Trainer Don Saladino’s Keys to Superhero Body Transformation

If you’ve watched a superhero movie and been inspired by the way the main character looks, there’s a good chance that the star playing the role was trained by MH Advisory Board member Don Saladino. He may be best known in recent years for his work with Ryan Reynolds and Sebastian Stan for films like Deadpool and the Avengers series, but Saladino has put in over two decades of work in the fitness industry to get to the point he is now.

Saladino estimates that he has logged over 40,000 hours of one-on-one training sessions over his career. Those hours have been focused on working with everyday people, business executives, and pro athletes such as Dwyane Wade, Adrian Peterson, and Ernie Els, just to name a few.

While Saladino has worked in brick and mortar businesses and owned a successful gym in New York City, he’s currently strengthening his digital training offerings for all kinds of people, maintaining active web presence on his own site and his Instagram page. He hosts transformation challenges on his training app and shares his wisdom through public speaking events to help other trainers scale their businesses on top of working with A-list celebrities.

“At this stage, I just want to help people be happy,” he told MH of his mission in both business and life.

Why do you think so many people are fascinated with the training you do to prep famous actors like Ryan Reynolds for their big movie roles?

It’s funny because Brad Pitt was in Fight Club close to 25 years ago, and I still hear “I want to look like Brad Pitt in Fight Club.” Others say they want to look like Ryan in this film. They all had great bodies. I think part of it is the swagger they have with it. They have a coolness factor, and that draws people to them. There’s a sex appeal that they can relate to. Other actors have had great bodies in movies, but they didn’t have the personality that the more popular actors did.

mel saladino

Courtesy of Mel Saladino

Is there a different process you use when working with a celebrity than there would be any other client?

Not really, you still go through the questionnaire, find out what we’re trying to look like, find out injury histories, and I like knowing the training history as well. What have you done before that has worked for you? What do you hate? Putting them through a movement screening, and running them through a workout so you can see more of a full-body assessment. It’s actually a lot more similar than one may think.

Many trainers want to be the trainer to the stars. What’s the toughest part of working with that type of population?

The celebrity’s schedule is so volatile. They are shooting two or three movies a year, they’re traveling to premieres all over the world, and they’re away from their families for months at a time. They’re waking up at five, on set at seven, and they’re not home until eleven that night. Then, there’s an overnight film session, then they have to leave the set because something happened in their lives. It’s so unpredictable compared to athletes. We know the Mets schedule, we know when Brady is playing. There’s more volatility in acting than I’ve ever seen.

Who did you look up to when you started following fitness?

I had a stuttering problem in second grade that caused some insecurities, but I realized that I was pretty good at sports like baseball. I’ll never forget seeing Lou Ferrigno and Arnold Schwarzenegger for the first time on these magazine covers. I saw Lou in The Incredible Hulk as a kid. Arnold added a sex appeal to it. He combined mass and shred with athleticism. It was impressive. After that I saw Mike O’Hearn and Frank Sepe. Mike was on a cover I saw at, like, 20 years old, and Frank was in Bev Francis’ gym, 300 pounds and shredded. Those were the four people.

How did personal training become your career?

After I saw baseball wasn’t going to happen, I moved into the city and got a job as a trainer. Then, I got a call to play for a semi-pro team in Italy, but the lifelong dream suddenly became secondary because I loved what I was doing as a trainer.

Is there anything you did early in your career that stands out that you think would be a good move for new trainers?

I didn’t have a long-term plan, but I didn’t stress about it. One thing that I was really happy that I did was that I was focused on the present. I wasn’t sitting there and going “how am I going to make enough money, what am I going to do when I’m 50?” All I focused on was being the best coach I could be, and filling my book up with clients. Every day I just cared about that moment.

What advice would you share with newer trainers who are trying to take those first steps into making their passion a sustainable career?

There are so many people picking up books and following gurus that preach about the process, drinking certain teas in the morning and meditating. I’m not saying things like that aren’t beneficial, but a lot of times it isn’t realistic with schedules and lifestyles that we (trainers and coaches) live. Because they read all about processes, they stress themselves out, and they can’t focus on the task at hand. A lot of these kids are trying to be perfect, and they don’t want to get their hands dirty. They just want to get straight to the top now, which is bullshit. If I hadn’t done all the sessions, worked in a box gym, and made the mistakes I made, I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing now.

courtesy of mel saladino

Courtesy of Mel Saladino

How can someone bounce back after a mistake or failing at something in their business?

Really, what’s the alternative? How many times have you missed a rep or missed a PR? You might get upset in the moment, but you bounce back and eventually try again. You trained yourself to get to that point. It’s also understanding that what you’re doing right now is your makeup. Finishing that workout and feeling that accomplishment is part of the love for it. I think it’s the same thing in business.

Since we’re comparing business to training, should people be patient in building a business like they should be in building their bodies?

Absolutely. If you sign a lease that you don’t really like or get into business with a landlord because you were making an emotional decision, that can be a mistake. Once you get experience, you know you would never do that again. That would be like hurting your knee and squatting anyway. Instead, you would focus on lateral movements or work on Romanian deadlifts. A lot of this stuff comes with experience and learning.

What are some of the important questions that you feel trainers need to ask more often?

Find out about their schedule. Are there kids? What are their schedules like? What equipment do they have access to if they’re not working directly in your facility? Find out what they’re doing down the road. They may have to get on a plane in four weeks and have to use different equipment. Prepare for that and plan ahead because it may be difficult to do things with bars and racks if they only have access to a hotel gym. You may have to come up with a compromise.

courtesy of mel saladino

Courtesy of Mel Saladino

Like athletes, many coaches and trainers want to be “the best.” What do you think is the most important factor in helping them reach their potential?

Going the extra mile for the client is key. The biggest mistake I’ve seen coaches make is that they become very transactional. They’re always concerned with the money aspect of it. You can go a long way through loyalty. A coach may see they’ve worked with a client for five years and decide to upcharge them 20 bucks.

Consistency will trump intensity.

Okay, but is that really the best thing to do to someone who’s been really good to you for a long time? Is it really worth that 20 bucks? For me, it was never about that hour. It’s been about the text later on “how you feeling?” “Remember to do this.” “By the way, the thing you wanted, I ordered it for you, and it’s ready for you to pick up.” It becomes about the relationship and being in it for the client for the long haul.

What should the trainer’s goal be when working with a new client?

Your goal is to make the client see you as a necessity, not a luxury. If you can make them look at you that way, you’ll be able to charge whatever you want in this business, and go wherever you want to go.

How can trainers avoid burnout and maintain their passion?

I take a trip once a year with my family, or I play hockey or golf once or twice a week. Family time is always great, and those are ways that I can decompress. Decompression is very important. That said, it’s also ok to love what you do and keep doing it. Decompressing just so you say you do it isn’t necessary.

You’ve worked with many people who are beginners through your various fitness challenges. What advice can you offer for the gym rookies?

Consistency will trump intensity. You’re not going to come in with the same mentality every day, and that’s okay. None of us do. If you can consistently find a way to be successful, you’ll be good. I tell people that enter my challenges don’t try to be perfect. Look at the first month, and go through the motions and the process. Learn. If you can make one change a week, then in 12 weeks, that builds up to major changes.

What are some examples of things they can change?

Eliminating things like processed foods, drinking certain amounts of water, sleeping, exercise, focusing on mood, think about it. Those are big things I am bringing up right now. If those changes are made, it can add up to some big results. Some things will happen automatically just from those alone. That’s what I teach when I do my challenges. If you can show a spec of improvement, then if you can just hit repeat, it can become much easier than a lot of people understand.

Clearly the trainer wants the client to succeed, but inevitably they may reach a plateau. How can they stay focused and motivated when the number on the scale isn’t in line with their goals?

I came up with a term called NSV, or non-scale victories. So, if that number isn’t where they want it? I ask them questions like how is your energy? “Good. I’m eating more calories and burning more calories.” My body composition has actually changed. I went down a belt size. Okay, great, what else is improving? Sleep is getting better, and I am happier now. So, are we going to obsess that the scale isn’t moving? What is all that other information telling us? Everything is positive. Learn to focus on things beyond the scale, and when they see the positives, they will realize that they’re on the right path, and they’ll keep going, which will help you keep them as clients and be more successful as well.

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