Interview with Robert Pingatore – Be Present

Robert is someone that I wish I had met when I was just beginning a career in personal training. There is some real gold in here about working at a big gym and tons of references to check out. I know Robert as being extremely generous (he helped me out immensely for my Strength Matters kettlebell certification) and I think this interview captures exactly that along with some sharp wit. Check out What’s New Coach?’s first ever interview with a picture of a horse. Giddy up!

Let’s get started…

Tell me everything about Robert Pingatore. Don’t hold anything back!

Wow. Where to start? My folks were both athletes, Pops was a four year letter at Pitt in gymnastics and my Mom played semi-pro women’s soccer in her 30’s. My first real time in a weight room at the YMCA in Laguna Niguel, it was March of ’86. I had grown up playing soccer and tennis, and at 14, was getting into basketball. Like most teenagers, I was paying attention to the gargantuan figures on the covers of the Muscle & Fiction magazines, and got hooked on resistance training. Graybeards like me will recall that at that moment in the fitness world, hydraulic isolation machines were the hot new thing & I hydraulic lifted the hell out of that place. That same summer, I did football camp with my high school, Mater Dei in Santa Ana, CA, and the strength coaches had us doing tons of bar work, which I wasn’t smart enough to embrace at the time. In fact, after graduation, I found other interests and dropped training.

Fast forward to ’94/’95, and I’m in Salt Lake City, playing indoor volleyball on a weekly basis with some close Polynesian friends. And these are guys with shoulders like aircraft carriers who were just jumping out of the gym on a net that’s a full six inches higher than men’s regulation. I mean, it was just stunning how these cats could play and move for their size. Come to find out, they’re a semi-pro team that travels the world to prep international teams before big tournaments. And I decided I needed to improve my own vert, which was very, very good, but could always improve.

So, I went out, joined a local gym, and received 5 free sessions with a personal trainer. Who was a powerlifter. Who was also BUILT like a powerlifter. And he had me doing all kinds of ridiculous stuff, and I thought, “Nah, man, this makes no sense.” So, I dug into what was then a very young World Wide Web, and discovered plyometrics and various types of crawl patterns. Totally changed my game. As my performance started improving, friends asked what I was doing, and I started teaching what I was doing. It was free-form and I knew very little about the underlying science, but I saw results.

In the early ’00’s, I started working with a beach volleyball legend who had a contract with the city of Long Beach, and we took folks out to the beach, taught them to play the game in sand, and also had a separate conditioning class we taught. I already enjoyed coaching, but this? This was just amazing for me. Fulfilling as all hell. Over the next few years, I took on a few ‘clients’ even though I wasn’t charging for it, and enjoyed that, too. BUT, I didn’t think it could be a real career.

So, I went, opened a restaurant with some buddies in San Diego, started drinking too much, stopped exercising at all, packed on 45 pounds of fat, and ended up with a DUI. With that wake-up call, I realized I had to get my shit together. I met a girl, we had some friends who had a bootleg copy of P90X, and I got the bug back. I dropped the weight, got engaged, and she asked one day, “You know, you like coming home from work and doing research on exercise. . . why don’t you become a personal trainer?” As she was in management for a nearby 24 Hour Fitness, she thought I could land the gig.

I interviewed. The end of the interview, the Fitness Manager says to me, “I end every interview saying what I like, and what I’d like to see (by way of development). I like everything I’ve heard. And I’d like to see you get your cert.” I did, he hired me, and I’ve been a personal trainer with the company since June of 2012.

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You’ve been in the game a long time. If there was one thing you could go back and tell yourself when you started working out, what would it be? What about when you started your career as a personal trainer?

Thank you! I have been in the game a long time, although, much like my senior year of high school when the surf was up, there were a lotta absences along the way. It’s easy to forget. What I would tell myself when I first started working out? A couple things, really. First, yes, you can make this a career, but there is so much to learn about business, people, relationships, and success that it’s probably best you go do a bunch of other shit and fail a bunch of times before coming back to it. (But, come back to it in the mid-90’s. Don’t wait until the 20-teens.) Second, keep doing what you’re doing, and keep learning more stuff. Be consistent in adding language to your movement vocabulary. And third, freshman year, go on and ask that girl out in your 3rd period class. You’ll know who I mean when you get there.

Trust me, she’ll say yes.

As for the beginning of my career, I’m going to go with what I would have told myself when I started in the corporate gym. Pretty simple, really. BE PRESENT. To be successful in the corporate box setting, a trainer needs to be present in the facility to the point that members see them as part of the scenery, one of the pieces of equipment. Which is true for any earnest entrepreneur. Be present in your business. And that’s the other thing I would say: TREAT IT LIKE A BUSINESS, NOT LIKE A JOB. Business owners are present, drive their business to grow, and concern themselves with every aspect of the business’ success. Employees may or may not care, may or may not invest themselves in their own growth to contribute to the business, and may or may not be professional.

BE PRESENT. To be successful in the corporate box setting, a trainer needs to be present in the facility to the point that members see them as part of the scenery, one of the pieces of equipment. Which is true for any earnest entrepreneur. Be present in your business.

Have any good stories about the early days of the internet? Or what I called, “The Wild West?”

Asking if I have any good stories about the early days of the Internet (definitely the “wild west”) is like asking if Rick James has any good 80’s partying stories. ICQ, chat rooms, limewire, askjeeves, I mean, my goodness, it was really crazy for a time. I wouldn’t say I have any good stories for you, but that’s only half truth.

I don’t have any stories fit to print.

Good answer, I’m trying to keep this PG-13. Why did you decide to help people?

I do what I do because it’s the most rewarding thing I have ever done. It checks all my boxes.

Can you name a few of those boxes? Are they your values?

The boxes that being a coach and trainer check for me are numerous and are wildly varying, but all come back to my values. I’m not monetarily motivated, and anyone who is in this industry to become wealthy is chasing squirrels around a very, very large tree. The entire process from first contact to successful trainee (which I define as someone who has embraced the power of training vs the randomness of just ‘working out’) is so incredibly rewarding that it’s like asking to define colors. It has to be experienced to be really understood. If Bob the Bartender asks me about Terry the Teacher’s evolution from sedentary slug to ambitious athlete, I can’t really express that experience so Bob can fully grasp it. And I have a gift for explaining the complex!

It’s a funny little irony. If someone is engaged in a job that doesn’t capture their values, they can explain that job pretty simply. Ask someone who is fully invested in their profession, someone who wakes up by jumping out of bed with the excitement that their vocation is more than they thought they could accomplish in life to explain their ‘job,’ and the answer’s intricacy multiplies by orders of magnitude. I like that. And I like the challenge of making what seems complex appear simple. It’s why I write.

What excites you right now?

Oh man, there are so many exciting things right now. The growth of the Strength Matters brand, the return of what I call “the wisdom of the ancients” in our industry, the crazy new shit that folks like Perry Nickelston of Stop Chasing Pain and Jill Miller of Yoga Tuneup are producing, and of course, the results my clients/students/pupils are getting and the incredible opportunities that are in my life are all things that charge me up.

Can you tell me one game changer thing you learned from Perry or Jill?

The big game changer I learned from Jill Miller was her approach to soft tissue work combined with flexibility training. I teach the “Treat While You Train” group exercise format for 24 Hour Fitness, a derivative of her Yoga Tune Up Program. Most Group X classes end with classmates chatting, laughing, and basically squawking like a gaggle of geese. And that’s no knock on them! They’re all just in a high arousal state, and that energy bleeds off in conversation and frenetic babble. Much less so in yoga, but wow, at the end of one of my classes, it’s almost mausoleum quiet. Folks are super down-regulated, and the calm that they exude is powerful in its placidity.

Now, on to Perry. Uhm, where to begin? From his “Big Toe-Belly-Butt” presentation in last year’s San Diego Summit, I knew he was a cat to follow. Then, I took his Primal Movement Chains course, and it totally resonated with me. We as an industry are so busy (in most cases, rightfully) chasing mobility that we (wrongfully) ignore stability. It’s only been a few months, but I have so many success stories from employing his RAIL system that I’m shocked NASM hasn’t packed up their CES cert and just adopted Perry’s programming.

One in particular that comes to mind was from the Seattle Strength Matters Kettlebell Instructor cert. One of the candidates/students/attendees mentioned that squats were murder for her due to a hip flexor that was angrier than an old bear with a sore tooth. She really was struggling with getting good depth and she was on the verge of tears out of frustration. I took her aside during one lunch and put her through Perry’s assessment process, and then took her through his Release Activate Integrate Locomotion system.

When we wrapped up, she stood up, and wobbled a little bit as she walked around, which is really super common the first time someone goes through it. And then she pulled off a gorgeous, deep squat. She was floored, and damn near tears again, only in relief. She asked me, “Was that some Dr. Perry voodoo shit?” And I replied, “It was ALL Dr. Perry voodoo shit.” And of course, she, like you, went on to crush the technique tests and fully earned her instructor certification.

I agree with Perry’s tongue-in-cheek description of his exercises not as ‘correctives,’ but ‘connectives.’ It’s the kind of mojo that will change thousands of lives in the future course of my work, and anyone with any interest in helping people perform better and get out of pain simply must get to one of his seminars.

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Robert flanked by Justin & Jordan Faison.

What was an obstacle that you faced and how did you overcome it?

My biggest obstacle is my ego. Which exists on the flip side of my introversion. Anyone familiar with Myers-Briggs will immediately understand that when I say I consistently test out as an INTJ. How I overcome it? By doing the stuff that makes me uncomfortable emotionally which I recognize rationally as necessary to be successful. Simple, but certainly not easy.

What something in the fitness industry that you wish everyone knew?

The one thing in fitness I wish everyone knew would be one of my rules of order, scandalously stolen directly from Mark Reifkind, Chief Instructor for Strength Matters: “Consistency trumps intensity.” It’s a rule that marches lockstep with another one of my rules of order, derived from Iron Tamer Dave Whitley: “80% daily and you can practice forever.”

Can you go further into what you mean by “”80% daily and you can practice forever”?

“80% daily and you can practice forever” stems from Iron Tamer Dave Whitley in his performances and in his seminal read “Taming the Bent Press.” Basically, it means that strength work is best viewed as practice, and to live in those practice sessions in the 80% zone. With so many different modalities out there that favor high intensity, “it isn’t working out until you puke” efforts, it’s refreshing to hear from someone who casually bends horseshoes into hearts with his bare hands that training at lower intensity repeatedly is where strength lives.

And strength is really the keystone to all the other high-level physical attributes. If we look at athletic attributes as an arch, the ground upon which that arch stands is stability, and the seams between each stone is mobility. And at the apex of the arch is strength, binding all the other attributes in place.

I tell my personal training clients constantly that I can’t go to their homes, ensure their diets are consistent with their goals, manage their allostatic stress loads, keep them properly hydrated, and check their sleep. In other words, I can’t do the recovery stuff necessary to achieve their goals. That’s on them to manage. I’ll give them all the coaching, cues, habits, and goals to embrace to make that happen, but at day’s end, they are responsible for that portion. What I can control is what happens during our time together, and during that time, I’m going to make them super fuckin’ strong. Now, don’t ask what metric I use to measure that because the answer is, “It depends.”

Whats one book that changed your practice or mindset, and why? Whats the one thing you took away from it?

The book that changed my game was one of the first my first Fitness Manager recommended. Gray Cook’s “Athletic Body in Balance” rang immediately true for me, and took me back to ’95, working with a powerlifter who was titularly training me for volleyball and thinking, “There must be a better way.” My one big takeaway from it was that there was a universe of stuff I didn’t know I didn’t know. And I wanted to track down the works of every person Gray mentioned, and swim upstream from there.

I remember first buying that book and running masking tape around my doorways to try out the assessments, Gray Cook has been a big impact on the fitness industry. What has been your biggest impact on a client?

Okay, as for biggest impact on a client, I simply can’t pick one. I’ve had quite a few folks decide they wanted to become trainers after working with me (convinced that if this clown could do it, why couldn’t they, I’m sure), I’ve seen huge weight loss, huge mobility and strength gains, seen folks in pain alleviate it, seen postures change, and with them, mindsets. I have both spoken and wept at the funeral of a client, and celebrated the joy of new life with others. I mean, which is your favorite puppy? All of them.

Rather than impact on a client, tell me about one breakthrough moment a client of yours had and what lead up to it?

Tons of breakthroughs to name, but there are some that really stand out. I’ve had a couple women in their 50s who were not athletes in their previous lives, who thought the gym meant ellipticals and selectorized equipment fall in love with pullups. The process of turning a lady, especially an older one, into a pullup machine is truly rewarding, and I think every trainer deserves that experience at least once in their career. Watching a gal go from “You think I’m gonna do WHAT?!” to “Holy cats, I just did THAT!” is empowering for both coach and athlete.

Another instance, I had a young man with cerebral palsy go from inhibited and shy, doubtful of his physical capabilities, to an outgoing and funny athlete who had full confidence that yes, he could certainly bang out 25 pushups and then deadlift his own bodyweight.

Right now, on the Book of Faces, I have a video up of a gal in her mid-60’s who couldn’t get off the floor without furniture for assistance when we first met, who now can get down on her back and back up again with her hands in prisoner position. And her good friend and contemporary is regularly swinging the 24kg for sets of ten.

I have athletes who have gone on to professionally play their sports all over the world, and have clients who have had skin-removal surgery from their lifestyle changes and dramatic weight loss. In all these instances, the process is the same, even if the procedure is different.

It’s why the one thing I recommend to every aspiring health and fitness professional is to spend some time as a trainer in a corporate gym setting. In that environment, one has to be extremely malleable in one’s approach, and the enormous variety of conditions with which one is presented forces ongoing education in order to survive.

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Roscoe the Horse.

What are the top 3 questions when meeting a client for the first time, and top 3 questions for someone you’ve been training for a while?.

Top three questions for new clients: 1. Why are you here? 2. What do you hope to achieve? 3. I may have my ideas, but what do you hope that I can do for you?

Top three for long-time clients: 1. How are you? 2. How is everything feeling? 3. What is going well for your fitness goals?

Whats one thing that changed in your programming over the last year?

One thing that changed in my programming over the last year is definitely Dr. Perry’s mojo. I had approached him during this year’s Summit in San Diego because of a hamstring that was extremely tight. I mean, tight like “first night in prison clenched cheeks” tight. If I sprinted too much, went too deep into a kb snatch set, or did too many ballistic crawls, it hollered at me incessantly. He graciously took ten minutes of his time to assess and then prescribe a fix. “Do this and this, this many times, twice a day for six weeks, and that’ll do the trick,” he told me. Well, I got lazy, and only did it once a day, and it was only 3 weeks in, and the damn thing completely resolved itself. I have had the zeal of the newly converted since and preach it as often as possible for both myself and my people.

As for program design, I thank Taylor Lewis for the brilliant insight on arousal-state training, and have seen a lot of success playing with arousal levels. Uhm, yeah, that really didn’t come out right. You know what I mean!

Perry and Taylor take complex stuff and make it simple. They are great resources to follow. What idea seems so simple to you but benefits almost everyone you work with?

There are so many things that are simple to me that benefit everyone with whom I work. If I had to choose just one, though, it’s the getup. It is such a fundamental movement that can be loaded in such a vast array of ways, and so many ways to challenge the movement that it can be a really fun way to train, without feeling like training. Not only a powerful assessment tool, it’s also incredibly scalable. And I love seeing new approaches to it. When Levi Markwardt introduced the crossover, I thought, “Dude, that’s rad.” He’s a humble guy who downplays how freakin’ smart he is and just by changing some angles, he refreshed the movement for those of us who already own the exercise. Cool shit.

The other simple thing that benefits everyone is movement exploration. Too many people get bound in their patterns, and I think it’s generally to their detriment. You watch a 6’8″ basketball player spend his offseason crawling only to come back and just dominate his position, including becoming absolutely impossible to move off the blocks, and you recognize the importance of variety in movement.

Look, strength is a property of the nervous system, right? And we know that learning new movement patterns encourages the growth of new neural networks (as Geoff Neupert and Tim Anderson explain in detail in their Original Strength system), right? So, wouldn’t it stand to reason that adding to your CPU’s overall capabilities will add to its performance? Mindful variety is powerful when employed properly.

Whats one habit that you do personally that breeds success?

Routine is my one habit that breeds success. Developing and embracing a positive routine is critical to success in anything. Note, I emphasize positive there. For me, that routine, that process begins first thing in the morning. I get up early every day, no excuses. From the time my feet hit the floor, it’s go time. In fact, I just realized in writing this, that I actually say to myself when I’m standing up, “Go time!”

The psychology of the morning is a funny, and ill-explored thing, in my opinion. I find that morning gym people are creatures of habit, most often highly successful in their outside lives, and very intelligent, to boot. I think you find your groove, make sure it’s a healthy one, and stick to it.

What do you wish people knew about you but probably don’t?

I wish more people knew that I’m always listening and learning and caring. And that my Deadpool fetish is for real.

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Teaching teachers how to move like kids again.

What are you super proud of?

My proudest moment is the birth of my daughter. She’s currently attending the alma mater of one Dan John, and could, if she so desired, graduate this year, at the tender age of 20. I hope she stays another year at USU, though, because it’s such a great school and she’s loving every moment of it.

Wow! Yeah, I agree, stay in college as long as you can! What’s some recent continuing education that you have really enjoyed.

NICE! A continuing education question! Well played, Neal. Right now, my physical education is through Gold Medal Bodies (GMB). Practicing floor work, and feeling like a giant gymnast is fun. Mental education, I’m slogging through Supertraining, which is like reading the Bible. Only the Old Testament’s “begats” are in graph form. Photocopied off of cocktail napkins. With hieroglyphs for notes. In Braille. No really, it’s a great read.

Super training is a great reference. I’m also a fan of Mel Siff’s “Facts and Fallacies of Fitness.” What else are you currently reading right now thats more digestible?

Smart follow up question. You’re well aware one doesn’t simply “read” Supertraining. As for my current reading, I am in a review mode at the moment. I read an hour or more a day from all kinds of sources, but always dedicate some time to reread something from years past, as I find new gems as my lens of experience filters out the dross. My review at present is Boyle’s “Advances in Functional Training.” Still a smart, fun read.

Additionally, one of my favorite programming reads at the moment is the Primal Speed workshop manual from Keats and Franz Snideman. Franz was my first kettlebell coach and is someone I count as both good friend and and a mentor, and these guys really, really understand sprinting. It’s a brilliant take on drills and programming for the sprint, and how to make this ‘ultimate expression in human speed’ accessible to everyone. I’m hoping for a potential coaching cert in the future. (HINT, HINT)

Any parting advice for us? Last words?

The only parting advice I have is to strive every day to be better. As a person, as a professional, and as a student. Look folks in the eye. Open your ears when they speak. Hug more, laugh more, share more tears. Stand tall where others may falter, and have broad enough shoulders to help them carry often unseen burdens. Strength is first and foremost a duty to protect those without it. Live courageously, consume life voraciously, and when you rest, embrace the sleep of the innocent.

Thanks so much Robert! How can we reach you?

I can be reached via the Book of Faces, email with my full name at Google’s proprietary email domain, and through the corporate Mothership’s Foothill Ranch location in Orange County, California. You’ll know me by the high socks and kettlebells.

Watch Robert answer the question, “What’s New Coach?”, and go over what been going on in his workouts and one big takeaway. Enjoy!

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