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Shaun T.: Dig Deep

Shaun Thompson  — better known as Shaun T. — is a staple on late-night television, spiking viewers’ heart rates long after bedtime with his infomercials for workout DVDs like Hip Hop AbsRockin’ BodyInsanity and Asylum. These high-energy at-home routines use a minimum of equipment (often body weight only) and a maximum of positive energy to draw you in and keep you moving.

The 33-year-old former professional dancer has sold 4 million of these workout DVDs and splits his time between New York, Los Angeles and anywhere else he’s asked to deliver his message. The way of Shaun T. has become such a popular group fitness phenomenon that in 2010 he launched S.T.R.I.D.E., his own instructor certification course.

But Thompson’s philosophy stretches beyond fitness; he applies the same energizing principles to all aspects of his life, and encourages others to embrace them, too.

EL:  Has fitness always played an important role in your life? 

ST:  I was always an active kid, and I did track and field from adolescence into adulthood — I was a 400-meter hurdler and sprinter. But when I went to college, I didn’t run track the first year because I was on academic scholarship and wanted to focus strictly on school. I gained 50 pounds that year, going from 178 to 228 pounds. I looked into a mirror one day and I was like, This is crazy! I was still athletic in my mind, but not physically. So, I changed my major from communications to sports science and I started going to the gym again, at first just working out for 10 minutes a day.

For my new major, I was assigned to teach a group fitness class. It was a hip-hop aerobics class, and I loved doing it. I got really good, and had 90 people who showed up to my class regularly. That led me into dance. Later, I got into kickboxing, step and boot-camp classes, too, and I started to realize I could do this for a living.

EL:  How did you parlay your love of teaching into a fitness empire? 

ST:  Just out of college, I worked in corporate health in New Jersey and taught dance on the side. Then, in 2003, I was visiting a friend in L.A., and he suggested I go to a nearby dance-agency audition. I was like, “Yes, a free dance class! I don’t have to pay $15!” But I kept getting through to the next round and the next round, and they ended up asking me to sign with them. The first thing I did was call my mom, who told me, “You have to go; it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” I figured I’d be a starving artist, though, so I arranged to teach group fitness classes at a number of gyms in the area to supplement my income.

But good things kept happening: I became a Nike fitness model, a back-up dancer for Mariah Carey, and I got to work on a DVD project Kathy Smith put together through Beachbody called Project: You! I helped her choreograph all of the routines.

In 2005, a producer for Beachbody who was taking one of my classes told me they were looking for a new kind of fitness program, and she suggested I come in for a 10-minute audition. It ended up being two hours long. From that point on we were creating Hip Hop Abs. Then came Rockin’ Body, and then Insanity and Asylum. It’s been the greatest experience of my life.

I’m doing what I’m supposed to do. I never, ever feel like I’m working. Wait, I take that back: The only time I feel like I’m working is when random people ask to feel my stomach muscles.

EL:  What do you think it is about your approach that people are most drawn to?

ST: I’m giving it so much passion. I’m connected to the feeling the person at home is having — I know how you’re feeling, and I know you can do this. I use empathy to draw you along. My main thing is, no matter what you do in your workouts or in your life, it’s all about becoming a better version of yourself. I never say, “You have to do what I’m doing.” I always say, “Do what you can do.”

That’s why in Insanity, my message is “dig deep.” People say to me, “You have no idea how that message has infiltrated other parts of my life.” It becomes about “I can either give up right now or I can do one more pushup. If I can just get one more rep now, I can propel myself even further next time.” It may sound clichéd, but that attitude extends to everything.

EL:  What do you think are the keys to building great energy? 

ST:  The most important is, don’t put so much pressure on yourself. You have time to make things happen, and nothing is going to happen overnight. Saying “I have to work out for an hour every morning” or “I have to eat nothing but lettuce” will just become overwhelming, and why feel overwhelmed about something that’s supposed to make you feel better? Instead, how about doing five minutes the first day, and seven the next, and keep bumping it up again after that? You have to find a program that makes you feel motivated to do more. There is no fitness blueprint, no one right answer for when and how much. Just find a fun way to move that will add to your energy rather than deplete it.

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