If you work out with kettlebells, and you use social media, you’ve probably come across the Primal Swoledier. The bearded, brown-skinned coach (and trainer at Onnit Gym in Austin, TX) is one of the fastest-rising fitness influencers on the Web; he’s got nearly a half-million Instagram followers, his own online coaching business, and an upcoming workout program branded by Men’s Health.
Not bad for a 26 year-old who grew up a self-described “fat kid” with social anxiety, and started his Onnit career packing boxes in our warehouse.
If Primal Swoledier (real name Eric Leija, by the way) isn’t the face of Onnit to most of our audience, he’s certainly the abs, and we’re well aware that you may have landed on this website thanks to his ambassadorship. That’s why we feel it’s high time we told his story—not just to trumpet the success of one of our own, but to show you that, while he may look like a Greek God and you may not, the two of you probably have more in common than you realize.
“I Got Beat Up By Everybody and the Janitor”
Leija grew up in southeast Austin, TX, and fitness was the last thing on his mind. Like so many other millennial children, he gorged on fast food and played video games. “I didn’t like sports,” says Leija. “I was into Dragon Ball Z.” Teased by classmates as well as his siblings, Leija drew a line in the sand at only age 12. “I was tired of being fat,” he says, “and I wanted a girlfriend.”
Guided by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, Leija took up a lifting and running regimen, and soon discovered that behind his potbelly lay a warrior’s heart—a competitive spirit that craved challenge. In the mid 2000s, mixed martial arts was entering the mainstream, and Leija immediately identified with the fighters. “I thought these guys must be in the best shape of any athletes,” he says, “because they’re training to kill each other. To me, fighting and the UFC was the coolest sport around.” At 13, he started training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and Muay Thai.
Stepping on the mat was a rude awakening. “I got beat up by everybody and the janitor,” says Leija. While lifting and running had improved his physique, he didn’t have the athleticism to hang with skilled opponents during sparring sessions. His burgeoning bench press strength was all but useless.
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But Leija was a quick study. He noticed that the other martial arts students used kettlebell and bodyweight training, working in different planes of movement that required more overall stability. He began to integrate them into his workouts, and it wasn’t long before he was holding his own on the mats.
Leija was evolving as a jock, but he was floundering as a student. After receiving poor grades throughout his freshman year of high school, he found out that, out of a class of 500 students, he ranked 495th academically. He’d like to tell you that the prospect of getting into a good college motivated him to hit the books, but the lingering question of whether he could get a girlfriend was a stronger force.
“The girl who became the valedictorian of my class was also really hot,” says Leija. “I thought, ‘Damn. She’s the smartest girl in school? I’m going to get really good grades, and then maybe she’ll go out with me.’”
The plan worked. Sort of.
Leija pushed hard, seeing himself in competition not only with his crush, but the entire student body. And just as he had clawed his way up the ranks in his MMA school, he willed himself to get better test scores. Leija ended up graduating in the top 10% of his class, and earned a grant to the University of Texas. “That girl even asked me to the prom,” he says, “but I never got back to her. I was scared.” Still shy and awkward, he didn’t go to the prom at all.
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Leija’s introverted nature made life at college miserable. He didn’t drink, didn’t party, and didn’t make friends. His parents had lost their house due to the recession, and Leija wound up sleeping on his aunt’s couch. After one semester in the fall of 2011, he dropped out of school.
There was one person he was close with—Roger Huerta, from his MMA gym. Then a lightweight in the UFC, Huerta invited Leija up to the Minnesota Martial Arts Academy in Minneapolis, where Huerta trained with a team of elite fighters. Without school to attend or any job prospects on the horizon, it was the perfect time to pursue a dream Leija had long fantasized about: becoming a pro MMA fighter.
“If I Got Knocked Out, My Mom Would Be So Pissed”
Leija made the trip north, and history repeated. Thrown into a cage with UFC veterans such as Dave Menne and Sean Sherk, Leija was baptized by fire.
“I got beat up by Rose Namajunas while Pat Barry looked on,” he says. “It was like my first days in martial arts again.” But Huerta suspected that it wasn’t Leija’s skill level that needed work as much as his self-confidence. “Roger took me aside and said, ‘Don’t let these people walk all over you. You need to push back harder. Give it all you got.’”
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Within a few weeks, Leija turned the tables, and earned the respect of his training partners. “I see a few of them fighting in the UFC now,” he says, “so sometimes I think maybe I could have made it if I had kept going, but ultimately, I realized it wasn’t for me.”
Leija returned to Austin. His brother, Juan [now General Manager at Onnit Gym], was friendly with Onnit founder and CEO Aubrey Marcus, and Marcus hired Leija to work on his website. He mentored Leija for a few months, and then offered him a job in Onnit’s warehouse.
Leija felt at home right away. Thanks to co-owner/UFC commentator Joe Rogan, Onnit had strong ties to the MMA world, and Leija shared the company’s philosophy of self-improvement through open-mindedness.
“I packed kettlebells and fulfilled supplement orders,” says Leija. “It wasn’t glamorous, but I was surrounded by super like-minded people who were really open, non-judgmental, and liked to work out.”
Marcus knew Leija’s passion for MMA, and he encouraged him to take an amateur fight—just to test himself and have the experience. “He said I could take time off to train, and Onnit would support me 100%,” says Leija. In 2013, Leija stepped into the cage at 155 pounds for his first (and last) official MMA contest.
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He was 19. His opponent 25—and considerably more experienced. “My whole family was there, and the entire company,” says Leija. “Pressure!” He felt confident walking to the ring, but, wanting to finish the fight quickly, he punched himself out in the first round. By the time the bell rang, he was gassed.
“The last two rounds, I could barely lift my arms,” says Leija. The momentum changed many times in the bout, and both men bled. Leija ate some enormous punches, many landing flush on his chin, but he never stopped moving forward, and he ended the fight on the ground in top position.
“I felt like I was knocked out a couple of times,” says Leija. “Like I was about to fall. But then I thought about how my mom was there, and if I got knocked out, she’d be so pissed.”
The judges awarded a split decision to Leija’s opponent, but both men’s ferocity earned them recognition as the Fight of the Night. “That was the most brutal experience of my life,” says Leija, who was nonetheless grateful he got to show his heart. “I signed up for another fight, but the other guy pulled out, and then we opened Onnit Gym.” So ended Leija’s MMA career.
“What’s the Dumbest Thing I Can Come Up With?”
Still hungry to be around the sport of mixed martial arts, Leija saw Onnit’s new gym as an opportunity to train MMA fighters, and bring MMA-style strength and conditioning to the masses. He got certified in kettlebell training, and transitioned from warehouse clerk to fitness coach.
“I was teaching so many classes, working 14-hour days, that I didn’t have a lot of time to squeeze my own training in,” says Leija. “I found that if I could just grab a couple of kettlebells, I could knock out a routine in 30 or 45 minutes, rather than have to rack up a bunch of plates for barbell exercises. It was a lot more time-efficient.
“Eventually, I got tired of goblet squats and presses, so I started combining kettlebell moves, and they became the complexes and flows that people see me do today.”
Gym management encouraged the trainers to market themselves through social media. Leija resisted, arguing that the world didn’t need more selfies and fitness models parading around shirtless, but there was a deeper reason too.
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“I couldn’t see myself being an open book for people,” says Leija. But he decided to play along, and not take it too seriously. “I said, ‘Alright, what’s the dumbest thing I can come up with? The silliest Instagram account?”
Onnit had just launched its Primal kettlebell line to much acclaim. “And I was thinking, ‘I’m kind of swole, so maybe I could use that. Wait a minute… swole… soldier… Primal SWOLE-dier!’ I went to our marketing team and asked what they thought of it, and they laughed me out of the room.” But the name stuck, and in 2015, Leija’s Primal Swoledier Instagram was born.
The handle was more than just a goofy pun. Leija looked the part and he knew it. He stocked the account with videos demonstrating exercises and excerpts from his own workouts, always stripped to the waist and wearing shorts that seemed a size too small. The shorts, he says, weren’t to show off his legs, but to expose them.
“I never had the greatest legs,” says Leija. “I remembered reading in Arnold’s book that he had worn sweatpants with the lower legs cut off to show how weak his calves were. That would motivate him to train them harder. So I started wearing short-shorts… It was leg day every day after that.”
And what’s his excuse for never wearing a shirt? “Hey, it’s really hot in Texas.”
The legend grew. Leija posted videos and free workouts relentlessly. When followers asked him questions, he answered them. He says his training style offers athleticism and aesthetics, so that clients can get the lean physique they always wanted while improving conditioning and mobility, which helps to prevent injury and boost functional fitness. (See “The Primal Swoledier Workout” HERE for a sample routine.)
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In 2016, Austin bar and restaurant owner Brad Womack (incidentally, a two-season veteran of ABC’s The Bachelor TV show, if you watch) came to Onnit Gym intent on getting in the best shape of his life. “I was 43,” says Womack, “and when I saw Eric, I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s what I want to look like—and feel like.’” Leija took him on, and the two have worked together off and on ever since.
“Unfortunately, I think a lot of trainers take the easy way out,” says Womack. “They say, ‘Hey, this program works, so I’ll just give it to every client.’ But Eric looks at everybody as an individual, not a money grab. He truly listened to me, and customized every workout we did.”
This is not to say that Leija coddled him. “When we started,” says Womack, “he told me, ‘You came to me saying you wanted to get in the best shape ever, so I’m warning you now that a lot of the stuff we’re going to do is really difficult. This is gonna hurt bad, but you’re gonna do it.’ He pushed me to my redline, but I developed so much respect for him that I couldn’t let myself tap out.”
Here’s an example to illustrate the effectiveness of Leija’s coaching. Before training with Leija, Womack competed in a Spartan race. One year later, after employing Swoledier’s services, he ran the race again—the same exact location and distance—and beat his time by more than one hour.
In 2018, Leija launched his own website, ericleija.com, where he offers a free four-week kettlebell course and online coaching for subscribers. “It took three years before I had a significant following and could make an income from social media,” says Leija. “But you really have to engage with people and be responsive. You have to treat it like a full-time job.
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“One thing I learned from Aubrey [Marcus] is the law of reciprocity. The more you give, the more that will come back to you. People ask me, ‘How can you make any money when you’re giving away so many free workouts?’ The way I look at it, the people who support you are going to pay you some time, for something, regardless. The people who can’t afford to pay will at least talk about you to their friends, and then maybe those people will pay. When I sell something, people feel they owe me because I gave them so much for free already.”
As Leija’s online presence has grown, so has his confidence. He says it’s helped him conquer his social anxiety. By posting images from his life every day, he’s no longer afraid to give the outside world a window into his. He’s also learned that, despite all the hate you can find online, people are generally positive. When they do respond negatively, Leija says it’s a reflection of their own problems.
“If you’re trying to build a following,” he says, “just be yourself and do what you like. Like-minded people will connect with you and follow you.”
His popularity has created enough demand that Leija now travels the country teaching kettlebell workshops. Celebrity trainers such as Gunnar Peterson have attended, as well as UFC fighters that Leija grew up idolizing.
By 2017, he had gotten everything he wanted, except for the first thing he wanted.
He was still alone.
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‼️Full Body Kettlebell Flow‼️ . Short on time? Hit this flow with a bit of jump rope in between sets and get worked ⚡️ . 6 to 8 sets -3 times through of each movement -jump rope 2 minutes in between sets . You can find kettlebell flows like this and much more including dumbbells, barbells and bodyweight routines in my NEW 8 Week Shredding Program! Completely balanced to keep to healthy and strong! Link in my bio to get started👊🏽 #kettlebell #getonnit #primalmethods #fullbody . ⚡️EricLeija.com⚡️
“I Thought He Was Such A Douche”
In the fall of 2017, Leija traveled to Miami to teach an Onnit kettlebell certification course. The night before, a local buddy called him up, offering to take him out on the town.
“We were just going to meet up with his niece,” says Leija, “and have a chill night. He said she was our age and she’s cool. When we got to the bar, I saw this girl standing there and I thought to myself, ‘Man, I hope that’s not his niece because she’s so hot.’”
Francheska Martinez was a Miami trainer. She was aware of Leija from his Instagram, but hadn’t clicked the follow button. “I knew he was a well-respected kettlebell coach,” she says, and she was willing to let her uncle introduce them (but not romantically). “I figured I’d at least learn something from him, but I thought he looked like such a douche. There was just too much shirtless action on his Instagram. I thought, ‘This guy must be super into himself.’”
Leija tried to be respectful—by ignoring her completely. But the group found themselves on the dance floor, and Martinez liked his moves. She tried to dance alongside him, but he turned his back. “Then he saw that other guys were trying to dance with me,” she says, “and that’s when he started talking to me. He turned out to be very respectful, and I liked that.”
Leija left at the end of the weekend but stayed in touch. The two kept Facetime dates for three months, until Martinez decided to move to Austin. They now run kettlebell and bodyweight training workshops together, traveling the country. Next year, the pair plans to host them internationally. Thanks to appearing in each other’s social posts, Francheska’s Instagram (@francheskafit) following is growing alongside Leija’s (@primal.swoledier).
“Before her, I didn’t have anyone who could keep up,” says Leija. “She’ll show up to my classes and do my workouts, and she’s constantly challenging me to do new things. When I used to go to new cities to do certs, I would stay in after and chill. Francheska gets me out to museums and sightseeing.”
“He has a lot more depth than I think people expect,” says Martinez. “You see him on Instagram and think, ‘He’s a good-looking, muscular guy, and probably an airhead.’ But he’s really an intelligent person—much more than people who don’t know him give him credit for. He has his head on straight, and he’s 50 times nicer than I am. He almost brought home a stray dog the other day. He’s so big-hearted, and loves his family.”