Todd Nief, co-owner of South Loop Strength & Conditioning in Chicago, is a CrossFit trainer, a career path he chose after deciding that chemical engineering was boring, though his college major gave him the data-driven mindset that makes him stand out from other CrossFit entrepreneurs. And if that’s not enough differentiation, Nief also performs in an underground metal band named Like Rats.

South Loop Strength & Conditioning is owned by Nief and partners Kevin Slaughter and Paul Wagner. The gym reminds of a retro firehouse and has a Rocky vibe to it, minus the boxing ring, but filled with passionate athletes of all ages pursuing their individual CrossFit goals.

Nief is a continuous learner, and pivoted from engineering to CrossFit through a combination of on-the-job training, books, courses, and great mentors. In another interview, he stated that “I’ve received some of the best continuing education by playing around in areas that I don’t belong in. Courses geared more towards physical therapists and Sahrmann’s Movement System Impairment Syndromes have profoundly impacted how I look at coaching and movement.”

Nief defines CrossFit as “very functional movement at high intensity” that includes a combination of strength and conditioning training. A training program might include a mix and match combination of weightlifting and gymnastics and body weight calisthenics, with variation to keep it fun; South Loop Gym doesn’t want clients to get frustrated and quit or blame themselves for falling short of their goals.

He describes the ideal cross fit athlete as one who takes action toward their goals, and can put real world distractions behind them when they enter the gym. Clients of the South Loop Gym tend to be in the 20-40 age bracket including many students and people that live or work nearby; the mix of men to women is pretty even.

When asked about the different training programs for a 20 year old compared to a baby boomer like me, Todd stated that training can’t be put in a silo based on age, but is unique to each individual. Fitness and athletic performance is influenced by our age, of course, but important determinants also include genetics, injury history, commitment, diet, and other personal habits including sleep. He noted generally that a 20 year old could handle a higher volume of workouts, including more reps, than a 60 year old; for example, a younger person might conduct high intensity workouts 3-5 times per week, compared to a 60 year old 1-2 times per week.

During our conversation, thoughts of training for the Chicago Triathlon ran through my head. I find myself focused more on physical strength than I expected; the obvious training is for the swim, bike and run which is especially cardio driven, but the demands of the two, or four, hour competitions, depending on your event (and speed), requires upper body training, and strong ab and back muscles. So I’m spellbound.

Nief commonly sees problems start with athletes and clients not being honest with themselves regarding what their goals are. People looking to compete in fitness as a sport need to own their goal. If you want to maximize your potential, you need to be willing to put in long hours at the gym. You need to be willing to train with an amount of volume that may result in aches and pains. Athletes also need to eat to perform – not train 15+ hours per week while simultaneously following a low-carb weight loss diet because they want to see more definition in their abs.

Simultaneously, folks training to look good, feel good, and move around don’t need to be taking in 60g of sugar post-workout. They don’t need to do two-a-day training sessions. They don’t need to do 5 hours per week of additional “cardio” on top of strength and conditioning program. They don’t need to push through achy shoulders, elbows and knees to keep training.

In discussing post-workout recovery, Nief noted the importance of replenishing carbohydrates, which among other things benefit the body’s nervous system. Sugar is essential for post-workout, too, provided that you worked hard enough to deplete sugars. He also has a favorite list of whey protein supplements that have good amino acid profiles.

Nief described hydration as a “controversial” topic. He distinguished between hydration for day-to-day living, compared to hydration for athletic performance. Regarding the former, he believes that people generally under-hydrate, but he noted that emotional and social issues including sleep and weight loss are factors, too. Hydration is of course important for athletic performance, but Todd doesn’t think there is a reliable indicator to quantify the amount needed.

Discussing diet, Nief maintained his mantra that it’s ok to wander off the reservation and eat bad food periodically, just don’t beat yourself up over it. Even he occasionally eats fast food, but steers toward the more healthy options, maybe a baked potato or salad. He doesn’t advocate trendy diets, though he recognizes that many have common themes surrounding an emphasis on food quality and attentiveness to what we eat; binge eating followed by restrictive diets is a bad formula.

Nief’s satisfaction comes from seeing his clients achieve unexpected success, which can be manifest in improved physical appearance, or even greater mental strength, perhaps also positively impacting emotional intelligence. He is the first to acknowledge that commitment and hard work are required, but the payoff to working with South Loop Strength & Conditioning can be huge.

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Gary Radville