How did you get started in the world of fitness?
Ever since I was a little kid, I always wanted to be able to dunk a basketball. That drove an interest in sports performance and that interest grew and grew throughout high school and college. All of my internships were sports performance related. Working with the teams and individual athletes at Williams and the strength coach there built upon itself to the point that when I graduated, I knew I wanted to go into sports performance.
When I went to Williams, I thought that I wanted to end up working for a team, but during my freshmen year, I realized that I wanted to run my own gym.
I took a job after graduation at a gym in Connecticut, but the company went out of business right before I was due to start. When that fell through, I moved back home to Wisconsin. I had nothing in front of me and didn’t know what my next step might be. Throughout the time, I’d been talking with Chris Shalvoy ’08 who had hosted me on my recruiting trip at Williams and had been one of my best friends. He was attending law school at Northwestern. Chris told me, ‘why don’t you come to Chicago? There are a lot of gyms here. We can set up some interviews, and you can figure it out from there.’
I went down and interviewed at a bunch of places and got some offers. I joined a gym called FFC in this really nice area of Chicago. They had two guys who were Muscle Activation Technique specialists. I’d never heard of MAT, but I’d always see them taking their clients through these quasi-stretching routines, and they always had a ton of clients.
I started taking MAT and RTS (resistance training specialist) courses in January of 2011, and it’s been a whirlwind since. Those courses framed in my head my role as a professional much differently than I’d ever seen it before. It went from an idea to having a sports performance place to an idea where people can come to a place to solve problems they’re having with their body and solve issues that they have and get healthier. Instead of focusing on the very elite, my focus has gone to the other end. I get people who struggle walking or people who have vast disfunction within their system. It’s been a very fulfilling change because it took me from a job of cheerleader / rep counter in a sports performance role to having to critically think about engineering and physics and mechanics within someone’s body and truly understand the physiology and biochemistry of what’s going on. It became almost a scientist role in applying exercise to someone’s system.
After a year and a half of working at FFC, I broke out and started working for myself. I got to take the information from the courses I was taking and directly apply it and further investigate it and study it in this really cool setting.
Because I was taking so many classes, I was just trying to make ends meet. Every month I didn’t know if I was going to be able to pay rent. I knew what I wanted my dream to be, and I felt like I was taking the right steps to get there, but at the same time there were many times where I thought it would be so much easier to bag it all and go somewhere where I was on a salary or pick up a side job working at the grocery store.
I remember that first year I went out and got a bunch of job application forms to Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods and Starbucks. I put them in my desk drawer and told myself that if business doesn’t get better in the next month, I’m going to fill out those applications because this isn’t working.
I kept plugging away. There were a lot of days that were incredibly stressful, but I always had this grand vision in the back of my head of what I wanted and that kept my spirits high and that kept me trying to progress forward and believing that everything would turn out alright.
When grad school ended in April, I stopped commuting to Chicago and moved my business to Schaumburg full time. Things were working great, but two months after that, the building management told me that I could no longer train people out of the space I had rented. When they told me that, I knew there was no more waiting around. That was my moment. I spent 2-3 hours that afternoon, driving to every business park I could find. I called 27 different places. I started setting up meetings to see places in person the next day.
I moved my stuff in in August. It was so exhilarating, but so stressful.
So this is sort of the dream – having your own space and running your own business?
Yes. It’s not the ending, but this is what I’ve been thinking about every day since freshmen year of college. It hasn’t fully sunk in yet, but in the next week, I think it’s going to hit me that this is what I’ve wanted for a really long time. It was a process of one thing after the next after the next. Every decision led me to where I am now, and it’s been awesome.
How would you describe MAT?
The whole point of MAT is to try and figure out where you’re vulnerable, where you’re compensating, what muscular imbalances exist, and then design very specific exercise in order to improve that.
Think about when you’re walking around at Williams in the winter, and you slip on the ice. You immediately tighten up. You didn’t tighten up because you exercised to hard or because you’re overstressed or you slept poorly – you tightened up to protect yourself so you didn’t slip and fall. As such, your stride length is shorter until you step off the ice. So when people are trying to get rid of tight hamstrings or tight low backs, we’re saying that the tightness is there to protect you – it’s a good thing even though it’s uncomfortable because it’s protecting you from where your vulnerable of getting injured.
We have a whole assessment process to identify where people are most vulnerable. We go through very specifically to reintroduce stability into the system.
Do you have a favorite story of a client you work with?
One was a woman who had a frozen shoulder case. She couldn’t move her shoulder at all without experiencing extreme discomfort. Over the course of a number of months, we brought her to a point where her shoulder no longer bothers her.
In terms of short-term stories, I was working with a baseball player the other day who had been out for a number of weeks because of a bum hamstring, and I just read on my phone yesterday that he’s back in the starting lineup.
You first got excited about sports fitness so you could dunk a basketball. How did it move from training for yourself to helping other people?
The moment my younger brother joined me for our first workout together I realized how much I enjoyed helping other people improve. I did that a lot in high school – him and his friends would join me for workouts, I’d put his basketball team through workouts. It got to where a group of us would all work out together in the summer.
Do you remember your first dunk?
It was the last day of my freshmen year of high school. It was out on my driveway that night. I’d been really close for a couple months. We have an adjustable hoop in our driveway. When I went up and dunked, I thought someone must have lowered the hoop. It turned out that they hadn’t.
Are you glad that you ended up a liberal arts school?
Absolutely. It forced me to expose myself to Shakespeare and to astronomy and to Italian that make me more rounded as a person but also able to connect with people better when I meet then. From a business standpoint, that’s huge. Being in small classroom settings where you’re forced to talk and forced to participate in discussions and get outside of your comfort zone was crucial – it forced me to grow and expand and diversify my interests.
You started your own fitness program in college. How did that get started?
I was at Greylock dining hall talking with some guys on the track team. They said they were at a track meet, and one of the guys on the other teams was wearing a shirt that said “self made” on it. For whatever reason, that stuck with me. All throughout high school and college, my parents were never ones to dictate my life – so I felt like all the discipline and focus was self-imposed. In high school, I’d be in the gym for hours and hours and that was self-imposed. Same thing at Williams.
When I first thought of the idea for Self Made Fitness, I did so with the idea that every decision I’d made to that point was more or less of my own doing. That’s really not true because I had a lot of help along the way, but it was getting at the idea that no one’s making you get up a 5 AM and get to school before the janitors so you could put up shots for two hours and then lift.
As my understanding of what I wanted to do evolved and became more clear, I realized that what self-made fitness means to me is the ability to customize in every way imaginable an exercise experience for someone. It wasn’t about me, it was about everyone else and their fitness was completely customized for their body.
I remember your meals at Williams being distinctive. What were some of your meals?
My routine was, I would wake up at 5:45, and I’d have a protein shake and a bowl of oats, and I’d put frozen berries in there and honey. I’d go to the gym, and I’d have a pre-workout protein bar and take some caffeine. I’d workout, come back, have my protein shake, and make 8 fried eggs and put those in a tortilla wrap. For lunch, I’d have a bunch of sandwiches and vegetables, and I’d make another protein shake. By the time I got to dinner, I would usually have two different types of meat, a spinach salad, yams, broccoli, and green beans. Before I went to bed, I would have a different protein shake.
Consistently, I was eating 8-10,000 calories a day.
What has your graduate school looked like?
Right now I’m halfway through a degree in exercise science, which is giving me a better understanding of biochemistry and how exercise of various forms effects our biochemistry.
For a year or two, I had trainings 40 weekends a year. I was going to lectures around the country where they would teach us skills and talk about theories behind MAT. There were cadaver courses, biochemistry courses, a lot of physics and mechanics courses. When I wasn’t traveling to courses, I was studying all the information that was presented to me. There was a nine-month period where I would sleep from midnight to 3 AM. In part it was because I put so much on my plate that I wanted to get through, and it was part because I loved being awake so much. I was so consumed with everything that was going on in my day, and I didn’t want to miss a second of it.
That for me was a really defining point in my life. If I didn’t have that passion and desire to only sleep 3 hours a night, it didn’t matter what I did, I wasn’t going to be any good at it.
If you’re phenomenal at what you do, and you love what you do, and you’re passionate about it, and you could go days without sleep to do it, it doesn’t matter what you do, you’ll have your payday. You’ll have the life you want to have, and you’ll be doing what you want to. If I really wanted to make this work and not just have a gym but have a phenomenal business that really changes lives, I have to be phenomenal at what I do. Once I get there, the finances are going to take care of themselves as long as I love what I’m doing and am really good at it.
What advice would you give to Williams students?
Use the opportunities that you have around you. Whether it’s the alumni network or professors, reach out to the people around you. Williams is a very giving place and a lot of people are more than willing to share their experiences and expertise to benefit the community as a whole, but you have to know that those opportunities exist and you to be willing to seek them out.
How have you come to define success?
Earl Nightingale said that, “Success is defined as the progressive realization of a worthy goal or ideal.” It’s not the accomplishment of the goal or ideal, but the progressive realization of getting there. It’s about the journey – about actually taking the steps to get there, whether those steps go forward or backward or whether you feel like you’re going side to side.
Do you have any advice for people who are searching for a passion?
One thing I’ve tried to tell people is to think about if you had a month totally open to yourself, what would you choose to do? How would you fill your days? What would bring excitement into your days? What would you look forward to doing? If you can figure out what it is about those things that you look forward to – maybe it’s the human interaction piece, maybe you like figuring out puzzles – that’s the place to start. For me, I figured it out very early on, and I realize that I’m one of the lucky ones.