Strength coach and podcaster Anders Varner ’01 recalls how he was transformed by his time at Williston
Strength-training coach and fitness entrepreneur Anders Varner ’01 wants you to embrace what’s hard in life. Not just the hard work of lifting weights and staying fit, skills the former CrossFit athlete teaches through his online media company and widely respected “Barbell Shrugged” podcast. No, Varner’s message—which he shares with top professional athletes as well as his millions of listeners— is about facing heavier stuff, for a bigger payoff.
“Life is supposed to be hard,” he says. “How do you train to do hard things every day? If you’re not trying to do something hard and creating positive problems, and you’re not developing strategies to get better, you will never believe in yourself.”
It’s an insight Varner traces back to his experience at Williston, where as an aspiring 14-year-old hockey player just arrived from Virginia, he found himself cut from the team and paralyzed by homesickness and social anxiety. “My life had always been, I’m good at sports, so people want to be friends with me. And then I got to Williston and I was really bad at sports, nobody wanted to be friends with me, and I didn’t know how to make friends,” he says. “I spent an entire semester in my room talking to my mom on the phone.”
But out of that hard time, Varner found a way to emerge stronger. The change began when Varner noticed that many of his schoolmates were both athletic and smart. “Until I went to Williston, I thought you were either a dumb jock or you were a smart nerd,” he says. “And I always wanted to be a dumb jock. And these people were great athletes, but they also excelled in the classroom. And I went, ‘Oh, my God, you can be smart and cool at the same time?’” Always a competitor, he decided to change his social strategy, recognizing that he needed to be better at connecting with others. He was soon making friends, and by sophomore year, he was back on the ice with a Wildcat hockey team that two years later set a record for consecutive wins.
That transformation in the face of adversity, he says, was the beginning of a journey of self-understanding that continues today. “The greatest part about Williston, for me, was doing an internal objective assessment: Where do I need to get better? I needed to figure this out because nobody was going to do it for me. You have to look at yourself and practice strategies to get the thing that you want.”
In the years after Williston, Varner continued to do just that. After earning a degree in finance from James Madison University in 2005 and working for five years for defense contractor Northrop Grumman, he discovered the just-emerging sport of CrossFit, realized he wasn’t cut out for government work, and took the leap of opening his own gym, San Diego Athletics, with a partner in 2010. He had always been a strong lifter, and now with an MBA from South University and certification as a strength and conditioning coach, he and the business thrived. But Varner was restless for more. In 2016 he sold the gym, started a corporate wellness and physical therapy business, and then in 2018 became co-owner of the Shrugged Collective, an online media company with a mission of “making strong people stronger.” The group’s “Barbell Shrugged” podcast—an allusion to both the Ayn Rand novel and a weight-lifting technique—has since been downloaded more than 44 million times.
But life is supposed to be hard, right? The arrival of COVID-19 closed gyms around the country, threatening the Shrugged Collective’s business selling workout programs to people with access to weight rooms. “It was terrifying,” Varner recalled. “Then we realized, Oh, this is just the next thing. I’ve been through many things.” The group pivoted to meet the needs of a target customer Varner named the Diesel Dad, developing programs that can be done at home, with minimal equipment.
It’s a response that, once again, grew out of Varner’s own experience, riding out the pandemic in North Carolina with his family. “I went from being this super-cool fun athlete, gym owner, guy training with famous people, to dad in the middle of quarantine, in the middle of a pandemic, trying to run a business and playing babysitter and husband.”
So, as a Diesel Dad should, Varner developed a new routine and new strategies to achieve his professional and personal goals. Rising at 5 a.m., he sneaks past his sleeping wife and 2-year-old for a quick weight session in his home gym before sitting down to work. He spends his day writing copy for the website (a skill made possible, he says, by the instruction of his freshman English teacher, Kathy White) and recording podcasts. But every four hours he walks a mile (or does comparable training), stretches for two minutes, and drinks a quart of water. He recommends you do the same. “If you could do those three things, every four hours, you’ll get to all of the minimum requirements that you need to live a healthy life,” he explains. “You’ll drink a gallon of water every day. You’ll walk four miles. And you’re going to stretch and move all your joints. It’s all you really need.”
Providing those kinds of clear, achievable goals—leavened with a healthy dose of humor—makes Varner’s approach resonate with a wide audience, notes Williston strength coach Blayne Lapan, a recent guest on the podcast. “Anders’ niche is the fact that he has no niche,” says Lapan, who had been a listener to “Barbell Shrugged” for years. “What makes him super successful is that he’s able to communicate and get people excited about fitness, from the average Joe, through the professional in the field, to professional athletes. His niche is something for everyone.”
Indeed, Varner’s company is now banking on that broad appeal. In 2020, “Barbell Shrugged” began offering its workout and nutrition programs at selected Walmarts, a partnership that Varner hopes will have his materials in 40 stores this year. “I want people to live life in the arena,” he says, explaining that all of us have an ethical responsibility to stay in shape. “You’re training so that you can live your life and be a part of everyone’s life around you. You have the ability to enhance the life of those you love by doing the simplest things.”
There is just one catch, as Varner’s own life demonstrates: You have to embrace the hard stuff. “You have to go put the work in,” he says, “because every day you don’t put the work in you go backwards.” Fitness—like success in life—is about commitment and consistency. “You show up, you put the work in, and you get the results that you want.”