Intentional Exercise

November 23, 2009

Roadshow stop: Personal Trainer
Roadshow mentor: Steve McMinn

Irv’s pull-ups. He barely needs my assistance.

My pull-ups. Steve is doing most of the ‘heavy’ lifting here.

Pull-ups are harder for women than men. It’s how we’re built. However, I am not 64-years-old and diabetic. Nor have I had eight coronary by-passes or high blood pressure. Irv has. You would think this might even out the playing field a little. But I got schooled.

Irv’s physical prowess for a man his age with his health record can be attributed to the twice weekly exercise he does with personal trainer Steve McMinn. They’ve been at it for two years. And it’s made a huge difference. Before training with Steve, Irv could hardly walk up a flight of stairs without the assistance of a hand rail. Now he can kick a 33-year-old (moderately) fit woman’s ass in pull-ups.

Irv pressing a kettlebell

But ever the gentleman, Irv assured me with a big smile, barely discernible beneath his giant strongman-style mustache, that with practice and training, I could easily match him pull-up for pull-up in no time. Still breathless from trying, I rolled my eyes and laughed. He winked at me and in his soft voice said, “It’s true.”

“He’s right,” Steve said. “With practice you could do it. Anyone can.”

Steve had just done most of the work pushing me up to the pull-up bar five times. But he seemed unfazed and not the least bit breathless from hefting all 175 cm, 70(+)kgs of my squirming, flailing form to the bar. After demonstrating five unassisted pull-ups of his own, he explained in technical detail what muscles were involved, why it is such a difficult exercise to do, and how I could train for it. From the simple plan he laid out, I believed I might be able to do it.

Or, even more surprising, would want to do it.

I have mixed feelings about exercise. As a kid, I skipped school the days we had to do our fitness challenges, which included things like the dreaded pull-up. As an adult, I like it best when I don’t realize I’m doing it (like skiing or biking). But I need to exercise five times a week to stay in shape and keep the stress pit bulls at bay. So I force myself to run, swim, and go to the gym. But I’m most happy the moment it’s over–because this means it’s the longest period of time before having to do it again. (Probably not the healthiest attitude for my day as a personal trainer.)

Struggling (and failing) to do an unassisted pull up

I figured to be a personal trainer, you have to possess a blind addiction to exercise, replete with saccharine enthusiasm or testosterone-fueled pumping iron zeal. But after my day with Steve, I discovered that personal training (a least successful personal training) is more about relationships than being a gym nut. You have to be apt at reading people and sussing out what motivators will work for them. Because I’m not alone in my aversion to intentional exercise.

Steve’s been a personal trainer for the past seven years. And he’s not a gym bunny or a meat head. In fact, he’s really normal. He’s ebullient and sometimes a bit of a goof. (Like when he described to one of his clients the best way to defend herself in a knife fight–from his enthusiasm it was hard to tell if he was being earnest–as though this young, middle class Realtor would ever realistically find herself in this situation. The answer, by the way, is run like hell). But somehow this, along with his unruly mop of brown curls, makes him even more approachable. I always associate trainers with making me feel bad about myself because I drink too much wine, or inadequate because I’m not fit enough. But Steve doesn’t dole out the judgment. Instead, he motivates his clients with genuine encouragement. And probably most appealing for me, he’s not infallible. He occasionally eats junk food (he had McDonald’s for lunch that day) and skips work outs when he’s feeling lazy.

Irv and Steve doing a timed circuit with a kettlebell

Steve believes being a successful trainer is about having the right personality. But he also believes it’s crucial to keep abreast of the latest developments in physical fitness. The best practices in exercise are constantly evolving, and he feels an obligation to his clients that he be on top of the most recent research–not the most recent fads, but effective techniques to safely improve fitness levels. It was through this kind of study that he came across his principle mode of training: kettlebells.

A kettlebell

Kettlebells are an ancient form of Russian weight training. They look like cannonballs with handles. Although old, they fit with proven modern techniques of safe and effective weight lifting. According to all of Steven’s clients, hefting and swinging these cannonballs around is fun. And having fun is integral to Steve’s method of training. He believes it’s essential for people to actually enjoy their work out, or they won’t keep up with it long term.

Irv and Steve

After saying our goodbyes to Irv, we packed Steve’s kettlebells into the trunk of his silver Volkswagon beetle and headed off to meet the next client. Through the course of the day, we met with five personal training clients, and then did an evening group kettlebell class. (Personal training is not cheap, so to make it more accessible, Steve offers a variety of different programs, from individual training to group classes.) The day started at 7:00 am and finished at 7:30 pm. (We were supposed to start at 6:00 am, but thankfully for me, that client cancelled.) There were breaks between clients, but it was still a long day. Steve didn’t seem at all tired–or if he did, he was really good at hiding it. He maintained the same energy for his 6:30 pm class as he did for his 7:00 am client.

Irv's (successful) unassisted pull-up

I think his stamina stems from not only a genuine (and non-annoying) love of physical fitness, but more importantly, a real love for inspiring and motivating the people he trains. Because he’s not just helping them shed a few pounds. At least that’s not what it feels like he’s selling. While that may be an end result and a goal for some clients, Steve seems to derive the most pleasure out of seeing the difference it makes in their lives. Irv is the perfect example of this–he claims Steve saved his life, and in many ways he probably did, or at least vastly improved the quality of it. Irv is far more active and mobile in ways he never thought he could be. (Including kicking the butt of a 33-year-old in pull ups.) And admittedly, Steve’s ebullience is infectious. He has a way of making his clients believe they can succeed–and once they believe that, they almost always do.

Post pull-up fatigue

So even for someone like me, who would avoid exercise at all cost if I could, Steve’s somehow convinced me that becoming a pull-up champion (or at least be able to do one on my own) is a possible and even desirable goal.

To learn more about Steve and his kettlebells, visit his website.

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3 Responses to “Intentional Exercise”

  1. Rooster Says:

    Love this post! Super well written and impressive how Irv’s life has changed thanks to a personal trainer. Very inspiring! Also a relief to know that not all personal trainers are fitness fanatics. Makes it all less intimidating.


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