Mens Health editor Toby Wiseman: When I first met you, I thought you were half-superman, half-madman. Youd just completed your first WOD marathon. Twenty-four Hero WODs over a day and night a day and night that also happened to be dark, dank, cold and wet. With the last WOD to go, the gruelling Murph, you were blistered and knackered, yet you still blasted your way through pull-ups, press-ups and squats faster than I could hope to do on a good day. I was in bewildered awe. I thought, This isnt normal.
Andrew Tracey: Ill take that as a compliment, I think
TW: What Im saying is that you struck me as different or just beyond.
AT: Well, thank you, but thats just not true. I have no natural physical advantage. I would say that, on a spectrum, Im probably below average on that score.
TW: Come on!
AT: Its true. When I started training, I certainly didnt think, Wow, Im good at this.
TW: So are you saying its just desire? Or willpower?
AT: No. I just have an analytical approach. Whatever your challenge, its about breaking down what needs to be done, assessing whether it can be done, and then asking yourself whether you want to go out and do it. Its true that I dont give up easily. But, more often than not, the difference between success and failure comes down to how many times youre willing to have a crack at it. If I try to lift something thats beyond my capability, I dont think of it as too heavy. I see it as too heavy at the moment. Everything is a process.
TW: Tell me what you were like as a kid, before you started training.
AT: Back then, I never did any team sports. I grew up in a town that was full of council estates. You had the middle-management enclaves where all the kids were brought up on rugby, so I was naturally precluded from that. And my dad didnt raise me on football, either. So, I wasnt interested in the two main team sports. I was very slight and, until senior-school age, I was more academic. And that came with expectations: Id probably be the only kid there who would go to university, for example. But things didnt pan out that way. Then, as I reached my teenage years, I fell into what you might call more countercultural pursuits: skateboarding and BMXing. And I guess that when you do that, you dont really think about fitness, per se.
TW: But it is fitness, isnt it? Skating was my life as a teenager, and now I realise quite how much mobility is required to be any good at it.
AT: Absolutely. I mean, its inherently about functional fitness, but in a detached way. Fitness is a by-product. Theres no training, as such. Looking back and knowing what I know now, I realise its all about flow, and that youre practising for the sake of practising. Youre enhancing your mobility by getting back to a natural state and feeling no inhibition. To me, now, thats what fitness is: never allowing your physicality to become a barrier to what you want to achieve. (Continued below)
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TW: How did you find your way from the kerb to the squat rack?
AT: When I left school, I didnt really know what to do. My dad said to me, Either go to college or join the army.He passed selection for the parachute regiment and served with the British army for years. The military was my get-out clause. I did an army foundation term, purely to get out of going to college. Once that was over, I needed to get a job quickly while I worked out what I wanted to do with my life. So, I replied to an advert for a receptionist-cum-dogsbody job at a local gym. Before this, the world of fitness had literally never occurred to me.
Whatever your challenge, its about breaking down what needs to be done
I had no idea what being fit or unfit meant. Id only recently turned 16. I knew the trading estate where this gym was, and I knew its reputation. It was tiny: about 2,000sqft. In the morning, the only people there would be pensioners, walking on the treadmills. Then, in the evening, it was full of guys who came in after a day of building or plastering. Nowadays, youd call it a hardcore bodybuilding gym. At the time, I was no more than nine stone soaking wet. I had the ankles of a sparrow. I was a dainty guy. But I took the job simply because I figured that Id get minimum wage while figuring out what to do next.
TW: So, it wasnt a light-bulb moment?
AT: More of a slow awakening, Id say. The gym was run by this 21-stone bald guy, Enzo, who was covered in tattoos. He was a strongman competitor. His view was that you didnt have to train if you wanted to work in his gym, but you probably should. It could have been an intimidating environment a lot of these men worked as doormen in the town, and I was a young lad doing what young lads do. But they turned out to be the nicest people Id ever met. So, youve got these big, often juiced-up guys, who probably did a few unscrupulous things on the side, taking me under their wing. They started asking if I wanted to jump in with them on a set. And that was how I started training with these monsters!
TW: What kind of stuff were you doing? How did you manage to keep up?
AT: It was just out-and-out bodybuilding work. There was nothing intelligent about it. But in retrospect, what it taught me was that no matter how knowledgeable you are, its the intensity and intent that are more important than anything else. You would have guys there doing completely different things to each other and still getting the same results. And thats because the culture was just about hard work.
"People moaning about gyms being closed...you dont really need to do a lot to tick those boxes."
TW: But youre not a grunter, youre a thinker...
AT: Well, once I started training, I realised there were tons of books there. My job required me to be there for eight hours a day, and often there wasnt a lot to do, so I started reading. There were all sorts of stuff everything from academic literature on anatomy and physiology to Arnold Schwarzeneggers The Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding and I absorbed it all. People werent as informed back then as they are now. My boss, for instance, had a British Weightlifting Fitness Instructor certification and that was it its just a one-day course. So, by reading and learning as much as I could, I quickly became more knowledgeable than most of the people around me.
That said, equally important was the sense of community and the feeling of acceptance. People quickly gathered that I was studious, so they would ask questions and Id be able to answer. Id talk to everybody, try to find out what they were doing and why, then research it. Amazingly, these guys were accepting of a 16-year-old pipsqueak and listened to what I had to say. If there was something they were curious about, or had a hypothesis they wanted tested, they knew if they asked me, Id find out about it. It boosted my self-esteem. But it also taught me that if youre smart in this industry, and if youre a critical thinker, you can go a long way.
TW: Im assuming you were making gains yourself there.
AT: Yeah, my own progress was pretty fast. Within two years by the age of 18 I wasnt much smaller than I am now.
TW: All this is interesting because I don think Ive ever seen you in a gym. I associate you with more of a DIY, organic approach: you train outside, you work around your environment, and you never seem overly bothered by numbers and scores...
AT: Its true that Im not dogmatic about it, though Im very serious about the importance of good programming. Rather, my view is that whatever gives a person physical fulfilment is brilliant be that training for an Ironman or going for a jog around the block. It doesn't matter to me whether what you do is seen as optimal by experts, because optimal doesnt work if its not sustainable. The minimum effective dose to get the physiological benefits of exercise is actually incredibly low. Over the past year, when youve had people moaning about gyms being closed over lockdown you know, people saying they need it for their mental health I thought the fact is that you dont really need to do a lot to tick those boxes.
TW: Even skateboarding!
AT: Absolutely. Listen, the skaters approach has informed the way I see things. For instance, when you play football, you train for two or three nights a week, you play your game on a Sunday morning, and its pretty much the same for any kind of organised sport. But when you skate, you just go out. The journey and the destination are the same thing.
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TW: Theres a link here to the way you approach training in general now, isnt there? One of your mantras has always been: You are not your gym membership. In other words, the whole worlds a gym, if youre looking at it right.
AT: Completely. Whenever Ive been moved on from, say, doing pull-ups on some scaffolding or hanging rope off an RSJ [steel beam], it has never deterred me because it was ever thus when I was skating. Dont grind that bench, or, You cant skate here! I believe that the lack of restriction that comes with not being involved in organised activity has positively shaped my attitude to fitness. The whole idea that you train at this place, on this day, at this time just doesnt apply to me. Dont get me wrong, Ive trained for many years of my life in a gym. I worked as a personal trainer for years in commercial gyms! But theres never been that sense of dependency. I hate to be reductionist there are enough people in the fitness space banging the no excuses drum. And the fact is that there are always very real issues that can get in the way of someone being able to exercise. But what I will say is this: theres always somewhere you can do pull-ups.
"The only thing I had to work on was myself. What was praised above all else was effort."
TW: If youll humour the cod psychology for a moment, there appears to be two things going on here: the nurturing effect of a supportive community, but also a more personal, solo journey.
AT: Perhaps. Because I started out training in an environment where my physicality was so far removed from everyone elses, there was no one to compare myself to. My workout buddies were alien to me! The only thing I had to work on was myself. What was praised above all else was effort. I could have been training with someone who was pressing 140kg for 15 reps; then every time Id hop on the bench, wed have to take two plates off each side. But that was irrelevant. It was the determination that was important. Everything else is just numbers.
TW: To go from scrawny runt to the size you are now in two years is quite the transformation. But it sounds as though you went through a mental shift, too, in terms of how you saw yourself. Would you agree?
AT: Well, it was affirming. It changed the trajectory of my life. I found something where my professional interest was directly aligned with my personal goals, and when that happens, youre never not motivated. Whether I helped someone else improve, or whether I learned or achieved something myself, I was fully engaged. As a result, there was no real off switch. Everything became married together. I couldnt imagine doing anything else where Id get the same kind of total fulfilment.
TW: So, you became a full-fledged trainer?
AT: I joined the commercial gym scene in London for a while. Ironically, it was then that I became a bit disillusioned. In that kind of industry, you become a billboard for yourself. Everything becomes intertwined your own training becomes a reflection of how you want to be seen. And I was having my head turned by other things. These were the early days of CrossFit, and it interested me hugely. I discovered Mark Twight and Gym Jones [a private club for hardcore fitness enthusiasts] around the same time, and what Gym Jones represented for me was...
TW: A cult?
AT: Yes I mean, the clue is in the name! But it was that countercultural thing that appealed. When I was working in commercial gyms, Gym Jones represented the same kind of attraction as skating and BMXing had on me before. It began to inform the stuff I was curious about. Back then, there was no real accolade in how good a trainer you were. It was just about how much money you made, or how many clients you had. I became interested to see how these new techniques could be translated to ordinary people and thats still a big part of my ethos now. Learning doesnt stop once youve got your Level 3 PT certificate. Ive always been curious, interested in experimenting and innovating. I see it as a craft, as opposed to a job. Its not set in stone.
TW: Youre clearly passionate about what you do. But you also strike me as being more relaxed than most trainers like youve never lost the sense that you are living your life.
AT: I think that comes from understanding that were in this forever. There really is no rush. Having a specific and unwavering goal is like driving down the motorway, as opposed to traversing the back roads. But the views are better taking the scenic route, you know? And you can stop wherever you want and start again any time you like. Thats the key to longevity, in my view. Because where is the end? There is no finish line. And its curiosity that exploratory view of fitness that keeps you coming back, again and again. So, yes, my approach may be less serious in terms of its casual approach to the analytics. But Id argue that its more serious in that Im constantly striving to understand what fitness actuallyis from a holistic point of view.
TW: How about an end goal?
AT: Ultimately, its the things that you find most fun that will keep you coming back. Nothing in my life has ever been done because I have this burning ambition to achieve goals. Its mainly born out of crazy ideas. Ive said that, one day, Id like to climb the height of Everest on an indoor climbing wall. Not because its there to be done Im not that cheesy. Rather, because I want the experience. I dont have a drive to win as such. Ive no desire to beat, anyone. But I have this insatiable curiosity to try things out and see what I can achieve.
Ultimately, its the things you find the most fun that will keep you coming back"
TW: This brings things round nicely to your cover: how do you reconcile this self-effacing, Zen approach to life with a desire to be on the front of this magazine? You could argue theyre opposite to each other...
AT: Thats an easy one. When I was working at Enzos all those years ago, Mens Health always used to be in the racks. Depending on how big you were and what your goal was, the idea of being on a cover was a big thing for everyone. Now, I never do things the normal, straightforward way. I could have trained hard, stuck to a strict diet plan at all times, built myself a decent social media following and made it onto an agencys books in the hope of getting picked for a shoot. But instead Ive taken a more circuitous route. Ive been honest with myself and indulged my passion. So, managing to find myself on the cover having taken the road less travelled feels more gratifying. Its also an approach that feels aligned with everything Im about. It means as much to me as opening the PT section in last years October issue and seeing the words Edited by Andrew Tracey. I know what Ive done to achieve that, and the theme is just hard work. Be nice, get your head down, be consistent, dont be afraid to explore, and see what comes of it. Thats still pretty Zen in my book.
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