Program Director Jeff Tirrell: Origins in Fitness
The end of 2019 marks twenty years training in the gym for me. This passion has lasted over half of my life (61% to be precise). It marks eleven years working professionally in the fitness industry where I’ve been blessed to make a living and provide for my growing family, work with some amazing clients, co-workers, and employers. Many of my thoughts on various aspects of training and nutrition have evolved over the years due to personal experience, observing clients, and some great mentors I’ve had over this time. I don’t like to talk about myself too often, but the few times I have told my story I’ve gotten positive feedback from individuals with similar backgrounds. The end of a year, or the start of a new year seems like as good a time as any to put it into writing for anyone looking to change their life for the better.
My earliest memories of sports, PE class, or physical activity were not pleasant ones. My most engrained memories as an elementary aged child involve never being able to complete the mile run in PE class each year when we were tested–having to walk, and always being one of the last to finish. When we did our monthly pull up challenge, I was never able to complete a single pull up. Climbing the rope was a no go as well. I remember playing basketball at an early age and never having the ball passed to me. In middle school, I was on the B/C team for wrestling and 2nd/3rd string playing football. In middle school, I started to get teased for my weight and apparent lack of style. I recall arm wrestling the skinniest kid in my middle school and losing. Not only was I fat, but I was also weak. In high school, I recall trying to partner with one of the better varsity wrestlers on our team in hopes of getting better only to have the coach tell me to practice with a kid with special needs. I can only presume this was because he didn’t want me dragging down our star wrestler. I remember crying as soon as I got home when my mom asked me how my day had been.
A Way out:
When I was in 8th grade, my dad was found to have high blood pressure and cholesterol issues at his annual check-up. Being a good doctor, his physician gave him a free month pass to our local fitness center which was affiliated with the hospital. Being a stubborn farmer who thought the labor he did on the farm was enough, he had no interest in using the pass and my parents agreed to let me use it. That first month I went every day I didn’t have football practice or a game which equated to four days per week. After the free trial, my mom agreed to continue to pay for me to go and train at the wellness center. I bought bodybuilding magazines and watched what the other bigger guys were doing in order to shape my training. In high school, I added in what our wrestling and football coaches told us to do, but still added in things I saw in magazines. During football and wrestling seasons, I would either workout before school, after school/practice/chores, or take a weight lifting class at school so that I could make sure to maintain my 4-6 days per week training schedule. It wasn’t the perfect training plan for sure, but I kept showing up, and I kept challenging myself to get better day in and day out.
By the time I was in 11th grade, I was one of a handful of juniors who got consistent playing time on the varsity football team and earned a varsity wrestling spot in the 189lb weight class. By my senior year, I was one of the strongest kids in my school, started on the offensive line where our football team was the first in school history to make it to Regionals in the state playoffs, and earned 2nd team all league honors at the end of the year. My senior year in wrestling, I made it to Regionals as well as an underweight heavyweight (about 204lbs in a class that went up to 275lbs), and was selected to be the Division 1 representative for the honor roll meet in the Lansing area. I transitioned into bodybuilding after high school and throughout college to give myself a competitive outlet. In 2010 just after getting married, it was discovered that I had a mediastinal teratoma (a benign tumor located in my chest cavity). I had open heart style surgery where my sternum was cut down the middle and my ribs pried open to remove a football sized tumor. I couldn’t train and laughing or coughing were terribly painful. It took six weeks until I could start training again, and when I did, I had to start with an empty barbell and start all over again. After surgery and time off, I was down to 170lbs (the lightest I’d been since my sophomore year in high school. A few years later, once I had regained some base level strength and size, I made my way into Powerlifting where I won a state title in Michigan, a runner up in Texas and MIchigan, as well several top 3 finishes from 2012-2017, and two national championship qualifications. I was not gifted with great athletic ability and was the only person in my family to ever participate in school sports. My parents never participated in sports either. I somehow inherently knew, even back then that by simply showing up consistently for a long enough period of time, that I could reach my goals and surpass my competition.
Over the last several years, I have become more focused on activities outside of the gym like long and progressively more challenging hikes and mountain biking with my kids. I’ve picked up Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as another physical outlet and challenge. The base of strength established over the last two decades has helped tremendously in all of these tasks. I still train with the intent of getting stronger, building muscle mass, and improving my function in daily life and recreational activities. People often assume because someone works in the fitness field that they eat “perfect” all the time or always like to work out. While training is often therapeutic for me, there are plenty of times that I don’t feel like training. There are times where I don’t eat in a manner conducive to my goals. The difference between those who are successful in their journey and those who fall flat is not in some magic program or secret diet. It’s simply showing up, day in and day out. Placing one foot in front of the other, and as a whole, making improvements over the long haul. Not days, weeks, or months but in years, decades, and a lifetime. Strength coach and writer Jim Wendler has a motto of “Dedication over Motivation”. Too often we look too much to being motivated or inspired to train. I think we would all be well suited to think of physical preparation the way we do personal hygiene. Whether we feel like it or not, we shower, shave, and brush teeth, day in and day out.
If you feel out of place, lost, or like you won’t fit in, know that myself and many of our trainers have been there and in some ways, still are. We’d love to offer you support, a safe, sensible, and effective plan to get you on track to a lifetime of success and optimal function.
Jeff Tirrell, CSCS, CFSC, Pn1