My Story, Part One: How I became a Physiologist

Now that the holidays are over and I can resume my normal schedule, I've decided to tell my story. Now my story is a bit complex. It is essentially a compilation of random events which made me who I am now, and lead me to where I am going. So I must divide it into two separate parts. The first is how I got into health, fitness, and strength training. I have never gone into this much detail. I am going to share pictures of my progress, which I've never shown to anyone. I have never been in the market of lifting for aesthetics, or showing people how fit I am. Even now my pictures are testimonials of my personal successes and failures.

 

I grew up as the youngest in a Polish Immigrant family. So already this story has a great beginning! My father moved to this country when he was in his early 20s, my mother moved much earlier. He worked as a mechanical engineer and spent time inspecting homes on the side. She studied to be a nurse, but did not finish. Probably for the better because she helped thousands of people in social services. Being the youngest, I had always tried to emulate my older siblings, and would often become upset when I couldn't join them in certain activities. I tried to mimic their attitudes and emulate an older persona.

So growing up my brothers played video games (Nintendo 64, Playstation, etc.). So I started playing as well. I have a cut out photograph in my room of my younger self pressing a key on a PC keyboard at I assume 2 years old. In elementary school I played a lot of computer games, continued through middle school, and high school. In middle school I became overweight, and was very self conscious about my image. I always wore baggy clothing to hide my fat.

 

Most of my siblings played sports (football and track and field). Now my closest sibling is 6 years ahead of me (picture above), and I decided to follow him in his football path. This was the only reason why I participated in sport. Now I started playing football my freshmen year in high school, so I would have 2 more years of experience than my brother who played for 2 years. I lost 20 pounds in 3 months, which was astronomical for me. I was not expecting that at all!

 

So now that I was playing sports, my brother introduced me to weightlifting. I just followed his program, lifted some weights and rode my bicycle everywhere under the impression that my cycling would compensate for leg work in the weight room. I did no running or any sport specific training at all, and as you could imagine, my Sophomore year was awful. I mean I did BAD. So the following off-season I was determined to work harder. I lifted weights following my brothers program for 5 days per week, as I didn't have transportation to the school to lift with the team. However we were given a cardio program to follow during the summertime. What I did was I increased all of repetitions on the cardio program, so by the time football season came I would be better than my teammates.

Now little did I know at the time, my brother's program was a body building program, not a strength training program. So I built muscle, but severely lacked the power and explosiveness required for football. I performed minimal squats, didn't do deadlifts, or any jump training. Long story short I wasn't strong enough, fast enough, heavy enough, or aggressive enough. Simply put, I was awkward, but I developed a love for training. So my junior year didn't give me much of an improvement.

Again that off-season I pursued training with the same ferocity. But again I didn't know what it took to develop a strong, fast, and heavy athlete. I followed the same bodybuilding program, but focused more on leg work. I found that my strength per pound was good, but compared to my heavier teammates, faltered a little. So again, my cardio was great, but all other athletic properties, not so much. I came to the conclusion that I was too awkward for football, but I later learned my training was backwards.

 

As you can see, I put on significantly more weight than the picture previous. But it was not functional, it was not athletic. I had a few good looking muscles for my age, but couldn't use them.

After my senior season I made plans for college. I knew that I probably wouldn't work in a kitchen my whole life, but I didn't know what to do. So I applied to a local university (Westfield State) as an undeclared major, in the hopes that I would find my way after broadening my experience. As I worked at Friendly's I met other students from the university. I remember one waitress Ashley was in the Exercise Science program. Now at this time I was still training because I loved it, so we would talk about health and fitness. I was so intrigued by the knowledge she possessed about calories and fitness. That was my first encounter with an exercise scientist , and in my mind it seemed like something worth pursuing.

As I continued with my studies I took a physics course, because I loved physics (and still do). The physics course was a requirement for the sports medicine program. So on my first day I get to class early. Right before class, in walks this woman wearing a red dress. And I swear the whole classroom froze, for at least one minute. I'm pretty sure my jaw hit the floor. We were allowed to choose groups for labs for the semester, and we immediately partnered up. As it turned out she was in the sports medicine program, and as we talked more about health/fitness I became more intrigued about this "exercise science" program.

Anyway after this class was over, I took an introductory class to exercise science. I enjoyed it, applied to the exercise science program, and was accepted. Although I was behind in credits. So I took a summer class in A+P. One woman in my summer class looked strikingly familiar. She looked exactly like "Ashley" from Friendly's. In this Anatomy class we would grade each others lab practicals. I graded hers, and it turns out it was Ashley's sister. Go figure.

After this class under my belt I was officially caught up with credits and devoted the next two years to the exercise science program. Now the most demanding part of the program was the degree of extracurricular work we had to do. I loved the information about strength and conditioning, fitness assessment, injury assessment, and group exercise. It was all so fascinating for me. It was here that I learned the error in my training as a teenager. I took a pre-practicum at STRIDES in Northampton, MA, in which I learned so much from Len and Jeremy. In hindsight, they influenced my style of training more than anybody in my life thus far. No amount of classroom experience or textbook knowledge could have prepared me better for life as a trainer than STRIDES.

As part of my curriculum I was required to at least attempt a certification exam. I took the Health Fitness Specialist exam through the ACSM. Later this certification was reformed into the Certified Exercise Physiologist exam. I passed the exam and would become an Exercise Physiologist as soon as I graduated. I was then tasked with a dual internship in which I spent 20 hours per week at the Cooley Dickinson Cardiac Rehab working with cardio/pulmonary outpatients. This was fun, I enjoyed this very much. Except for the red tape involved with working those patients harder. I knew that the best way to strengthen the heart was to stress the heart, but with those patients you don't want to risk another event. So extreme care was taken to keep stress minimal.

I also spent time with an allied health group performing a health impact assessment on the casino opening in Springfield, MA. Essentially we were tasked with reviewing literature regarding a casino opening and drawing connections with various health outcomes. It was so difficult for me because I hated reading all that scientific literature. I would just get so mentally fatigued. For sure It wasn't a reflection of my best work because I couldn't get behind it. The manager in charge of the assessment offered me a position, but I had to refuse it. I knew sitting at a desk reading literature for hours was not fun for me, therefore not worth my time. It is worthy to note that I was working 40 hrs per week at the restaurant at this time, which may have impacted that decision to turn down employment. I will say now, that experience was so valuable. As a graduate student I thank everybody for that opportunity because I spend so much time reviewing literature for the most current, and relevant information about exercise physiology. Although at the time it was most stressful, now I see it as most beneficial to my life.

After finishing my internships and receiving my degree in August of 2013, I applied to one gym...and botched the interview so bad. I had a lot of knowledge, but couldn't transition that knowledge into a real world setting very well. Needless to say I didn't get the job (later on I met the manager again and she offered me a job, which I refused without regret). I took almost a year off, spending time bettering myself as a chef. That year was so transforming for me as a chef. During this time I applied my knowledge of strength and conditioning to my own life. The one drawback to the exercise science program at Westfield State was the overwhelming amount of extra curricular work. This paired with my time at the restaurant meant my time training was severely impacted. I lost so much weight and strength, I also became depressed.

 

I was depressed with my life because I couldn't train. I was so weak compared to where I was before I started the exercise science program. My body image suffered, and I just felt terrible all the time. So as soon as I got my degree, I hit the gym hard. My first day back I was finishing with biceps. I was jerking the weight too much and pulled my neck, forcing me away from the gym for another couple weeks. Afterwards I was right back trying to get myself back to my previous prime.

For 9 months I strength trained, and cooked at the restaurant. What an awesome time it was for me. Although I wasn't making much money, I could finally lift weights again. After 9 months my friend Dan and myself took a trip to Florida. Our first stop was to a bluegrass show in St. Petersburg. We arrived early and decided to walk the beach and the city center. As we are talking, Dan points to somebody in out path talking, "look how big this guy is!" he says. I turn and stop in my tracks, jaw wide open, smile from ear to ear. I could not contain my excitement...Elliott Hulse, a famous YouTuber, strength coach, and warehouse gym owner was standing in front of me. I always new he lived in St. Pete, but was NOT expecting to run in to him. So I immediately approach him and we start talking about life, training, school, etc. I explained how training transformed my life as an awkward athlete, and helped me become the best chef I could be. However he discouraged my decision to pursue a graduate degree. "Why" was his only reasoning. Little did he know I had already scheduled my GRE.

 

We took a picture and parted ways.That was the fist day of our trip, and the best day for me. Everything else was just falling action. After our week was over, we returned home. Ina couple of days I received an email from the late Teresa Fitts, my advisor, asking if I was interested in a training job. After my brief encounter with Elliott, I knew it was time to move forward. I expressed interest and was put in contact with Ashley Brodeur of Active Lifestyle Fitness. We scheduled an interview. The one thing that stood out the most for me, and came into fruition the more experience I received: "The people/clients make this job worth it". Those were Ashley's words, and every day they ring more true. I have mentioned in the past the incredible transformations I've witnessed.

I came back to take a boot camp and then teach one. This was the first time one of my programs was put to the test. I know confidence is key, but I couldn't shake my nervousness. I had four women taking my boot camp, and apparently gave a good enough review for me to teach it again. From then I taught one class per week.

After some time I was given the opportunity to cover other classes, both small and large group. I won't say it was a walk in the park, primarily because of the mistakes I've made. Most of which could have been avoided with better listening. But I am grateful for them because it is when we fail, that we grow stronger.

I was coached how to perform Olympic lifts in my Strength and Conditioning course at Westfield State. I never put it into practice until I was coached again by Madeline Goodrich at Active Lifestyle Fitness. I began integrating them into my training sessions, with great results! At this point I had been training for 2 years after my undergrad. After integrating the explosive exercises, my strength increased tremendously. I've mentioned in a previous blog about my injury and how that helped me get stronger. Well here was the end result:

 

I had gained over 15 pounds of functional muscle since finishing my undergrad. A strong core that could support heavy lifts. Finally after years of "working out" for football, and barely maintaining any muscle mass through my undergrad, I was excited at my progress.

As the months progressed, I taught more classes, and loved it. Throughout my undergrad I told myself I wouldn't be a trainer (I couldn't get Richard Simmons out of my head). Now that I am, it's so rewarding. Not only do I feel appreciated, but so grateful for having a part in the incredible transformation of others. However, I found my weakness in finding clients. After about one year of teaching classes I decided to apply to the Springfield College Exercise Physiology program. With the help of my previous professors and Ashley I was accepted, despite receiving a below average score on my GRE (side note: I didn't study...at all, my confidence principle did not pay off).

The Exercise Physiology program was extremely demanding. For the first time I needed to spend sleepless nights writing reports. Now I am happy to say I'm working on my thesis, and can apply the knowledge I've acquired so far toward serving others. I'm currently not finished with the program yet, but I'll remain confident that it will go well. I will say that graduate school is not without sacrifice. I made the decision to keep working and avoid debt. As a result my own training suffered. Not being able to keep up with my strength goals was difficult. I had told myself that I would stay consistent, but life had other plans.

This is my story so far, how I became a Certified Exercise Physiologist, and nearly becoming the first in my family to hold a graduate level degree. How training changed my life, and the importance of consistency.

And to think...all of this happened because of one...small....detail. My brother succeeded on the football field, and I didn't. It is really that simple.

Take no experience for granted. All of your struggles are in fact necessary. All your failures build a better you. Don't brush them off, but embrace them...because they are yours. We all have different tests specific to our lives, and the capacity to overcome them. My hope is that my story will encourage you to take no experience for granted, and follow your passion no matter the difficulty, because you are worth it.

 

 

Steve Czerniejewski