Nick Mitchell: My Life in Lifts

Nick Mitchell is a leading body composition expert and the founder of the Ultimate Performance personal training gym chain. Here’s what 30 years of lifting weights has taught him.

In 2008 Nick Mitchell opened a gym in the basement of an office block in the City of London. A decade on Ultimate Performance is one of the most respected personal training businesses in the world, with more than 250 staff working out of – at current count – 14 gyms in eight countries, including the US, Dubai, Hong Kong and Australia.

What’s been your proudest ever moment in the gym?
There’s not one moment as such, but when I look back my standout memories are visions of when I was training really hard. Training so hard I would go and puke and then my abs would cramp, and then I’d go back and train and puke and get abs cramp again. I’d get in a cycle of cramping and puking! Those are my standout memories of training in specific places and the endorphins from the intensity of completely going for it. I have an old-fashioned work ethic, so I take pride in knowing that I pushed myself as hard as I possibly could.

What do you wish you’d started doing earlier?
From a training point of view, like every man over the age of 40 I wish I’d stretched more – I bet everyone says that. But it was so boring. I get nagged now to do the mobility and activation drills that are so very effective, but they are so boring that who really wants to do them. I train to get an endorphin buzz, but I have paid for my lack of stretching with pain now. The accumulation of niggles and tensions from 30 years of weight training, they add up.

From a business view I wish I’d started my personal training business when I was 25, ten years earlier, so now a decade in I’d be only 35, instead of 45! Or I wish I’d gone into group training instead of personal training because I’d have probably made a lot more money!

What do you do that you don’t think enough people are doing?
Simple. Training hard enough. It’s not rocket science. Real results are about training harder. If there’s one thing I’ve also stressed it’s the importance of that training work ethic. Ultimately most people don’t train hard enough. If you want to build a bigger body you need to find a real gym – a bodybuilding gym. That’s where you’ll improve.

If you look at the success of CrossFit, and I am not the biggest fan because we have seen countless injuries come out of CrossFit, but it does some things really well, such as that incredibly supportive gym atmosphere. That’s what every gym should have, but far too few do. A good supportive atmosphere will always help you train harder.

What does (almost) everybody else do that you don’t bother with or consider a total waste of time?
A lot depends on your goal. I am not the biggest fan of some of the “limp” exercises when it comes to hypertrophy. I don’t think that the guy with 13-inch arms should waste time doing triceps press-downs, nor should the guy with 20-inch thighs be doing leg extensions. I am old-fashioned in the sense that I think more people should be trying to shift big weights.

I also see on Instagram the song and dance some personal trainers make about doing partial reps because “if I take my humerus too far back here, I will lose pec activation”, and other similar statements, which I simply take as an excuse for shit training. It’s not complicated so stop over-complicating it.

If you could have one workout with anyone, past or present, who would you choose?
I’d have a workout with prime Arnold, circa 1972. As a nine-year-old I saw a magazine cover featuring Arnold as Conan The Destroyer, and I remember thinking “that’s what a man should like look”. And I still think that’s what a man should look like! He was my idol, my inspiration, and the reason I first picked up a set of weights. I see him occasionally in Gold’s Gym in Venice [Beach, California], but I can’t bring myself to be such a sad-sack and go over and talk to him. I know he would talk and do a selfie, because I’ve seen him to do it with others. But he was my inspiration and my business would not be here if it were not for Arnold.

Is there anyone else I’d have loved to train with? Dorian [Yates] was a hero of mine back in the day, and I trained for a few months at his original Temple Gym, which was amazing. It was probably the most hardcore training experience of my life. He was there at the time, but trained earlier in the day: no civilian was allowed in when he was training! Training with prime Dorian? Yeah, wow, what an experience that would have been.

What do you focus on during that last drop set when your mind and muscles are screaming for you to stop?
I had a few different techniques. I always listened to music, music that inspired me and made me angry. AC-DC and Rage Against The Machine – I was an angry trainer. Do I think you have to be an angry trainer to get the best results? No, but I had to be. Other people have different mentalities. Some guys can listen to Calypso music and have amazing workouts. Like everything, it’s about whatever works for you. I would think angry thoughts, I would think about people that had crossed me.

I would think about the story of Chris Chataway, one of the two pacemakers for Roger Bannister’s attempt to break the four-minute mile in 1954. It was said that it was likely that anyone attempting to break this barrier would die. So they used to say to each other in training for the attempt, “If we die, we die”. I know this sounds dramatic – who the hell was I to be over-dramatising my own training, but I would tell myself, “fuck it, I if I die, I die”. It might have been a brutal set of squats or even dumbbell presses, but I would say that to myself because it got my blood going, and with the music blaring, I’d get so fired up.

For me training should be an visceral experience, an emotional experience, and that’s what I loved. And I miss it now. I’m 45 and I try to recreate it. I have many other competing priorities. I don’t want to train so hard that I am destroyed for the rest of the day. I have made peace with the fact that I can’t train like that anymore. I can touch it. I can stick my head in it a little bit. But diving head first into that way of training? No, I can’t do that, but I am OK with it, because I’ve got other things to replace it.

What has lifting given you?
It’s given me a career that’s enabled me to feed my family, so that’s the most important thing. It’s enabled me to have security for my family, and hopefully not just for my children, but my grandchildren and great-grandchildren, that’s the goal.

But ultimately it’s everything about me. I’ve worn a physique, like this or similar, for all my adult life. People have always reacted a certain way to my physique, so it’s an intrinsic part of who I am. Training is in my DNA: I can’t not do it. I’ve trained once in the last week because I’ve been traveling and I just feel out of sorts because of it. The only way I’ll stop lifting is if I’m too sick or too infirm. I hope to be 90 and lifting weights in some form or another. But as with all the aches and pains and trials and tribulations of ageing, it will be a frustrating experience because my mind will want to go to a place my body can’t take it. But that’s life.

Want more? Here’s our pick of Nick’s best IronLife columns:

The 5 Most Over-Rated Moves for Muscle

7 Rules For Your Best-Ever Body

Why Adding Size Starts In Your Mind

6 Ways To Make More Money As a PT

The Best Cardio For Fat Loss

4 Reasons You’ve Stopped Building Muscle

For more about Nick and Ultimate Performance click here.

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