An Interview with Isaac Hoffman, PCC Instructor and Research Scientist
By Adrienne Harvey, SrPCC, RKC-II, CK-FMS
How did you originally become interested in fitness?
I was a pretty active kid, but my parents wouldn’t let me engage in any formal weight training until I was 14. At 14, I joined a weightlifting club at my high school in East LA, which was also a medical magnet school. Everything at the school had a scientific and biological tinge, and all the teachers knew the kids had medical interests. Because I was on the track team, I couldn’t take a weightlifting class, so I joined the weightlifting club that met before school instead. The only time my dad could drop me off at school was 6AM, so I would sit there and wait for an hour before the gym opened.
In 1994-95, there was a lot of public education about the risks and side effects of steroids, so I was really interested in finding natural ways to gain strength, along with biologically sound, optimal training from a scientific perspective.
What kind of work are you doing as a research scientist?
I do pre-clinical pharmaceutical research, mostly involving drugs for big diseases—different forms of cancer, cardiovascular and metabolic diseases including diabetes, inflammatory diseases like Crohn's, ulcerative colitis, rheumatoid arthritis, central nervous system disorders like schizophrenia, Parkinson’s... The discipline I practice is disease-agnostic, so it is applicable to everything. Basically, as a group we are the microscope for molecules that chemists and biologists use. Whatever they’re working on, if there’s a molecular target they are looking to drug, then we will try to crystalize it, then give them a 3D interactive graphic visual so they can see the interaction of the drug molecule and the targeted protein.
How did you become interested in this specific field?
It was sort of an accident. I was doing research at different places during my summers as an undergrad student, and I emailed a bunch of professors about doing research at the UC Santa Cruz (the school I was attending) labs. The only professor who wrote back was one doing x-ray crystallography. So I jumped into his lab thinking that I didn't really want to do x-ray crystallography, but wanted to learn all the skills that were necessary—the basics of cloning and expressing recombinant genes, expression systems, synthesis and purification of genetic material, like RNA—for any biotech or lab job. I could learn it all in this lab because they had to do all those things to support their work. And I would be learning the optimal versions of these skills because the requirements of crystallography are extremely stringent.
Sounds like you were probably in school for a really long time, did you remain active through all of it?
Actually, I jumped the gun. Most of the people with my job went to grad school for a PhD in Biochemistry, and a post doc for a couple of years. But I went to undergrad and jumped straight into a lab where I really learned a lot. Then I worked with a startup company which was a lot like getting a PhD and a post doc all in one. At first there were 10 people in the company, but some months when the only the president of the company and I were there.
For months, I was the guy in the lab doing everything from taking out the trash, washing dishes, fixing the autoclave, cloning and expressing genes and proteins, crystalizing everything, then going to the clients. At one point, I spent 10 days visiting a client in Japan to transfer the technology we developed. But it all started the way I have approached most things in life—I jump into it and figure it all out in the air on the way!
I tried to approach fitness in the same way, but I was humbled at every juncture either by injury or just lack of ability—I could see where I wanted to go in my mind, but I didn’t have the right tools yet.
How did you find out about the PCC?
I had been practicing really basic calisthenics for a long time, and was using pull ups
and push ups
as warm ups for weight training. Then, when I was learning crystallography at the lab at Santa Cruz, a lab-mate’s wife was teaching yoga at a nearby graduate student family housing rec room. There were only 2-3 people in the class which met a couple times a week. I'd never done yoga but had always heard about it, and my parents were into it before I was born.
When I first went to the class, my belief systems about my weight training for the past six years were completely leveled. I was super inflexible and super stiff—I was all shoulders and chest. It stopped me in my tracks with lifting weights and I started completely focusing on yoga for about a year. The next year I graduated from college. I had been practicing very "back to basics" Iyengar style yoga—how to sit, walk, stand, breathe. I had been progressing very steadily because the teacher was fantastic.
But then, I got into a crazy brawl in the street one night after a party and got stabbed 13 times in the back with a fairly sizeable knife. So, I was out of school, unemployed, and homeless because I was finishing up a summer sublet. It all happened the night before I was going to move to San Francisco for job and house hunting. Fortunately, my parents helped me transition until I found a job.
After I found a job, I wasn't making a lot of money while trying to live in San Francisco, which meant I couldn’t afford rehab, massage therapy, chiropractic or yoga.
A friend was a personal trainer at a gym and I could use the gym with him, but every time I tried to lift weights, everything hurt in a crazy way, a horrible pain that was not right. That drove me towards the basics of bodyweight training
—squats, lunges, push-ups and assisted pull-ups. I didn’t really start lifting weights again until I found kettlebells
It wasn’t until I found Al
and Danny Kavadlo
’s videos on YouTube that I started to find out about all the different "sky's-the-limit" versions of the basics I had been doing. I had my sights set on the PCC ever since hearing about it. I started experimenting, and one of the first things I started working on was the pistol squat. I focused on getting a really good pistol squat
and that sparked the fire to try all those other moves.
What was your favorite move that we covered at the PCC?
I have been enamored with the vertical bar moves—the flags, clutch flag, chamber press
... Whenever I see sign poles and am warmed up in the shoulders I practice them. My shoulders have always been a big area of difficulty in terms of stability because they are double-jointed. That was my initial motivation for weightlifting—finding a way to stabilize and strengthen my shoulder sockets. They used to pop out of the sockets sometimes if I was playing football. I'd hit somebody with my left shoulder, then my right shoulder would pop out of the socket and pinch a nerve!
The first time I tried to do a pull up was at the weightlifting club in high school. While I was on the bar my shoulders let go, so when I tried to pull up, nothing happened! It doesn't happen much any more, but I knew then that I needed to focus on all the muscles around the shoulder joints. I did a lot of military presses, bench presses, rows, and dips. At one point in high school I was pushing 250 on bench, and 225 on military presses.
But once I got stabbed, my shoulders withered because I couldn't lift weights—my system for stabilizing my shoulders. So I started having all those same problems again, but now I was able to address them mostly with yoga and bodyweight training.
How long did it take you to recover from being stabbed?
I was back on my feet pretty much within about a month which was amazing, considering I was couch-bound for 2 weeks. Once all the staples were out, I was jamming. I could go on and on about how yoga saved my life that night. I was hyperventilating on the way to the hospital and my friend Mike told me I had to stop taking shallow breaths. So, I closed my eyes, sealed off my lips and started breathing through my nose with a little ujjayi action. Immediately my heart rate slowed and I was calm.
Breath work is so important for every aspect of activity—emptying the core for folding, or for power when you need it. And of course it has to keep flowing during static holds. Something I am struggling with right now is breathing during handstands. There's so much to focus on that it’s easy to forget to breathe and breath is a huge component to balance.
Are you training anyone now or is your calisthenics and yoga practice mainly an outlet?
For the pure PCC, calisthenics stuff I am more an enthusiast than a trainer, but I do teach a funky yoga class at work about once a month, and a monthly flexibility and mobility class I call "flex mob" (because I play Glitch Mob during the class) at the kettlebell gym where I train. The PCC
ideas definitely influence the way that I teach that class, it’s more like a movement workshop and each session has a theme. The last class focused on hollow body positions and we moved them from the floor face up and face down, and to the wall.
What’s next for you in your training?
I have been working on handstands for a long time and it's been slow going, so I have a goal to do at least 10 jump ups or a one minute hold every day, against the wall or freestanding. The other thing I’ve been working on with my fragile shoulders is the chamber press. I’ve been working on several variations of it along with one arm bar hangs. I was teaching full body muscle engagement in the hollow body positions class. The ability to have every muscle in the body work together is important in so many of the PCC moves.
My favorite move is definitely the human flag, it seems like the most difficult move for me to attain, but it also represents the progressive aspect of the practice. I know I will be able to do it if I just work through the steps over time.
Dragon Door: It's cool that you're able to teach a class at your work too, is wellness actively encouraged at your job?
Isaac Hoffman: They are very encouraging, and recently started to donate $10 per attendee per class to a local charity called the Sean O’Shea Foundation. Since I started exercising in high school, it's always been part of my "strong minds, strong bodies" philosophy. I am always trying to get my colleagues into it because as we get older, and if we’re not active, both the body and mind decline. When you look at biological systems, and the human body as a whole—from the molecular level, the whole organism, and the organism’s interaction with the world and other people—you can really see the connection between everything you do, feel, act, and how you age. Our bodies recycle protein at a huge rate, and nothing in our bodies is static! So it goes both ways, if we treat our bodies poorly, there's no floor, but if we treat them well, there’s no ceiling, we can just keep improving over a lifetime.
Isaac Hoffman, PCC, RYT 200, leads a mobility and flexibility class on the last Tuesday of the month at Kettlebell X Training in San Diego. He can be contacted through Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/magmakraken or follow him on Instagram @magmakraken.