FINISH LINE CHASERS: KUPAH JAMES
Interview by Team Two Times You.
Kupah. Thanks for joining us on Zoom. It’s late 2020. How are you doing?
What a loaded question!
I’m doing the best I can with the tools that are still available to me. So many things have been removed off the chessboard. But there are still some pieces. They’re the ones you can use to pivot with.
You’ve got to find a way to function. Use other skills. Dust off some old tools. See what you can do with what you have left.
Love that chessboard analogy. Our 2XU crew may not know this, but in addition to being a full-time trainer, you’re also a full-time DJ. That’s a couple of cool chessboard pieces. How did that happen?
Alright, are you ready for this? Kupah James… started his career… as a Go-Go dancer.
It’s 2002, I was 18, dancing in a night club and there were Go-Go dancers. I started dancing with them, having fun and then they invited me into the group. Now every guy on the planet is a dancer, but back then... there weren’t a lot of guys like me moonwalking on stage!
Anyway, they invited me to the try out for the group and I ended up dancing for the Celtics, did a couple of concerts, travelled the states and then started dancing at Bar Mitzvah’s where I was working with DJ’s. That got me into DJ-ing. And then the fitness part came about because of the Bar Mitzvah dancing. If you’ve never been to a Bar Mitzvah, there’s a lot of this going on – Kupah pretends to take his shirt off - you need the body… so I applied to work at a gym.
This woman in the group fitness department saw there was dance on my resume. She was like, ‘Hey, would you teach a dance aerobics class?’ It’s 2003 now, so Zumba’s really big. So, I did a little grapevine and honestly between the Bar Mitzvah world, DJ-ing and grapevine’ing for this woman, I became a fitness guy and a DJ guy.
Boom. So how do you balance two full-time gigs?
With four letters. J. E. N. I.
Without Jeni, there would be no dual career. She really is so important to how this thing works. I’m front of camera, all day, every day and she’s everything behind it. She does so much behind the scenes, so I can wake up, yell at people and create content to keep people engaged. It’s a huge plus I have that.
I had a pretty tough childhood, which actually got me to the point I was at before I met Jeni. My childhood was full of bullying, racism, poverty, abuse, neglect, single-parent home… I faced a lot of challenges that got me to where I am today.
Do many people know about your childhood?
I was actually talking with my team yesterday about doing a video that captures some of this stuff. Because people meet me, and they think I was born on a platinum surfboard.
‘Oh Kupah James! Guy’s built like a mannequin! He’s great!’ Etc. While I’m super honoured to be in this physical shape, my childhood was really difficult. When I was a senior in college, I was going through some tough times and I had a couple of breakdowns. I could have easily been in many other situations in my life because of my upbringing, things I’ve felt, things I’ve faced in my life. Some people go one route, some people go another route, and this is the route I took.
When I was going through those tough times at college, I kept asking myself – why is the world so hard? Is this how hard life is for everybody? It felt like it was really difficult. But I kept asking 'Why, why, why’. But then through minutes of tears, instead of saying ‘Why am I so poor’ or ‘Why are my parents not together,’ I started saying stuff like, ‘Well, why am I so poor?’ And ‘Why am I at a loss of money?’ Then I looked at is as: you don’t work hard enough, you don’t have a job, your job doesn’t pay enough money.
Instead of looking at it as ‘Oh poor me’, it was more of a ‘Well, here’s some things you could change.’
If you’re dealt 15 s*** things in a row – I, you, me, all of us – have the power to turn over some of those things, by subtly shifting the way you think about something. Then next minute you’re changing jobs. You’re earning more money. You’re out of that s*** relationship. The momentum of those changes will shift another couple of things in your life. Then there might only be 8 bad things.
And that’s how you cut through half of your bullshit!
Does that manifest itself in your training and coaching?
Yes. I’m not the kind of trainer who’s going to force you to do 100 x push-ups.
I’m the kind of trainer who’s going to try and push and motivate you to do one good push-up, because you believed you couldn’t do it and I know you can do one.
If you can do one good push up, you know it now. I know it now. We both know you can do two. And if you can do two, you can do five. So, if you can do five, that’s five more push-ups than you ever thought you were able to do.
I’m big on celebrating all of the achievements. As an adult, we stop getting stars on our report cards. And that f****** kills me! There’s just not enough high-fives as an adult. It’s like… be an adult-adult-adult, suck-it-up, go-to-your-job, go-to-your-kids…
I’m like ‘Man! Where the f*** is the fun? I didn’t grow up to do this! This is the worst!’ So, I celebrate as much as I can. When the buzzer goes off and you’ve done mountain climbers for 45 seconds, I am in your face like ‘F*** yeah! You did that s***! You did all that s***!’ The 2XU tagline really resonates with me. Finish lines are everywhere.
What has been the most surprisingly positive thing that has happened to you during COVID-19?
The adherence that people have to their fitness.
It’s incredible the lengths people will go to just to get that sweat, just to get that burn and to be connected to the people that makes them feel a certain way.
People in my community have their own lives but they’re jumping through hoops to come to my class. If they can’t make it, they’re asking for a pre-recorded version, they’ll do it virtually at home. They’re finding ways to work out.
I never would have thought people would have this level of adherence to their individual trainer. I’ve been able to carve out a little demo of people who really speak my language and they have been so overwhelmingly flattering.
So COVID-19’s helped you build an even stronger community?
I floated the idea of doing a class on the beach in one of my Zoom classes. Like… maybe I’d do it. 3 - 4 days later, one particular member of mine was like ‘Are you going to do it?! Are you going to do it?!’ So I did, and in my first week I had eight people, in my sixth week we had 30 people and now we have 35 - 40 people every Saturday on the beach working out. Jumping around. That’s been the highlight of the quarantine.
Now I have this real thing! People are part of it. I built a community. When I was with Equinox I had one but it was more like speed dating, ‘Hey what’s up guys. 45-minute session, Peace’, you know? Now I see my community Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. There’s this real relationship, this real friendship, getting personal with people in a good way. Everything I’ve put into the fitness lane during quarantine has come back tenfold. It feels really good. I’m super excited I can still connect with people during these times.
So what about the tough days? How do you motivate yourself to train?
My approach is typically little nuggets. I’ll tell myself, ‘If I don’t wanna do a big workout, let me do something that’s going kill me in 10 minutes’. Which for me, is burpees. And after you do those burpees, the bloods pumping, my hearts beating and I’m thinking ‘Ohh lets go bicep curl!’ I’ll just throw in some ab wheels. I’ll just throw in some squats. And then I’ve done a full-on workout. The momentum takes me through.
And what about knowing when to stop? How do you incorporate recovery into your training?
I try to get a decent balance of fitness and activity in every single day. I’ve got a pretty busy brain and now, I’ve been able to find other things I didn’t seek out before the pandemic. Like going to the beach, long walks, enjoying a midday movie. And Fresh Prince is on HBO so that’s taking up a lot of my time. So mentally, I’ve found more space. I’ve become a little more patient and have more time to rest my mind.
It’s about re-appreciating the pieces that are still left on the chessboard. We have an entire coast that’s four miles from my house, so I’m there a lot more and hanging out in the sun (which my A.D.D doesn’t usually allow for). It’s been pretty nice.
Noted. You mentioned how our tagline resonates with you. We talked about it in terms of small changes, or breaking goals into more digestible pieces. But what about the radical and ambitious ones? What’s the toughest finish line you’ve crossed?
As a DJ, people often ask ‘What’s your favourite song?’ And I’m like, well ‘My favourite song is a song that I haven’t heard yet’. My favourite finish line is the line that I haven’t crossed yet.
I love setting mini goals… to just get through this day, this call, this meeting, this workout. And because there aren’t a sufficient amount of physical high-fives in the world any more, I have to create them myself, in the form of finish lines.
You know, ‘You did that shit! You finished it! You crossed the line! You tracked it!’ Whatever your jam is, you can get to the end of that day, get your kids in a good system of home schooling, or if you’re in a relationship and you guys are rocky but you figure it out during this time… I mean those are all great things to be grateful for I think.
Everyday is another achievement, another day of opportunity and challenges, all unknown and known. I go to bed knowing what I’m going do the next day, but I wake up with four emails of which I did not expect. So how do you navigate those emails into an already prioritised list of things to do?
Firing that rhetorical question right back at you. How do you cope?
I use coping skills. I don’t think people use the phrase ‘Coping skills’ as much as they should.
I have a very small background in psychology and I’ve also been in therapy a couple times in my life. My mother did a really good job as a parent, teaching me coping skills. So the word and the whole idea of having coping skills isn’t foreign to me. But it’s important. Developing these can save you from yourself.
I’m a big believer in the experience of feelings. I don’t think that you’re supposed to side-step feelings. You should sit in it for a minute because if you can appreciate the good things, you can understand the bad.
So for me, my back hurts. Period.
Instead of being like ‘Oh, but it’s sunny outside!', it’s like yeah, ‘But my back still f****** hurts!’ I’m just living with it and checking off other boxes, things that I don’t get to when I’m running around, thinking about the other pieces on that chessboard.
Tell us about a 2XU garment you couldn’t live without.
Whew. Your MCS tights would be one of my fave for sure. I mean, how are they not going to be great? For the tightness, for the security and in the most recent version, I was obsessed with the pockets you were starting to incorporate. I’m a pocket guy. I like to carry an iPhone or keys, so I’m a huge fan anytime you put in functional pockets that don’t change the shape of the pant.
I also like your stuff because I’m in the elements a lot, motorcycling and training. There are days when I’ll leave the house in a pair of tights, sweatpants, socks (over the sweat pants!), tank top, t-shirt, long-sleeve jacket, vest… and come home wearing none of it. It’s always 2XU layers, so I really appreciate how all the garments complement each other. The tights would be my favourite for sure. Then you started making these in-seam 2XU shorts. Those are also delicious.
We’re inspired just hearing you talk about our gear. Is there someone in your life that has served as an inspiration to you now or when you were younger?
Yeah. I’ll give you three people.
1. Michael Jordan. I don’t think I need to say a lot about that.
2. My sister. Through tough times from my childhood, we’ve got a really special bond. Her strength and her resilience at such a young age with what we were going through, we both had to grow up pretty young. I look up to her. She’s really important to me.
3. David Normington. If you’ve heard of the ‘Big Brother Big Sister Programme’, I had a big brother since I was 10 so we’re celebrating 28 years of a relationship. He unequivocally filled in so many gaps in so many vacancies that I had growing up that my mum couldn’t fill, or wasn’t able to, already doing what she could. As a white male from a very religious family, he was the complete opposite of me. But I never felt like I was a minority because of him.
Top career highlights. Go.
One thing I’m proud of is Bodyweight BootKAMP. I just reinvented the wheel, but I put my own stamp on it and its grown into something that’s really cool. It’s special and people really care about it. It makes me feel like I did something for the fitness community.
Also… I’m not big on name dropping… BUT I will… I’ve been heading Childish Gambino’s fitness training for the last two and a half years. Seeing him go from ‘Dad-Bod-Celebrity-Guy’ to now. The results are there, he feels great, he looks great. Just the fact he’s trusted me.
We’d love to know more about your Finish Line for 2020. How has your Finish Line changed?
When 2020 started, I was supposed to go to London with Donald (Childish Gambino) to train him while he was shooting a show. The pandemic changed that but London is going to happen at some point. Donald has got to film that thing, but my goal has shifted too.
Bodyweight BootKAMP has my heart and soul right now. Finishing the year with this community, so we can look back and think ‘Wow, it’s been tough. Race, quarantine, politics, fires…’ Looking back is going to be fun.
Whenever you get to a finish line you should be able to look back and high-five yourself for making that journey. And that goes for all of us.
It’s not about everyone having to create a new workout, give birth, start a new business. It doesn’t have to be the Olympics – it could just be getting out of bed every day. Making somebody else smile.
There are millions of ways to create finish lines, so I love the motto.
‘My name is Kupah James and I am honoured to be affiliated and associated with a company that makes such great products’.
I mean it. Thanks for making me one of the team. I will continue to offend people, motivate people and talk a lot of s*** as long as my heart keeps beating.