August 2020

AJ Staley: Beneath the brawn, wildly popular fitness trainer known for making everyone feel important

Author: Linda Hopkins | Photographer: M.KAT Photography

When AJ Staley walks into a room, the first thing you are likely to notice is his physique. The former middle linebacker turned fitness coach/trainer is not someone you would want to run into without a helmet and plenty of padding.

But beneath all that exterior toughness is a gentle giant with a heart for people and a passion for helping others achieve their goals. Staley will tell you that fitness hasn’t always been easy for him. He has faced many of the same obstacles his clients are up against including weight struggles, injuries, frustration and lagging motivation.

While Staley has turned his brawn into an asset, he remembers when, as an overweight child, his girth was not his friend. “I know what it’s like to be shamed or to be left out—to feel like you’re not a part of something,” he said. “Growing up, I always struggled with being accepted. Even as an adult, it’s something that will sometimes try to rear its head. Because I know what that feels like, that’s something I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I always try to make everyone feel included.”

Drawing from his own life experiences, Staley has a way of connecting with clients and meeting them right where they are, instinctively knowing when to administer a dose of tough love and when to offer a touch of TLC.

From the young aspiring athlete aiming to improve sports performance, to the middle-aged woman trying to manage her weight, to the octogenarian striving to remain active and independent, he seeks common ground. He prides himself on his listening skills and his ability to dig down to the mental and emotional challenges that may be preventing a client from progressing towards his or her physical goals.

“I try to build a one-on-one relationship so that I can help you get past whatever you’re dealing with. This hour that you have paid for is for you. So, whatever you need in this time, that’s what I’m here for,” Staley said. (Sometimes a client needs a walk around the building and a good rant and/or cry, he said.)

Career path
It was Staley’s interest in sports that led him to get in shape and ultimately inspired his career. “I played football all my life, from Pee Wee all the way through college,” he said. But the real game changer came in eighth grade when his coach introduced him to strength training. “He was a giant dude. I wanted to look like that, and ever since then, I’ve been lifting weights.”

From that point on, Staley devoured information about exercise and how to build a better body. When he started working out with friends and offering training advice, people began encouraging him to think about doing it for a living.

Staley was born and raised in Decatur, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta. He later moved to Columbia, S.C. and subsequently attended Gardner Webb University in Charlotte, N.C., where he earned degrees in exercise science and business. Upon graduation, he took a detour to culinary school, which landed him on Hilton Head Island.
“I couldn’t really figure out what I wanted to do in life, so I went to culinary school. I did an internship here at Sea Pines, and when I graduated, they offered me a job. So, I stayed,” Staley said.

From there, he joined the culinary team at a private weight loss retreat. “They found out I had the background in training as well, so I had the opportunity to get back into that. I’ve been training ever since,” Staley said. He is currently coaching at Orange Theory Fitness Hilton Head and offering personal training at XP Fitness. “My plan was only to be here for a year. That was six years ago.”

Master of motivation
Beyond his sports experience, education, and multiple certifications, it is Staley’s philosophy that drives his mission: “The only limitations we have are the ones we put on ourselves.” He helps people identify and connect to their “why,” which is what will get them through the workout when frustrations arise, he said.

Nudging people out of their comfort zone is probably what Staley does best. “For most people, seeing is believing. If I can get them to see in their mind that they can succeed, then they can do anything I ask them to do. I’m actually very good at getting people out of their own head and trying something new.”

“He is so good at what he does,” said Amanda Spencer, who met Staley at Orange Theory Fitness. “He’s obviously knowledgeable about fitness, but he’s so motivating as well. What sets AJ apart is that he really pushes you and helps you get to the next level. He makes me want to do my best.”

Spencer initially set out to lose weight and then to get stronger and healthier. She is achieving those goals. “Now it’s therapeutic!” she said. Her two sons, ages nine and ten are training with Staley at XP fitness. “This summer, they were just not getting the exercise they needed, so we enlisted AJ to work out with them a couple of days a week,” Spencer said. “That’s exactly what they needed—to have that great role model and somebody who would help push them to be their best.”

“We all love our AJ. He’s so warm and fuzzy,” added Tara Annunziata, who, along with her daughter, works out with Staley at Orange Theory Fitness. Her son, who plays football at Christian Academy, has also been training privately with Staley to gain the strength and bulk he needs to be a better athlete.

“He is so encouraging, he makes you feel like you can do things you didn’t think you could,” Annunziata said of Staley. “He’s not only good at his job, he’s just a wonderful person. No matter who he’s talking to, he knows how to relate to them and how to make them feel important. That’s a special trait for someone to have, and that’s what makes him stand out.”

So, what keeps Staley’s fire lit? “I don’t train anyone the same, but I make sure everyone is getting the same result, which is reaching towards their goal,” he said. “I love it. I will probably be doing this until I drop dead.”

Reach AJ Staley at (704) 626-9795.

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