by Matt Schuellein
Nicolas Amp is sitting at a low table in the front of Trene Deli & Bar. It’s one of those café-by-day bar-by-night places that are pretty common in the city, but this one wears a third hat as a photography school and shop. “Call me Nico,” the Frenchman instructed when I shook his bear sized hand earlier. Those hands now rest on a low table we wait for the photographer to switch out lenses so we can fit Nico’s shoulders in the frame. I think it would be fitting to shoot it with Nico’s shoulders cropped out and really illustrate the point.
In a day and age where many of us can sit back and get most of our work done from a swivel chair wrapped in leather, finding a way and a reason to exercise is crucially important. I know I’ve driven past those people running in the dead of winter and rolled my eyes a little, but physical fitness isn’t some club of people with superiority complexes. In the long run, maintaining your body’s health is an investment that you can attach real figures to. With a pair of reconstructive knee surgeries I know just how much not training, or not training correctly, can cost. Keeping your body maintained has long term benefits that can extend your life, prevent injuries, combat the effects of aging, and keep your future health bills down.
Today’s world of physical fitness is filled of carbon copies following a dogma that lacks practicality. The ultimate cost of training the wrong way could cost you much more than your monthly dues. Enter Nico Dojo: An advanced and alternative approach to physical fitness run by Nico Amp. Don’t be fooled by the name though. The kanji that he uses for ‘Dojo’ isn’t the same used for the martial arts schools; it can be translated as ‘learning,’ or ‘knowledge.’ Nico is determined to get you strong and get you smart.
FN: How is the baseball scene in France?
Nico: (laughs) It’s not good, not so good.
FN: How did you get started playing baseball?
Nico: The story is, when I was thirteen I was on my way home when I found a flyer in the street. I was a member of a basketball club then, but I found this flyer for a baseball club looking for new members. I was already really into American culture at the time, so on the day they had listed I just showed up. They handed me a glove and told me to go play second base. It was really crazy.
FN: When did the idea of coming to Japan to play baseball hit you?
Nico: Two years later. At that time France’s national team hired Yoshio Yoshida as a manager. He was the manager of the Hanshin Tigers, really famous in Japan and well known in France as well. It was a big deal for [France] back then. The idea of going to Japan myself just came to me, like when I picked up the flyer in the street. So, when I was fifteen, I said to myself, “I’m going to go to Japan,” and then ten years later I was in Japan playing baseball.
Nico: I played for Hosei University, have you heard of them?
FN: I have.
Nico: Originally, I wanted to finish my studies at Waseda, but while I was still in France I met a teacher that taught at Hosei University who knew the baseball coach. So, I went to Hosei and the manager there didn’t mind that I joined the team. It was really lucky for me, because I probably wouldn’t have had much of a chance to do much at Waseda, they have such a big team and I wouldn’t have known the coach really.
FN: You walked onto Hosei University’s team? (And in a championship year for them no less…) Awesome! So did you get to meet Ichiro when you did the NTT commercial?
Nico: I did. I even got to pitch to him.
FN: (cold jealous stare…) …So how long have you been in Japan?
Nico: I came here in 2001, but I had visited and spent time here before.
FN: How long have you been in Fukuoka?
Nico: I came to Fukuoka six months ago.
FN: Where were you before?
FN: When did the idea of becoming a physical trainer come to you?
Nico: While I was playing baseball at Hosei. We of course had a coach that was our training coach, he would put together our workout plans and guide us through them. That stuck me as something I would like to do, even though I didn’t have the educational background for it.
FN: How did you get started in the business?
Nico: I started by working at Gold’s Gym in Tokyo as a personal trainer. I got good experience working one-on-one with clients, but eventually I branched out on my own.
FN: Your clients, were they mostly foreigners or Japanese?
Nico: I had quite a few of expatriates, but it was a fairly even mix. Maybe 60% of my clients were Japanese. Quite a few of them were former athletes, but there were a number of housewives too.
FN: What sort of qualifications do you have?
Nico: I have several different certifications, back, Swiss ball, sports. The big one is ISSA, that stands for International Sports Science Association, getting that one opens a lot of doors. But new developments and research is being done constantly. I want to work with the newest information available and in this business you need to keep learning. I’m always reading and keeping my eye out for new material.
FN: Those certifications you have, are they a globally accepted or are there different courses and requirements for each country?
Nico: The ISSA certification is from an American program. It is pretty much a globally accepted certification, which is why it is important and why it allows you to really get into being a fitness trainer. The ironic thing is that France is one of the few countries that does not accept it. So I can do what I love pretty much anywhere except the country I was born in.
FN: Now, about Nico Dojo, what was your target market when you started?
Nico: A lot of my clients followed me from Gold’s Gym. I didn’t really have a target market. As long as someone has motivation and determination I get really excited to work with them. I started Nico Dojo because I want to offer my method of physical fitness to people my way.
FN: What sort of services does Nico Dojo offer? What is your “way”?
Nico: Well, the body builder image is ruining the business to an extent. It’s everywhere in physical fitness. Even magazines that have good articles have these pictures of really big muscular people on the covers. That’s selling an image, not a healthy way to be physically fit. Body building is all about lifting weights to build a body. I know, I’ve done it before. It was fun to experience, but I want my clients to train movement. There is a big difference in the way you train to build a body and the way you train to do a sport.
So one of my mottos is: “Don’t build a body, train movement.” That’s why I like the word athlete. Athletes have goals, they want to perform their sport well. It is much more practical for people to train bodies that can move well; bodies that can move powerfully and quickly. Bodies that are trained to move will be much more durable and just every day activities that might have been difficult before will become easy.
If you have injuries or back pain a likely cause is you’ve not done the right exercises. For example, most people have really under-trained hamstrings. This can result in back problems and knee injuries. I can help you with that because I can show you how to build a strong base. All of my clients will do squat exercises, but I know over a dozen different ways to perform them.
FN: Is there any particular challenges to physical fitness in Japan, both from a client and an instructor’s point of view?
Nico: Well, it’s hard to find places with good equipment. I don’t use machines, which the fitness centers here are full of. Machines are a very unnatural ways to train your body. They force you into a repetitive motion that targets very specific areas while neglecting the surrounding muscles. That causes an imbalance that doesn’t allow us to reach maximum potential and invites frequent injuries. I’ve seen people who can machine bench two-hundred kilograms, but once they move to free weights they really struggle with half that weight.
The fitness centers are also selling an image. You will see on their posters a picture of a very pretty and thin model with a fitness instructor, it’s all very clean. I don’t really like that because it also promotes building a specific body.
I want to start my own gym eventually. I’d love it if I just had a warehouse I could fill with weights and equipment. When you train you’re tearing apart your muscles so they can grow back bigger and stronger. It should be messy. You need to be able to make noise, drop weights, and yell; you can’t really do that in most fitness centers here.
FN: Where do you train now?
Nico: I like American Gym. They have two locations in Fukuoka at Akasaka and Yoshizuka stations. But if you go to my website and look at my videos you’ll see I don’t need a gym. Playgrounds are great places to do full body workouts, really change things up.
FN: Can you get me ready for mochitsuki next Oshougatsu?
Nico: (laughs) There are a lot of great exercises I could show you with just that big hammer.
This is just a glimpse of Nico and his athlete factory. It was like I stumbled into a forest, but sadly all I could bring back was this single small tree, more like a shrub really. You should go visit that forest for yourself though. Just sitting there talking with Nico in the office made me restless, like listening to a good jazz band makes me wish I could play the saxophone. He’s really excited about physical fitness and it just flows out of him.
January is gone (and Valentine’s Day is fast approaching) and the last of the New Year’s parties are finally over. This month we look in the mirror and the tragedy that is aging really sinks in. There are two choices: Accept the tired, heavier, and older looking person in the mirror or… Dust off the old muscles, fish around for some determination, and contact Nico.
Check out Nico’s website, blog, or Youtube channel. His website is in Japanese with a few English articles he’s penned, but he’s fluent in Japanese, English, and French. Pick a language and let him know you’re in the market to start building an athlete.