Meet Steve Cotter, Founder International Kettlebell and Fitness Federation [Interview]

Meet Steve Cotter, Founder International Kettlebell and Fitness Federation [Interview]

Posted by Tyler Spraul, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist® (CSCS®) on July 29, 2019 — Updated on August 24, 2023

Get the Basics…

  • Developing Kettlebell as a martial art form
  • Breathing as a medium of communication between mind and body
  • Understanding functional training and mobility
  • Promoting community, connection, and global citizenship through exercise and training

The way you look and feel physically can ofter affect you feel mentally and emotionally, can’t it? Today, we’re talking with Steve Cotter who will share tips and philosophy that will help you to promote physical fitness, mental and spiritual health, and overall wellbeing within your health and fitness practice.

We’ll discuss his experience with martial arts and at IKFF and discover how he uses physical fitness as a medium of pursuing connection and community as a global citizen with other humans of diverse backgrounds and cultures.

If you’re ready to grow and manage your business better, schedule a demo today.

Meet Steve Cotter, Founder International Kettlebell and Fitness Federation

Schimri Yoyo: Alright, this is Schimri Yoyo with exercise.com, and we are continuing our interview series with fitness experts, and today we have Steve Cotter of the International Kettlebell and Fitness Federation. Thank you Steve for joining us today.

Steve Cotter: Hi Schimri. Thanks for inviting me. My pleasure to be here.

Schimri Yoyo: Well, just to start off with, can you give us a little summary of your background in martial arts?

Steve Cotter: Yes. Well, I’m 49 years old now. I started studying Chinese martial arts when I was 12 years old. And I did that religiously for close to 20 years. I was studying what’s called internal martial arts, so it combines martial arts with the meditation and breathing exercises, and the use of certain types of therapy like acupressure, massage, the use of topical herbs. So it’s a very comprehensive system.

And then I moved away from the martial arts in my early 30s, and I moved into fitness as my profession. And then, recently in the past year and a half, I came back to the martial arts again, studying jiu-jitsu, which I currently study. Martial arts has been very instrumental in my development and my exposure to physical training and physical culture as well as the East meets West, holistic approach that I apply also to my fitness training.

Schimri Yoyo: So, you have a lot of longevity with martial arts and you returned to it after a lengthy hiatus. It’s like riding a bike: you took a little break, but it came back to you.

Steve Cotter: Yeah, yeah. It actually brought me back to the roots. I was always doing martial arts in the middle. What happened is I ultimately created my own style, but I didn’t realize at the time that I was still doing the martial arts.

For me, the kettlebell gave me an avenue to apply the martial arts in a different way, you can say in a way, that was not necessarily martial as in fighting or combat, but martial as in the movement and the intention of the mind and body.

So I’ve really been doing martial arts the whole time, but for a period of more than 15 years, I was sort of a practitioner without a school or without a brotherhood. I was teaching, but I wasn’t studying as a student. Now, I’m back to being a student again, so I can say it’s been a full circle journey. I don’t foresee myself ever stepping away from the arts again.

Schimri Yoyo: Alright, that’s great. That’s a unique and interesting way to put it. That actually brings me to my follow-up question, how did you then translate your passion for martial arts, how did that transfer to your becoming involved with sports performance as the trainer/coach/teacher?

Steve Cotter: Yeah, that’s a great question. So when I came to the arts, I was very young. I was 12 years old. That had really shaped my worldview in many respects. As a young teenager starting also my first profession—my first job was teaching martial arts—so I had thought, as a teenager, in my twenties, I just had the assumption that I’d be teaching martial arts for the rest of my life, that that would be my career.

And then in my late twenties, there was a diversion, kind of a change of direction. So I realized at that point, “Okay, I’m not going to be doing martial arts for the rest of my life. So what am I going to do instead?”

And I thought about it, and I decided well I need to get some academic background. I had a lot of hands-on experience, but I needed to get some more academic, some more study. So I decided to go to university, and I was very fortunate in that I live in San Diego, and San Diego State University has an excellent kinesiology program. So I decided I’m going to go into the kinesiology.

From there, when it comes to fitness, the thing I loved about martial arts more than anything as a young man, was the training itself. I did the fighting, I did the full contact, but that was never my motivation, not the fighting necessarily. My motivation was the training itself, and that’s what I loved. I loved to work hard. I loved to push myself. So it was a natural transition.

And I also was an early adapter in the kettlebell movement, so when kettlebells were kind of brand new, I was one of the first people to see the opportunity. And so it was a natural segue for me to have at this point many years of teaching martial arts, people of different ages, children, adults, seniors. There was a natural segue into the fitness for me.

Schimri Yoyo: Speaking of a natural segue: you seem to have had that coaching and passion within your blood from a very early age. How did that then spark your interest in building an entire fitness regimen with the kettlebell? You talked about being an early adopter of it, so when did you first say, “Okay I’m interested in kettlebell,” and then have that continue to the point where you’re saying, “Okay, now I want to actually make this a business or make this an actual fitness discipline”?

Steve Cotter: Yeah, it’s time and place in a lot of respects. I’ve thought about that a lot over the years. In other words, if it were a different time and place, I may not have gone in the direction that I’ve gone in. Sometimes we can say this is destiny or fate that my life led me in a particular direction. So initially it was my own interest. We start with the selfish.

Even in the martial arts, when I started teaching martial arts as a teenager, the idea was that I would be a better practitioner by teaching. So it was a selfish sort of motivation that by teaching others, I’d get deeper into the material for my own benefit.

Now, where I sit now at 49, having decades and decades of experience behind me, now I understand really more what my service is, what my service is to humanity, what my service is to society.

But I wasn’t seeing that in the beginning, so we can look back and see how it formed. Really it was the opportunity. So when I say time and place, it was the opportunity. I was an early adapter. I had a rich background in the martial arts, so the movement culture.

I had an appreciation for—we can say a holistic approach, where it’s not just bodybuilding. Because back in that time, this was before—so I got in the arts in the early eighties, 1982. What we call functional training really didn’t exist. What we call functional training to my recollection—it wasn’t until like the late 80s and early 90s when we started seeing that terminology in the vernacular.

Even as a teenager and probably my early twenties, the source of information that people were going to would have been Muscle Media 2000, the Muscle Mag. So it was still sort of riding off the glory of Arnold Schwarzenegger and what he represented and to all of the guys. And for the women, Jane Fonda in the 70s was a big [influence], impactful. Also was the group aerobics was very popular.

CrossFit did not exist. Kettlebells did not exist. It was early adapters, guys like Paul Chek and others that would just say, “Hey we’re not just training the muscles. We’re training movement.”

But I consider that a previous era. Now, what we have in functional training is we have that understanding that okay, we’re training movement, but we also have these tools like the kettlebell, like CrossFit, this type of multi-modality cross-training. Things like mace and clubs and Bulgarian bags and heavy ropes that came from John Brookfield, the Battling Ropes.

These things are ubiquitous in most gyms now, but that wasn’t the case 20 years ago and before. It was machines and free weights. The timing of it really was instrumental in that I had the— Sorry, I kind of got off track. Repeat your last question, just to get me back on track.


Schimri Yoyo: We like the depth. Get back to how you took your passion and the opportunity for kettlebells and then decided to say, “Okay I’m going to make a fitness regimen out of this.”

Steve Cotter: Yeah, so thanks. It was really the opportunity was there, but I would be doing it anyway, and that’s a big point of it: I was personally interested in it for my own sake. Like “Hey, this looks like something that I would like to pursue further.”

When I saw the kettlebell I said, “Hey this is something different.” The martial artist in me recognized the value in that you’re on your feet, it’s in your hand, you’re using your whole body, you’re training movements, it’s explosive.

The combination, the integration of flexibility and strength. Not bodybuilding per se. Again, I use the word segue. It was a natural segue, then, for my creating an organization. I had an aptitude for it.

I love the kettlebell. I was able to learn it quickly because of my background in movement and martial arts. It was a new technique, but it wasn’t completely foreign in the sense of using my body as a unit. This is also synonymous with the martial arts. And I was able to position myself as one of the primary practitioners at that time. Plus, I had a very rich and diverse background in teaching. So there wasn’t really any models.

Pavel was kind of the only guy. Pavel Tsatsouline was the only guy at the time. Pavel and I got connected, and I started working with him, and I essentially said, “Well, I can be doing this.” But I did it in my way, in a different way, and really where I went into it is I saw it as an opportunity for an international phenomenon.

Schimri Yoyo: So you basically took your personal passion, and you were proactive and turned your personal passion into a professional endeavor. That’s an entrepreneurial boss move.

Steve Cotter: Yeah, and really it came in at the beginning of the intersection with Internet and fitness together. And so that was the avenue to where now instead of the business card, it’s a DVD. And you’re a customer ad you say, “Hey what’s this DVD with a kettlebell?” You see it, you like it, and now you’re interested in my work. So maybe you send me an email saying, “Hey I got your DVD and if you’re ever out in this area or that area, I’d love to attend your workshop.”

So this is kind of how it got started. I considered it very organic and grassroots, except now our grass grows all over the world because the Internet allows it, versus being limited to just in your neighborhood. That’s the only difference. But yeah, it started with a passion and then it just naturally led into, “Well, I got to make a living. So let’s figure out how to do these together.”

Schimri Yoyo: Again, that reveals your entrepreneurial spirit, that even at the beginning you always had a global scope as far as the potential reach of your passion, so that’s cool.

Steve Cotter: Absolutely, absolutely. Because people are people, and nations and borders, they are man-made, artificial. And that’s the world we came from, but it’s not the world we’re going to. The world we’re stepping into is a global experience, and it’s only the technology or the limitations of the current technology that prevents us from connecting faster and easier. The Internet allows us to—but we still got to get on an airplane, and it takes a lot of work to get to the other side of the world.

Part of that was my passion to travel and learn about the world, so I really integrated my interests all together into a viable, sustainable, professional path as well.

Schimri Yoyo: That’s pretty good. That’s, I think, the goal of everyone who is a professional. Do what you love and get paid for doing it. You achieved the dream.

Steve Cotter: I think so. And hopefully, more and more people—I think now, more and more people are beginning to recognize this sort of a perspective of life. But there are [still] individuals who they serve the dollar. The money is the thing. So there are people that they’ll take the money and sacrifice the happiness and health. That’s not something that I ever wanted to do. I wanted it all together. So we have to make choices also.

Ideally yes, I think probably most of our audience would agree, that that’s an ideal situation that we want to be able to mix those things together. But some people, they’re more interested in the money. They’re living to, maybe do a job or do something that they don’t love or doesn’t make them happy, but hey they make the money so they keep doing it. And that’s perfectly okay for some people. But it was never okay for me. It was not the direction that I wanted to go in.

Beliefs and Core Values

Schimri Yoyo: That makes sense, and it seems like you’ve found that balance for you that makes you tick. Moving on, Steve, what one word would best describe your training philosophy and methodology?

Steve Cotter: Holistic.

Schimri Yoyo: That’s a great answer. Could you elaborate just a little bit on that?

Steve Cotter: Yeah, so we say the whole, so it’s the whole person. Trying to encapsulate that verbally—it’s kind of cliché because these things become clichés, and when you hear it enough. But it’s mind, body, spirit—that would be a cliché way to try to describe that. So it’s the whole body, whole person.

If we look at the physical, it means that we’re not training individual muscles. So if we’re looking at just the physical education, holistic versus non-holistic would be like comparing functional training with say body-sculpting.

I’m not just trying to shape my bicep, but I’m actually trying to work the whole pattern of the movement from the ground up.

So something like what we call functional. So that’s one level of the holistic, is that we’re using the entire body. Like a martial artist, like an athlete. Another component of the holistic is we are more than the body. So we have consciousness. So that’s holistic in that I’m doing exercise or I’m doing a movement that is cognizant, that is focused on what am I doing with my mind.

In other words, I’m not just pushing a button on a machine, and now I’m reading the newspaper and I’m watching the television while I’m exercising. That’s, I would say, less holistic because your body’s going through the motion and the monitor measures that—okay I’m burning x number of kilocalories, so you can’t say that you’re not getting exercise—but I would say it’s not so holistic, because maybe you’re reading, you’re looking at the stocks, or your mind is somewhere else. Your mind isn’t engaged in the movement.

So holistic exercise is you are fully involved in the process and now it becomes a learning experience. It’s not just a metric that you’re doing to get x number of calories or a certain pump that you can look and see in the mirror. That’s one aspect, but beyond that, it’s about saying, “Okay, this is what I’m actually doing.”

It’s a practice. It’s a practice and it stays with you after that 30 minute or one hour or 90 minutes or however long your training session. So it’s training versus exercising. That’s another level of holistic, and then we can take it even further because now we’re incorporating the nutritional components as well. And we’re looking at the what you can call wellbeing. So, you have your mind, you have your body, you have your lifestyle habits.

What’s your rest like? What’s your level of stress? How are you eating? And then even extending it more, your relationships. And then extending it more to your business and your professional life.

So that to me is what really the holistic is. Fitness as an avenue to something more, which is your health, as an avenue to something more, which is your wellbeing, and then from that it’s becoming a global citizen, where we’re impacting our family, our environments, and you just keep multiplying it bigger and bigger. This is the vision that I have, and that’s what really motivates me now.

Schimri Yoyo: Yeah, that seems like the holistic element has that intentionality and the interconnectedness to it, so thanks for elaborating on that. So you’ve touched on this a little bit. What would you say is the relationship between mental and physical health and how are they related in regards to how you train with kettlebells?

Steve Cotter: So first of all, if I’m taking a beginner, the concept of mind-body and how do you reconcile that or what are the cues. Because you can say, “Oh pay attention.” Well, pay attention to what? So not everyone speaks the same language and understands the directions. The first point is to understand that if we see the mind and the body as separate entities—which again it may or may not be—there are different ideas about that.

Because how do we measure this intangible, this thing called mind, and how do I identify it? There’s no agreement on that. There’s no agreement. Can we say the mind is the brain? Well, some say that the mind resides in the brain, but it’s not definitive. It’s a theory. Where do we start, right?

And the thing, if we look at the mind and the body as separate in the sense that you can have your mind involved in what your body’s doing, or your body can physically be doing something, and your mind can be thinking about something else. So what’s the unifier?

And the unifier is the breath. So, the breath is the medium with which the mind and the body communicate. So we can say that thinking about your breath and then coordinating the breath with the movement, and now we have an integration going on where the mind, the body, and the breath are now working harmoniously. And that’s really the objective. That’s the goal.

Schimri Yoyo: That’s a fascinating way to put it. I’ve never heard that before, as far as the breath being the medium of communication between the mind and the body, but that’s awesome.

Steve Cotter: So yoga, the concept of yoga, which again it’s become an umbrella term to the point where it almost doesn’t mean anything in common usage because it depends on who you ask. Yoga has come to represent this series of anything from very simple to very sophisticated patterns of calisthenics.

But yoga, in essence, means union, so in essence, yoga is the breath. Yoga is meditation. It’s not about the movements that you’re doing, or the asanas, which are the postures, the positions that you can hold, like a downward dog or a cobra.

Those are examples of common asanas. It’s not the doing of those that make it yoga, but that’s how it’s become popularized. When you just pop in a local gym and they have a yoga class and you’re doing these movements. That’s one expression of yoga, but that’s not the yoga at its most simplistic form. In the most simplistic form, it’s the breath. So it extends beyond just that stuff we call yoga.

How I do kettlebells is yoga. Certain kinds of martial arts practices are also yoga because it’s the integration of the mind and the body via the breath. And one of the great teachers of our time, Wim Hof of the Wim Hof Method, become very famous around the world. He talks about breathing. Win Hof is a guy, he’s combining the deep breathing with the ice and the cold water.

So there is global awareness. There’s an increased consciousness now, compared to even a decade ago, about the significance of breathing and integrating that with the other things that we’re doing.

Now, it’s more like, “I’m having a stressful day. I’m having a challenge. Or I’m in the middle of some [difficult calamity]. I’m in the middle of a stressful situation.” Well, you can go back into that [situation, and counter it with breathing]. You can breathe, take that deep breathing. Just oxygenate, kind of balance out the physiology. Alkalize, alkalize the system through the inhale and sort of de-acidify through the exhale.

Now that gives us power. That gives us the ability to be present, and that’s what it is. That’s when we say the mind, it’s the presence.

Because now is what exists. The past exists as memories. They’re bits of data that are stored in this system, in this computer system that we have, our body. So we can have a memory reflecting or a pain. Pain is a memory. It’s stored. Or this idea of a future, like future think, “Where am I going or what am I going to do?”

So our mind can move [ahead], but physically, we are physically right here in the sensory world that we can touch and smell. We can connect through our senses. So to me, that’s the topic of the mind and what we do with it and how we use it, but in the simplest form, it’s about the presence and the way we stay present is through the breath.

So whoever’s [reading this] and whatever you’re doing, whether you’re doing CrossFit or you’re lifting heavy weights or you’re doing kettlebells or you’re jogging, it’s asking yourself, “Where’s my breath right now while I’m doing these movements? Where’s my breathing?”

And that all of a sudden gives you this depth of consciousness that you’re not going to have if you’re not thinking about that if you’re just letting your mind kind of wander, putting on the headphones and just zoning out. That’s kind of a difference in that way of understanding the what I call holistic.

Schimri Yoyo: No, that makes sense. And so you seem to emphasize proper breathing and proper technique as part of your training. What are some other ways that you emphasize or teach proper technique and flexibility while you’re training?

Steve Cotter: Yeah, so you have the biomechanics. You have the biochemistry, through the food and just the body’s natural processes, and certainly, the breathing has an impact on our biochemistry in terms of the alkalinity, the pH balance, of our blood and our cells. But when we’re talking about movement, we’re talking about biomechanics.

Mobility, this is the area that there’s so much range. There’s so much range in terms of—there’s a difference between a practitioner and a teacher or a coach, between a teacher and trainer or coach, which I don’t identify them the same, but for topic of discussion we’ll say a teacher/trainer/coach, we’ll kind of consider those synonyms.

And then you have the practitioner which could be the client. So for an exercise professional, someone’s coming to the trainer, so how does that trainer teach proper technique?

And the answer to that is we have an ideal, but even the ideal is different for each person, because our physiology is different, and this is one law about exercise science. It’s the law of individual differences. So, even if everything is essentially the same—

For instance, gravity has a vertical pull upon all of us, so we’re fighting the ground, the gravity is pulling us down. That applies to all of us. The knee is the hinge joint, and the shoulder is a ball-and-socket joint. That applies to all of us. But this person might have a knee injury, or this person may have a shoulder injury, so maybe their shoulder’s not working, functioning truly like a ball-and-socket.

Maybe it’s compensated or genetically your range of motion is simply deficient compared to a normal range of motion. Or one person is very tall. Another person is very short. One person is very thick, and another person is very thin.

So with all these examples, the biomechanics are not the same. So I can give the model to this person, but if it doesn’t match their body, if you’re not six foot nine and built—Lebron James is not my model, because I’m nothing like him and his physiology. You can still do it like Lebron James does it, but there’s no context in doing that.

So that’s where the trickiness, and this is why I don’t use really templates. Yeah, certain things for organizational and convenience, but there are really no templates in teaching what I would say a path towards mastery because you have to develop your own method. And what good coaches will do, they’ll be able to identify mistakes and they’ll be able to identify major mistakes and help to correct them, or point them out, bring them to the light.

But the individual has to develop the base. So you need to have a degree of mobility. Because if you’re 12 years old and you’re supple and flexible and you’re naturally athletic, that’s a totally different program than if you’re 50 years old and you haven’t exercised in 40 years. And you’ve been sitting in a desk, and you can’t squat below parallel. There’s a lot of stuff I’ve got to do with that person just to get them to where I would say ground zero, to where okay now we can consider putting a kettlebell in your hands or putting a barbell over your shoulders. It’s not like everyone that comes in is going to do the same program.

Schimri Yoyo: Okay, so again that makes sense. To a certain degree, a lot of the proper technique is going to be contextual and individualized.

Steve Cotter: Yes. We want the center of mass over the base of support. We want the head over foot if you want to dial it in even more. There’s a difference between athletics and training fundamentally in one aspect, which is locomotion. And this is an area that is not, I don’t know if it’s not understood, or there’s not enough expertise in this area yet. I think that the next phase of functional training, you will see the expertise of developing more in the area of locomotion.

You have nowadays a lot of experts in strength. The average trainer is much more knowledgeable compared to, I would say, a decade, two decades ago. More people are at least rudimentary level knowledgeable about the basic barbell lifts.

Quite a number even know the Olympic lifts. There’s a lot of people that know the kettlebell. So in terms of the general exposure and understanding of strength training, I’d say that there are a lot of trainers that are knowledgeable, that have a lot of experience themselves and are coaching it.

But in terms of locomotion, I think it’s still very far behind and there’s a new age for that. Because if I’m standing in one place and just lifting a weight overhead or against a bench or squatting it, it’s not that it’s not athletic, but there’s not locomotion there. So that’s not enough to make me the super athlete that’s optimized, the best that I’m going to possibly be in all aspects, which is you’ve got to be able to move from point A to point B. And that’s what separates athletics from working out training.

Then you have the martial arts, which is the fight. So fundamentally, if we go to our primitive, instinctual, it’s fight and flight. Fight and flight. And all the other skills came out of that fundamental need of our ancestors. You got to hunt, you got to defend your tribe, or you got to flee. If it’s a danger, and you can’t overcome it, then you gotta get out of there.

Those are the fundamentals. The fight and the flight. And now we don’t have to do that on a primitive level, because we live in these kingdoms, these cities with the walls. We’re the dominant beasts. We don’t have to hide in the trees because the wildebeest is going to get us. So we have the luxury of leisure that our ancestors did not have. And one of the results of the modern lifestyle is we have a disconnection from the physical.

So you have things like obesity and inactivity, and so we have to program exercise into our daily life to compensate for the fact that during the rest of our life, we’re sitting in front of a computer.

But we go back, I’m not talking about the 40,000 or however long, hundreds of thousands in terms of hominids, and human history, right? I’m not an anthropologist or an archeologist, but I think 40,000 years is pretty fundamentally understood, if not longer. We haven’t changed that much physiologically. Certainly not in the last 10,000 years.

We have not physiologically changed from our ancestors, but the way that we live and the way that we function is fundamentally different.

We exist on two dimensions. We wear shoes. We wear, many times, cushion-y, high heel cushion-y shoes that are like coffins for our feet, because the pros are paid to sell to the Joes. Our ancestors didn’t work out for the most part, unless they were warriors. They didn’t exercise, they worked. Because if you’re a farmer or some manual laborer, you’re doing that 12, 16 hours a day. You’re not coming home and saying, “I got to get my workout.”

You do that now because you’ve been sitting in your car for two hours or whatever. Anyway, not to get too far down that, but the reason I bring that in is that we’ve had to learn these techniques because we’ve moved so far away from our fundamental hunter-gatherer instincts. Things that we did instinctually, we’ve forgotten how to do, so now the coaches have to bring people and they have to re-educate or remind you how to do the things that you instinctively knew how to do.

Like for example, you don’t have to teach a child how to squat. A toddler that can walk, shortly after that they’re going to be squatting. When they’re walking, they take their steps, and now they’ve developed the confidence and they can walk no problem. Drop the toy, squat down, pick it up. Rock bottom squat. Perfectly upright.

But the average 30-year-old cannot even—maybe can’t even get to parallel. They get stuck. So it’s not something that I need to say, “Hey I’m going to teach you an exercise called the squat.” No, it’s not an exercise. It’s a fundamental human movement pattern, and you already know how to do it, but maybe you forgot because you haven’t done it in 30 years, because you’ve been sitting in chairs, and your work and your lifestyle hasn’t required you to do it.

The toilet is at a right angle, the chair, the couch, the desk chair. Everything is at a right angle, so that’s my default range of motion. The body has stopped doing.

Schimri Yoyo: So, is it more like a reprogramming?

Steve Cotter: Yeah, yeah. So mobility is huge. Why should I put weight on your skeleton if mechanically your body’s not doing it? Now I’m going to try to force you into the position with an external load. I think that that’s irresponsible, and I think it’s short-term. Sometimes people get stronger and more fit, but inevitably, they’re either going to get injured or they’re not going to stick with it long-term. And it’s about the long-term.

It’s about the lifelong sustainability, not, “Okay you’re the stud athlete when you’re 25 years old but now you’re 45 and you’re having trouble going up the stairs because you sacrificed your cartilage in your knees from just doing too much and pushing it too hard and maybe not paying attention to the other, the recuperative signals.”

It’s a balance. The martial art, especially the Chinese martial art, it’s the yin and the yang. The yin and the yang, the balance. The idea of the balance.

So that’s an important point and that ties back to what I said earlier about holistic. The holistic is the balance. Because sometimes you got to push hard, you got to challenge yourself. Other times you have to say, “Okay, I’m going to just do it lightly. I’m going to train, I’m going to exercise, but I’m going to do it easy. I’m going to go for a light jog, just to sweat and move. Today, I’m going to just do some breathing exercises. I want this donut, but I’m not going to get it. Instead, I’m going to have this green smoothie, because I need the nutrition.”

It’s these types of decisions that we make on a moment-to-moment basis. For business, I’d love to say, “Hey I’ve got the program for you.” And I want to sell 10 million of those programs. Everyone’s doing the same program. But that’s not for me. That’s not intellectually honest, because I know better, because your program is unique for you, and my program is unique for me. There’s overlap, but we’re not always going to be doing the same things.

Schimri Yoyo: That makes sense.

Steve Cotter: Yeah, but mechanics, biomechanics, the center of mass, the base of support, that’s true for everybody. We do have guidelines and alignment. When you go overhead, there are things that we look for. Like, I want to have full extension in the elbow.

I want the load to be vertically aligned over my base of support. So we definitely have mechanical guidelines that we look for as far as measurements. The challenge is to get different individuals to get their body to be able to perform those guidelines.

Schimri Yoyo: Well that’s very thorough. How do you measure success for your clients and then for yourself?

Steve Cotter: For myself, I’ll start with that. For myself, success is simply measured in continuous progress, which means I measure that in fulfillment. So physically, my measurement now is in the martial arts. It’s no longer in a particular weigh: “I want to be able to lift x number of pounds or to do a particular number of repetitions.”

Sometimes in certain training phases, I may have that. “Okay, I’m going to press this 30 times, I’m going to press this 30 times and then when I get to 30, I’m going to increase the weight and then work up from 15 back up to 30.” So that’s an example that I can do for myself and so when I hit some target metrics, okay that’s a success. Most people will use fitness in that way: “Okay, I’m going to run a mile in this time. I did it in six minutes. Now, next time, I want to try to get a 5:58.”

I’ll use some of that, but mainly for me, I use martial arts [as a measurement] in terms of my performance in jiu-jitsu. It’s not even, “Did I submit somebody or did I not get submitted?” It’s not that. It’s, “Am I feeling it? Am I feeling it, am I flowing? Oh yeah, we’re flowing real, real well.”

Because you’re a warrior, I’m a warrior. So I might get you nine times, but that doesn’t mean on the tenth time I’m going to get you. You might get me on that tenth time, you know what I’m saying?

So I can’t measure that way at all, that I was good on nine occasions and on the tenth time I was not good because he got me. Because that’s a comparison. No, I was good on the tenth time too. You got me, but I was feeling it and it was a good one. And you could have got me and another time, maybe, I’m going to get you.

So that’s the martial art. It’s continuous. It’s not about a metric that falsely claims “I have arrived.” And it goes back to my being holistic. I’m holistic. Learning, continuous learning. If I’m learning, if I’m enhancing one aspect of my life—sometimes it’s money. Boom, I made a deal. Okay, I’m doing some business here. That’s a success, right? I’m getting a certain amount of profit for that effort. That’s a definite success. But also, “Hey, I learned some interesting content that I didn’t know previously. That’s also a success.”

I measure success in the most important areas of life which is family, it’s relationships, it’s business, it’s health, it’s fitness, it’s community. That’s how I measure success.

Now for a client, we’re talking fitness now, so bringing it back down to just the nuts and bolts, that’s a lot easier because you keep records. So what’s your goal? Oh, you want to lose 20 pounds by this date. Okay. So, now I can measure that. I can measure the progress in that. Or last week you were doing 30, but this week you got 40. I can measure the progress. For me, I say that’s pretty easy because I’ve been doing that my whole life. I’ve been in one form or another.

My system’s a little different. I don’t do personal training. I work in seminar format, so what I try to do, ultimately, is I try to put the information inside because I see the client as the student and, with some exception, they’re mostly fitness professionals.

You’re a fitness professional, you’re coming to my training. When you leave, I want to make sure that there are certain things that stay with you for the rest of your life, even from that one exposure, that one day. Maybe we spend eight hours or we spend two days or we spend three days. So, in that time, if I never see you again, there are certain things that you got from me that you’re going to use for probably the rest of your career, probably the rest of your life.

So that’s how I measure success, but it’s hard to measure. The way I know about it is maybe you come back and you tell me, “I did your course ten years ago, and I just want to tell you I’m still using it and thank you so much.” That’s what it is. That’s what it is because it’s a service. It’s truly a service, and that’s what we’re here to do. That’s what I’m here to do. We’re here to help each other.

Because life is uncertain, man, and we all have victory and we all have loss. And there is no guarantee, because no matter the greatness that one can achieve and strive to, there will come a day when we’re all going to check out, go somewhere else. I don’t have all the answers. None of us really have the answers to what lies beyond, but one thing we know for sure is we don’t get to pick the time, and we don’t know how much time we have, and probably we don’t have as much time as we might assume.

I think understanding what I’m talking about, it just comes—I didn’t have this understanding in my 20s, in my 30s. I’m close to 50. I have more understanding now because I have more experience now, so that informs everything else that I’m doing, everything else that I do with fitness. Of course, it doesn’t have to be so complex. If you just want to get in shape, there’s a way to do that.

But I’m a particular type of teacher, and my area of interest it shifts more into the individual and less into the fitness, because I consider fitness sort of rudimentary. And most people don’t need to take it to the highest level.

What we have now is we have fitness as an opportunity for people that are not athletes or maybe are not able or do not want to continue in their athletic career—they’re athletes as children, into their young adulthood, and then now their athletic career is over, so what are they going to do? “Well, I’ll be a trainer, because I get to stay in the gym, and I always like working out anyway.”

I think that’s a large percentage of the fitness profession—it’s not all of them for sure—sometimes it’s a slightly different story, but in a lot of cases, that career path is a natural segue. Even for me as a martial artist, that was my first profession. And then, “Okay, I’m not going to do that anymore, so how can I simulate that? I can still workout, I can still train.” Again it’s that segue or transition.

But I think—because I’ve never not been fit, I’ve been involved [in fitness] my whole life—so for me the idea that I need to do a workout to lose a certain amount, it never really entered my mind. It was never a motivation.

It’s just about the wellbeing and the health. What I say to people is: “Think about what are you going to be. If you’re 20 years old, how are you going to be when you’re 40 and 50 and 60 and 70?” And that’s where I’m at. I don’t do anything now that I’m not going to be able to do a decade from now or two decades from now.

Really, if I’m training something, I’m training movement or I’m training my breath. I’m not training for any particular aesthetic or a particular exercise just to say that I can do that exercise. There were times in my life where I was focused on that, but now it’s all about actually function. That’s it. Some function that is immediately useful in my life.

Schimri Yoyo: That makes sense.

Steve Cotter: Because fitness is something bigger than health. So fitness is a part of health. The health trumps the fitness because you can’t be healthy if you’re not fit. You can be fit and not be healthy. That’s the difference. Because usually how we measure fitness is by [appearance]. “Oh, that person’s fit because he or she looks fit because he or she is toned.” So you can be fit and not be healthy.

But in this day and age, it’s very difficult to be healthy if you’re not fit or at least have a certain level of fitness. Fitness is bigger and more all-encompassing. And then beyond health, we have wellbeing because you can be healthy without being well.

Also, sustainability is important. Are you going to be able to sustain this? Not “Oh, I got this eight-week program and I’m going to slim down for this challenge.” Okay great. But what happens when that eight weeks are over? Because that’s going to be over, and then if you go back to your old habits, you’re going to go back to the old self. It’s not sustainable and it’s not permanent, and it has to be permanent.

I’ve learned about different types of teachers, and my way is a unique way I guess. I’m not in the cookie-cutter model as far as if you just want to burn some calories and stuff. Yeah, my stuff is great and I can train anybody from the super-obese, inactive person that just wants to get going—I can work with that person. And I can take Lebron James and I can help him too and anyone in between because the principles are universal.

But in terms of the greater work, it’s about the wellbeing more than the fitness, because once we get to a level of fitness, then we use that fitness for movement of this vehicle and the vehicle is what enables us to do the work that we’re here to do.

So it actually ties into the life purpose, and the physical education is very important, as important if not more than it’s ever been in the history of humanity, because we’re coming to a time where there’s a lot of uncertainty for a lot of people, because we’re coming into a time of the prevalence of the machine, and the machine is becoming more prevalent. And as a result of that, the adaptability of the human, not everyone has figured out how to adapt to that. So you have a growing class of, how do you label it? Some social scientists refer to it as a useless class.

So all cities, we have homeless populations. I’m not saying homeless are useless. But what I’m saying is we have a growing class of people, or society of people, who are people just like all of us, but they don’t have many usable skills.

They don’t have skills of, say technological skills, or skills with their hands that enable them to make a living. And so now it’s like, “Everything is expensive and I don’t have a place to live, and I’ve got to figure out where I’m going to get my next meal.” And that’s a real situation and it doesn’t affect me on that level, but it affects my fellow humanity, my brothers and my sisters. Different parts of the world.

This is the scope that I think about, and it’s like, “Where does the physical come in?” That’s the foundation that allows us to progress when we have the wellbeing of the body and now the integration of the mind and the body.

We have the possibility of creation. We have the possibility to grow and to learn, and that’s where the commerce and the business and the stuff like that—because if you have the ability to use your mind, and you have the ability to use your body, you can make things and you can create things. And so now you’re a productive member of society.

So I think that on the other scope, maybe you’re super productive in the sense of material wealth, so you have a lot of money and you have a lot of social clout, but you don’t have control of your health. You’re a multi-billionaire, but you’re basically dying because you lost your wellbeing. And you’re alive but your body is not thriving.

It doesn’t escape us due to social class, whether you’re sleeping under the bridge or whether you’ve made it to the ultimate, and everyone in between, the physical education is a grounding force, so I think it’s very important. And then you have the futurists and the bio-hackers and the Silicon Valley.

They talk about the singularity, when the machine and the man, equals. Some people think it’s futuristic, but it’s not, because even Amazon and companies like that, and Wal-Mart, are slowly—but it’s faster and faster, and it’s only a matter of time, where it’s not even going to be people doing those blue-collar jobs, it’s robots now.

It’s robots, because it’s less expensive, and it’s less margin of error in a lot of administrative ways. What’s going to happen is: “Well, okay. I used to have a job flipping burgers, but now I don’t because it’s now a drone doing it.”

The cream rises to the top, so you got to be the cream. But how are you going to be the cream if the body’s got to be healthy? It’s not about fitness. It’s not about just showing. That’s a level, and for some people it is, but once you get past that, there are other things in life. Because there is an appropriate point in time where it is  okay to about, “I got to look a certain way so I can get the girl or I can get the guy.” That’s maybe a younger person, maybe an older person who’s single and starting out. They want to attract. So that’s definitely a real part of it.

The aesthetic is a part that gets most people into fitness. It’s not like I’m not aware of that, it’s just that I see that there’s a world that goes far beyond that.

Schimri Yoyo: It stays on-brand for you. That’s definitely on-brand for you because everything is part of that holistic nature that you have mentioned multiple times. Your metrics for success, it goes beyond just the obvious, the physical. It’s holistic, so that makes sense. You’re factoring in all the global, geopolitical aspects of everything.

Steve Cotter: Exactly. Because I want to help humanity. I want to serve humanity, and it’s the ultimate selfishness because in helping humanity, I help myself. And that’s not the only reason for doing it, but that’s an honest reason, and that’s part of the reason.

What is the IKFF?

Schimri Yoyo: That’s genuine. I want to be respectful of your time, and I also want to thank you again for participating in our interview series. I want to give you an opportunity to promote your business the International Kettlebell Fitness Federation. So give us a quick 30 second sound bite of what IKFF is.

Steve Cotter: So the International Kettlebell and Fitness Federation is the world’s leading hands-on kettlebell education. It’s a federation. It’s myself. I have my team of master trainers around the world. So we provide in-depth, hands-on education for fitness professionals and fitness institutions.

Schimri Yoyo: And how do you recruit your trainers to IKFF? How would someone become a certified IKFF trainer?

Steve Cotter: We conduct courses around the world, so the way that if someone that’s listening to this, the way is to get ahold of me through IKFF.net. Also social media, it’s SteveCotterIKFF. So Instagram, SteveCotterIKFF. You can hit me up there. Again, IKFF.net.

And just inquire, just inquire, because we have courses in different parts of the world. I’m running a lot of them. I have master trainers in different areas. And it can be individuals, and it’s also organizations. Sometimes I do it for teams. Sometimes I do this for gyms. And so, it’s hands-on education, and I teach you everything you need to learn.

Schimri Yoyo: Great, that’s awesome. So what’s unique, for you, about running a global fitness business?

Steve Cotter: What’s unique is that there’s a huge trust factor. It takes a lot of time to develop a team, and I have to really have a team of people that have been vetted and have a very rich skill set because there’s a physical component. You have to have the technical skill, and then there’s the component of communication. You have to be an effective communicator and an effective teacher. And then there’s the ability to trust. You have to be able to handle responsibility. So that’s extremely exciting and demanding.

The other thing is it makes me recognize the universal qualities. It’s afforded me the possibility to go around the world many times, more than 60 countries and multiple laps. I understand that people are more similar than different, regardless of the culture, regardless of the language or the region or the habits or the foods of the culture.

We’re more similar than different. So it’s been very instrumental in actually shaping my worldview and shaping my life experience because it’s given me that direct exposure that I never would have had, had I gone a different route in terms of opening a gym and staying in one gym on a day-to-day basis.

Schimri Yoyo: As an entrepreneur, because we get a lot of fitness professionals who read our features, and so what’s one thing that you as an entrepreneur wish you would have known when you first started, that you now know but that you wish you would have known when you first started as an entrepreneur?

Steve Cotter: Scheduling time. Laying out the use of my time is really important, and that’s something I didn’t do for a long time.

Schimri Yoyo: That’s funny. That goes along with the theme that you just mentioned how no matter where we are culturally, there are more similarities than differences. I ask that question a lot, and without fail, time management seems to be the biggest, the most common answer, regardless of the profession, regardless of the discipline of fitness.

Time management seems to be that white whale that everyone’s trying to catch as far as perfecting that in their business. That goes right along with the commonality that we share.

Steve Cotter: Yes, it echoes.

Schimri Yoyo: We look forward to hearing more about the expansion and the spread of IKFF, and we would love to feature you again sometime if there’s anything new that you’d like to get us exposed to here at exercise.com.

Steve Cotter: Yeah, that would be great. Maybe next time we can talk more on body weight. I do a lot of extensive work with the body weight, even though I focused a lot on the kettlebell, so there’s a whole world there.

Schimri Yoyo: We definitely will have to have you on again. Thank you again for that.

If you are ready to grow and manage your business better, take it to another level by scheduling a demo today.


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Tyler Spraul is the director of UX and the head trainer for Exercise.com. He has his Bachelor of Science degree in pre-medicine and is an NSCA-Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist® (CSCS®). He is a former All-American soccer player and still coaches soccer today. In his free time, he enjoys reading, learning, and living the dad life.
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