PAUL PLAKAS – The Short Story

Paul Plakas has been a personal trainer for 25 years.  He owns Custom Fit Personal Training Studio in Edmonton, Alberta (est. 1998).  Paul received his degree in Physical Education from the University of Alberta in 1990. Additional certifications were completed with the American College of Sports Medicine (HFI 1992) and National Academy of Sports Medicine (C.S.C.S 1994).  You may have seen Paul as the fitness expert on the Gemini award winning television shows “Taking It Off” and “X-Weighted” which ran on the Slice Network in Canada for nine years.  Paul currently has a fitness/nutrition segment on CTV News in Edmonton which you can see on Mondays.   He is a lifestyle panelist on the television program “Alberta Primetime” discussing all aspects of health affecting Albertans.  In addition he does a regular weekly fitness/nutrition segment on TSN 1260 with Jason Gregor.  In his spare time Paul enjoys all sports including: hockey, bike racing, tennis, badminton, squash and weight lifting.  The motto he lives by “Pain is temporary, quitting lasts forever”.

The Long Story

My parents, Nick and Helen, came from humble backgrounds, my father in particular. Both raised in poor villages in Greece, my father was informed of a Greek girl whose own father wanted to marry off.  At the age of 29, my dad was ready to get married. Accompanied by his brother Panagotis, my dad went to meet Helen to check her out. My mother was 23 years old, and a little chubby.  Not used to seeing a heavier woman in a part of Greece where food was so scarce, my father was not initially attracted to my mom. To make matters worse, Uncle Panagotis said, “Nick she is too fat, you can’t afford to feed her.”  Though my father agreed, he and my uncle were both hungry, so they stayed for dinner before leaving. A couple of hours passed, and my father’s interest in my mother grew. I am lucky my dad was hungry!

This gives me a unique relationship to food, as it is what united my parents and eventually created me. On May 29th, in Athens, Greece, I was born.  When I was two years old, my family moved to Canada, taking up residence in Swift Current, Saskatchewan. Many of my mother’s relatives owned restaurants there, so my parents began working in the food service industry. It was here that I was first introduced to fast food.  We stayed in Swift Current until I was five. Here, my brother Demetrius and sister Maria were born. To this day, relatives from the Giannitsios and Tsougrianis families continue to run restaurants there.

My family decided to move to Calgary, Alberta when an opportunity to run a restaurant with my Uncle Louie came about. My mother was a waitress, so she had many opportunities to converse with others. She started learning English really well. My father still struggled. He was a cook, so his only communication was getting food orders off the waitresses. There are still times I can not understand what he is saying when he gets excited over something! I lived in Calgary until grade four. It was here that I became active in sports, particularly soccer.

We moved to Hinton, Alberta when my parents got a chance to own their own restaurant. My first memory of Hinton was the smell of the pulp mill. I never thought I would get used to it.  Both my elementary and junior high schools were near my parents’ restaurant, so I went there for lunch. A typical meal would consist of a cheeseburger, fries and chocolate milkshake. It became a habit for me. I remember other kids were envious because they had bagged lunches while I ate pizza and burgers every day. In hindsight, their lunches were a lot healthier than mine.

Over time, my unhealthy food choices caused me to gain weight. Though I was still playing sports, I had put on extra body fat from my poor eating habits. Still, my weight did not become a problem until I went to high school.  I started grade nine at Harry Collinge High School. Unlike elementary and junior high, I took a bus to and from school instead of walking. This decreased my physical activity even more. It was in my first year that I experienced bullying and had a life-changing moment.

In school, I was a class clown. My goofy personality made it easier for other guys to pick on me. Soon, I was a regular target, getting kicked, punched and having my shorts pulled down in gym class on a regular basis. Then came the day that changed my life.  I decided to wear a white tank top to school. Being that I had small arms and a belly, this was not the best idea for me. Almost everyone laughed at me. To this day, I have never worn a tank top again. Getting teased because of how I looked upset me tremendously. I decided I was not going to allow that to happen again. From that day on, I vowed never to be overweight or get bullied again.

I used to look at comic books and see a man who became extremely muscular by lifting weights. I thought if I became muscular too, no one would ever bother me. I convinced my parents to buy me a weight set and bench, Thus, my quest to become as fit as possible began.  My first workout happened in the basement of my family’s house. Ten pictures of exercises came with my new weight set. The first exercise was the Bench Press. Because I had never worked out before, I did not know what weight to start out with. The guy in the photograph was using 60-lb weights, so I did the same. Big mistake!

I assumed I had to use the same weight for all of my exercises. I could not figure out why for some, I could barely do five repetitions! The next mistake I made was doing the advanced workout rather than beginners. I figured the fastest way to get into shape was to perform the hardest workout. Not only did I throw up when I was done, but I could not move for a week!  I continued the workouts for weeks, never missing one. I was determined to go back to school after summer break, completely transformed. I wanted people to be shocked when they saw me. To help lose weight, I went on a strict diet. I gave up everything I used to eat.

On a typical day, I consumed half a sandwich and two pieces of fruit. Looking back, I don’t know how I had the energy to lift weights on such little food. By the end of the summer, I had lost 25 lbs. I looked skinny; almost too much. Many classmates praised me on my new appearance, wanting to know how I did it. The positive feedback I received gave me a confidence I never had before. Once I became confident, the bullying stopped. Now, more than ever, I wanted to discover how muscular I could get. I wanted to be a bodybuilder.

Midway through my grade 11, I met Dave. He was a new student, and looked different from the other guys. He had big arms, a muscular chest and back, and six-pack. He looked like the muscleman I had admired in my comic books.  Dave was a competitive junior bodybuilder. He was also the one who took me to my first real gym workout. I has always wanted to go, but was too nervous to do so alone. I still remember noticing the first muscle I had developed. I was doing Tricep Pushdowns and noticed a bump on the back of my arm. I wanted more. With Dave’s assistance, I quickly integrated into the bodybuilding culture, becoming a familiar fixture at the gym until I left for university.

After registering for university classes, I decided to go inspect the weight-training facility. The equipment was old and outdated. The smell of sweat was imbedded in the floors, walls and weights. It wasn’t pretty, but it became my home for the next four years. I dedicated myself to regular workouts, even finding time to hit the gym over exams, while everyone else studied.  Often, I was the only person working out. It was here that I experimented on the kinds of pain I could cause to my body. I wanted to see how far I could push myself before my body gave out. I became aware of what the human body could accomplish if one was motivated enough.

My first real job after university was at Center Club, a fitness facility in downtown Edmonton that catered to individuals with plenty of disposable income. My responsibility was to administer fitness tests and then set the clients up on programs which would allow them to reach their goals. I also organized athletic events and supervised the exercise floor during peak hours.  On my first day, I noticed two guys, Walter and Ted. Neither worked for the club, but were hired to train others. I discovered that both Walter and Ted saw between eight and ten people every day for one-on-one training sessions. Their main purpose was to ensure their clients performed all of their exercises the right way, with the right amount of intensity. This was the first time I had seen personal training in action. I was only doing one session with every new member. Ted and Walter worked with clients multiple times. They also made great income, charging a high rate for each session. I realized this was what I wanted to do. Soon, I began convincing new members to work out with me on a regular basis so they could receive results they could never achieve themselves. I spent the next four years there, honing my personal training skills.

During my time at Center Club, I became involved teaching a strength training course with fitness icon, Marjorie O’Connor. When I finished university, I took her course. Now she was inviting me to assist her in teaching a class! Not only is Marjorie a world champion aerobic dancer and a Nike sponsored athlete, but she is also the best group instructor I have ever seen.  In one of our classes, I met a student who would become a significant figure in my life. His name was Jeff Woods. To this day, Jeff has muscular arms and skinny golf-club legs. Though he says he trains his legs hard, I have yet to see it in the 15 years of knowing him! Anyway, being the entrepreneur he is, Jeff wanted to get into personal training. Eventually, he purchased Ted and Walter’s business after they moved to New York to train there.  Jeff was a huge success, training professional high-end members at Center Club. During this time, I left the club and set up a private personal training studio. After five years of personal training, I was starting to burn out. I was training over 50 clients per week. The high energy and personal attention each one of them was paying me for was becoming increasingly difficult for me. I was no longer enjoying coming to work — something I believe is an important element in one’s life. I needed a new challenge.

In the summer of ’99, Jeff approached me and suggested we open up our own private personal training studio. It would be the first of its kind in Edmonton, selling only private training sessions instead of memberships. The concept was unique, private and specialized. This was the change I needed.  We started looking at some spaces and settled on a nice spot near downtown Edmonton and the river valley trails. Jeff and I hired trainers: Michol Dalcourt, Craig Hamaliuk, Kevin Masters and Craig Murdoch. In the fall of 1999, Custom Fit Personal Training Studio was opened. The next five years were very successful. Eventually, we added more trainers, as well as massage therapy and Pilates.

Our space became a little tight, so in 2004, Custom Fit moved to a larger location a few blocks away. Kevin Masters and Craig Hamaliuk bought into the business, and together, each of us was able to bring our own special attributes to the studio. If you wanted to learn about martial arts or get a hug at the end of your session, Craig was your man. If triathlons were your goal, Kevin was the guy for you. People who wanted to learn more about resistance training saw Jeff. As for me, what you have seen on TV is what you get in real life.

Seven years ago, I read an ad in the paper for a casting call for a weight-loss show. It was titled “Taking it off,” a documentary-reality show that followed six people for six months who wanted to lose weight. The ad stated that they were looking for a trainer to take measurements, weigh-ins and offer fitness advice. Since I have always had the need to be the center of attention, I thought this was perfect. More importantly, this was what I had dedicated my life to – helping others achieve their weight loss goals.  I met with Executive Producer Margaret Mardirossian. We hit it off immediately. Margaret came to my training studio to scout the site for the first episode, where I would meet the participants and put them through a fitness test. It was at this point that I introduced her to Jeff. His charm won her over, and he was invited to assist me in the show. Together, we played good cop vs. bad.

Being the compassionate one, naturally, Jeff played the role of good cop. Meeting contestants for the first time was interesting. Each one had their own story behind why they were overweight. Motivating six different people to lose weight without training them on a daily basis was challenging. Though I was allowed to suggest ways to integrate healthy eating and exercise into their lives, ultimately, they had to figure it out on their own. The first season went really well, and the show continued to be successful for four seasons, even winning a Gemini for Best Documentary.

After the fourth season, the producers decided to change the format of the show. Rather than having each episode only show bits and pieces of each participant’s progress, they wanted to have a one-hour show focused on just one individual. This way, viewers could see the entire six-month journey, from start to finish, in just one episode. With the new style of show came a new name: “X-Weighted.”  My role on the show also expanded. No longer having Jeff to assist me, I became more involved in the participants’ lives. I went to their homes to do weigh-ins, and tossed out all the bad food from their cupboards and refrigerators. I had a chance to see how each individual truly existed and what environment they had created for themselves. X-Weighted was also a Gemini award winning show and played for five seasons on Slice Network where we taped 65 episodes in total.

I receive many emails about the show. Most are positive, but some come from viewers who are upset over some of the things I have said on the show. I never expected to receive the amount of emails I get each week. It really shows me that people care about the show. Whether they love or hate me, it is just nice to know they are watching!