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Laurie McCartney Talks About Developing Your Business For A Changing Fitness Industry

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This week we are joined by Laurie McCartney, who is the President of Global Fitness and Wellness Solutions at Ascend Learning, which includes The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), Athletics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA), Premier Global, ActiveIQ, and ClubConnect.

In this episode Laurie talks about the changing role of fitness learning and development, how to add to your toolkit of skills to grow your business and the new opportunities on the horizon for fitness businesses post pandemic.

Connect with Laurie here.

Episode Link

This episode of The Fitness Founders Podcast can be found on SpotifyApple Podcasts, and anywhere you get your podcasts.


Kevin: How’s it going everyone? Welcome to the Fitness Founders Podcast. I’m Kevin Mannion, VP of Marketing here at Glofox. This week we talk to Laurie McCartney, President of Global Fitness and Wellness Solutions at Ascend, the world’s leader in fitness trainer certification and training courses. Laurie talks about the changing role of fitness learning and development, how to add to your toolkit of skills grow your business, and new business opportunities or fitness businesses post-pandemic. Let’s have a listen. 

Laurie McCartney, welcome to the show. 

Laurie: Thank you. I’m glad to be here. 

Kevin: Great to have you on, all the way from Los Angeles, I think. I’m really looking forward talking to you today. I guess, let’s kick off and tell us a little bit about your career in fitness and what you do.

Laurie: Sure. My name is Laurie McCartney, and I’m President of Ascend Learning’s Global Fitness and Wellness division. The brands I oversee are National Academy of Sports Medicine, AFAA, Premiere Global in the UK, as well as ClubConnect which is our health club offering. And basically what we do is we certify, train fitness professionals all over the world. We’ve trained over 1.3 million fitness professionals and we have representatives in over 80 countries. What we provide is certifications, specializations, education to really keep the fitness professionals at the top of their game, have them evolve especially in these changing world, and really everything from certified professional training to group exercise to nutrition to wellness. Now virtual coaching is a very big part of our offering, so we really just continually develop a toolbox so that fitness professionals can really be the most effective and transform as many lives as possible. 

I’ve always been passionate about fitness. As a young girl I was an athlete. I play college field hockey. Very inspired by my father who was also an athlete and was the weightlifting champion of Northern California. Fitness has really always been part of my journey, so very excited when I got the opportunity to lead this organization. Prior to this, I also work to a lot of consumer products, brand paid companies such as Walt Disney, Stila cosmetics, POM Wonderful, so really had a journey in my own career of working with great brands. And why I was so excited to really take on this opportunity was because of my passion for fitness coupled with the really superior gold standard brands that we have at Ascend Learning for Global Fitness and Wellness. It’s a great opportunity, and the most important inspiring thing is to work with fitness professionals all over the world, and wake up every day and love my job and love what they do. 

Kevin: Yeah, I definitely agree with you on that. Tell us, you’re I guess responsible for a tremendous amount of training and certification of fitness professionals. How come even before COVID, how was the approach changed to that over the years?

Laurie: Sure. I think it historically when with personal trainers and the fitness professionals, it was very much what you do kind of a gym or when you’re working out. And really that whole training model itself has become much more holistic, and we realized really the toolbox has expanded. Traditionally, National Academy of Sports Medicine was really known for their certified personal trainer, and their performance exercise which is really for an elite athlete as well as proactive exercise with this injury prevention. And now was toolbox that enabled you to really train anyone. We like to say 99.99 at all different levels of fitness in a safe and effective and transformative way. Beyond that, we really expanded through the last few years to realize it was suddenly not just what I’m doing at the gym but what I’m putting in my body, so then we really expanded. We have a certified nutrition coach offering. Lots of different specialization like youth fitness. We’re developing a lot right now in the area of really wellness. Also looking at things like cognitive and how does it all connect, that ecosystem between your fitness, your brain health or mental health. 

There’s a real weight at the education itself has become much more diverse and holistic, and really bringing lots of other consumers into the industry. We train fitness professionals. We also offer great offerings what we call prosumers, so people who might want to be a certified nutrition coach for example, or they might just want to get that education for their own personal benefit, for their family. It’s really just the broader definition. Before COVID, we saw that kind of really expanding and that’s continued obviously. I think COVID has really brought fitness and wellness into the mindset of so many people, so it just continues to build from there. 

Kevin: Yeah. Do you think the businesses are evolving at the same rate and adding these capabilities at the same rate as people are having these skills or how do you think the businesses have been evolving over the last few years?

Laurie: I think a couple things that’s really exciting. With our health club partners, we see that the more specialization we provide our fitness professionals the more effective they are working in the health clubs. For example, a lot of people might want a trainer but they want to know about nutrition. They’re really adapting to offer their club members a more diverse set of tools, and that’s really helping with our professionals. We also see the corporate wellness arena. So many corporations are now taking sort of more responsibility about what can they offer their employees. We like to say we’re the first step in healthcare, we’re preventative healthcare. The more that you can really have a fit, healthy, active employee base, all sort, even from a post standpoint savings on workplace absences, disability, lots of things. We see a lot more trends with corporate wellness. 

We also just see a general, really in the US especially, this increasing need to really address that chronic disease issue, whether that’s obesity, whether that’s diabetes, and sort everything from corporate partners wanted to do that, to the healthcare system to really see what we do in fitness and wellness. A big really first step in helping get there from a healthy society standpoint, so lots of different ways that we can really expand and partner with different corporations on that level too.

Kevin: Now, I’m curious, you trained and certify so many different fitness professionals. What do you see as the areas in general fitness professionals are not investing enough time and training or learning in general?

Laurie: Couple things. That’s a great question. I think one thing that we see with our fitness professionals is that it’s really what we call the “gig-economy”. A lot of people working part-time. One of the issues that really plagues our industry is that the churn, right. People get in the industry but they can’t continue to make a living, so they fallout. An area that we really think is important is helping our business professionals with our fitness professionals with tools so they can manage their business. For example, we have an app that enables them to really retain clients, market the clients, billing, scheduling, all sorts of things that take a lot of time that helped them really hit the ground running in managing an actual business. You might want to be a fitness professional. You don’t necessarily want to be sort of somebody who’s doing all the back-office stuff, so we really try to sort of ease that pain point and help them succeed, and really save them time so they can spend most of the time doing what they love which is really being with clients, transforming lives, and all that fun stuff that comes with it. We are trying to work on providing them the tools to keep them in business and keep them successful. 

Kevin: Aside of the tools, what is there for say somebody who’s a really good fitness person but doesn’t have enough business acumen? What kind of resources either are you providing or should they be investing in?

Laurie: We have like a business accelerator course which helps them with basic tools, and even within our courses now, we build modules that are much more. For example soft skills. Somebody might really be great trainer but they don’t necessarily feel as comfortable like how do you get in front of a client, how do you approach a client on the floor, how do you have a tough conversation. We’ve been really developing. We just launched our recent CPT7 which is our latest state of the art certified personal training program. A big part of that is really soft skilled development. We also have a partner company at Ascend that offers simulations. We’ve been incorporated simulations into that, so you can actually stimulate a conversation with a client. That’s one area in particular we’re spending a lot of time helping our fitness professionals really shore up that skills. 

Kevin: It seems obvious but I never would have thought that a personal training certification would include learning those soft skills, but it’s obviously I think part of the business. 

Laurie: We’re also offering now, with COVID, we’ll be coming out with specialization in April that’s really helping the fitness professionals with people who have actually recovered from COVID, and how do they train them, and all the different issues that may or may not come up. What we try to do is really have dynamic education and content that’s constantly evolving to meet the needs of sort of the changing world to really make our fitness professionals as effective as they can be, and address their concerns. That’s been something that we’d really, we like to say we have a living content engine so it’s always changing. 

Kevin: Yeah, that’s cool. I think it’s a good segue to the next thing that I want to ask you about was how do you see the industry is changing post-pandemic? Maybe very curious to start, what is your take on digital fitness, online fitness and where you see it’s going, and by extension what that means for fitness professionals? 

Laurie: That’s a great question. We’re seeing a lot with digital fitness so much activity in that market. We really see positive opportunity there because really is bringing more awareness, just actually more consumers into this ability to workout from home or remotely, and have a much more flexible training model. We don’t think gyms are going away. We think what’s really emerging is a hybrid model, so people really wanted to go to the gyms for what health clubs do so well, right – the sense of community, the sense of accountability, driving results, even the opportunity with lots of different equipment, and you can’t always do it if you’re working out from home or in a park. All those things that people are kind of missing with the pandemic I think they will continue to thrive in the health club environment. But the hope is that really people will just have a much more flexible, more ability to workout, more actually, so that if you can actually get to your health club, you can actually workout out from home or in a park, wherever it might be. We’re really working with our fitness professionals to meet the client where they are wherever that is, right. That’s where I see the opportunity. I see the hybrid model emerging. I see the health clubs are not going away but I think health clubs will also be involving their offerings to become digital as well. To work with their members to offer both I think is important as well. 

Kevin: When it comes to bras tax, what do you think is going to be the most lucrative version of this for fitness trainers and fitness professionals? How do you give much thought to in a hybrid world, how they can earn a living and build their own careers?

Laurie: Yeah. I think the couple of things which I think were great about this is that traditionally, fitness professionals would always teach talents where they have to get up 4 in the morning, go to the gym, every client, from 4 to 7, those day parts you’re training. And then, all of a sudden you have all these free time, and then you’re doing bunch of group exercises trying to keep yourself busy, and then at night. It was hard for them to control their schedule and to streamline that, and actually build a broader business. What this will really enable them to do is better balance at scheduling, so having remote actual training in certain day parts that where you wouldn’t have that opportunity at the gym. For example, you might have lots of stay at home moms. They drop their kids up to school and they’ve got this window, or they might have a young child that’s napping but they have an hour or 2 to go and workout. What really will bring I think more people into fitness, and hopefully to really provide that fitness professional with the tools to better address that to have more control over their schedule, to increase their earning potential, and to ultimately really become their own entrepreneur if they want to. At the same time, I think that the opportunity for the health clubs is to work with the fitness professional and the members to be versatile and make sure they’re offering extends both at home and at the gym.

Kevin: What changes do you see or do you anticipate in terms of group training? Do you think that it’s going to be the less of a piece of the pie or do you see it rebounding when places open up?

Laurie: Yes. We talked about this quite a bit. IHRSA did recently a study in October of 2020 that was saying that a lot people really miss that kind of sense of community. I think there’s an opportunity. I think fitness will rebound. I think you’ll see different formats. We might do more of sort of small group training, the social distancing. I think there’s definitely going to be some different things that will change. I think there’s pent up demand now that people are wanting to get back to that. I think with the group exercise is a psychology thing as well. I’ve been going to a yoga class in LA for 20 years, and you kind of missing those people and that sense of camaraderie. I think that the great thing about this is I think we’ll actually bring group training as too often that first level of fitness when people might not get a personal trainer yet. They feel like maybe a little more intimidated. Sometimes they find their personal trainers in that group fitness environment. But I think it’s going to bring more members, new members into clubs as people are that much more aware about we really got to stay healthy, and how fitness and wellness is important. I see a new kind of a surge of that as well. I think it will be an opportunity but I think we’ll have to evolve. I think they’ll see new formats, and I think they’ll see different practices within it. 

Kevin: What are your thoughts on when it comes to how sales and marketing are going to change so for clubs or say for personal trainers? Do you think that sales pitch or strategies will change after clubs open back up or what changes do you expect?

Laurie: I think one thing that the pandemic has really brought about is I feel from the sales and marketing perspective really having a more personalize approach. I think clubs are going to have to it’s not sort of one offering for all people. I think people are going to have to be more flexible and more personalize with their membership and how they think about the balance of base on different lifestyles, people who want maybe more of a digital opportunity and some in the club. I think they’re going to have to get creative with that. I think that fitness professional as well. There’s not one standard recipe. I don’t think there’s ever been a standard recipe which is great about fitness is that the opportunity where you see people working with all sorts of different clients, all walks of life, all capabilities, all ages. 

One of the most inspiring thing for me is we have a conference every year with our fitness professionals, and you see and hear these stories about everything from working with meeting an elderly women group, to somebody who had cerebral palsy and working with them, to people who needs recovery. It’s really exciting, but I think that again, the fitness professional just have to continue to be flexible, to address emerging needs, and personalization, and I think the same goes for the health clubs. I think the pandemic is realizing that everybody’s coming out at different ways. Some people are going to be more intimidated to go back to the clubs, so the clubs have to work with that. Think through, what are the different offerings that can meet the needs, and just be flexible. I also think that that the clubs are going to in a good way really have to listen to the fitness professionals and want to offer them the best possible opportunities whether that’s… We threw our ClubConnect a business. We offer continuing education into clubs. So great way to retain your fitness professionals is you invest in them, right, so offering them new educational opportunities, offering them career path that make sense, offering them lots of different benefits. And thinking through that, so that you know, kind of taking care of the fitness professionals as well, and being a little more flexible than maybe have to do in the past. 

Kevin: That sounds really exciting. It’s obvious to be in tough year, what are you seeing in terms of the number or what are you projecting in terms of whether we’re going to have more fitness professionals or fewer fitness professionals post pandemic?

Laurie: Within our business, we have a very strong year. I think what the pandemic did it as I said I think people just more aware of fitness. I think lots of people being on furlough or trying to think about well maybe I don’t love my career, maybe I wanted to do something that I’m passionate about. We see a lot of new people coming into this industry switching careers, and then you see other people that just brought a prosumer that I talked about. For us right now, we’re seeing more and more people wanting to get educated fitness and wellness. How much that will translate into becoming fitness professionals or if it’s also for self-knowledge, we’ll see. But right now I’m excited about just different demographics that are coming into the business.

Kevin: Do you think in terms of the industry and having more people going to gyms and clubs… There’s obviously a lot of talk around the increased awareness of health and well-being from where you are sitting, are you seeing that happening?

Laurie: Yeah. We’ll seeing, actually it’s interesting. I think there’s a couple of things that clubs we’re seeing talking our health club partners. Lot of them actually their memberships have never been stronger, so there’s a set of pandemic demand. I think that what it is going to force us is really strong operators so that as a health club, you really have to think through what are your marketing strategies, what are your membership strategies. I think it’s going to put more of a premium on the strong operators. It’s really going to be hopefully more of kind of smaller operators, the ones have might not have as much established brand, having to get creative about how do they build that brand, right, so through social media or influencers or different membership models I think is going to be really important.

Kevin: We’ve spoken bit about toolkits, and for those independent operators, what advice do you have, like what are the 3 skills they all need to be, the 3 areas where they all need to be developing to be successful even in the new world. 

Laurie: Number one, I think that, I would say that they need to develop and invest in strong fitness professionals. There’s been studies that say if somebody uses a personal trainer for example, even if you don’t have the best experience the lifetime value of that customer to the gym is like 3 to 4 times. Having someone engage with a fitness professional, having trained certified high caliber professionals I think is really important. I think it’s going to put more of a premium right now with the club to differentiate themselves. 

Secondly, investing in the education that they’re providing them is really important. Now in terms of the club itself I think really just taking through what is it that sets them apart, what would they want to be known for, so that they can position their brand to that demographic target. What is the persona of a typical customer look like, and make sure that you’re actually really appealing to them. And then as we talk about that includes flexibility, offering them hybrid. If you’re a member of my club, there’s digital offerings. We have a platform and you can do something from home as well as come to the gym, and be flexible that way. I think that’s going to be really critical. And then I think just really build your brand from your customer base. Have those testimonials, have that social media, have those influencers. We know that about branding in today’s world is not really about corporate speaking down. It really comes from really one to one, people are really being solid to your brand. The more you can bring that into the pool I think it’s going to be really critical. 

Kevin: Yeah. I think it reminds me that pre-pandemic, probably a lot of the talk around are the biggest threat to a lot of independent businesses was casual visitors, consumers hopping around and trying things out and moving on. How do you see that playing out in terms of retention challenges post-pandemic? 

Laurie: I think it’s kind of duffel because I feel like people are going to want a home to a certain extent because there is a sense of stability or security that comes from going to one location. I think that’s going to be probably stronger draw. But then the second part about it is really offering that flexibility that people, they might be let’s say you work in London and you got a client meeting on one side of the city and you’ve got your office on the other side. That shouldn’t be a barrier, so working with partners that you could actually do different passes or whatever that might be. I think clubs are going to have to be open to that because I think that’s the evolving model and that’s also the evolving consumer today. That Uber mentality, right. People aren’t necessarily grounded to any place. I think that the fitness industry has to evolve that way as well. 

Kevin: I guess the online is a bit kind of a defense against that and that you are adding a bit of convenience into your offer so you’re not as tied to those scenarios for someone’s community and across town or is it the wrong place at the wrong time. I guess maybe let’s just curious what your own predictions are in terms of the big changes that we look back and see over the next 3-5 years? What are those kind of maybe anticipated things that you think about to happen. 

Laurie: I think in terms of the fitness and wellness world, I mean, as I said I do think that there’s an opportunity where more people are just becoming that much more conscious. The responsibility from our industry is really, okay, how do we bring more people in, really have the best offerings, how do we keep people excited about it in terms of preventative health care. I think that’s very important. I also think this virtual gym is really emerging. We are arming our fitness professionals to have that. The consumer at home is doing that so how do you think about that. And then, from that hybrid model, how does the traditional health club really address that as well so that they evolve. Those are kind of the three areas that I think are really important.

Lastly, as we talk about earlier the conversions of fitness and wellness and that continue really just everything from training, to nutrition, to mental health, to cognitive. I think that whole ecosystem is going to be more important going forward. 

Kevin: Maybe there’s no one answer for this, but if I say in my toolkit was running fitness studio with group training and some personal training. What would you start adding on there in terms of the most immediate thing that you can learn pretty quickly, and package up pretty quickly, and deliver value up to your customers pretty quickly?            

Laurie: One thing I think that is important is that all the trainers or your fitness professionals are with how to train well virtually. I mean, one thing we develop specialization. We accelerated it with COVID and that was really critical because you might be face to face but just knowing how to cue and all sort of things to work with from an online experience. I think first and foremost making sure that you have your fitness professionals are versatile so that they work as equally well on either environment is really important. 

And then I think just continuing to evolve the offerings that they have. As I said, we know for example that the most lucrative trainers were actually the ones that have nutrition. Because we were coming into the gym and saying, “Wait a second, I’m working really hard but then I’m not seeing the best results. What do I do from a nutrition standpoint?” Continuing to really provide that toolkit so that you have the most diverse fitness professionals and that can speak to the consumers about multiple things. That might be where we’re really developing wellness right now, and that’s exciting. There’s all sorts of ways to think about, everything from coaching to other ways whether it’s meditation or massage and really thinking through kind of closing the loop on that. 

Kevin: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. If I’m going to summarize the first I’d be doing is maybe getting good at online and making sure the trainers are on point there. Sounds like you’re saying as I’m dipping my toe into the water of these other things that nutrition is going to come next because of the impact you can have and it’s all on with the goals that people are coming to you for in the first place. And then you are into mental health, and coaching, and figuring out how you can make an impact there. Is that a good roadmap?        

Laurie: Yeah, it is. It’s a great roadmap. The only thing I would add maybe is that just becoming more of an issue is chronic disease. Our country in the US is this obesity, but it’s really something worldwide, so how do you help the fitness professional. Part of that is nutrition. Part of that is also dealing with consumers that have chronic conditions whether that’s diabetes or obesity. And that we’re continuing to evolve because as that becomes an issue the more we can help solve that. 

Kevin: I guess before we start to wrap up here, what other advice would you have other than what we spoken about to people for future proofing their businesses after COVID?

Laurie: Well, I think one thing that we really done it. I know it’s very well received by our audience is really just continuing to evolve and so really information resources. We came out with a COVID guide that was really well received. We offered free courses on mental toughness. I think really being able to pivot and be flexible whether you are on the health club side or you’re professional, that continuous learning. And then hopefully what we do here at National Academy of Sports Medicine and through our other brands is hopefully offer resources to help the community so that we continue to evolve. 

Kevin: Okay, Laurie, great talking to you and it’s definitely an eye opener for some ways that businesses and professionals can be developing a bit more. Before I let you go, I’m curious what is the biggest lesson that you’ve learned in the past year?

Laurie: The biggest lesson is probably just really keep that what I call the beginners mind. And so really that approaching this world like we talk about pivoting with just an open mind and not sort of being stuck in past paradigms. The more you can embrace the change I think the bigger opportunity that exist there. I think that would be the piece of my advice is keep the beginners mind.

Kevin: Got it. Okay. I think that’s a good piece of advice. Well, okay, Laurie it’s been great having you on the show. Before I’ll let you just tell me where people can find and where people can learn about Ascend and various courses that you offer. 

Laurie: Sure. Our website which is like and, as well as Premiere Global in the UK.  

Kevin: Cool. Where can they find you on social media? Where do you hang out? 

Laurie: We’ve got all sorts of accounts NASM on Instagram, on Facebook, and so you can sort of find us all there.  

Kevin: We’ll add the links into the notes for the show. Laurie McCartney, thank you very much for coming on the show.

Laurie: Yeah, well, thank you so much, Kevin. It’s been wonderful speaking with you. I really appreciate the time and excited about whatever we can do to help move fitness forward. 

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