Steve Kamb is a nerd. Like, a video game-playing, comic book-reading, knows more about Star Wars than your brother kind of nerd. But don’t let that fool you into thinking he’s clueless when it comes to healthy living. The author, entrepreneur, and founder of Nerd Fitness knows his stuff.
A largely self-taught fitness leader, Kamb founded Nerd Fitness in 2009 to help nerds like himself get fit. Once a side project, Nerd Fitness has since exploded into a top online fitness community and has helped thousands of geeks incorporate fitness into their lives.
We chatted with Kamb about Nerd Fitness, favorite workouts, go-to take out orders, and his book, Level Up Your Life, out in January 2016. Here’s what he had to say:
What’s the Nerd Fitness origin story?
SK: I grew up in a town called East Sandwich. I was active as a kid, and I played sports. Growing up in a small town, we all played every sport together as a group of friends. I also spent a significant portion of my childhood playing video games. It wasn’t until high school when I got cut from the basketball team that I signed up for a gym membership. I had no clue what I was doing. But I decided I wanted to get big and strong and spent half of high school and all four years of college — I went to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee — strength training and following muscle and fitness magazines and trying to get strong and healthy and big — and failing miserably.
After college, I moved out to San Diego, California, with my brother. I took a job in sales because that’s what I thought I was supposed to do. I signed up for a gym membership out there and they said, “You get free personal trainer sessions for your first month of this membership.” And I thought, “I’ve been training for six years, I know what I’m doing, I’m fine.” They replied, “Well, you get them for free, you might as well have a guy spot you in the gym as you train.” So I said, “OK, fine.” In about a month I had four times the amount of success than I had in the previous years trying to get bigger and stronger. That’s when the lightbulb went on in my head and I realized there’s a lot I didn’t know.
I spent a good year reading everything I could on health and fitness and getting more comfortable with the subject. Then, I stumbled across Tim Ferris’s Four-Hour Workweek while I was on a lunch break. I went home and I think I read it in like a day and a half and then maybe a week or two later, I purchased nerdfitness.com. I figured, all right, I already spent six years making all these mistakes, and there have to be other people out there like me who are pretty nerdy, who love video games, who build computers, love to read books, but don’t have the six years to make mistakes like I did. I wanted to help nerds get fit.
I spent a year or more researching, learning, got a personal trainer certification, and then in January of 2009 started writing articles. And since then, over the past nearly seven years, it has evolved into this worldwide community of people helping each other get fit, sharing their nerdy pursuits and passions, and helping each other level up their lives.
On your site, you tout the fact that you’re self-taught. Some people could argue that you’re unqualified to be giving the fitness/nutrition advice you offer on your site and in your classes. Did you ever consider getting certified beyond your initial personal trainer certification?
On my “about” page, it says, “I am NOT a fitness expert.” Bold, underlined, italicized. I try to make it as obvious as possible. What I’ve found is that the people who are getting at me about not having a certification are people who have certifications, and spent $100,000 on those certifications, and have nothing to show for it. Initially, I was worried that people wouldn’t take me seriously. But I mean, I spent all day every day reading about behavioral psychology and exercise physiology, what makes us who we are and why we do the things we do. If people want to come and complain, that’s fine. I’m going to get back to helping people, learning and studying and doing what I can. Feel free to continue complaining. I don’t feel the need to justify myself to those people because I’m too busy helping the hundreds of thousands of people who have trusted me to provide them with factual, unbiased information that is coming to them from a perspective that can be trusted.
What do you think it is about Nerd Fitness that resonates and keeps so many people coming back?
What Nerd Fitness does is provide a home for people that don’t have one. We don’t say, “Here’s what you need to do.” We say, “Star Wars explains why we’re fat.” Nerd Fitness takes these really complex subjects that anyone can overanalyze and makes them so simple a rocket scientist can understand them. It makes me so happy that these people not only have kind of nerdy pursuits that would not be considered popular in the public spotlight, but they also happen to be the only person in their nerdy group of friends that’s interested in getting fit. I think they come for the information and stick around for the community and support.
What kind of fitness philosophy do you try to follow for your own personal workouts and then integrate into your fitness advice on Nerd Fitness?
I am a huge fan of body weight training and old school free weights. I train four days a week for an hour. Two of those days I’ll do lower-body exercises, a combination of barbell squats, deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, front squats, pistol squats, and mobility work for my lower body. My upper-body work is done primarily through gymnastic ring work. It’s the method that works the best for me. The other part of the philosophy is: you need to have fun. If you’re not enjoying it, then you haven’t found the type of exercise that is good for you. I could be doing yoga, martial arts, hiking, powerlifting, swimming, biking, live-action role playing, ultimate Frisbee, aerial silks, parkour, or anything in between. So finding physical activity that gets your heart pumping, that reminds you every day you need to make conscious decisions to live a healthier life. On top of that, strength training will make every other aspect of your life better.
So what’s your favorite current way to work out?
Let’s see. Today’s a lower-body day, so today would be heavy deadlifts. I’m working up to a one-rep maximum — closing in on lifting 405 pounds, which I’m really excited about. Tomorrow will be primarily ring-based upper-body stuff. Different holds. I bring my own rings with me to a commercial gym and put them up and get weird looks from everybody as I’m flipping around them and turning beet red in the face by holding a hold for fractions of a second.
What is a workout or movement that you hate to do but you do it anyway because you know it’s good for you?
I don’t love front squats. I just turn red. Also a lot of the ultra core work, hollow body holds, a lot of stretching/mobility work that helps me get stronger and find out what I’m capable of. It’s not glamorous. It’s boring. It’s not as exciting as going to pick up that really heavy thing or going on those rings and flipping around. But I know it’s all that extra work that allows me to get better.
You say you’ve made every mistake in the book. What was your biggest mistake in exercising?
Outside of training, it was how important diet was. I didn’t realize that had I eaten properly, I would have had tremendous success. Also, looking back now, the biggest problem I think I had with my training back then was that I was doing all isolation exercises and using machines. When you do isolated machine weight exercise, you’re isolating muscles that in no other aspect of your life work in isolation. If I had just done free weights, I would have worked out all of those muscles, plus all of the stabilizer muscles that are not getting worked when you use machines. I just didn’t do those exercises because I didn’t know any better. And none of the magazines I read made that point.
What’s your number one tip for a beginner starting to work out?
Diet is everything. If you’re going to going to start one thing and it’s either start exercising or change how you diet, I would say change how you eat — or start making small changes to how you eat.
Who else in the fitness community do you follow or find inspiring?
Instagram is full of people doing crazy body weight exercises, like Barstarzz — the Barstarzz community is fabulous. I get my workout plans from my friend Anthony Michael. He looks like I want to look and is stronger than pretty much anybody I know. I’ve been training remotely with him for two years and he’s become a great friend. It’s awesome to work with him and, more importantly, follow his tutelage and see myself drastically transform over the past few years.
What fitness trend do you wish would go away?
The explosion in the supplement industry is just really depressing to me. Everybody is looking for weight loss in a pill, and they are called supplements for a reason. A supplement can potentially supplement a nutritious diet if you’re lacking a particular nutrient. However, so many people are just looking for a quick fix and they take a bazillion supplements. I use one scoop of protein powder in a shake after I work out. Other than that, I just don’t use them. Most of them are useless, and the supplement industry is very predatory. It’s full of misinformation and gives people false hope that if they take this thing it will change their life and they won’t have to make any other sacrifices.
What’s your favorite meal to cook at home?
A steak, asparagus, and sweet potatoes. Like a filet, asparagus and sweet potatoes in some combination — fries, baked sweet potato, something like that.
Favorite meal to order out?
I love Thai food, so some sort of rice, chicken and vegetables combination. The amount of rice, chicken, and vegetables I consume is excessive. No, no, I won’t say excessive. But that’s my go-to combination.
I know that you’re a fan of the Paleo diet and share this philosophy on Nerd Fitness. Talk a little bit about that.
The Paleo diet is essentially a framework for eating that tries to make things as simple as possible for someone who might struggle with portion control and is too neurotic to count calories. I think for me and many members of the Nerd Fitness community, we have very addictive personalities. If we count calories, we’d be the ones freaking out about an extra calorie here or there. I think the Paleo diet is a great framework for people to rethink their relationship with food. I just published an article on Nerd Fitness called “In Defense of a ‘Paleo-ish’ Diet.” I love the idea of the Paleo diet, but you need to find something that works for you. I would much rather you go 70 percent Paleo and occasionally eat some dairy or add beans into your daily nutrition and be happy permanently than go all-in on the Paleo diet for only 30 days and then going back to doing what you were doing. Eat for your goals. Find the level that works for you.
Tell me a little bit about your new book.
I have a new book called Level Up Your Life, which is kind of a self-help book for people who would never read self-help, just like Nerd Fitness is a home for people who would never read fitness. It is my nerdy life philosophy and how I’ve kind of gamified my life and started doing the things that matter. The whole concept is we all have daily responsibilities, very much like how every superhero has an alter ego. Indiana Jones is an archaeology professor. Buffy the Vampire Slayer had to go to high school. All of these characters that we know and love — and that I used to live vicariously through — have daily responsibilities, but they also live this extraordinary alter-ego existence where they do amazing things. I thought, what if I stopped living through these characters and stopped playing as many video games as I do, and instead looked at my life like it were a game and I were the hero? In that story, what would that look like? This is a book that helps give you a framework for life to help you do the things you’ve always wanted to do but can’t seem to get done.
Photo source: Will Byington