Starting any new venture can be challenging, right? The challenges multiply exponentially if you try to be a lone wolf and go it alone.
Today, we’re talking to Sam Spinelli who will share his experience as an entrepreneur in the personal training profession. We will discuss how his time spent under the tutelage of other respected fitness pioneers enabled him to be in the position of running his own successful fitness practice.
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Meet Sam Spinelli, Co-owner Citizen Athletics
Schimri Yoyo: It is Schimri Yoyo with exercise.com continuing our series with fitness experts. And today we have Sam Spinelli, The Strength Therapist, who is also co-owner of Citizen Athletics with us. Well Sam, thanks again for agreeing to interview with us.
Sam Spinelli: Absolutely.
Schimri Yoyo: Alright, so we want to jump right into it with your background. You have a doctorate in physical therapy, so what parts of your formal education do you feel you most utilize today in your practice?
Sam Spinelli: Okay. I guess the challenging part is how you define my practice and also my formal education. I do have a doctorate of physical therapy. I also have a bachelors degree, a state equivalent of a kinesiologist degree in the US. And in my daily practice right now, previously about a month ago, I worked in California, where I was working as a physical therapist in a pretty much every setting that a physical therapist can, from acute care to outpatients, working around like 80 to 100 hours a week.
And then, in addition [to that], [I was] operating an online business between Citizen Athletics and also the additional work that I do online. So, from a traditional standpoint, my education has been beneficial in giving me a baseline of information to practice with.
But a majority of what I’ve practiced with on a daily basis, such as my practice as a strength conditioning coach, has come through the additional further readings I’ve done far beyond the average, typical physical therapy schooling.
Schimri Yoyo: Okay. Well, that’s a good answer. Now, have you ever used the services of a strength and conditioning coach or a personal trainer as a client?
Sam Spinelli: I’ve actually never had a coach, a formal one. I’ve had numerous people do one-off assessments and things like that with me. But yeah, I’ve never had a coach long-term.
Schimri Yoyo: Where did you or from whom did you seek counsel when you were first entering into the sports performance industry?
Sam Spinelli: I was pretty fortunate that I started off my career actually taking a personal training course when I was 17 from a guy named Dean Somerset who is pretty well known in the industry. And just happened to walk into the right course at the right time, fall into the hands of a great person who was very—
Schimri Yoyo: Legend.
Sam Spinelli: Yeah, he’s really nice and let me follow him around and shadow him and bother him with all my questions. And yeah, [I was] very lucky from early on. And from there through Dean, I started meeting other guys like Tony Gentilcore, who then allowed me to do some of the things with them and just continued that trend.
And, very fortunately, I met a guy named Barry Butt in Edmonton who is a well-known strength conditioning coach there. He owns one of the largest strength conditioning businesses in Edmonton, Alberta. And he allowed me to come on as a coach while I was still in university. Everyone else there had like a Master’s degree in Coaching, and he let me keep working my way up, and five years afterward, I was a right-hand man for the gym and overseeing 120 professional hockey players every offseason.
Schimri Yoyo: And so you not only have the prerequisite formal education, but you have a pretty strong heritage and tutelage of mentorship coming into the sports performance industry. So that’s awesome.
Sam Spinelli: Oh yeah. Yup. I’ve been very fortunate.
Belief in an Enactive Approach
Schimri Yoyo: Now, if you could describe your training philosophy and methodology in one word, what would it be?
Sam Spinelli: One word is a tricky one. Like, you know, if you had asked me—
Schimri Yoyo: Well, you can elaborate.
Sam Spinelli: If you had asked me this question probably a year ago, the top word I probably would have picked would have been resilience and it’s still a very strong word that embodies much of what my goal is in the average practice of strength and conditioning. I think that helping someone gain greater resiliency, whether it be from a physical, mental, or all these different standpoints is incredibly important and beneficial.
If I were to answer the question in my current setting, I would say that I’ve probably updated the way that I function in something that would be more of what I call an enactive approach. Not inactive, but enactive, so E-N.
And it’s a newer model of thinking and approach that is gaining awareness from other fields such as mathematics and philosophy. And it’s to more encompass and understand both the things that we would consider before of like physiology, anatomy, biomechanics—all these different properties—but in addition, taking consideration of the first-person experience of the person, the emotional aspects of the person’s societal constructs, and all these other things. It also can impact how the person goes through training and what they experience from it.
Schimri Yoyo: Okay. So is that more of a holistic view of training?
Sam Spinelli: Yeah.
Schimri Yoyo: Okay. That’s great. Sounds great. Now, what would you say is the relationship between strength and conditioning, injury prevention, and rehabilitation?
Sam Spinelli: So, I guess the working model that I utilize is that they are more of a spectrum. When I look at strength and conditioning and rehab, I see them not such a strict dichotomy, as many people would view them as, but that along a point someone is going to sustain some form of injury and they will be unable to practice whatever activity it is that they desire and until they are able to give back the desired activity, I would classify that roughly as rehab.
And along that journey, we will likely do many things that look just like strengthening and conditioning, but it’s just going to be scaled intelligently to accommodate their needs. And the part where I often struggle is that’s pretty much what we do in strength conditioning anyways. It’s just that in rehab, I have a lot more considerations for things and it’s basically the best answer I could give you.
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Schimri Yoyo: That’s actually probably the best and most well-thought-out answer to that question that I’ve received so far. So that was actually very, very helpful.
Sam Spinelli: Okay, good.
Schimri Yoyo: How do you help athletes to be proactive in training and in their recovery? Because obviously you want them to be able to maximize their potential physically, but also you don’t want them to burn out.
Sam Spinelli: I think that’s an important mandate that you have to get someone to buy into the process. And that is a key factor of my enactive approach that I was discussing. Under the enactive approach, there are like five different E’s that function within it. And two of them that are really important, they are the embedded and the emotive aspects.
And so even the emotive one, you have to consider how the person individually has the emotions related to what they do. And that’s something where measuring a person’s exertional levels or RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) are beneficial, but also understanding the person’s emotive drives. For one person, [he or she] might be a very gung ho, “I want to do everything possible; you let me at it, and I will crush it,” and I might need to pull that person back more often.
On the flip side, I could have another athlete who is very high skilled as well, but that person may not have the drive, the internal drive, as other ones, [and that’s] where I may need to encourage [him or her] to do more things and push [that person] to a further degree or give it a higher RPE rating because I know [he or she is] going to maybe sandbag it a little bit.
Additionally, in the embedded aspect of coaching, there a lot of times when you come into a different social setting, and you have [to encounter] a different social context. So, if you compare how you would coach someone in hockey versus how you would coach someone in soccer—two very different sports settings that have different prior belief systems—[it’s completely different].
When you look at how hockey players often train, it’s very challenging. They are ready to work and they grunt aggressively, and they are ready to be beaten to the abysmal level possible. They will take everything that you can throw at them, basically, and rarely complain about it.
Whereas, a lot of soccer players are not used to that type of training, and it’s really a less challenging level of training, which is the lesser volume. Usually, they are more accustomed to higher volume running, things like that. Whereas, if you throw a lot of weights at them or a lot of high-effort conditioning [that is] non-running, they usually don’t tolerate that well because they don’t do it [often] in that setting.
Schimri Yoyo: Okay. Oh, that’s very perceptive. So it seems like in this enactive approach, you definitely have to know your clientele very personally, more than just a surface level, to be able to know when to pull back or when to push forward a little bit more.
So how do you then measure progress and success for your clients and for yourself?
Sam Spinelli: So it can be a very tricky one. I don’t love the “It depends” answer in interviews, but it kind of does depend. In that, when I’m working primarily more as a rehabilitation professional—in the setting—it’s often looking at this person has x goal or is dealing with x issue, and so we will create some sort of agreeable goal based off of a few identifying factors that we will try to achieve.
Whether that be that a person needs to acquire a certain level of strength on a back squat before they return to x level of activity, something like that. Or, I might be using some form of an outcome measure tests, a standardized outcome measure that’s been assessed and shown validity.
And I’ll use that for consistency and have the person fill out forms or do some sort of measuring tests where I’m as far removed as possible or possibly, I might be doing something from—I don’t love the term injury prevention—but maybe if we’re doing an injury risk reduction work.
Right now, I’m working with different team sport athletes here in [my current city], and I’m actually working with soccer players. And one of the goals [that I’m working on with them] is trying to reduce the risk of hamstring strains, adductor strains, and hip flexor strains. And so I’m doing testing with like an isokinetic dynamometer. I’m testing their hamstring strength, and I’m testing their hip flexor strength, and I’m testing their adductor strength to then do a comparison after we’ve done 12 weeks of training to hopefully demonstrate that we’ve reduced the risk of injury and other factors. So from those standpoints, it’s pretty easy to justify that.
When it comes to performance, if it’s for someone that’s a barbell sport athlete, it’s pretty easy to add more weight onto the bar. If it’s for an in-sport athlete, it’s so hard to be able to identify improved performance. I can use different tests of things like, you know, broad jump, bench press, anything that’s standardly done. But honestly, when we look at a lot of performance measures that actually showed [progress] transferred to sports, most of that [stuff] just washes away and is actually not really supported.
Schimri Yoyo: [The measures of progress] seem to vary, but the common thread seems to be that it’s all goal-based and data-driven. Now, for you personally, how do you measure yourself? How are you getting better professionally?
Sam Spinelli: Professionally? That is a tricky one. I would say that I’m very fortunate that I have a lot of peers who I would put at the highest level of the profession for both rehab, performance coaching, and these different areas that I delve into. And I regularly have discussions with them.
Like, obviously, Teddy Willsey is one of my business partners, so I talk to him on an essentially a daily basis and we share papers, we share ideas, and share discussions to continue to move forward and to question one another. And I’ve got other friends that are employed by different organizations, and it’s the same sort of thing where, honestly, I don’t really do a lot of that [networking] side of this profession. I pretty much just spend all day either discussing papers, working on writing papers, working on programming, or trying to analyze if I’m actually reaching these [goals] and how I can change them.
I think an important thing is to reflect on a regular basis and it’s difficult to reflect if you don’t actually track things or look at things on a regular basis.
Like I mentioned with the outcome measures. I was very fortunate in my last job, when I was in California, that the outcome measures were built into our software. It was basically mandatory to be used by all staff on a weekly basis. So I could regularly go back and look at the assessments that were being done by assistants or aides or anyone else that worked with me, or even other therapists if they were to step in while I was away. And I could look at all of the data to go around the plans that I had created and [to gauge if clients and patients] were actually making improvements with desired goals. So, I like to sit down and reflect on a fairly regular basis.
At least once a month I try to sit down and look at the current populations that I work with and if I’m fulfilling them to the highest degree. And then on a weekly basis, I do research review where I try to read at least seven papers a week, so essentially like one a day, and I try to stay up to date as possible in the current publications. So I’ll check out different journals and attempt to challenge myself in different areas that, maybe, I’m not as strong [as I’d like to be], and continue to pursue.
Schimri Yoyo: Yeah, that was good. Now you got a little professional development, you got some peer evaluation, and also self-reflection to help you kind of measure yourself along the way. So that’s it. Now, how do you juggle your time between being a physical therapist and an entrepreneur and a strength coach? How do you juggle your time wearing all those different hats?
Sam Spinelli: Yeah, you know, I would say that talking to a lot of friends who are in similar positions as I am, there’s a similar feeling that we are basically constantly failing at what we do.
And that’s probably a significant driving force because, at any moment, I feel like I could do better than I currently am. And I’m always trying to drive to be able to fulfill the services that I provide to every single person, every single agency to a higher degree.
And so like right now, I would say I’m actually working less than I used to, and I [still] wake up around 5:00 AM every day and pretty much every single day of the week I start work 5:30 to 6:00, and I will work essentially 14 to 16 hours a day. And just keep trying to move between the different jobs and roles that I have.
I try to assign blocks of my day to be devoted to either in-person coaching or to have online coaching or to have self-development time or to have writing time or to have filming time. Because if I allow it to be the scattered nature of, you know, “I’ll read for 10 minutes, then I’ll film for three minutes in between or something,” I’ve just been not nearly as productive.
Whereas, if I set blocked time, I’ll take intermittent breaks. I’ll probably have a six-hour time block, maybe set aside for writing, but it’ll be in 30-minute, little increments and I’ll take a few minutes in there to do something [else]. And that’s pretty much it, man. Wish I had a better answer.
Schimri Yoyo: No, that’s good. I mean-
Sam Spinelli: A lot of people don’t love the “I just work nonstop” answer.
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Schimri Yoyo: No, it’s honest so I appreciate that. I mean you seem like you are devoted to your work. You like working there for the people, you just have a strong work ethic. My dad was like that. He just, he didn’t know what to do. He did a lot of different things, but he just loved to work and he was a guy who only needed four hours of sleep and he was usually pretty good to operate. So, I understand that aspect of it.
Obviously, you love to work and keep busy, but how do you keep yourself from burning out? How do you keep yourself refreshed within your work, while still being passionate about your work?
Sam Spinelli: Honestly, actually, the number one thing would be my wife and then those friends that I have. My friends, being able to interact with them, and the friends that I have within the field and being able to regularly discuss things and being challenged and poking and prodding on different areas of it allows me to stay pretty interested.
If I were going to completely devote myself to just one aspect of like rehab, “Let’s do tendinopathy,” where I feel like I’ve got a pretty strong grasp of the literature on, if I were to only focus on that, all of my working time, I would definitely feel burned out.
But because I intermittently come to it, review all the information I currently have available, and try to find new information on it, and then go away from it for a little while and then go try to learn more about other aspects, it keeps things fresher and more interesting for me.
Additionally, my wife is an amazing woman and really pulls me back and she has made me take at least like an hour a day—pretty much every day—off and enjoy life a bit more. And it is refreshing. I do feel more revived to be able to function.
Schimri Yoyo: That’s awesome. Friends and family are good to have to keep you refreshed and keep you focused on what’s important. It seems like the variety within the field, it helps to keep you refreshed, so you’re not just focusing on one specific niche, but you’re able to kind of balance between being a writer, being a student, being a trainer and all those things. And even though you’re still working, it gives you different aspects of the work so you’re not just bogged down with one particular thing. So that’s a great piece of advice.
Now, specifically, let’s talk about Citizens Athletics. You guys have two main training groups, the Foundational Strength and the Sustainable Strength. Can you just give a brief description of the two programs and how one can determine which program is the right fit?
Sam Spinelli: Sure. So both programs, the goal is to help the individual improve strength, physique, performance across as many avenues as we can. It’s a very generalized program. It is not specifically designed for any one sport. It is designed for general life and that allows for a higher level of performance in many avenues.
It’s as a program that Teddy and I take a lot of time to create every month and try to be as diligent as we can in planning out blocks of training to address different physiological properties and improve bio-motor capacities across a wide range of things. And we try to have each block build upon another, help individuals progress through exercise variations, and develop greater control and greater movement capacity.
But at the end of the day, we’re trying to get people stronger, feeling better, moving better. And the two programs are very similar in nature, but they have a few distinct differences in that Foundational Strength does not use a barbell.
Teddy and I started this company after we both had fairly large social media followings. We both did a little bit of online coaching, but we both found ourselves not being able to fulfill the requests of people that we had.
And we wanted to have something that we could offer at a more reduced rate that would still be very beneficial for the masses and this company kind of formed out of it.
And in order to do that, we had a lot of people that were saying, “Hey, I want to get stronger. I want to be more able to handle stress in life. I want to be able to go and mess [things] up, but I don’t have a gym that I go to. I train at home, I don’t have a barbell. I’m intimidated by barbells,” and all these kinds of things.
And so we said, “Okay, we’ll create two programs.” One is Sustainable Strength, which is how Teddy and I trained. We both did a discussion of our main principles and things that we like to do ourselves, and, in essence, developed a program that would accommodate that and it reflects how intensely we train.
Then, we created Foundational Strength as an in-between of where we would want someone to start, where someone would be able to go to for training, but it doesn’t [require access to] a barbell. It’s slightly shorter in length and it has less volume and a bit less intensity.
So, Sustainable Strength is four to five days a week. You’re looking at between 55 to an hour and 20 minutes roughly. And it’ll have a barbell almost every day of the week. And it’s going to work on developing power, strength, hypertrophy, and some endurance work periodically.
And Foundational Strength will do many of the same things, but it will be more on the timeline of 40 to 60 minutes. It will have a bit less inherent volume, and it will also not have any barbell lists. So those are basically the main distinct differences.
Schimri Yoyo: And then you mentioned it before that you and your partner Teddy had a pretty large social media followings before you teamed up. So, how do you now use social media to promote your business and other technology?
Sam Spinelli: Well, Teddy and I, we both are actually not the best individuals in this area. We are by no means marketing experts. We both just produce a lot of content that we try to think would be beneficial for the audience when we’re creating things.
The goal is to create a product that will benefit the people that we would want to see this, that should help improve people’s lives, that will provide a service to them. And just by doing that, it has just happened to be enjoyed by a lot of people and we are not experts in any way at marketing.
We have regular discussions about our limitations in this area because—yeah—I don’t know Instagram algorithm at all. I don’t know Facebook, I don’t know Facebook ads. I have only paid for one ad in my whole life, and it’s probably an area that I need to learn more about or hire someone for.
But you know, I liked Gary Vaynerchuck’s idea of you create a lot of content, share a lot of free things, and you’ll get rewarded. And that’s basically how I have functioned so far.
Schimri Yoyo: Okay, well that’s good. And so you guys have a custom branded app, the Citizen Athletics app. How do you use that to incorporate it with your clients and to keep engaging with the clients?
Sam Spinelli: Right now, we have our app that provides our training services. So, Teddy and I don’t really take on much in that regard, [when it comes] to individualized training. We don’t really do [that] much individualized coaching at the moment for online. That’s pretty much just something that we each do in-person. Instead, we almost exclusively do the group training that’s done through our Citizen Athletics app.
And we try to also add additional things to the app, you know, in the resources tab where—we spend time creating products that we think would be beneficial to the members and we put it in there for them to use at their [convenience].
So whether it’s explaining how to use RPE or how to measure hydration status, we create different things like that. So the app has been very beneficial for us to create these resources and have them maintained for members to use at any moment.
Schimri Yoyo: That’s awesome. So do you feel that it’s helping you with your client engagement and also to deliver workouts more efficiently?
Sam Spinelli: Absolutely. Yeah, for sure.
Schimri Yoyo: Well, alright, lastly Sam, what do you say is next for you and Teddy and your business? Where do you guys see yourself in the next maybe three to five years out?
Sam Spinelli: Well, we are currently working on expanding in a few different avenues, which I’ll keep on the DL for now.
Schimri Yoyo: Okay. Awesome. Don’t want to give out proprietary secrets. I get it.
Sam Spinelli: You and the other exercise.com staff will hear about it soon enough. But to give the public a glimpse, we have a lot of questions and needs beyond just training and we want to be able to offer that. We also have a lot of questions in regards to things for individualized coaching. We have a lot of requests for that, but between Teddy and I, we are unable to fulfill that and we’re trying to find an avenue to do so, and that will hopefully be getting discussed in the next few months.
Schimri Yoyo: Alright, well thank you again for your time, Sam. Wishing you and Teddy, much continued success and hope to hear back from you once you have that new product or the new services ready to launch. I look forward to hearing back from you again.
Sam Spinelli: Awesome.
Schimri Yoyo is a writer for Exercise.com and a financial advisor with active life and health insurance licenses. In a past life, he covered Villanova Men’s Basketball and Big East Football for Examiner.com. Schimri has also produced freelance copywriting, editing, and proofreading for various websites and online publications for over a decade. He is an avid sports fan, possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Boston Celtics, Boston Red Sox, and San Francisco 49ers. Schimri is an educator and a storyteller who is eager to assist individuals and families to stay financially and physically fit.