66 Things I’ve Learned in 5 Years Owning a Gym

66 Things I've Learned in Owning a Gym for 5 Years

Dave Thomas San Diego Performance360By Dave Thomas
Owner, Performance360

When Pritz and I opened our first gym, we were 28 years old and had zero clue of what we were doing.

We’ve now opened three (moved one).

This April marks our five year anniversary in beautiful San Diego and I’ve learned a profound number of lessons through it all.

If I had on a flat brim Motocross hat and Dickie’s, I’d say something about the School of Hard Knocks. But I like to think of each year of owning a business as a year in the highest form of personal and business education you can get, and every year always has the same underlying themes.

There are more small failures than large successes. There are moments where you learn something and evolve as a business and as a human being. If you pay strict attention to the lessons you are privileged to be a part of on a daily basis, you really can learn a thing or two as the years add up.

Here’s what I’ve learned in five short years. Perhaps they can offer a different perspective for you in the gym, in business or in life.

1. Effort says a lot about people. Never discount your individual hard fought daily efforts to get better. You win at life a lot more when you try.

2. Hire people smarter than you in a particular field or skill. It took me a long time to admit it’s okay not to know something. Help and collaboration are vital. Hubris only leads to stunted growth.

3. Exercise is trauma and damage. If you don’t ever give your body time to heal, it will break. Be ahead of the curve.

4. There are many different diet paths to success. One is not more special than the other. It’s what’s best for you and your goals. If you close the book to what others are doing and live in a bubble that you are right and everyone is wrong, you will get passed by and you will limit your ability to coach.

5. Fuck chalk. You can never have enough dry erase markers.

6. Linear percentage training builds linear stick figures. Doing a lot of different things in a lot of different ways builds dynamic, 3D characters.

7. Learn how to move perfectly before adding load to it. In every single instance, without exception.

8. You can never change your DNA. It’s best to be more of who you are rather than trying to fix who you are not.

9. Accessory work matters more to the expert than the novice. It’s sort of like continuing education, for your body.

10. More work is usually the answer. If you want something, shortcuts and fast tracking is usually a recipe for failure. Try harder. Work harder. Wake up earlier. Go to bed later. Extend your days. Drink more coffee. Get out of the “working smarter” self help section of the book store and put on your blue collar.

11. A personal email is better than an automated one.

12. Yoga is a wonderful tool that I wish I implemented years ago. I long slept on a lot of the benefits because I was being a bull-headed meathead. I see yoga being a contributing part of my training as I get older and I recommend it highly.

13. If you don’t have unshakable faith in what you’re attempting, it will not end up the way you hope it will.

14. Every human body moves and reacts differently. There is no single correct path or base of movement, for any movement. But there’s a million ways to screw them up. Know the difference.

15. You can’t put a price on doing what you love…Bullshit. There is a price and it’s expensive. The debt is 75 -100 hours of work per week. A vacation every two to three years. An addiction to your work. Too often I see people in search of “doing what they love”, not realizing that path is likely the most resistant path you will ever encounter…yet a damn rewarding one.

My partner sending me an email at 4:05 am last Friday. Most people think you step away from work as things progress. Nothing is further from the truth.

16. You cannot please everyone. Attempting so only brings you back into the middle, which is typically the worst of both worlds.

17. Living in the overs is a bad place to be. Over training. Over thinking. Over doing. Sometimes you just gotta do less.

18. Bandwagons get full quick and then wheels fall off. Let them pass you by. Be skeptical at first. If it’s still around in a few more months or a year, it’s for real. If not then let everyone else be the guinea pig. Many people live their life by changing their opinion with whatever direction the wind is blowing. Roots and a sense of self matter. Be slow to change your mind.

19. Logging what you do and eat will make you more successful.

20. I’ve programmed many men and women to some impressive feats of strength, athleticism and endurance. I have observed no common theme in any of them, physically or genetically.

21. There is no movement, rep scheme or protocol that inherently causes injury. There is only the body performing something it shouldn’t yet be doing.

22. Don’t take people for idiots. Be real with them. No one likes corporate jargon.

23. Stability and control of your speed and movement are just as important as brute force against an immovable object. If you an squat 300 pounds but can’t do 50 flawless body squats, you’re fitnessing wrong.

24. Learn names. Refer to people by them.

25. There is an evolution when it comes to the role of a small business owner. I firmly believe that. At the onset, you must dominate. You must establish your values and hammer them into what you do. Then, you must take a single step back and begin to hand that over to great people. Then, another step back, ultimately settling into a role where your existence is to be a guiding catalyst for the success of others. Failure to relinquish the initial mentality of the onset is what sinks a lot of great potential.

26. A strong grip is a virus. Everywhere it spreads.


27. A surgical knife is better than a bulldozer. Do not trample people with information. Present logic and reason let facts be persuasive enough. Too often I used a bulldozer when in our first few years. It’s much less effective.

28. Never go into the mud with people.

29. When you suck in a particular social or physical skill set, the only thing to do is to recognize it and let someone else who is better at it than you do it. Then you move your ass to the side.

30. Anything that takes less than one year is not worth pursuing.

31. When you recognize that you’ve made a poor decision for something that’s fixable, you fix it. When it’s not fixable, you learn from it and turn the page.

32. Learning is a skill. And like any, it needs constant work or you lose it.

33. My measurement of a successful coach has evolved into we address the median. Are we making average people better? Further, are we making below average people average? It’s really easy to let gifted people shine.

34. Authenticity withstands most turbulence.

35. It’s important to give a shit about what you’re doing. Your job, owning a business, the responsibility you have to others, going to the gym, working towards PRs, rehabbing an injury. The illusion of caring isn’t enough. You must actually give a shit.

36. Mobility matters. But there are a wide array of ways to improve it, most notably taking the time to actually move properly. Spend less time strapping yourself into bands and more time focusing on your movement.

37. Applying the entire body in a fluid, comprehensive, ballistic manner is a movement skill that everyone should develop.

38. Don’t cheapen what you offer. Cheap customers create a cheap environment.

39. As my little brother likes to tell me, there can be no empty space. Empty space must be filled with matter, so when something in your life vacates, it presents an opportunity to be filled with positive matter. All empty space is an opportunity for growth.

40. A simple thank you is a wonderful tool.

41. Be selective as a business. Don’t be for everyone, just for the right ones.


42. It’s easy to be entitled and feel you are owed everything. Don’t. Be a grinder who puts their head down, mouth shut and game face on.

43. Take care of your team regardless of the cost.

44. Sub-maximal training spread over a variety of protocols treats my better than near maximal, single plane movement.

45. Good things happen when you get the fuck out of the way and let others own their craft.

46. Growing from a start-up to a successful small business is really tough. There will be decisions you make that are resented. Some will be warranted, some will not. You just gotta keep going, man.

47. When I take time to read, I get smarter. Imagine that.

48. Numbers and data should drive decisions. But gut sense of the way the winds are blowing should compliment that. Being present is the only way to obtain the latter.

49. Most all successful people, regardless of goal, exhibit virtuosity in body weight movements. Seek to do the common uncommonly well.

50. Revenue and bottom lines are not the only thing, but they are important. They matter. They keep jobs and build careers for people you care deeply about. Be gracious in success, but never apologize for being a business.

51. Social media is not a diary. Vent to your significant other, family, parakeet or anyone other than the entire world.

52. Stretch daily.

53. Tough problems require difficult decisions. Sometimes you have to man up and be unpopular.

54. Education is more empowering than direction.

55. I can’t think of a single person, athlete or demographic that wouldn’t benefit from the physiological adaptations from strength training.

56. You get a lot further promoting what you love over bashing what you hate. It’s better to teach what’s awesome than point at what sucks.

57. Unilateral work is among the most underutilized protocols at most facilities. Everyone should do more heavy lunges, step-ups, pistols and jumps.

58. Organic growth is slower and requires more patience, but it is worth the time to cultivate.

59. Sometimes you have to fire a client.

60. There’s no best or worst movements. Only what’s good or not good for your body and goals.

61. There’s rarely a good time. You just have to start.

62. I’m still not sure what functional training means. I don’t race in canoes daily. I don’t work in manual construction in the 1600s and have to pick up hundreds of pounds at a time. I don’t have to jump over fences running from the police. It’s time we set the functional training definition to simply whatever the hell helps you with your life goals.

63. I’m happier when I allocate more time towards positive personal relationships.

64. There is rarely genius in any programming. It’s about sticking to the basics, targeting goals and keeping it fun.

65. Never trade quality for quantity. What you gain now making a quick buck will be stripped from you later if it’s built on a false foundation.

66. The moment you recognize special talent, you find a way to get them on your team.

It’s been a wild ride.

I can’t wait to see what else I learn in the next five years.

Thank you for reading. If you liked it, please hit the SHARE button below. 

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