Healthy Life

I Trained with 5 of Southwest Florida’s Toughest Fitness Coaches—Here’s What Happened

Assistant editor Emily Flournoy tests what it's like to workout with coaches who train the best of the best.

BY May 1, 2024
(Getty Image)

Between Naples’ growing presence as a pickleball capital and spring training for the Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins in Fort Myers, Southwest Florida is a bonafide destination for peak athletic training. Having worked in the communications department at Auburn University Athletics in college (War Eagle!), I’ve always been intrigued by what it takes to perform at the highest level of elite sports. So, I’m eager for a taste of the action when my editor challenges me to workout with five local coaches who train top athletes—in 10 days. The things we do for journalism.

Starting my fitness challenge, it’s the final weeks before the NFL Scouting Combine, the annual showcase for top college football players hoping to go pro, and elite local trainers are hard at work. At Bonita Springs’ Coach Tumbarello Performance, the energy and rap blasting overhead feel familiar from my college days. Amid the group of brawny guys doing hip openers and box jumps, Anthony Tumbarello points out Boston College’s Elijah Jones. Weeks later, he’ll land one of the highest vertical jumps—42.5 inches—in NFL Combine history.

At my session, Anthony, who’s big on incorporating tech into his training, shows me the 3D motion trackers he uses to analyze and track minute elements of clients’ body mechanics. His focus is on strength and functional training, starting with a 15-minute warm-up of guided, targeted stretching and resistance bands.

I tend to be conservative and plateau during weight training. But working with Anthony on the belt squat, one of his holy grail machines, which loads weight on the front to avoid spinal compression, I muster 225 pounds—twice my maximum with bar squats. We continue alternating heavy, low-rep exercises with isometric (planks) and plyometric (vertical leaps and chin-ups) movements to improve coordination, power, speed and overall athleticism.

The next morning, I feel surprisingly limber (all that stretching pays off) heading to Gateway Charter High School in Fort Myers, where X3 Performance and Physical Therapy coaches are running NFL prospects through Combine-training drills on the field. X3’s 20,000-square-foot gym, just down the road, resembles an SEC football training facility. There’s a weight room; a large turf area; two recovery rooms with massage chairs, gaming consoles and an infrared sauna; and a film room, where players analyze their performances.

While Tumbarello focuses on small groups, the vibe at X3 is more akin to team training. When the 45 Combine hopefuls aren’t doing fieldwork, they filter into the gym, alongside pro baseball and volleyball players, weekend warriors and 60-something-year-old trainees, to work on strength training with the coaches and physical therapists, who all have advanced exercise science degrees.

In a male-dominated field, I appreciate training with Natalie Lopez, a former Florida Gulf Coast University assistant softball coach. She tweaks my exercises to help strengthen my multidirectional shoulder instability. When we do pulls with the TRX straps, she holds her fingers between my shoulder blades and tells me to squeeze them. My rear delts immediately fire up, making the movement easier, and I knock out a dozen reps no problem.

After a few days of recovery, I book a training session at hockey jersey-lined Matterhorn Fit, owned by Ryan Vesce, a former pro hockey player, and Sean Sullivan, his longtime coach. The crisp morning air flows through the open garage doors at their Bonita Springs headquarters, where every client—pro or not—follows the same four-step program: diagnose (electrode testing that points to muscle weakness and possible neural dysfunctions); reconnect (learning targeted movements to reawaken dormant muscles and motor neurons); reinforce (targeted, long-term training program); and strengthen (building on your new, stronger foundation).

Sean pays close attention as I work through backward sled pushes, slider lunges, weighted marches and hanging leg raises. I hold my own, but nearly buckle at the 45-second lunge hold. “Some of our hockey guys coming back from their season have a hard time holding this position for more than 20 seconds,” Sean says. Their lactate threshold and oxygen capacity are lowered from overuse or underuse, he explains. The same goes for us, mere mortals. By the 15-second mark my thighs are quivering; by the 40-second mark, Sean sees me struggling and calls it. Ryan sends me home with their plant-based, custom-formulated protein powder.

After a week of peak training, I’m feeling strong as I head to Naples’ Beyond Motion. Owner Rick Lademann, an exercise scientist and former strength and conditioning coach for the Chicago Bulls and United States Air Force Academy football team, takes a science-based approach. He asks about my medical history and has me hop on a body composition scale that spits out data on everything from body fat to muscle density to hydration.

“Your sword is sharp. My job is to make it sharper,” Rick says. He requires all his athletes to practice pilates, which aids with fluidity, overall body awareness and engaging those small-but-mighty muscles often overlooked in traditional training.

Rick has me roll my feet out with a dense rubber ball. “An athlete’s relationship with the ground is important,” he says. “Let’s see your skip.” Rick instructs me to play off of the ground, driving that force through my legs and arms. Having a mind-muscle connection is important, too. As I envision myself drawing energy from the earth, I explode off of the ground into my skip. He also analyzes my form for lunges and squats; muscles that aren’t firing properly could be compensating for an injury.

After, I get debriefed on my performance. “Your gluteus maximus is firing fine, but your gluteus minimus is firing little, if at all,” Rick says. He draws out a plan for me: upper body strength work, core stabilization for overall function, fire up my hip abductors, speedwork and a masseuse for recovery. With all this real-time feedback and profusion of wisdom, each workout feels as effective as a month of training. 

On the last day of my athletic odyssey, I meet Derek Touchette, of Total Athletic Performance, for a day of Combine training alongside NFL hopeful Loobert Denelus. The Naples gym is located in a converted circa-1960s ballroom within the Emilio Sánchez Academy, where Derek trains the center’s star tennis players, a slate of MLB athletes and the occasional Olympian. Having come up under two revered track-and-field coaches, his philosophy is all about speed: “Hand me a football player, and I will make him a track athlete, then [I’ll make him] a football player [fit] for the NFL Combine.”

After a lengthy warm-up, I get into a tripod stance for a 40-yard dash. Derek examines my hand placement, weight distribution and arm mechanics. He makes subtle adjustments in the strike off the tape to increase speed, and it instantly feels more natural. To add resistance with minimal impact on the joints, he often has players sprint in the pool; the added pressure helps build a quicker athlete in any sport.

Over the next hour, we build strength with TRX straps, dumbbells and barbells. As I look around the room, I see athletes bound to go pro and fitness novices building their baseline. Everyone’s driven by the same motivation: to feel and perform at their best. And while the chances of making it to the majors are only slightly higher than being struck by lightning, if you live down here, at least, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to train like a pro.

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