Special to USA TODAY
Published 6:00 AM EDT Sep 10, 2019
Our series “How I became a …” digs into the stories of accomplished and influential people, finding out how they got to where they are in their careers.
Celebrity trainer Harley Pasternak has been a vital piece of body transformations and health journeys for stars such as Lady Gaga and John Mayer to Miley Cyrus and Jimmy Fallon. Whether he’s training on the set of feature films or creating routines at the gym, his influence has been seen all over Hollywood. In addition to his positions as the global fitness adviser for the Four Seasons and a trainer on this season of “Revenge Body with Khloe Kardashian,” Pasternak also very recently launched Sweetkick, a brand that aims to help consumers create healthier relationships with sugar.
USA TODAY caught up with Pasternak to talk about everything from cortados and Mac Miller to the importance of prioritizing your own health and the power that comes with striving to be the most knowledgeable person in your industry.
Question: How did you get your start in the fitness industry?
Harley Pasternak: I was a hockey player in Canada, and started working out for hockey. Working out kind of eclipsed the hockey, because as I got injured in college playing hockey, I got more into the gym part and fascinated with how my body was changing given the exercises I would do or the food I would eat. That inspired me to study the topics in university, and when I finished my first year of university I got a job as a personal trainer at Bally Fitness in Toronto.
I was 18 working as a personal trainer, and life was just too good. I couldn’t believe I could go to work in shorts and a T-shirt, make a lot of money, and older people would listen to me and I got to do it in the gym. I knew that whatever I wanted to do, it was going to have to do with health and wellness and fitness and food. When I was 19 I left Bally’s and started my own training business as I was in university. The business grew, I hired other students who I studied with in school to be trainers for me, and I started building mobile gyms in 18-wheeler tractor trailers. I would go to film sets in Canada, and started training a lot of the Hollywood actors that came to Canada, and that expanded.
One day I got a call from a producer named Don Cormody, and he said, “I know you’re finishing grad school in Toronto and your business is there, but I have a movie called “Gothika” with Halle Barry, who just won an Oscar, and Robert Downey Jr., who is just about to get out of jail, and Penelope Cruz, who just finished doing “Blow,” and we would love to work with you here. We have no money, and you’ll have to put yourself up and get yourself here, but if you want to work with them …” And I didn’t even finish the conversation. I was like, I’ll be there tomorrow. Then, Halle asked me to come back to L.A. and get her ready for “Catwoman,” and Oprah said “You should write a book,” and I started writing books, and the rest is history.
Q: How has the rest of your career led into Sweetkick?
Pasternak: I realized early on that, being a personal trainer, there’s only so much you can affect people one-on-one. Not everyone has access to you, and not everyone has access to a personal trainer, and not everyone has access to a full gym. What are the ways and tools that you can develop for people to help them be healthier and to help them with their goals?
When I grew up, I was the only child in my family without diabetes. That really inspired me when it came to a sugar addiction that I developed: I was never allowed to have sugar, and as a result I had 10 times more because it was this thing that I kind of had to do in private. So, developing a toolbox, whether it be developing fitness equipment or developing shoes or developing kitchen equipment. The one thing that I’ve always struggled with is a sugar addiction, and I started testing around years ago with some of the active ingredients that we have in Sweetkick. I would use an eyedropper and mix them up in my mouth and see if they would turn me off of eating my favorite chocolate chip cookie or that Nutella croissant that I had daily. I was like wow, this is amazing, but I’m not going to walk around with little eyedroppers and beakers and test tubes around with me all the time and seem like a madman. I was able to develop a tablet, if you will, that I let myself dissolve in my mouth, and it tasted disgusting, but I actually had great success with it.
So, I’d be at a dinner party and try to be good. Dinner’s over and everybody orders dessert and I’d pop in this gross thing that I had and it made sugar not taste. I started using it with some clients with some success, and I said that maybe we should figure out how to make this thing taste good. Another couple of years later we finally made it taste good, and the next thing I know the demand for it was incredible. We have a population of people – call it 80% of the country – who is overweight and either has diabetes or is pre-diabetic, and could really benefit. We’ve had incredible success with it. We just launched, and I used it on Khloe Kardashian’s “Revenge Body” this year on a woman who had a sugar addiction and lost 60 pounds. The results have been mind-blowing. We hit our six-month sales goal in a week.
Q: What does a typical workday look like for you?
Pasternak: That’s a great question. I’ve yet to have one. I wear a lot of different hats. I travel probably every other week. I oversee all the fitness for the Four Seasons hotels worldwide, so I do the curation and procurement of their fitness amenities. I tend to travel to one of the properties every other week to check an installation out or find out what needs to be done on a property. I sit on about eight or nine boards, from Fitbit and CBDMEDIC, still guest lecture at a couple different universities, and I’ve got clients all around the world.
I wake up at some ungodly hour of the morning, do my emails and phone calls for the Middle East, Asia, and Europe and clients overseas. I have breakfast every single morning with my kids, we go to coffee together, come back home and then I’ll go to work. I see clients for the first few hours of the day here at my studio, and then I’ll take meetings. I have a design meeting almost every single day at noon with my fitness design team (we’re designing fitness facilities around the world), and then if I have media to do I’ll usually do that earlier in the afternoon. I’ll try and see one or two clients later in the afternoon, come home, be with my kids, and then do the same thing tomorrow.
Q: What’s your favorite thing about your job?
Pasternak: The opportunities that keep presenting themselves, things I never would have thought. I went into this to be a personal trainer: to select exercises, repetitions, resistance, make people stronger and fitter that way. The next thing you know, because I have a degree in nutrition I’m also doing their diets. And then the next thing you know I’m developing nutritional supplements and foods for companies, and designing strength and gym equipment and video games and designing shoes and learning about the biomechanics of shoes. And, then, TV – I don’t know how many TV shows I’ve been on, and had my own. I think what I love about this industry I’m in is there are so many places that I have touch points, and I keep learning, and I’m a student of all of these things. The opportunities have been amazing.
Q: To what do you credit your success?
Pasternak: I think education has been a massive part of it. Today, in this industry especially, I get direct messages all the time from these 20-year-olds, 25-year-olds, and they’re like, “I want to be a celebrity trainer.” Well, being a celebrity trainer is not the goal. It’s the symptom. When you are the best at what you do and you’ve been doing it a long time and you’ve had exposure to entertainers and success with them and then they send you other ones or they come to you, then after a while you become that. You can’t set out to be a celebrity personal trainer. You should set out to be the most knowledgeable fitness or nutrition person you can be, the most educated fitness or nutrition person, the most experienced fitness or nutrition person you can be. That’s what you have control over. Unfortunately today, with social media, people want to fast-track everything in life and they don’t want to put the work in or the time in.
Q: How do you balance work, life, and such a busy schedule?
Pasternak: You have to prioritize, first of all, your own health. It’s like when you’re in an airplane and they say “in case of a cabin pressure issue, put your mask on first.” You have to take care of yourself first, you have to make sure you’re sleeping, you have to make sure you’re getting the right food, you have to make sure you’re exercising, and that makes you better at everything else you do. Then comes my family, and then comes work. You kind of have to prioritize. If I have less time to see clients, then I’ll see less clients.
Q: What have been some of your career highlights?
Pasternak: The first New York Times bestseller I wrote, and then the next bestsellers were really great. Just to publish a book, to say I’m a published author, and then for that book to actually do well in twelve languages and 30 countries. That was an amazing experience.
Then, the first time I saw my name in a magazine. I was with my father in the airport in Vancouver, and we picked up People Magazine, and my name was in there about training Halle Barry for “Catwoman.” I remember just hugging him and jumping up and down – ‘wow! My name’s in a magazine!’ That was very cool.
Sweetkick is definitely a highlight for me, because it’s the first time I’m developing something that not only can help people with weight management by getting ahold of their sugar cravings, but as someone who grew up with a family with diabetics, something that could potentially help people who have issues with insulin sensitivity and hyperglycemia and who are borderline diabetic. For me, this is a really big one because it’s bigger than just trying to help people with their diets and with weight loss. It’s something that could potentially really help people’s health.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
Pasternak: Focus on what you have direct control over from an action. I talked about my favorite book – Victor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” – because he has this quote saying that you cannot pursue success like happiness, because success, like happiness, can only ensue as a byproduct of dedicating yourself to a process. So, if someone wants to lose weight and they come to me saying “I want to lose 30 pounds,” I say that your goal should be to get 12,000 steps a day; your goal should be to eat three meals and two snacks a day; your goal should be to go to bed at a reasonable hour, because you have control over those goals. As a byproduct, you’ll lose weight on the scale.
So, people who want to do what I’m doing, focus on the process. Are you as knowledgeable as you should be? Are you reading everything that you should read? Are you studying everything you should study? Are you experiencing everything you can experience? Can you confidently walk into a room and say, ‘I know more physics and nutrition than everyone in this room?’ And then, when you do, can you walk into a building and feel the same? And then, can you be in a block in a city and say, ‘I know more?’ And then, with time, feel that confidence that you are as knowledgeable as anybody in a certain area in what you do? Keep that up, because if you don’t keep that up, that goes away.
What is your coffee order? A cortado.
What’s your favorite book? “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Victor Frankl.
What’s your favorite song of the moment? I’ve been listening a lot to Mac Miller’s “2009” – he was a client who passed away last year.
Who has been one of your biggest mentors? Dr. Ira Jacobs. He was my graduate supervisor, and he was a such pure academic and scientist that really balanced the ‘meathead athlete bodybuilder’ in me, and I like to think that I am a blend of those two worlds; that he really drove that world of authenticity and peer-reviewed, evidence-based knowledge and learning, which I think gave me a real advantage in my industry.
What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever done? It’s somewhere between having my own video game on Xbox, my own running shoe, own blender, my own snack bar. It’s that world, and then being a parent; being able to actually create life and mold and shape it.