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An Interview with TJ Sawyer, Cardiologist and PCC Instructor

TJ Sawyer outdoor training elbow lever

Dragon Door: How did you first become interested in bodyweight exercise?

TJ Sawyer: It's a funny story! For years I'd worked out in a gym doing the standard weight lifting routine—five sets of five on the bench press, curls and all that stuff. But about five years ago I saw the Cirque du Soleil show, Mystère, in Las Vegas and saw someone perform a human flag for the very first time. I didn't really know what it was at the time, but the performer was not only able to do a human flag, he hopped up the pole just using his hands while staying straight out. At the time I thought that it had to be an illusion—he seemed to defy physics!

As the show went on I saw more amazing feats of bodyweight strength—and instead of just enjoying the show, I kept thinking that these guys were not in the gym doing five sets of five on the bench press. The idea stuck with me, and when I got home I started looking around on the internet, trying to find out how they were training. That was sort of how I discovered Al Kavadlo, and Mike Fitch from GBM, by watching YouTube videos. Within 6 months, I completely abandoned weightlifting and was only doing bodyweight exercises.

It’s been five years, and every once in a while I will throw a kettlebell around, but that's the extent of lifting weights anymore. I really enjoy bodyweight training and have found it to be more fulfilling because there's just so much that goes into learning the progressions.

Dragon Door:
Did you attend the PCC for your own training, or are you planning to instruct others?

TJ Sawyer: I really came to the PCC for my own knowledge. I turned 40 last September, and the previous year I decided my goal was to do 10 muscle-ups before I really had any idea on how to do them! I watched some videos online and thought that because I could do a lot of pull-ups that I'd be able to do a muscle-up. Of course I was humbled, embarrassed, and shocked at how incredibly difficult it was! After about 6-7 months of near daily training, I could do one ugly muscle-up. Somehow, on my 40th birthday, I went into the gym with about 4-5 goals and even though I'd never before come close to doing 10 muscle ups, I was able to do 10 very ugly, kipping muscle-ups on my 40th birthday.

After that, I wanted to improve my form, and saw the PCC Workshop when it was first announced. I’d been following Al Kavadlo on YouTube, was following his blog and had bought a couple of his books—which is how I found Dragon Door.

When I first heard about the PCC, I knew I wanted to do it at some point. I wanted the chance to train with and learn from Al and Danny who have the knowledge to help me through moves like the muscle-up. I found so much knowledge at the workshop, and so many small cues that many times it would just click and I was able to make huge advances over just a few days. But to answer your question, I attended strictly for my own knowledge and enjoyment.

I enjoy bodyweight training a lot. As I have told a many people, it's my "Prozac." I enjoy it, and look forward to going to the gym at 5:00AM. I know I'll have that time and will be set for the day. As a cardiologist, my days can get long and stressful. And at work, I see the flip side—many people who have never done any type of physical activity—and just how inactivity can devastate the body over time. But that isn't even the motivating factor for my training, I just enjoy it so much.

Dragon Door: Glad you mentioned how this type of exercise can help with stress…

TJ Sawyer: So many times, I’ve been stressed out, wound up, and know that the day is going to be tough. But, I'll go to the gym and "harness the rage"—that’s my phrase for it—and after about an hour I’m able to let it all out. It’s been very important for me.

Dragon Door: What was the biggest idea you took home from the PCC workshop?

TJ Sawyer: I was very impressed the first day when Al talked about how some people will be very good at certain things but not others. Sure enough, some attendees were just phenomenal. But it was very interesting to see how some people could dominate the bar moves, yet weren’t as good at some of the floor-based moves like handstands. It was easy to see that they hadn’t yet spent time on the other moves.

Before now, I assumed that they would just dominate on everything, but the idea of training specificity still holds true, and its necessary for everyone to work on these moves to do them well. Then there are a very few people like Al, Danny and yourself who are good at almost everything—which was impressive to see.

I also saw some interesting similarities between the personal training industry and when I see patients. It’s frustrating when a patient is paying for my expertise but then just doesn’t listen, or would rather do something they read in a magazine. I even had a patient will say that their bowling partner said they should stop taking a particular medicine! It’s an interesting everyday parallel, and it hadn’t occurred to me that it would happen outside the medical profession. The challenge is getting our patients or clients to know that we have their best interests at heart, and help them get out of their own way so we can best help them with what we’re trained to do!

Dragon Door: What moves are you working on right now?

TJ Sawyer: I'm always trying to improve the one-arm pushup and the muscle-up. I’m still the most fascinated with the muscle-up and am constantly working to make it better and with less kip. Al also gave me some very good tips for improving my press from frog stand to handstand, so I will be spending a lot of time on it as well as the pistol.

Dragon Door: What was most challenging for you at the PCC?

TJ Sawyer: Back bridging is difficult for me, mostly because I hadn’t put much time into it yet. While I was terrible at it, it’s true of any time someone tries a new move for the first time. Now that I’m working on it, I know that I’m going to be horrible at it for the first sessions, but once I fight through the horrible stage it will start to get a lot better.

The human flag progressions are also challenging, I’m very tall, and while I haven’t given up on the goal of a doing a full press flag, progress is slow. I still don’t know if it’s something I’ll eventually be able to get, but I haven’t given up, and I’m continuing to work on. I’ll just keep grinding away at the progressions and it’ll come along.

As I've gotten older I've realized that I can't just push through things that hurt—when I was younger, I could and would fully recover by taking a day off. That’s not the case anymore, unfortunately. There's a fine line between smart and lazy—you can't stop every time something is just a little uncomfortable.

Recognizing the difference between discomfort and pain something I struggle with a lot. When I’m warmed up and the adrenaline is flowing, I’ll think it’s ok at the time, but three hours later after cooling off I’ll notice it might be more injury than discomfort. So, as I get older, I’m learning how to be smarter about my training—and to get out of the bodybuilding mindset when structuring my training.

Dragon Door: It's also a challenge to fully understand how some of the advanced progressions can be nearly one-rep-max exercises, and how to program around them. Where do you see yourself gong with bodyweight training in the future?

TJ Sawyer: Now that I am approaching 41, I’m wondering how much longer can continue to progress. Even though I think at some point age will catch up with me, I feel like I still have plenty of time. It was very encouraging to watch some of the other older participants at the PCC.

I remember reading an article or interview on the Dragon Door website about someone who was still practicing 1 arm chin-ups and 1 arm elbow levers at 71 years old. I hope to continue to practice, progress, learn new moves, and perfect the ones I can already do.

I feel very lucky to have found a physical activity that I enjoy so much. I see patients all day long who are overweight and out of shape. I tell them that they need to move—and it doesn’t matter if that just means walking, or putting an exercise bike in front of the TV—they need to do SOMETHING. I encourage them to find something that they really like to do, so that they’ll stick with it. But that’s the difficulty, many of them can’t seem to find something they truly enjoy.

I feel incredibly fortunate that I found something that I enjoy and I look forward to doing. I like it so much that the one day during the week that I take as a rest day seems to be harder on me than actually training. After a recovery day, I look forward to getting back to my training and continuing to progress.

Dragon Door: What’s your advice for someone wanting to start with bodyweight exercise?

TJ Sawyer: Just start—that would be my biggest piece of advice. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing when I first started. I’d seen someone do a human flag in Mystère, and didn’t even thing it was a real thing at first! Next I saw a video of Al doing 20 muscle-ups on YouTube and imagined it must not have been too hard—until I tried to do one. Then I kept reading and looking online until I started learning more about the moves. Finally I began to see more and more about the form, progressing, learning, and finding new advice.
The biggest thing is to just get in there and try it—it’s like the advice I give to my patients—just start moving and it will go from there.

TJ Sawyer outdoor elbow leverTJ Sawyer is a Cardiologist in Seattle, WA he can be contacted by email at