Interview with Jerry Trubman – The Protocol

Jerry Trubman is a Senior SMK Instructor for Strength Matters, as well as the owner and founder of The Protocol Strength & Conditioning gym in Tuscon, Arizona. Jerry’s story from start to gym owner is incredible as you will soon find out.  I got a chance to speak to Jerry on opening a gym, barbell training, marketing, debt management, and serious client results. There are MANY pearls of wisdom in this interview.

Let’s get started!…

Jerry TrubmanOwner & Founder, The Protocol Strength & Conditioning – Arizona

Thanks for coming on here and telling us about your story Jerry! How did this all begin for you?

First off Neal, thank you for having me. I’m a big fan of this blog! I began my fitness career in 2004 via my father who is also a trainer. Prior to that, I had a corporate background in retail and wireless (kind of funny now since I’m so passionately low-tech). I had already started becoming an exercise enthusiast and got pretty burned out with the desk-job gig.

I enjoyed fitness so much that I decided to make a career out of it, working as an independent trainer doing the conventional training thing in several facilities. It was around 2006-2007 that I was introduced to the kettlebell. At that point, it still wasn’t a big part of what I was doing in the gym. However, in 2008 I started to get introduced to more serious kettlebell training.

My first mentor (besides my dad), Sergio Giardini, was the first guy who really got the kettlebell light bulb to turn on in my head. He also turned me on to the work of Steve Maxwell. This guy was the game changer for me… it was incredible watching how that man could move. To this day, I would still say he had the biggest influence on my path. I loved how this type of training made me feel, and the changes in my body were significant. By 2009, mobility work, bodyweight exercise, and kettlebells became my main modality.

I realized quickly that a conventional gym was no longer needed, so in the summer of 2010, I decided to take the leap! I had almost no money so I invested in the bare minimum equipment and started training a small group of ladies on a high school basketball court near my house. As that group started getting bigger, I was able to afford to rent space at a nearby gymnastics facility in the early hours, before their regular classes started. The limitations on when we could train there made it hard to grow, so in January of 2012 we signed the first lease on our own place.

It was actually just a sub-lease of a 600 square foot room located inside of a larger martial arts facility, but hey, it was ours and we could train any time in the day, and not be limited by someone else’s schedule. The Protocol Strength & Conditioning was born! There was a little problem though: I knew from the start that the martial arts place was closing in the next year and we would have to move. This meant that we had to grow big enough to be able to afford our own place.

I was nervous about that, but with some hard work and lots of pavement pounding, we made it happen. When the martial arts place closed, we signed a three-year lease on our very own place. We continued growing organically and by the end of the three years, our little place was bursting at the seams. So earlier this year, we moved into a free-standing building that is about twice the size of the old place.

The Protocol 3.0 is now not only big enough to suit our needs, but is also big enough to host workshops, certifications, and other great events.

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Jerry, your story is amazing! You must have done a lot of things right, as so many gyms end up closing after a year. Can you tell me a little more about what you did to “pound the pavement?”

Thank you, Neal. Yes, as a matter of fact, every one of our competitors when we started 6 years ago is now closed with the exception of one (and he’s a colleague who has actually grown much bigger now). If you don’t have a captive audience and a captivating product, it’s a ticking clock that’s about to expire. “Pounding the pavement” can mean different things to different people. These days, people seem to think this can be done exclusively on the computer. I strongly disagree. Even in our modern-day social media world, there’s still no substitute for a face-to-face chat… or even a live phone call.

I would seek out opportunities to get in front of people as often as possible. This was very uncomfortable for this introvert but very effective.

Here’s a funny little story from those days: As I mentioned, I had very little cash when I started and I wanted to do some signage. The nice metal signs (as opposed to the cheap ones that fly away as soon as the wind blows) were quite pricey, and I could only afford two of them. They were simple signs that just had the business name (called Vail Boot Camp), phone number, and in big, bold letters, “GET FIT TODAY!” Every morning when I was done teaching classes, I would get in my truck and move the signs around to different parts of the area. After a couple months, I started getting phone calls from people who would say, “Yea I see your signs all over the place so I thought I’d come check you guys out.”

I swear to you, I just kept moving around the same two metal signs.

That’s brilliant and creative! I hope someone reading can learn from this, you don’t always need big dollars to get yourself out there. Steve Maxwell sounds like he had a creative influence on you, what’s one thing that you learned from him that was a game changer?

Steve was harsh on the modern-day bodybuilder. He would always say things like, “What good is all that muscle mass if you can’t move?” Many of his joint mobility drills were miserable when I first learned them. My wrists used to always bug me and I had every kind of wrist wrap known to man. When I watched him get on the ground and do those Bruce Lee style pushups with the wrists in all sorts of compromised positions, it kind of freaked me out. He said that when I could work up to be able to do those, I wouldn’t need all those stupid wrist wraps. He was right.

What’s your “WHY”? Why do you do what you do?

Our ‘why’ can best be described as, “Enriching people’s lives through strength and movement.” I love how our training system has such great carryover into people’s day-to-day activities. It’s awesome when someone tells us how much their increased strength and mobility has made such a big impact on their lives, and this is what keeps me excited when that 4am alarm clock goes off.

What’s something that excites you right now, especially to get you out of bed at 4am?

Around the time I signed the lease on my first location, I began to get reacquainted with the barbell. I never was into serious powerlifting, but with these new tools in the toolbox from studying kettlebell, I was able to take those higher quality movement patterns and fall in love with barbell training again. In 2013, I took the SFL (StrongFirst Lifting) course with Dr. Hartle.

This was one of the most enlightening certifications I’ve ever done. I remember almost being a little upset by the end of the course; wondering where I would be had I learned all that stuff 15 years ago! I know it’s not technically PC to endorse a competitor (James, if you’re reading this, please don’t fire me!) but hey, if something is good, it’s good. Using the programs and principles from that course, along with other things I picked up along the way through trial and error, Team Protocol has won the 100% Raw Powerlifting Master’s Division National Championship three years in a row. I can’t begin to tell you how proud I am of my students who put in the work to make this happen.

In the last few years, I’ve had the honor to have many fitness instructors as students. I’m currently working alongside several industry thought-leaders to develop a training curriculum that produces awesome instructors. The SMK (Strength Matters Kettlebell) certification is certainly part of this, but we’ve also developed workshops on restoring lost mobility and barbell fundamentals. When I travel and visit big-box gyms, I notice that the ‘big 3’ barbell lifts are generally done very poorly, and the basics are often overlooked for things that are new and sexy. People’s movement and general athletic ability has suffered as a result of this.

What do you think is the most common barbell error when you walk into a gym today? Not knowing the person, what’s your first go to cue or technique to make it better?

Since deadlifts are almost never done in big gyms and EVERYONE bench presses, the squat is the one that sticks out to me as the one that gets butchered. The first obvious problem is people sacrificing depth for more wheels on the bar. Most folks could gain a ton of benefit from humbling themselves and spending some time with the empty bar. Some may discover they are either so weak in that deep range of motion, or their squat mobility/mechanics are so poor, that they probably could use some time with the goblet squat (kb or dumbbell). In our system, we spend a lot of time with goblet squats first. They must start looking good with moderate kettlebells before we show them the bar and since this regression is such a big step backward, most people aren’t willing to do it. So when visiting a big box gym, I just bite my tongue. I will say, however, that if someone actually approaches me with questions, I will be happy to help as much as they’d like.

Some may discover they are either so weak in that deep range of motion, or their squat mobility/mechanics are so poor, that they probably could use some time with the goblet squat (kb or dumbbell). In our system, we spend a lot of time with goblet squats first. They must start looking good with moderate kettlebells before we show them the bar and since this regression is such a big step backward, most people aren’t willing to do it. So when visiting a big box gym, I just bite my tongue. I will say, however, that if someone actually approaches me with questions, I will be happy to help as much as they’d like.

So when visiting a big box gym, I just bite my tongue. I will say, however, that if someone actually approaches me with questions, I will be happy to help as much as they’d like.

What was something tough that you faced and how did you overcome it?

This is  kind of a tough one. I’m a ‘glass is half-full’ kind of guy, and as a business owner, there are challenges that I face almost every day. I just look at them as opportunities to grow and develop, so looking back it’s hard to find things that stick out since, to me, they are all just growth opportunities. There are certainly some big personal obstacles I’ve had to face that brought me to where I am today, but this is probably not the venue to share them. I will say that it’s wise to believe that the things that happened to us in our past (good and bad) are just preparations for the next step that is coming up.

There are certainly some big personal obstacles I’ve had to face that brought me to where I am today, but this is probably not the venue to share them. I will say that it’s wise to believe that the things that happened to us in our past (good and bad) are just preparations for the next step that is coming up.

What is something in the fitness industry that you wish you knew when you were starting out?

The fitness industry is filled with a lot of nonsense and junk science. As a young and impressionable trainer, I took most of what I heard at face value. Like many young men, I read the muscle magazines. I sincerely thought that if I took all those supplements, did enough bicep curls, and wore my hat backward, I’d look like the guys in the magazines.

I’m 5’6 and weigh less than 150 pounds. This wasn’t gonna happen without major supplements… and I’m not talking about the ones being sold in the magazine. So the one big thing I wish I knew back then that I know now is this: Located around this great land of ours, are small pockets of instructors who are really ‘in the know’. If you’re willing to invest the time and money to travel and learn from them, you will recoup that investment many many times over. Once you’ve absorbed these valuable messages and put them into your practice, the rest of the stuff out there just becomes noise to you.

Located around this great land of ours, are small pockets of instructors who are really ‘in the know’. If you’re willing to invest the time and money to travel and learn from them, you will recoup that investment many many times over.

I agree, traveling to and learning from others is invaluable. I met you at the Strength Matters Kettlebell certification in Seattle and you showed me a slightly different way to grip the kettlebell for the Get Up and press. My life and my client’s lives were changed forever. 

Thank you, Neal. I think as we advance as fitness professionals, that ‘one little thing’ is exactly what we need to be on the lookout for. In the example you gave: I’m pretty scrawny so I had to figure out a way to get the ball of the bell lower down my arm where there’s a little extra meat. I had been chasing a 48kg get-up for many years, and my limiter was actually holding that much weight in place so my body could do the work. Mark Reifkind says, “You must be your own best student.” Some will argue that point, but I can honestly say that many of those ‘one little things’ came out of years of trial and error on my own body. Once I got that grip dialed in, I was able to finally accomplish the 48kg getup goal (video here).  I break down the grip in the video below, and here is a photo.

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The position of the hand grip will vary depending on the size of the lifter’s forearm and size of the opening of the kettlebell handle, but what we’re looking at here is how tight the left side of the forearm is to the handle of the bell. This ‘closing’ of the grip keeps the bell locked around the arm and forces the shoulder into the proper seating for get-ups and presses (helps prevent internal rotation which is a heavy get up killer). Rif calls this the “Trubman grip” although I’m pretty sure someone has thought of this before…

What’s one book that changed your practice and or mindset, etc… and why? What’s the one thing you took away from it?

On a professional level, Robert Kiyosaki’s “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” and Dave Ramsey’s “Total Money Makeover” are the ones that stand out. “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” is the one that inspired me to get out of the rat race and pursue my dreams. “Total Money Makeover” gave the message that debt is unnecessary. We built The Protocol one kettlebell at a time and paid cash for each one. It’s a terribly slow way to grow, but very effective when it comes to managing expenses. On the first of every month, when we walk up to our businesses to unlock the front door, there is a line of people waiting with their hands out; IRS, landlord, utility company, employees, and, of course, the banker. If not careful, we can be making the banker quite wealthy. Deciding to not put the banker in my line has made bootstrapping my business a whole lot easier.

In the world of nutrition, I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Mark Sisson’s “The Primal Blueprint.” Although I’m not on the paleo bandwagon today, this was the book that changed my big picture outlook on nutrition. I lost a lot of unnecessary fluff and still follow many of the principles he talks about to this day.

The training books that had the biggest impact on my career were “Enter The Kettlebell” and “Power to The People” by Pavel Tsatsouline. His “Tactics are many, but principals are few” approach helped me organize my training system into what it is today. Beautiful simplicity is the secret behind our success.

Can you talk about a breakthrough moment you had with a client, and what led up to it?

So speaking of beautiful simplicity, as trainers,  we will sometimes take on students that I’ve heard Mark Toomey refer to as, “motor morons.” It seems like no matter what you say/do/demonstrate/etc. they just don’t seem to get it. I’ve seen many trainers get frustrated with these types of people and start throwing all sorts of weird exercise at them, trying to see what might work. This is typically ineffective.

We’ve had several success stories out of our facility where we have taken these types of folks and turned them into rock stars using simple movements and a little extra patience. One of our top lifters started out needing several months of private sessions to learn basic movement patterns. She had a history of surgeries and years of physical therapy with very little success. Her proprioception was terrible and other fitness programs had failed her.

We were able to use simple, principle-based programming to help her build some serious strength. She’s been with us for over 4 years now and can deadlift nearly two and half times her bodyweight. She broke the raw world record for her age/weight this year!

In reference to your client who deadlifts 2.5x bodyweight, but had to work hard to get there, where did you start with her deadlift?

Every barbell student in our system, including her, begins with kettlebells. Once proficiency is attained in the lift, we move to the bar. Although there are exceptions, in the deadlift women start with a 95lb bar and men start with 135. In most other lifts, we always start with the empty bar, or even wooden dowel rods… check your ego at the door. But the kettlebell always comes first.

I joke that the kettlebell is our gateway drug to serious barbell lifting. It’s far more forgiving than the barbell from a movement perspective (especially in lifts like the military press). It’s like that old Russian joke about the US soldier that gets stationed in the Soviet Union, and has his first experience in the Russian grocery store (for those who don’t know, I’m a Soviet immigrant, so this joke may not be funny to anyone but me). The shopkeeper comes up and says, “Good day, sir. What can we get for you?” The US soldier responds, “Well, I was looking to buy some coffee. What are my options?” The shopkeeper looks at him, puzzled, and says, “Well sir… your options are coffee or no coffee.” The barbell is like the Russian grocery store.

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What questions do you ask when meeting a client for the first time? What questions do you ask someone you’ve been training for a while?

When I’m meeting someone for the first time, the goal is to get them to talk as much as possible. If I’m doing more than 20% of the talking in an initial interaction, the chances of them being interested in us are very low. We have to figure out what they’re looking for, and determine whether or not what they want/need is something we even offer. If they aren’t talking, we can’t do that. Without problems, there are no solutions, and without questions, there are no answers.

Many times when people refuse to talk, I discover that either all they are concerned about is finding the cheapest place to get a membership (not us), or I’m getting shopped by my competition. The internet has made figuring this out quite easy. My questions are open-ended in nature: “What sort of training are you doing now?” “What type of place are you looking for?” “What are your goals?” Any question that gets them talking is a good question. One word answers are a bad sign.

I once had a woman call wanting to know nothing other than what we charge. I told her we design customized programs for everyone and asked what her training goals were. Her answer was, “Eh. You know. The usual.” I played dumb and replied, “The usual? I don’t understand what you mean.” She hung up.

Students who have been around a while can be unique. Our fitness family is small, so things are pretty tailored to meet their needs. The most common thing after they have developed proficiency in the basics, they want to know what the ‘next level’ is. These types of things are all handled on a case-by-case basis.

What do you wish people knew about you but probably don’t?

I sleep an average of 9 hours per day (8 at night and a daily one-hour nap). After my nap, I consume all my daily calories in one big meal in the late afternoon. I figure the closer my life looks to that of my dog (a pit bull I found on the side of the road a couple years ago), the better off I am. I’m a huge introvert, so my knee-jerk answer to your question is, “probably nothing.” I’ve given two public interviews in my entire career (counting this one) and declined many.

Sadie Trubman, the official Protocol mascot.

Sadie Trubman, the official Protocol mascot.

Wow, thank you for letting me be your second!

You are very welcome. I tend to let my guard down when I’m amongst my tribe. Most of the interviews I’ve declined were from mass media outlets with agendas that are very different from ours. It’s alluring to get those 10 seconds of fame, but I don’t like what they turn our stories into, so I avoid them.

What is something that you are really proud of?

Every August we have an anniversary party and all of our students are invited. The first-anniversary party was in a tiny room at a restaurant, and every year it has gotten bigger and bigger. I usually say something to the group every year, but this year I wanted to honor them by talking about some of their achievements in last 6 years: 57 state powerlifting records, 26 national records, 23 world records, 3 certified kettlebell instructors, 7 marathon finishers, 3 Boston Marathon finishers, 1 Hawaii Ironman, and 3 national powerlifting team championships! I have to admit I got a little emotional as I was reading all that stuff.

That’s quite a list of achievements your clients have. It speaks volumes. How has your programming for your clients changed since last year?

Programming doesn’t change too much from year to year in our place. As long as the basic stuff keeps working, I see no need to change it. The only thing that really keeps evolving is our powerlifting programs. Every year, we learn things and make changes.

Frankly, I sometimes feel that at this point it’s complicated almost to a fault; making it hard for new people coming into the barbell program, but it’s something we just manage. The closer one gets to the limits of their genetic potential, the harder it is to keep teasing out those PRs, so we need to keep learning from our experiences and evolving the program. The results make all worth it… people who get stronger every year don’t get bored.

The results make all worth it… people who get stronger every year don’t get bored.


What has been a recent continuing education course or workshop that you really enjoyed?

I make it a point to attend at least one big education event per year. As a trainer who is getting more and more years of training under their belt, it’s easy to fall into the know-it-all attitude and do the bare minimum CEU’s, so I really try to reach out and pursue something big once per year. It keeps me fresh and keeps me in the ‘always be a white belt’ mentality.

It’s gonna sound like a sales pitch now because I work for the company, but the best continuing education event that I did recently was the Strength Matters Summit in San Diego in 2015. I know, I know, I’m sounding like I’m plugging my own stuff. But please remember, I knew absolutely nothing about James Breese or SM prior to this event.

I just went because it was three days of some of the best instructors in the world, and I wasn’t going to pass up a chance to hear them all in one weekend. I was really blown away by the event, as well as James’ vision of what he wanted to do for instructors. Keeping training skills sharp is certainly critical, but there’s so much more to our fitness businesses. I found this especially true in the kettlebell world. There wasn’t much out there besides the certs and workshops. Having events that help us grow other aspects of our business is critical, and the Summit was a great example.

Any funny bar stories or particularly interesting moments from San Diego SM Summit you remember? 

Oh man, I don’t if he knows this or not… but here we go… So it was actually at the end of the Summit. Dan John and I had late flights going out that night so we were having a few beers at the Marriott bar and talking shop (side note: don’t try to drink beer with an Irish dude… you won’t survive). I have to be honest, I don’t really remember the tail end of that conversation.

Anyway, fast forward a few months: One day, my blog got a ton of new subscribers out of nowhere. Seriously, this was kinda weird… I’m not that cool. I was wondering what was going on and then Matt, my employee who was pretty new at the time, texts me with something like, “Whoa dude, Dan John quoted you in his last newsletter.”

I think Matt was more surprised than anything. I mean, to him I was just some schmuck who runs the local gym he works at (probably still feels that way). At first, I kind of panicked. I thought to myself, “When did I last talk to him? Oh wait, that’s right! We talked in San Diego that night over beers. Oh no! What did I say in my drunken stupor that was so profound that Dan quoted it in his newsletter?” I started to worry, but then I read the newsletter and realized it was just a quote from one of my blogs. Crisis averted.

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What’s one thing that you think is really easy, but works well with many of your clients?

I think it was Dan John that said something along the lines of, “If you have the courage to do a lot of repetition, your facility will always be full.”

Our ‘big secret to success’ is that we practice the basics over and over and over. I’m not here to entertain you (although I’d like to think I am somewhat entertaining), I’m here to get you better at stuff.

Last year, we did a variation of ROP (clean and press ladders with pullups/row variations, and some type of leg exercise). We did literally the same workout at the beginning of every week for three months. At the end of three months, we tested the press. Almost everyone got new PR… and zero people quit training with us due to boredom.

Any parting words for anyone looking to open their own facility or grow their own practice?

1. Grow organically. Don’t expand the restaurant faster than the kitchen, or vice-versa.
2. Pay cash for everything. Debt sucks.
3. Be passionate about the quality of your product. There is a gym on every corner. If you’re just the same as everyone, you become the wallpaper.
4. Make sure your other half is on board. My beautiful wife is my biggest ambassador and strongly believes in what I’m doing; not only as a fitness professional, but also an entrepreneur. Having this support at home is critical to success.

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Jerry goes over wrist drills and a way to hold the kettlebell to improve your get-up and press!

How do we get in contact with you?

I’m pretty inactive on social media other than Facebook… if you interact with The Protocol, you may not be talking to me (although if it’s something important they will let me know).

The best way to interact with me is on my blog called The Healthy Addiction which you can subscribe to here. You can also read prior posts here.
The current subject I’m writing on is fitness lies you need to stop believing. Some of these will get quite interesting; I’ll be subjecting my body to science for one of them.

My travel schedule for 2017 is also filling up for my courses on kettlebell, barbell, and restoring lost mobility. If you’re a facility owner interested in hosting, please contact me directly at info@theprotocolsc.com

It’s a bit short notice, but this coming weekend Charles Staley and I are teaching a big workshop at my facility in Tucson, AZ. I am teaching a 1-day kettlebell course on Saturday and Charles is teaching a barbell course on Sunday. There are only a few spots left and there is a discounted hotel rate for out-of-town guests. Click here for more info.

Resources mentioned:

Books:
Robert Kiyosaki – Rich Dad, Poor Dad
Dave Ramsey – Total Money Makeover
Pavel Tsatsouline – Enter The Kettlebell
Pavel Tsatsouline – Power to The People
Mark Sisson – The Primal Blueprint

People:
Mark Reifkind
Pavel Tsatsouline
Dan John
Steve Maxwell

Blogs to read:
The Healthy Addiction

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