Interview with Ben Swarts – Finding Purpose

Ben Swarts is a personal trainer, coach, and manager of wellness for Special Olympics, Minnesota. In this interview, we talk about working with athletes in the Special Olympics, why kettlebells worked for him, meeting clients where they are at, and Ben lays out a ton of great resources. Let’s get started!

Ben Swarts – Personal Trainer, Coach – Minneapolis, Minnesota

Ben, thanks for your time! I cant wait to dive in, I know you do some interesting stuff in the world of training that I know our readers will enjoy. Whats exciting for you right now? 

The most exciting thing to me right now is getting to meet new people who are excited about finding a different style of training than they’ve been used to, in some cases, their entire lives.  When I work with individuals and change their perspective of what effective programming and exercise is and they start to get results, I really enjoy their excitement to keep working toward their goals.

I love giving people knowledge, tools, and opportunities to use those tools to discover what works for them in a safe, nurturing environment.  I really enjoy seeing people do things they never thought they could – I can’t think of a greater gift than to open an opportunity and empower someone to enjoy that feeling.

I feel like most people come to trainers with a set thinking of how training should be, and not really that open to different styles of training. Do you position yourself differently? Or cater to only a certain clientele?

First, when I first began training people I quickly realized training has to be as diverse as the people I work with and market myself as someone who will meet people wherever they are at in their lives, fitness and otherwise.  I believe strongly in equipping myself with as many tools and schools of thought as I can, and working with the individual within my framework of beliefs, philosophy, and methodology to see what works best with them.

Far different than a random “see what sticks” kind of idea, or “one size fits all” approach, we use our experience and knowledge to intelligently guide clients to a path that gives them balanced strength and conditioning for life while focusing on their goals; getting them to do the work they need to do paired with movement they enjoy.  I strive to set individuals up for challenge and success and meet them where they are at each session.

Second, my personal mission and the mission of my company is to work with individuals who don’t always fit into the ‘fitness world’ in the conventional sense, often by simply removing barriers to participation.  I believe that all people, regardless of ability, should have the opportunity to be their best selves through fitness and strength.

I enjoy working with older individuals, those with physical and intellectual differ-bilities (ain’t no ‘dis’ at my club!), and people who otherwise may not have the option to work on their strength and conditioning.  Truly, most of us have the same wants and needs as each other, and we are far more alike than different, no matter how we look, move, or speak.  We are all human!

How did you get started in coaching and training?

I’ve always been active, and grew up in a family where it was expected to be outside playing whenever the weather allowed, and sometimes even when it didn’t!  We always joke I gave my parents all their gray hairs because I climbed (and jumped off of) everything I could.

I loved to play sports, run, move, etc.  Swam competitively through high school, and started weight training in College to fill the void of no longer swimming miles per day.  Took up running and did the traditional 3 x 10 dumbells and barbells type of work out.  This worked OK since I was consistent with it (key word!), but wasn’t ideal.

I continued to train (pretty obsessively, eventually) 6-7 days per week, up to 2 hours per day… and thought that was the only way to do things to be as lean and strong as I was.  For perspective, I was about 5% bodyfat (literally) at the time, and an endurance monster.  I did some half-marathons and full distance (1/25/6.2 mile) triathlons for a few years before I realized I really didn’t like it very much.

Around this time I had also discovered Judo, which I competed in and taught for a few years, and still practice when I can (going on 13 years).  With the discovery of Judo, my training changed.  I worked more on high-intensity bursts (to simulate fighting another human who doesn’t want to lose) and worked to increase absolute strength.

Not long after, my Judo Sensei, Dr. James Mastro (6x Paralympian, multi-time world champion, etc.) who was blind asked me to come with him to Kettlebell as his sighted guide.  EVERYTHING CHANGED.  After two weeks training with ‘bells my lifts all skyrocketed, I felt lighter on my feet as I fought, and suddenly no-one could throw me (well… Sensei can always kick my ass…) It was incredible.

Fast forward a few years, I attended the Dragon Door HKC in 2012 and started working with clients.  They saw the great results from bells and I just kept going.  Was certified with my RKC in 2014 and will recertify this summer.  In the midst of all this I started working professionally with individuals with intellectual disabilities (ID) as a work crew manager and case manager at a day program, and now work for Special Olympics Minnesota.  So… here is the interesting part, and the thing in my career that makes me the most excited!

Up to this point I’ve had two careers – one was working with individuals with ID, the other, running my business, HardShell Fitness, LLC.  With Special Olympics I spent 3.5 years organizing and implementing sporting events year-round in many different sports, sizes, venues, and areas of Minnesota.

Along with that, I’ve worked with a co-worker of mine to create a program called SOfit, that works with Unified pairs (someone with and without an intellectual disability paired together) in groups to talk about and practice emotional, social, physical and nutritional health.  It’s awesome, and it totally works to make positive individual change.  I’m now full time working for Special Olympics Minnesota in the Wellness track, and they’ve allowed me to create a position here where I get to create what I think of as a pervasive presence of wellness in Special Olympics Minnesota.

This includes growing and implementing the SOfit program (which recently has gone global and I feel will soon be a powerful influencer) as well as working with my amazing coworkers to create more opportunities to educate and practice wellness at our competitions and other events here in Minnesota.  I have huge dreams, and am one by one making them happen here.

Very exciting shift in perspective for a marginalized population, and one that has massive health implications down the road.  Really, it just comes down to increasing quality of life through access to opportunities that otherwise don’t exist for the population I work with.

I’m also working to create more classes with my business that are geared toward special populations, whether they be labeled young, old, underprivileged, intellectually or physically disabled… you get the idea.  I’m bringing the two parts of my world together in some really neat ways, and am excited to see what comes of it!

SOfit sounds remarkable. Do you have a memorable story you can share from one of these unified pairs?

Absolutely.  It is a truly remarkable program, and has impacted thousands of lives to this point!  My partner is a young woman who has had a goal of weight loss/body composition change for the few years we’ve worked together.  In her teens, she gained weight very quickly and did not have the tools or support to help herself.

When we met, like most people, she was fearful of change.  She stubbornly refused to do many things that were healthy for herself, including drinking water, eating healthy, and exercising, even though she took care of so many people around her.

Through forging a strong bond via the SOfit program, we’ve come a long way and had success together.  Over the last couple years (and plenty of hard work/set-backs) she’s lost over 100 pounds, all the while gaining strength and building hard earned lean muscle.  She is also a competitive athlete, and has taken it upon herself to once again start to do harder races in track and field and swimming, as well as trying new things, (healthier foods, veggies, water, social outings) and, most notably, recently started competitive powerlifting.

The other day we were training and she was making the weights look much lighter than I thought they should, so I gave her the option of going a bit heavier on her final set.  She said she wanted to give it a shot.  Hit the weights and nailed a solid triple for a PR.  One of those moments as a coach you go “oh… oh my!”

Later, I asked her why she wanted to go for it.  She looked me in the eye, and with emotion there I hadn’t seen before, said simply, “I like to challenge myself.”  Boom.  There it was – the long-latent aspect of having the confidence to step outside your comfort zone and do something that scares you.

This is where growth takes place, and this is where her journey has brought her.  The domino effect of wellness clearly is life-changing, and, many times, life-saving.  Life is more than waking up and breathing, eating, putzing around, and sleeping again.  Life is about purpose, and doing things that stir a person up, it is about growth, triumph, and failure.

It’s about getting up again and attacking what is meaningful to a person.  She is starting to embrace this, and it’s a beautiful start!

The domino effect of wellness clearly is life-changing, and, many times, life-saving.  Life is more than waking up and breathing, eating, putzing around, and sleeping again.  Life is about purpose, and doing things that stir a person up, it is about growth, triumph, and failure.

Beautiful. You mentioned before that kettlebells skyrocketed all of your personal lifts?

I’d never done anything like them, and did the traditional bodyweight/machine/barbell/run/elliptical/bodybuilding setup that most people do.  Until then I’d never worked much with explosive movement, nor really used my body as a whole unit when it came to strength.

Honestly, I didn’t really know what I was doing before using bells, and the coaching I received (body tension, etc.) really sparked everything off!

What is something in the fitness industry that you wish you knew when you were starting out?

I wish I’d realized how much people really want to work with someone they like, rather than someone who freaking knows everything about everything and has answers to all their questions.  I mean, I’ve always been very careful with my clients, do no harm, etc. is my first priority, but felt I had to have all the answers, and that I wasn’t qualified because of it.

I’ve since realized, that within my scope of practice, I can work with people and find things that work for them, and that simply being myself and having fun with them while creating space for them to be themselves and work hard with intelligent programming and guidance is what truly matters.  I’ve realized I have a lot to offer, even if it’s not everything to everyone!

Referring to your response above, what’s an example of you thinking that you had to know everything for one client, but then worked within your scope and made it simpler for them? 

When I started working with older individuals I was concerned it’d be a much larger challenge than it ended up being.  The laws of progression/regression and do no harm apply more than ever, as does adaptation of movement, and meeting people where they’re at is crucial!

One woman, I’ve worked with had always had trouble squatting down, even as a young person (40/50 years earlier).  She walked with her hips thrust forward and had increasing challenges through life because of it.  She reported not even really trying to squat in decades when we met.

I showed her some simple progressions (holding on to something to help her sit back as she worked on squat depth, working with foot position, strengthening/retraining the hips), balance work and posture correcting, and within 4 months (she did her daily homework) she was able to squat pretty damn well.

It wasn’t perfect by any means, but she was DELIGHTED to have unlocked this movement.  One day we got together to train, and she told me that at work she had unconsciously squatted down to get something off a shelf, and was so excited she yelled “I squatted!” and scared her co-workers.  Love that stuff so much it makes me tear up.

Can you tell us about a book that changed your outlook? What’s the one thing you took away from it?

The book I probably think about most often is Dan John’s Never Let Go.  Dan has been a massive influence in my personal experience with my own programming, as well as with my clients.  Some part of his wisdom exists in every single one of my sessions – as you know, he’s just that damn good!

My students love to groan when I invoke his name as an influencer, but they love it (secretly) I’m sure because they know it means I’m delivering them an opportunity for solid results.  I also have to mention Purposeful Primitive by Marty Gallagher.  That book is absolutely loaded with solid information and has been a heavy (pun intended) influence on my personal program design.

Personally/spiritually, The Four Agreements by Ruiz is one of the books that really has helped shape the way I interact with myself and the world.

What’s one specific example of how purposeful primitive has influenced your program design?

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Marty Gallagher a few times was able to chat with him.  Frankly, his stuff appeals to me because it works.  It’s simple, straightforward, and proven.  I love his style and incredibly intelligent, yet dare I say visceral, methods.  The stories in that book are incredible, and really give perspective to the weightlifter.

It’s influenced my programming by reinforcing the idea of cutting out what isn’t directly related to your goals and focus, as well as reintroducing steady-state ‘cardio’ to my programming a few times a week.  Consistent, high quality, training and intelligently pushing the envelope has lead me far beyond where I ever thought I’d get with the barbell regarding raw strength, and I directly attribute many of the umbrella philosophies I employ to Marty’s work.

What are you reading right now? 

At any given time I’m reading a few books, some of which are nerdy fantasy novels about dragons and wizards.  The ones I find applicable to training, however, at the moment are Tools of Titans by Tim Ferris, Before We Go – Dan John, and A New Earth, by Eckhart Tolle.  Good to stay grounded and fill your mind with tools – always learning, always a beginners mind.

Can you talk about a breakthrough with a client, and what led up to it? 

This breakthrough is something that happens with all clients at one time or another, and I don’t have a specific example, but that moment when someone who you’ve been working with ‘gets it’ and starts unlocking levels they never thought possible.

Recently I had a client who was always fairly weak in her upper body crank out 15 legit pushups in a single set.  Boom, the power of dedicated, consistent, intelligent work.  Another great moment was when a client came up to me (I coach a senior class once a week, 55+, though most are 70+) and told me she was able to squat well and retrieve something off the floor for the first time ever.  Just incredible, and really makes you want to keep putting in the work and grinding, you know?

The look in their eyes is just irreplaceable.

Your top 3 favorite questions that you ask a new client? Your top 3 questions for someone you’ve been training for a while?

Do you drink water?
What is your experience with exercise?
Can you tell me what you’ve liked in the past and something you’ve absolutely hated when it comes to health and wellness?

Gives me a solid understanding without blowing them out of the water, and we get to have some fun as we venture into the relationship of what exercise actually is, and we can bond over not liking various movements or activities.

With experienced clients, I like to ask them to rate how they feel that day, if they’ve been able to keep up their training lately, why or why not, and if they’re sleeping well.

I also always ask how are their families, work, something else I know is meaningful to them.  Love getting to know them as people, and what makes them tick, and what their reasons are for training.

Can you tell me about your proudest moment working with Special Olympics?

Working with Special Olympics Minnesota involves a lot of ups and downs – high highs and low lows!  That said, my proudest moment was probably when a client of mine (3-4 year client, older than myself) recently told me he was proud of me, the man I was, and what I was doing.

Damn man, nothing prepares you for that stuff.  I was glad he waited until everyone else was gone, I’ll tell you that much!

How has your programming changed since last year?

I’ve streamlined teaching potentially challenging ballistic movements like the Hardstyle swing, and really dialed back the amount of cues unless a specific client needs it.  Basically, figuring out what the most ‘bang for my buck’ will be when it comes to both visual and verbal training and cues.

Can you expand on how you streamlined the hardstyle swing?

After making sure the movement will be positive, I having people deadlift the kettlebell using the wall as their ‘butt target,’ squeezing their armpits shut (sometimes on pieces of paper), hitting a standing hardstyle plank, then working on hiking the bell with power.

If individuals lack ‘snap’ in the hips, we work on some broad jumping, and that quickly gets the body rocking.  Then it’s working on timing, which really depends on the individual.  I love stop swings, and if mechanics look good, sometimes jump up bell sizes to force the hips to do the work.

Have you been to any recent continuing education that you really enjoyed?

Few things – Last year I attended Strength Matters in San Diego and the Dragon Door Health and Strength Conference in Minneapolis.  I also became FMS Level 1 Certified, and plan on taking Level 2 sooner than later!  I read a ton of blogs as well, so RKC, SFG, SM, Girls Gone Strong… I mean it’s a glut of (often) great information to pull from!

What’s one thing that you think is really easy, but works well with many of your clients?

Simply getting to know them as a person, and showing them that there is a place in the fitness world where they can enjoy their training time, love how they look and feel, and build a lasting ‘toolbox’ of education and practice to empower them in their own, unique, path through this beautiful crazy world.

Thanks so much Ben! Do you have any parting advice for us?

Thank you so much for the opportunity to answer these questions!  I am thankful and found this interview stretched me and made me dig into myself a bit.

To my peers – keep working hard, and doing things the right way.  Not everyone is going to fit into your particular tribe, and that’s OK, not everyone should!  There’s a lot of bullshit in the fitness industry – keep fighting the good fight and making the effort to positively change every life you can, recognizing you can’t help everyone.

Cherish those humans you enjoy, learn every day, embrace intelligent risks, and follow that ‘butterflies’ feeling in your gut – it isn’t’ wrong.

How do we get in contact with you?

Anyway works!  Best is probably email – hardshellben@gmail.com but feel free to drop me a line and ask for my cell number ☺  You can also get ahold of me via my website, www.hardshellfit.com.

Recommended Reading:

Dan John’s Never Let Go

Purposeful Primitive by Marty Gallagher.

The Four Agreements by Ruiz

Tools of Titans by Tim Ferris

Before We Go – Dan John

A New Earth, by Eckhart Tolle