Coach TJ O’Brien – Fitness Contrarian
Written by Samie Acevedo

What’s the secret to your physical training success? Set the bar low. Like really low. At least that’s coach TJ O’Brien’s aka @tjmoves, suggestion. 

Sound a little different than what you usually hear from a coach? Well, TJ is not your average coach. If you are lucky enough to be coached by TJ, this means that you are most likely one of those devoted and disciplined 6 and 7 am athletes. If you aren’t coached by TJ, you might catch him working on his own training in the afternoon – pulling himself up in various ways on the rings, practicing his freestanding handstands, or getting a pump on with some bicep curls. 

But we all know him as Coach TJ. As the “food guy” or the guy who was on Netflix (True story. Look it up. “Chef’s Table season 1, episode 2. I’m in it for like 15 seconds. It was my past life as a kitchen expeditor and cook.” – TJ). 

Or maybe you know him as the mobility guy. Coach, Chef, Mind Muscle Master…whatever version of TJ you know, you might be surprised that while he has explored and has a passion for all of the above, his coaching and life philosophy expand past those fixed identities. 

From the suburbs of Pleasantville, NY, TJ’s experiences in life and fitness have led him to San Diego, to Invictus, and to the version of TJ that we now know and love. As a very active suburban kid, playing soccer and wrestling was his first taste of movement and physical training. In fact, his wrestling coaches were some of the first people to make a long-lasting impact on his training methods and movement philosophy. 

One coach, in particular, was a little crazy, and looking back, TJ noted that it’s hard to imagine that this coach trained them in the way he did. One time, during a session where everyone was moving in a teenage-boy-slow manner, the coach pulled one of the young wrestlers to the center and asked everyone to pay attention. He said, “Chuck, you value your life, right?” and after Chuck shrugged and said, “Yeah, I guess,” Coach Gibby took a pencil out of his pocket and tried to stab Chuck (with the eraser end). It caused quite a stir, and everyone was definitely “awake” after that. After this possibly controversial method, Coach Gibby asked his wrestlers to bring that level of intensity to their training. While TJ enjoys being coached with this intensity, and he *might* not pull out a pencil on clients (he has a dry erase marker)…he has his own ways of coaxing intensity from those he coaches. 

Expanding past a fixed identity is what TJ strives for in his personal training and in the training of those who he coaches. Summed up in a few sentences, his current training philosophy is, “3-6 times per week, do something that cumulatively burns 300-600 calories, and ideally includes resistance training. Strength is for dinner; cardio is for dessert.  Make it something you actually like doing.”  

When we first start on our health, fitness, athletic, or just good ol’ movement journey, we are taught to pick one program, one sport, one activity. Like the good athletes we are, we learn the program’s methodology, and we stick to it. We are usually bought in with the promise of losing weight, changing our body composition, competitive goals, whatever our desired fitness motive is. And as we build momentum in CrossFit or CrossFit-style training, we start looking for MORE. Suddenly, what we are doing is not enough. Too simple, therefore too easy. 

TJ is a fan of simple. He agrees that we tend to complicate fitness when we worry about what it is we’re doing, and by extension, we identify too strongly with how we get our workouts in. 

When asked what people do “wrong” when starting their fitness journey his response is, “People take an unsustainable approach. Keep in mind that part about actually liking what you do to workout. If you don’t like it, it is only a matter of time before your willpower ceases.” 

What he wishes more people understood about movement and fitness, especially if you are just getting started, is that you don’t need that much to make an impact on your physical and mental health. Also, it’s the 4th or 5th consideration when wanting to lose weight, not the first. 

To help individuals stick to their fitness goals and to build better habits, TJ suggests to “stack” your habits (thanks, Coach Fritz). If you want to start a new habit, find one you already do. Then add in the new one. A classic example is pairing brushing your teeth with taking a new pill. Then figure out what activity will precede and what activity will follow the new habit. “I will take the pill after I wake up before I brush my teeth.” 

Again, SIMPLE. Simplicity is what helps you stay consistent and motivated. Thus enters TJ’s “set the bar low” (aim low) motto. To help his clients stay or get motivated, he draws to this low-standard/ low-bar discipline. By getting them to set the bar lower than they think they can (we are talking embarrassingly low), they don’t have to rely on high levels of motivation to train. If this low-bar setting does not suffice, he’ll remind them of why they started – this is why the goal is important.

When it comes to his coaching methodology and where he draws many of his coaching principles from, it has evolved throughout the years. He has dabbled in mixed modes in his own training and likes to apply this interdisciplinary fitness knowledge with his clients. He loves gymnastics strength training and any sort of bodyweight exercises because they can be advanced pretty much to infinity, at least for the upper body. He is also a big fan of Westside Barbell/Louie Simmons’ methods, and his programming primarily draws from these two schools of thought. 

Still, while he enjoys these disciplines, he is, at the core, a contrarian. What does this mean? It means he is not afraid to question and change his methods. In fact, this is beneficial for a fitness coach. 

As a coach, what have you identified yourself as? The weightlifting coach? The gymnastics coach? The mobility coach? In the fitness industry, it is often monetarily advantageous for a coach to tie themselves to a fitness identity or to nestle in a niche of some kind. This makes it easy to “sell” and “brand” yourself to potential clients. This is not a bad thing at all! 

But what happens if, as a coach, you stay fixed in that identity? Are you potentially losing the freedom and opportunity for more growth? Talking to TJ, he will not deny that he has naturally fallen into a fixed identity not only at the beginning of his coaching career but in other aspects of his life as well. But pulling back the layers and making an effort to observe his identity in (and out) of the fitness space, he understands the importance and value of being a fitness contrarian

Coaching is part of the service or “giving” industry, and in the service industry, there is this conception that you must be liked and popular by other professionals and especially your clients and athletes. Still, TJ is not afraid to be the common enemy of the class. A good coach is not always liked; a good coach is not always your best friend. In fact, some of the best coaches are those YOU have to work for. The ones YOU earn their respect, their knowledge, and their time by showing up ready to work and ready to learn. Controversial? Maybe. But a coach who gives you their all needs you to give them YOUR all because ultimately, you are both on the same team working to help support you and your fitness/athletic goal. 

While this might sound super deep and intense, remember it’s just another layer of identity. If you’ve been coached by TJ, you know him as someone who is not afraid to bust out some dance moves he just learned in his dance class. You know him as the coach who occasionally cranks up Dua Luipa radio. Or the coach with the HOT KNOWLEDGEABLE and VALUABLE social media content. He is not afraid to crack the whip in class, but he is also someone who is always willing to listen to your questions and share many laughs. 

Fitness contrarian TJ started out as a college “bro” who started CrossFit because he and his friends heard that some cute girl at their college was interested in guys who did CrossFit. He would never have believed that it would lead him to where he is today, living in beautiful San Diego with his amazing partner Marcella, learning from great fitness minds at Invictus (and beyond), and helping others do something he loves. 

When asking TJ what he wants people to know about him or what message he wishes to send the world, this is what he had to say… 

“I often work to improve people’s perceptions of their bodies. But I don’t believe in associating the physical body with ‘I’. In the words of Eckhart Tolle, if you don’t equate the body with who you are when beauty fades, vigor diminishes, or the body becomes incapacitated, this will not affect your sense of worth or identity in any way. In fact, as the body begins to weaken, the formless dimension, the light of consciousness, can shine more easily through the fading form.”