'We're not a cult; we're a group of people that enjoy working out'

Veronika Chlumska
Veronika Chlumska - [email protected]
'We're not a cult; we're a group of people that enjoy working out'
Anthony Sullivan, left, helps a member of his gym. Photo: Evolve Fitness

Meet ex-rugby player Anthony Sullivan, now running a gym in Stockholm.


"Evolve Fitness is the name we use because we focus on progress, change and development," Anthony Sullivan explains. "Evolve is the word that encapsulates that the most for us."

An ex-professional rugby player from the UK with a very successful career, Sullivan moved to Stockholm four years ago for a change of scenery. "I had some friends that work here, so I came to try it for a little bit." Working as a trainer at a Crossfit gym, he opened his own business, Evolve Fitness, when the owner left and Sullivan could rent the space.

"This is the third year as our gym, and since January we've been in this location," says Sullivan, speaking to The Local at their new premises in Solna, north of Stockholm.

He runs his gym in the spirit and philosophy of the Gym Jones style of training. It is similar to the more widely known Crossfit, but not identical. "There are a lot of things we share, but we're just different. Some of the Crossfitters go to the Gym Jones guys to learn about the programming, because that's one of the things we focus on a lot at Gym Jones," explains Sullivan, stressing a more individualized, tailored approach to training.

Anthony Sullivan started his career as a rugby player. photo: Evolve Fitness

Sullivan began playing rugby in his hometown – Hull. He played for Hull KR for five years before recolating to St Helens, where his career really took off. Among his sporting highlights are representing both Great Britain and Wales in the rugby league, and victories in three Challenge Cup finals for St Helens RLFC.

"Those are the memorable moments, that's what you play for, or that's what I played for. I wanted to represent my country because that's what I felt was the pinnacle of my sport," he says. "You can't replace that kind of emotional feeling, being with 20 or so of your friends, playing a fairly tough contact sport, and knowing you've spent the last few years working towards something… There's something really rewarding about that," reminisces Sullivan about the big games he played. "For me, those are the good memories."

Due to his rugby prowess, Sullivan was recently chosen for the St Helens Hall of Fame.

"It's nice to have that recognition," he claims. "I don't go back very often, so to get the invite to go back and do that was special."

After Sullivan retired in 2003 he turned to coaching for a while, but in need of change he then decided to turn away from rugby altogether. "I got to a point where I didn't want to spend the rest of my life doing that. I've spent an awful lot of time there and I wanted a change from that environment."

However, before fitness Sullivan tried out a few different, non-sport-related jobs. "I tried financial services for a short period of time, the other one was working in the building trade, before I realized that I like the sporting environment. Throughout that time I was always training. I wasn't coaching, but I was always training myself."

The gym. Photo: Evolve Fitness

In helping some of his friends with training Sullivan found his true calling. "That underlying theme of a coach/trainer, whichever phraseology you like to use, manifested itself again when I started to do that with people in the gym, helping them make progress. When you see people improve, that's why you do that."

While training in the UK, Sullivan was introduced to some Gym Jones workouts by a friend. "I thought I was really fit. I did a couple of the workouts and realized I wasn't where I thought I was or where I wanted to be," he says. After all, by that time a few years had lapsed since he had been a professional athlete at the top of his game.

"I started to do a little bit of research on the internet and found Gym Jones," he notes. "It's almost like a rabbit hole, once you're in you start to delve deeper and all this stuff starts to open up, all this knowledge, and then you want to find more."

After some digging Sullivan took the required Level 1 and Level 2 seminars in London, aiming to become a Gym Jones instructor himself. In 2015 he left for Salt Lake City to complete the final seminar and get his certification.

Gym Jones, a US gym, gained recognition after the movie '300' was released. Director Zack Snyder and Gym Jones founder Mark Twight collaborated and Twight ended up responsible for getting the '300' cast in shape and camera ready.

"When the movie came out there was obviously lots of press and hype about the condition the guys are in, and people wanted to know more," explains Sullivan. "Gym Jones are now famous for training Henry Cavill (Superman) and they were involved in training the recent cast of 'Wonder Woman'."

But why, as a certified instructor, is the gym not also called Gym Jones? "This is a complicated thing," answers Sullivan. Apparently, Gym Jones does not actually have affiliate gyms like Crossfit does for example, only certified instructors. "This is the closest you can get to being an affiliate," Sullivan finishes.

Even though the gyms do not share names, Sullivan keeps to the training philosophy in which he was instructed. "The idea is there are some principles, and you're encouraged then to develop your own work using those principles," he explains, talking about planning workouts at Evolve. "There's a huge library and a huge reference of workouts, but we don't choose randomly. There are certain things that work for a particular aspect that we're looking for and we try and implement those based on rules around strength and conditioning that exist."

Planning the workouts for members, Sullivan as the instructor has to be able to do them all himself. "I wouldn't give them things that I'm not willing to nor capable of doing," he says. "Some of our members have got to a point where they're better than me at them, and that's absolutely the way it should be – if we're doing our job, they should be getting better than us too."
Of course, Sullivan's intense sports career, which had not left him unscathed, has to do with this as well. "A better part of 20 years of rugby can leave you with some movement issues. I struggle a little on some of the movement mobility work that we do, and the flexibility."

A member of the gym, Sandra Eloranta jumps in to defend him, claiming it's tough to compete with the younger members. "It's hard to compete with a 25-year-old. But it is a very competitive group of people also," she tells Sullivan. "If they see you do something, people will want to try and beat you."

Anthony Sullivan. Photo: Evolve Fitness

Competitive or not, it's all in a healthy team spirit. "People that come through the door enjoy their training, enjoy the environment that we've set, the company that they keep, in terms of having like-minded people that are also pretty focused on their training, so there's that social, community aspect. We're not a cult; we're a group of people that enjoy working out."

Ranging from team workouts, high-tech equipment and row machines with monitors for Sullivan to gauge progress, to barbells and kettlebells, training at Evolve Fitness finds ways to challenge everybody. "One of our strengths here is we have a reasonably small gym in that respect. We have around 30 members and a really good relationship with the guys individually, so I kind of get to know their limits, what their expectations are, and know them reasonably well. So, not every workout is hard, every workout is challenging appropriate to the individual."

Planning training programmes 12 months ahead, with each 12 month block being broken down to a three month block, then one month, week and day, Sullivan really puts a lot of work and thought into it, which also concurs with the Gym Jones philosophy. "We have a black programme and a red programme," he describes, claiming the red programme is more advanced for members who have been there longer. The two programmes then have individual variations based on the person training them. "A lot of thought goes into our programming, into each of your workouts, and we always find a way to tailor those workouts to suit an individual."

However, those who aren't members need not despair, for Sullivan and Sandra have also developed a workout phone app. "It's more for people who don't have the chance to come train with us here in Stockholm, or who have a gym membership somewhere but feel they don't really know what to do in the gym," explains Eloranta.

The app also contains a month of detailed workouts for members. "We just tried to find a way we could communicate the workouts to the members, because they often wanted to know days in advance what kind of workout was coming up," finishes Sullivan.

When asked if he misses rugby, Sullivan shakes his head. "I think it was time for me to stop. When I go back and catch up with friends whom I played with, sometimes I miss those guys. I mean, you spend ten years with the same people and you get to know them fairly well, you've shared some highs and some lows too, you miss the camaraderie and the team. But the actual playing? I've had enough."


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