This week, I had the pleasure of interview Ben Bruno for the site. This guy is doing some great things, and he’s somebody who I’ll definitely be learning from in the months and years to come.
Let’s get to it!
MR: Ben, thanks a ton for allowing me to interview you today!
Could you start by telling us a little bit about yourself?
BB: First off Mike, thanks for interviewing me. It’s really an honor. This is the first written interview I’ve ever done so I’ll do my best to keep it brief so I don’t put the readers to sleep.
I’m 26 years old and live just north of Boston.
I’m a strength coach, writer, fitness junkie, sports fanatic, movie buff, momma’s boy… that about does it.
I guess I just made that sound more like a dating profile than an introduction, but whatever.
Is that enough?
MR: Awesome! How did you originally get started in the strength and conditioning field? And whom do you work with now?
BB: I’ll answer the second part of the question first and start by saying that I work at Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning (MBSC) in North Andover, Massachusetts. How I ended up here, though, is sort of a long story.
To rip off Robert Frost, I guess you could say I took the road less traveled.
I graduated with BA in Sociology from Columbia University and really didn’t decide to actively pursue becoming a strength coach until the tail end of college.
That being said, fitness has been a huge part of my life for as far back as I can remember.
I’ve always been a self-proclaimed sports nut, and at some point or another I think I’ve played just about every sport imaginable. I was never the type of kid to sit inside and watch TV or play video games, so even when I wasn’t playing sports I was still always active, whether it was jumping on my trampoline, riding bikes, whatever.
Anyway, to make a long story short(er), my life took a big turn in 2005 when I had a microdiscectomy to fix a disk at L5-S1.
I’d been having sporadic bouts of very serious back pain for about three years and terrible sciatic pain that had been getting worse. I tried physical therapy (in hindsight it was a terrible program) and epidural injections, but nothing seemed to help.
At the worst of it, I wet my bed two times in one week.
I knew very little about the body at this point, and I honestly didn’t care much about learning more. I just wanted the pain to go away so I could get on with my life, and the doctors told me the surgery would help do that.
The surgery didn’t go well at all, and the pain got worse to the point that I had to take a medical leave from school. I went from 163 lbs before surgery to 122 lbs at the lowest, and I was extremely weak. I also couldn’t sit upright for more than 20 minutes without terrible burning in my right leg and foot, so it made for some really long days to say the least.
I felt hopeless and became very depressed. After about seven months, I finally saw a doctor named Dr. Rainsville at New England Baptist Hospital in Boston that. He advocated a program called “Back Boot Camp,” which is essentially intensive physical therapy. The program went against just everything I’d heard from other doctors (i.e., rest and wait it out), but I figured I had nothing to lose by trying it. At the very least, I figured it’d at least give me something to do, as opposed to just sitting around in pain.
Lo and behold, I quickly began to feel better.
Once I saw the positive benefits that came from getting stronger, I was hooked.
The last time I saw Dr. Rainsville, he jokingly told me that I’d be fine to lift weights as long as I didn’t do something crazy like lift 500 pounds.
Being the competitive bastard I am, I left the office that day with the goal to lift more than 500 pounds.
And so began my passion for strength and conditioning.
It really just started as a means to heal my back and put back on the weight I had lost. I spent endless time reading articles, books, research journals, e-books, blogs, and magazines about how to get stronger, and spent even more time trying out the ideas I read about in the gym.
I never had an in-person trainer or coach, and I didn’t even have a lifting partner, so to learn proper technique I’d film myself, watch it and see what I needed to improve upon, and then go back and make the necessary adjustments. It was a tedious process and I probably could’ve saved myself a lot of time by getting a trainer, but I have no regrets because I think that process has helped me tremendously as a coach. I really understand all the little intricacies and tricks of the various exercises and can pass them on to my clients.
Anyway, the more I read and the more I worked out, the more my passion grew.
After a while, several people in the gym started to notice that I was making some serious changes and getting a lot stronger, so they started asking me for advice about how to deal with their own back pain. I did my absolute best to help them, and two of them wrote me letters thanking me and saying how much better they felt as a result of my help.
It was then that I decided I wanted to be a strength coach. I’d learned a lot from my experiences, and felt I could use those experiences to help others.
I love helping people, I love learning about the body, I love working out, and I love sports, so it seemed like a logical way to meld all of my passions into one.
I still didn’t commit to becoming a strength coach though. To me, there is a big difference between wanting to do something and actually making it happen. BIG difference.
I wanted it, but I had reservations, and more importantly, I doubted myself. I figured that the strength and conditioning stuff was a hobby and a dream, not a reality.
“Reality” meant sucking it up at a job you hate in order to make as much money as possible.
With that in mind, I actually took an internship in finance during college. I did it because I thought I should, not because I wanted to. Most of my classmates were aspiring to be lawyers, doctors, and business executives, and my professors, friends, and family members were pushing me in that direction as well.
At first I just went along with it. Not surprisingly, I was miserable at my internship and hated every minute of it.
I see so many people chasing money and hating every minute of it. My life experiences have proven to me that money does not buy happiness. We hear that cliché all the time, but I was basically smacked in the face with it. My father was a stock broker that hated his job. He worked incredibly long days and never took breaks. He became very depressed but just kept working harder, thinking that if he just earned enough money, his problems would resolve themselves.
Well, they didn’t, and he committed suicide when I was nine years old.
I thought about him often while I was sitting through my internship, watching the clock tick and lamenting about how slowly time seemed to move.
It took me the entire summer to get up the nerve to make the decision to quit dreaming and start trying to make my dreams a reality. I told my boss, whom I’d grown close with over the summer, that finance was not for me and that what I really wanted to do was be a strength coach. As luck would have it, it just so happened that he had kids that played football, and he put me in touch with the guy that trained them.
We spoke for a while and I impressed him enough for him to have me take a train up for an interview. In the interview, he threw me right into the fire and had me run training sessions for two of his teams.
It went really well. The kids responded well, and I had a blast. I felt alive and just knew that was what I wanted to do. He offered me a job starting right after I graduated, and I accepted immediately.
Things were seemingly great until he called me two days before my graduation saying that due to extenuating circumstances, he could no longer take me on. Just like that, I was back living at home and had to start looking for a new job all over again.
At that point, I started second-guessing my decision to be a strength coach. It just seemed like it wasn’t meant to be. I got lucky with the first opportunity just from being in the right place at the right time, but when I was honest with myself, I really had no qualifications. Who would want to take some sociology major with no formal coaching experience?
Dejected, I began to send in applications to a whole bunch of random places: finance, market research, social work. None of these options excited me, but it seemed more realistic given my academic background and prior work experience. I also started thinking about graduate school. I didn’t know what I’d go for, but it seemed like a way to bide some time while I figured it out.
In my heart, however, I knew what I wanted to do. I finally decided to take my chances and apply for an internship at MBSC. I wrote a long e-mail to Steve Bunker (the internship coordinator) pleading my case and saying why I thought I would be good for the position. Several days later, I got a response asking me to come down to meet him. I was so excited I could hardly contain myself. I’d just received two job offers the previous day, one doing research in Boston and one as a financial analyst in New York, but neither of them excited me in the least.
I showed up for my interview a half-hour early and just waited in the parking lot rehearsing what I would say. I had my resume in hand, along with an essay I had written about why I wanted the internship. I was expecting a long interview with lots of probing questions, but in total we met for around twenty minutes, ten of which were spent showing me around the facility.
At that point, he told me to go the other facility to meet Bob Hanson, co-founder of MBSC.
Steve had already spoken to Bob on the phone while I drove down, so Bob was expecting me. He looked at my resume and noticed the finance internship. I explained to him how I applied for several other jobs, but that this was what I wanted to do. These were obviously not hollow words because here I was voluntarily soliciting an unpaid internship over other, far more lucrative job opportunities.
He seemed a little surprised. “Why do you want to be a strength coach?” he asked. “You know you aren’t going to make the big bucks right?”
My answer: “There’s something to be said for liking what you do.”
He seemed to accept my response and began explain the details of the internship to me. At this point, I had a good feeling that I would be offered the spot and I began to get very excited.
“Don’t get up,” he humbly replied, shaking my hand.
Bob then introduced us. “Mike, this is Ben. He’s giving up a Columbia degree to be a strength coach. He says he wants to have fun.”
“He’ll do that here,” Mike said. With that, he walked out to attend to other business.
That was all I needed to hear.
Bob offered me the internship, and after completing that, I’ve been working at MBSC ever since.
I’m a big believer in the idea that everything happens for a reason, but I also think that reason isn’t always clear to us at the time.
For example, when I was going through the height of my back issues, I felt like I just couldn’t catch a break, and I still wonder if I could’ve avoided surgery altogether if I’d had a better training program.
To be honest, I bet I could’ve avoided it by implementing the knowledge I have now, and I still cringe when I think about the training and rehab stuff I was doing. But it’s water under the bridge because as bad as it seemed at the time, you could argue it’s actually one of the best things that ever happened to me. It proved to be the impetus I needed to start going after my dreams. Had I avoided it, I’d probably be stuck at some desk right now staring at the clock and waiting for the weekend.
So yea, that’s basically how I got started in the strength and conditioning field : )
As an aside, I’d like to say that for a new coach just starting out, I can’t recommend doing an internship highly enough.
I liken it to learning a new language. You always hear that the best way to learn a foreign language is to go to the source and immerse yourself in it. I actually did this and I can say I agree. The summer after I graduated from high school, I traveled around Spain for 6 weeks by myself. It was intimidating at the time because I didn’t know anybody and I was shaky with the language, but looking back, I’m very glad I did it because I learned more about the language and culture in that short amount of time than I did in six years taking Spanish classes in school.
An internship is much the same thing, only instead of learning to speak Spanish, you learn to speak coach. It’s essentially a full-time coaching immersion program where you live, eat, breathe, and sleep strength and conditioning, all day every day, making it a great opportunity to fast-track the learning process.
I’ll cut it there because I’m sure that’s already much more than you were looking for and I’m sure a lot of readers have clicked away already, but hopefully some of this might be helpful for young up-and-coming coaches looking to start out in the field.
MR: Over the past couple of months, you’ve started to write a bit more too. What would you say your writing niche is? Or whom do you most wish to impact?
BB: I’m not really sure what my niche, or if I even have one.
More than anything, as a writer I operate under the idea of “stick to what you know.”
I see a lot of young writers (or just writers in general for that matter) really reaching with the stuff they write about, but to me, it’s always clear when people know what they’re talking about or when they’re just pulling it out of their you-know-whats.
At 26, there’s a lot I still need to learn about a lot of things, but I do feel that I know some things really well and can help other people in those areas, so that’s what I write about.
If I don’t really understand something, I won’t write about it, but I’ll do my best to learn about it because I think it’s important to always be improving on your weaknesses. I’m not afraid to say when I don’t know something and ask for help.
So to answer your original question, I really haven’t actively pursued a particular niche. I imagine that’s something that might develop over time on its own the more I write, but for now, I don’t really worry about it. At this stage, I’m just trying to learn as much as possible and get better, and I think all that stuff will sort itself out.
I will say this though; it feels freakin’ amazing when I get e-mails and messages from people all over the world telling me that I’ve helped them in some way, whether it be helping them deal with pain, get stronger, feel better, look better, etc. That’s really what drives me and makes it all worth it.
MR: Like myself, you’ve had knee issues in the past and you’re on the road to redemption. Tell us a little bit about your issues, and what you’ve learned from them as a result.
BB: Yea, unfortunately knee problems are something we can definitely relate about 😉
I’ve had two knee surgeries on my right knee, the last of which was this past December. Neither surgery was lifting-related, but as I’m sure you can attest to as well, they’ve definitely impacted my training in a big way.
I actually just finished writing an article about some of the tips and tricks I’ve picked up along the way so I won’t get too much into the specifics here, but the biggest thing I can say is that rather than dwell on all the things I can’t do, I’ve tried to use it as a learning experience to learn as much as I can about knees and figure out what I can do.
That’s probably the biggest lesson of all.
MR: One thing I noticed about your training is that you’d be hitting some of your weaknesses hard as a result. Could you talk about some of your upper body training that’s been filling in the gaps while you rehab your knee?
BB: I’ve always liked training legs the most, but I obviously can’t do that right now the way I’m accustomed to.
While it’s certainly frustrating, on the flip side, it’s given me more time to focus on upper body work.
For the first couple months after the surgery, I basically did a bunch of rehab stuff for my knee, some light dumbbell floor pressing, and whole lot of chin-ups.
I’ve always loved chin-ups, so I put my effort towards improving them because it’s one of the few exercises I could do that didn’t bother my knee.
I’m a big believer in always having a training goal, so this gave me something positive to focus on as opposed to just dwelling on my knee and having a pity party for myself, and it also gave me a good distraction from the rehab process. As anyone who has gone through a rehab can relate to, it’s an extremely tedious process to say the least. I’m always down to crush some heavy weights, but TKEs [terminal knee extensions] and straight leg raises… not so much.
To break up the monotony, I’d just do a set of chin-ups between every set of rehab work. It helped hold me accountable for doing all the stuff I didn’t want to be doing, and it also helped me improve my chin-ups A LOT: win-win.
Over time, I’ve slowly been able to add back in more lower body work and I’m back to a more normal training program, which has meant I’ve eased up on the chin-ups quite a bit. (It’s important to remember that whenever you add something into a program you also have to subtract something else. But, my chin-ups are much stronger than they were a few months ago and I had a good chance to try some different programming ideas to see what works and what doesn’t, so that’s cool.
MR: You may be a little young to think about this, but when it’s all said and done, how do you hope to improve or influence the strength and conditioning community?
BB: That’s a great question, but I haven’t really thought that far ahead yet. I guess we’ll see : )
MR: Ben, thanks a ton for answering all my questions! Where can my readers find out more about you?
BB: I publish a blog and free newsletter at http://www.benbruno.com/, so that’s probably the best place to start.
MR: Thanks again Ben!
BB: No, Thank YOU!