This is the full transcript of our interview with Jillian Michaels. To read the condensed version, “6 Questions With Fitness Queen Jillian Michaels,” click here.
BABBEL: Can you just tell me briefly about your journey with fitness and how you got to where you are today?
MICHAELS: Yeah, sure. Briefly is tough. Let’s see. I was an overweight kid. I got into martial arts at about 12 or 13. It was a long process of getting more fit and more empowered, but over the course of my experience in martial arts, I not only lost the weight, but the accomplishments that I had physically in that environment built my self-worth and my self-esteem as well. So, at a young age, I began to appreciate the transformative power of fitness, not just physically but emotionally and psychologically and I realized that when you’re strong physically, it transcends into the other facets of your life.
So, I was training for my black belt at about 17, early 18. I graduated high school early, not because I was a genius or anything, just because my birthday fell on a strange cut-off date. People were coming up to me in the gym asking me how much I would charge to train them, and it was a hell of a lot better than the five dollars I was making an hour delivering pizzas. My mom helped me get my first little certification, and it kind of all started there.
BABBEL: Cool. Yeah, so your personal training style is often described as tough, no holds barred, no nonsense. Is that an approach that’s always come naturally to you, or did you grow into that personality over time?
MICHAELS: It really is a combination of my experience with martial arts, and my mom is a psychoanalyst, so I’ve been heavily therapized since I was five years old. So, I have an empathy but not a sympathy. I think sympathy is a very dangerous thing. Sympathy to me is almost like validating somebody’s deepest darkest concerns about their abilities, right? Because if you’re sympathetic, it’s like, “Aww. You poor, weak thing. Just take the stairs.” Sympathy — it’s validating a false message of lethargy, whereas empathy is like, “Look, I get it. It’s hard, but you’re capable of doing it and it’s worth doing so let’s suck it up and let’s get moving.” And so, for me, you know, my experience in kind of doing my own work and therapy and what have you has allowed me to get it.
I understand that it’s not easy to do and it allows me to be empathetic, but my time in martial arts has also helped me understand that people are capable of far more than they realize. And when you treat them the way they should be treated, with an expectation of what you know they are capable of doing, they will rise to that occasion. But if you treat them like they’re weak or they’re fragile or they’re broken, you’re reinforcing a dangerous pattern.
BABBEL: Yeah. For sure. I believe that. Would you say that you have an easier time holding yourself accountable or holding other people accountable?
MICHAELS: Myself. I think at the end of the day, there’s a little bit of codependency in me for sure, and I try very hard not to … I don’t give unsolicited advice. So, if somebody comes to me and asks for the help, then yes, I can hold them accountable. But in personal relationships, it’s for sure challenging. It’s very different.
BABBEL: Yeah. I mean, personal relationships are probably different than the relationship that you have with someone who you’re training though, right?
MICHAELS: Without a doubt. If it’s just limited to holding them accountable, holding myself accountable, I mean, I would honestly say it’s both. I can do both fairly well on a professional level.
BABBEL: Would you say it’s true that different people require different motivational approaches?
BABBEL: Like, do you tweak your approach depending on who you are dealing with? How much trial and error did you have to experience before you figured out a system that works?
MICHAELS: It does depend on the individual, for sure. I mean, the science of weight loss is the science of weight loss, or fitness for that matter. You can tailor that science to create an approach that’s more manageable, tolerable, for each individual. On a psychological level, people are definitely going to respond to different things without a doubt. And you can usually size somebody up pretty quickly.
If they’re a type A, you need a very focused, more drill-sergeant approach. If they’re a little more sensitive, you need to build them up with far more praise. So, it just depends on the individual, but the thing with Biggest Loser that was very different, that I would not apply in everyday life circumstances, is that you have this life or death intervention, but it’s on a ticking clock. So, the rate in which you need people to hit certain benchmarks of accomplishments is dramatically accelerated.
For there to be any hope of somebody making healthy changes and maintaining them, you need several things to happen. You need them to have this rock-bottom moment where they realize the way they’ve been living is more painful than the fear and the work associated with where they need to get to. You need them to have an accomplishment in the gym that has created an infinity, like, a crack in the structure that they sort of, how do I explain this? We all have a belief of what our capabilities are, right?
BABBEL: A pattern interrupt.
MICHAELS: And if you have an accomplishment that shatters that idea or the notion of what you think you can’t do, it allows you to open up an infinity of possibility and get somebody to engage and take further action. You can’t believe in a reality you haven’t experienced. So you have to give them a success in the gym that they didn’t think was possible and that allows them to gradually redefine their worth and their belief in their abilities. You need more of those, but you need at least one to get the person on the road.
And then the third thing is that you need them to take responsibility, because even though there are various times in our lives where we are, in fact, victims, or life is out of our control and it is unfair. How we respond to those things is what’s going to make all the difference, and if they can’t take responsibility, then they are fundamentally disempowered to change.
So, those three things remain the same if somebody is, in fact, hundreds of pounds overweight, but the time frame is different. Back in the days when I was doing personal training, I’d have a year to break through to somebody. On The Biggest Loser, you might have one week, so, that’s where it’s divergent to what I would normally do with regular people in a real-life environment.
BABBEL: Right, not a made-for-TV scenario, kind of.
MICHAELS: Right. You got it.
BABBEL: What are some of the ways you hold yourself accountable on a daily basis aside from diet and exercise?
MICHAELS: I hold myself accountable as a parent. I hold myself accountable as a businesswoman. I do my best. I’m not perfect, but I do my best to try harder to take responsibility for the things I’ve screwed up, you know, to have the ego strength to own my mistakes and to try to re-approach more intelligently. I do that in all facets of my life. It’s not always easy, but I also know that I have a pretty healthy sense of self-esteem, and so I’m better equipped to own my screw-ups, and I know that if you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough, that we’re all human, that we’re all going to make mistakes and fuck up, and the key is to be strong enough to take responsibility for it.
BABBEL: Yeah, and I think that’s one of the things that sort of keeps people from learning a language too, is because they’re afraid of making mistakes, and that’s kind of something that you just have to embrace if you’re going to do it.
MICHAELS: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. I heard a great quote the other day. It’s everything we all already know, but, “The fear of failure is the enemy of success.” Because the only way to be successful and to get better is to fail and use it as an entry-point for learning.
BABBEL: Yep. So, you’ve also talked about getting really clear about why you’re doing something, identifying the “why,” and making sure you post it everywhere to remind yourself. Why do you think it’s so easy for us to lose sight of our goals and motivations?
MICHAELS: Because we get very caught up in the “shoulds” of life, and we forget about what we really want. There are a host of reasons we do that. It could be family dynamic, it could be cultural, it could be generational. A lot of my generation, a lot of X-ers, were shamed, as well as Boomers, if they took pride in their accomplishments, or they made an announcement about something, or they thought that they were great at something, or they went after the thing they want, and we got very caught up in, “Well, I should do this. That’s the responsible thing to do.” And very pressured from a host of different areas within our lives that we get so caught up in, that one-foot-in-front-of-the-other [sense of] “this is what I should do.” That we lose complete and total touch with the things that we really want.
BABBEL: For sure. There are a lot of voices to quiet.
BABBEL: So, I guess this kind of ties into that, but what do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions that people have about motivation and healthy habits?
MICHAELS: I think they believe that it can come from outside of them. I can’t tell you how many people have come to me saying, “I’m looking for motivation.” And motivation is something that can only come from inside of you. Inspiration can come from outside of you. Inspiration is simply, I kind of look at it as jumpstarting your car battery. You’re inspired, you have a dead battery, someone giving you a jump start, okay, but at the end of the day, to keep that car on the road, you’re going to have to recharge that battery. So, you might have something that sort of gets you in motion, but to stay in motion, you have to find that internal drive, because anything that’s worth having, in fact, the greater that thing is, whether it’s healthier relationships or more professional success or a healthier body, the more work and the more sacrifice it’s going to require.
There’s another great quote: “If you have a ‘why’ to live for, you can tolerate the ‘how.'” And the “how” is the work and the sacrifice associated with the goal. Then, for me, I always say work with a purpose becomes passion, but work without purpose is punishing. So, if you don’t have that internal drive, in detail, so it’s got to be, like, okay, not just health, wealth and love, what does that relationship look like in your life? What kind of career do you want to have? Do you want to work part-time and be a stay-at-home mom? Do you want to be in a corporate environment with a corner office? Do you want to be an entrepreneur? Do you want to be an executive to get the paycheck and take the weight of being an entrepreneur off your shoulders?
You need to know what it is you want in detail, you need to form an emotional connection to it, and you need to make sure it’s realistic. Like, I’m never going to play basketball like Kobe Bryant or LeBron James but, at that point, I’d have to look at what is it that I love about basketball, and where can I recreate those things in other aspects of my life. Is it coaching or is it X, Y or Z? So, realism is also an important component, but that, I think, is the biggest thing. [They think] it comes from outside of themselves, when in truth, it requires soul searching. The exact opposite. Searching, looking in, not searching outward.
BABBEL: Not looking for something else to take the impetus off of you, right?
MICHAELS: Yeah, like, “Motivate me.” It’s like, “I can’t motivate you. I can tell you what to do to get results, but I can’t motivate you. I can’t make you want to do the work. You have to figure out why the work is worth it, and that can only come from inside of you.”
BABBEL: Yeah, for sure. So I just had a quick question about your app.
BABBEL: Can you tell me a little bit about how it takes mental health, as well as physical health, into consideration?
MICHAELS: Well, the way the app works is it allows me to essentially be someone’s personal trainer. So, it does provide coaching, it does provide support, and we’re just about to add a whole community feature, which I think is incredibly important. So people have coaching, support and instruction right? But it also personalizes the program, whether it’s meal plan or fitness, and the reason that’s so important is because the most effective work that you’re going to do is the work you do consistently.
So, yes, I can sit here and tell you all the top techniques, but if you hate lifting weights, if you hate doing [high-intensity interval] training, if you don’t have the time to do a 30-minute workout, if you can only manage 10 minutes on this day, it says, “Alright, here are all the variables and components, are you a beginner? Are you advanced? What are your goals? Where are you starting from? Are you injured? How much time do you have? What equipment do you have available?” So I think it creates the personalization that many people need to stay on track, because a lot of times when we engage in a diet, or a fitness regimen, we get into this very all-or-nothing scenario that’s too stringent to stick with, and then we get disappointed, we beat ourselves up. And so, it customizes your program and it wraps the science around your needs and your unique circumstances, so that the information is accessible to you and it’s not intimidating, and it’s not overwhelming.
And then the instruction allows people to feel empowered, so that the actions they take already yield powerful results, not get them hurt or screw up their metabolism and so on.
And then the third component of having support in a supportive environment, I also believe helps people stay on track, because one of the number one reasons they cite for giving up a healthy regimen is not having support.
BABBEL: Yeah, I think that’s really important, is having other people who are trying to do the same thing as you.
BABBEL: Just out of curiosity, do you speak any other languages? Or have you ever tried to learn another language?
MICHAELS: You know, it’s funny, unfortunately, as an American, we’re very spoiled in that everybody speaks our language, so, it’s become one of those universal languages that, if you travel the world and you hear a German person speaking English to a Norwegian person, or a Latino person might speak English to a Chinese person. It’s become this interesting conduit, so as a native English speaker, you can get very lazy. I do live in a part of our country with a high concentration of Latinos, and I have a lot of Latinos in my family, and in my life. My half brother and half sister are Mexican and Venezuelan, my business partner is Puerto Rican, one of my best friends is Mexican, but they lose their patience with me.
I speak a little bit of Spanish, when I practice it, I do better and I understand more than I speak, but we’re allowed to get lazy because everybody speaks English.
BABBEL: Yeah, for sure.
So another interesting question: we actually recently published an article about a scientific study that suggested learning a language and exercising at the same time can boost your recall and generally improve your results, so, of course, it’s probably not safe to do that in every circumstance, so do you have some exercises you would recommend for someone who’s trying to read and study simultaneously?
MICHAELS: Well, can you do it auditorily? Because I think that actually would be awesome: a long bike ride, a long walk, a long hike. If you could listen to it, I think that would be amazing. If that’s not an option then yeah, you’d probably need like a stationary form of cardio.
BABBEL: Yeah, I guess there’s different ways to do it. You could probably listen to a podcast and do things simultaneously, but if you’re doing, say like, Babbel requires you to speak and choose things on the app, and you need to have your phone out, so I guess that’s a little different.
MICHAELS: Okay, I mean, if you have to read, physically read, I mean, it’s not ideal, but maybe what you could do is get like, a stationary piece of cardio equipment and do it that way.
BABBEL: Yeah, like a bike, right?
MICHAELS: Yeah, bike, a treadmill, an elliptical. It’s not ideal for fitness, but the multi-tasking isn’t going to hurt. I mean, that’s what I would suggest.
BABBEL: Okay, cool.
So, given your background in fitness and health, what is the main piece of advice you’d give to someone who’s trying to learn a new language and stick with their studies?
MICHAELS: God, again, I would go back to the “why,” right? Like, why do you want to do it? Because I imagine it’s a lot of work. And what’s in it for you to do the work? How will it improve the quality of your life? I think that’s the most important thing, is really looking at, is it going to improve an area that you want to work in? Is it going to open up opportunities professionally? Are you dating somebody who their native tongue is a different language and it allows you to improve the intimacy in your relationship? Do you love traveling? I think you really have to drill down on the why again, because like everything, it’s work.
Photo credit: Don Flood