John Wolf of Onnit: “Breathing is by far the most important physiological process that we can control and through exercising such control, indirectly impact so many other systems”

Breathing is by far the most important physiological process that we can control and through exercising such control, indirectly impact so many other systems. It is great to see that this is a more frequent topic of discussion as we explore ways to optimize our health and performance. There are so many different breathing techniques […]

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Breathing is by far the most important physiological process that we can control and through exercising such control, indirectly impact so many other systems. It is great to see that this is a more frequent topic of discussion as we explore ways to optimize our health and performance. There are so many different breathing techniques that can be used to elicit different outcomes from up-regulating our nervous system before activity, down-regulating to recover from stress or even using the breath as a meaningful way to decompress the body and help it heal itself.

As a part of our series about “How Athletes Optimize Their Mind & Body For Peak Performance”, I had the pleasure of interviewing John Wolf of Onnit.

Onnit is an Austin, TX-based health and wellness brand focused on encouraging a peak level of performance through the best in nutritional supplementation, health-conscious foods, and unconventional fitness equipment and training.

John Wolf is Onnit’s Chief Fitness Officer, and an expert in unconventional training methods such as kettlebell, steel club, and suspension training. With 16-plus years of experience in the fitness industry, he has worked with rehab clients and athletes of all levels. He moves like Spider Man and can deadlift more than 500 pounds any day of the week.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to learn more about your personal background. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I was born and raised in and around Monterey, a small community on the coast of California that is known for its natural beauty and is a common tourist attraction. Though the beauty of the area is undeniable, that was not what the area contributed most to my development and personal perspective. I find that the greatest gift that growing up in the Monterey area has provided is that the environment helped nurture a level of curiosity, openness and acceptance for people from all walks of life.

There are a variety of common themes that people growing up in Monterey are likely to share. One such theme is the influence of the military on our families and our upbringing, as various military installations have been present in the area and were a primary driver of the local economy for several decades. For example, my grandfathers on both sides of my family settled in the area upon retiring from military service. Through this common theme, many of the families that I grew up around were the result of military servicemen marrying abroad and making their way back to the states. These families are a huge driving factor in the diversity that was present in the area. Growing up in Monterey, it is common to be exposed to people of various ethnic backgrounds and extremely common for people to be of mixed ethnic makeup. I, for example, am of Mexican, Japanese and English descent.

Though it took me leaving the area to fully realize the impact that growing up in such a diverse area had on me, I cannot discount how much the early exposure to other cultures helped shape my point of view on the world. Through visiting friends while growing up, I was able to learn about what was different in their cultures and gained an appreciation for the customs, rhythms and rituals practiced within each household. This allowed me the opportunity to learn how to effectively interact and integrate within their families and communities, further enriching my life through sharing meaningful experiences. To this day, I rely heavily on these past experiences to help build bridges with people I interact with in my life and career with hopes to continue sharing such enriching experiences with them.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career working with high level professional athletes? We’d love to hear the story.

There were several big contributors of inspiration that helped support me in walking this path and have shaped my belief systems. Those would be my experience with my first mentor through my participation in martial arts in my formative years and my witnessing the awe-inspiring resilience and determination of my developmentally disabled little brother.

I cannot discount the impact my experiences within the martial arts had and continue to have in shaping who I have become. My sensei was not only a great teacher that helped me build confidence through developing my physical capacities but also served as one of my greatest male role models. The dojo was treated as a sacred space and within it each of us was held accountable for our actions. We had a well-defined code of conduct and were expected to understand and abide by our bylaws, which helped foster a belief system that centered on personal responsibility, diligently applying yourself in all pursuits and acknowledging that we needed to strive to better ourselves mentally, physically and spiritually.

Although my first exposure to these lessons started when I was only four years old, the constant reinforcement of these beliefs and being held to such standards greatly impacted my personal development. Every uncomfortable situation in training or competition was an opportunity to reinforce these values or fail to meet the expectations. There were so many of these circumstances happening on a daily basis, and it was often that I did not rise to the occasion but those times were met with support and encouragement by our teacher when needed while constantly holding me accountable to my actions or inaction. Recognizing how my sensei was nurturing while reinforcing increased expectations as I developed greater abilities has provided a lense through which I see my role as a father, coach and mentor now.

All of my siblings are significantly younger than I am. This allowed me to experience being an only child for many years with all of the perks associated with that, but it wasn’t until I became a big brother that I realized how much more I loved that new paradigm. When I was ten years old, my eldest little brother was born and the celebration of his arrival was interrupted by the realization that he was experiencing extremely severe seizures and that this was something that was going to shape his reality for the rest of his life.

As this reality set in and our family faced it day in and day out, there was a very real fear that one of these seizures might be life-threatening at some point. The decision was made to move forward with an experimental surgical procedure to get these seizures under control. The procedure was a hemispherectomy, removal of half of the brain and though the goal would be to extend the life of my little brother, the other potential outcomes were not so attractive. The doctors shared a likelihood that he may never develop the ability to walk or speak on one end of the spectrum of possibility and that he could be a vegetable on the other end.

I am very happy to report that he has defied the odds multiple times with this first procedure and others after. He developed the ability to walk and talk, largely being inspired by our younger brother, and that he has the most amazing sense of humor. Though by many standards we might hold ourselves to, my little brother is at a disadvantage, but he does not live through that lens. Every day is a beautiful adventure for him, he genuinely loves every minute of life with little to no acknowledgment of anything he lacks. He has taught our family so many valuable lessons and he serves as a constant reminder of the potential each of us has to overcome adversity with a smile on our face. Coaching puts me in a position of being able to support people with the hopes of reinforcing their ability to do the same.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

I have always felt supported by my mentors, my friends and family, and the teams I have worked within or built. So much of any success I have experienced is the result of the help and encouragement provided by these people but if I was to single out one person that has provided the most impactful help and encouragement, it would have to be my fellow coach, Shane Heins.

When you are carving your path through life, particularly as a business owner or other change-maker, it can be a lonely road. You can have people around you cheering you on and wishing you well or even putting in work beside you to achieve some shared goals and still feel isolated in your unique role or purpose. The standards you hold yourself to may differ from others and that was the case for me. When people were done with their workday and able to enjoy their social life, I was often up late at night learning more about exercise science, management, marketing or personal development. This extended to how I spent my vacations, often taking my time off to attend seminars rather than sun worship on a beach. It was through this constant desire for self-improvement that Shane and I connected at one such seminar and have continued to support each other since.

With Shane living in Canada and me being in California, we spent years coordinating our schedules to attend the same seminars, ascended within training organizations side by side, developed and delivered workshops and seminars of our own together and apart, and now work towards a shared mission and vision for how we can serve people through the work we do at Onnit. I cannot put into words how valuable it is to have the ability to work with someone that is so aligned in purpose over the course of what has now been over a dozen years with no end in sight.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your sports career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

I remember being asked to model for a fitness DVD project by a coach I knew that was being produced by Black Belt Magazine in Los Angeles and was so excited by the proposition that I didn’t think to ask what was going to be asked of me before emphatically agreeing.

The shoot was actually an awesome experience, I was able to share the experience modeling with a close friend and fellow coach. It provided a first glimpse at what it took to put together a video production and I think I performed well even though I wasn’t able to specifically prepare for the tasks at hand. I would say that in many ways, this experience opened my eyes to the possibilities I have explored in my career since, so I am very glad that I agreed to participate.

What was funny about this experience was not what happened during the shoot but the price I paid immediately after the rush wore off. After finishing up the shoot, we grabbed some burgers to eat on the road as we started making our way back to Monterey. My triceps got worked so hard during the two days of shooting that they were in a spasm and would not allow me to bend my elbow to bring the food to my mouth. I had to place my hand on the dash and use that as leverage to bring my mouth to the food to successfully take each bite and couldn’t stop laughing at how feeble I felt and at the discomfort I was in.

I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything but to learn how important it is to take preparation for such an event seriously. I do my best to prepare myself or other people I work with for success in any productions so the experience is as enjoyable as can be and to minimize the possibility they won’t be able to enjoy their hard-earned post-production meal!

What advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your career?

I would highly recommend young people to say yes and take advantage of as many opportunities to expand their knowledge and skills through varied work experiences. As I look back on the many jobs I have done before committing to this career, I realize that the eclectic set of skills I acquired through the disparate job functions I have fulfilled have continued to benefit me as I have ascended to various leadership roles.

Working in retail helped me develop face to face sales skills, call center experience helped me refine my verbal communication and consultative sales approach, hospitality work provided essential real-time problem solving while making sure to sell an experience, working with autistic children allowed me to understand models for behavior change, the jobs I had in finance helped provide insights into managing that aspect of various businesses including my own.

Each of the above work experiences contributes to my ability to adapt effectively as a coach, manager and leader as the demands vary from day-to-day. Although there is certainly value in specialization, I find equal if not greater value in having a foundation of general skills and experiences to build on and look for such experience in those I work with.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

Over the past few years, my focus has been on developing a series of digital home fitness products that make the holistic approach to training we teach at Onnit available for our customers no matter where they are. We package these products as 6-week training programs called ‘Onnit 6’ that each focus on one tool or method of training. By focusing on one at a time, the user is developing a foundation of skill and familiarity that can continue to be refined and is a platform for ongoing progress. People like making progress and tend to continue improving their lifestyle if we are making training fun and engaging while accessible and effective.

Throughout this last year, we have focused on supporting our community better through coordinating the ‘Onnit 6 Challenge’, a fitness challenge that has people working through an Onnit 6 program of their choosing over the course of a predetermined six-week period of time. This allows people to share their experiences with like-minded people as they work towards their personal fitness goals and allows my team and I to facilitate the experience for thousands of people at a time by supporting them within our Onnit Tribe Facebook group.

The addition of these challenges and the plan to continue improving how we support people working through them continues to excite me because so many powerful stories are being shared by the participants about the impact their participation has made on them. People have gone through multiple challenges and continued to evolve before our eyes. Playing such a meaningful role in so many people’s lives through our work has provided the type of fulfillment and purpose I think we all hope to experience in our careers.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As you know, athletes often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you teach to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high stress situations?

Do you teach any special or particular breathing techniques to help optimize yourself?

Breathing is by far the most important physiological process that we can control and through exercising such control, indirectly impact so many other systems. It is great to see that this is a more frequent topic of discussion as we explore ways to optimize our health and performance. There are so many different breathing techniques that can be used to elicit different outcomes from upregulating our nervous system before activity, downregulating to recover from stress or even using the breath as a meaningful way to decompress the body and help it heal itself.

The work that I like referring to for optimizing breathing mechanics is called Foundation Training by Dr. Eric Goodman. Through this practice, you can increase the volume of your breath, increase the strength of your respiratory muscles and gain such a powerful understanding of how your breathing impacts the function of your body and overall health. This is serious work that is sure to help enhance your performance in any physical practice as well as every other breathing technique you practice.

Acknowledging the investment needed to really maximize the benefits of breathing doesn’t mean that you cannot do something very impactful that is accessible to nearly everyone. Dealing with daily stressors is commonplace for most of us and using breathing techniques to manage stress is one of the most effective and healthy ways to do so. One technique that everyone should have at their disposal is called Box Breathing. This is a great technique to help calm your nervous system and bring you back to a state of relaxation in a matter of minutes.

  • Step 1: Breathe in counting to four slowly. Be aware of the air entering your lungs.
  • Step 2: Hold your breath for 4 seconds. Try to avoid exhaling for 4 seconds.
  • Step 3: Slowly exhale through your mouth for 4 seconds. Do so smoothly and evenly.
  • Step 4: Hold your breath for 4 seconds. Try to avoid inhaling for 4 seconds.
  • Step 5: Repeat for several rounds or minutes.

Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?

The modern lifestyle tends to throw more stimulation at us than we are accustomed to and that often leads to dilution of our focus and a state of distractibility. I like to address my ability to focus with three primary interventions…controlling my external environment, rebalancing my physical energy through movement and addressing my state of mind through conscious breathing practices.

When we are in a state of hyperstimulation or distraction, it is important to acknowledge the impact our environment has on us. The first question I ask myself when I find myself challenged by a lack of focus is how I can control my environment. Is there a way to reduce things that are pulling me away from the task at hand within my immediate environment? Can I control this or is it a constant reality in the space I am in? Is it possible to relocate if I cannot control these variables?

Whether I can or cannot control my immediate environment, the next step I like to take is to address any excess energy or tension in my body. A light movement session focusing on integrating movement and breath is a great way to calm the nervous system down if I am feeling anxious or build up enough energy to tackle the task at hand if I am feeling run down. The latter may even require finishing up with some explosive movements or jumps to really ramp up the amount of energy available.

Continuing the theme of regulating my internal state gets more granular from movement practice to address the body to specific breathing practices to address the mind. Depending on what I feel will enhance the ability to focus at that time, the techniques used may calm or stimulate my state of mind. Box breathing, which has been mentioned earlier in this interview, is a great way to calm the mind and center yourself. To build energy within the body, other breathing techniques are more appropriate. A technique that has grown in popularity and has proven effective for me is Wim Hoff breathing.

How about your body? Can you share a few strategies that you use to optimize your body for peak performance?

Peak performance can look so different given the specific venue we measure our performance in so depending on the season and my area of focus, my strategies for enhancing performance will vary. That doesn’t mean that everything changes though. The foundation that supports my peak performance is built on my daily movement and mobility practice, breathwork, sleep and nutrition.

Developing a daily movement and mobility practice is different than ‘working out’ it is more about enriching your relationship with your own body. Having an ongoing conversation with it and addressing its needs daily rather than waiting for something to happen that is more costly. Performing a full-body mobility routine to start the day serves as a health and function check-in on every joint and the associated connective tissues. Having an understanding of how each part of your body is functioning can drive better decision-making about how to address the issues and what kind of activities may be on the menu that day.

Breathwork is a huge body of work and can take on the path to very pragmatic or very esoteric practices. I tend to lean towards the former and highly suggest people first focus on how to increase the potential to breathe by integrating breath with posture to enhance overall function. As mentioned earlier, my favorite place to direct people to start this practice is to my friend Dr. Eric Goodman’s body of work, Foundation Training.

Sleep and nutrition are the keys to recovery. Optimizing sleep sounds simple but can be challenging for many of us. Establishing a nightly pre-bed routine can often help overcome a busy mind. Mine involves logging any uncompleted tasks of the day to unburden my mind from having to track them, journaling experiences from that day that I am grateful for, CBD and mineral supplementation, and creating a dark and cool environment set at 68 degrees. There are a ton of nutritional philosophies that people subscribe to so I won’t suggest one over any other outside of recommending that each of us consider how our diet may be contributing to unnecessary inflammation and make adjustments over time to address that.

High performance athletes often experience times when things are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a mind state of Flow more often in our lives?

Developing practices that contribute to finding flow state is a huge part of what we do at Onnit and is the concept behind the name of our company. Whether we are competing in sport or making a presentation in a boardroom, the idea that we find ourselves in flow and take a moment to celebrate that with a description of being on it…or Onnit is what we do and who we are.

The most direct way that I have been able to access flow state is through intelligently cycling through training themes and progressing my movement practice in sophistication. These are often overlooked variables in managing someone’s training. More often than not, people measure progress in purely objective ways such as the number of pounds they lift and progress their training solely focusing on improving this metric. This is an easy trap to fall into and often creates a state of diminishing returns, particularly if we hope to find ourselves in flow more often than not.

To find flow, it is important to find ways to challenge ourselves not only in those ways that we have found comfort in but in those that take us out of our comfort zone. By stretching the container of our current skill set, we find the intersection of challenge and skill that is required to elicit flow state. Changing our orientation to gravity by incorporating ground-based skills, progressing your movement practice by utilizing new tools or methods or stringing together movements you are familiar with by utilizing complexes or sequential movement flows are all sound strategies to help find flow state.

Do you have any meditation practices that you use to help you in your life? We’d love to hear about it.

During times of great personal challenge and/or growth, I have found that the utilization of Mantra Meditation is hugely beneficial to help reinforce the mindset that is needed to transcend my current situation and step into a new reality. This form of meditation is a simple but powerful tool to set your intention and choose how you want to show up in facing the challenges of the day or life in general. Following the steps outlined below and executing can be a gamechanger…

  • Find or create a mantra/affirmation that represents your intention
  • Get comfortable in a distraction-free environment
  • Focus on your breath and find a cadence that allows you to settle into a calm state
  • Repeat your mantra for a number of repetitions or time. I like to match one relaxed breath with each statement of the mantra.

Many of us are limited by our self talk, or by negative mind chatter, such as regrets, and feelings of inferiority. Do you have any suggestions about how to “change the channel” of our thoughts? What is the best way to change our thoughts?

The chatter inside of our heads can definitely lead to self-defeating thoughts as the voice we hear is often the inner critic rather than one that supports our needs and can contribute to the appropriate actions to manifest our intended outcomes. Freeing ourselves from associating that inner voice with our own identity is a great first step and can do wonders for taking greater ownership over what we think and feel about ourselves.

The body of work that I recommend people explore to help gain a better understanding of how to frame this separation is a book called “The Untethered Soul’ by Michael Singer. I have read this book several times and every time I have made the investment of time and energy to do so has resulted in measurable benefit.

In addition to reading this book, I highly recommend learning how powerful the language we use within our inner dialogue can be. The way we frame our personal story to ourselves and in communication with others will largely determine how we perceive the life we live and the world around us. Learning and applying a framework of language that supports the most wanted results is something I have invested in personally and professionally. I bring in my friend, Mark Englund, who is an expert on the subject to speak to my team for a language tune-up annually. He has a powerful online course that you can access called the Core Language Upgrade that I highly recommend.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are by all accounts a very successful person. How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Any success I have experienced is purely a function of being of service to those that have provided me the opportunity. I remember when there were only a handful of people that had entrusted me with the duty of being their coach and I was deeply honored to find myself in that trusted position. That quickly snowballed into opportunities to grow a community of people I was able to serve in the same manner and then the local community at large being named Humanitarian of the Year by our local chapter of the Jaycees.

Now that I have found myself in a new locale and with new opportunities to serve, I find the process to be very similar in that it always starts with being of service to those people right in front of me. Delivering value to those people who show up and are willing to entrust me inevitably results in greater opportunities to be of service. This has been the case with my work at Onnit…coaching people one on one in our Onnit Gym to teaching seminars that empower coaches to serve people in a similar fashion to creating online resources to reach the end-user in their homes and now coaching thousands of those people through our community fitness challenges six weeks at a time. I look forward to however I may be able to serve in an even greater capacity moving forward.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

“If there’s a thing I’ve learned in my life it’s to not be afraid of the responsibility that comes with caring for other people. What we do for love: those things endure. Even if the people you do them for don’t”

Cassandra Clare

The above quote by Cassandra Clare is something that I have found strength and resolve in after experiencing the dissolution of various personal and professional relationships. Being able to move confidently forward in my purpose of caring for others with genuine love and appreciation has taken resiliency at times. It is all too common that the pain that comes from the time we may share with people we have valued expires, that the resulting injury prevents us from continuing to pour ourselves into loving expressions of life and work.

After first reading this quote I realized that even if the relationship with that person is no longer what it once was, that the goodwill I put into it and into the world endures and hopefully continues to serve the greater good. This has allowed me to look at things in a grander sense than balancing the scales within interpersonal relationships and has freed me from the burden of worrying if I am receiving everything I may feel I am due in the present moment.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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