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Interview with Benjamin Tormey

Benjamin Tormey is an international fitness coach and personal trainer, working with companies, groups, and individuals. His background is in pure mathematics and he uses these mathematical and analytical skills to understand the science of training and nutrition in order to effectively meet the needs of his clients. 
Note from Matt: This interview was recorded from a Skype call and then trascribed by me. Some sections may be edited slightly for an easier read.

Matt – Many of the most effective coaches I’ve talked to have had a personal transformation with their own health and fitness. You seem to have a similar story. According to your website, at the age of 23 you were severely underweight and depressed. Can you walk me through that time in your life and tell me what helped you start to make progress with your fitness journey?

Ben: Absolutely. In fact, I had suffered from depression for a considerable amount of time. It first started when I was in high school. I took medication for this and continued to take it until I was pursuing my PhD at the age of 23. I wouldn’t say it was an overnight thing, but instead a gradual realization that I wanted to really look at what I ate and go to the gym. My primary motivation to do this was probably to interact with girls (laughing). I felt that I didn’t have confidence with how I looked. I knew I had a good personality, was funny, and all those things, but it just felt like the right time to actually do something about all of this. So, it was motivated by being extremely unhappy with how I looked. Before I had become depressed I was very athletic and had done a lot of sports. I did sprints, high jump, rugby, and football. I was physically active and healthy, but it just completely dropped off. To add to it all, I felt that I had kind of ruined things for myself and thrown it all away. Anyways, when I was 23 I finally made the decision to start training. I bought some weights so I could work out at home. Like many people who are overweight, or underweight, the first step isn’t going to the gym because you feel intimidated. I felt that there would be people judging me, so that’s why I started at home. Eventually I was comfortable enough to graduate and could go to the gym (laughing).

Matt: Do you think that this background has helped you as a coach?

Ben: It has. I wouldn’t say it’s helped directly with working with people who are overweight, however, I do understand the anxiety and being unhappiness with the way you look. I have had the pleasure of working with people who have a similar background to myself. In fact, there’s a client who I have right now who is almost in the same exact position I was. It’s like coaching myself. I think for anyone that’s the most rewarding thing, you know? To see someone and know that you can make changes in their life because you’ve done it yourself. It gives them hope and it gives you a very powerful reward. I wouldn’t say having a personal transformation of your own is necessary to help people, but it certainly gives you empathy. Not just empathy, but the ability to know when to go hard on someone and when to back off. There’s a fine line there. You can’t just indulge someone all the time because they’ve been through something terrible. There has to be a balance.

Matt: While you were starting to make progress and piece things together was there anyone, locally or via the internet, that helped you develop a concrete approach to health and fitness?

Ben: I find it difficult to just name one source because when I started I was looking at websites. There was one website called Exrx.net that had a bunch of information on nutrition and training. It was rooted in what I would now recognize as evidenced-based fitness. It had a lot of references, was based on physiology, and so on. I didn’t get into fitness through magazines like Men’s Health. Since I was doing research at the time and had a background in science my default was to go to things that explained the nutrition, physiology, and other areas in more scientific, concrete terms. I did read and learn things from T-Nation as well (laughing), but I really wanted to understand what was going on underneath the surface. Lyle McDonald, people like that, gave me my initial footing.

Matt: When did you decide to pursue a career as a fitness professional instead of doing something with your PhD in Pure Mathematics?

Ben: That was a very gradual thing. While I was doing my PhD I kind of fell into coaching informally. I started writing with a few friends, Yusef and Jonny, on a blog called Propane Fitness. They’d started it and I came on board. It eventually got to the point where we were helping people for free and realized that we could start charging money for the service. It just built from there. It was never a conscious decision to say this is my new career. I was simply doing this in my spare time and it continued to build to the point where we were getting great results. I switched over to doing this full-time a few years ago. Regarding my PhD, I eventually realized that academia was not where I wanted to spend my time in the long-term.

Matt: When did you start doing in-person coaching?

Ben: A few years ago right about when I started doing online coaching full-time. I did the qualification for being a personal trainer which is a bit different in the States, I think. It’s sort of a vocational thing. In many ways it is similar because it isn’t tightly regulated compared to what dieticians go through, for instance. Pretty much anyone can become qualified. It’s a multiple-choice exam that can be done in six weeks. You basically pay to get your qualification. Personally, I didn’t look at any of the textbooks and only got two questions wrong on the exam. To be honest, I was annoyed about that (laughing). There simply isn’t a very high-barrier to getting started in the space. But, I did the exams because I had been doing online coaching and I didn’t really feel comfortable doing it without any real qualifications or insurance. If I was going to take people’s money and treat this as a career I felt that I should treat this as a proper vocation. I didn’t want to be that guy where people would simply email me money and I didn’t have any letters behind my name (laughing). Whether I was right or wrong, it just felt like the right thing to do. The second thing that made me do in-person coaching was that I felt that there were too many people who got into online coaching with no real world experience with human beings in the gym. I don’t think that this is absolutely fatal because you can still deliver good advice, but I don’t think you can be the best coach without this real world personal training experience. If nothing else, even if it was just to do it for a year or something, I think you’d be better off than before because you’d learn a lot more about people. There are so many things I see, such as program design, where you can tell the coach hasn’t sat down and thought about what the client would actually have to go through in a commercial gym to follow the exercises with other people around. The coach could be having the client do all these supersets where it simply wouldn’t work if anyone else was at the gym at the same time. I was guilty of this myself in the past. I wrote programs that were perfect on paper, but lacked the real-world practicality. Doing in-person personal training helped me in so many ways.

Matt: Just because this is one of my favorite topics to touch on, what else have you learned from doing in-person personal training?

Ben: Oh, there’s a bunch of things. Now, for example, all of my programming is written with the RPE scale because I feel that autoregulation and perceived effort works much better than programming in percentages for my general population clients. Very few of them have specific strength goals so this approach is much easier for both of us. One of the things I learned that has been really valuable was that when I started doing personal training my clients, depending on their personality-types and/or motivation for the day,  would follow my guidelines in different ways. I would tell clients to do an RPE of 9 and for some it would be a max effort. For others, they might only being doing an RPE of 7 or 8 and have a few more reps in the tank. After these sets I would ask them how it felt and they thought they were doing a 9 the whole time. That kind of stuff happens all the time. I had one client who recently had a surgery, was brand new to the gym, and told me during our consultation that she was interested in Crossfit. She was so full of energy, so keen. I really loved it. Anyways, during our sessions I would watch her lift and ask her where the set was on a scale from 1-10. Was that an 8? A 9? Where are you? Every single time she would say 7-8. Looking at her form I know she’s much higher than that (laughing). So, people’s personality types have a huge impact on their approach to training. Those are the types of things that are very difficult to pick up on with online coaching. Just even basic things like thinking about when you’re in the gym with someone for an hour how should I structure the training? Training someone in the gym is never just about having the spreadsheet to follow. My client tonight has had a lot of injuries so I have to check in and see if his hamstrings are tight are tight today. Based on what he says I might spend more time warming up than usual or switch out exercises for something completely different. If you’re too dogmatic and try to apply the offline to online approach it just doesn’t work. So, a lot of in-person training is about being fluid, adaptable, and being able to talk to someone. Any idiot can just stand there and count reps, you have to have something more to add (laughing). Offline training is about being able to read and interact with people on a personal level. That’s why people choose to train with you. They buy in to you as a person and enjoy having an hour to talk to you about whatever between sets. I enjoy that as much as everything else I do.

Matt: That’s awesome. Hearing about the relationships trainers have with their clients is one of my favorite things about these interviews.

So, it kind of seems that you were in the first wave of younger fitness professionals that realized the potential of online coaching. What did you online coaching process look like in the very beginning and what adjustments have you made to increase your effectiveness?

Ben: In the beginning you very quickly learn as an online coach the limitations of email and the other softwares we used to use. When we first started with a client you had an email thread and it very quickly becomes difficult to track data, feedback, and everything else you need to do your job as their coach. Basic things like bookkeeping and admin. We had to quickly move over to file-keeping systems so we could handle the process. I started using Google Drive from the beginning because it was the best option at the time. Giving your clients the ability to edit/input information on the go was huge. Also, I worked really hard on creating one central document that walked my clients through everything they would need to know while working with me. The document basically became a handbook for all of my clients. It was something that now other coaches might put out as an e-book (laughing). It was that detailed. So, online coaching for me involved is something that has continued to evolve and I’m constantly looking for the best way to deliver value to my clients.

Matt: You have your own brand that you coach through at BenjaminTormey.com and just launched a new venture with two other coaches called Squats and Sass (links at the bottom of this post). What led to you launching this new business and what kind of impact do you think you can have?

Ben: The three of us, all guys, wouldn’t have been able to access female clientele online successfully as quickly if we each targeted them through our own brands so we decided to come together. We all coach women in in-person and online, but we wanted to set something up that was fun, lighthearted, and designed to appeal to women who were interested in improving their physique. Some of the language may be a bit polarizing, for example when you talk about a woman who wants to build a nice ass, but we really wanted to create a positive experience. The actual content of what we do is designed to be liberating for women. We aren’t putting our clients into restrictive diets or telling them to spend hours in the gym. We want them to relax, feel confident about what they are doing, and be set up for long-term success. We do run into individuals with eating and body image issues. These are challenges that each of us, the coaches, really enjoy working on with our clients. The nice thing about working with woman is that they will always do what you tell them to once they buy-in, much more so than working with guys. To add to that, setting up a group coaching environment is a great way to do the coaching because they are all supportive of each other. They really help each other within the community we’re building. My individual clients don’t need that type of buy-in because they are working with me for different reasons.

Matt: I’ve really enjoyed the articles you’ve put out through your blog this year. For the other fitness professionals reading this, I’d highly recommend checking out Ben’s writing (link). What’s helped you progress with your writing over the years? It seems that you don’t worry too much about the quantity since you’re only putting out about one article every two months at the moment.

Ben: Yeah, I am starting to pick up on that. It was a conscious decision that I made because I wasn’t relying on traffic to get new clients. It was a little bit selfish of me, but I took some time off to think about what I really wanted to write about. What ideas did I have that were different? I never want to be that guy who is writing about how to set up your macros and passing along a formula that everyone has already seen. Nobody wants to read an article slightly rewording what Alan Aragon has already wrote. That just bores me and everyone else. So, I stepped back to think about my experience and see what I really could offer to people. In that time I planned out like 50 articles and was going to write one a week (laughing). It didn’t quite work out that way. I’ve started to pick up the writing again recently and zone in one what I wanted to say. Luckily I did have blogs before so I had experience with the writing process. The thing that probably helped me the most was that I had a background where I had to explain technical things and breakdown high-level concepts. If you do a PhD and post-grad seminar you’re going to get ripped apart by people. So, I’m fairly good at dissecting and trying to distill down what I’m writing so that the article is easy to read and understand. I have seen some decent long-form articles online, but I really don’t have the patience to read or write those. I want to give my readers something that they can use in as few words as possible. If I was going to recommend anything to other fitness professionals out there it would be to be almost pedantic with what you’re writing. Just look at every single sentence and see what you can strip away. Are you actually saying something meaningful or are you just rewriting what someone else has already said? If you are rewriting something do you even have a unique take on it? If not why even write it? I know I, as a fitness reader, don’t want to spend my time reading the same thing over and over. I’m not trying to put out articles to improve my SEO or get featured on some list. That doesn’t interest me. In addition to that, the best thing to do is simply to write a lot. The mistake I made was that I wasn’t happy with anything I was writing for a while so I didn’t publish anything. The only way you can get better is by writing more. It might take a few years, but you need to have an outlet to do this. I don’t think I’m close to the finished product yet. I have more work to do. You can’t look at people who have been doing this for a long period of time, like Nate Green for instance, and compare your writing to the quality of his.

Matt: Let’s switch over to nutrition for a moment. You’ve written about following a cycle diet strategy, which is something I’ve read about from a few coaches. First of all, I appreciate the warnings you put on the article because I think it’s something that can easily be categorized as an extreme diet. Can you explain this diet a bit further and tell us why it matches your needs?

Ben: Sure. So the cyclical diet I wrote about in that article is something you’ll see in many different places across the industry. Loads of coaches have their own form of this diet and everyone brands it slightly differently so they can put their own stamp on it. Skip Hill is one coach that I’ve learned a lot from who does a timed window for his high-carb refeed where you don’t count macros. Scott Abel calls it a spike day where it’s relatively low for most of the week and then you eat wherever you want within 6-12 hours (you’ll have to buy his book for more detail on this). So the cyclical diet evolved for me from following loads of different diet approaches with refeeds in various forms. I’ve been through the whole spectrum. I’ve done carb-cycling, ketogenic diets, cyclical keto diets, and every type of diet possible. Going back to when we were discussing the importance of working with people in-person to understand practical programming, I also have a principle where I won’t give anyone a diet that I haven’t tried myself. I wanted to experiment so I can be confident giving other people advice. Anyways, the cyclical diet was born out this experimentation. I tend to be extremely OCD with my own personality. I’m very analytical. What I realized is that if you do straight macro calculations, IIFYM or flexible dieting, you may have freedom with what you want to consume, but you’re still trapped in the same sort of prison where you have to measure and track everything you eat. Sometimes you just need to release, not by eating 50 extra carbs or whatever, but where you give your mind a release. The refeed day is a break for your emotional and mental health. Not just so that you refill glycogen or whatever nonsense you want to talk about from a physiological standpoint (laughing). So, the cyclical diet was born out of realizing that when I was following a diet, flexible or not, I would reach a point where it became too much for me. Whether it was personal stress or something external, I would go off the rails a little bit. Now I’m not saying that if you go off the rails a little bit you should just have a cheat day and binge eat or whatever. That’s not what it’s about. It’s actually a planned deviation from the diet so you know you can stick to it for the rest of the week until Saturday, for example, where you eat, watch Netflix, and sit on the couch all day. It’s like a controlled demolition. You have a building that you want to take down and you don’t want to let it fall over, but you know it’s going to collapse at some point. You know your willpower is going to break at some point, at least it would with my own diets. So, I thought, why wait? Why not just enjoy and establish a healthy relationship with food so I could use that to my advantage?I honestly found that with doing refeeds my body responded very well. I would eat whatever I liked during my window and I would drop a few pounds the same week. Although on the surface it seems like disordered eating, and I wouldn’t recommend it to someone who had that type of background, it’s actually the complete opposite for me. I’m very analytical and like to control things. I would find that I would become too obsessed with something. Now I simply think about things like how hungry I feel today, I don’t label things, and I just enjoy the process of cooking and eating. I enjoy the experience. So, for me it was the cyclical approach that allowed me to pull back. Some people take it even further and are very intuitive with their eating to get very lean. I’d always found that for me to get as lean as I wanted to be I had to have macro targets and to measure everything precisely. This cyclical diet strategy was a way for me to find balance, have an outlet, to enjoy food, and still make the progress I wanted to make.

Matt: You mentioned before this interview you have another coaching service launch coming up. Along with that, what else are you excited about coming up with your own projects?

Ben: I’m really excited to put out more high-quality articles focused on the stuff that I want to see. I’m interested to see how people respond to them. On top of that, I’m excited to just continue refining what I do. I have so many ideas that I’ve written down and it’s taken me a long time for these ideas to come to fruition. My Evernote is full of notes that I’ve made while I’m walking the park. It’s taken me months to get to the point where I feel comfortable enough actually saying something about it. I think that’s one of the sad things about online fitness right now. Many coaches feel that they have to put out an article every single week. If you follow this process most the content you put out will be rather shallow or poorly thought out. It’s important for me to not cut myself short and avoid the temptation to follow this cycle of writing that we see across the industry. Without experience or the time to think these ideas out you’re very rarely going to say something profound. I’m not saying that I think my own writing is profound (laughing), but I’ve found this process to be more fulfilling than telling people the same old things in a different format. There’s so many people already doing that or writing on topics who are clearly much better at it than I am. I have a different background and a different perspective. I’m excited to show people how I think about things, the mistakes I’ve made during my journey, and all the rest.

Matt: To continue with that, what are you excited about for fitness professionals over the next few years as the industry continues to mature?

Ben: The evidenced-based movement has been good. I mean, there’s a good and bad to it, but I think it’s helped give high-quality information from research more publicity than it had before. It’s helping people start fitness with an approach that’s on a much stronger base than before. Stuff that gives people skills that can help them in the long-term. I also really appreciate the people who are putting out content focused on behavior and habit change. I think over the next few years we’re going to see a hybrid of all these coaching strategies. People will hopefully start to calm down on the evidenced-based approach. A coach may have read a few studies, but he/she also needs to know how people tick and find the right approach for the individual. We’ll also have people that have great real world experience, but aren’t quite as educated on the scientific research, start to have a more pragmatic approach than before. So, I think there will be more moderation between the two coaching extremes. That would be my dream.

Matt: What about from a business perspective? Personally, I think the personal training industry is really starting to move forward. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Ben: From the business side of things I think that people are really starting to understand what online personal training is about. A lot of coaches, especially people I’ve spoken to before, have suspicious motivations. They talk about being sick of working in a gym with crazy hours and think that they can simply sit on a beach answering emails. Some coaches thought that they would be set for life by getting into this new type of coaching. People are starting to realize that this isn’t realistic. Coaches are starting to figure out what you need to deliver to make online coaching work, how to get the best results, and the best engagement from clients. I mentioned group training before and I think it’s an excellent option for online training. One thing I think is important to remember is that there is a ton of information out there, but we, as coaches, haven’t necessarily done the best job presenting it to others so that it could be used effectively. There will continue to be more of a focus on the client for online training and less about passive income. Some people are already doing that of course, but I’m looking forward to seeing more of this compared to what the professional side of the fitness industry offered before.

Matt: Thank you so much Ben for sharing your time with me. Really looking forward to the great content you’ll continue to put out. If anyone would like to follow Ben or read more of his work check out the links below:

Twitter @BenTormey

Matt McGunagle

Matt McGunagle

CEO & Founder of StrengthPortal. Working hard to help you in between deadlifts and jiu-jitsu!

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