10 Years Gone

10 Years Gone.  So I’ve officially been coaching for 10 years now.  I only say 10 Years Gone because that’s the title of my current favorite Led Zeppelin song.  10 years means that I’m totally an expert now, right?  Isn’t that what they say?  It’s hard for me to believe that it’s already been 10 years since I was offered a personal training job at the world class organization LA Fitness, only to walk in the door 2 weeks later and face a new Fitness Manager who had no idea who I was.  That was my introduction to how things were going to go for the next year as I had roughly 6-7 managers during that time.  Luckily the business skills and integrity of LA Fitness matched my coaching and interpersonal skills.  But hey, I’m here now and here ain’t so bad.  Much of the following story has been told previously but in lieu of this anniversary I feel compelled to share the updated version of my journey in the world of strength.

In the beginning, it was a small weight set in the basement just like so many other young boys.  I can distinctly remember watching a 3 OT college hockey game between Michigan and Maine in the Frozen Four while likely doing some bicep curls.  The record book shows that game was played in 1995, making me an 8th grader and newly 14 years old.  Although I hardly knew what I was doing I quickly graduated myself to the basement of our best family friends where they had a much nicer Olympic weight set, my only guide being an Arnold Schwarzenegger book and my best friend Nate, who’s knowledge base was only as vast as mine.  Due to the generosity of the Kucinski family throughout high school we were able to spend many hours in the basement pumping iron and from what I recall, attempting to do pull-ups.  When my first girlfriend wrote me a multiple page hand written letter after we broke up, as only high school girls (circa the 90’s) can, she suggested that I might enjoy spending time with Nate and the weights more than her.  My how the times haven’t changed.

Kucinski Basement

The Kucinski basement today

It wasn’t until my freshman year of college, when I met one of my current best friends Pat, that he showed me how to actually train and eat like a man.  Turns out two small meals a day doesn’t cut it.  Although he may have been heavily influenced by Muscle and Fitness, the workouts he showed me were certainly more intense and effective than what I had been doing in the past.  On top of that, my sophomore year our school got a new gym and a strength and conditioning coach, Don West.  Don has been a friend ever since.  Through his guidance I became much stronger using heavy, compound exercises with less emphasis on bodybuilding and was able to crush all the strength and fitness testing that the hockey team had to go through each pre and post-season.  I even held the school record in the deadlift at 560 lbs for a few years after graduating. (*I don’t count this as an all time best these days because, not knowing any better I wore straps)  In turn, this training made me much more explosive and a far better player on the ice.  Now if only I could have had a better pair of hands rather than the equivalent of two left feet dangling from my arms.  Regardless, without Coach West I would not be the athlete or coach I am today.

After graduating from school with a Marketing degree and moving to San Diego in ’03 I still spent a lot of time in the gym and always had a competitive fire.  I didn’t know where to direct all the training I enjoyed doing so I imagined that someday I would have to enter a bodybuilding show.  Go ahead, picture that tan and a man thong, I’ll wait.  I respect the discipline that bodybuilders possess and I studied their methods quite a bit.  It was this same time that I got a personal training certification.  It was less than impressive but certainly the first step.  And, as I stated earlier, both the way LA Fitness operated and my ability were less than impressive, making for a great fit.  I quickly realized that I enjoyed working with people and also wanted to work with athletes.  I started to study right away with some help from Coach West and within a few months earned a more respected Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist title from the NSCA.

Fast-forward just a couple of years.  I was out of LA Fitness, working in a small training studio and had just been hired at a large sport training facility.  I wanted to take my skills a step further in working with athletes and I knew that a USA Weightlifting certification was highly recommended.  That is when I had the privilege of crossing paths with Coach Mike Burgener.  I had no idea what to expect when I went to RBV High that weekend.  I came away with much more than just a certification.  To this day I hang a copy of the email he sent me after the certification inviting me to train with his athletes at his home.  Coach B has been a huge influence on me ever since Dec. ’05.  I still love Olympic lifting and the personal challenge that it offers on a daily basis but I also enjoy the community and team atmosphere that comes along with such a niche sport.  None of that would have been possible without the generosity of Coach B, his family and the great lifters and people that he surrounds himself with.


Coach Burgener’s home gym, a.k.a. Mike’s Gym

The next great step in the journey came in the early part of 2007.  I remember well a conversation that I had with one Max Shank.  We were working at the same training studio and I think we were both looking for a little more in our training.  After tossing some ideas around we came away with the conclusion that we were going to start following the workouts on the Crossfit website.  Although I am no longer the Crossfit fan I once was, I can certainly credit their system with reminding me what tough conditioning work was like and introducing me to such things as heavy pull ups, gymnastics and even exposing me to that thing called a kettlebell.

Although I never coached my clients within any specific Crossfit style system I stuck with it for around 6 months.  Later that year life again changed when I attended the Athletes’ Performance Mentorship for a week.  To this day, that week has been highly influential in both my own and my clients training.  It was at that time I began to have a far greater understanding of program design, movement quality and adopted a total body push/pull type of strategy within training.

February ’08 is when I first came in contact with the RKC.  Their thought process was similar to mine but at the same time introduced me to so much more within the strength game, including different lifts and some fantastic coaches.  I quickly signed up for another workshop.  The organization has changed over the years but the fundamentals of using a ‘bell, the progressions, etc. have been highly influential as I’ve continued to learn and grow.  And of course this led me to an opportunity to compete 3 different times in the Tactical Strength Challenge.  So much for that bodybuilding thing.

TSC ’10.  Still a Deadlift PR to this day

When the fall of ’08 rolled around it was the first time since I met Coach Burgener that I really had time to commit to the legendary Saturday morning workouts held in his garage.  For about a year and a half I was able to regularly train with some great athletes and coaches at his home.  Turns out I didn’t know a damn thing about the details of the Snatch and Clean and Jerk.  The time I spent in the garage both training and learning was an invaluable experience, but just as important was the time I spent there with friends just hanging out, hopping into the pool on a cold January afternoon, or sitting in the Jacuzzi.  I’ve often said Mike’s Gym is one of the greatest places on Earth.


A Saturday at Mike’s Gym, January ’09

Somewhere around this time, more specifically August ’09, Max called me on the phone (I miss those days) and asked if I had interest in us starting our own place.  I don’t feel the need to go into great detail about Ambition Athletics as that is often the focus of this blog, but it’s been an interesting ride.  10, or even as few as 6 years ago I never dreamed that this is where we would all be, but I love it.  We’ve come a long way.  Below is a picture of the early days at Ambition.  It still boggles my mind how we survived in such a small space.  I’m happy to say that several of the people in this picture still train with us.


Ambition circa Spring ’11

Here we are 10 years gone.  What have I learned?  Well, I have long been a simple man in terms of my eating habits and entertainment.  I have found that this also works well in coaching and training.  Who would have thought that lifting heavy things would lead me to learn what Occam’s Razor was?  Things don’t need to be too complicated and typically, less is more.  As time goes on I realize that both training and coaching are much more about quality than quantity.  This is not an easy concept for a lot of people to grasp but I welcome the challenge and I thoroughly enjoy my role as both a teacher and coach.  Today my own training is still similar to the Mike’s Gym days, simple and effective, it’s just the goal that has shifted more to competing in the Scottish Highland Games.  Next month marks 3 years of competing.  Whether you want to quote Don Quixote, one of my favorite coaches Dan John or whoever, one of the more important lessons I have come away with is “It’s the road, not the inn.”  Life, training, coaching, learning and/or business will always be an ongoing process and I have met many great characters along the way.  That process and the people involved are what matters, not what I think is my final destination and I’ve found that there’s nothing I care more about than helping people.  I feel like this passion just grows stronger every year.  A wise man (aka, a former client), often referred to simply as “The Coach”, used to tell me that it’s all about relationships.  Well, it took a while but I’m finally figuring it out.  I can only wonder what and whom the future may hold.

– Mike Baltren