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From Banker to 1-arm Pull-up and Tai Chi Champion: An Interview with Ray Shonk, PCC, SCC

Ray Shonk, PCC, SCC Front Lever

Dragon Door: How did you get started with fitness and martial arts?

Ray Shonk: I started with martial arts when I was young. My older brother was into it, and at the time he was about 6’2", 200 lb. As a former Marine, he got into kickboxing and ended up winning a championship. He taught me a bit here and there and I studied a few other disciplines too. But with school and circumstances after high school, I ended up completely falling off the fitness bandwagon.

Years later, I looked at myself and decided to start making some changes. Late one night, I was watching a kung fu movie called Twin Warriors. It was about tai chi, I thought it was pretty cool so I found a local school here in Grand Rapids and started studying it. My instructor primarily practiced wing chun, and his instructor was actually Ip Man's son!

I really got into tai chi and trained my butt off—some weeks I trained for a minimum of twelve hours a week—so I could improve as much as possible. Since I also wanted to get into better shape I started weight training, and even followed workout videos. A few years later, I had my first tournament and ended up with a gold medal. I didn't realize I'd won until they called out the numbers and I saw my wife cheering like crazy in the crowd.
Ray Shonk Tai Chi Sword

Soon after the tournament—about nine years ago—I started teaching tai chi at a local hospital and have been working with them ever since. Some of those students still train with me.

In my own training, I continued using a mix of weights with a little bit of calisthenics for a few years. Then about four years ago I decided to try switching to only calisthenics, all thanks to one of my students who introduced me to Convict Conditioning and showed me videos of Al and Danny Kavadlo. I thought Al and Danny were pretty badass—the workouts they were doing were impressive.

But at the same time, I was still working at a bank while teaching martial arts on the side. I hated having to sit behind a desk for eight hours a day. My wife suggested I look into personal training, since I’ve always been active and into fitness. After researching different certifications, I chose to study for the NASM certification. Then just two to three months after I got my certification, I left my job at the bank because I had enough clients to train full time!

I’d heard the horror stories of how it can take a couple of years to build up that kind of client base, but I think I got my NASM certification at the best time—late November, then started working part time in the gym just before January hit. Suddenly I didn't have time for both jobs, because my schedule was packed!

Dragon Door: Now, even though you had all those clients in January, people are notorious for signing up for the new year then dropping off. What was your strategy for retaining these clients in the face of that common pattern?

Ray Shonk: I built good bonds with my clients. I didn’t just say, "Ok, let's hammer out this workout and call it a day." I get to know them, and they get to know me so that we build a friend/family relationship. We chat during their 30 second breaks between sets, and I try to make the workouts fun. When they’re struggling doing pushups, I’ll drop down and do pushups with them. I really work to build a relationship. Some of my personal training clients from years ago are still with me today.
Ray Shonk Park Workout Group

Even though I’ve told them my job is to show them what to do at the gym or at home so that they don't need me anymore, many have told me flat out that if they are not coming to meet me, then they are probably not going to work out. At the same time if they want to do a spin class or bootcamp class along with our training, I encourage them to do that, too. If you want to do it, then go do it!

Then I read Danny Kavadlo's book, Everybody Needs Training after I had moved up to the position of personal training manager at the gym. I realized these were some of the same ideas I had been sharing with the trainers. So, I started recommending Danny’s book to all the new trainers. I told them, "If you want to be a good trainer, read this book!"

I was personal training manager for about two years, which was great because I was working with ten different gym locations. But I also realized that I was not getting to do what I actually enjoyed—the training part! Not too long ago, I stepped down and just went back to training. At that same time I was toying with opening a no-frills personal training studio. I’ve now opened Quest Fitness which is my home base, but I still train part time at another gym because I have a lot of clients there who I still enjoy training.
Ray Shonk Quest Fitness Class

After opening Quest Fitness, I worked hard to get my name out there. I work out in local parks and have partnered with the city of Kentwood to teach fitness classes. This summer we’re starting the city’s first outdoor calisthenics class. I designed it for them and am excited to get it started in the next couple of weeks. Last year I also started teaching tai chi classes at Grand Valley State University. I am also working with the department heads to start up Grand Valley's first ever calisthenics course. Since I will be writing the whole curriculum for it, I am very happy I attended the PCC!

Dragon Door: What brought you to the PCC?

Ray Shonk: I did the SCC first because I wasn't 100% sure if the PCC was right for me or not. I had a blast at the SCC and was a little star-struck meeting Danny! At the same time I realized that there was a lot more to it and I really needed to go to a PCC. About six months after my SCC, I went to the first ever PCC in Boston. It was so much fantastic information—exactly what I was looking for—how to teach the progressions and regressions for everything.

The PCC really nailed down the ideas that I want to include in the curriculum for the university. It was cool when the university asked what equipment we would need for the class and I was able to answer that we’d only need a pull-up bar! So, within about a year, everything will be finalized.
Ray Shonk At PCC Danny Al

By the end of the year I also want to have the book I’m working on—The Calisthenics Quest—completed and out there. My book is a "comic book nerd" approach to calisthenics. I'm a comic book and sci fi kind of guy right down to my tattoos. I wanted to take a different approach—the cover even looks like a comic book!

Dragon Door: That sounds very cool! What was your biggest takeaway from the PCC?

Ray Shonk: My biggest takeaway was learning about all the variety with each movement, and all the different ways to progress and regress each one. And with all these different ways, it’s not just a linear path. So, when one way doesn’t work, you have many other options. I also really learned how to break everything down. Not everyone can knock out 10 pull-ups, so we learned how to bring the movement down to an easier level so a client can work up to doing pull-ups. In calisthenics, it’s beyond how much weight you can push. If you can already do 50 push-ups, then it’s time to find out how many diamond pushups or one-arm push-ups you can do. It's always a challenge—I love that!

I also had a few firsts at the PCC including my first one arm pull-up! Even though I had trained towards it for a while, I never actually tried doing one until the PCC. I also got my first slow motion wrist muscle-up. It wasn't pretty, but I got there. Then I was able to get my first reverse grip back lever—it was a killer and I didn’t expect that much torque on my bicep, but I held it. My face was purple when Angelo snapped a photo for me!
Ray Shonk One-Arm Pull-Up

Dragon Door: Those are very serious firsts!

Ray Shonk: It was fantastic weekend and everyone at the PCC was just outstanding. Even those who were newer to calisthenics were still blowing it away. It was also inspiring to see a really big guy hold a human flag for 9-10 seconds. Many people think that only smaller lighter guys can do it, but he was just killing it. He also had great form—I was a little envious!

Dragon Door: Now that you’ve had the PCC experience, do you have any new goals for your own training?

Ray Shonk: Now, my goal is to improve what I’m already doing while working towards other moves like planches. I’m also meeting with our local city park planners to help organize the first calisthenics park in the Grand Rapids, Kentwood area. It’s likely we’ll be able to set it up in the fall and make sure it’s ready for the summer. I'm trying to bring calisthenics to Michigan, but it's an uphill fight because most people just want to run on a treadmill, run outside, or lift as heavy as possible.

Dragon Door: How are you sharing your message?

Ray Shonk: Since there are many nice local parks, I do my own workouts or train some of my clients on nice days in different parks. After we hit the whole workout, other people at the park usually have questions and want my business card and more info. I like to explain that I'm not against weightlifting or cardio. If someone loves running or weightlifting, then do it, but those are not the only avenues of fitness. We always hear that if you want to get fit, then you have to lift weights—or if you want to lose weight then you have to run on a treadmill. The real truth is, if you want to get fit, you really just need to get active and eat right.

RayShonkFrontLevel thumbnailRay Shonk, PCC, SCC is a personal trainer in Grand Rapids Michigan, a adjunct professor at GVSU and owner of Quest Fitness. He currently specializes in Calisthenics, Sports Performance and Martial Arts training. When he is not training he spends time brewing beer, and spending time with friends and family. Learn more at