Cheat Sheet Legends: Nerding Out With Steve Kamb

Cheat Sheet Legends: Nerding Out With Steve Kamb

The Cheat Sheet chatted with Nerd Fitness' Steve Kamb about taking a smarter approach to fitness and discovering the superhero within.

Life’s most puzzling questions include: Why we do we exist? Who built Stone Henge? How can I successfully stay fit?

In all seriousness, figuring out how to maintain a healthy weight and build strong muscles continues to allude us, even as scientists conduct more research. With so many conflicting studies and folks on the internet claiming to be experts without the proper credentials, it’s not too hard to see why a healthy body is so tough to achieve. But maybe we don’t need an expert at all. Maybe we need someone exactly like us who’s willing to sort through all the junk. Someone like Steve Kamb.

As the self-proclaimed rebel leader of the health and fitness community Nerd Fitness and author of Level Up Your Life, Kamb does the dirty work himself after years of stumbling around in the dark like the rest of us. He doesn’t just tell you that a certain type of exercise is great, but also why it’s great thanks to a hefty amount of research. This analytical approach helped him transition from a marketing assistant to a go-to source for all things related to exercise, nutrition, and happiness.

It took Kamb years to figure out how to tap into his inner superhero, but he was happy to tell us about his mistakes, frustrations, and eventual triumphs so we can all get there a little bit faster. Who says nerds aren’t cool?

Need to Know

What is the Cheat Sheet to your life story?

  • I was born in a small town named Sandwich in Massachusetts, and raised by two loving parents and a Nintendo Entertainment System
  • I spent my childhood playing video games and then acting out those adventures in my backyard
  • As I grew up and games got more complex, less and less of my imagination was needed; more and more time was spent in front of a computer screen
  • When I got cut from the high school basketball team, because I wasn’t very good, I signed up for a gym membership to get big and strong. This did not go according to plan
  • After graduating college, I took a job in sales in San Diego and finally cracked the code for getting fit. Hint: diet is 90% of the battle
  • Still spending far too much time playing video games, I started to get in better shape and helped some of my friends do the same
  • I decided to start writing articles and helping people like myself, who are new to fitness, get in shape. I searched “nerd fitness” online and nothing popped up, so I bought the domain name
  • After getting certified as a trainer, I spent 18 months writing daily and building an audience at Nerd Fitness
  • I quit my day job, focused full time on Nerd Fitness, and put plans in place to stop living through the characters in my day job and, instead, turn my life into a giant game with real life quests and missions to complete
  • I now travel around the world, write articles about health and fitness, help people live more adventurously active and happy lives, and have documented how anybody can do the same in my book, Level Up Your Life

Which experiences in your life were the most influential and led you to taking the path less traveled?

I’m fortunate to have been raised by parents who instilled a value of hard work and personal responsibility. I’ve been running my own businesses since age 5: lemonade stands, Red Sox logos painted on the inside of quahog shells, bracelets, lawn mowing, leaf raking, snow shoveling, and so on. My dad and mom have always taught me that it’s up to me to take care of myself. Nothing is given, only earned.

Upon graduating from college, I took a high-paying job in sales because I didn’t know what else I should be doing with my life at the time. I quickly discovered that I was quite terrible at sales and horribly mismatched for the industry. Despite a company car, an apartment two blocks from the beach, and a great salary, I was miserable and spent most weekends drinking too much or playing too many games because reality sucked.

I had no desire to live that lifestyle for another 40 years, so I searched for alternative solutions. On a particularly miserable day, I walked into a bookstore and found Timothy Feriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek, which was the equivalent of Neo discovering the Matrix for me.

Source: Will Byington/Nerd Fitness

I wanted to build a business that would allow me to work on something that excited me, that allowed me to travel, and that made a difference in people’s lives. But that doesn’t happen overnight, so I first had to rectify my miserable San Diego existence. I moved across the country to Atlanta, where I took a 50% pay cut to work for a company that I loved. I helped produce and promote floating music festivals. It was while working for that company that I learned about the power of community and the importance of working on something that makes you happy and positively impacts others.

What does a typical day in your life look like? Do you have a  morning routine, afternoon routine, and bedtime routine?

Although typical days are few and far between, I absolutely love when they happen. On those days, I get up between 6:00 a.m. and 6:30 a.m., meditate for 15 minutes using the Headspace app, followed by 30 to 60 minutes of reading about a subject that interests me, such as business building, behavioral psychology, personal development, health and fitness, or habit building.

After that, I sit down at my computer with a cup of coffee, put on noise-cancelling headphones, and block all the time-distracting websites. I try to write uninterrupted until 10:00 a.m. or so.

Around 10:00 a.m., I walk to the gym for a workout that combines barbell training and gymnastics, then grab lunch across the street before returning home for the afternoon. I’l spend my afternoon having virtual meetings with other members at team Nerd Fitness because we’re completely remote. I’ll check in on various projects and interviews for podcasts or creating more content. Or, I’ll volunteer or take lessons in a skill I’m trying to acquire.

Mixed throughout the day, I’ll take frequent breaks for 3 to 5 minutes and sit down at the piano, grab my guitar to play a song, or pick up the violin and suffer through a few rusty tunes as I learn how to not suck at it.

Evenings are either low-key at home playing music or video games or I’m out to dinner to meet up with friends, other business owners, or fellow entrepreneurs who happen to be visiting New York City. I aim to turn off the TV or any electronics around 9:30 p.m. or so and get in bed by 10:00 p.m. I’ll read fiction or fantasy for 20 to 30 minutes to quiet my brain, then go to sleep. Then, I repeat the process.

Changing Paths

How did you manage to switch from a career in marketing to one in the health and fitness sector? Were there any particular struggles you didn’t expect?

Because I was relatively new to the health and fitness space, I struggled with the confidence to get started. I purchased in the summer of 2007, and it wasn’t until January of 2009 that I finally got serious about the website. I figured nobody would listen to me on the Internet unless I was certified as a personal trainer, but I dragged my feet and continually told myself, “not yet, not yet, not yet.” I finally spent a weekend obtaining a basic certification in late 2007 only to discover that nobody cared! They wanted to learn from somebody that was down in the trenches with them.

I lived a dual existence for a few years – by day, I was a marketing assistant as Sixthman in Atlanta, Ga. By night, I was a rebel leader at Nerd Fitness, crafting articles, connecting with readers, and doing whatever I could to build an online community of people looking to live better.

Fortunately, my day job focused on marketing and community building, so I could apply many of the lessons learned during the day to what I was working on late into the night. I saw myself as somebody that happened to be a few steps ahead of my audience in getting fit. I could help them get started with diet and exercise while still doing the nerdy things that made them who they were.

You insist you’re not an expert, but the website takes a very analytical approach to discussing diet and exercise. Where does this knowledge come from?

Source: Will Byington/Nerd Fitness

First and foremost, I see myself as a student who is constantly learning, studying, researching, and experimenting. Everyone online is quick to call themselves an expert or guru, and that didn’t feel right to me. Instead of being somebody handing down words of wisdom to fans, I wanted to be a part of the Nerd Fitness community who’s the average guy that cracked the code on getting fit and still finding time to do all the nerdy things that bring me happiness.

Since starting Nerd Fitness seven years ago, I’ve published more than 700 articles and fallen in love with learning and researching about health and fitness. Nothing makes me happier than breaking down complex concepts into easy-to-digest metaphors with some of my favorite superheroes or video game characters, backed by research or behavioral psychological studies.

I still wouldn’t consider myself an expert because I’m out there grinding and learning every day. I can’t wait to see what I will learn tomorrow that will influence my perspective or my training.

Inspiration and Influence 

Is there another person in your field who inspires or challenges you?

Absolutely. A few years back, I was introduced to Anthony Mychal, who runs his own website. He’s a weird mix of Plato and powerlifter with a healthy Dragon Ball Z obsession. He’s also incredibly knowledgeable in the strength training space. His unique mix of gymnastics and barbell training appealed to me instantly. After seeing how he had helped some of his clients transform, I hired him to be my virtual coach.

For the past two years, Anthony has trained me by sharing a document with my workout for that month, occasional Skype calls, and text messages. In my opinion, it’s the most important money I spend each month. Unsurprisingly, after two years, I’m healthier, stronger, and more fit than ever before.

I also love reading James Clear. He has a unique ability to write about behavioral psychology and personal development that really dig down to the heart of the matter, giving you easy action steps about how to improve your life. His content is incredibly well-researched and that has certainly influenced how much time I spend on my content as well.

When it comes to running an online business, I have learned tremendously from guys like Ramit Sethi of I Will Teach You To Be Rich and Derek Halpern of Social Triggers on how to build a great company, hire quality employees, and set myself up for success. And although I’ve never met him, I consider Richard Branson to be a mentor as well. His book Losing My Virginity changed how I went about building my company. He taught me you can build a large company, create a lot of jobs, help a lot of people, and still do a lot of fun, adventurous things.

Which books can you recommend that were the most influential in your life?

The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss kick-started my journey to building Nerd Fitness. It was just a few days or weeks after reading the book that I bought the domain.

It wasn’t until I found Chris Guillebeau’s free eBook 279 Days to Overnight Success that I actually started writing content for Nerd Fitness, and it was Richard Branson’s Losing My Virginity that changed the type of company I wanted to build. After living a year traveling around the world and trying out The 4-Hour Workweek lifestyle, I wanted to build something meaningful that also allowed me to have a lot of fun.

I’m also a huge fan of Drive by Daniel H. Pink, which has influenced how I advise people to change and influence their lives.

Source: Will Byington/Nerd Fitness

Education Then and Now

What’s one piece of unconventional wisdom that has stuck with you over the years? Where did you hear it?

Skip breakfast. I grew up eating cereal every morning and spending the early part of my 20s knowing for sure that breakfast was the most important meal of the day. Then I stumbled across the concept of intermittent fasting. It refutes the idea that you must eat six small meals per day, that breakfast is the most important meal, and so on. If you do the research, there’s actually little to no evidence supporting these claims.

It made me think back to our early existence as a species and that we often had to spend time either in feast or famine. We’re genetically designed to thrive while eating in this type of pattern, so I tend to eat all of my meals between 12:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.

I haven’t eaten breakfast in a few years and I do all of my workouts in a fasted state. In that time, I’ve packed on 15 to 20 pounds of muscle, maintained a low body fat percentage, and I’m healthier than ever. Although intermittent fasting affects men and women differently, I think it’s a simple concept that made my life easier and could help many people who are willing to give it a shot.

The looks I get when I tell people that I don’t eat breakfast are often equivalent to telling them I don’t believe in gravity. The conventional wisdom on the subject is so ingrained that hearing anything different is considered blasphemy.

What’s the worst advice you’ve ever received or what’s the one mistake you learned from the most?

In my early years of training, I spent way too much time using weight machines instead of free weights. I had taken advice from other clueless gym goers or ignorant trainers and their philosophy about machines being safer made sense to me at the time. These days, I cringe every time I see a trainer in a gym stick his or her overweight and unhealthy client into another useless ab machine or have them do Smith Machine squats “for safety.”

As I learned more about functional fitness and how we’re designed to move, I’ve gone in the opposite direction. In my opinion, strength is nothing if it’s not preparing you for the real world. Our bodies are a series of interconnected muscles and joints, so doing exercises that isolate single body parts is absurd. We need to train in a way that mimics real world movements: squats, push-ups, pull-ups, deadlifts, and so on. What good are strong biceps and sculpted thighs if we pull a muscle when moving on the couch or picking up our kid to give him a piggy-back ride?

What’s one thing that was hard to learn, but worth it once you did?

I remember the first time I heard about the Paleo diet: eating mostly vegetables, some meat and fish, eggs, nuts, and fruit while cutting out grains entirely. At the time, my diet was primarily composed of grains and the idea of following this diet seemed like the most bizarre, backwards, dangerous way of thinking.

Fortunately, I dug in further and read everything I could. It went from dangerous and unusual to the most logical thing I’ve ever heard. The idea is to eat things that were around during the majority of our existence as a species and minimize consumption of recent foods like processed foods, sugar, and grains.

Although I don’t follow the diet religiously, it’s affected my life and business tremendously. It’s now something I share with everybody.

How do you keep yourself informed?

The news depresses the hell out of me and I don’t have cable, so I rarely get information from TV. I read one to two books per week, follow a few bloggers who I respect and know are incredibly informed, and I skip the rest of it. I figure if something important happened, somebody will tell me about it!

Exercise Can Be Beneficial and Fun

What’s the one thing you always make time to do?

Exercise. It sounds silly, but it’s something I’ve truly made a priority over the past two years and it’s paid tremendous dividends. I had found that I consistently put work before getting fit, which isn’t a great thing to say when you run a fitness company. So, I made a commitment to myself that missing a workout was not an option. That it would take precedence over any other activity I did that day.

For a month, I was behind on my work, showing up late to meetings, and not getting things done until I learned to better manage my time. I was spending far too much time on busy, unimportant work or wasting time watching TV and scrolling through Facebook. After taking an honest look at where my priorities were, I made some serious changes. Now I’m in the best shape of my life, have time to play music, get all of my work done, play some video games, volunteer, and spend quality time with friends.

Many health experts gravitate toward a particular style of training. Why do you avoid suggesting people follow a specific plan?

Nerd Fitness follows a two-pronged approach to training. Because diet is 80% to 90% of the battle, exercise should be something you enjoy. If you don’t like running on a treadmill, don’t do it. There are a million ways to get fit, so if you hate exercise, you haven’t tried enough things yet. From parkour to gymnastics to salsa dancing to live-action role playing to martial arts, there is an activity out there that is fun, functional, and reminds you that you’re deliberately taking steps to live healthier.

Secondly, we recommend that strength training be part of your life in some capacity because it will make everything you do better and easier. You can work out in a park, your living room, a gym, or anywhere else, but your routine should be built around bodyweight exercises or free weights and functional, real-world movements.

Nerd Fitness has an underlying superhero theme. Where did that idea come from?

When I was a little kid, I dressed up like Superman constantly. Although I was Superman for Halloween about four years in a row, underwear on the outside and all, I would dress up like him on random Tuesdays. I just loved the idea that there’s an alter ego within all of us who’s capable of amazing things. Growing up as a scrawny kid, I liked to imagine what my life would be like as somebody with superpowers.

When I started Nerd Fitness, the idea that we can all become a superhero version of ourselves just made sense. I had spent enough of my time living vicariously through characters in books, comics, games, and movies. I wanted to start living vicariously through myself. I thought it was a fun way to look at life and a great lens through which to analyze our journeys. By day, we might be computer programmers or writers or nurses or janitors, but by night, our alter egos can be whatever we want them to be.

Travel Trumps All

If you could put everything on hold for three months, what would you do?

I just recently moved to New York City, so I’m really enjoying getting to know this place. However, once it gets cold, I imagine my answer would be something like this: pack up my guitar and violin and rent a place in a country like Costa Rica on the beach with a great surf break. I’d spend my early mornings writing another book, late morning training in a local gym, and then spend my afternoons surfing, playing music, and practicing my Spanish. Music is something I try to do every day and I would love to get even better at it for no reason other than that it makes me happy.

What’s the best sporting event you’ve ever been to?

I flew from Nashville to Boston for 24 hours to attend the sixth game of the 2013 World Series. Growing up in Massachusetts, I was raised a die-hard Red Sox fan and the opportunity to see them clinch the championship at Fenway Park was too good to pass up. My friend Mike Pacchione, also a die-hard Sox fan, flew over from Portland, Ore. We overpaid for nosebleed seats out in center field and we had an absolute blast. I’m not sure I’ll be able to top that one. Maybe a Super Bowl?

If you had to spend all your money on just one thing, what would it be?

A time machine! No? Hmm, that’s a tough one as I try to spend my money on experiences instead of things. I guess if I had to spend it on a thing, it would be a tropical island. If I’m going to get hypothetical, I might as well get weird, too. I figure if Richard Branson can own one and use it as a place to conduct business, I can too. I’ll try to get an island near his so I can kitesurf over for the afternoon.

Live Your Best Life

Do you have three “cheats” you use in your daily life that we should know about?

  • Work out. Regardless of your career, working out will improve every single aspect of your life. This is non-negotiable and so freaking important. We only have one chance on this planet and one body, so take care of it.
  • Read every day. Knowledge is power and a single book could house an idea that shifts your entire perspective on life. It did for me and I can’t wait for the next time that happens.
  • Do something you love every day. Music reminds me that being alive is a chance billions would give anything to have back, so I play every day and get lost in it. If we’re not finding a way to be happy every day, what’s the point?

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