Mike Mahler spent more time at rock concerts and parties growing up, than he did in the gym. He, in fact, was what has sadly become the stereotypical teenager – not very active, an unhealthy eater, and overweight. By the time he was most of the way through high school Mike already realized something needed to change. Said Mike, “I came to a point where I was like, ‘Man, I’m sixteen or seventeen and I feel like crap, I’m putting on body fat, I wake up with no energy. This is ridiculous.’”
A close friend introduced Mike to strength training and the course of Mike’s life would forever change. Little did he or his friends know he would transform to the point that his life became about fitness and helping others experience the positive impact of regular exercise and a good diet. His life from that point forward became an endless experiment toward the optimization of human health.
Mike’s experimentation on himself began in his parents’ basement. “I remember the first time I tried the bench press, I think I had 95 pounds on it and I got pinned. I was by myself in my parents’ basement, and I had to kind of roll it off and flip it to the side.” This early trial and error is what Mike credits some of his coaching ability to. Not being a natural athlete and not having grown up in sports, Mike had to learn each new skill set the hard way and through a long learning curve. He feels now that it gave him an ability to relate to clients who feel awkward or intimidated, who are new to the fitness lifestyle.
The fitness lifestyle wasn’t always Mike’s main job, though. Even though it was always his driving passion, at some point Mike found himself working full-time in a corporate sales job. Said Mike, “I was making good money, but I hated that job. I had no energy as a result of just having no passion for what I was doing. I would go to work each day, and not even work that hard but just be tired all the time.” And so while Mike had one eye on his job, he kept the other on the fitness industry, looking for a viable way to make a living.
Fate stepped in at this point, as shortly after Mike took his first kettlebell course from the then barely known Pavel Tsatsouline, he was fired from his job. At first Mike thought kettlebells were just another fad training tool, but after his certification course with Pavel, Mike realized the potential of this little piece of equipment:
I was like, “Hey this is something I could really get behind.” Because you can build a nice home-based gym around kettlebells, because you only need one or two. The average person just wants to be fit, lean, and strong. They don’t really care about being big, bulky, or trying to be an elite athlete. They just want to have more energy and feel better. I felt that people who hadn’t responded to weight training, for whatever reason – whether they thought it was boring or gym memberships were too much of a nuisance – would really find this a viable alternative.
Mike took losing his job as an opportunity to bring this alternative to the masses. At the time most people didn’t even know kettlebells existed. The only way to learn them was through Pavel’s certifications, and in Mike’s estimation the average person didn’t want to be a kettlebell instructor, they just wanted to get fit.
I thought there was an opportunity for me to take this system and make it my unique selling point and make it the focal point of my business. I knew I wanted to get into other things besides kettlebells down the road, but I felt it was important to focus on one thing and really do that well and then build from there. And that’s where I got started with the whole thing. It was around April of 2002.
The niche industry of kettlebell instruction would turn out to be a double-edged sword, though.
There really wasn’t a lot of [kettlebells] going then, and it was really good for me because there wasn’t any competition. That was the plus side. The bad side was, there really weren’t any customers either. So you basically had to create that market. So I played a role in creating the actual kettlebell market rather than walking into a preexisting market. Someone who gets into kettlebell training now, there’s plenty of people into kettlebells. That’s the plus side. The negative side is, there’s a lot of people instructing too, so it’s difficult to distinguish yourself.
For me, I had several years to really fine tune my skills and get my name out there, before other people even really thought about making a kettlebell-based business. Because no one thought you could actually make money doing this. I remember when I told people, “Yeah, I’m getting into fitness, and I’m going around teaching workshops where I teach people how to use kettlebells.” And they thought, “You’re not going make minimum wage doing that!”
But Mike’s years in corporate sales would actually come back to serve him at this point and guarantee he made more than minimum wage. Mike used his Internet marketing skills to build his business online and make a name for himself. He also continued to educate himself as a coach, branching out beyond Pavel’s teachings to study with other kettlebell instructors coming into the United States. Over time Mike created his own thriving business and his own unique style of kettlebell instruction.
I really like heavier kettlebell training, so I don’t focus on the light stuff for heavy reps. I like heavy kettlebell training, but at the same time, I don’t like doing a lot of heavy, low rep stuff with kettlebells because I think there are better mediums for that – barbell training, Olympic lifting, powerlifting, etc. So what I do is kind of find a happy medium – let’s go as heavy as possible, but let’s work on reps as well and find a happy medium and build up the strength endurance. I think what’s made my system different from a lot of people also is that I’m not just a kettlebell proponent, in the sense that I use kettlebells with other training tools. I train with barbells, I do bodyweight stuff, I do sprinting. So it’s a merging of many different things. I use the kettlebells primarily to round out the strength endurance side of things.
A lot of people like one arm work, and I pretty much do all of my kettlebell work with doubles. That’s where I like to get people going as soon as they get the basics down. And then using kettlebells in addition to other training tools, so not being someone who’s just married to one tool. What happened with kettlebells after they started getting popular is, people started saying this is better than anything out there, period. That to me has detracted from the tool, because then it started going into a fad phase after that. And then fortunately we started coming out of that, and now I think the future of kettlebells will be as one training tool that you would use – just like you would go to the gym and use a lot of different training tools – I think home-based gyms now would be kettlebells and other tools, just like what CrossFit does.
No doubt Mike’s system will continue to evolve, just as he, as a human and a coach, continues to evolve. More than anything Mike has learned through the years that passion and happiness are linked to health, just as much as diet and exercise. From his corporate life, to starting his kettlebell business, to his upcoming venture into nutrition and hormone optimization, Mike follows his passions, despite the pitfalls, and shares what he learns with other. He explained:
When you find something that really inspires you and gets you excited, you really get to learn a lot about who you are. A lot of times people don’t want to push through on certain things, because those are things that they frankly just don’t care about. So a lot of times people make New Years Resolutions and say, “Okay, this year I’m going to lose weight,” or “This year I’m going to do this or that,” and they give up after a week or two. The reality is, it wasn’t a goal that they cared about. You have to find those goals that you actually care about, and then you get to learn who you are and what you’re prepared to do to achieve those things. Those are the things that I really learned about myself. I feel like I set a good example for other people. People come to me for training information, they come to me to design programs for them, and I can sleep well at night knowing I’m not someone who gives advice that I don’t follow myself. I actually work out hard, and I recommend hard workouts to people.
In part two of our interview, Mike talks about being a vegan strength athlete, how he recovered from adrenal burnout, and more experiences and experiments on his path to health optimization.
Photos 1 and 2 courtesy of Jess McDougall. Photo 3 courtesy of David Griffin.