As the longtime personal trainer for President Barack Obama and the first family, Cornell McClellan deserves some props for Michelle's famously toned arms. But in addition to working out White House staff and professional athletes, the nation's "first trainer" also spends much of his time trying to get children excited about physical fitness.
During a recent visit to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago, McClellan helped lead the hip-hop "Wobble Wobble Line Dance" as part of the government's latest wellness campaign that emphasizes physical activity and philanthropy. McClellan, who splits his time between Chicago and Washington, then took some time to dish on the president, the first lady and his fitness philosophy.
Q: How did you meet the Obamas?
A: They worked out at my Chicago wellness and personal training studio, Naturally Fit, which I opened 16 years ago. I've just closed my actual space. We nurtured the whole body and definitely focused on nutrition. We feel like that's air and water. You must have them both.
Q: What's a fitness rule you should never break?
A: Work out on a regular basis. Your health is your wealth; it's the most important thing we have. Sometimes we have to get up earlier, but if we understand the importance — that we have nothing without it — we can live with that. Even before the Obamas were in the White House, they felt this way; they would make time. If the first lady had to come to the gym before the sun came up, the other would come at night.
Q: Who is more motivated: the president or first lady?
A: They both are. He says she is — he will always say she's in better shape. I think their schedules are different, and she might have more time. But he is as focused about the importance as she is. Living in the White House changes life in terms of how they move around — it's not like they're running to catch the bus. So it's important they do exercise to stay healthy. If you don't have as many steps to take you have to artificially create them and make sure they get complete workouts that are intense.
Q: Have you tried to sneak any fitness into their days? Does the president tighten his abs during meetings?
A: I've tried some of those tricks. He's not up for that. He's serious about things in business.
Q: How has your approach to fitness changed over the years?
A: I still work people as hard as they can go but with a softer approach. It's very important for a trainer to be empathetic. I don't think you can scream at people to change. You connect with them. In my early 20s it wasn't so much about connecting and empathy and helping people find their own place and own time — it was work hard until you get there. We still work hard, but I believe in being polite.
Q: So how does Michelle get those arms?
A: It's a combination of all those things (mixing it up), but the most important thing is consistency. It would be wonderful if there were one exercise, but so many things come into play. It's more than strength training. Cardiovascular has a role, too. So while keying on the arms, we include strength training, jump-roping, boxing and body weight exercises.