Lyle McDonald Interview Part 5 (The man behind the name and online training)

Posted: October 13, 2008 in Interviews



In Part 4 of this interview, Lyle and I discussed why diets fail and the future of obesity. In this final segment of the interview I’d like to switch gears…


STEVE:  Lyle, I’d like to talk about you and your business on a personal level.  I wasn’t certain how I wanted to phrase this question to be honest.  It seems you are misunderstood quite often in the fitness/nutrition industry.  It’s not your information that is misunderstood… rather it’s your intent.  Your persona, no doubt has a great deal to do with this fact.  From those who are familiar with you, it’s not hard to tell that you’re a class act.  Rough around the edges some might say, but your to-the-point mentality is what many find so helpful.  There’s no point in sugarcoating or coddling in this business.  To add you seem to have set yourself apart from the rest of the guru-pack out there on the Internet.  The label of guru has turned into quite the negative connotation so I mean no disrespect by it.  You obviously have a large following that reads and respects you. 

I am assuming you’ll find this to be an accurate assessment and if so, I was hoping you could respond to a few related questions and add anything else you feel is important.

Namely, what is it that sets you apart from the rest?  Are you really okay with losing business for the sake of maintaining integrity?  I ask this because it seems that you never sell out in terms of the shady marketing tactics and intellectual dishonesty that many ‘professionals’ seem to use in the online marketing world today.  You don’t rehash the same basic material simply to ‘churn’ more revenue out of your customer base.   Do you think your business model (or lack thereof) limits: a) your readership and b) your revenue?


LYLE:  Going primarily to the last question first, yes and yes.  I’m quite sure I’d make more sales if I used the same stock standard marketing copy and turned out more generic work or pandered to the mass market. But I won’t do it.  Not yet anyhow.  I tend to be more on the technical end of things when it comes to my writing although, I’m told at least, that I have a knack for taking fairly complicated concepts and being able to explain them in an easy to understand and straightforward way.  I certainly try to do that.  

Tangentially, it’s easy for someone to just cut and paste out of Pubmed and throw around lots of big words, trying to impress their readers with jargon and technical details for the sake of technical details. It’s the person who really understands the topic that can make it clear to someone with absolutely no background in the field.  In this vein, Robert Sapolsky, author of the incredible book “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” is perhaps one of, if not THE, best science writers in my opinion; he can take a complicated concept and make it clear as hell; I strive for that and sometimes I even succeed.

Beyond that, people still want to be told and believe that there are secrets and miracles.  Trust me, if I knew a way to lose weight and fat quickly AND easily, I’d have written about it.  You can lose it quickly, mind you, but it won’t be easy by any stretch.  The same goes for gaining muscle.  Everybody wants 20 lbs in 20 weeks or whatever the claims are and they get bitchy with me when I tell them that half a pound a week for a natural is doing well.  People want secrets, a magic pill, a magic diet, something that isn’t hard work but will give them all the results quickly.  I wish it existed too but it simply doesn’t.  A lot of people can’t handle that truth in my experience.

I guess simply put, what separates me from the rest (other than being a completely obsessive compulsive nerd who feels compelled to read everything about everything) is that I won’t simply tell people what I think they want to hear for the sake of making a sale.  People have actually asked me why I don’t just write some mass-market magic diet book and make a zillion dollars and retire.   Trust me that I think about it every day; I’ve certainly read enough of them to know how it’s done.  But I can’t bring myself to do it.  Not yet anyhow.  I strive to present the truth (as I know it), based on current scientific research, personal experience, folks I’ve trained, etc.  If I think something is bullshit, I’ll say so.  Sometimes I’m right.

Frankly, a lot of people simply don’t want to hear the truth, they aren’t looking for information about what to do, they are looking for affirmation that whatever stupid idea they have in their heads is ok.  I won’t give them that.  If I think what they’re doing is stupid or wrong, I’ll say so.  A lot of people don’t like it or can’t handle it so they leave and go find a nice hand-holding support forum.  Which is fine except that these are usually the same folks who are complaining that what they are doing isn’t working in the first place. But I’m getting off topic.

Another aspect that I think separates me from others (and probably costs me sales) is that I’m generally unwilling and unlikely to say that there is a single all-encompassing solution to anything. People often get distressed when my most common answer to a question is “It depends.” What’s the best diet, what’s the best way to train, what’s the best this, that or the other?  It almost always depends on the situation, the person, the specifics of what they’re dealing with.  

Having read too many diet and training books (the ones that tend to get sort of a ‘cult’ following), it seems that most have to sell their approach as the be-all end-all solution to everything.  It’s the perfect diet for everyone, the perfect training program for everyone.  While this is rarely the case, my gut says that most people tend to respond to this sort of thing.  They don’t want to have to think about their specifics, they just want to be told what the one true answer (TM) is.  And I won’t give them that because, outside of some incredible generalities, I don’t feel that there is one.


STEVE:  Unfortunately, I don’t represent hundreds of thousands of paying customers.  However, I do hope that interviews like this, which will surely be read by people outside of your normal readership, help spread the ‘good word.’  Your values and knowledge are greatly respected and appreciated and deserve to be heard.

Continuing down this personal path, regardless of what corner of the Internet I travel to, there’s always someone ‘hating’ on you for being a “Great Big Meanie Head”.  Granted it’s usually coming from someone who is looking for coddling and only wants validation for preconceived notions opposed to actual advice.  You’re too intelligent to not have some rhyme to your reason with regards to how you handle yourself with your ‘clients,’ I suppose we could call them for lack of a better term.  I was hoping you could articulate it a bit here?  Is what we get from you on the Internet the real you or do you have an e-persona that you’ve established over the years?


LYLE:  At this point in my life, it’s probably a little bit of both.  Trying to separate out how you act from who you are (they overlap) gets difficult and I am known (depending on my mood) for being fairly harsh to people. I’m also known (in other corners of the internet) for being immensely helpful and willing to go out of my way to try to help folks out.  

It just depends on who you run into, their own personality type (you’ll note that the people who think I’m a dick are usually pretty thin skinned, can’t handle criticism of any sort without acting like a big baby, and, as you said, were mainly looking for coddling and hand-holding in the first place), etc.   At the end of the day it doesn’t honestly bother me.  If it did, I imagine I’d act differently.


STEVE:  And that’s the primary thing that sets you apart in my mind.  You act based on your values and not your wallet.  What’s left in terms of product is superior in relation to what else is out there.  This is starting to sound like a sales pitch for Lyle.  But if I didn’t respect you and your information, I wouldn’t be interviewing you.

Lastly on this front, you recently exposed shady tactics used by a well-known author/coach in one of your blog entries.  This particular incident involved the author/coach taking information directly from one of your books and inserting it into his own without crediting you for anything.  There were numerous people clamoring and hollering about how you should have kept it quiet and contacted a lawyer instead of making a spectacle of it all.  They viewed it as being unprofessional.  Personally from my standpoint, I’m glad you handled it in the fashion you did.  I think too often stuff like this can be swept under the rug, which inevitably hurts the consumer by maintaining the ignorance of the masses.  Would you mind discussing your intentions with this particular incident and maybe commenting on where you see the online marketing/authoring field heading in the next decade or so?


LYLE:  For various reasons, I’m not going to comment on the specific incident further. Where do I think the online field is going?  Probably in the same direction it’s always been going.  There will always be a few gems of good information surrounded by dross that is made for quick marketing and easy sales, promising people the same magic that has never worked.  The simple fact that just about anything people want to do in life is going to be hard work and there are few if any secrets (unless you count working at something for months and years continuously to be a secret).  But people want them.  I want them, you want them, everybody wants them.  So there will never be a lack of people providing them.


STEVE:  That’s a fair assessment of the future as it pertains to online fitness marketing.  I suppose the best we can do is reach as many people as possible by way of forums, blogs, etc.  Those who want to help themselves will eventually come across the good stuff. 

Time for the last question in this interview.  I can hear the sigh of relief all the way over here in Pennsylvania, Lyle.  I hope this wasn’t too agonizing!  Trainers are flocking to the Internet to do business more and more.  It’s no secret that online training is one of the services that Body-Improvements offers to our clients.  I like to maintain the integrity and honesty too; it’s what we’ve built our business upon.  This in mind, please don’t hold back in your response to this question. 

What is your take on online training?  Like most things, there are certainly pros and cons.  I think I’ve heard them all.  Potentially the biggest con is the lack of in-person supervision.  This goes from the actual watchful eye of a trainer to ensure proper execution of exercise movements and extends all the way to the ‘feel’ a good trainer has in managing fatigue with his or her clients.   A good trainer knows when to back off or when to push the client.

This, for the most part, is lost when it comes to online training and many who oppose online training explain that it’s merely glorified program design… nothing more nothing less. 

Another common opposition from fellow professionals is something like, “In most instances I can write a simple plan of attack for someone so he/she has what is needed to succeed in a simple email.  I can’t justify charging someone a fee… it feels unethical.”

My response to comments such as this are as follows…

What is the alternative?  I’ve trained at each of the five gyms in my area.  There isn’t a trainer at any of these gyms that I’d feel comfortable sending someone I cared about.  It isn’t so cut and dry when you factor this into the equation in my mind.  A good trainer on the Internet, who has good instructional videos and uses client video to assess, can certainly compete if not demolish the progress a client could experience with one of these schlup trainers you commonly find in gyms today. 

And as for being able to help someone in one simple email, the problem I see here is simply the fact that people are lazy.  If it were simply a matter of dropping someone an email… they wouldn’t be fat in the first place.  They would have read one of the thousands of books available on the subject of weight loss and have been successful.  Online training in my world means much more than program design.  It entails keeping the client interested in succeeding.  It’s about breaking down mental barriers existing in the client’s mind. It entails educating the client so they can eventually be proficient on their own.  It means being a source of motivation and accountability, etc.  The list goes on… 

Sure, just as there are some piss poor in-person trainers, I’m certain there are some piss poor online trainers.  I just don’t see it as a clear right/wrong proposition as some in the industry have made it out to be.  Certainly my perception is jaded, because it’s part of what I do, but I’ve been successful with it.  I’ve connected with my clients and they’ve realized their goals.  If done properly (by this I mean its weaknesses are kept in mind when deciding if a trainer should/could appropriately help a particular client) I can’t help to think it’s the better option in a majority of the cases. 

Given this lengthy prelude, what are your thoughts on the subject at hand?  I’m not sure if this will be an open and shut question… it might entail/require some further discussion.  And again, if you think online training sucks, so be it.  It won’t hurt our business.


LYLE:  Honestly Steve, you pretty much answered your own question and I’m not sure if I have much to offer.  For me personally, the biggest problem I see with online coaching, and this mainly reflects how I train people, is the lack of hands on training there in the gym.  But this is me coming from the perspective of being very, very particular about proper technique and form. Coupled with the simple fact that, despite their claims to the contrary, most peoples’ form sucks. 

For example, everybody claims that they squat full but this is mainly an internet myth. I’ve been in gyms for damn near 20 years now and I can count the number of truly full squats I’ve ever seen on maybe 2 hands.  And I trained about 7 of those people.  Everyone says they squat full and when you finally see their youtube videos, it’s a quarter squat at best.

Everyone claims they know how to do every exercise perfectly and, in my experience, this is almost never the case unless the person had a good coach/trainer when they started.  And if that’s the case, they probably don’t need an online trainer.  And it’s nearly impossible to teach proper technique from a distance (my one online client made regular visit to Salt Lake City for hands on training with me for this reason, along with constant video he’d send me so I could check things out).

So you end up in a situation where folks are writing training programs making (usually incorrect) assumptions about what the person is actually doing in the gym.

Related to this is the issue of intensity; similar to technique, everybody claims to train hard in the gym. Again, I’ve been in gyms for a couple of decades now and the number of folks I’ve seen training truly intensely just isn’t that many.  People simply think they are working hard (of course, at the opposite extreme are folks who aren’t happy if they aren’t walking out of the gym exhausted).  And this becomes a problem because, on any given day, the supposed ideal workout may have to be adjusted.  A common refrain among good coaches is that you never know who’s walking into the gym on a given day.  When I train people in person, I am making adjustments daily depending on what I’m seeing.  

Yes, there’s always that general plan in the back of my mind as to what I want them to get done but the goal weights or the exact sets and reps on the card may simply not be doable for whatever reason (bad night’s sleep, spent all weekend working late, what have you).  I can’t make those adjustments from a distance although I might set up some generalized ‘rules’ for folks (e.g. I might suggest 2-4 sets of 6-8 reps telling them that if they feel blown after 2 sets to call it a day, rather than forcing the entire volume or what have you).

And, of course, the above assumes that folks are actually being honest with you in the first place about what they are actually doing.  If I’m not there to watch it, there’s always the question of if they are just telling me what I want or need to hear.

Of course, the other side of this coin is that like you said, for some people, getting online counseling may be the only way to get decent training.  Frankly, most trainers in most commercial facilities suck.  They wouldn’t know good technique if it bit them in the ass and they’re more interested in counting reps, keeping people entertained and reminding you to bring a check next week.

In that sense, online training may provide some real benefits: allowing folks to get decent training advice that would otherwise be unobtainable.

There is also the issue of accountability and, frankly, where I see a lot of the online trainers doing a good job is providing that accountability. This is crucial for diet.  When people have to report what they are eating, they tend to be stricter with their diet.  Having to email your coach what you actually ate keeps people on their diet for that reason alone: fat loss coaches are succeeding as much because of their magic diets as that they are making the client accountable to someone else.

So basically, like you said there are pros and cons and I go back and forth in my head about it.  Some of the technical issues can be gotten around by sending the trainee videos of proper form; this can never take the place of getting hands on training for most things (especially more technical lifts).  But it’s better than nothing. And clearly online training can be of a real benefit for many in terms of the accountability issue.


STEVE:  I can live with that response, it’s very well reasoned.  For me it’s simply a matter of people deserving sound information and instruction from their trainer.  If they can’t obtain that from a trainer in their area, the Internet often times is the only alternative.  It costs accordingly too.  In-person training is much more costly for good reason.  If you had the choice between a solid in-person trainer and a solid online trainer, it’s obvious the former is the better choice assuming it’s affordable.  It’s when that choice is not an option or the former is not affordable where online training can really be effective.  Thanks for your thoughts.  They’re very appreciated.

Well Lyle, it’s about time we wrap this interview up.  I’m very gracious that I was able to start this blog with an interview with someone of your caliber. I can’t thank you enough for spending the time. Your answers exceeded my expectations affirming your integrity as a coach/author who truly loves sharing information.  I hope our readers have enjoyed the interview as much as I have and I look forward to future products from you.  I wish you nothing but success and I’m sure we’ll be hearing more from you.


LYLE:  Sounds good, Steve.  I hope your new site does well as the world collapses around us. 


To anyone tuning in, please come again.  Not every blog post will be as quality as an interview with Lyle but we do have a few more big interviews lined up already and we plan on keeping things entertaining.  As always, if you have comments or suggestions, feel free to drop us an email.



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