Portland Personal Trainer Has Been Lifeline For Clients During The Pandemic : NPR

Ryan Stills, personal trainer at Odd Barbell gym in Portland, Oregon talks about what it’s been like owning a gym during the pandemic, and what he’s doing to help clients get back in shape.


Ryan Stills of Portland, Ore., is a humble man who happens to be a powerlifter who can heave 794 pounds off the ground, so we asked him to brag a little.

RYAN STILLS: I’ve been a Junior National champion. I’ve been a National champion. I’ve got three Masters World Championships under my belt, hold several records. Yeah, so, I mean, it’s – the sport’s been good to me.

SIMON: And for 25 years, he’s worked as a personal trainer. His wife, Melanie, is also a champion powerlifter and trainer. And in 2019, they opened their own gym, Odd Barbell.

STILLS: Odd Barbell, the name itself – the odd lifts are what powerlifting was originally known as back in the ’50s. But the other part for us is those are our three children’s names – Olivia (ph), Deacon (ph) and Donovan (ph).


STILLS: We had been open for maybe six months and just built our clientele when everything happened. So we were up to our eyeballs in our initial investment, our time on a lease. It was quite stressful.

SIMON: And for so many people in this stressful year, exercise has been a kind of lifeline. Ryan Stills has told us how his business and his clients have managed to keep going.


STILLS: You have to find some way to be able to ensure that we were able to stay afloat. But then at the same time, we had clientele and members, and their health was important to them, so we had to find ways to be creative.


STILLS: To begin with, I think we started with trying to do some virtual things when they’re at home and you’re at home. And then we started leasing out or renting out equipment from the gym. But come around the summer, it was near impossible to buy equipment because people had started buying everything up because they couldn’t go to their local gyms.


STILLS: So then we started making things that you could do outside and being more creative with workouts and ensuring that our people’s mental states were also supported. And then eventually, you know, when they’re able to come inside with restrictions, we had to get creative once again.


STILLS: We would shut down the gym to one person. Then we would have, like, a 12-hour day with 12 members at a time. That’s all that we could get in there. But it was worthwhile. As regulations started to lift, we would bring that number to – you know, it was three people. Then it was six people. Then we’re at, you know, eight people. Like, now, we’re still seeing growth in numbers of people coming in, but it’s also a different population. You know, some of these individuals were not as active before, but now they’re rolling the dice and want to be able to get out there and see what they can do.


STILLS: You have people that started with a certain goal. Let’s say it’s a contest. Well, now everything has changed. You know, you’re training at home, and then you’re training in the gym, but you’re – you know, some days you can make it, some days you can’t because there’s going to be too many people in there, so you can’t come in. And you have to have that reality that this year’s just going to be different. And I think that’s really tough for people, especially if you’re competitive. But I think that’s really what this year was for a lot of people. Whether it was small business, you know, or just looking for your goals like we’re talking about, you knew that it was going to be a sacrifice.


STILLS: I think one of the biggest things is people working from home has taken out even the commute that we would be on or going out to lunch or walking around an office building. So you find a lot more of the seated workstation. People are, you know, very tight. Their backs are tight, hamstrings tight, and they’re just not as mobile as they had been. So getting people back into the gym and just kind of looking at corrective exercise – you know, what are you doing all day? Well, you’re taking Zoom calls and you’re writing emails. Well, everything is slouched. So how do we get that posterior chain better? How do we open things up?

But we are seeing people that were training before that year lost – it is tough to know that you’d worked so hard for so long, and then you have to put a pause on everything. And it’s almost like starting over.

As an industry and as professionals in that industry, you know, we have to be able to take – look from their perspective, you know – and the encouragement and just saying, hey, you’ve made it through, you made this far, you’re back in the game. Now let’s start the climb again.


SIMON: Ryan Stills runs Odd Barbell, a gym in Portland, Ore.


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