He isn’t the kind of guy who screams or yells to get results. He believes that losing a lot of weight doesn’t always start with constantly checking the scale, and he doesn’t even mind a good burger and a beer after an even better run.
Jeff Watters, 40, of Ferndale – once named by Vogue as one of America’s top trainers – hasn’t become a successful fitness guru by living up to every preconceived notion that comes with his line of work.
He was at Michigan State University studying accounting and training as a professional boxer when some of his peers noticed his "out of the box" training methods.
"From my background in boxing and football I was able to kind of take a different approach to the training," Watters said.
His own boxing career ended prematurely due to injuries, but Watters soon found himself training friends. He moved back to Ferndale and a business was born. "It just sort of happened," he said.
Watters is the owner of Motor City Bootcamp and Watters Performance in Ferndale, which offers high-intensity interval training programs and "fusion" workouts that combine boxing, kettlebell and other exercise disciplines.
The Ferndale native has made a name for himself with brutally challenging programs, daily early-morning runs that go off regardless of precipitation or temperature and for training Hollywood stars during their Michigan stays – including the famously fit actor Gerard Butler, who was recently filming in town.
But Watters said it’s the success of the everyday trainee that makes his job so rewarding.
He recalled a woman who was crying after completing her second fitness test. He was ready to reassure her of her progress, but it turned out the tears weren't about her time at all. She was overwhelmed with emotion for meeting a personal goal: "It's the first time I've ever done two miles straight without having to stop," she told him.
"She was the happiest person in the world ... because she had done something she had never done before," Watters said. "To me that made me more proud of what I've done, and of her obviously, as working with one of these people to film for a movie or somebody that I was training to fight."
Watters encourages his clients to set tangible goals at the beginning of their training. Not a number on the scale, but something like going mountain biking for the first time or running in a 5K. "The weight will take care of itself," he said.
For local resident Kim Bufford, that goal was a half-marathon.
"Jeff has helped me reach goals that I thought were unreachable," said Bufford, who lost more than 40 pounds and ran her first half-marathon in less than a year of working with Watters. "The hardest part is keeping up with your end of the bargain. His workouts are no picnic, but you always leave with a sense of accomplishment and the desire to do better the next time."
Watters is serious about his clients' goals, and expects them to take their training seriously – whether it's his parents (who train at his studio) or a professional boxer. "You have to train with some purpose, you've got to train with some intensity," he said. "I want people to leave me and feel like they just did something that they would never ever have done on their own."
Whether you're part of his outdoor "bootcamp" classes or not, you won't find Watters screaming at his clients. "I think I can motivate people without yelling at them," he said.
While he's a proponent of healthy living, Watters isn’t against people having some fun in their diets. He enjoys a good burger or pizza on a Friday night as much as anyone else. "You don't have to be perfect. People aren't going to stick to that anyway," he said. “The key is moderation.”
Watters cites seeing healthier families and a healthier community as a major inspiration for his work, and he is a frequent volunteer and activist for local nonprofit organizations such as Gloves-On, an anti-bullying organization based in Birmingham.
Motor City Bootcamp organizes several charity races each year and hosts two weekly charity runs. The running groups are offered free with a suggested donation of $10 that goes to benefit Gloves-On. After the run, the men’s group goes to Tony's Sports Bar in Ferndale and the women’s group - led by his wife - goes to Valentine Distilling in Ferndale.
“I try to keep it that way and support local business," he said. "I think it just kind of creates a good vibe all around. And having grown up here I'm big about the city and trying to keep people around here."
Watters is also passionate about children's health and is planning a kids trail race June 23, with all proceeds benefiting Gloves On.
A father of three, Watters loves to see people just become healthier and live longer lives, regardless of how many miles they can run. This is an appreciation gained from an unlikely ailment of his own.
Still aiming for a return back to the boxing ring, Watters went in for a physical at 37 years old. He was preparing to fight at the Royal Oak Music Theatre in just a few weeks, but the call he got after the checkup was the shock of a lifetime.
"He said you gotta get to Beaumont, you're in congestive heart failure," Watters said. "I thought he was joking."
No joke. It turned out that Watters, who had just completed the Chicago Marathon days earlier, had dilated cardiomyopathy.
"It goes from that to check yourself into a hospital for the next 10 days and make sure you don't die," he recalled.
He eventually had to have a Pacemaker put in. He remains active now –racing, biking, rafting - but he does have new activity limits he's still getting used to. "It limits it, but on the flip side if I hadn't been as active as I was there's a good chance I probably wouldn't be here," he said. "If I was 90 percent of the people my age I probably would have died."
Magazine covers with medals and fighting photos adorn the walls of his studio located at 23446 Woodward and his pride is unmistakable when it comes to the framed photos of his three children – each as newborns, held up by dad's boxing gloves (in pink for the newest addition, a baby girl).
Only further inspired by his own close call, Watters wants to see people improve their health – not only for themselves, but for their families.
"You don't have to be the guy or the girl that's out there running marathons. But just take care of yourself for your family," he said. "I want to see my kids get married. Maybe I will or maybe I won't, but if continuing to stay active and eating better is going to help with this then I'm going to do it."