Interview With LJ Belsito Owner of Iron-Strength Training Education & Performance (I-STEP), And Home of The Nonprofit Out of The Box Strength, Inc.
"I believe everyone should be given a chance."
This Veteran’s Day, you hosted I-Step’s Inaugural Powerlifting Meet. Why did you choose to host this meet on Veteran’s Day?
I have been hosting developmental and invitational events in Olympic lifting and decided to host a Powerlifting event for those who wanted to get experience in competing in a sanctioned event. The first Powerlifting event was held on Veterans Day Nov. 11, 2017 for a few members who wanted to set a qualifying total national event, and also wanted to give those an opportunity to lift under the rules and sanctions with USA Powerlifting.
More importantly, it was my intent to give the opportunity to the soldiers who participate in the warrior adaptive strength training program we have been running at the gym for the past 1-2 years, an opportunity to compete. These service men and women train under the guidance of certified trainers, and coaches. I insist on teaching proper lifting technique, nutrition, healthy lifestyles, and stress management and to work within their capabilities, since many have been recovering from injuries while on active duty. We encourage these soldiers to use what they learn when not with us if training on their own, and give them training routines, and advise as we go through the program. Hosting this event on Veterans Day gave the soldiers and my members, families, and community members who came to the event to see what we do at I STEP. This day was an opportunity to have fun, bring family and friends to see them exceed their expectations and bring them recognition for their service.
We began this program on base, once a month two hours a week, to assist the returning men and women recovering from injuries, and transitioning from active duty to civilian status. There is a team of medical professionals, PT, OT, athletic trainers, prosthetists, myself and RN, and Certified Strength training coach, in Powerlifting, USAWeightlifting, and PARA Powerlifting. The name of the non- profit is Out of the Box Strength, Inc. This now helps us raise funds to buy snacks refreshments, and t shirts for our program.
Can you tell me about some of the lifters?
When we first started the program all of the soldiers who lifted were from a Marines battalion. Now we have Army, Navy, and Marines, who are referred to our program by their providers or through the program manager, who runs the WARP Program, (Warrior Adaptive Rehabilitation Program.) We have worked with soldiers who have had amputations, prosthetics, have had surgeries and are cleared post operatively from other soft tissue injuries. Many of the soldiers who have come through the program do have PTSD, and this is where I believe we have our biggest impact.
My goal is to give them a safe environment, talk about healthy coping skills and stress management, and to give them hope, positive reinforcement, and let them know we are here to listen.
I believe coming to the gym for these men and women serve as a type of outing to another space off base. They are treated like athletes, not patients, and we all train together. Being in the presence of these soldiers and watching the camaraderie, support, and expressions of joy once they have succeeded at something they were not doing when they started the program warms the heart. We do everything we can to provide an environment to be themselves, feeling successful, achieving something that they may not have ever done before. We allow them to try new things, test the limits of their strength in an event as long as it is safe. Sometimes, we just pound the battle ropes, until we can’t do it one second longer, or flip a tire to get the underlying anger or frustration out of the system. Then we all relax. All of the exercises and training we do is a healthy way to release tension, anger, or whatever the feeling is they need to fell. This then allows them to relax and they all look forward to the next time and so do the coaches.
You use powerlifting training as a tool to help people suffering from PTSD and other traumas. How has lifting enabled them to heal?
In 2015, when we first started the program the numbers of participants was small, 8 soldiers would come to the gym, and many would not participate they would observe.
As the program developed and more soldiers heard about the program, coaches, and what we were doing more would come down to watch and some would be encouraged to participate, if medically cleared. In the first session we teach the basic technique of lifts, safety first, assess the person, for what may be issues to work on regarding strength, flexibility, etc. We teach how to load a bar, how to spot another lifter, and the importance of paying attention. No distractions in the gym, no headsets, no phones, just us and the weight. For those who were more severely wounded we would use modified exercises, and work with the PT, Prosthetist and trainers to allow us to have these soldiers participate as well and still feel like they are getting a good workout.
I know how lifting has helped me through some very dark times, I have had some PTSD issues and know that lifting allows me to focus on the weight, setting a goal, going after it and sometimes not succeeding and that is ok. Learning that failure is ok helps them build resilience so when the time comes they are on their own, it may have a profound effect on a decision they make in the future. Soldiers are trained to be resilient, something I believe I have learned through my lifetime. Listening to them talk to one another, like brothers & sisters watching them have a good time, relaxing, when they open up is something I pay strict attention to, and make sure I stop, listen, make eye contact so they know I am all ears, and care about what you are doing. Lifting can be very cathartic, I know in my career, I have gone to the gym instead of turning to behaviors that are self- destructive; we lead them by example when in their presence.
We become the coaches they trust, we offer them options when they are discharged out to reach back to us for training advice programs, or if local they are always welcomed back to train at I STEP. A little time like this goes a long way in their healing process, and being consistent, earning their trust, and trying to understand their underlying pain, helps us help them sometimes without saying a word.
When did you open your gym, and why?
June 2015, we took a lease on this small space, at that time I was very involved coaching the Special Olympic Powerlifting Team since 2010 for Maryland, and our team had grown from 7 to 18 athletes. I and a few other personal trainers and coaches were thinking of looking for a place we could go to give these athletes a safe place and space of their own to train, and hoped to help grow the sport year-round for these athletes who only wanted to do this sport. I have been a competitive athlete, in both Powerlifting and Olympic Weightlifting, and had a gym in my home garage in Long Island, but when reassigned to the MD area, sold everything to fellow lifters. I have a passion for teaching and watching others feel the successes I have had in my 30 plus year career. I wanted to recreate the atmosphere of gyms that I grew up in. All members, athletes, adult or children who wanted to learn how to lift were taught safely by a seasoned coach or trainer. I have had the opportunity to be trained by some of the most famous of lifters, coaches and want to impart that knowledge to others. I truly believe in paying it forward, giving back and have seen how it has helped others change how they look at fitness, strength training, or living healthy lifestyles. My decision was made to provide a small gym which offered specific training for strength, Powerlifting, Olympic lifting and maybe even get into community health and fitness, healthy lifestyles, and coaching children. I am an RN, Coach Athlete, Mentor and this is my passion. I am a 2 x hall of Fame Powerlifter and Master’s Olympic Weightlifter. It has been a lifetime journey and it makes me smile when I explain to the members, or younger athletes all of the records, I have held, broken, and how many times I have represented the USA at the World Level in both sports.
As a kid, I always wanted to be an Olympic Champion. I was always an athlete and jock. I was taunted, bullied, and beat up as a child. Sports helped me stay focused and after going through many years of learning how to be true to myself, here I am, LJ the coach, mentor, teacher, Champion 2 x Hall of Fame athlete and Motivational Speaker. The Olympic Medal is the only one I do not have, but have had the opportunity to meet the Olympic Coaches, train with the athletes, and been out to the OTC for the Masters first Olympic Weightlifting Camp, in AUG 2014.
I believe anyone should be given a chance. I work with kids who may not like sports, don’t fit into our social mold, and let them know its ok, and watch them flourish, and grow into these fine young adults.
They call me the Gym Mom. I feel blessed to be entrusted with the children of others, and them allowing me to give these kids the opportunity to shine, be successful, and prove to themselves, that they can be a success. This helps build confidence, trust, set goals achieve, and that sometimes we do fail and that is ok. Most importantly, it teaches them that I expect respect, focus and conversation with eye to eye contact, something this society is losing fast. Many of these athletes and I have a bond, and relationship that is hard to describe, but I do believe I am having an impact on them and if they succeed I have done my job.
What do you see as the future of I-STEP? How can you help even more people?
I want to grow the business model of this type gym. I want to pay it forward as my mentors, coaches, and brother Dr. Ken Leistner, DC has done for me my entire career.
As a Nurse, Public Health Officer, Mentor, Coach, and athlete, I feel a responsibility to try to help those who are truly interested in creating a healthy lifestyle for themselves.
As an RN, and a health educator, we are trained to teach, encourage, make patients independent so they can have the best life, recovery, maintain their wellness status after a medical event, or trauma. A lot of this training carries over to my coaching. Psycho Social support is critical when dealing with athletes of any age. They have to be treated as an individual. Just because it is in a magazine, on the internet, the latest fad, does NOT mean it’s good for everyone.
This lifetime dream came to fruition in 2015 and has become my own since 2016.
I feel as though I can make a difference in everyone’s life, but have had to learn that not everyone wants to learn, or listen to my advice, get coached, or believes I can help them.
I have learned to take on one person at a time, and I don’t get so overwhelmed.
I want to create an environment for those who do not feel like they belong in a gym, for those kids who don’t fit in for whatever reason, whether they are struggling with emotional, sexuality issues. It amazes me how these kids open up once they feel safe, and know I am here, and not judging them. Sometimes we don’t know what they are thinking and if my smile, words of encouragement helps them to feel good then I have done my job for those who may feel afraid or intimidated. I have been there, my lifestyle has not been easy, but I have learned to be true to LJ. I am still learning how to be the best athlete, coach, person I can be in this lifetime.
I have grown and learned a lot in my 60 years on this earth. I have become more tolerant, patient, humble and kind. I have had to work through many issues as many do, and I have found my “WHY” in life. I listen to people like Simon Sinek, on Ted Talk. I try to emulate those who are making a difference in people’s lives, but the people have to want to receive the help and make the changes. I listen to I do not take shit, and I certainly will not be abused or mistreated ever again. I believe this is why I do this. It is mine to grow.
I hope to leave a legacy, a method, or a style of coaching that others embrace, and as the saying goes on the plaque on my desk:
One Hundred Years From Now
One hundred years from now
It won't matter
What kind of car I drove
What kind of house I lived in
How much money I had in the bank
Nor what my cloths looked like
The world may be a little better
Because, I was important
In the life of a child.
Author: (excerpt from "Within My Power" by Forest Witcraft)
How can people donate to your program, your nonprofit Out of the Box Strength, Inc., or I-STEP?
Donations can be made through Paypal which is linked to e mail firstname.lastname@example.org or mail a check to Out of the Box Strength, Inc., 23009 Winged Elm Drive, Clarksburg, MD, 20871.
Our goal is to continue to grow this nonprofit to serve other underserved populations, run events, clinics on healthy lifestyles, and lifting event. Also I want to continue our program for the returning men and women veterans who have served.
Some who have heard me talk want me to have a radio show, talk show, but for now my goal is to someday write a book.
Eventually I hope to be doing this full time, as this is my passion. Our world needs this.