Interview: Benjamin Pickard, Lean Strong Fitness [Tips + Collaboration]
August 29, 2019
Finding the proper motivation to start and finish a workout can be difficult, cant’ it? Choosing to take the plunge and start your own fitness business can be an even more daunting task with an even greater need for having the proper motivation.
Today, we’re talking to Benjamin Pickard who will share his experience as an entrepreneur who entered the health and fitness world as a means of increasing his confidence and improving his self-image. He received invaluable support and mentorship that helped him to develop a winning mentality that he embodies daily in running his successful fitness practice.
If you’re ready to grow and manage your business better, schedule a demo today.
Meet Benjamin Pickard, Owner of Lean Strong Fitness
Schimri Yoyo: Welcome back, Everyone, this Schimri Yoyo with exercise.com. We are continuing our series of interviews with fitness experts and today we have Benjamin Pickard, the owner of Lean Strong Fitness in Guelph, Ontario. Benjamin, thank you for joining us today.
Ben Pickard: Thanks for having me.
Schimri Yoyo: We’re just going to jump right into it and ask you a little bit about your personal background. How did you initially develop a love of health and fitness?
Ben Pickard: My fitness goals started out like self-esteem and confidence and I think just trying to feel better about myself. I was not super athletic growing up, I played some Head League soccer and that type of thing but exercise and fitness wasn’t a cornerstone of my upbringing.
Then it was in high school, I got dumped and I wanted more confidence and I started going to the gym on a spare period, and it kind of combined my love of problem-solving and spatial sense and built discipline and it all just clicked and went from there.
Schimri Yoyo: As you were developing in high school, did you yourself use a strength and conditioning coach or a personal trainer during that time?
Ben Pickard: I hired a personal trainer for four sessions when I was like eighteen and it was fantastic. I’m so glad I did it. It was at a local university; it was way more than I could afford the time because as a high school kid and that was all I had and man; it taught me a lot.
Schimri Yoyo: That’s awesome. Now, when you jumped into the fitness industry as a profession, did you have any mentors or did you seek out a counsel from anyone specifically?
Ben Pickard: When I joined the industry or when I started my business?
Schimri Yoyo: When you joined the industry and when you started your business. Both.
Ben Pickard: Got it. Yeah, joining the industry was initially—I didn’t have any mentors, just went to the gym with friends, which is hit or miss depending on what you do.
But I was really fortunate when I was doing my kinesiology degree at the University of Waterloo. We had a core group of six or eight people who just lived and breathed learning and getting better at this stuff.
We went down to Elite FTS to learn from Dave Tate and the FTS crew. We did the SMS certifications. We just engaged ourselves in a group where continual learning was the thing we did. It was incredible. We learned so much in those four years. Plus, of course, kinesiology. Plus, of course, learning from Stu McGill at Waterloo is pretty sweet.
Schimri Yoyo: That’s awesome.
Ben Pickard: Yeah, it was a really, really unique environment that I’m so glad I went through.
Schimri Yoyo: Now, when you’re not running your business and you’re not training or coaching, what else do you do for fun?
Ben Pickard: Not a ton. Last year or two are the first years that I’ve really been able to not work a million hours a week. I really like camping. We go on a lot of family camping trips. [I’ve] got a fiancé and a seven-year-old. I also really like doing construction, so we’ve been doing a ton of home renovations and that type of stuff. Other than that, it’s just like hanging out with friends, playing with our son, socializing. Nothing crazy.
A Client-Centric Fitness Practice is Reasonable
Schimri Yoyo: That’s good. Well, let’s jump into your practice and your business. What one word would you would best describe your philosophy and methodology of strength training?
Ben Pickard: Great question. I’m hesitant to say it but I think I’d say reasonable.
Schimri Yoyo: Oh, reasonable? That’s good. Can you elaborate a little bit?
Ben Pickard: We spend a lot of effort really trying to get a feel for where clients are at so that we can sort of serve them best from a client-centric point of view. We kind of chatted a little bit just before this call. It’s really easy to have a following on Instagram or whatever and not know a whole ton, so we spend a lot of time figuring out what’s actually working and what do people actually need from a results standpoint, from a having fun standpoint, and from a making it as a sustainable part of what you do.
Again, when we’re dealing with typically 50+, they’re not looking to live in the gym two hours a day, four days a week. They want to have a minimum effective dose for something like that. Our approach with that works really well to keep them coming back and to keep them actually doing it after they decided to leave us, if they do.
Schimri Yoyo: Sustainability is a key tenant, it seems like, of your practice.
Ben Pickard: Yes, absolutely.
Schimri Yoyo: That’s it. Now, you work with the 50+ population and that’s a great niche there. How do you work with them in regards to injury prevention and rehabilitation?
Ben Pickard: Yeah, for sure. I hope everyone would say the first step is really getting to know the client. Where are they at mentally, physically? Doing a movement assessment and screening and, of course, the motivation level of what they want to do.
From there, I mean, this is now 12 years of bringing everything together. We’re always focusing on the quote-unquote functional warmup. I’m looking at core and mobility, flexibility, stability, and how everything fits together.
Then, we’ve got a unique approach where our team, everybody operates as a team, you’re not client A with trainer B. All the coaches should share all the clients. At any given point, any coach has the authority to make modifications and adjustments, setting clients’ program based on like—we have a client who went out dancing and hurt her hip so we had to make adjustments on the fly.
Schimri Yoyo: That’s good. A collaborative effort.
Ben Pickard: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve come to realize that when you first start in the industry, you want to be the smartest, you want to be the guy, and you want to be admired for that. But now I’m realizing that no matter what I do, I’m going to miss something. Why not have a team of people that are going to have complementary strengths to test that?
Schimri Yoyo: Now, at Lean Strong Fit, how do you guys incorporate nutrition or diet in part of your training with your clients?
Ben Pickard: When I started this almost five years ago now, I really wanted to have a holistic, so to speak, or comprehensive service where you’re not paying for every little thing from a client standpoint. We set it up that everything’s a monthly membership and with that is obviously the exercise programming piece but we also do weekly accountability check-ins, which is more about typically habit-based approach, which sometimes we do work with macros and calories.
Then we do sit down face-to-face, quarterly strategy meetings with our nutritionist. Her name’s Kat. She’s got a master’s in nutrition and a bachelor’s in psychology.
[Editor’s note: Kat is Kathryn O’Brien also known as The Evolving Alchemist]
It’s a mixture of the precision nutrition-style habit-based approached with face-to-face care and compassion and then weekly accountability to make sure people actually do what they know they’re supposed to be doing.
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Schimri Yoyo: Oh, that’s great. Accountability is a huge part of that sustainability. Now how do you measure progress and success for yourself and for your clients?
Ben Pickard: Yeah, I’ll start with the client one. It’s been a really interesting journey. When I first started out, I evaluated client success based on my framework for success. They wanted to lose that, or I wanted to see if I hit this weight, that type of thing.
Now, we’re really clear that the only thing that matters is what matters to the client. If they come to us and say, “I want to be stronger,” we’re going to be measuring some strength metrics that are important to them. If they want to be leaner, we’d ask, “What does that mean to you? Is it clothing? Is it waist circumference? Is it weight, body fat, whatever?”
Then we try to pick, depending on the person, one to three key things that we’re keeping an eye on to make sure we’re going in the right direction but it totally depends on the client’s results standpoint. Obviously, from a bigger picture standpoint, a huge part of success for the client and for us is if they’re enjoying it and staying consistent and it’s actually something they’re like, could be a part of their life.
But we have a lot of clients who don’t love the gym but they come to us because they know they need to or they should and it’s nothing better than a client coming in and saying, “Hey, when I first started, I hated the gym. This intimidated me. I just didn’t like all this. But now we’re six weeks, eight weeks in, and I’m really starting to enjoy this and like I’m really enjoying the support.”
To me, that’s awesome to see those physical results short-term but if we can get them to enjoy the process, man, they’re probably good for life.
Schimri Yoyo: That’s awesome. Great answer.
Ben Pickard: Thanks.
Schimri Yoyo: Now, judging by your clients that have had the most success or sustainability under your tutelage and under your program, what are some of the common traits or shared values that you’ve seen that have contributed to their success?
Ben Pickard: Oh, that’s a great question. I think a huge one would be open-mindedness or willing to set their ego aside. People who come in and are like, “Oh, that’s not what I used to believe to be true but I’m happy to try it because you guys are the experts.” Obviously, I’m being a little sarcastic about it—too lazy for conversation—but when they’re open to trying those things, that’s a huge, huge benefit.
Contrary to that, if somebody comes in and they’re like, “I want to get to this goal but I want to do it this way,” it’s really hard to help that person succeed.
Another big one would be, I guess, compliance. Even though it’s kind of got a negative connotation but if we’re working on a mutually agreed-upon plan that you’ve sat down with Kat, you’ve hashed out the details that these are your action steps on a daily or weekly basis and then you’re not doing them or not filling out your check-in or not having good communication, it makes it really hard to work with you through your goals. Having that willingness to do the work is crazy, crazy important.
We’ve got a client who, crazy life circumstances that he was going through, he’s now at the, I think nine- or ten-week mark, give or take. Under three months and he’s down 30 pounds. We’ve been doing, I want to say, fundamental stuff but just executing it perfectly. He nails it on a regular basis. That’s why he’s getting such good results.
Schimri Yoyo: Oh, that’s a good anecdote. Now, how do you help your clients who are a little older? How do you help them to reach their physical limits without burning them out or without putting them at risk for injury?
Ben Pickard: Yeah, a great question for the people we deal with. We’ve done a few things. I think the basic answer for this would be building trust with the client and the coach so that they know when they can push and when they can’t. That’s obviously super subjective. We have a few metrics. Obviously coming in, if they have any aches or pains, we try to connect with their chiro, physio, whoever they’re working with.
We have a system where at the beginning of every session we always ask every client, how are you feeling a scale of one to ten and basically, if it’s a seven or less, we’re going to try to dig into that a little bit more. They say, “I’m a six today,” like, what’s going on? Maybe their knee is acting up or they didn’t sleep well or they’re going through some stress and then with that, we’ll make some adjustments to the program on the fly.
We’re also really big on not really going to fail very often. I think people need to really earn the right to do that or even earn the right to get into certain positions like as a barbell deadlift or an overhead press.
We’re really making sure we’re progressing them through our system internally. We’ve got five phases to make sure we’re kind of meeting with them where they’re at with what they need and then keeping open communication on how things are feeling long-term.
Of course, if something’s acting up consistently, our first thing is we need to refer out if they don’t have a practitioner so that we can make sure they’re being cared for.
Collaboration among Highly-Qualified Staff
Schimri Yoyo: Now onto the management of the actual business. How do you budget your time and energy between being a trainer and a fitness professional and being an entrepreneur?
Ben Pickard: I do almost no training right now. I train probably on average one to one-and-a-half hours a week of coaching. Not a lot in the grand scheme of things. I also am the general manager so most of my time is spent on the client-facing stuff.
One of my favorite things is to just be able to chat with clients and touch base. Granted, some weeks it’s way more packed than others but I really enjoy that coming in and coming out of the gym.
I still do some management, maybe five to six hours a week of managing day-to-day. A lot of that’s supporting the manager and the admin as needed. I spend a decent amount of time with consultations of sales, so I’ll block off about two four-hour blocks a week to do consults, but I do about half of them.
Then a lot of it is kind of just managing the day-to-day and having meetings with like-minded people about how we can progress. For instance, I like meeting with my business coach as part of a Mastermind, meeting with other professionals on how can we do things differently, trying to think where are we going to be in six months and beyond and what can we do to prepare for that to the best of our clients’ needs.
Schimri Yoyo: Now, I want to give you an opportunity to brag about yourself and your team a little bit. What makes you and your team at Lean Strong Fit unique?
Ben Pickard: That’s a good one. I’ve never been good at bragging, but a key piece of it is kind of what I mentioned earlier, I think that team approach. It’s not always apparent because when you’re in it, everything seems like it’s an emergency but when I really take a step back, we have a phenomenal team that’s got each other’s backs.
We had a team member who’s like grandmother passed away suddenly and we had to fill in the time and because all the coaches had all the clients, coaches were stepping in to take them and handle that, projects getting bumped. People, they just genuinely [care a great deal] about our clients and about each other, which is a huge, huge foundational piece. Like Mike Boyle says, “Hire certified nice people and then train them to be good.”
Another piece would be, I think, humility. Everyone on our team, including myself, is always actively working to get better. We do two one-hour of professional development sessions a week for our team. We also have a professional development fund where we’ll contribute to their ongoing education. We’re always really trying to make sure like are we getting better, but doing it in a direction that’s going to serve our members.
Thanks to my wonderful business coaches, we also get a ton of client feedback and have gotten good at receiving it, so we’re actively getting feedback from our members at a minimum on a monthly basis of what they like, what they don’t like, and how we can make things better.
I remember way back when, there was this sarcastic thing on Facebook but it was like, “If you want to have a business, ask your demographic what they want and create that and sell it to them.”
By our clients having a say in what we do and how we approach things—for instance, the bathroom mat we have is a bamboo wooden bath mat for the shower because one of our clients liked it—those little things where we’re getting feedback, I think go a really long way for the members that we have to know that we genuinely care. Almost everybody does. No one gets upset with us because they don’t care but then they don’t actually have a way of being like, “Hey, how can I do this better for you?” and actually taking action on it.
I also take that as an answer in there, too, of like, I’ve got 12 years’ experience, another coach is at 19. Even our most green coach has a kinesiology degree and a year of experience, so it’s something where we put, not to sound bad about it, but you have to be good if you want to work here. We’ve got a high standard of care we want to deliver.
Schimri Yoyo: No, that’s good. Keep the standards of excellence high. That’s good.
You talked about it a little bit but I just want you to get a little bit more specific of how you’re using your business and Lean Strong Fit as a platform to serve your community and to serve the people of Guelph, Ontario.
Ben Pickard: Yeah, that’s a great question, too. Almost everything we do is personal training, so we’re not a big box gym that has training in it. We’re a relatively small community in the grand scheme of things but we’re trying to do things as we do an annual party that is for our members and friends and family and anyone that wants to come and it’s not fitness-y at all. We usually get cupcakes, beer, and we’re going to do burgers, just come and hang out.
We also used to donate to charity at Christmas instead of getting all of our clients little gifts, we decided to put it towards charity. Then we realized we could actually make a bigger impact by giving a scholarship away, so every year we give away a twice-a-week training plan to somebody who’s in financial need or has a challenging story where they really need the support.
Then one of the other things is just kind of on a smaller scale but I try to be a part of other community events and networking groups and involved in charity golf tournaments and that type of stuff.
My vision, but I’m not sure how it’s going to come together, I can’t make the numbers work yet but it’s still really want to do it, is to have a commune where if you want me to make a physical change and it’s outside of your budget, which is totally understandable for personal training, you actually donate your time to the commune and then people, other members can use it.
For instance, if someone needs to make a change and their skill is bookkeeping, another member can actually use some of those hours every month for bookkeeping and everyone’s kind of doing a trade of service. That way, we can reach way more people but also being a part of our facility would have you like have all these fringe benefits, like an immediate network of everything you could possibly need.
Obviously, you can’t give everything away for trade as a time, so that’s what I’m trying to figure out but my vision is to make high-quality fitness, which is typically expensive, accessible.
Schimri Yoyo: Oh, that’s a great goal. That’s actually a very unique proposition. That’s great to hear.
Ben Pickard: If anyone’s listening to this and you know how to do this, hit me up. I would love to hear it.
Schimri Yoyo: Yeah, we’ll farm that out and see if we can outsource that for you and see if anyone will be able to help you with that. That seems like a great goal.
Ben Pickard: Great.
Schimri Yoyo: Just a few more questions. Thank you again, Benjamin, for your time. Just wanted to know, you mentioned Facebook a little bit but are there ways that you’re using social media and technology to promote your services and promote your gym?
Ben Pickard: Yeah. Aside from just posting on Facebook, having a website, we’ve done really well with paid advertising. That’s done [well]. There’s been multiple two or three-month periods over the last five years where we get huge influxes of—just our marketing has really clicked with the demographic we’re serving.
I am totally—despite being 30 years old—totally an old man with social media. I don’t have Instagram. Our gym just got Instagram because one of my coaches basically forced it on me and she’s totally correct to do so. We’re not as good at social media as we could be and that’s something where I am aware that is low-hanging fruit, that we can do better.
We’re a lot of referrals, a lot of word of mouth. I like meeting with people and talking about business and stuff like that. I’ll meet with a chiropractor and talk about how we run things and how to maintain professionalism and we’ll give referrals out of that type of thing.
But yeah, our social media game is not as strong as it could be outside of our page and ads on Facebook.
Schimri Yoyo: Lastly, tell us all what’s next for you and your business. Besides the great commune vision, is there anything in the immediate future that you want us to know about?
Ben Pickard: I know it’s the typical answer in fitness nowadays but I’ve started to do some business coaching, so I’ve got four clients right now that I’m working with to help them grow their businesses. I have discovered, I really, really like it.
I’m stealing the words from Pete Dupuis, being the guy behind the guy. I love processes and systems and sales and business operations and I’ve discovered a lot of people don’t.
That’s something I’ve been really enjoying, helping people make their business more efficient, make more money, free up some time to spend with their loved ones. That’s been enjoyable.
Honestly, I don’t know how often you get this answer but being in business is a lot of hours and a lot of effort and a lot of time and I’m now focusing a bit more on having intentional family time and taking some time off, taking some Fridays off and not checking email on the weekends.
John Berardi had this awesome podcast. I listened to it years ago, probably my favorite podcast of all time, talking about setting guardrails in your life, about “I’m willing to work from A to B,” and then you try to fit as much as you can into that so that when you’re done, you can spend time with your family.
That’s really trying to find that balance of running my business, serving the people I’ve helped them from a business coaching standpoint, and then actually having an intentional family time because my son was born in my third year of university, which you can imagine is a bit rocky. Starting a business, I wasn’t around a ton and I really want to be there for my fiancé and my son.
Schimri Yoyo: That is a great goal and so we wish you much success with your business coaching and with Lean Strong Fit. Hopefully, we’ll get back to you again once you get your vision of that commune up and running. I would love to hear more about that and dive into that more specifically.
Ben Pickard: Yeah, I’d be happy to share.
Schimri Yoyo: Alright. Thank you again for your time, Ben. Have a good one.
Ben Pickard: Yeah, thanks for having me.
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Schimri Yoyo is a writer for Exercise.com and a financial advisor with active life and health insurance licenses. In a past life, he covered Villanova Men’s Basketball and Big East Football for Examiner.com. Schimri has also produced freelance copywriting, editing, and proofreading for various websites and online publications for over a decade. He is an avid sports fan, possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Boston Celtics, Boston Red Sox, and San Francisco 49ers. Schimri is an educator and a storyteller who is eager to assist individuals and families to stay financially and physically fit.
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