John Cianca is a New York City-based fitness professional. He leads HIIT and running classes at Equinox and also teaches Yoga. We spoke to him to learn more about his diverse training background and heard his perspective on how people can find their fitness niche.
Your fitness background is quite eclectic, you have a B.S. in applied Physiology and Kinesiology, you are a second-degree black belt in Taekwondo, a Certified Trainer and Yoga instructor, and you teach HIIT and running classes. How would you describe your training philosophy and how has it evolved from when you first began your career?
I started doing Taekwondo when I was 5 and practiced until I was 18. I competed internationally and only stopped because my hamstring started to tear when I was at a national competition. Since I was also applying for college that year, I started focusing on other activities and transitioned out. I was a pre-med exercise physiology major in college and I started casually exploring other sports, including tennis and running. This is what eventually evolved into my brand of “do what moves you,” and “participate in what inspires you to keep moving”.
My core philosophy goes all the way back to what I learned from my Taekwondo teachers, who taught me how to have a proper training program and a proper plan; a cycle of progressing from week to week and ultimately building up to a peak when you compete, followed by an “offseason” or lighter schedule afterward.
Over my career I have learned that being a teacher and a student are interchangeable. In order for you to learn, you have to be on the other side. You have to be humble and know that you are not always right. There is always going to be something else that is going to prove you wrong because there is not always one right way to do something.
What is unique about the way you teach your classes and does the experience, separate from the workout, vary depending on the type of class you are teaching?
The way I coach is to give people as much information as they need so they can make their own decision about how hard they should push themselves. I try to be as simple as I can with the moves and exercises I choose, and then provide options for modification, for intensity, and range of motion so people can adjust. Whether it is a person who is injured or training for an Ironman, I try to accommodate everyone. Most people equate modification with difficulty, but modification doesn’t mean that it has to be less challenging.
I am very empathetic toward people who have had injuries because I have been in their place before. Even things that people don’t consider injuries, like having a small pain today etc., I try to get people to lose their ego in the class. I want people to have a sense of awareness in the class about their bodies and when to push themselves or when to modify if needed.
What is the biggest challenge you have faced professionally?
I broke my fifth metatarsal and I wasn’t able to teach or do anything for 4 months. Since fitness has been everything I have ever done, it is my livelihood and something that I also use as my escape, it was very hard. However, I think it helped make me a better coach because I learned how to teach without having to demonstrate. Though it was one of the hardest times in my career, it was also a blessing in disguise because it forced me to improve in ways I would not have pushed myself to previously.
What is the most common barrier you see that prevents people from reaching their fitness and health goals?
I think there are a variety of things, from goal setting, to people feeling like they aren’t good enough, to individuals not having a sense of connection, to not identifying themselves as being able to achieve their goal(s).
I think people are often fueled by a sense of their goals needing to be ones that are imposed by outside factors and conforming to social goals, where everyone expects you to be a certain way. As an example, a health magazine says you should go to gym 3-5x a week, so people think if they are not abiding by that exercise routine they are not working toward the right goal. However, the most important thing is to find something that you enjoy and that motivates you since working out should not feel like a chore. If you enjoy playing ultimate frisbee or wall climbing 3x a week do that instead of going to a gym.
What is one actionable step that you think people can take today to help them reach their health/wellness goals?
You should have goals that you use to develop a plan which then helps you achieve those goals. All the time I see people go into training without having anything specific about what they are looking to achieve. People often don’t realize that their goals don’t have to be long-term, but can be short term, so they are more realistic and attainable.
For people trying to get into fitness- try everything and something will stick! Fitness has become such a social activity and people like that sense of community. Try working out with friends since you can share a bit of the misery and also the achievement together.
What exercise do you do on your personal time and how does it compare to what you teach? Is there anything you do as part of a routine that you don’t enjoy?
I would never do anything that I would not get enjoyment out of. I have found ways to stretch, lift weights, and challenge my heart rate in ways I get pleasure and enjoyment from, so it is never something I dread. The time I spend working out I also use as personal time, and I like taking classes so there is not social interruption and I can stay focused.