“Find a job you enjoy, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” We’ve all heard variants of this quote, and it’s been attributed to every great mind from Confucius to Mark Twain, but it could have just as easily come from Kenny Stanford. The 39 year-old from West Columbia, TX, started working out in an effort to set a good example for his kids. Now, under a decade later, he owns three gym locations and leads some of the toughest teenagers you’ll ever find in adventure races that could fell a horse.
Stanford shares his journey of turning passion into profit with Onnit’s Director of Fitness Education, Shane Heins, in the latest installment of our ongoing Onnit Stories series—live interviews with regular people who have allowed Onnit to help them make incredible life changes.
See below for the full interview, as well as an edited transcript of some of the highlights. And stay up to date with Onnit Stories by following Onnit’s Instagram TV (IGTV).
Shane Heins: What brought you and Onnit together?
Kenny Stanford: It was 2012, and I was about to turn 30 years old. I was overweight, out of shape, and was not living up to what I knew to be my true potential. I had two small children, and I wanted to be somebody they could look up to. So I kind of had this moment where I knew something had to change. Then I found this thing called Spartan Race.
I did one of their races, and I was just completely hooked. I started scouring the Internet for other races, and I was training like a madman, thinking, “I’m going to be the best obstacle-course racer of all time.” So, just like anybody else, anytime I would do something super cool in training, I would put it on Facebook or Instagram. I would post about it. [Laughs]
Now, all throughout high school, I was the opposite of athletic. I hated anything sports-related. People knew I didn’t like to sweat. And now, all of a sudden, through social media, they see me crushing these Spartan Races and other obstacle-course races and local 5Ks, and they’re like, “What happened to you? This is not the same person.” They started seeking my advice. Like, “Hey, how can I get involved in this? How do you train for this? How do you do that?” I began looking for those answers, not just for myself, but for others too.
One of the things that really motivated me to start getting in shape was my sister-in-law. She went from being overweight and out of shape to being this personal trainer. So I watched her do that, and that made me think I could do it too. One thing led to another, she started a gym, and I asked if I could coach for that gym. That ended up being my first experience in coaching.
I had no training other than participating in the classes that she taught, so I thought, “I’ll just do what she did, and that’s how I’ll coach.” I coached like that for roughly two years. I built up a group of about 20 clients, and they were consistent. Then my sister-in-law came to me and she was like, “Hey, we’re moving the gym.” At that point, I was getting kind of burned out on the coaching, so when she told me she was moving the gym, I said, “I’m going to stop coaching for now.” But when I let my group know that, they said, “No, that’s not going to work for us. You’ve got to keep coaching!” So I thought, “OK, I’ll open my own gym.” In January of 2016, we opened Grit Fitness.
From everything that I had tried, and scoured on the Internet, and learned from other fitness coaches in the area, I pieced together the programming for Grit Fitness. But I still wasn’t a certified trainer.
So I started doing my research, and I’m looking for a certification that I want. I wanted something that I can really use, not just a piece of paper. I didn’t need the credentials to attract clients—people were walking in the door every day, and they aren’t asking about my certs. I had about 80 members by April 2016, but I still wanted to get the best education I could.
So, I believe it was May of 2016. I went to Onnit for the first time. It was me, and, I think, three other coaches from Grit who weren’t certified. As soon as I saw the Onnit Gym, right away, I thought, “This is spot-on exactly what I’ve been looking for.” I took the kettlebell certification, and it was amazing.
For those who aren’t aware, Onnit offers an education system that teaches a foundational baseline—not only around fitness, but around understanding movement and coaching and using movement for personal development. What were some of the key things that you took away from that certification course?
I knew what I wanted Grit Fitness to be about, but I did not know how to articulate it in the way that Onnit does so well. So prior to opening Grit Fitness, I was more about go, go, go, faster, faster, faster, stronger, stronger, stronger, all day, every day. I hadn’t quite stumbled upon the importance of recovery yet. I didn’t realize the toll that hard training can take on you if you don’t have recovery as a part of the program.
When I got to Onnit, I saw there are messages on the walls of the gym. It says, “Longevity,” “performance,” “Total Human Optimization.” I realized then that that’s what I was after—not how much I can beat myself up every workout, but how I can train intelligently to get stronger over the longest period of time. I want Grit Fitness to be a place where people can come and get the tools that they need to be the most well-rounded person that they can be. And it’s not always just about your mile time or your belt line or anything like that.
When my trainers and I went to Onnit, the lights came on for everybody. I was literally able to say, “This. This is what I’ve been trying to tell you guys Grit Fitness should be about.” Honestly, today, a lot of coaches and gyms are pushing this stuff, these ideas, and I think it’s in large part thanks to Onnit.
But as far as specific takeaways from the Onnit cert? I’ll tell you one major takeaway: you think you know how to swing a kettlebell until somebody who knows how to swing a kettlebell shows you. For the first several months that Grit Fitness was open, I did not know how to swing a kettlebell properly. My back hurt for the better part of two to three years, and I could not get that lower-back pain to go away. But within 30 days after leaving the Onnit Academy the first time and being coached by you guys, my back stopped hurting.
In terms of opening up your space and growing your business, you went about it a very different way. Maybe you can share a bit about that.
Yeah, it’s funny that you say, “a very different way.” I didn’t know a way. I was new to all of this. I had no clue what I was doing, so I just made up a way.
None of our coaches at Grit have a fitness background. They are members of our gym that have come up through the ranks and showed themselves to be proficient in everything that we teach here—all the way from the movements to the discipline to the mindset. They become those go-to people that other members seek out for help and information, even if they aren’t a coach. The same way that I started!
So we take those people and we ask them, “Hey, do you want to be a coach?” We use part of the Onnit system to train those coaches now. The first thing they have to do is go to the Onnit Academy. That is the entry point for all of our coaches. And they always have the same experience that I did when I went there. The lights just turn on for them. And it’s kind of bittersweet for me, because I’m like, “What am I not saying to you that these guys are saying?” Because I’m trying to say the same thing [laughs]. Onnit just teaches these ideas so well.
It’s a testament to what you’ve helped create, Shane, and just what the Onnit Academy embodies. Your educational system is just… it’s tops. So, our coaches would have this epiphany and they would come back and be even more on fire. I’ve been to the Foundations cert six times. I’ve done several of the other certifications and taken people every single time I’ve gone. We pay for it each time. Between all the coaches in my gym, we may have 30 certifications through the Onnit Academy. Maybe more.
What is the extent of Grit Fitness now? How many locations do you have?
We started with one 1,800 square-foot location and now we have three locations. We’ve got a new building at the original location, 6,000 square-feet here in West Columbia, and it’s very much Onnit inspired. We’ve got the same big green turf. We’ve also got a location in Bay City, just 30 minutes down the road, and then, 30 minutes down the road in the other direction, we’ve got another location in Lake Jackson. So, three different gyms total. They are all doing very well. Made it through last year nice and strong and things are looking real good this year.
Amazing. It all started with you wanting to set a better example for your family, so can we swing back around and you can share how this all has helped with your children?
Yeah, absolutely. I had two kids when it all started and now I have five. The youngest is five, and the oldest will be 15 in August. We have a kids program here at Grit, and they’ve all been a part of that. Fitness is integrated in every part of our family life.
We’re always pushing our kids and leading by example so they learn to do things that are kind of outside of their comfort zone, but with intention and purpose. That word “intention…” I can’t help but think of you, Shane, and Onnit, because you use that word and articulate the meaning so well. You’ve taught me that, basically, everything you do in training needs to have some sort of purpose. So even our suffering, when we get uncomfortable, it needs to have some sort of purpose.
My kids, they’re normal kids. They fight me on it sometimes, but I’ve taught them, through fitness, to stick to things that they said they’d do. I will tell you, all of the things that I’ve learned from Grit, from opening a business, to fitness, to all the different races I have done, it’s all helped in the parenting side of things. They give you perspective, and to be a good parent, you need lots of perspective.
It’s funny you say that, because I get asked about my kids all the time. People are like, “Oh my gosh, your kids must be in crazy shape. Do you get them to do all these different fitness things?” And I have to explain that, just like anybody else, my kids are their own individuals. I want to provide an example, and, like you said, they’ll often fight me on it, but I still show up for them. In this day and age, to give the kids an opportunity to be uncomfortable, to suffer with intention and purpose for some kind of fitness goal, can really be valuable.
Yeah, and I’ll give you just a quick example. We do a lot of events here at Grit Fitness. We’ve got Crash Dash, which is an obstacle-course race. We’ve got the Grit Games, which is like the toughest obstacle-course racing event of all time—five events in one. And then we also have the Grit Ultra, which we host every year on New Year’s. So it starts on New Year’s Eve at noon, and we run until noon the next day. It’s a 4.16-mile loop course, and every hour on the hour, you start another loop. If you can’t finish it within the hour, you’re out.
So, anyways, we had that event this past year and my kids put together a relay team. My two oldest kids, they’re 14 and 12, put together a four-person relay team for this 100-mile race. It started raining the second the race began, and it was chilly. By the third loop, it was pouring buckets of rain, and we’re all running in mud. There are a couple of creek crossings on the route, and when we got to them, they were so flooded that if you wanted to cross you had to swim. So people were swimming across the creek.
It was 2:00 a.m., and I just remember thinking, “When I was 12 years old, if you had told me, ‘Hey, Kenny, you should do this race,’ I wouldn’t have done it for anything. But here I was, sitting there shivering, freezing, and thinking, “My kids are crazy. What have I created? They’re doing this!” But I told them every lap, “Hey, if you want to quit, quit. But I want you to think about how you are going to feel about quitting later.”
Sometimes we quit things when we still have it in us to do them. I could tell my son wanted to stop, but at the same time he was saying, “I don’t want to be the guy that lets my team down.”
No one ended up finishing the race, because of the weather. But my kids held on all through the flooding and were the second to last team to drop out.
Where can someone get information about Grit Fitness and the events you put on?
Grit Fitness TX on Facebook. That’s the best place to find out what events we have going on. The next event we have coming up is July 31st and August 1st and it is the Grit Games. We also have a series of obstacle-course races that we will be putting on throughout the year.