How Nerds Become Buff Nerds

This coach helps couch potatoes clean up their act and get fit—based on his own personal transformation

John Fawkes
Jan 10 · 8 min read
Photo courtesy of Robbie Farlow.

In an industry full of fitness models who use their six-pack abs as “credentials” to sell dubious rapid fat-loss programs, jacked dudebros with a recipe for growth that essentially amounts to “lift more and work harder,” and science nerds whose writing is packed to the brim with phrases like “isocaloric,” Robbie Farlow manages to stand out by being a huge Star Wars geek.

I first learned about Robbie through an article in which he compared the mind-muscle connection to the Midichlorians from the Star Wars prequel trilogy. The name of his training business — Side Quest Fitness — also stood out to me.

As I’ve gotten to know Robbie over the years, I’ve realized that he has a unique ability to connect with trainees who consider themselves geeky, intellectual, and not naturally athletic, and to help them become as strong and athletic as they’ve always wanted to be.

In this interview, Robbie shares the story of his own fitness journey, along with his methods for teaching geeky couch potatoes how to follow a diet, start lifting weights correctly, and love the process.

The Interview

You were overweight before you got into fitness — just how out of shape were you, and what prompted you to start getting serious about your health?

Oh man, truth be told, I barely remember that guy that I once was. I see pictures of him and I can’t even believe that’s me. But I never topped 300 pounds. I never got to a place where I needed XL or larger shirts. I was in the middle. And I don’t think most guys in the middle realize how much body fat they have and how much they carry around.

But what changed for me was seeing that I was over 200 pounds. I never saw myself as 200+ pounds. And once I saw that I was like, “WTF? No, I can’t allow this. I’ve never been more than 190.” So that started the first attempt at the gym. Diet was — ha! — diet wasn’t even really considered. I just ate salads and drank some protein shakes but kept drinking beer every night. I thought “eating healthy” was all I needed. I didn’t understand energy balance at all.

Then I had a friend who gave me P90x, and I used that when I moved to NYC and lost like 14 pounds. Part of that was due to more walking in the city and living off of very little food, to be honest. But I wasn’t tracking at all. I stayed under 195 for awhile.

What changed for me was a breakup with my girlfriend at the time (now my wife). And I decided to start hitting the gym and doing something that, up to that point, I had never done: I started reading about fitness. I had a job where I could read Reddit and blog posts all day. That’s where I discovered Roman, Tony G, Dean Somerset, and a few others. But it was Roman who made me feel like I could achieve a body like he had. He was an emo kid, a nerd, and spoke to my inner bro.

Just for context — how tall are you, how old are you right now, how old were you when you started losing weight, and what were your (estimated) highest and lowest body fat percentages?

5'10'’. 33 years old. When did I start losing weight? 23, the first time. But then I was also my heaviest then, too. It really kicked off in 2013 and I was 27. My highest body fat? Pfft, no idea bro. Lowest? Maybe 9? Calipers said 9ish.

John: Robbie declines to estimate his highest-ever body fat percentage, but just to give you an idea, at 5'10 and 200 pounds with a nearly average amount of muscle, it would have been somewhere in the 30–40% range. And for context, sixpack abs generally appear somewhere in the 10–15% range on men.

What diet did you follow to lose that weight?

Everything. Paleo. Eating every 3 hours. IIFYM. You name it, I’ve done it; except Keto.

What workouts did you do while you were getting back into shape?

The first time in 2008, I did whatever I found online or in a magazine or that I remembered from a weightlifting class in high school. Then in 2012–2013, it was, and then the program from Roman’s book.

If you could do it all over again, what would you do differently now?

I would point young me to the importance of diet and energy balance. And probably tell young me to go find Bryan Krahn and just start absorbing everything Bryan knows. He’s been one of the biggest influences on me as a coach in the last few years. He could have taught young me patience, which that fool of a tool that was the mid-20s-me could have used.

What diet are you on right now?

The one I like to call: “eat the same damn food every day because food isn’t something I care about and I have way too many thoughts I want to write and explore that food isn’t something I care to even think about.” Mostly just eat the same things day in and day out — oats, chicken, sweet potatoes, veggies, tacos, peaches.

Let’s talk about exercise. What are the top 5–10 exercises that nearly everyone should be doing, and 5–10 overrated exercises that people should cut back on?

Should be doing: the basics: squats, Romanian deadlift (or cable pull-through if you bend your back instead of hinging at the hips), incline bench press (flat bench isn’t best for shoulders), split squats, Pallof press, face pulls, bicep curls (duh!).

Should not be doing: anything that hurts. Oh, and box jumps. No one fucking jumps on boxes or is running around jumping on turtles and Goombas all day. Step-ups are enough. But really this question is a lazy question because everyone is different. So it depends on the context of what’s going on with that person.

How much cardio do you do? How necessary do you think it is?

Right now? None. I’m lazy and hate it. But it is important. One, for heart health. But two, it helps you recover better from workouts and helps your heart beat stronger, which means you’ll get rid of waste in your muscles from lifting quicker, recover better, and be able to lift more often with less fatigue.

What made you want to start Side Quest Fitness, and what sorts of clients do you work with?

It felt like the universe was calling me to it. God, that sounds so dumb, but it’s true. I made a huge transformation and people came to me asking for help. And they told me I’d be a great trainer. Plus, I hated my corporate job and wanted something more meaningful. So I figured I’d start a podcast first, since it seemed like the best way to network with the industry, and then got certified as a trainer, did an internship, and launched my online coaching biz at the same time.

Right now, I work with men and women all over the world aged 27–60. People who you would consider “gen pop,” meaning they’re not athletes playing sports. Just regular Moms and Dads and desk jockeys.

But my biggest passion is helping men in their 30s and 40s make the next decade of their lives better than the last decade. I want to cut through the BS out there and speak straight and honest with my readers. I think people want more of that these days.

What made you go with the whole nerd/video games theme for your company? Do you find that helps you connect with clients better?

It’s who I am. It’s how I see the world. I’m a nerd. So I write about how I solve problems or how I see solutions. And 95% of all things can relate back to Star Wars or comics. So that’s why I do it.

What mistakes are most of your clients making when they first start working with you?

Nutrition-wise, they have no idea what their food is comprised of. They know they need to eat “healthy,” but many of them don’t know what 1 serving of peanut butter looks like. Or they don’t understand how quickly fat can build up in a burger because there are different cuts of meat.

Training-wise? Consistency and intensity. My programming focuses on the basics. And the biggest issue I’ve noticed with people is that they aren’t pushing themselves to the level they need to see results. I guess you could say way too much texting on the phone. But the biggest [issue] is consistency. Jumping from one thing to the next and not giving yourself the time to get better on every rep. Form feeds function; stability summons strength. If your form is crap, your body won’t function properly and that can lead to injury (and the fear to get in the gym). Strength without stability is pointless and dangerous. So I help my clients focus on mastering and perfecting the basics while they lose fat and then help them build on those foundations so they can lift for life.

Which habits would you recommend that almost everyone builds?

Brutal and honest self-examination. Tracking your food does this. Taking videos of your lifts and comparing it to others helps with this too. But so does admitting that “hey, I might not be doing this right. Let me ask an expert and see how I can get better.” Once you can humbly admit that you are making a mistake and want to be better, then you can finally start making change.

Other than that, leave your phone outside of your bedroom. That bedroom is for two things: sleep and sex. Don’t let electronics keep you up longer than you need to be up. Improving your sleep patterns will help you increase your overall health better than diet at first. So, get more sleep and address diet with honest self-examination. Those are the first two habits I encourage clients to work on first.

What are a few specific habits that people can develop to improve their consistency with diet and exercise?

Be boring, not flashy.

Studies have shown that choosing fewer foods to eat or to have to choose from helps you keep more on track with nutrition. With workouts, get good at the basics. Don’t worry about what Ronnie Coleman, Arnold, or some douche-canoe on Instagram is showing you.

Yes, they’re cool. And yes, they might work. But if you can’t bench press and take the dumbbells ALL the way down to the deepest part of your range of motion, you’re wasting your time. Get better at moving your reps more effectively and efficiently before you think about adding more weight.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

John Fawkes

Written by

Los Angeles-based personal trainer, online fitness & nutrition coach, and health & fitness writer.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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