Note: this is part 1 of my interview with Greg Carver. Click Here for Part 2.
Meet Greg Carver, a one-of-a-kind fitness professional who found fitness later in life than most do, took the road less traveled, and lived to tell the tale.
I never knew this until today, but Greg has a long history of health troubles. Of course, you wouldn’t know it by looking at him because even at 58 years young, he’d fit right in with ancient Greek warriors. But Greg had it pretty rough health-wise until his late forties. Ten years later, and let’s just say that things are very different for him. He’s in the best shape of his life, and owns a successful and very unconventional gym where he shares his passion for fitness with others.
Greg specializes in not specializing, and has a knack for helping men in their 40s, 50s, and 60s finally make fitness work…and actually enjoy the process.
I’ve long admired Greg ever since I learned about him through his connection with MovNat, and have been meaning to get him on here for awhile now. Now, Greg is a busy guy. So, I incorrectly assumed he’d send me back some succinct replies to my interview questions, leaving me begging for more. I was only half right, though. Because Greg shared so much in this interview – going into great detail – and still has me itching for more.
Fortunately, we’re going to do a part 2 via phone later this week to dive a little deeper into some of the subjects we discussed below.
So, if you’re at-all interested in unconventional fitness, and particularly for older folks who have a little more wear and tear, you will love this interview. Enjoy!
JOHN: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, and what you do today?
Greg: This may be a longer answer than you’d expect, but I think it’s important to know where I started from…
The first point would be my journey from sickness to wellness, and then to fitness.
I didn’t come from a fitness background; in fact I was faced with a number of health challenges as a young adult right up until I reached my late forties. Most people don’t know this about me. I was often sick and spent frequent bouts in hospital fighting everything from pneumonia to anemia. I was underweight and suffered three spontaneous lung collapses as a result of ruptured air blisters in the lungs. I did eventually recover, but as I got older my body basically reached a breaking point and I developed autoimmune disease.
Joint pain and fatigue suddenly became daily experiences — the kind of deep fatigue that seemed to go well past the typical tiredness of day-to-day life. Aching extremities and stiff joints were combined with symptoms of exhaustion and brain fatigue. The long hours and demands associated with maintaining a high-level corporate job didn’t help matters. My sleep was poor, stress was high, and my energy levels were at an all time low. In fact, just getting through a work day was proving to be challenging.
Frustrated with being “sick and tired” all the time, I decided to take matters into my own hands. While I thought I was eating well, I followed the advice of a natural health expert Bryce Wylde and attempted to control my own immune responses with daily probiotics, fish oil, and an anti-inflammatory diet rich in omega-3s, colorful vegetables and quality meats. I further supplemented with magnesium, zinc, B-12 and D, ginger and turmeric.
The prescription worked. In fact, it was almost unbelieveable. Within 60 days practially all symptoms of inflammation disappeared and I was finally able to feel strong and healthy. I had been taking ibuprofen daily for a few years just to manage chronic pain, so when I was finally able to move and feel energetic again, you can imagine how liberating that was.
I started sleeping better, began a program of resistance training, and made various lifestyle changes that contributed to my health.
Whether it was the anti-inflammatory diet, or the supplements, or even just psychosomatics that caused the change, it mattered little to me. But the transformation really changed my way of thinking, and my life. No longer sidelined, I took up fitness and athletics as a challenge — and with time discovered that I was actually pretty good at it. I kept at it.
As I progressed, I began training others who were noticing my results. I did some personal training, ran bootcamps, and provided feedback and advice to anyone who sought out my help.
In January of 2010, I chose to take my passion and turn it into a full-time gig. I left the corporate world and opened the StrengthBox — a training facility in Toronto. And while there are certainly stresses involved in running your own business, the stress was nothing compared with my former desk job.
What I’m most interested now is in helping early Gen-Xrs and late Baby Boomers rediscover and explore their natural physical abilities. I’ve been coaching at the StrengthBox now for eight years, and it’s been an incredible experience.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think you’re in your mid-50s, right? So, you’ve been at this for awhile now. And by the looks of it, you’ve managed to stay in tip-top shape and ready for whatever life throws at you. How do you, personally, manage to stay fit? Can you provide a summary of your philosophy and approach to health and fitness? And what does your daily routine look like?
I’m currently 58, and I manage to keep my fitness up by sheer consistency of effort. Training is such a part of me now, that’s while it sounds trite, it’s part of my lifestyle and identity. It was a late discovery, but I truly enjoy it. And I’m always challenging myself.
I’d say I’m reasonably good at barbell compound exercises like the squat, deadlift, and bench press. My overhead press has improved this year, as well as my cleans and bent-over rows. Those lifts have, and likely always will be, part of my core program as long as I have access to a set of weights. I’ve taught hundreds of people these techniques and have found them to be very effective in increasing functional, full-body strength in a controlled way.
The other tool I really like to use in strength training are kettlebells. They’re extremely versatile for all-over strength, work capacity, and muscular endurance.
But what I’ve discovered is that training can be a creative process. It’s one of exploration — especially when learning new things at an older age. I think that’s why I enjoy my workouts. I think of it as MY time; where I’m not going to allow distractions, deadlines and technology to dictate my life. It’s just me and my environment.
So part of that exploration has been allowing my own training to evolve into areas that are outside my comfort zone. Areas that are tough for me, but would be rewarding to be proficient in.
For instance, I’ve never done gymnastics, not as a kid and certainly not as an adult. I couldn’t kick up into a handstand against a wall to save my life. And at just over 6 feet tall and 200 pounds, I knew that learning some skills wouldn’t be easy, especially learning them at a later age in life.
So I’ve spent the past few years really trying to work on some bodyweight skills. Front levers, one-arm crocodiles, tuck planche, QDR, and some aerial strength work. It’s not been easy and progress is frustratingly slow. With lots of training hours and some tenacity, I’m pleased to say that I’ve conquered some goals, and I’m looking forward to see what I can do next.
As to my daily routine, I wake up around 5am on most weekdays. I have a tall glass of water, sometimes with lemon and/or powdered sea vegetables. I’ll grind some beans and make my coffee, which I drink black as I check on my 6am class roster and mentally prep for the day.
If time allows and if I’m hungry, I’ll grab something quick. I might have 2 boiled eggs with some kimchi, or some sardines mashed with a boiled egg and some avocado and herbs. If I’m not particularly hungry, I won’t eat until later, so I’ll take my breakfast with all my other prepared meals to the studio with me.
I’m usually coaching the first two morning classes which start at 6am. So I get in my mobility early, as I perform the movements along with the class. I like to focus on hip and ground mobility, but also work in Russian-style joint mobility and some flow as well. Each class I teach during the day has a mobility component, so I actually practice quite a bit during the day, even if it’s only in 10 minute blocks.
After the classes, I often have a few private clients, but I’m generally done my morning coaching by 10am. This is the time I’ll start to train my own skills. I’ll pick a few techniques to work on, and superset a pulling movement like a front lever with a pushing exercise like a tuck planche. I find that I have to train my skills before doing any heavy barbell lifts or conditioning, as the former are so demanding on the nervous system.
I’ll also train some other calisthenic moves that are good supplements to the skills I want to acquire. I’ve got a program I stick to personally, which I modify every few weeks according to my progress and needs. And I’ll train these moves 4 or even 5 days a week, depending on how I feel.
Once I’m finished with my skills training, I’ll have a light meal and generally will try and nap for 20 minutes or so.
Once 12pm rolls around (and after a second coffee), I’ll either coach or participate in the noon class if someone else is teaching. I don’t do this every day, but like to get in my lifts at least 3 times a week, and find that taking my own class is the easiest way to get the work done. And while the StrengthBox is not a competitive gym, there’s usually some friendly informal competition between myself and a few others, and that motivates me to push hard. Taking the classes also ensures I stay well-rounded, as we’ll include varied training modalities in our programming that promote strength, endurance and conditioning.
I may have a shake post-training, and will generally have a fairly large meal within an hour. Depending on the day, I may do some office work, film some videos or write programming, or work on some of the many tasks that are required to market and operate a successful community-based gym.
Two evenings out of the week, I coach some later classes, but the other days I have free. I generally use the early evening hours to chill. On some days I might get outside for a walk or some light training along the boardwalk at Toronto’s beaches.
I’ll do a quick meal-prep at some point in the evening. I generally have most things ready to go, some preparation is less like cooking and more like assembling. I’ve found taking my meals to work is a key strategy in maintaining good body composition and in overall fitness. On days I don’t, I’ll drive up to a nearby supermarket and forage for some wholesome food there. Not to say that I don’t ever eat out — I do. And I enjoy a beer or two on some evenings and weekends with good friends. Sometimes I over indulge … I’m human and life is short. But when I do, I get right back on track — it really helps me to move well and maintain my energy levels.
At least once or twice a week I take a full day off training. I recover well for someone my age, but need to be careful to avoid injury and overtraining.
You seem to do it all at StrengthBox – calisthenics, weightlifting, natural movement training, kettlebells, Indian clubs, strongman, aerial, acro-yoga, hand balancing and other advanced ground work, hiking adventures and other physical culture vacations, mobility, breathwork, cold training, etc. So, what makes StrengthBox different? What do you do differently from your average fitness coach? Can you describe your unique approach to health and fitness? What are some things you address that most other fitness methods don’t?
Our mission is to provide life-changing coaching that builds strong, able and functional bodies through the practice of organic movements and functional exercise. Yes, that’s an actual mission statement — which is why it may sound a bit formal. We provide serious training in a fun and unique environment.
When I opened the StrengthBox in January of 2010, I wanted to create a local alternative option to CrossFit. I felt that a huge part of the market was being left on the table: adults who wanted to better themselves physically, but who perhaps felt intimidated by the competitiveness of CrossFit’s culture.
So I created an environment that has all the things you’d find in a typical garage gym, but as you say “we seem to do it all”. Actually, there are quite a few things we don’t do as well. We don’t focus much on olympic lifting other than the power clean, because I believe it takes a great deal of practice to become proficient in those moves and I feel that any potential carry-over benefits to real life or sports can be obtained more easily with kettlebells or other movements.
A typical session at the StrengthBox starts with some guided mobility work. I like to throw in some organic movements as well, which could be anything from hand-foot crawls and light running to precision jumping and climbing.
Once everyone is warm, we move on to our strength training. I program our lifts on a monthly basis, and have found that to be pretty successful.
When everyone has wrapped up their strength training, we move on to the next phase which we all do together — something similar to a WOD, but it’s not competitive and isn’t always high-intensity work. That’s where we really get into variety and creativity. For sure, on certain days, the workout may involve high-intensity interval training. On other days, it may be running through an indoor obstacle course. And on other days still, we may work on slow, controlled movements.
We have some interesting features in the space that can be incorporated into training. There’s a log hanging from the ceiling (can you get over it?) There’s a large wooden climbing structure that made out of ash and red western cedar — all reinforced internally with kevlar. We have a few heavy “odd objects”, including rubber dead-balls that weigh up to 150 pounds. There’s a makeshift climbing wall. All of these things can be used to make workouts a bit more interesting, a bit more playful, and a lot more fun.
We also have a strong community culture. That’s something I’m particularly proud of, because I’m not part of a chain or affiliated with a broad-reaching brand. But the people who come to StrengthBox are loyal and supportive. It’s an inclusive, non-judgemental environment where your age or body shape isn’t a factor — what matters is that you show up and put in the effort.
The organization’s values are active living, community, authenticity and fun. And those are certainly expressed in the member base — in classes, social gatherings, and at my retreats.
As to my unique approach and what I might do that other fitness approaches don’t — well that probably lies in my demographics as I tend to attract a slightly older crowd. People over 40 often have negative thoughts and stresses about kickstarting a new fitness regime. They find it tough to develop good health habits that actually stick. And they over-analyze things — thus they never actually get started.
My job is to inspire and inform. I use my own example of where I came from versus where I am today in terms of health and fitness to show them what’s possible. It IS possible to re-awaken one’s natural fitness abilities to lead an active and healthy life, full of adventure and authentic experiences. It’s part of optimal aging: regaining strength and vitality while looking great at the same time.
I want people to think about fitness with a different perspective. Fitness shouldn’t be something that you dread, something that you keep putting off, or something that beats you up. It should be a joy. It’s a practice…a physical expression that only you can create. So that’s part of my job — it’s to work with people and adjust their attitudes. Too many coaches and facilities just beat people up or burn them out. I want people to discover what they’re capable of.
I’m also interested in the connection between physical expression and nature. While I do run an indoor facility, I also encourage people to get outside. There are big health benefits to be found in training using the elements in your own natural environment.
One of the things I’ve always admired about you is that you engage in a large variety of health, fitness, and training disciplines – and aren’t beholden to any one training method. I think this sets you apart in our industry. Why have you taken a more broad approach to physical training instead of specializing in one or two disciplines like most fitness pros do? And what’s the value of this? Should more athletes and fitness enthusiasts strive to become competent in a wide variety of fitness and movement disciplines?
That’s likely just down to my personality — I tend to want to do it all! If I specialized in one or two disciplines, I think I could excel in a few — but nothing comes without a price. For instance, powerlifting has always intrigued me because I think I could be good at it. But I know that to immerse myself in that world would mean a trade off with my bodyweight skills, likely my conditioning, and for sure my body composition.
I think it’s like that with most things. People who are great movers or who specialize in calisthenics tend to be lighter in weight and don’t usually carry a lot of muscle. Well, I like having muscle — especially as I age. It’s the reason I work in some hypertrophy during my own training (yes, the often malaligned “bodybuilding”, which has gotten a bad rap over the last decade or so). So it’s a balance.
I’m also just genuinely curious. As I mentioned before, I see fitness as an explorative and creative process, so part of that is finding out what is possible. So I believe that being a ‘generalist’ has a lot of advantages for the average person. If you approach life with a wide lens, you can really experience a lot.
So there’s a trade-off. I may not achieve excellence in any given discipline, but it’s possible that I can gain insight into new concepts. A pure strength athlete will think and perform in a very specific way, and it’s nearly impossible to think outside that box. Practicing multiple disciplines allows concepts and modalities to cross-pollinate so you can combine methods together and improve your overall skills.
As to whether or not I think that more athletes and fitness enthusiasts should strive to be generalists — I think that’s just up to the individual. There are advantages for the general population, for sure. Even our recent ancestors had to be proficient at a lot of life skills — specialization is a luxury of the modern age. But if you plan on competing or really want to be the best at something, well — that’s another story.
You’ve worked with some really interesting people like Steve Atlas, Andralyn Zayn, and Trevor Bodogh to name a few. Can you tell me a little about that?
I’ve always believed in investing in my own education. Even coaches need coaching, and there are a lot of people out there who have inspired me, and who I’ve had to pleasure of working with – Steve Atlas, Steve Maxwell, Erwan LeCorre, Shawn Mozen, and many more.
Steve Atlas has been a big influence on me over the last few years, as I use his online coaching services and have brought him to Toronto several times to host workshops at the StrengthBox. I’ve also attended his flagship workshop three times in Spokane, Washington, where I’ve learned a lot not only from Steve, but from the other attendees who follow him. Steve’s big thing is to smash stereotypes: he’s a big, muscular guy who looks like a bodybuilder, but he is extremely flexible, moves like a dancer, and performs gymnastics and hand-balancing feats at a fairly high level. That’s impressive to me. I’m honoured to call him a good friend.
I’ve taken a number of programs and certifications from Steve Maxwell as well, including his Level 2 Kettlebell Cert. I had the pleasure of spending several weeks with him on holiday, as I acted as “tour guide” on his first trip to Greece. We had a blast — training almost every day outside in the hot sun, running the original track they used for the ancient Olympic games, lifting rocks at an ancient sanctuary to one of the Gods, and exploring the sights of classical, traditional and modern Greece. I also introduced Steve and his partner Teresa to my favourite island there — Ikaria, an official blue zone. I hold active holiday retreats there every year or so, as I’ve been going there for over 15 years and know the island well. Steve’s since started doing his own training camps there as well.
I met Erwan LeCorre, the founder of MovNat the year he first came to the U.S. from France. I was on his first-ever weekend immersion in West Virginia, an experience I repeated multiple times. And I was very honoured that he chose me to work with him as an assistant coach for a 10-day workshop in Brazil. That was back in the spring of 2010, and it was an experience I’ll never forget. He was likely the first person to really shake up and change my belief system about training. He personally taught his MovNat workshops and certification programs at the StrengthBox in the first few years of operation, and we still host events for that organization to this day.
There are so many other people who have influenced me and who I work with. You mentioned Andralyn Zayn — she’s a circus performer, has a company called Defllying Fitness, and also works as one of my trainers at the Box. Deflying Fitness has a number of workshop and certification programs in everything from handstands to flexibility and acro — and we host a lot of them locally. She’s also gotten me out of my comfort zone, and now I’m learning some new circus skills. I don’t practice as often as I should, but I’m getting some experience in partner basing, aerial strength and more. I’ve even tried teeter board (with a crash pad and safety harness of course!). I don’t know where all this is leading — maybe learning how to do a back-flip at 58? Why not?
Andralyn isn’t the only circus influence in my life. I’m a good friend of trials bike rider Trevor Bodogh, and through him I’ve made a number of friendships within Cirque du Soleil (Trevor is currently performing with Cirque’s new show Volta). Trevor is truly a specialist, and that’s why he excels. Even as a generalist, I take a lot from him as I watch how much he practices and how he’s dedicated his whole life to his craft. It inspires me to train and get better at what I do.
There are others. Carl Rom Colthoff is a trampoline performer (tramp wall) in the Cirque du Soleil show Joya in Mexico. I train him online in general strength and conditioning and also coached the show’s former physiotherapist Antonio Hererra for several years (who dropped 25 kilos with my help). Visiting them at the Vidanta Riviera Maya was a fantastic experience, and I trained with some of the performers after the show each day. All of these people have in turn inspired and helped me along my own journey.
MovNat rocked my world when I first attended a retreat in 2009. And while I still engage in a lot of non-MovNat training, natural movement training has been a primary focus of mine ever since. Can you tell me about your experience with MovNat? What did you learn and how has your training changed since?
Absolutely. MovNat attracted me right from the beginning and I was happy to be an ambassador for the approach. I worked with Erwan LeCorre on a few projects, attended a number of the retreats in West Virginia, assisted him in Itacare, Brazil, and hosted a number of workshops at my gym. I took the Level 2 certification from him a number of years ago. There was even a short period of time when he designated me a “Director of Corporate Events”, but then decided to take a slightly different direction with his organization.
The big take-away from MovNat for me was to look beyond workout intensity as a main indicator of success, and more into the quality of one’s movement. I might have done burpee-pullups prior to MovNat and only focused on how many I could do, as I mindlessly went through the reps. And while burpee-pullups aren’t really very MovNat, if you apply the same principles of the training, then you start thinking about things like jumping up to grab the bar without making any sound, or landing gracefully and absorbing the impact with your whole body. Things become more stylish, more graceful, and more mindful. That’s a huge take-away that I carry with me even today.
When I opened the StrengthBox almost 8 years ago, I tried to incorporate as much MovNat style training into my programming as possible. We trained climbing, we trained jumping, we trained balance. And I still do a lot of this stuff today, but some things have changed. One thing I’ve learned is that while practicing MovNat indoors is great for beginners and even for seasoned movers, it’s difficult to keep things interesting within the same four walls after so many years. The possibilities for adaptation are more limited. So I think that MovNat is best practiced outside, but the gym is a good starting place to learn the techniques and to get your feet wet in a safe environment.
I still practice a lot of the techniques, although I have to say that I’m still of fan of traditional strength and conditioning. And I’m not dogmatic — as you indicated before, I like to do it all. I may practice some MovNat, but I don’t have to throw a good old-fashioned arm workout out the window in the process.
Any advice for older athletes, fitness enthusiasts, or anyone who wants to make fitness a lifelong pursuit? I’ve got a lot of readers in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, particularly men, who are finder it harder and harder to get and stay fit as they age. What kind of expectations can we have once we’re over the hill?
I think your readers fit a similar demographic to my own — mostly men, over 40, who want to be fit so they can lead an active life, pain-free. These people don’t envision retirement as a time to wind down — they want to be lean, strong, capable, and ready for whatever adventure awaits them.
The first place to start is to find out your real motivation — your “why”. Once you know this, it’s much easier to get and stay fit, even at an older age. For myself, I envision my perfect day seven or eight years from now. I picture myself living in a rural environment, with access to clean air, clean water and nature. I can even see the place I want — it’s in Nova Scotia (where I’m originally from). There are wooded areas, a lake, and I’m close to the ocean.
But I don’t want to relax there. I want to experience life! I want to be able to get into a sauna in the middle of the winter, and then get out and plunge into the lake. I want to be capable with an axe. I want to practice Systema (Russian Martial Arts). I want to host retreats on the east coast, connecting people with the land and with the traditional ways of the early settlers.
All that requires that I be fit, and that’s part of my “why”. I want to be the guy that people talk about, like my own father who is 91 and is still competing and taking top place in pool tournaments with people in their 20s and 30s.
The other motivator is just to enjoy the practice of what you do. That’s why it’s important to find something you really, really like. I don’t care if it’s MovNat or Zumba. If you like it, you’ll do it. Challenge yourself to break away from your own dogma every now and then, but ultimately it’s your expression, and you have to find something that works for you.
I love my training and my practice. I don’t even care so much about the end goals anymore. In fact, I think that goals are overrated, especially for older athletes. Look at the deadlift, for example. Say a guy has a goal of lifting 405 pounds by the end of the year, and it’s currently September and he’s lifting 355. In the beginning, he’ll practice. But what if improvement doesn’t come as quickly as he envisioned? What if it’s the end of November and he’s only deadlifting 365?
More often than not, people give up when they don’t reach their goals. They don’t try as often, or stop recording their numbers, or even forget they had a goal in the first place. Worse still, they’ll think that they failed. What they don’t realize is the huge success they had while they were practicing, like the guy in my example who increased his deadlift by 10 pounds. Who cares if you don’t lift 405? You improved!
The same philosophy I apply to my own training. I have extremely tight shoulders and a kyphotic upper back, which makes locking anything out overhead quite difficult. It’s the way I’m built, and likely a bit of an outcome after multiple lung collapses and other trauma to the body. So I know that I’ll never have a nice gymnastic-style flat back handstand. If I was concentrating solely on that goal, I would have given up a long time ago. But I don’t care if I have a bit of a banana handstand. If I just keep working on it, and enjoying the practice — who cares if it takes me years to improve? It will get better eventually and it will be mine.
What are some things that you do differently now than you used to – or changed your mind about? Or, what is something you wish you knew about training when you were younger and still just getting started?
Some of the things I do differently I’ve already spoken about, like the way I’ve changed my focus from intensity to movement quality. I also listen to my body more. I still push hard, lift heavy, and work my butt off, but I realize that I’m a bit older now and I need to recover. So I take more time off. I think that older adults only need to strength train maybe 3 or 4 times a week. Mobility and skills on the other hand, can be worked on almost daily.
If I could go back in time, I would have practiced flexibility and mobility years ago. That’s what holds me back today — I’d be stronger and I’d be able to execute movements much better if I had the flexibility. You can certainly improve when you’re older, but the earlier you start — the faster you’ll get results and your potential will be much higher.
It’s kind of like thinking about saving for retirement. Most don’t make it a priority in their twenties, because retirement seems a long way off and you have more immediate priorities. But you realize later in life that if you HAD saved, the compound interest would have made things a lot easier down the road.
Now and then, I see that you’ve participated in a polar plunge or dumped a perfectly good bucket of ice water out over your head? And you seem to enjoy this, too. Should your everyday Joe consider training with the cold, and how should someone go about it?
Absolutely, they should. I do it because it makes me feel alive. I went swimming in Georgian Bay last January (the northeastern arm of Lake Huron), and I took a Wim Hof workshop last summer. And cold water dousing with a few buckets of ice water is a practice I enjoy fairly regularly.
There are numerous health benefits to cold water therapy — some are grounded in science and there’s likely a good measure of pseudoscience in there too. Regardless, I’m convinced there is a link between cold water exposure and overall vitality — from strengthening your immune system to improving your circulation and skin. There’s also thought to be a benefit in boosting testosterone production in men.
There’s lots of info on the web about polar plunging and dousing with cold water, so I won’t repeat everything here. It’s an old tradition in Russia, often practiced after the sauna (banya) and by Systema martial artists.
For someone starting out, you might want to consider doing a series of hot and cold contrast showers first. Start with a regular hot shower, then after you soap up, gradually turn the temperature down to cold for the rinse. As you get used to it, you’ll be able to do a few cycles of hot and cold. If you’re really brave, you’ll step into the shower — THEN turn on the water.
If you want to try dousing (and assuming you’ve got clearance from your doctor or health professional), get two buckets and fill them with ice-cold water. You’ll be outside to practice this. In the winter, I’ll leave a bucket of water outside overnight so that it just develops a thin layer of ice on top, which I can break with my hand before dousing. If the temperature is warm, you’ll want to use a bag of ice in your water to cool it down.
Stand outside on the ground in your barefeet if you want to get the full grounding effect of the practice. Take a few deep breaths, then stand by the first bucket and slowly lift it and pour it directly over your head. It’ll take a few seconds to get your breathing back to normal at first, but try to keep yourself under control. Dump the second bucket over your head, and recover your breath once more. Try not to go inside immediately, although you can certainly get yourself dry. It may be a shock at first, but you’ll feel absolutely amazing for hours afterwards!
What other healthy lifestyle habits and practices do you strongly recommend?
Most people need to keep it simple. Eat right, drink water, get your sleep, exercise regularly, practice some form of mobility or movement — and that’s about it.
As to nutrition, there are a lot of opinions on this subject and people can get pretty ingrained in their habits and belief systems. Ultimately I think that it matters less whether you are paleo, or ketogenic, or vegetarian, but that you choose quality whole foods over processed ones. I like the way that coach Dan John frames it: he says that if you imagine a number line with the world’s healthiest foods on the left (grass-fed meats, leafy greens, colorful organic vegetables, etc) and the most processed on the right (cardboard carbohydrates, fast food meals, etc) — just try and eat closer to the left. I think that’s solid advice. No dogma or expectations of perfection — just do the best you can.
Practice movement and mobility every day. Steve Maxwell once said that daily movement was the key to health. There’s few 90-year olds wishing they had done a bigger bench press, but there are a lot who wished they had just moved more and kept up with their mobility.
Get outside and try going barefoot. When I train outdoors in barefeet, I honestly think I’m re-setting my whole body somehow. It’s almost like meditation.
Sleep more. That’s something that I’ve still not mastered myself with my current long hours and early mornings, so it’s a work in progress. I know what I have to do.
Look at some of the world’s populations that are known for their longevity. I do active travel retreats in Ikaria, Greece – where it’s common for people to live well into their nineties and beyond, despite having limited access to medical care. They have low stress. They take naps daily. They eat tons of wild mountain greens and lots of olive oil. They tend to their own gardens. They have a strong sense of community and family. And finally, they attribute part of their longevity to the fact that they drink a little wine each day — always with food, and always with friends. We may not all get a chance to live on a Greek island, but there are things we can learn about lifestyle from these people that can be applied to our own lives.
What are some of your favorite training tools and why? Do you have any go-to exercises, movements, or activities that you think most people should do, but don’t?
My favourite training tools would likely be the kettlebells. They can be used for fat loss, for size, for strength, endurance and to develop power and explosiveness. My trainees can learn the one-arm snatch fairly quickly and get the benefits of the movement without having to learn the more complex barbell snatch. There’s also the Turkish Get-Up — one of the best full-body functional movements I know. Plus, kettlebells are compact and relatively low-cost. I can take a pair of them outdoors in the fresh air and get in a great workout in a short amount of time.
The Indian clubs are another tool I’ve played around with that I think are underutilized. They’re great for upper body mobility, overall shoulder health and even brain training. Plus, they’re fun to use once you’ve got the basic patterning down. They’re fairly inexpensive, lightweight (mine are between 1 ½ pounds to 2 pounds), and like the kettlebells have stood the test of time.
What are some of the keys to functional fitness that you think most people miss?
Functional fitness is likely an overused term these days; it can mean almost anything. But I think as long as people think in terms of movements (pulling, pressing, squatting, hip hinging, rotation, etc), and prioritize those movements over muscles or body parts — they’ll get the picture. Performance is another factor; how well can you move? Can you perform natural human movements with grace?
A lot of people miss the tenacity it takes to stay in the game for the long haul. As you age, it gets harder to move well. It’s tougher to jump, to tumble and roll on the ground, and to develop power. But it’s still possible to progress with regular training. You just might not notice the progressions from week to week.
That’s why I really feel that it’s important to focus on the process and to enjoy the practice itself. You can still have goals, but realize that things may just take a long time.
What are some of the biggest mistakes you see new and experienced trainees making in their fitness programs?
Trainees tend to expect results a bit too fast, and often bite into a bit more than they can chew. I think it’s a big mistake to jump into advanced movements like power cleans and box jumps when they can’t even get off the ground without struggling. A good trainer will know how to properly assess a client and make sure they are doing something that’s appropriate for them – even in a pre-programmed class setting. You learn how to do a bodyweight squat properly, then work on some wall squats and goblet squats — and once those have been mastered you can think about doing some barbell squats.
Learn how to move with control. It’s the best thing you can do for your health.
What do you think is the future of fitness?
I think that technology will play a huge role in the future, whether for good or bad. Already we have apps that can locate studios and classes, wearable fitness trackers that record your workouts, sleep, and food, and facilities that use technology to project efforts on-screen in simulations.
Personally, I’m not a fan of these devices. They can help get a beginner started, for sure, but once the novelty wears off, fitness is about the relationship between your mind and your body — not an app or a smartwatch.
So while a large percentage of the population may end up as consumers of these products, I think that to really make strides you have to take a step backwards. The best workouts I’ve had were ones when I’m outside, with no fitness tracker, no camera or Instagram — and I often don’t even have shoes or a shirt. What I do are things that people have been doing for hundreds, and often thousands of years.
The good news is that I believe the recent trend of strength and functional fitness versus the old view of looking at only appearance will continue to dominate. Aesthetics certainly isn’t dead and I think we may even see a resurgence of bodybuilding, but I think that people are starting to look at the whole package now — which involves having a good sense of self-esteem and feeling good in your own body, while training for stuff that makes everyday life seem better.
Where is the best place my readers can find more information about you and your work?
Connect with me at GREGCARVER.COM
I’ll be sure to update you on my work as well as my plans for future active-travel retreats and other training opportunities.
And if you’re in the Toronto area, you can always come and work with me at the StrengthBox (strengthbox.ca).
I really appreciate the opportunity to share some of my story and thoughts here John. Thanks again.
Thank you for such a detailed and thoughtful interview, Greg! This was excellent! I really appreciate all of the time and thought you put into this, along with your authenticity and transparency. And I’m looking forward to part 2!
Health-First Fitness Coach