Meet Colton Tessener, Co-Founder of Arise Athletics
June 19, 2019
Colton Tessener is a Strength & Conditioning Coach and owner of Arise Athletics in North Carolina. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Exercise Science from UNC-Wilmington and has 10 years of hands-on experience in coaching clients of all types on improving physical performance. His gym, Arise Athletics, has been recognized locally as Small Business of the Year and named one of the Best Gyms in Wake County (Raleigh, NC).
SCHIMRI: How did you begin your journey in the field of strength and fitness training?
COLTON: Like a lot of people, as a teenager, my first foray into exercise was the cheap little weight set in the garage when I was in eighth grade probably. Working out at the Y, and like all the other teenage guys who would do bench press and bicep curls, that kind of thing.
Throughout my whole childhood, I was very active in doing different sports. Sort of found my sports niche in martial arts. [First,] through wrestling and later through mixed martial arts.
Throughout the whole time I was working out, I was not necessarily connecting it so much with my performance in those sports but more working out for the sheer enjoyment of it or [for] aesthetic goals. I was sort of letting my boxing coach direct, whatever he said goes, with training for boxing, and outside of that, I’m doing my aesthetic workouts to try to look how I wanted to look.
I did transition, with a little bit more maturity, to study in the field to make performance training the main basis for my training. That transition [came] w about the time of [my] becoming a trainer. I had a great opportunity in college to get my first job in personal training as I was studying exercise science in college.
It was a great way. It sort of gave me a leg up on a lot of my peers to maybe take something from the classroom, and have both the classroom and practical side of developing as a trainer versus sheerly learning in the classroom and then it being four years later, after the degree, before you get any real-life experience.
SCHIMRI: That’s great. It seems like your curiosity with personal training and physical fitness led you to want to dig deeper into that. That’s awesome.
Now you talk about being in the classroom and having different coaches that were around you. Is there anyone you would consider a mentor for you or before you became a personal trainer? Did you use a personal trainer as you were working out toward some fitness goals?
COLTON: I never really had the experience of being a client of a personal trainer. You could say maybe the relationship was similar [what I had with] some of my coaches. I’ve certainly been coached before, and I think that’s really important for anybody that wants to become a trainer, having that experience of being in the shoes of the person that is getting instruction.
I had sports coaches that were big influences and a couple of just random opportunities here and there. I didn’t necessarily have a mentor relationship that lasted for many years on end. I did, here and there, to have opportunities to meet–
For example, in college, it happened to be that a Division I strength and conditioning coach from another school in North Carolina was down in Wilmington where I went to school for the summer and I was introduced to him and just had to put it out there: “Where was he working out? Could I come?” Even if was just to watch, observe some methods, things like that, and at least for that short period of time, he did take me under his wing.
[And I think that’s what you want to do] if you want to develop as best you can as a coach.
Not only do the workouts and do the opportunities put forth to you, but [also] to look for those opportunities [to arise] because there’s a whole host of things I may not have learned if I didn’t approach this guy. He certainly didn’t come up to me and offer to teach me anything.
SCHIMRI: That’s awesome. That shows the importance of being proactive in terms of your career and you didn’t just sit back.
As a personal trainer, for you, is there a specific sport or athletic competition that you would say you prefer helping others train for or that you’re more specialized in one particular sport over another?
COLTON: I’d say the sport I care most about, that is the most important to me as a participant, is mixed martial arts. Any type of combat sport is, I guess, what I connect with the most. But as far as the clients I train, they can be from a variety of different sports. A lot of them are not actually competitive athletes.
I have a lot of former competitive athletes. When you have that mentality of a person [who competed] beyond childhood sports, somebody that competed in some sports at least until their early adulthood, they kind of keep that mentality.
Even 10 years later, while the goals might have changed because they’re not going any longer on the football field or basketball court, the certain type of person still has an innate desire to get the most out of themselves that they can and to always feel like they are on the path of improvement.
The people I work with most–in addition to the young athletes of different sports–I wouldn’t say my training niche is for any one sport in particular. But the more common term for how I train would be general physical preparation or GPP.
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The methods that I employ in training day-to-day are things that–for instance, there’s no sport that it doesn’t help to be stronger than you are. So while we might think of the main sports that need strength training like football, wrestling, things like that, that are really physical and other sports that we think of as a more cardio-based sport [also benefit from strength training].
There’s a certain degree to which, especially at a young age, I look at some of the athletes and say you need to get better all around. I don’t think it’s the goal of a strength and conditioning coach to train them for their sport and mimic their sport’s techniques in the gym.
That’s their sports coach’s duty, and my duty, the way I look at it, is how do I upgrade them physically all around and that’s going to carry over…
They’re still doing their sports practice, doing the technical and skills practice with their sports coach who knows their job on that side better than I do, but how do I send them out to their practices one percent stronger than the last time they were there or being able to go that little bit much longer. I think that’s universal to all sports.
SCHIMRI: That makes a lot of sense. So we talked a little bit about your background and how you got the passion to get into physical fitness industry now we just want to talk about your beliefs and philosophy in your training.
If you had to describe your training philosophy or methodology in one word what would that be?
COLTON: One word’s a tough one, man. I would say progression. That’s the universal underlying thing no matter what you’re training for, no matter what the particular physical goals are.
You’re not really training if you don’t have some sort of plan of progression. That’s also the only way to sort of gauge is the training successful. Is it actually leading to what the goal is? Is there a progression over time? That’s the principle that guides everything I conduct and train.
SCHIMRI: That actually leads me to my next question. How do you measure progress or success for you and your clients? First for your clients and then for yourself, how are you measuring progress?
COLTON: That is a great question, and it’s something that’s vital. A professional trainer or coach always need to be aware of that. It’s having some sort of measurable benefits.
I measure all their training based on what can we measure. That’s one thing that attracts me to performance training above things like aesthetic where it’s more subjective that somebody looks more defined or something like that.
I’m not attracted to that nearly as much as performance training where every training session it’s not only a workout. We’re improving the progression of strength, endurance, anything like that. It in itself serves as that data point for their current level of performance.
I’m really big on meticulous note-taking. If it’s a one-on-one coaching client, I’m keeping records of everything they’re doing. If it’s a group strength training classes, I oversee them keeping their own notes on that. I think it’s tremendously important to always know where you’re at and therefore be able to see those measurable improvements in performance.
SCHIMRI: You’ve written on your own blogs and elsewhere performance being the main thing and that’s how you measure whether a personal trainer is good or worth the value rather than just having a bunch of letters and certifications behind them.
Can you just elaborate a little bit about your personal philosophy of coaching and training and its relationship to education? What’s a good balance between having enough education or too much education?
COLTON: It’s been my experience as someone who sort of followed the path that is the default plan of you’re 18 years old and about to start college that you can lean many of the same things you would find if you google searched “How to be a trainer?”
I went to college for exercise science; got my bachelor’s degree; did personal training certification in order to get my first job and maintained that for several years.
After obtaining a bachelor’s in exercise science, I was qualified and able to take and pass the strength and conditioning specialist certification. All the while I realized, and from observing a lot of other trainers, not everybody who has these credentials, the kinds that you can see on paper, not all of them necessarily make the best coaches.
It can be part of the recipe, but I think it’s a mistake for anybody to look just at those credentials or education background and say “This is what makes me qualified” because at the end of the day [there’s a limit to] what you can learn in a classroom; I think this is a field where you learn by doing.
You learn by actual observation. I think just getting in the trenches, so to speak, and, first of all, training clients for yourself, you’re going to learn a lot about training other people. I think a lot of what I’ve learned personally and what I implement on a daily basis coaching people is not anything that I learned several years ago in an exercise science classroom.
That can kind of be a foundation that you work off of, but as far as the real methods of what works in day-to-day training in real life and not in a lab setting, I think you’ve got to get down and dirty with actually doing things, implementing things, and learning from mentors that have also been in the real world doing training.
SCHIMRI: With your clients that you’ve seen that achieved the best results regardless of the sport or field, what are some of the common traits, maybe two or three common traits that you’ve observed from the clients that achieve the best results under your training?
COLTON: The very most important one for anybody is discipline. There’s no other kind of discipline than self-discipline and motivation. No matter what I or any other coach or trainer says to a person, we can’t make someone be motivated or disciplined. Something has to resonate in them to want to accomplish the things they set for as training goals and to stick with it.
There are going to be times in training when it’s not going to be fun and it’s not exactly what they want to be doing out there.
I’d say, without going on too much of a tangent, I do draw a distinction between what’s training and what’s exercise, and that would be training is a systematic plan aimed at accomplishing specific results, so we lay out a road map of how we’re going to get there.
Whereas with exercise, that could be any physical activity, not necessarily aimed at a specific plan. It’s a lot looser and can be a lot more subject to what I feel like doing that day. That’s great for a lot of people, and I think on their own, that’s what a lot of people do.
If somebody has a trainer or a coach, they should be doing the former. They should be training, working toward a specific thing and automatically that entails, sometimes, doing what you don’t want to do but you just know you need to do.
Or you made a commitment that that’s what you’re going to do even when the going gets tough. It can be a grind. People that have discipline [have it] in two different senses, sort of.
One is when they’re in the midst of the work, how much will they stick with it and push themselves to their physical limit and not just stop at their mental limit when their brain tells them “Stop. This is uncomfortable. I don’t like this. We should quit.”
One type of discipline is to be able to shut that down and work to your full physical potential. The other is a sort of discipline in the long-term sense to stick with it over time when it can become a grind.
I tell folks when they first start training with me, I’m going to explain everything about why it’s so important to do the training that we do and set the expectations because a couple of months into doing squats three times a week, inevitably you’re going to walk in the door one day and not want to do it. That’s not when I want to have the conversation about.
Here’s why you want to do it. Here’s why you should do it. It’s the people that can stick with something long-term and stick with something even when it ceases to be fun.
SCHIMRI: What does your ideal client look like? Or which clients do you work best with?
COLTON: Ones that I get a lot, especially with being a coach of primarily performance training, and a lot of time athletic performance being involved with that, the assumption can be with me maybe I want the best athletes or the person that can come in and wow me with how much they can lift or their conditioning or something. It’s really not the case at all.
The mentality, to me, makes a good client. [The discipline and self-motivation] makes them successful is what makes me prefer them as a client.
I’d rather have the person that is the most average, not genetically-gifted person, but they got the mentality of coming in and they’re going to give their best to it every time and remain consistent.
I have had people you’d expect [to be great clients because] they’re the most talented physically and most physically capable, but sometimes the mental piece behind why they’re training is not there. That was kind of a surprise, kind of something that led me to change my belief of where I wanted my career to go.
Early on, I thought the only route for me would be working as a collegiate strength coach at a D1 school; that’s what I had in mind. But having the opportunity to learn and be in that environment, you kind of realize the athletes, what they’re most motivated to do is their sport.
Sometimes in the gym, they’re there because it’s an obligation that they’re participating, that the athletic department at their school is making them do. So I’ve seen incredibly gifted, just like physical beasts, that disappointed me in training because they weren’t mentally giving their all.
I’d rather have someone that is the most average person in the world. They might be middle-aged, they might have physical problems, but they come in and they’re ready to get after it for the best that they can do and consistently do that and we can see that measurable progress. That’s really who I’m about serving in my coaching.
SCHIMRI: It’s clear that you’re passionate in your beliefs on training and what you want to accomplish with your clients, and that’s obviously led you to a very specific business model and that’s what we want to discuss next.
You said you originally thought you were going to go the D1 strength and conditioning route but instead you’re the co-owner of Arise Athletics, so I just want to know what makes training at Arise Athletics unique? Why choose Arise over any other gym in North Carolina?
COLTON: I do think we’re offering a unique proposition especially in our area. Just to go over a little bit about what we do at Arise, everything is guided in some way.
We think that there’s plenty of opportunities out there for the open gym membership, what I call the health club industry in which I also worked at one time managing those huge gyms that had 7,000 members, that sort of thing.
Where your membership entails just permission to come in and use their equipment. That was an experience that sort of disappointed me. There’s very little achieved in those sort of facilities. I’m thankful for the experience though because it helped me gauge what I wanted my own business to be.
The only way I’m satisfied with my business and being able to be proud of it is not about the volume of members that we can have or the revenue every month or anything like that. The bottom line is we want people achieving something, and we think that’s best done in a training scenario.
Whether it’s individual or group, we just think it produces results a lot more reliably when there’s some sort of guidance for the people and it doesn’t come only from myself and my wife, who’s the other trainer here, it comes from establishing a community of people that are like-minded in that they’re here to improve themselves.
They’re here [so that] each time they come in the door they can be that one percent better than yesterday, that kind of mentality. The results come a lot better whenever you’re in that community and you have the guidance of the professional.
Even though we offer different services at Arise, that’s what makes us unique from a big, big segment of the fitness industry where maybe it’s a big open gym, health club setting and then [only] a select amount of memberships have that personal training.
We have, at minimum, people that are getting trained in at least a semi-private or small group sense. Then we offer the upgrade of the most premium service of having completely one-on-one individualized programming.
As far as what makes it unique, it’s not that we’re only strength and conditioning gym. We’re not the only people that lift weights or have that guided sort of training.
One thing that I think makes us unique and different from where a lot of the industry is going and has gone in the past 20 years of fitness—it’s ironic—but we’re standing out because we are not following the pack on what is the trendiest thing in fitness right now and what are the gimmicks.
We don’t try to be the yes men for anybody and say we’ll accomplish whatever and promise quick and easy solutions, or that we’ve got this brand new piece of equipment or this brand new training methodology that are just buzzwords to grab attention but don’t produce the best outcome for people.
We say, “Hey, we’re going to do this the old school way. It’s going to take hard work, it’s going to take patience, and consistent commitment.” We actually use those words that most gyms are scared to use.
That’s all a part of establishing what kind of business you want to have and what kind of clientele you want. We’ve kind of intentionally decided who we want to serve and who we’re willing to let find another solution for themselves.
I’d rather establish an identity as a business and stick to that and not just go for getting as many members or clients as you can, but get the right clients for what you want to do and what your values are.
SCHIMRI: In answering that you answered my next question. It seems that you guys at Arise Athletic are really willing to commit to that personal attention and creation of community as opposed to just following the latest trends and that gives you that unique distinction.
You did mention that your wife is a trainer, I guess she is the other co-owner, Giannina. Did I pronounce that correctly?
COLTON: Giannina. And a lot of people just go with G, so that’s fine.
SCHIMRI: That’s cool that you guys get to work together, and you guys are both trainers. That’s awesome that you share that passion together both in business and marriage.
What are some of the pros and cons of running your own business when family is involved?
COLTON: I think the relationship of running a business together, the things that are going to make that successful are a lot of things that are going to make the personal relationship, in our case our marriage, successful as well.
The biggest one being our shared values and what’s important to us. My wife and I are so much different in personality and when it comes to how we train people and what we’re interested in when it comes to training. We’re very, very different.
I come from a background of personal training in that when I am training groups it’s all performance related and it’s by the book having these specific, measurable metrics. My wife is very different in that she makes it fun and exciting for people.
Her background is doing group fitness classes where a lot of it [is more relational]. It’s about how do you take that person that wouldn’t be going to the gym, going into the weight room by themselves and training themselves for an hour, pushing themselves for an hour. How do you get those people to come for an hour and forget that they’re working out because you make it fun for them, you make it a social event for them, and at the end of it, they realize how much they were sweating, how hard they were breathing, and stuff like that.
We got different methods, but we’re both accomplishing results. You’ve got to fit the right client to the right trainer.
Naturally, coaches need to reflect that as well to give people that option. It doesn’t work well for me to have that person that needs as much motivation and excitement and stuff like that. I’m more about the nuts and bolts. “Here’s the plan, and we’re executing on the plan.”
The coaches I had the best experiences with getting trained by had that no-nonsense, matter-of-fact kind of thing like, “Here’s what needs to be done, so let’s do it.”
Our shared value system is the key to balancing our differences while working together in the same business; it is the way we imagined operating a business. Because of the values that we share, we can successfully manage our business together even though the details of our training methods might be different.
Even when opening our own business was just a nugget of an idea, we were right on the same page as far as the underlying principles upon which it would be built.
Number one: We wanted to do things the right way when it comes to the ethics of business.
That’s something that, unfortunately, in the gym industry, both small and large companies, personal trainers don’t always have the best reputation. You hear some bad stories about poor ethical practices in the business.
SCHIMRI: I’ve actually been a victim of that. Right after I got married, so I understand.
COLTON: We said number one, that’s going to be part of our identity, and the next part is that we want to create deep and lasting relationships with the people that we train.
The third thing would be wherever our business is located, we want to be a significant part of that community so that even the people that don’t necessarily come here as members, we’re known as contributors to the community.
We’re not going to be for everybody when it comes to where they particularly want to workout. But we are on the same page that we want to be known as the go-to place in the community for what we specialize in.
We want to be known, even by the people that don’t come here or know us personally, “Oh, that’s the place where they do X and if you want this, that’s where you go.”
SCHIMRI: Now, as far as running your business from day-to-day, how difficult is it to differentiate when to work on your business and when to work in your business?
How do manage the distinctions of when to wear the trainer hat and when to where the owner hat?
COLTON: That’s the trickiest part of transitioning part from trainer to business owner. This is going around the question a little bit and coming back to it, but I think if anybody is a trainer right now thinking of going the route of opening a business, going out on their own, that’s the first thing you just have to be aware of: you can’t just think of trying to develop yourself as a trainer and be successful anymore.
You’ve got to actually want to do the business side of it because I don’t think there’s such a thing as being such a great trainer that your business is automatically successful. You’ve got to put effort into the business side as well.
You could be the best trainer in the world, but if you don’t know how to market that and let people know that, who are you going to train? You’re going to be the best trainer in the world sitting there alone in the gym because you don’t have clients who can go and put the word out there.
You’ve got to do the marketing side, the sales side, and the backend boring stuff, the logistical things.
That’s been the biggest transition for me, and from the first eight years working in the fitness industry, being a trainer, being an employee of a gym for the most part to opening my own business, some of those changes I knew what to expect, but then there are some that are unpredictable.
You learn them as you go when it comes to the business side. You’ve got to be able to manage the different tasks of each one. You can’t think of trying to develop yourself as a trainer. You might have to more rapidly learn the business ownership and business management side of things.
At the same time, you can’t let your training go by the wayside because that’s what you offer and still needs to be supreme. The quality of what you offer and actually being able to train people and get them the results have to be the foundation of a business.
At the same time, you’ve got to embrace and try to relish the new challenge of business ownership. The things I’ve learned about online digital marketing gave me sort of a new avenue to have something I could be training and improving on and looking at it in a very similar to what I want to train and improve on physically in the gym.
SCHIMRI: Does that involve social media marketing? How are you using social media to promote some of your services?
COLTON: That’s been the most valuable for us. That’s huge. I think a lot of gym owners used to follow the model of “Hey, if I just train people really well, I’m going to get all the referrals. I’m going to get a lot of word of mouth.”
Or just having a Facebook page and having a website was enough, and “Hey, people will just find me.” In my experience, that’s not true. You’ve got to have ways to promote. We’re never going to be the people that do huge volume broadcasting because it just doesn’t fit with what we’re offering as a gym.
We’re sort of going for that niche clientele that, as I said, fits the profile, fits the ideal client profile that I spoke about earlier. When we’re going for those, advertising on something like a radio ad or a billboard to get everybody doesn’t necessarily hit. Or the people that would be attracted to that sort of marketing, only a very small percentage of them would fit our ideal client profile.
And my advice as far as what’s going to make the business successful is actually do not go for volume. Do not try to be all things for all people. Clearly establish, “Here’s what we do here, and if that’s what you want, then we’d love to have you and we’ll bend over backward to help you achieve it.”
I think you’ve got to be willing to protect that identity as well and be honest with people if you do run into that person who was a potential customer that is not a fit. I think you’ve got to be honest with them.
SCHIMRI: Two more questions Colton before we wrap up. As you look right now, what would you say is the biggest challenge facing your business?
COLTON: It is that promotional side, and it’s brand awareness. What we did with Arise Athletics, in order to start our own thing and make it completely our vision, we had to truly start from scratch, completely, rather than go the route of a franchise or something like that.
Because it was so important to us to be able to make it in the image that we had imagined. Honestly, we just had faith in ourselves that we were going to do it better that way than take some existing model that we had to buy into.
That would have been the easier way, and it would have solved the problem of brand awareness. Just having a recognizable name, maybe having an existing set of ads that the parent company gives you to put out there.
We started Arise Athletics. It began as a brainstorming session like, “Alright, how do we come up with the name, the logo, the appearance?” and everything like that. Our different offerings were totally made from scratch.
It gives us a lot of pride in what we’re doing to say now that we’ve been around for two and a half years. We’ve actually won some local awards for our gym as being a finalist for one of the best gyms in Wake County, one of the most populated areas of North Carolina, and winning the small business of the year for this past year from a local chamber of commerce.
It does make it that much more rewarding when you do get that recognition, but it’s tough, man. We work in a market where we’ve got some of the big goliaths of the industry that have recognizable names and have these huge budgets to advertise and market.
So that’s our biggest challenge is how do we do it almost guerrilla style as far as getting our name out there and just making people aware. We’re very confident in what we’re offering and we’re following through on that. I think when we do have people come and join with us we are, in most cases, able to over-deliver even on what we say we’re offering.
The challenge is just making the people aware that we’re here to offer it to them.
SCHIMRI: Lastly, what do you think is next for you and G and your business? What are the next steps as far any expansion or adding services?
COLTON: I think the route that we have always planned to go and envisioned it going is growing to more than our single location here. Eventually, we would want to upgrade our facility that we are personally in right now.
As the number of clients we have necessitates that, we will also expand to have more trainers work under us, provided we can find the people that really fit the same mentality of what we promote here.
Really, to be successful in the fitness industry—because you don’t get into this industry if what you’re after is the money—you’ve got to be passionate about it, because it’s a very small of a percentage of trainers that are really killing it in revenue produced.
So I think you’ve got to put yourself in a position where you’re not just trading the hours that you physically work in person with clients for money because we’ve done that, and it can be the recipe for really wearing yourself out.
You get burned out and you can lose your passion for it when you limit yourself, “I’ve got this much time in the day and this much per hour that I can make.” So our vision is to put ourselves in a position where the business has other means of revenue. But I always want to be that coach that is in the trenches training clients, and I don’t plan on ever losing sight of that.
But I think the natural progression for a business owner is to gradually keep moving more and more toward the owner or entrepreneur side of that business, especially as we bring in more trainers and outsource, so to speak, more of the responsibilities of the training.
Then we can be zoomed out on that and look at it from a broader perspective. If that means expanding and having more facilities, and we’re more like managing the program, then that’s our long term goal.
As far as offering other services, only insofar as they fit our model and fit our values. As I alluded to previously, we’re the last people that are going to say “Oh, this is the hot new thing, so let’s bring that in and let’s do that.” Even though we’ve been approached multiple times that we should add this or add that, [we’ve resisted.]
Especially as a young business when you’re trying to make it, those things are tempting. For instance, something I run into a lot is people that call or actually come in the door and are looking for that open gym setting, just having a weight room to workout in.
It can be tempting to say, “That’s not part of our business model, that’s not what we designed it to be, but, oh man, we really need all the clients we can get, so can we expand it.”
I try to look at it from a client’s perspective and draw from the experience in my martial arts training. I’ve shopped around for different coaches to coach me in the boxing and jiu-jitsu stuff.
When I wanted a boxing coach, I had more respect for the person that said they are a [strictly] “boxing” coach. They have that specialty versus the place [that claims,] “We offer boxing and wrestling and krav maga.” They’re trying to do too much.
You’re naturally going to doubt how good are you at any one thing if you’re trying to coach everything.
That goes back to what I previously mentioned to you; I think you’re most successful when you set an identity. it’s got to be what you’re truly good at and invested in.
With that identity, it doesn’t mean that we won’t expand or change some things, but we’re going to be thoroughly conscientious of not taking just any opportunity that pops up and seems like a way to get more members or something that’s just copying what another business is doing to make money.
SCHIMRI: That’s awesome. The thing is that you and G have a great identity and the growth and recognition that you’re getting has been organic and embedded in the identity you guys have created and not chasing after trends.
Good luck to you and much continued success to you and Arise Athletics and thank you again for your time today.
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