Meet John Wolf, Chief Fitness Officer at Onnit [Interview]

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Finding the proper motivation to start and finish a workout can be difficult, cant’ it? Choosing to take the plunge and start your own fitness business can be an even more daunting task with an even greater need for having the proper motivation.

Today, we’re talking to John Wolf, a veteran entrepreneur in the fitness industry, who has overcome some personal demons on his road to entrepreneurship. He discusses how he used martial arts and unconventional training methods to battle against chemical addiction. He is passionate about sharing the discipline and personal development he acquired in his journey with others as he continues running a successful fitness practice.

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

Meet John Wolf, Chief Fitness Officer at Onnit

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Schimri Yoyo: Welcome back. This is Schimri Yoyo with exercise.com, and we are continuing our interview series with fitness experts, and today we are blessed to have John Wolf, who is the Chief Fitness Officer of Onnit. He is a long-time, experienced veteran of the fitness industry.

So thank you, John, for joining us.

John Wolf: And thanks for having me, Schimri.

Schimri Yoyo: Alright. Well, really quickly, can you just give us a summary of your background with martial arts?

John Wolf: Actually, even though my martial arts background is a big part of the framework that has empowered me through my fitness career, my really delving deep into martial arts was really just part of my formative years.

So in that way, the lessons and the beliefs in martial practices were part of my upbringing in those formative years and the discipline of martial arts. And these were kind of an amalgamation of different traditional martial arts: boxing, judo, jujitsu, karate.

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And my sensei, he was a hand-to-hand combat instructor for the US military, traveled around the world, and took a lot of these teachings from different places he was stationed in and brought them back to what was Fort Ord, Monterey peninsula of California, and taught there at the military base. But then also, he eventually opened up a dojo that served some of the rougher neighborhoods in the town.

And I think, generationally, he really brought up a lot of us as a second father figure. But it was not just about the martial art practices of the combat sports, but the discipline, the community, and those belief systems that empowered individuals to self-actualize to whatever degree possible.

Schimri Yoyo: That’s awesome. And so as you were taking part in the martial practices in your formative stages, when did you realize that you wanted to be involved in sports performance and health and fitness as a trainer, coach, or teacher?

John Wolf: Well, you know, being in martial arts when I was young and then kind of always going back to it at different phases of my development in my teens or my early 20s. Actually, I got into health and wellness and performance mainly as a function of my need to overcome a state that I found myself in that time of my 20s, where a lot of people, myself included, find themselves kind of lost through different aspects of life that are new, like loss, death, things like that. Right?

And so for me, I had actually been involved in the party scene and found myself with a chemical addiction to methamphetamine. And so when I realized martial arts and that phase of my development, I was realizing like, “Man, if I was to revisit those teachings, if I was to revisit the state that I was in, I’d have a platform to overcome this challenge in my life.”

And so what I found was, martial arts was the foundational framework, but then I applied a variety of different unconventional movement and fitness practices into that framework of belief to overcome this chemical addiction, which really was realizing like, “Man, if I’m using this as a way to better myself in this way, then maybe I could be of service to other people the same way.”

And you know, so many other people—whether it’s addiction or whether it’s a belief issue—whatever the storms are, we tell ourselves the foundation to overcome the self-defeating beliefs that we all have is really the foundation now that I was trying to build.

Schimri Yoyo: Okay. Now you mentioned some unconventional training methods that you were introduced to and have used. So when did you first start using equipment like the steel mace and kettlebells and battle ropes as part of your training?

John Wolf: So back in around 2000, I got exposed to a pretty prolific writer, Pavel Tsatsouline, who was writing in Muscle Media 2000, which was kind of a publication sponsored by EAS, if I’m not mistaken, back in their heyday. And some of their articles, particularly Pavel’s writing, I just really resonated with. It was cut-to-the-chase. It was witty. It was very practical.

You could apply it immediately and through the application understand something about yourself and your body that you probably didn’t have insight into prior to. And so I was starting really getting into his bodies of work. He had different books and VHSes. This is back in the days of VHSes, right? So that you could purchase and take in some information.

And then he was like, “Hey, you know…” Basically it was back in around 2001. He was talking about, “Well if you like all this stuff, wait until I bring this tool from Russia, this kettlebell, to America.” And so the Russian Kettlebell Challenge was born. And that was the first unconventional tool. And at that point, it was really unconventional. Now kettlebells are everywhere.

And then through that, I had really—you know, the Internet was just a baby at the time, and information was sparse in comparison to now, but he had—I found a quote of his about this other coach, Scott Sonnon. And Sonnon had popularized to some degree club swinging, heavy club swinging, and a variety of different martial enhancement movement systems that I thought were pretty cool, especially given my martial arts background.

So the earlier unconventional training methods that I was introduced to were through those two bodies of work, those two education systems, Pavel’s RKC and Sonnon’s Circular Strength Training systems, and just really blew my mind as to how different the approaches were to the conventional training methods that were around, particularly powerlifting, bodybuilding-centric methods, and just felt like it was really something that I could get into and dive deep into.

Schimri Yoyo: Okay. And when you’re not training and coaching, what are some of the things that you do for fun?

John Wolf: Man, I’m a family man. You know, Schimri, I have now an 11-year-old, a five-year-old, and a little seven-month-old baby. So my time is largely dedicated to trying to keep the vibes right in that circle. To be honest, I hadn’t always done the best there.

I talked about my journey, being fallible and finding myself in that darker place. So my five-year-old, unfortunately, she lives in California. I just flew back in at 1:00 AM this morning from visiting her over the weekend and spending time there with her.

So between the need to commit to all of those amazing little humans that I’m blessed to father, it’s really important for me to take time just to be with them and experience—honestly, the ability to see the world through their innocent eyes.

They’re looking at the world in a way that we haven’t seen in a long time. And with each of them, it’s a unique gift to be able to witness the world in that way again. So that’s something that gives me probably the greatest joy.

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Schimri Yoyo: Yeah, it’s definitely a great and joyful way to spend your time. I’m also a father of three. I have a six-year-old boy, a five-year-old girl, and a two-year-old boy. So that’s fun. They definitely take up a lot of time and energy, but I wouldn’t miss it for the world. That’s definitely a great way to invest your time and invest your spirit.

John Wolf: Yeah. They have a lot of interests that I hadn’t had while growing up, so I find amazing opportunities to learn about things that I hadn’t had the interest in personally. And that’s really enriching, you know?

Sustainable Strength and Serenity of Spirit

Schimri Yoyo: That’s awesome. Now speaking about your training philosophy and methodology, what one word would best describe your practice?

John Wolf: Longevity. Longevity is the key element. So we have a lot of things. In training, in fitness, a lot of times you’ll hear strength is kind of the master attribute that you develop. And to me, that’s great, but there’s a foundation from which strength has to be developed, and that’s a normalized function of your body, the joints, and tissues of your body.

I have been strong in the sense of being able to objectively measure my strength, be able to press a 48-kilogram kettlebell or deadlift 500 plus pounds on any given day. I think those are not huge numbers, but for me, just to be able to do them at will any time is kind of a measure benchmark. And even with that, there are times where I can do that and I’m well, and there are times I can do that and I’m not optimal, you know?

And the reality is, my life is much more enjoyable when I can maintain a reasonable expectation of having the strength and explosive power, the efficiency of movement. And that all comes from a focus on a lot longer process than just the next six, 12, or 18 weeks. It has to be something that I should be able to do that at will not just now, but 20 years from now.

Schimri Yoyo: That’s very powerful. Thanks for that. Thank you for going in-depth and elaborating on that. Now, what relationship do you see between mental health and physical health? How are the mind and body related in fitness?

John Wolf: You know, my journey is mine to own. And what I found is, my mental health when I started the journey wasn’t good. My mental and emotional wellbeing wasn’t there because of my fight with addiction at the time, and I couldn’t control the way that I thought. I couldn’t control the way I felt, particularly about myself at those times, because I didn’t have a foundation of history in the recent past at that point that affirmed a sense of worthiness or self-control.

[Editor’s note: In the video below, Dr. Wendy Suzuki of NYU explains how physical exercise can improve your thoughts, mood, and cognitive ability.]

And so it all started with one rep, one set, and the choice to exert my will on something in the tangible, physical realm. And how that interaction with something, whether it be gravity and my body or a kettlebell or weight, being able to build confidence in exerting my will in that externalized way was something that kind of built confidence and built awareness about how the physical act really shortcut the process into beliefs that are beneficial.

You know, these days there’s all kinds of science that back up the intertwined nature of your mental and physical wellbeing. You have things that we talk about in our education, like a psychosomatic response, how posture or movement drives your perceptual reality when it pertains to health, or neuroplasticity, learning and reprogramming your cognitive skills but also your belief systems, and being in a heightened state of receptivity to that potential positive programming through movement stimulus.

And a varied, dynamic, multiplanar movement has some really amazing impacts on our neurology and on not only our neurology but also the benefit of the physical aspect of it as well. So it’s really kind of unequivocally intertwined in a very powerful way, right?

Schimri Yoyo: Yeah, that’s good. And how do you integrate the nutrition aspect in your training?

John Wolf: You know, for me, it’s not the area of my greatest expertise, so I like to defer to other people about nutrition as much as possible.

I know what I do know. I know what I’m not the best at. And I think that’s really important for us as experts to understand that it’s not our job to do and be everything for everyone.

As far as nutrition, for me, it’s about common sense. I want to have a diverse range of phytonutrients available to my body. I want a relatively limited amount of carbs or fat, vice versa. You know, everybody’s kind of on different kicks. And to me, cycling nutrition is just as important as cycling training. Different seasonalities and different states of being for me or different demands of my life at any given phase may require a different eating strategy.

And that’s what they should be to me: they are strategies. And sometimes the strategy is to let loose and just be able to enjoy being in a time and a place and not being fixated on something to the degree that it takes away from me and experience.

So I don’t stay lean all year round. I don’t obsess about these things. That’s not my area of greatest concern either. Like I said, longevity is, and that doesn’t mean I need to be sub-eight-percent body fat all the time, right? I’m usually pretty happy. That 10 to 12 range is amazing. Sometimes, I’m 12 to 14, and I’m perfectly happy there.

And so it’s just, to me, the integration of nutrition is part of a holistic lifestyle. And we have a concept of balance and harmony. To be honest, at any given time, you should be able to focus on different aspects of your personal gain.

[Editor’s note: The video below dives into the study and practice of holistic nutrition.]

Maybe strength is something you’ve really value, but if you only focus on that you give up the opportunity cost to look at different things. Nutrition, to me, is optimized based on the outcome that I’m training for. If it’s a sportive event, or if it is a photo shoot, or if it is just spending time with my family, my strategies change.

Empowerment through Education and Shared Experience

Schimri Yoyo: No, that makes sense. That’s a great word of advice both on delegating: Understanding your limitations and what’s your expertise and being able to refer out to other people who have that mainly as their expertise, but then also understanding, like you said, that context matters.

Context is king, right? So, depending on what the outcome is or what the season of life, what the objective is, that’s going to affect what your nutrition and your habits should be. So understanding that holistically is a—that’s pretty good word of advice, so thank you for that.

Yeah, just a few more questions. Again, thank you again for your time, John. I want to be respectful of that. I just want to give you the opportunity to brag about yourself and the team at Onnit.

What makes you guys unique? What sets you apart?

John Wolf: You know, one of the things that I think we do really well is, rather than tell everybody what it is that they’re supposed to do, we empower them with a framework that allows them to kind of critically think about the whys. You said context is king, and I think that’s really important for people to understand, that we aspire to be a platform of education that creates thinking coaches, right?

So what I mean by that is no matter who we learn from and how amazing they are, when someone pays us for our time and our expertise, that other person is not there and they cannot contextualize the information most appropriate for the individual that’s there with us. We need to be able to think on our feet.

We need to be able to connect with them as human beings, validate their experience, their presence, and where they are on their journey. So there are so many of these soft skills that really are of utmost importance: being self-aware and empathetic and able to be empowered to think on your feet. Realistically, that’s what we do, I think, really well.

Secondarily, that process and this kind of open framework that we empower individuals to build something uniquely them on our education platform. So it’s been a long journey to get where we are now, but we’re starting to see the acceleration of people being able to not only be a good representation of our common belief system but to be able to contribute something uniquely them into the body of work.

And in doing so in this day and age of—We are working towards expertise-based businesses, being able to—with things like the steel mace—or be an open marketplace for people to contribute good information into, well-vetted information.

That’s the framework. The framework is the litmus test for people to understand if it’s sound to share, right? But with that framework there to validate the process, or invalidate at times. We have the opportunity for these individuals to really bring something uniquely them into the space. And it’s kind of this intersection of science and art, right? And that’s something that we—Because we think that training is a really unique space, and working with human beings is a privilege.

But in that way, we live a subjective reality, so psychology often trumps physiology. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t move well. It doesn’t mean that we should just do something that’s fun without regard to the qualitative components of it. Quite the opposite. I think we have to have a technical game.

We have to be able to deliver something that’s holistically beneficial for the people we work with. But we should also be able to inspire them through the expression of the coach as well as the individuals themselves. And creating a culture around that is something that I think we’ve done relatively well and we’re trying to do better.

Schimri Yoyo: That’s a great answer. Open architecture fitness. That’s a pretty unique idea. You usually hear the term open architecture with technology or app development. So I think that actually fits here perfectly with the health and fitness side. So that’s definitely a unique proposition.

How do you use social media and technology to promote your business?

John Wolf: So for us, it’s really interesting when we have people come into our courses. I always ask people what is it that they came for. What is the deliverable that they would like to walk away with? What is it that got them to sign on and dedicate their weekend, which required travel and room and board. It’s not cheap. It’s a big investment.

Even just the time itself, right? And energy. What is it that got them there. And I ask, “Is it because you realize Onnit’s a longevity-focused training system that we teach, that we provide? Or do you just want to swing badass medieval weapon through space and look really cool doing it?” And one doesn’t discount the other. That’s one thing. So the first question is the first question. And by and large, 80 percent of people these days, they realize that that’s what we are.

We’re not just swinging weaponry around and trying to look cool. We’re actually empowering people to live with longevity as a focus, right? In our training. And I think that’s really powerful.

But in all reality, that’s great that people are saying that. Because, primarily in social media and the way we use it, it’s a marketing vehicle, right? So we’re not putting up the process always. A lot of times we’re showing the end result, and sometimes you’ll see how somebody moves a tool at first, and you’ll see how they progress.

But realistically, one thing I’m always telling people is just it’s really important to understand that what you see is the end result of thousands of repetitions of practice and not something that should be discounted and misappropriated, because even if you can do it, if you kind of achieve what you think is the skill, there’s so many layers of awareness that you didn’t see in the social media post.

So it’s by and large just marketing aspirational vehicle. And then it’s really important that we pair that up with an intelligent copy, like in the sense of like, well, hey, never discount the fact that this is something that’s the outcome of real work.

And you can take it and think that you have it, but realistically, until you invest in the process, it’s something that is really, really hard to comprehend in a 15-second or one-minute deliverable on Instagram, right?

[Editor’s note: Check out the “Warrior Maker” workout with a steel mace from Onnit’s YouTube page.]

So hopefully we just inspire people to start the process, and whether they’re coming to an education that we offer or working with a coach that’s qualified, whether by Onnit or someone else that they see as qualified, it’s a really big step in the right direction.

Schimri Yoyo: Yeah, that’s a pretty impressive marketing tool, right? You get them with the inspiration, but then you buttress it with the infrastructure to understand that this was a process. This is the end result of a process and not just something that’s instantaneous. So it’s pretty much marketing genius. Whoever’s in charge of your guys’ marketing deserves a raise. It’s good.

Alright. Lastly, John, last question for you. What resources, books, podcasts, magazines, they could be fitness related or business-related or even just philosophical, inspirational, but what are some resources that you would recommend to our audience that you feel would be beneficial to them on their journey of fitness?

John Wolf: You know, I think this might be a cop-out to some degree, but to me, it’s so important for you to find the time and space to be around like-minded people. And so in the day and age right now of all the virtual ways to assimilate information, there’s something that is severely lacking without human interaction.

And you know, we’re in the day and age where online coaching is really an amazing platform, and done right it can be extremely powerful, but it also should empower people to form tribes in-person as well. I think there’s a combination of these things.

So for us, what we try to do is be a central hub for a lot of people to find different qualified resources. And so some of those might be Foundation Training with Dr. Eric Goodman or Functional Movement Systems with Gray Cook and their team. We’re going to be hosting K3 Movement Systems with Dr. Mark Cheng and Jimmy Yuan.

And there’s just a ton of good resources out there. I think that if you do your research, find people that have been in the trenches, and then just go spend some time in their presence, and understand that the goal for a lot of these people is to make really profound information highly accessible. And it doesn’t mean it’s easy. It just means that if you work for it, you’ll be able to get the outcome you want. But to you have to be able to look in those areas where your soul is going to be on fire.

So if you find something that you really subscribed to, just make sure you’re vetting your sources, right? And making sure that if you do that well, qualify your sources. This is something that, in the day and age and the Internet, you really have to do. Qualify your sources.

And then when you know that you follow somebody, you really subscribe to their belief, their overarching belief systems or core values, right? And their beliefs, and you are inspired by their body of work, then go and spend some time with that human being and understand that there’s nothing you can trade for that other than an investment to be there at the right time, at the right place. And you might find yourself walking a whole different path as a result of such type of interaction. So those are the things. There are a lot of books. There are a lot of things, I don’t know. I’d have to qualify exactly who’s listening to be able to give the best recommendation.

But that’s my recommendation is “Hey, just be out there looking for what it is that most closely represents your unique belief system and interests and then find the person who you feel is an ideal candidate to model in that space, and then go spend some time with them.”

Schimri Yoyo: That’s good. That’s definitely what we asked for. So online, in person, that’s a resource too. So it doesn’t always have to be a book or virtual, so I think that’s a great word of advice.

Well, thank you again, John, for your time. We definitely are excited by what you’re doing with Onnit, and we definitely praise the longevity that you’ve had and some of the things that you’ve overcome to really be a big inspiration to a lot of people who follow the health and fitness space. So we wish you much-continued success, and we definitely would like to have you back on later down the road.

John Wolf: Thank you, Schimri. I really appreciate the time and the opportunity.

Schimri Yoyo: Right. You have a good one, man. Take care.

John Wolf: Take care.

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