The benefits of strength training aren’t just for adults. Kids can safely lift to get stronger, to build self-esteem, and just to have fun while being active.Read this post
Before John Rahn established himself as one of the top fitness trainers in Upstate New York, the Monroe, N.Y., native developed a reputation.
It’s a small town; people talk, they see things.
Rahn’s college basketball playing days were behind him, but at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds he still had the look of a local athlete who made good.
So it wasn’t surprising when Rahn was approached by the father of an eighth-grade wrestler named Vinny Vespa, who asked him if he would help his son get bigger and stronger. The talented 14-year-old was preparing to wrestle for the high school varsity.
“At the time I was actually a federal agent,” Rahn said. “I worked for the Department of Homeland Security. I agreed to help Vinny out, and I wrote out a nutrition plan for him. I trained him as an athlete, and he started getting great results and doing really well in wrestling.
“By his sophomore season, he was developing into an elite athlete. He made it to the state tournament, but when he was competing there he was having trouble breathing. Having trained him, I knew he was in great shape, so nobody really knew what to make of it. His family took him to see a doctor, and he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“By this point, our relationship had gone beyond a trainer and a client. He was more like my little brother.”
After work, Rahn would spend evenings in Vespa’s hospital room. He watched as the chemotherapy and radiation treatments made Vespa lose his hair. And he watched his young friend fight.
“The doctors said they couldn’t believe how strong this kid was and how much muscle he had,” Rahn said. “Eventually, the doctors cleared him to work out again. I started really light with him and gave him a workout for people undergoing chemotherapy. He ended up beating cancer.’’
It proved to be a life-changing experience for Rahn. It motivated him to give up his job as a federal agent and pursue a full-time career as a personal trainer specializing in helping young athletes improve their strength and performance.
For the next three years, he operated his business, Believe Elite Athletic Training (BEAT), out of his parent’s garage, continually adding clients and expanding his knowledge.
Rahn earned ISSA certifications in strength and conditioning, nutrition and personal training.
“ISSA helped me pursue my dream,” Rahn said. “It allowed me to hand in my badge and my gun. Most of the guys, when I told them that I was leaving my job as a federal agent, they thought I was nuts. They couldn’t believe I could leave [behind] the benefits and the pension, but I just told them that I wasn’t happy.
“Being able to get certifications and accreditation through the ISSA just made me a more reputable fitness professional. I hung the certificates on the wall in the garage so that when people came down they knew I was legit. It helped me gain credibility, to where, for young athletes in the area, my gym is the top spot.’’
The current generation of young athletes is getting “serious” about their sports at a much younger age than those previous. The athletes — and their parents — are interested in finding any and all ways to gain an edge.
“Most of the coaches and the parents, they’re all about more, more, more,” Rahn said. More sports, more training, more this or that. But the kids need to develop the right way. That’s why I got into the nutrition end of it. That aspect of it often gets overlooked.
“I basically set up a six-month guidance program aimed at creating a healthy lifestyle. By eating right and training two days at the gym, the results these kids get is insane.’’
For his younger clients, Rahn follows the 80/20 rule, which means eating healthy 80 percent of the time and the other 20 percent, “being a kid.”
"It gives them some balance in their lives,” Rahn said.
Rahn’s youngest clients are 9 years old. He limits them to doing strength drills that involve body weight, developing functional movement, and light resistance bands. And he plants the seed for the need to eat right.
“Kids that start at 9, by the time they are 19 they are the kind of athletes who go to college for free,” Rahn said. I have been fortunate enough to see that happen.”
Vespa is a scholarship wrestler at Hofstra University. Mike Tobey played college basketball at Virginia and recently signed with the Charlotte Hornets. Connor Leen played college hockey at Maine and now plays for the Pittsburgh Penguins’ minor-league affiliate in Wheeling, W. Va.
Rahn currently trains around 120 young athletes. Asked about his professional goals, Rahn said that in five years, he would like to be training as many as 400 athletes a week. He also wants to be known as the top fitness expert in his area.
In the meantime, he also serves as the strength and conditioning coach at St. Thomas Aquinas College. The school is 40 minutes away, so Rahn is up at 4 a.m. to lead morning workouts at the college before heading back to Monroe for a full day of fitness training.
A schedule like that can get you a reputation.