Elliott Hulse Talks Strongman, Active Meditation, and Bioenergetics

Elliott Hulse is one of the OG online strength coaches. The 2009 Strongest Man in Florida, he started building his online coaching platform and established Strength Camp in 2007 as a way to bring athletes together and help them become “the strongest version of themselves” not just through working out, but through meditation, psychology, and self-knowledge.

He’s built a brand worth millions through digital marketing and thousands of informative YouTube videos; he likes to think of himself as a “video poet” and in 2015 he earned the award “YouTube Fan’s Favorite.” But while he first became known for video guides to physical fitness, his brand has gradually evolved to provide a more holistic approach to self-improvement that’s grown from his experiences with active meditation, Eastern philosophy, and the Baha’i faith.

Today, in addition to training strongmen and hosting Strength Camp, he also offers Grounding Camps that teach active meditation, bioenergetics, philosophy, and self-love. For a male strength coach, he’s unusual to say the least, but he’s an undeniably effective teacher who is wholly dedicated to helping as many people as possible become as strong and capable as possible, no matter what form that might take.

We sat down with Elliott to learn more about training tips, nervous system health, active meditation, gender politics, and everything in between.

Image via Elliott Hulse on Facebook

BarBend: Elliott, thanks for taking the time to chat. I really want to talk about the changes I’ve noticed since you first started your coaching platform, so let’s start with the physical training. Compared to ten years ago, what’s one of the biggest differences in how you train people to get physically stronger?

Elliott Hulse: It’s interesting that you use the word “change.” A lot of what people see Elliot Hulse doing now looks different than what I’ve always done, only because it happens to be what I’m choosing to show.

A lot of these changes are not changes at all. What has always been there is to take a holistic approach to performance, meaning when we’re going to improve someone’s squat or their vertical jump, we don’t just look at the strength of their legs. Anyone who works in biomechanics will tell you you’ve also gotta consider the low back, you’ve gotta consider the shoulder girdle, you’ve gotta consider the entire mechanism, the whole human kinetic chain, not just the legs.

Image via The Strength Camp on Facebook

So when in terms of supporting someone into becoming their strongest selves, be it jump higher or just to live a happier life, the first place we begin is with the nervous system and how well it’s functioning.

When I work with a client and I want to get the most effective movement, I have to assess and correct any neuromuscular imbalances. And the first place I’d begin, in particular with how the nervous system is firing or how it turns on the muscles, is with the spinal cord. I am a fan of upper cervical chiropractics, especially the atlas orthogonal. That’s the very first vertebrae at the base of the skull. The interesting thing is that it doesn’t have the same kind of spiny processes as the other vertebrae so it doesn’t interlock as well. It floats.

Your atlas being the first vertebrae at the base of the skull means any information that goes from the body to the brain or vice versa has to pass through it — it’s the first gateway from the brain to the body. And if the very first gateway is obstructed or tilted improperly, then all the information coming down form the brain is going to be distorted.

So how does that change how you train or assess clients? 

I’ll give you two assessments you can do at home.

The first is pretty easy: stand in place, face a wall so you have perspective on where you are. Close your eyes and start marching in place for about a minute, lifting your knees up to waist height. Then open your eyes. If you find that your marching has caused you to move and you’re not facing the wall any longer, it’s an indication that the left and right side of your nervous system aren’t firing the same.

There’s another great demonstration, but you need a friend for this one. Lay on your back and raise your left arm up so its perpendicular to the ground and have your friend push down on your arm from behind, just to see how strong you can be to hold it up. Then have him go to the other arm.

If there is an imbalance in strength from one side to the other, you might think it’s just because you’re right handed. But I want you to go back to that left arm and turn your head all the way to the left, so you’re facing that arm. Then do the test again. One of two things is gonna happen: that arm is going to get even weaker than it was before, or all of a sudden its going to get really strong. That should give you an indication as to how the atlas is subluxed. Alternatively you can try this doing dumbbell overhead presses. There’s nothing mystical to it — it’s allowing you to recruit more muscle by getting the atlas out of the way.

Without this kind of approach, everything else you do is kind of a waste. I’m looking at everything in a holistic way. I’m interested in how your body works together, how functional you are, how powerful you are, how great an athlete you can be. And for that you have to make sure the nervous system is firing properly.

I use the analogy of a racecar. If you have a wheel misalignment, I don’t care how well you drive, it’ll never perform at its best.

So is this the kind of thing you teach at your Strength Camps?

If you go to Strength Camp, we do corrective stretching and exercising, but it’s very generalized. People are there for a different reason, which is to become the strongest possible version of themselves.

What about the other camp you offer, Grounding Camp? It’s about “active meditation,” right? Is that a kind of workout?

I’ll tell you how the idea of Grounding Camps first came about. Twelve years ago my wife got pregnant at about the same time I lost my job and was going through some depression. A few years earlier I’d been reading the work of this Indian mystic called Osho. I thought his philosophy was great; he always referred to meditation as the practice of his philosophy. The difference is his meditation was very physical. While most meditations are sit down and breathe — which is great, that’s what you’re aiming for — his required that you got up and that you charge the body with breath through various different exercises, it was very physical. I’ll leave it at that, but I was drawn to it as an athlete.

So I did a quick Google search and found that the only Osho active meditation bootcamp was happening in New York City. And I got up at 3:45 every morning in the dead of winter to take the Long Island Railroad for 21 days to go to this camp.

By the end of it, my life had done a complete 180. I’d shaken out of the depression and regained a tremendous amount of clarity, and I was able to use it as a launching pad into the next phase of my life which brought me down to Florida, when I started Strength Camp.

The woman who ran the Osho classes also did one-on-one therapy called pulsation, which was essentially a neo-Reikian therapy that comes from the work of Wilhelm Reich. It was bioenergetics, essentially. And I took this session with her and I had this tremendous experience that woke me up: while I was doing the exercises, I broke into this uncontrollable laughter, the kind of laughing most of us haven’t had since we were children. It was about releasing the trapped emotions in my body that had been stifled from poor breathing.

So after I moved down to Florida, I was talking about the benefits a lot in my videos and people were asking me where they could do active meditation and bioenergetics. So I decided to reach out to my former teacher in New York City and encouraged her to work with me on a camp where we can introduce people to it.

In a recent interview you published on your blog, when you were asked if you were a strength coach you answered that you were “nothing and everything.” Can you explain that? 

It’s hard because I resist labels, but it’s hard for people to know who you are and what you’re doing if you don’t label yourself. If I were to identify who I am and what I’m doing, I’m… (long pause) I’m a coach. I’m a healer. And I support people in becoming the strongest version of themselves. I don’t even like the term “healing,” I like the term “whole-ing” more. I want you to become your whole self. I’m a holistic strength coach.

But on Instagram I say I’m a strongman and strength coach. That’s my entry point and it’s where I shine the brightest.

A lot of the things I say are highlighted in hippie new age cultures, I’m not a part of that culture. But I resonate with those ideas.

I’m in the strength space, I just have something different to bring to it. Ralph Waldo Emmerson said the greatest value is to bring something from where it is plentiful to where it is lacking. And in the strength and fitness and bodybuilding communities, what is lacking is the holistic approach. What’s lacking is the attention to the nervous system, to meditation, to breathing. But they all support your ability to be stronger and improve performance. So all I’m doing is bringing what is lacking in one community what is plentiful from another.

Image via Elliott Hulse on Facebook

I imagine that compared to ten years ago, you must receive a lot more questions about philosophy and psychology and self improvement. Your brand seems to have had a pretty noticeable shift, no? 

My clients have always asked me questions like that. When I was 26 years old I had teenage athletes asking me questions like, “Elliott, what do I do if my girlfriend cheats on me?”or, “My best friend betrayed me, what do I do?”

They’re bringing things up from outside of the gym, but it relates to things inside the gym. If someone comes in and his girlfriend’s just cheated on him, his cortisol levels are up! His testosterone is down! His ability to perform and recover is all screwed up. So I can offer him some perspective that’s going to brighten him up and support him in getting through this, if I can give him some empowerment based on his circumstance. “That sucks, well, guess what, you just discovered something new about yourself, you had a new experience that allows you to overcome this and gain strength — character strength — because of it.” So reframing, giving someone a new way to look at their problems, I love doing it. I love hearing their problems and giving creative solutions to it.

So I started making YouTube videos and started getting the same sort of questions in the comment areas of videos on how to deadlift. “I’d love to go to the gym, but my girlfriend cheated on me.” So I started answering those questions, and eventually I started another YouTube channel to deal with those sorts of issues and how to grow stronger from your challenges.

Image via Elliott Hulse on Facebook

It’s cool how your understanding of strength and performance has grown and change since you started out. I’ve noticed in the last few years you’ve been talking more about different definitions of masculinity as well, how you that men should embrace their fragility a little more and not be afraid to show their softer side.

Yeah, well, what’s happening in the world is what’s happening in each and every one of us. And what’s happening in the world is a tremendous amount of reintegration. We’re coming out of an era where we were split, we were separated.

But with the advent on the internet and the interrelatedness of humanity now, and the spread of ideas, we’re living in a golden age where all separation seems to be being dissolved. And you can see it everywhere from the strife about the difference between the rich and the the poor, you’re seeing the polarity, the duality being exposed in racism in America and many other countries.

I think what’s really fascinating with this new generation as it relates to sexuality is this rise in non-dual sexuality. My daughter’s 12 years old and there are lots of children in her school who are non-binary in their sexuality. They’re gender fluid; they don’t identify with one gender or the other.

That’s a sign. It is an indication of what’s happening on a cosmic and global level which is the integration of seeming opposites. What was once duality, like heaven and hell, is now being integrated. And there is no evil and good, everything just is. In the same way that a full day integrates day and night. You can’t have day without night. You can’t have winter without summer. You can’t have yin without yang. You are not fully masculine without the integration of the feminine. Carl Jung would describe it this way: within every man is a woman called the anima. And in every woman there’s a man called the animus.

A teacher of mine once told me when I was having some personal challenges, “Elliot, you will not become a full man until you become a woman first.” And what he was referring to was the integration of the yin qualities that are inherent within every man, except they have been stifled. They have been disregarded, they have been chastised out of us.

I like to use the term “tender aggression.” The tenderness that’s associated with being a a fully alpha male requires the integration of female nurturing and yielding qualities. If you’re just aggressive, if you’re just one sided, you’re not embodying full masculinity. You’re just a premature ejaculator. You’re an example of the immaturity that pervades the patriarchy. You’re looking to dominate with power rather than integrate softness, integrate nurturing, integrate tenderness into your aggression so that you’re whole. That’s what makes you full.

Awesome. Well, it’s been great chatting with you, Elliott! Best of luck with the Strength Camps and Grounding Camps, I hope you help a lot of people find their own wholeness. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Featured image via Elliott Hulse on Facebook.