The comeback kid
Fitness guru’s painful journey to health and success
Upon returning from work one day in 2005, Ashley Poli entered her Orland apartment and was confronted with a horrifying sight—her then-23-year-old husband, Angelo Poli, lying on the floor, groaning and writhing in pain. She thought he might be having a seizure.
When Ashley married Angelo just six months earlier, he was a strapping body builder and personal trainer who proudly ran his own gym. However, after injuring his back lifting weights a few months into their marriage, he began having trouble walking correctly or standing for long periods, and he struggled with his concentration.
Ashley initially froze from the shock of seeing her husband in such a state, before frantically rifling through her purse in search of the emergency pain pills she kept for him. Not finding one immediately, she dumped everything out on the table with a crash, and though sobbing, spotted a Vicodin that would bring Angelo some relief.
That scene is forever burned into Angelo Poli’s mind.
“It was at that moment, seeing her tears of fear, sadness and desperation roll down her cheeks that I experienced my absolute low,” he said. “That was the worst moment of my life.”
Today, Poli is the owner of the local personal-training center Whole Body Fitness and an in-demand speaker and personal trainer who appears to be at the top of his game, professionally and physically. But, the story of his journey—from a little garage gym in Orland to his present fitness empire—nearly took a turn with a far less happy ending.
Poli’s career in fitness and personal training actually started through happenstance. In his first entrepreneurial endeavor, he started a window-washing business at the age of 18, and one day found himself cleaning windows at the Curves weight-loss club in Corning. An older female staffer walked by and complimented him on his physique, which he kept in top form through a regimen of lifting weights and good nutrition.
“Wow, you look fit. How can I get muscles like that?” Poli recalled her asking.
He laughed and said, “My workout is tomorrow morning—come join me and I’ll teach you to lift free weights.”
She became his first client.
He said his program in those days was “what you might expect if Hulk Hogan and Richard Simmons were training partners—bodybuilding mixed with ’80s-inspired cardio.”
But it worked—she lost 55 pounds—and Poli decided to “trade in my squeegee and bucket for a fitness certification and a set of dumbbells.”
He took correspondence and online classes, got his fitness trainer certificate, and built his first gym in 2003—which he described as a “Frankenstein collection of whatever mismatched benches, balls and contraptions I could get my hands on”—in his garage in Orland, the city of his early boyhood.
His second client was a woman of similar build and weight-loss goals as the first. Poli put her on the same regimen, but was perplexed when she didn’t lose anywhere near the weight of his first client. Poli admits he can become obsessed when faced with a challenge, and he began a tireless quest to find out why the results were not similar for both women. He bought stacks of books on fitness, weight control and metabolism, and started incorporating his findings into his trainings, with varying results.
“My poor early clients. I think I had them on everything from Atkins to raw foods over the course of the first few years,” he recalled.
Eventually, Poli learned that his clients required different programs depending on their specific needs. So, using both written and physical evaluations, he analyzed what he saw as the three key components: metabolism, body type (with 10 sub-types for each gender) and psychological motivation (some clients need a forceful trainer, while others need a “buddy” or “cheerleader” style of coach).
The diet portion of the program emphasized lean proteins—mostly meat—as well as foods low in calories and carbohydrates, things like rice cakes, berries and almond butter. Weekly checkups were needed to monitor progress and dictate adjustments.
Though Poli would add years of experience and further trainings and certifications to round out what would evolve into the system he now calls MetPro (short for metabolic profiling), this eclectic approach, catering to the specific needs of each individual client, would provide the foundation of his training style.
After that scary night, when Ashley found him on the floor, Poli continued training and running his gym—which had recently moved from the garage to an Orland storefront—in full denial as to how his condition was affecting his life and loved ones. His pain became so intense that he walked with a cane and spent most of his free time sitting in a recliner chair.
Over the course of five very painful years, Poli sought help from doctors, physical therapists and alternative healers. He tried myriad medications, tests such as MRIs, acupuncture, spinal decompression, and even endured spinal injections, none of which offered lasting relief. At one point he even put a contraption called a magnetic pulse machine under his mattress “to synchronize my body with the organic rhythms of the Earth.” All to no avail.
While training others he often would suddenly need to excuse himself to lie down for 30 minutes to relieve his pain. Standing for long periods became extremely difficult, as was sleeping through the night. Poli said his pain became so excruciating at times that he actually wished for death.
“The truth is, there were times I was ready to give up, no longer caring if I woke up in the morning. If I would have had a gun back then …” he said, his voice trailing off before finishing the thought.
Though none of the aforementioned therapies cured him, Poli did receive significant hope and temporary relief from some.
“If it wasn’t for the wonderful chiropractors, physical therapists and body workers in Chico, I’m not sure I would be here today to recount this story,” he said.
During those difficult years, his wife, whom Angelo calls his best friend, stuck by him. In a recent conversation in her office at Whole Body Fitness in Chico, Ashley remembered the years of suffocating routines, such as helping her husband simply walk from room to room.
Uncertainty as to Poli’s ability to continue earning a living caused the couple severe anxiety. They struggled to pay for his treatments and diagnostics, as well as groceries and living expenses. They lived with roommates to afford rent, and their “kitchen” at one point consisted of a hot plate and a microwave.
Poli’s pain prevented him working out as regularly as he was accustomed, but thankfully his skills as a personal trainer were still in high demand. So he traveled around the state giving inspirational fitness seminars on metabolism and nutrition. During his presentations he’d sign up new clients, whom he’d then coach remotely via video conferencing and emails.
And, while his own physical health might have been diminishing, his Orland gym was thriving, so much so that by the beginning of 2006 he opened a fitness center in Chico (the Orland operation closed three years later).
But Poli was increasingly unable to meet the physical demands of his growing business. So in 2007, two years after getting married, Ashley sacrificed her chosen profession as a dance and choreography instructor to become a Whole Body Fitness personal trainer.
“I thought I’d be teaching 5-year-olds tap dancing and ballet forever, and I would have been content with that,” she said.
But she adapted. “If you’ve never had someone you care about experience such a tragedy, well, it changes you,” Ashley said. “But it makes you more appreciative of life.”
She misses her prior career, but says that she exercises her artistic side by handling all the creative aspects of the gym, such as making videos of those who’ve benefited from training there.
And a couple years later, Poli also got a boost from Matthew Lister, one of his early clients (who had suffered nearly identical back problems), who started working at the gym and helping cover for Poli’s absences. Eventually, in 2011, Lister would come on as a partner at Whole Body Fitness.
It wasn’t until 2009 that Poli would start to climb out of his pit of despair. He was 28, and on a trip to Napa for back treatments when he spotted an ad for a personal training studio in town that focused on posture and ergonomics. Little did he suspect that his curiosity in these methods would bring the change he desperately sought.
The trainer, Matt Kathol, listened to Poli’s tale of pain and dysfunction and told him that he believed his body had veered so far from its natural, balanced state that his muscles, joints and discs in his lower back were “teetering under tremendous pressure.” Kathol critiqued his posture and motions more thoroughly than anyone had before. He then asked Poli to get on the floor and assume a variety of seemingly odd positions and stretches, which had him flexing muscle groups he barely knew existed. Kathol took detailed measurements of Poli’s hip, femur and ankle positions, comparing before and after the exercises, and found he was far out of proper alignment.
“I’d seen numerous specialists and they never focused that intensely on my body position or posture,” Poli said.
Poli’s initial skepticism turned to amazement when he followed Kathol’s instructions to do gluteal contractions on the floor for 30 minutes. Afterward, he stood up and was pain-free. He was sold.
“It was the first time I had stood up in years without feeling pain,” Poli said. “How surprising it was to get that amount of relief out of such simple movements.”
For the next six months the Polis frequently made the 300-mile round-trip drive between Chico and Napa as Angelo immersed himself in this new program of improving his postural balance. And again, as he did previously with weight loss, he threw himself into the study of posture and began to incorporate it into his own training programs.
“I was amazed and humbled that there was so much I didn’t know about the human body,” Poli said.
And back at his gym, as he implemented what he learned, he began to notice that as his members improved their mechanical efficiency and technique via better posture, they also increased their strength and speed. He says he also started predicting who might be prone to injury simply by observing their movements or stances.
With the improved results in hand, Whole Body Fitness also started working with outside groups and businesses to develop safety and ergonomics programs for their employees.
Poli’s back pain didn’t end with Kathol’s training, though it helped immensely. While most back injuries heal on their own, further medical tests showed a previously unrevealed “full thickness tear” in a disc in his lower back, which caused a painful leaking of fluid to the surrounding nerves. His high fitness level had kept him going for seven years, but by late 2010, Poli opted for anterior lumbar fusion surgery.
“The disc was removed completely and replaced by a metal washer with a titanium cage,” Poli said. The surgeon, Dr. Sigurd Berven of UC San Francisco Medical Center, took the least-invasive approach, operating through Poli’s stomach, instead of his back, thus sparing his spinal muscles for workouts. Poli’s pain relief was immediate, but he was bed-ridden for weeks afterward.
Several months later he got back to his regular routine with renewed focus. When lifting heavy weights, he had greater balance and resilience. Slowly, he regained his pre-surgery strength, though he still suffers occasional bouts of spinal arthritis.
Following his recovery, one of Poli’s first new clients was Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Word about his system had reached the Chico-raised NFL star via his younger brother, current Miami Dolphins quarterback Jordan Rodgers, who was already working with Poli. (Their father, chiropractor Ed Rodgers, is also an adviser to the gym.)
Aaron Rodgers said Poli’s training resulted in major improvements.
“Angelo really helped me with my diet and getting my body in proper alignment, which has given me greater flexibility and will help increase my career longevity,” said the nine-year veteran in a phone interview.
Fresh off a Super Bowl win, Rodgers spent five months in 2011 working out with Poli during the off-season. Rodgers lauded his humility and heartfelt desire to help others, and said that after returning to the NFL in the fall of 2011, thanks in large part to Poli’s training, he had “the best year of my career.” (That was the year Rodgers was named the league’s MVP.)
But most of Poli’s clients are not superstar athletes. While many of them have lost 30 pounds or more, as shown in the dozens of before-and-after photos that cover the gym’s walls, Poli takes special pride in helping those with lasting injuries.
“Those who’ve experienced chronic pain know it can change who you are and what you think,” he said. “I can tell when I see someone who has that pain and I try as hard as I can with my training to help them.”
Jennifer Stelle is one such example. The former police and correctional officer’s life became a struggle after she and her husband lost their home during the 2008 recession. Then, in 2009, her third child was born with autism, and due to the demands of caring for her children, she quit her job and used up her retirement money to make ends meet. In the chaos, Stelle gained a lot of extra weight and developed chronic back pain. She said she was embarrassed to go out in public or even have her picture taken with her family.
But one day, while taking her son to a summer workout program at Whole Body Fitness, she saw the transformational wall photos and decided to sign up. Poli’s strictly timed eating schedule, featuring lean proteins, veggies, salads and healthy snacks, helped her see results quickly. She said she started looking at food as “a tool to use to keep my body healthy.
“The diet change was drastic but welcome because using food as a coping mechanism was a bad relationship,” Stelle said.
She said that she no longer craves sweets and cooks food in bulk for easy reheating or to take on the go.
Stelle’s workouts focused on light weights, push-ups, sit-ups and, of course, proper lifting postures. She insisted on continuing even after pinching a nerve in her neck, which resulted in limited arm mobility and a month-long migraine. Because of the pinched nerve, her trainer modified her workouts with adjustments like having her lift weights while lying down or using a bench for support.
“I have lost 45 pounds, but gained back my life. Taking care of myself allows me to be a better wife, better mom and better friend,” she said.
Poli’s story of recovery and his MetPro system have started to spread to larger audiences. In 2013, he was one of seven speakers chosen to present at a TEDx Chico conference at the Sierra Nevada Big Room, where he gave an inspirational talk about his personal journey.
He also has written articles for or been covered by the likes of the Huffington Post, the Wall Street Journal and Men’s Health magazine.
The increased popularity led to a new satellite Whole Body Fitness personal-training program based out of Paradise’s Beyond Fitness health club, as well as much-needed expansion to his formerly modest-sized Chico gym. Inside the Highway 32 warehouse, the three main rooms are wide open, with mats covering the bulk of the floor, and various exercise aids—rowing machines, inflatable stability balls, TRX suspension bands—lining the perimeter. On a typical day at the Chico gym you won’t see a lot of people working out solo. Instead, you will find groups of five to 30 working under a trainer’s direction. There is a familiar atmosphere, as members and trainers greet each other and joke through their sweaty workouts—including spinning classes, posture/alignment sessions with body-weight exercises and light weight lifting.
Poli also has finished his first book—co-authored by nationally recognized fitness writer Andrew Heffernan—called Metabolic Profiling: Science to Transform, which outlines his philosophy and workout system. He plans to self-publish the book later this summer.
“I am the luckiest guy in the world and I have the greatest job in the world,” Poli said. “I get to pay it forward and share the things I’ve learned with others.”