There is really only a hand full of people that I sometimes look up to for flow, creativity, or messages, those people are Joe Rogan, Leo Savage, and this months Caveman Athlete of the Month.
This is his life story… Make sure you also check out the Q&A at the bottom that digs a bit deeper into his story.
“My training is also a reflection of my life. I’m as unconventional as my training is and my training is as unconventional as me. I came into this world unconventional and had to bump, trip, and crawl my way through it until I learned how to walk in it like a proper bipedal primate.”
Speciality: Mace, clubbells, and kettlebells
Personal best: Deadlift 505, Squat 365, TGU 155, and Pistol 106
Favorite quote: Don’t sweat the petty things. Pet the sweaty things 🙂
Hi, my name is Leo Vassershteyn (pronounced Vasserstein). I live in Mill Valley, California with my wife, Kim, and son, Jacob. We own Iron Lion Gym, where we offer private one on one and group training. By combining conventional and very unconventional training with kettlebells, clubbells, maces, mobility, and ground-based combat conditioning we put together something unique and special for the community that comes train with us. Some call it warrior training, some call it medieval, but I think I just teach people how to be great movement generalists and it’s also very approachable for most people. Nothing I do is in fact that hard or unique. The tools and movements I teach people to work with have been around a long time. I just learned how to use them in my own ways that are effective in helping people achieve results and move and feel better and my methods are ever evolving. My training is also a reflection of my life. I’m as unconventional as my training is and my training is as unconventional as me. I came into this world unconventional and had to bump, trip, and crawl my way through it until I learned how to walk in it like a proper bipedal primate. Then one day I learned to ride on 2 wheels, which led to a motorcycle crash that actually helped me really find my way. But before we get to that fun story let’s go back a little further.
- Life was tough for me socially growing up
- I never wanted to be a bad kid
- Selling pot was easy money and it was exciting
- I spent 6 months in the county jail
- Jericho was a very strict and very structured program, for men only
- 3 Weeks later I had surgery
- The more I let go of my ego
- I cut back on the heavy barbell stuff
I was born in 1983 in Odessa, Ukraine, an only child of Jewish parents. If you lived in the Soviet Union, Odessa was not a bad place to call home. It was known as the “pearl of the Black Sea” and is one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. It was a great place to spend my first 5 years of life and my most fond childhood memories are from there, however distant they might be. Despite being a good place to spend one’s formative years, the Soviet Union had few prospects (none of them very good ones) and was a place of terrible anti-Semitism. As a Jew you were marginalized in a place where it wasn’t that great not being in the margin either. My family had lived there through 2 world wars, revolution, the pogroms, witnessed horror and lost friends and loved ones in the Holocaust. During the post-war years they dreamed of leaving and coming to the United States or Israel where we can all feel safe and be given opportunity. “There is so much life, beauty, and talent that was squandered there,” my mother told me.
Our opportunity to leave came in 1988. We left everything we knew behind and set out for unknown and strange lands on the other side of the world. My family and I were among the first of the wave of Russians who came to San Francisco in the late ’80s, so that meant we were pretty isolated in a place where the culture and language were radically different. Definitely square pegs with no square holes to even other square pegs around. Adapting to our new life here was a struggle, a struggle made greater by my folks splitting up shortly after we got here and my mom and me moving to the suburbs, becoming further isolated.
Life was tough for me socially growing up. I was always a rambunctious kid, but an extremely uncoordinated one, which gave me no outlet through sports, because I sucked at pretty much all of them. Even if I wanted to do sports I was terrible at following directions, working with a team, and could not catch anything to save my life! My social skills also followed the same pattern, so I was bumping my head a lot, both literally and figuratively. As I grew older my grasp of the English language was about all that improved. I would not learn from my mistakes very well and it would take a lot of bumping my head for me to adapt and learn to be in a place. Unfortunately the time it took for me to do that that would usually exceed the patience a school would have for me. I must have changed schools or got kicked out of schools a couple dozen schools from elementary school to high school, including boarding schools and other “behavioral” programs and institutions. Life at home was not much better. I would be in trouble at school, go home and catch a beating or have my mouth washed out with soap, and that sort of became the cycle until I became a teenager and I was big enough to hit my step dad back.
I never wanted to be a bad kid. In fact it never really suited me. I was never cruel to anyone. I didn’t steal, cheat, or lie and disdained those things in others. But I was also desperate for friends and the ones I fell in with were the other punks and troublemakers. I started drinking and doing drugs in the 8th grade and it was further downhill from there. Somehow I did manage to finish high school, but I could not hold a job, so I turned to selling pot.
Selling pot was easy money and it was exciting. For the first time in my life I had money, I had drugs, I had friends, and a little respect, or at least some version of it. I didn’t take too long for this to all get to my head and I was running around thinking I was a little gangster. The deeper I went into that life, the more dangerous it got, which only made them more fun and exciting for me. The more I got away with the more I felt invincible. The way it was going I was headed for serious trouble that could get me locked away for a long time. My saving grace was that one night I got arrested and after some friends and I had an altercation at a bar. The police searched my car and I was arrested with 2 pounds of pot, a pound of shrooms, and my gun. I went from bumping my head to getting way out of line. This was life’s first major smack upside my head.
I spent 6 months in the county jail. My parents did not bail me out, which was probably the smartest parenting decision they ever made. I was in there long enough to understand what it was to be locked up and hate it, but not long enough to get used to it. After 5 months of fighting my case I was sentenced to a year, modifiable to a program. Typically programs are for getting treatment for a drug problem. Now, I did drugs, but that was because they were par for the course of being a delinquent. I had a life problem and drugs or selling them to make money was just the way I coped with my complete lack of appropriate social and life skills. Fortunately, there was a program in San Mateo County that sounded like it could help me with my problem. It was the one all the other guys in the jail were talking down for being too strict, kicking people out for lying, not making their bed, making unauthorized phone calls, making them do chores 3 times a day. Basically, they were very serious and didn’t put up with any crap. Several guys there also told me that if I was serious about turning my life around that it was the place to go. That program was called the Jericho Project.
Jericho was a very strict and very structured program, for men only. You were required to find and keep a job to pay a tuition that covered your room and board. That means you pay for your own treatment there. Jericho was not government funded. This was an embodiment of their philosophy about working and paying your way in life and not having society or other people pay your way. We lived in houses with 8-12 men to each house. A lot of the structure and discipline was military-style (only more strict); high and tight haircuts, calling staff “sir,” and perfectly made beds with hospital corners and all that. The director was a large ex-con, named Chuck, who could just as easily pass for a Marine Corps general and he only hired staff that had been through the program.
I was at Jericho for an entire year. I did not see my family or anyone I knew for that entire year. I learned valuable life and social skills there. I developed discipline, a strong work ethic, found full-time employment, and this was where I discovered I had a passion for fitness. All while bumping my head all along the way and almost getting kicked out several times, but Chuck (unlike every other teacher I had thus far in life) never gave up on me, which I am very grateful for.
Physical fitness was a requirement at Jericho. Each house had weights in the garage and there were other structured workouts like evening PT and a Sunday morning climb up San Bruno Mountain. I loved lifting heavy weights. Deadlifts, squats, olympic lifting, bench press, I loved it. After a while they let me start going to the local gym I outgrew the weights at the houses! I came home from the program gainfully employed, with money in the bank, and totally jacked!
When I finished the program I was driving trucks and working in a warehouse. I had gotten my class A and M1 license. I loved driving big trucks, riding motorcycles, and lifting heavy ass weights. Basically, I was a typical 21-year-old douchebag. But I graduated from scumbag TO douchebag! I still had a lot of growing up and bumping my head to do.
One thing that fortunately did not take that long for me to figure out was that I did not want to be a truck driver. The fun novelty of driving an 18-wheeler wore off quicker than natural deodorant. Personal training was a much better choice. It paid better, it was healthy, I hung out at the gym a lot anyway, and there were lots of pretty girls at the gym, whereas trucking had none of those things going for it and it had lots of other ugly truckers instead of pretty girls. To my good fortune, I got fired from truck driving due to my rebellious attitude towards the bourgeois asshole boss coming to a head. I was able to collect unemployment, got my first personal training certification, went to a local private trainer who owned her own studio and was looking to take on a protégé. I offered to work for her for free for 6 months in exchange for her teaching me. She agreed. I started working as a personal trainer and I was getting a great education from a very experienced and knowledgeable trainer and businesswoman.
At first, Loretta and all her trainers looked like masters of art I thought I could never perform. They were so good at it. I couldn’t see how I’d ever become that comfortable working with people, teaching them, and coaching them through workouts and movements. Slowly but surely though, I got more comfortable with it. What I lacked in the social skill necessary to be a trainer I made up in an amazing ability to recognize patterns and coach and the social pieces started to come in as well. I ended up working at several other gyms as well, where I got to get out from under Loretta’s wing and grow on my own. I had dreams of owning my own gym someday.
When I started to work as a trainer I also went back to school. The flexibility of my work schedule was ideal for it. I ended up studying psychology because I wanted to learn why I was so screwed up, but even after graduating UC Davis with a degree in it I was still scratching my head at that one. I realized more and more that I wanted to work in fitness and not psychology. Good thing I spent 4 ½ years getting a degree in it, right? But overall it was a great experience. I learned a lot, made lots of connections and friendships, and had a good time for the most part, and accomplished something that took a lot of time and work. It was basically the opposite of my childhood school experience. And it did bring my language and reasoning skills up from convict ape to civilized, philosopher poet.
So after Davis, I moved to San Francisco and in with my girlfriend, Kim, who I married a few years later. Kim and I met at a Doug Stanhope comedy show when I was 24. Humor brought us together and the universe had a sense of humor putting us together. I still was very much an immature boy and she was very much a woman. She’s had to smack me upside my head, both literally and figuratively, more than a few times to get me on track or keep me in line. I’m very grateful for her and the patience she had for my process of growing up.
While working in corporate fitness it became obvious pretty soon that this was not going to work out. I was working a lot, not getting paid much, there was not much in the way of opportunity, and it began to suck the life out of work that I otherwise loved. Basically, it was like the Soviet Union, except I owned a crotch rocket, which brings us back to me crashing my crotch rocket.
I was out for a ride with some friends and we were headed down the coast from Pacifica to ride up on highway 35 and highway 9, which on weekends was the Santa Cruz Mountain GP. I was in the lead as we were headed up highway 92 east when a car went left from the oncoming lane in front of me. The driver, realizing I was speeding towards him panicked, hit brakes, and stopped with his car completely covering my lane. I swerved to the shoulder to avoid a collision, went over gravel and me, and my beautiful Triumph Dayton 675 and I went down. The impact wrenched my left arm, completely tearing my rotator cuff.
3 Weeks later I had surgery. I gave myself a week to recuperate before I would head back to work because bills and rent still had to be paid. But much like jail, a week at home gave me a little time to reflect, especially on how much I didn’t want to go back to work. I loved my work but hated who I was doing it for, how little I was getting paid, sales goals, meetings, time clocks, and all the nonsensical rules I had to follow. I was tired of being that square peg trying to fit in a round hole, which is what corporations, learning and other institutions, and just bosses were to me; other people’s arbitrary rules, structure, and expectations I had no interest in following or living in. My energies and talents were being squandered there. Amazing how themes echo… Now it really was like the Soviet Union, because I was minus a crotch rocket. Just then as I was contemplating all this and rifling through Craiglist for fitness equipment for sale I saw a personal training studio for sale in Mill Valley. It was an asset sale, so it did not come with any clients, just the equipment, permits, brand, and a lease on the space. It was in a great location, where I would be visible and get lots of foot traffic, in a great community. I figured if I could get people in the door I could easily convince them of the value in what I had to offer. I borrowed money from the bank, family, and everywhere I could. It was enough to buy the business and give me 3 months of runway. In mid-September I quit my job and I was open for business October 1st, 2011, 3 months after my shoulder surgery. I was also in a town where didn’t know anyone or have any clients.
Those that are in the fitness industry know that the last ¼ of the year is a terrible time for business. By November I was not even making enough to pay the rent, I was speeding towards the end of my runway, and I thought I made a huge mistake with my life. I was going into the holidays with a panic that I would have to go back to working in corporate and spend the rest of my life paying off the mountain of debt I took on. That’s worse than the Soviet Union. That’s like being in the gulag, because you may not even be able to eat! But then I was invited into a networking group and managed to score some business and keep the lights on. Then January came and very suddenly I got a big influx of people either getting back into fitness after the holidays or had new years resolutions to get in shape. From there business continued to grow strong. I started to build a reputation around town and more and more people were coming in. Kim and I moved from San Francisco to Mill Valley and soon we got married. I was actually earning a living, paying off debt, and most importantly I got to train the way I wanted to without having to answer to anyone except my clients.
After a few years of running the studio, I began to outgrow the tiny space I was in. I wanted to expand, get a bigger space, add group classes, and create my own brand. Most of all I needed to keep growing. I was still in a space someone else made and using his brand. I just moved my furniture in. I needed something that was more in alignment with me and what I was doing; something that was me. This was when my son, Jacob, was born.
Jacob has been the biggest blessing in my life because he taught me to love unconditionally and to have a purpose greater than myself. Like all lessons, I struggled with it. I opened Iron Lion Gym a little more than a year after Jacob was born. I had to have my big, awesome gym. My ego project and the need to feed my ego put a big strain on my marriage and family by taxing our already strained resources of time and money. This also put a strain on my ability to show up for my business and clients at my best. Nothing was working out all that great. I needed to show up for my family, for my business, and I had my own issues that I needed to deal with or I was going to lose all of it. I was determined to be the father I never had and to keep this family together. Right as things were reaching their breaking point, I was introduced to a shaman by a client of mine.
I was no stranger to psychedelics since I used to sell them and take them, but it had been a while and I only used them recreationally. I saw them as an escape from my life and never thought they were actually the opposite. But a couple of times I had some very profound and even mystical experiences on mushrooms that were amazing and stayed with me. The Shaman explained how MDMA and psychedelics could help me to process and let go of a lot of my issues and learn better ways to be. I was up for trying anything at this point so I went for it. After some initial unraveling and bumping my head again the medicine work allowed me to see how I had been bumping my head through life and how I never really learned how to be in this world. Instead of learning how to maneuver through life thoughtfully and gracefully I was stubborn, inflexible, I pushed back, and hardened up against the world and even my wife, who just wanted the best for all of us. Even my training was a reflection of my life, I was lifting really heavy weights, it built too much density in my body, I was strong to brace against the world and it wasn’t really serving me in life, because I was always sore and everything ached both literally and figuratively. I was accumulating minor injuries and I was not even getting stronger anymore. In my focus on myself and how I had been wounded I stopped seeing other people. This blocked me from seeing my purpose in life and showing up to it. I can’t help other people, especially my wife and son if I’m too concerned about myself and my own shit.
The more I let go of my ego, my need to be right, justified, let go of judgment, resentment, things I was holding on to the better I felt. I created more space in my life, I softened in my ways and my training, and I was open to more ways of being, which made me open to more ways of training. I started to learn how to be better in this world, with other people, and how to live for my family and others. I wanted to be a better example and a better teacher for my son, a better life partner for my wife, and to be successful and fulfilled by my work. It’s been a process, but it’s happening.
My training style changed as a result of this work and the influences I began to seek out. I realized that we get locked into too many rigid rules of movement that other people came up with that serve things that have nothing to do with our goals. Yeah just like those bourgeoise corporations and institutional learning facilities! But rules also exist for their own reasons and you have to learn to follow them and why they exist before you can break them in fitness as it is in life.
I cut back on the heavy barbell stuff, cut back on the volume of my training. I was more than strong and fast enough. I needed to move better, not move more and move MORE. So I gravitated more towards really old modalities that predated modern fitness and gyms, like kettlebells, clubbells, maces, bodyweight, and ground-based modalities. I had been working with these things for a long time but started to see far more potential than before. By scaling back volume and load we can explore positions and movements we are not competent in, instead of just avoiding them all together like we are taught. I started training to expand and improve my movement quality and capacity, learning new movement skills, designing new programming, building a more complete system of movement and teaching it to others. The result is that I feel and move far better at 35 than it did when I was 25. My clients are also responding better to the training and enjoy it more than they ever have because I got better at meeting people where they are. I began to shed people, things, and ways that were not working and my aches and pains have all but vanished.
My son has also been a great teacher in my life and training space. As his movement developed I observed how effortlessly he and other kids his age moved. I began to emulate it myself and now I’m moving more like a kid and the more I explore and play with movement like that the younger I feel.
I also found pot to be a great supplement to the medicine work by shifting my perspective so I can continue seeing and exploring better ways of being, and not slipping into old patterns. Another drug I was using all wrong before. It also helps with my movement practice in the same way as well as with my creativity in designing new movement sequences and programming. Yep, if you see me doing some awesome new move online it’s a 99% chance I had eaten a bean before I came up with it. And by the way, it’s legal now! Ironic how the illegal drugs that got me in trouble earlier in life, are now the legal (well, almost legal) drugs that saved my life now.
I now approach my movement practice and my life in a less bullish and combative way. Through my movement practice and changes in perspective, I learned to be more adaptable. Being able to adapt and grow in the key to progress in movement and in life. Instead of fighting it or fleeing from it I try to flow with it. It’s a process and a challenging one. I still stumble and bump my head or drop a weight occasionally, but those occasions are getting fewer and fewer. Sometimes I think I might even be evolved and adaptable enough to survive a corporate job… Not that I’d ever do that! I’m still unconventional and proud!
Editors note: I’m not against mind-altering substances or whatever you want to call them, and certainly not when it helps people find their calling without hurting others. However, I don’t do any myself and luckily have been able to see along the same lines as Leo without having to look for inspiration other than within.
Leo was kind enough to answer some questions from Anna Junghans:
Did your mouth really get washed with soap?
Yes, it was real soap for my dirty mouth. Never actually cleaned up my dirty mouth like it was supposed to. It was like borderline waterboarding the way it was done though. It was worse than the belt or getting smacked around. None of it was bad compared to what some kids got, but it was worse than most that got it.
What was the gun for?
I got it for protection, but I never actually needed it. In fact, carrying that thing around was probably the stupidest idea I ever had. And I had lots of stupid ideas.
Thoughts when your parents did no bail you out?
I was on the same page with that. I deserved to be in there. Plus it was better I was in there instead of out on the street where I could get into even more trouble.
When the judge sentenced you to 1 year?
It was actually a relief to know I would not be going to state prison.
Why the Jericho Program?
I liked and agreed with what they were doing. Getting a job, educating myself, being healthy and exercising, and building life and social skills sounded like a much better way to turn my life around than going to other programs where they sit around and bitch about their addiction, feelings, and childhood for 3 – 6 months.
What kind of jobs did you do to pay for the Jericho Program?
I did every kind of day labor job at first. Very physical and sometimes very smelly and disgusting work. Some of the temp jobs would last weeks or months. Eventually, I got hired to unload containers and drive a forklift at a warehouse and from there I started driving the trucks once I got my class A license.
What are Psychedelics?
The best way to explain what they do to someone who has not done them is they suppress or in some cases remove altogether the ego and all of the ways we are stuck in seeing and relating to the world and open us up many other ways of being and seeing all things in our world. I really don’t think anyone should live life having not had this experience.
Who inspired you?
My training style evolved and came together from various influences. Pavel Tsatsouline and Scott Sonnon have probably had the heaviest influence on my training.
Is it all flows or do you still get some strength training in as well?
Of course, I still love strength training, but I’ve built a great base of strength already, so I try to challenge it in different and more creative and functional ways. My training mainly consists of that, perfecting movements I’m already proficient in and putting together combinations, sequences, and flows. I also enjoy running, mountain biking, and just generally monkeying around outside with my son.
How often and long do you train?
I like to get it done in around an hour, whether it’s movement and mobility, strength training, or running. But I also do a lot of accessory work such as stretching, myofascial work, and specific skill practice throughout the day.
Do you smoke pot?
I actually never smoke. I do edibles and only 5-10 mg of THC. At that dose it’s perfect for creativity, openness, connecting differently to my life and my movement, and quieting my mind. I do it anywhere from 2-4 times a week, mid-day when I’m not training anyone while I work out or go for a run. I really enjoy training in that state, because I either come up with a new move or combination or gain some new insight almost every time I do it.
Check out all other Caveman Athletes
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