Get Obnoxiously Good At What You Do: An Interview With ABC’s Newest Star Rob Sulaver

By the time I got my chance to chat with Rob Sulaver, owner and creator of Bandana Training, fitness celebrity on-the-rise – and long-time Copter Labs client – he has had a crazy week.

He’s been in interviews with People Magazine, Shape, Dejour, Playgirl … okay, not Playgirl. But he’s been on a press junket with all sorts of media promoting his role on ABC’s new reality fitness and nutrition show, My Diet is Better Than Yours, which runs at 9 p.m. on ABC. He appears on the show for the first time January 21st – that’s tonight!

Teaching and promoting fitness and nutrition on TV has been a long-time goal for Rob, so despite the grueling hours of the show and indulging media requests, he’s still extremely fired up to talk about how much fun he’s had on the show, and the winding path he took to reaching this major professional goal.

Rob grew up an athlete and wrestled at University of Michigan while studying Theater Performance and English Literature (I know, right?). After graduating, he worked as the graduate assistant strength coach for Michigan football, but knew he wanted to move to New York City and find a way to blend each of his loves – performance, writing, and fitness – into a career.

And so he did.

Ian Murphy: How did you decide you wanted to become a fitness professional?

Rob Sulaver: I’ve always known I wanted to combine training, nutrition, performance, and storytelling I just had no idea of what that might look like. There’s not really a typical job out there that seemed like a combination of the things I loved.

But I knew I wanted to live in New York City, so I moved there and I started pursuing training and group fitness instruction. I started writing some, and I was pursuing theater and performance work too. All of those worlds eventually melded together to form what has become Bandana Training. It’s been a very organic process; I started out doing what I love to do, and then figured out how to make a living out of that.

IM: Was there any part of this that took you by surprise when you realized you enjoyed it?

RS: I find that writing really helps me solidify my viewpoints on different topics and the ideas I have. That was a bit of a surprise. As a kid, math and science were my jam and English was not a fav, and now it’s a huge part of my career.

The writing process is so immersive. You have to fully understand a topic to write well about it. Then I can speak about it off the cuff and the on-camera stuff comes alive, because you understand the topic so thoroughly.

IM: You’ve worked on the advisory board and written for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s fitness blog. What was it like when you first met Arnold?

RS: A lot of people ask: is he as tall as he seems? Is he as big as he seems? And I think the answer is: yes to all of those questions. Arnold is such a legend – SUCH a legend – that being with him in person, chatting with him in person does feel a bit surreal. The first time I met him was at his book launch party in NYC. I had just started working with him – this was many years ago when he first released his book Total Recall.

I’ve got a great picture with me and some of my buddies with Arnold, and when he posed for the picture, right before the picture he goes, “GET TO THE CHOPPAH!” and everyone cracked up. He’s definitely willing to poke fun at himself, and he’s a great guy. It’s not an accident that Arnold is as successful as he is. He’s been a really positive role model … he’s freaking awesome, that’s really what there is to say about Arnold.

IM: How did that connection come about? What was it like when you realized: ‘Wait a minute, I think I’m working with Arnold Schwarzenegger… ?‘

RS: I was pissing my pants. It all happened on social media, where a lot of my business connections have come from. I was writing and producing my own content after I started Bandana Training, and (with a little assist from my buddy and mentor John Romaniello) team Schwarzenegger reached out to me on social media and said they really liked my message and voice, and asked me to contribute to a small article. They loved it, and asked me to contribute more, and I did, and that’s kind of how these relationships develop.

It’s cool, because it’s gotten to the point where I can pitch ideas or run these ideas by them and hear their thoughts on what I’m doing. Arnold is also unique, because he wants to spread awesome information about health and fitness, and he’s in a very powerful position to do so. But unlike a lot of media outlets who are always concerned about the business side of things, Arnold is really concerned more about sharing awesome info. It’s been a match made in heaven.

IM: How do you approach the opportunities that come your way like working with Arnold or My Diet is Better Than Yours? Is it part of a deliberate strategy, or do you just take things as they come?

RS: My parents have always encouraged me to commit. That is, if you’re going to do something, do it with everything you’ve got, with your entire heart. So that’s always been the process. but I’m flying by the seat of my pants on a daily basis.

I’m just giving it my all, and creating shit that I’m really proud of, and then the long-term plan kind of takes care of itself.

IM: How did this opportunity to be on the ABC show come about?

RS: With my background in performance, I’ve always known that being on camera is something that I wanted to do. Big picture, that’s been my goal, and it’s something I’ve really been working towards for the past year or so. And these opportunites kind of spring up, and it’s a matter of saying, “Alright! Let’s give this everything I’ve got and see what happens.”

I had some initial talks with The Biggest Loser, and I was in talks with the Bravo show Work Out New York, and then I had an opportunity for a new NBC show that brought me out to LA for a bit.

It’s an epic journey of interviews, tryouts and auditions just to get to the point where you’re in final consideration for these shows, and I was right at that point where it looked like it going to happen for the NBC show in LA, and then it DIDN’T work out. I was so bummed because it had been a dream for so long. I got on a plane to come back to NY, and I was SO bummed. I felt like I was so close to this huge goal and fell short. The very next day, like a gift from the heavens, ABC called and we started the conversation for My Diet Is Better Than Yours.

After a whirlwind couple of weeks I get on a plane to Atlanta, and I still don’t know if I’m on the show because the clients are make these decisions (on who will be their trainers) in real time. So I get there Saturday, and they won’t know if I get on the show until Sunday. I’m there for the night, and I’m nervous, and then I get the call on Sunday evening that I’m on the show, and I lose my shit. I call my brother, my family, my friends, and within half an hour wardrobe from the show is in my hotel room measuring me and sewing clothes.

IM: It sounds like you had a really positive experience.

RS: Reality TV is a wild ride. The schedule is insane, and talk about flying by the seat of your pants, you really just figure out things as you go. That’s just how the world is, because you’re dealing with real life in so many ways, but it’s like real life with higher stakes.

The crew, the cast, the other trainers were all phenomenal; they were so welcoming. They had been filming for over a month by the time I got there, so everyone else was in their groove and already knew each other, and I was the new kid on the block. But the other trainers in particular really went out of their way to make me feel welcome. It’s a competition show, we’re all competing, but it really felt a lot more like a family. The other clients were so friendly and so sweet, and in a lot of ways the show really just brought us close together.

It’s amazing how many stars have to align for something like this to happen. I’m full of gratitude that so many things worked themselves out for an opportunity like this to come to be.

When big things like this happen you start to reflect on the bigger picture, and the bigger picture for me is that I really love helping people. I love helping people rediscover their health, their strength, their sense of bad-assery. That’s what Bandana Training is about, and I kind of think that’s what EVERYTHING is all about: helping each other out as much as possible. That’s what keeps me going.

IM: What are three pieces of advice you’d give an up-and-coming trainer, or someone who wants to do this for a living?

RS: Step One: You’ve got to get really really freaking good at this stuff. You’ve got to study your ass off. When you’re in the spotlight, or when you’re filming something like this show, things are moving so fast and things are so chaotic that if you don’t understand this stuff through and through, then you won’t be shown in a good light. So I really encourage trainers to get obnoxiously good at what they do. Every training session is an opportunity to explain things better, it’s an opportunity to work on your communication skills, to understand your strengths and weaknesses, to answer the questions your clients have and to answer them in a way that is awesome and impactful. So every day is kind of a dress rehearsal.

Step Two: Surround yourself with awesome people. You’ve got to find the movers and the shakers in the industry and learn from them. Reach out to them, bug them – wait, don’t bug them, that’s annoying – but find the people that inspire you. Do what you can to help them, because they will in turn do what they can to help you.

Step Three: Create shit that you’re proud of. Don’t worry about: “Is this the right thing to write about? Are the keywords right? Is the click-through rate good?”

If you create shit that you’re proud of everything else takes care of itself. Answer the fitness questions that YOU want answered. Write articles that address things the way YOU think it should be addressed, and do it in a way that feels good to YOU because then the critics don’t matter. Nothing else matters, because you’re creating something you’re super proud of, and you can stand behind it.