Firas Iskandarani not only teaches 17 classes at Gymbox, from Bikes & Beats to Drill Sergeant, but has a penchant for cooking on the side, is doing a PhD and is an American Football coach. We meet him.
Hi Firas! Tell us about your background
I was born and raised in London, my parents are both Syrian and I've spent the majority of my life here with a couple of stints in the US. My dad was very sporty even as he got older and I kinda got "gently persuaded" into any kind of sport I could get thrown into. I was all about football growing up, spent some time swimming and playing basketball too but really took a keen eye to American Football and have ended up playing and then coaching that for 15 years, winning national and european championships as a play and a coach.
You're currently pursuing a PhD, tell us about that
I'm working to toward a PhD in Mechanical Engineering at UCL. I'm currently "trying to" model interactions between adjacent muscle fibres in skeletal muscles. It's got a very sports-medicine flavour but the subject matter is very much engineering.
You teach 17 classes at Gymbox every week, from Bikes & Beats to Drill Sergeant, how do you manage them all?
I mainly teach early mornings and evening classes, and I'm at university in between during the day. It was difficult at first but once I got my sleep times right it all kinda fell into place.
What's the maximum amount of classes you teach in one day? How do you find the energy?
The hardest day of the week for me is Monday, I have two pairs of back to back classes one from 6:45am and another at 5:30pm… sometimes I might get asked to cover another class at lunch time and that brings it to 3 classes on the bike in one day. After that I'm beat but I usually get a nap at some point during the day to reset. If I'm honest it's more about enthusiasm than energy, and I wouldn't teach a class if it wasn't something I don't like. But, when all else fails there's always coffee… lots and lots of coffee.
What's your average intake of calories per day, and what do you eat?
I try to get in around 3500 calories a day over 4 meals + snacks. I'd love to say that that's made up of good, high quality foods, but there will be the odd "bad food" item in there. I tend to stick to chicken mainly because it's easy to cook, throw in some potatoes, rice or pasta and a handful of veggies and I'm set. Being disciplined with food prep is probably the hardest part of all, I'll prep twice a week but only meals 2 & 3. Meal 1 (breakfast) is usually of the blended variety and dinner can range from anything from tuna out of the can, to a proper cooked dinner to eating out. Sunday, I just eat what I see. It's not normally junk, but it sometimes can be.
Do you have a favourite class?
Tough question, my favourite individual class of all would have to be Frame Fitness on a Tuesday night at Bank. I love the freedom you get with the concept but more importantly that particular class, was the first one I ever taught and it's the first class I was offered permanently. Along with Frame Fitness, Bike & Beats is probably my favourite class in general. I don't like calling it spin because it totally isn't. A lot of people who do Bike & Beats don't actually like traditional spin classes, it's more work to prep for as an instructor but getting a class of 25 people to move up, down, left and right in time to Busta Rhymes whilst pedalling at 80rpm is pretty awesome.
Do the same members come to all your classes?
Yeah I have a few, it's great seeing familiar faces at multiple classes. They become your best critics because they know what you can do and often expect more than most. At the end of the day, the classes are for the members and if they have something they'd like to do or see in a class I like taking on the feedback. I know if a class has gone well by the twitter responses I'll get afterwards.
What makes a great instructor?
I think number one, having enthusiasm and number two projecting that. Steve Jobs once said, "The only way to do great work is to love what you do" and it's very true. Other than that, being open to criticism from anyone is always important. In my opinion, if someone has the time to give me feedback, then I have the time to listen.
Do you have any inspirational stories about members you have worked with?
I used to have a member that struggled in my Kettlebells class. I'd try and make sure to give her as much attention as I could to help her with technique without neglecting the others. But it didn't seem to make too much difference, luckily she was persistent. She kept coming back for more. One week, I'd programmed in Kettlebell cleans and presses. I was worried for her because she always struggled with that move, but when we started she got straight to it and broke out 10 unbroken reps. I was so happy for her we had a little celebratory hi-five afterwards and the next week she was doing it with a heavier kettlebell.
How important are your class soundtracks?
Music is paramount, as I said earlier, for something like Bike & Beats you have to know and be comfortable with your own music. You can't just borrow a CD off someone and freestyle, it has to be "you". For me I'll play a few dance tracks here or there but the majority is Hip-Hop, Dancehall and some Pop sprinkled with whatever else suits my fancy, it's a set playlist with choreography that I change every few weeks. For my other classes I have a pool of tracks that I like to shuffle around.
You coach Brunel University's American football team, how did you get into that?
I started coaching football a few years back while I was still playing, it's combines, teaching, fitness and american football all into one. I genuinely love it, and I get excited when it's time to head out to practice.
Do you miss playing American football?
I do miss it, but I'm very thankful to have been able to play with and against some very fine athletes and I don't feel there's much more in my capacity that I could have achieved so it's one of those things, we close one chapter and move onto the next.
Aside from the classes you teach and the football coaching, what are your fitness passions?
Now that I'm no longer able to compete in football, I've started to look into CrossFit. I like that challenges associated with learning a lot of new movements and the fine tuning required to be able to crush a WOD. I don't know how far I'll take it but it's certainly something interesting I can look toward on the horizon.
And any other passions that might surprise us?
I like creative cooking, it's nice to be creative with meal prep. After you've eaten, chicken, broccoli and rice for a week straight, any change is welcome so it's a past time that pays dividends towards my daily life.
This month is 'dare' month. What's the most daring thing you've ever done?
I did a parachute jump a couple of years back, that was crazy, I have a fear of heights so it was really a case of overcoming those fears to do it.
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