performed the day prior. Doing this daily, along with meditation immediately after, sharpens my focus for the day ahead and I’m undoubtedly happier and more productive.
I also find that by stopping a few times in the day to pause and reflect on my relationship with my wife has made me more appreciative and grateful. I only spend about 60 seconds on this, sprinkled in throughout the day, but it’s 60 seconds in my day that I get to commit my full attention to the thing in my life that makes me feel the most fulfilled.
I have short term goals, but the long-term aim I have is to be appreciative and healthy in the relationships I have with others. Therefore it’s critical that I make the time to work on myself so that I can be my best version of self and provide a meaningful contribution outward.
Any parting advice for novice trainers in regards to mindset?
Bring yourself into power. Especially when it comes to novice trainers, you need to find your “Why”. It’s what drives everything you do.
Once you have figured out a central purpose and mission for your life, you just need to make sure you’re filling your vehicle with top-grade fuel all the time. It keeps your engine running clean and efficiently. On top of that, you need to perform maintenance every day.
Read things that are related to your central mission. Listen to podcasts. Find a mentor that’s already done what you want to do and ask them great questions. When you find your central mission and purpose, shape your beliefs to align with your goals, and take action every day to move closer to your target, you will go through each day feeling happier than you ever have before.
Finally, use belief to your advantage. It’s the number one weapon to allowing your mind to do whatever you set out to do.
Are there any podcasts you’d recommend for us?
I listen to several on a daily basis. EOFire|Entrepreneur On Fire, Inside Quest, School of Greatness, Bulletproof Radio, and the FitCast Network.
How do we get in contact with you?
You can connect with me on my blog here, which is geared towards developing a champion mindset and helping connect trainers and coaches with resources to also improve training skills and develop more business.
From my website you can also connect to my Facebook and Twitter. My page is still in the early stages of development, but already has some great posts that trainers would find useful to their business and development.
You can also come set up an assessment with the best lifestyle coaches on the planet at Equinox in Boston’s Back Bay!
My email is Michael.Urso@Equinox.com.
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