Frank Matrisciano is the most secretive trainer in the world. Many also call him the toughest. But survive his training, and you’ll emerge a new (fitter, stronger) man
Hell’s Trainer has no website, no newsletter and no Facebook page. You can’t just drop in on a class to sample a workout. If you do manage to track him down, he’ll communicate only by phone. He’s over 180cm tall and 100kgs, with only seven percent body fat. In photographs, he wears a mask. It makes him look like a ninja linebacker.
Yet despite the man’s best efforts, the word is out: “Frank Matrisciano [Hell’s Trainer’s real name] is the best in the world at what he does,” says Josh Pastner, head basketball coach for the University of Memphis Tigers. And what he does is an extremely intense brand of strength and cardiovascular conditioning that eschews the sweaty comforts of most gyms for real-world (usually outdoor) workouts that push the limits of human strength, power and endurance – and inspire seemingly superhuman results.
How intense are those workouts? Seven out of 10 people don’t return for a second session, and many tap out just a few minutes in. But the ones who do stick with the program are often transformed dramatically: after a six-week stint with Matrisciano in the summer of 2011, NBA All-Star Zach Randolph emerged as an entirely new athlete.
As a personal trainer and lifetime fitness obsessive, I’m more than a little skeptical of “gurus,” especially those who wear masks. But the buzz around Hell’s Trainer was too loud to ignore. Why are so many top athletes seeking out a guy with no apparent credentials, no obvious affiliations, and apparently no face? Has he discovered a new way to push clients past their limits, or are they just enthralled by his Svengali trainer mystique? I decided to find out for myself.
“How ya doin’, sir?” says Matrisciano, pulling up to my hotel. It’s 8am, and we’re headed to breakfast before joining the Tigers for a workout. It’s the first time I’ve seen his face and his famous shaved head. For a mask-wearing mediaphobe, he turns out to be surprisingly voluble, so I ask him about his disguise. “I don’t want to be bothered,” he says simply.
When word of Matrisciano’s effect on NBA stars began to spread, sports agents descended on him in droves, looking for the next superstar to emerge from his programme. But the trainer wanted no part of that. So now when the cameras come out, the mask goes on. That way, he says, agents can’t pick him out of a crowd. Of course, the disappearing act also draws the attention of journalists and curiosity seekers – like me – who might otherwise leave him alone. But the irony doesn’t seem to compute with him. Free of the queries of agents, he can focus on his mission: “We all have a voice in our heads that tells us we can’t go on,” he says. “My job is to get people to silence it.”
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Decades of exercise and sports training have helped Matrisciano amass a host of exercises that make the voice kick in quickly. Outdoor activities are among his favorites: running hills; climbing stairs, poles, and ropes; doing drills on playground equipment; running long distances with heavy loads. Though he’s not averse to traditional gym training, Matrisciano believes that exercising outdoors presents novel challenges – uneven running surfaces, natural obstacles, shifting weather conditions – that force you to pay closer attention to what you’re doing and to work harder than you would indoors.
“You have to adapt continually to your environment,” says Matrisciano. “My cousin Michael started calling it ‘chameleon training,’ and I think that describes it pretty well.” CrossFit, P90X, and hard-core military training all share similarities with his approach. “But those are Chameleon Lite,” Matrisciano jokes. “One day of Chameleon training is equal to two weeks of illusion training,” he adds, referring to the cookie-cutter workouts offered by many gyms. “You can do lat pulldowns all day and never be strong enough to climb a rope. But if you can climb a rope, you’ll crush the lat pulldown.” Rebuilding bodies, however, is only part of what he does. “I tell my NBA guys that this training is not just for basketball; it’s for their whole life.” Same goes for the lawyers, executives, and everyday Joes on his client roster.
“Compared with the mental challenge of my workouts, everyday stress is nothing,” he says. Despite Matrisciano ’s penchant for exercising outdoors, he is sometimes forced to bring his workouts inside. Case in point: the University of Memphis. “There are no hills in Memphis,” he notes. “And there aren’t many outdoor sites that offer what I need, so I adapted to my environment.” Or rather, he created a new one from scratch. Matrisciano avoids referring to his facility at the university as a gym. It’s his Area of Operation (or “A.O.”), and it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. There are no squat racks or benches. No yoga studios or swimming pools. No cute front-desk girls. There’s just a large open area covered by black mats; a few carefully selected machines; and a massive, custom-built, two story steel structure called the “Chameleon.”
Matrisciano had it built to mimic the sand hills, playground equipment, and other outdoor features he utilises in San Francisco, his home base for the past 10 years. On its front is a steep AstroTurf ramp for indoor hill sprints. The back sports an assortment of poles, ropes and other climbing equipment. It looks like the world’s most intimidating jungle gym. I quickly find that the Chameleon is also booby-trapped with features that make normally tough exercises even tougher. The stairs adjacent to the ramp, for example, are unusually steep. And when I grab a horizontal ladder, the rung spins out of my hand. As impressive as it is, however, the Chameleon is far from essential; during the two months it was being built, all Matrisciano did with the NBA players was bodyweight drills. He crushed them.
“It’s not about the equipment,” he says. “It’s about the mindset.” An hour later, I’m three minutes into the workout and I’m getting a very personal taste of the mind games Matrisciano warned me about. I’ve had moments of doubt during workouts before, but this is different. The voice is screaming at me: stop trying to prove yourself! Just sit down and take notes! No one will care.
Puking and passing out feel like very real possibilities, but I swallow hard and continue our circuit of push-ups, swims (a dry-land breaststroke), and climbs up an five metre fireman’s pole using only our arms. We repeat the circuit four times. No rest. On the next circuit, we switch things up with an exercise called “Save the Kids.” Hanging beneath a pair of three and a half metre high parallel bars, we hand-walk from one end to the other. We’re shooting for multiple sets. I hope I’ll finish one.
Ahead of me, a 185cm senior named Wesley Witherspoon hits up Matrisciano for some motivation.
“Who’s over there?” Witherspoon asks.
“Your dad!” shouts Matrisciano. “His leg’s broken! Go get him!”
One by one, Frank gives each of us a life-or-death scenario to drive us past our fatigue and help us ignore the loud protestations of the voice. When my turn comes, I imagine my three-year-old son being trapped in a burning building: I’m coming, my boy! I think, and hurl myself across the bars with surprising determination.
And on it goes: three more rounds of push-ups and kid saving; two more trips up the pole; more push-ups and swims; seemingly endless sandbag drags. Pause for even a second and he’s on you. And then it’s over. I’ve been going for all of 27 minutes, and I’m spent. “Is this a normal workout for you guys?” I ask Witherspoon. “It’s always challenging, physically and mentally,” he says. “You want to stop. Your body tells you to stop. But Frank won’t let you. It puts you in a mental state you’ve never been in before.”
In the end, it’s that ability to help his clients quiet their mental demons that sets Matrisciano apart from other strength coaches. He doesn’t keep track of how high his players jump, how fast they sprint, or how much they deadlift. He doesn’t know how much they weigh or what their body-fat percentages are. Nor does he care.
Empirical markers of progress mean nothing to him.
“If you’re doing my workouts and busting your ass, you improve,” he says. Most of us understand intuitively that we’re supposed to push ourselves when we exercise. But when we arrive at the gym, we submit to the siren call of the voice. We tell ourselves that it doesn’t have to be so hard. That progress is supposed to be gradual. It’s only by silencing the voice – digging in, pushing your limits, and doing the hard stuff, even if it freaks you out – that you’ll ever actually run faster, lift more, lose fat and transform your body. And that’s why an increasing number of men are seeking out Matrisciano’s help. His true A.O. isn’t a commercial gym, the Chameleon, or even the hills of San Francisco. It’s the murky, ever-shifting landscape of the mind.
“Train like this for long enough and a weird thing happens,” says Matrisciano. “The voice changes; it starts being positive.” Instead of holding you back, it spurs you on, helping you build strength and power that translate far beyond the gym. “Whatever you do in life,” says Matrisciano, “this type of training makes you better at it.”