My Path to the PCC

by Al Kavadlo on April 2, 2013

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My first real job as a personal trainer was working for the Lakeshore Athletic Club in Downtown Chicago. Though I already had a couple independent clients, I was hired at the former Wabash St. location in the heart of Chicago’s business district (“The Loop” as it’s known to Chicagoans) as a “fitness floor manager” before working my way up to being part of the training staff.

Being a floor manager is a much less important job than it’s made to sound. My main duties were picking up towels, re-racking dumbbells and making sure people didn’t exceed the 30 minute cardio machine time limit during peak hours. After a few months of that (I’d already had my personal trainer certification for a while by this point), I was finally deemed ready to train clients – I’d hit the big time! I was excited but also very nervous. Being someone’s trainer is a big responsibility and I wanted to do a good job.

Chicago is pretty cold and I started working at Lakeshore during the winter, so when they hired me they only gave me long sleeve shirts. Nobody saw my tattoos, which I quickly decided was a good thing. I wanted to attract as many clients as possible and I thought my ink might freak people out. I didn’t have any tattoos on my hands and neck yet, so it was fairly easy to keep them all covered.

During my teens, a lot of people tried to make me feel foolish for getting my arms tattooed while I was so young. At the time, I didn’t give a damn what anyone thought, but by my twenties, I started to buy into the mindset that being tattooed might be a hinderance in my professional life.

In general, I was pretty insecure during my early adulthood. In fact, I was so unsure of myself when I began my career as a trainer that I remember being genuinely surprised the first couple of times I closed deals. I wondered if my time was really worth the money. Almost every new trainer questions themselves at some point and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think it shows that you really care.

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Though it took some time to get the ball rolling, after a few months, I started to feel more comfortable and confident in my role as a personal trainer. Things were going great; I was spending lots of time in the gym getting to know everyone and I was beginning to learn the business. I started to pick up more clients and earn the respect of my fellow trainers. I was also learning a ton about working out!

Since it was so cold, it was no big deal to wear long sleeves every day. I probably would have wanted to anyway. Even in the summer, they always had the air conditioners pumping, so nobody thought much of it. The only time I ever had my tats exposed was for a quick second in the locker room, though I generally made it a point to try to avoid others while I was changing.

After I had been there for about a year, my training manager approached me one day and told me one of his clients said something to him about the trainer with all the tattoos. He was confused and told the client he didn’t have any tattooed trainers on staff. Eventually he figured out he’d never seen me in anything but long sleeves. The cat was out of the bag! He asked to see my arms and I sheepishly rolled up my sleeves. Then he told me he thought my tattoos were pretty cool and said I shouldn’t feel the need to keep them covered up.

What a relief it was to find out that nobody actually cared! In fact, a lot of folks at the gym really dug my ink. Like many people, I was afraid of being misunderstood, so I shielded my true self from the world. Funny enough, it was only after I embraced who I am that I started to really enjoy going to work and feeling comfortable in my role as a trainer – and a man.

Not only did I feel at ease wearing short sleeves after that conversation, I also began to feel more comfortable just being myself. I started having more fun with my clients by making jokes, telling stories and generally letting them get to know me more as a person. I came to find that this is a fundamental part of successful personal training.

When I moved back home to New York City and started working for New York Health and Racquet Club, I was pleasantly surprised to see that there were lots of other heavily tattooed trainers working for that company. The guy who hired me at NYHRC had even more ink than I did. My newfound confidence allowed me to become fairly busy within my first several months there. Though New York is a much more competitive market than Chicago, I eventually stepped up my game and within a few years became not only the top trainer in my club, but eventually the top trainer in the company. In December of 2008, I set a NYHRC company record for gross personal training sales by a single trainer in a single month. I celebrated the occasion by getting the tattoo I have on my right hand index finger. Bang! I had truly arrived!

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Though things were going great, I soon started to feel like there was no way for me to grow within the confines of a commercial gym. There was so much about the mainstream fitness scene that I wanted to get away from. The unrealistic expectations, the “miracle” breakthroughs, the so-called “quick fixes” – not to mention all the emphasis on machines! Plus there were also the usual frustrations of corporate bureaucracy to contend with.

Where I had once wanted to fit in, I now wanted to stand out. I decided that I needed to do things on my own terms. I had so many ideas that seemed in contrast to what everyone else was doing. I knew there had to be more people who felt like me.

That need to connect with like-minded people was the motivation to start my blog. Soon after that, I quit my job at NYHRC to focus full time on writing. Since I wasn’t making any money writing yet, I started training a few clients at the park and working part-time at a small, independent facility called Nimble Fitness. Everyone thought I was crazy, but I knew there was no way for me to grow without starting over.

I slowly began building a following online and a reputation in the neighborhood. I focused on writing as much as I could and getting my articles and pictures in other websites and magazines. After being rejected by countless book agents and publishers, I self-published my first book, We’re Working Out! – A Zen Approach to Everyday Fitness, in 2010. During the next year, I wrote almost a hundred articles and created nearly as many YouTube videos. I also managed to sell close to 1,000 copies of my book – a pretty big success by self-publishing standards.

One day I got an email from Paul “Coach” Wade telling me he’d read my book and loved it. What a huge compliment! I would have been quite content if he had stopped there, but of course, that was just the beginning.

My writing wasn’t the only thing that Coach Wade liked. He also liked my look – especially the tattoos. Then he told me about a new book he was working on. It was the sequel to a book called Convict Conditioning, which I had of course, heard a lot about. To my amazement, Coach wanted me and my brother Danny to appear in Convict Conditioning 2. Ironically, the tattoos that I was once concerned would limit my career opportunities wound up providing the exact opposite effect.

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Appearing in Convict Conditioning 2 was the beginning of a whole new life for me. Over the next several months, I went from being a relatively unknown fitness blogger to one of the most recognizable faces in the calisthenics community. Instead of getting a few hundred views a day, my website soon began receiving thousands of daily visits. My YouTube views quickly climbed into the millions and I started getting a dozen or more Facebook friend requests every day.

In the last year and a half, I’ve published two of my own books with Dragon Door, Pushing The Limits! and Raising The Bar, as well as a DVD version of Raising The Bar. My audience continues to grow daily and I’m connecting with more people than I ever thought possible. But my favorite thing about working with Dragon Door is the freedom they’ve allowed me. I’m living my dream and I don’t have to compromise myself to do so.

When John Du Cane and Paul Wade asked me about leading the PCC program, I jumped at the opportunity. Though being a writer and blogger has opened doors for me, actually training people is still where my deepest passion lies. Books and DVD’s are great, but there is no substitute for an in-person experience. I am thrilled to be able to take the show on the road and train with you guys in the flesh.

We’re Working Out!

Al

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  • jim perry

    the journey of ‘self’…truly the work of life and living… wonderful share of feelings up/down and the grit to know …that to grow…something needs to ‘let go’..leave.. etc..
    love your manor and tenor… active and direct….books and utubes are great !!!!
    looking forward to the PCC… truly a wave of enthusiasm !!

    • Thanks, Jim! Your continued support means a lot!

  • Walt

    All this time I was thinking you were a reformed convict who beat the system and made it out on your own as a PT. I thought you got all those tatoos in prison as part of your gang afilliation. I had no idea you actual got all those tats willingly and actually paid for them and that you were just a gym rat all your life. I still have respect for what you can do physically and as a trainer. But I have less respect for you as a person than I once did.

    • Rudy

      Walt, you have less respect for a guy because he didn’t go to prison?? That’s oxymoronic to say the least.

    • You’ve got an unusual perspective but everyone is entitled to their opinion. For the record, people who get tats usually do so willingly, whether they’re in prison or not.

  • Cal

    (Another) great article Al. Thank you for being such an inspiration! 🙂

    • Thanks, Cal! I always appreciate your comments!

  • Mad respect! I love what you do, even more so. Insecurities is something a lot of us struggle with in life. Not all have the courage to do what you did. Quit and start over. Great stuff Al! And tattoos are cool!

    • Thanks, Mosquito! Glad this article meant something to you!

  • Paul John Wade

    An amazing article by the greatest calisthenics coach in the world–and a man who is shaping up to the the best fitness writer too: period. I salute you, Al, and it is an honor to call you a friend.

    WALT: Did you mean what you said in your comment–or was I missing the joke? I can read things wrong sometimes, but it looks to me like you are saying your respect this man LESS for not winding up in jail…?!

    Trust me–I mean, really, TRUST ME–winding up in jail and eventually smartening up on the inside is a whole hell of a lot LESS noble and admirable than not f***ing your life up in the first place.

    Al, you should be goddam proud of those tattoos–but you should be even prouder of the kind, positive, smart human being you are underneath the ink. Great article.

    • Thanks, Coach! Your support means the world to me! The honor is mine!

  • beth andrews

    Great Story…I love it!

  • I really like the sweet pic of you as a new trainer, and how earnestly you tried to give everyone what they needed while still being true to yourself. Awesome story!

    • Thanks, Rose! I’m knew there was a reason I held onto that photo all these years!

  • darryl

    And Walt writes I have less respect for u as a person..why ?,,because now you know al was not a scumbag in prison? Amazing! Much revered respect to Al,his brother Danny and coach Wade ! Most of the masses of course do not realize only a small percentage of people in the WORLD can duplicate some of these feats! Impressed..to say the least! Have a fine day.Darryl

    • Thanks, Darryl! Hope to see you at the PCC one day!

  • Jay

    Thanks for sharing Al. Its great to see you pay your dues and work your way up all while being humble and doing it with pride. Now you reap what you have sown. Your an inspiration to a lot of people Al. Keep it up!

    • Thanks for the comment, Jay! The reason I’ve stayed humble is in large part BECAUSE I had to pay my dues to get to where I am.

  • It was really nice to hear the backstory, especially the bits about working hard at it and struggling to find your authentic voice in the fitness world. Much respect!

  • Mat

    I love learning your background Al, and can’t wait for the PCC this summer in Minnesota!

    • Thanks, Mat! We’re really excited for the inaugural PCC, too. See you there!

  • Brice

    Al, your the real deal bro. You and Coach have done sooooooooo much for the bodyweight community and I salute you.

  • Thanks for the insights, and for putting yourself out there, Al. I, for one, respect you even more than I already did. You are a phenomenal athlete and a great resource for training advice, and I would love to meet you face to face someday, shake your hand, and just say thank you. You, Danny, and Coach Wade are the triple threat for us bodyweight training aficionados. Thanks for all you do for us!

    • Thanks, Steve! I look forward to the day when we finally meet in person as well! Your continued support is always appreciated.

  • A really nice and honest article – two thumbs up!

    I do not agree with Walt but I think I understand what he mean – an interesting perspective in the context. 🙂

    • Thanks, Liljeros! Glad you liked the article!

  • Thanks for sharing this story Al. I have a habit of thinking people who’ve ‘made it’ have some kind of special gene or something. But I’m finally starting to realise that successful people are just ordinary people who keep pushing forward and working hard. And that gives me encouragement to keep pushing myself forwards and working hard.
    Thanks Al =)

    • Thanks, Marcus! It’s helpful to get a reality check, ain’t it? Keep working hard!

  • Bill Meyer

    Al….what a great article, and inspiring. Coach Wade and you have opened a whole new world of physical culture to me. I look forward to you new book, when it is in print, and any other books you may write. And I have watched the YouTube vids….awesome !!!

  • James

    Like the mural of Joe Strummer over by TSP states “The Future is Unwritten”.
    You’re creating your own path which is very admirable and inspirational! You give me hope as a fellow tattooed (by choice) fitness enthusiast who wants to eventually go his own route.
    Thanks for sharing your story. The collaboration of Coach Paul Wade, John Du Cane, Danny and yourself to create this certification was genius!!!
    Best wishes in everything, and much success!

    • Thank, James! The future is definitely unwritten!

  • I read your article and said WOW thats me, I also got many tattoos in my teens, some on my neck, and spent many years wearing long sleeve shirts, now I’m starting to realize most people don’t care so neither do I.

  • villafan

    It’s a great ride you have been on Al. I recently qualified as a PT and have been turned down for positions at a couple of the big box gyms. But then I decided I wanted to train people outdoor on the park where I train myself. I have spent the day putting flyers through letterboxes and talking to the neighbours. Hopefully I can be successful without being pimped out (took the phrase from Danny’s great book) by the gym. I am also promoting bodyweight in a big way, training with little or no equipment is appealing to beginners of think. Thanks for the continued inspiration Al, you changed the way I think about training forever!

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