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How To Get Into Scary Shape, An Interview with Mark Lawson, RKC-II

Mark Lawson Get Up Bridge
Dragon Door: Dan John mentioned you have a background in acting along with fitness, are you still doing both?

Mark Lawson: It's funny, I was thinking about this interview just before you called. I’d read your interview with Geoffrey Hemingway that was posted last week, and said to my wife that I felt like you’d already talked to me, because we have a similar history.

I didn’t know I wanted to be an actor until I was in college. At the same time, I’d started really getting into weight training and Brazilian jiu jitsu. This was 1998, and I had to drive 45 minutes each way to train at a gym with my instructor, a blue belt.

After training for a couple of months with him, I decided I wanted to fight within a year. I needed to do it to work through the chip on my shoulder from some typical high school bullying. If I could fight, then I felt like I could purge some of that. I was also taking a weightlifting class at college with a really good strength coach who taught me the basics like the squat and the press. This was the only formal instruction I had before I started doing my own fitness research. And by the way, I won the fight.

Then, I transferred to Boston Conservatory for musical theater and immediately found out I needed to soften up a lot. All the fight training and the anger from when I was younger that I’d used to fuel the training to fight was the opposite of musical theater school. I fondly remember my Alexander Technique teacher who used to really get on to me for being too stiff and not breathing deeply enough. One day she was walking me around the room, holding me by the base of my neck while telling me to relax. I freaked out because I didn’t know what to do—and it took the next three years to figure out that I don't have to wear this "armor" all the time.

Next, I went to London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, LAMDA, for a year. All of my classmates were moving to New York, but I just never felt at home there. I decided to give film and television a shot in Los Angeles. Right away, I was pretty lucky and got my first job within a year—then I didn’t work again for four years!

In around 2005/2006, I was working at a cool indie video store, and one day a regular customer asked me if I did any personal training. I was making $7/hour at the video store, so I said, sure! Within three months I studied for and passed the ACE exam and was training at a gym. I bought my first couple of kettlebells and was just dumbfounded by the get-up. The only reference I had for it was the original CrossFit website. From there, I dove into personal training, opened my business, and started studying kettlebell training.

While I really liked barbells and kettlebells, I realized that instead of paying a gym for the opportunity to train their clients, I could train clients privately with kettlebells. Or at the very least, I could be more economical with time and gym floor space.

Then, out of nowhere—after four years of not working as an actor—I booked a soap opera, One Life to Live, in New York. I screen tested on a Wednesday and by the following Wednesday I’d sold my truck, and moved out of my apartment. I committed to my girlfriend that we would make it work, and I moved to New York. For the next three and a half years I was back and forth from LA to New York. During that time, we got engaged, married, and when the show was over, she was pregnant with our first kid.

While I was working on the show I was also getting more into fitness. My friends on the show knew I was a trainer, and they wanted to learn good protocols to get ready for shirtless scenes. At the time, I could spend 2-3 hours at the gym. I was almost getting paid to workout!

In around 2008, I went to a one day seminar with Mike Mahler and finally started to own the get-up and the swing—but I was still in a powerlifting phase. When I saw myself on TV, I thought I looked like a brick! I had no neck and since I already have a short torso, I looked like a stunted action figure. I'm being really self-critical, but when you're on TV three days a week, you have a lot of time to watch yourself. So I started to adjust the way I was training. Long blocks of TRX, calisthenics, or kettlebells, with only a few months dedicated to barbell strength training.

After the show ended and I came home, I didn't work in acting again for a long time. Before our second child was born, I started to think more about economy of time and focus in my training. I’m a big believer in minimalism and the idea of the minimum dose. I canceled my gym membership when I realized I was throwing money away. Since I already had a couple of kettlebells at home, I matted our two parking spots in our condo building, hung a TRX and a pull-up bar, and added two more kettlebells. Around that same time, I started to train for the RKC, which took me a few years.

Dragon Door: When did you do your HKC?

Mark Lawson: I took the HKC in 2015 with Max Shank in Encinitas and just loved it. He is an inspired coach and thinker. I loved his gym, Ambition Athletics, because it reflects what I was doing in the garage. I realized I wasn’t a lone weirdo! Others were also concerned with the same things, they wanted the biggest bang for their buck.

I was hoping to do my RKC with Dan John, but at the time it didn't seem like he was coming to the west coast. Since I loved how Max taught the HKC, I took my RKC with him. But I decided to wait to take my RKC-II with Dan.

I love how Dan John dials training down to the marrow of what needs to happen in a session—and what needs to happen over the course of your career as an athlete, and as a human. That’s what it’s really about for me.

I don’t want my clients to just blindly follow what I’m telling them to do, I want them to be engaged as a participant and develop life skills. When I’m training someone to do a double kettlebell front squat, they’re not just squatting, I want them to imagine they have an impossible task, some sort of life or death scenario where they have to stand up.

My motto which is, "train as if" which could be anything, but also ties back into acting—the magic "as if" of acting. If the deadlift is pulling a fallen tree off of a person you love, you’d better lift the damn tree! I try to teach people how to use their inner lives, and that training time is not just physical. I like to think that each workout is its own little journey. I want my clients to learn how to be physically intuitive and listen.

I also want my clients to have their own minimal home gym so they can experience the economy of time and the freedom to train when they want to train. When I canceled my gym membership, I realized that a one hour workout was actually a two-hour time commitment. With one child and another on the way, auditions, training clients, and writing scripts, I need to cap my workouts at 45 minutes a day, 4-5 days a week. And if I can get that done, then I feel happy and lucky.
Mark Lawson Kettlebell Press

Dragon Door: What did you learn from Dan John at your RKC-II?

Mark Lawson: He has a philosopher's approach to training and to life—it makes sense, he's a theology professor! One of the things that really strikes me about Dan is that he has a dual nature, and I consider myself to be pretty dual-natured as well. I have my artistic side that flows with my training side.

These exercises and movements can become whatever you want them to be—meditative, prayerful, whatever you need—if you're conscious. The big key is to consciously approach training. That’s something I've always gotten from Dan’s work. Keep it simple, and the simplicity also allows you to go to another place, mentally, physically, spiritualty. I really got a sense of that when I met him. He has experienced the bigger picture—and he's shared it with people all over the world. He's just an exceptional dude.

Dragon Door: I agree! Had a chance to catch up with him recently on the phone. Every time we talk, I learn something!

Mark Lawson: And he's always looking to learn. At the RKC-II, I noticed that if someone came up with a different way of using or explaining a cue, you could tell he was open to learning it as well. In the fitness industry there are usually a lot of know-it-alls who just want to sell you their product, their book, and their ideas, but they don’t really want to evolve the community. Dan is all about community, and even regularly has an open workout at his home. I wish more trainers and coaches—particularly personal trainers—were like that. As a father of a five-year-old, a four-year-old, and a five-month-old, I know that they’re not going to have even the physical education I had as a kid in the 80s. Dan points out a multi-generational approach to fitness, and how to create the grit that's been lost in the younger generation. I bring my girls out to the garage when I'm working out. They know what a swing looks like, and my 40lb daughter can pick up the 16kg (35lb) kettlebell and carry it across the driveway!

Dragon Door: That's huge and super important! Did you have an influence like that as a child?

Mark Lawson: As a kid, I wasn’t into sports as much as my peers. For me it was movies. The biggest movie of our generation was Star Wars, but for me, it was Conan the Barbarian. My parents let me watch whatever I wanted, so I was very lucky. Even at 38 years old, Conan the Barbarian is still my favorite film of all time. Arnold came out of nowhere! It’s still a testament to everything I feel when I go out to my garage to work out. It inspired my physical curiosity.

Dragon Door: Sounds like you know "what's best in life!" Since you’ve earned your HKC, RKC, and now your RKC-II, what originally inspired you to seek certification at all?

Mark Lawson: First, I simply wanted to train in gyms and be legitimate. I wanted to have a certification to show that I had spent time and effort. I started with the ACE personal trainer certification. One reason I chose that one is that when I was in high school, my Dad who is an attorney, randomly decided to be a group fitness instructor. He self-studied for three months and took the ACE exam.

Next, I got the NSCA certified personal trainer cert, because it’s a good "book cert" that every gym seems to recognize. Then, I took the HKC because I wanted to start establishing myself as a kettlebell specialist and wanted to get some exposure to the top experts in the field. I hope to be a Senior RKC in the future.

I love the teaching elements. Going to the workshops has really helped give me the tools, the "arrows in my quiver" to teach. And I just love the kettlebell as a tool. It has a martial quality along with an odd-object primitive quality.

Dragon Door: Do you have a favorite kettlebell workout?

Mark Lawson: I like a simple breathing ladder workout: one swing, one breath, two swings, two breaths, and you just go and go and go and go. It’s evolved for me a bit, but the first time I did it, I went to a place I had never gone before—even in all the times I’d tried to teach myself to meditate. Nothing gets me into the present like a silent breathing ladder workout with nasal breathing only.

Another that I do at least once a week is a get-up and swings workout:
  • Get-up L/R
  • One-hand kettlebell swings 10/10
During 25 minutes, I "run the rack" from lightest to heaviest, and bounce around in sizes, too.

Dragon Door: What else do you like about kettlebell training?

Mark Lawson: When I was finishing up the show in New York, my training partner and I both deadlifted 405. It was a big deal because I weighed just 178-179lb. But, we stopped because we were both getting banged up. When I came home and cancelled my gym membership, I spent the next four years only training with kettlebells and calisthenics.

At random, I decided to get a gym membership for a month to see what I could still do, and because I was considering doing a bodybuilding competition as a weird challenge since I’m almost 40. On my second day at the gym, I found I could still pull 355 for multiple singles even though I hadn’t touched a barbell in four years. I figured I maintained this level of strength from one arm kettlebell swings, one leg kettlebell work, pistol squats, and other basics.

Dragon Door: Along with Conan, of course, what else has inspired your choice of training styles and physique goals?

Mark Lawson: I'm really interested in the idea of 3-days-a-week old school whole body workouts, but with kettlebells. The Sandow era guys had awesome physiques and were only training 3-4 days a week. There's a threshold where you can achieve a certain level of physique by just putting in an 80% effort—even while not really going too crazy with diet. Similarly, a well-rounded kettlebell routine can develop a real Spartan looking physique. As an actor, if you put a shield and sword in my hand, you’re going to believe I know what to do with them. I hope.

Dragon Door: Now that you’ve earned your RKC-II, and you mentioned that you're looking at directing, what's the next thing you're working towards?

Mark Lawson: I'm writing a script right now that's a body horror piece. Are you a genre or horror fan?

Dragon Door: Like Cronenberg, or Dario Argento? Yeah!

Mark Lawson: You're totally talking my language. I’m basically writing Pumping Iron by way of Cronenberg. I don't want to say much more yet, but I’m a genre and horror freak. Male-centric body horror isn’t made very often, The Fly from Cronenberg being I think the best. I'm planning for this script to be my first feature.

Dragon Door: Any other training ambitions?

Mark Lawson: Along with opening my own gym, a dream training scenario for me would be to find a small production company or studio that would be interested in an on-site gym and training program built around the garage gym and kettlebell ethic. As an actor, writer, director I know a huge part of my process is physical. Harnessing the value of physical culture could be a great asset in a film or TV production environment. Being such a genre guy, I would love to find a small genre company and get everybody in "scary shape."

Mark Lawson, RKC-II can be contacted via his Dragon Door instructor page follow him on Instagram @themarkmlawson.