Christopher Wallace once told us “I got a story to tell.” Well, I have a story to tell too.
Who is This Man?
I met Averil Combs (Mr. Combs to me) in 2009. At this time I was employed by the gym formerly known as Bally Total Fitness.
Bally’s had a policy that any time a new member would walk through the door, the sales rep would page an available trainer to the front of the gym to assist and set up the new member with a training assessment.
At the time that Mr. Combs walked into Bally’s, I was actually training another client. I had no idea at all that he had even entered the building.
However, I could hear the pages for available trainers over the intercom system. On the floor with me that day were about 4 or 5 other trainers. I figured they would handle the situation with the new client.
One by one they would walk to the front, take one look at Mr. Combs and then hurriedly walk away before making eye contact.
They would come back to the area where I was training my client and say “I’m not training that guy up front!” I asked why. They told me “When you see him, you will do the same thing.”
As my session ended I went to the front to see what the commotion was really about. Why did no one want to train this man? When I got to the front my questions were answered immediately.
Mr. Combs was a very large man. I’m talking exactly 5’9 and 540-550lbs large.
For the first time in my career, I felt intimidated by the situation.
In my head thoughts were running rampant. How can I train this man? Would I be able to train this man?
I knew deep down that there was no doubt I wanted to help this man get healthy but training a man of his size was a first for me. I approached him at the front of Bally’s and we talked about a range of subjects from family to health to the Philadelphia Eagles to even death. Yes, death.
Talking about death with a potential client was also new territory for me. When talking about death Mr. Combs told me these words that always stuck.
He said “Right now all I am doing is living to die. I’m waiting to die. If I do not make this change in my life then I’m as good as gone.”
These were powerful and real words from a 53-year-old man who at the time revealed to me that his quality of life was extremely low and that the only time he left the house was for doctor’s appointments. That is no way to live and not a way a human being should have to live.
I told him at this time that our mission was going to be difficult and there would be struggles and setbacks. But I also let him know that we would attain success. I let him know that I was going to ride with him until we completed the mission.
The other trainers who scoffed at him earlier came to me and asked if I was crazy. They asked me if I seriously thought that this man even worth training.
Our first session I still remember like it was yesterday.
We walked from wall to wall in a 15-yard room and performed wall push ups. That was it.
The first 15-yard walk gassed him badly as if he had just run the 400-meter dash. The rest period was about 10 minutes.
The wall push ups were excruciatingly difficult for him to do. We completed a warm up and 1 round of work in 1 hour. 30-45 yards of total walking. 12-15 wall pushups.
The next day he informed me that the soreness was deep and that he may have made a mistake by hiring me as his personal trainer.
I was not as wise at the time as I am now but I told him exactly what he told me. “If you quit today, you go back to a low-quality life where you are awaiting death,” I told him that he, we must survive the initial growing pains in order to progress to the next level. He took heed to my words and we continued training.
Forward then Back
440lbs was his new bodyweight after almost 1 year of training with me. The weight loss was monumental.
Physically he was different but more importantly his confidence and self-worth rose drastically. The mission was going very smooth throughout 2010 when out of nowhere something unfortunate happened.
We were training at a new gym where I was an independent contractor. We had just completed a move that we had never been able to do previously.
Mr. Combs was so happy because we did the move. In his joy, he jumped in the air but he fell awkwardly on his foot.
The foot was diagnosed as broken. This was a major setback in the program. Although there are many ways to train around injuries, this injury devastated Mr. Combs.
His training frequency decreased. From 3 days a week down to 1 and then down to 0. He was no longer training by the end of 2010.
I did not see Mr. Combs once from 2011 until 2014. 3 long years.
We exchanged a few, scant emails but nothing like the days when he was training. I did not know the status of his health, fitness, or life. He relayed to me in 2013 that was going to undergo a gastric bypass procedure.
In my mind, I always believe that the power of fitness is enough for one to drop body fat, excess weight, and become healthy. I am not a huge advocate of surgery but I have come to realize that every man or woman has his own journey.
Even though we had worked to lose 100lbs, Mr. Combs still came to the decision that he was going to have surgery.
What worried me the most were the risks of a surgery like this. If this procedure would help Mr. Combs then great. But if it put him in a worse position then was it really worth it?
I know some folks who have had some similar procedures on their stomach only to let a year pass before eating themselves back to who they were originally. I have also heard stories of those who did not survive this type operation. I did not want Mr. Combs to fall victim to this.
At the end of the day if someone makes a decision to have a surgery then it is their decision. Of course my main and only solution are to train hard and diet correctly until we reach the goal.
But in the same breath, I do not know what it is like to be over 500lbs and walking around with that stress daily. The mental and physical stress for years that weighs on a man of that size must be astronomical.
He had pretty much been maintaining a body weight of 460-480lbs after we had stopped training. At this point, I wished him the best and let him know that the door was still open for us to finish our mission.
I received news that the surgery was a success in late 2013.
In March 2014 I received a phone call from Mr. Combs. He had successfully recovered from his surgery.
He now weighed about 340lbs a few months after the procedure. But he told me that he wasn’t fit and had lost all the strength and muscle that he had built. The conversation was short but the message was clear. He told me “I’m coming back.”
As of press time, it is July 18th, 2014. He started again back in April.
Our first few sessions were rough as expected. Mobility issues and a lack of strength and conditioning were the main issues. But the man has not quit.
At Bally’s we never did any movements on the floor because he did not possess the strength to get up from the floor. Now we are doing burpees.
At Bally’s he did not have the mobility to perform a full squat. Now we perform air squats to the bucket and can perform a barbell squat to parallel for now.
Another great thing outside of the lifting and bodyweight movements is that now we are running with good speed and building up to a full sprint. Everyone knows how I feel about sprints and since he is now capable of moving faster, why not build up his sprint?
With less body mass and reduced body fat, Mr. Combs has more control of his body. A goal of mine will be to get him to the track to sprint 100 meters for the first time ever. That will be a glorious day.
We are far from finished this mission but let it be known that no matter what your situation is and how dire it may be you can succeed. You can make crazy progress. You can change.
Patience is a Virtue
This is to my fellow fitness professionals.
The greatest trait that any of you all can have is patience. When someone walks through the door and they are limited it does not mean they are a castaway or a bum. Especially if they have the will and desire to get better.
The majority of the population is in bad condition. Obesity and related ailments are more common now than at any time in human history. Everyone who walks through the door is not an Olympic-level athlete who can perform every move with ease.
If you are a fitness professional who wants to help someone then be patient. Expect to work around injuries, mobility, and strength/conditioning issues. Results take time and as you see with this story it is well worth the wait.
Mr. Combs starting point was seen as insurmountable. I was told by other trainers that I was insane and that Mr. Combs had no chance to progress.
How wrong they were! Although I was slightly intimidated initially, I believed that if he followed the program and stayed consistent that he could change. And he has.
I’ll holla at you next time,
The People’s Trainer
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