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Catching Up with Former Michigan S&C Coach Mike Barwis

One of the more colorful personalities to come out of Ann Arbor in recent years is Mike Barwis, Michigan’s strength and conditioning coach during the Rich Rodriguez era. And while he hasn’t exactly disappeared from the public eye since leaving Michigan, you might be surprised to learn where he ended up - and what he’s up to.

When Rich Rodriguez was hired as Michigan’s head coach in 2007, he brought with him a new system, a new philosophy and a new hope to what had become a staid program under Lloyd Carr. One of the architects of the famed spread offense, Rodriguez was hired to lead Michigan into the modern era. But it wasn’t just Rodriguez’s offensive philosophy that promised to shake things up at Michigan, it was also a new approach to training, as he brought Mike Barwis to serve as Michigan’s strength and conditioning coach. An ex-MMA fighter with degrees in Strength and Conditioning and Physiology, the colorful Barwis was as heralded as any coach on Rodriguez’s staff, and oversaw a dramatic overhaul to both Michigan’s weight room and its training philosophy. Barwis took a program that had changed little in decades to one of the most progressive in the country.

To say Barwis advanced Michigan beyond traditional weight training practices would be putting it mildly. Barwis brought with him a program rooted in science but with a holistic element, one that combined conventional and Olympic weightlifting, balance and functional training, core training, functional flexibility progressions and injury prevention and pre-habilitation techniques. It also included the more traditional speed and agility training and the less traditional plyometrics and bio-energetic conditioning. In short, it was not your father’s weight training.

Anthony Mims was a defensive back on Rodriguez’s first team at West Virginia. A Los Angeles native, Mims would typically return to California and train on his own for the first few weeks of the summer. He remembers when Barwis was hired, his teammates called him at home and urged him to get back to campus, telling him, “this Barwis guy is different,” and he was missing out by not being there.

Barwis was an immediate hit with the current Michigan players, but you knew something special was going on when former Michigan players, NFL veterans like LaMarr Woodley, Braylon Edwards and Larry Foote, players who had never trained with Barwis, started finding their way to Ann Arbor in the offseason. Michigan may have struggled to find success on the field under Rodriguez, but the same wasn’t true of Barwis and his methods. Mims recalls the confidence that working with Barwis gave the team, because they knew, “no one could keep up with us in the fourth quarter.”

When Rodriguez was relieved of his coaching duties after three seasons, Barwis was initially offered a position to remain at Michigan. Knowing the incoming head coach would likely bring in his own strength and conditioning coach, Barwis nonetheless met with the players and encouraged them to stay the course. Barwis reminded the players that they committed to play for Michigan, not any particular coach, that Michigan is one of the greatest institutions in America and that all change is not necessarily bad.

During those final weeks under Rodriguez, when the writing was on the wall that there would be a coaching change, Barwis began pondering his next move. A pending free agent, so to speak, he and his wife talked about their future after Michigan. It was his wife who first suggested he could do more, that he could do more for more people in another capacity, outside the confines of college football. It was at that point Barwis and his wife decided Michigan would be his final college job. It was a decision not made out of desperation nor for lack of opportunities, as Barwis was approached about jobs at several high profile programs, but rather because, in Barwis’s words, he, “wanted to do more.” So when the season ended and Rodriguez and his staff were formally let go, instead of visiting campuses, Barwis settled down in his adopted home state of Michigan and opened the Barwis Methods Training Center.

At first glance, Barwis Methods is everything you’d expect to find at a gym known for catering to elite athletes. Its location may be inauspicious, situated in a quiet business park in suburban Detroit, but nothing else about the facility can be described that way. The 24,000 square-foot facility is both high-tech (containing the latest in equipment and training methods) and no-frills (a row of garage-like doors are left open in lieu of air conditioning on the balmy, July morning I visited). What you notice more than anything, though, is the frenetic energy. Blaring music, changing from country to rap and back again, provides the soundtrack for the flurry of activity taking place. On this morning, there are a number of groups training, each in constant motion, moving from station to station, somehow not interfering or colliding with each other. There is a large group of NHL players, 30 or more, being put through their paces by trainer and co-founder, former NFL center Dan Mozes. Slimmer than you would think, but with massively-developed thighs, the hockey players appear to glide as they complete their workout-ending sprints. There is also a smaller group NFL players finishing their pre-season workouts. Enormous men who move with more grace than which someone able to bench press 400-plus pounds and squat 500-plus pounds should be able to move. There are also assorted college athletes, a high school football team and a wrestling clinic led by a former Olympic wrestler.

In the middle of it all is Barwis. Moving seamlessly from group to group, with a laugh, and a hug, for everyone. If ever there was a man who loved his job, it’s Barwis, who looks and acts the part of a trainer. Energetic and endlessly optimistic, Barwis provides direction, serves as spotter, helps athletes stretch and provides encouragement to anyone within earshot. Barwis talks with the gruff, stereotypical coach’s voice, and conversations, like everything else with Barwis, are intense. He can talk enthusiastically and endlessly about the athletes he’s trained. And considering he’s trained thousands of athletes in more than 40 sports, there are plenty of such stories. The walls of his training center are adorned with the college and professional jerseys of his more famous clients, a testament to his standing in the world of athletic training.

But he can also talk about more personal stories. This is the “want to do more” aspect of why he left the world of college football, and when you step back and look more carefully at what’s going on around you, you can see he’s making good on that promise. When you look beyond the NFL linemen and linebackers, you notice that in addition to the professional and college athletes, there are many individuals who are clearly not professional athletes. Some barely able to walk, some not able to walk at all. Because in addition to training high profile athletes, Barwis also works with those dealing with developmental and neurological issues, and those recovering from debilitating injuries.

Barwis is as comfortable with and spends as much time with those battling disabilities and injuries as he is and does with someone fighting for a spot on an NFL roster or someone who just inked a new NHL contract. And he’s not alone. It’s not uncommon to see the athletes Barwis is training doing the same. Two of Barwis’s longest standing clients, hulking defensive tackle Mike Martin and Pro Bowl linebacker Brandon Graham, both former Wolverines, seem to have a word for everyone, never failing to offer a smile or word of encouragement to those struggling, particularly the children.

It’s not what you might expect of players getting ready for the upcoming NFL season, but such is the environment at Barwis Methods. When I mentioned I was surprised how open and forthcoming the athletes were with me, Barwis wasn’t surprised, saying his gym is seen as somewhat of a safe zone, something that’s clear if you’ve spent any time there.

But how did Barwis set down this path? And how did a Philly boy, by way of West Virginia, happen to set up shop in southeastern Michigan? To a large extent, it’s only natural, because it’s what happened during his time at Michigan that helped lead him to where he is.

Most people are familiar with the Brock Mealer story. Mealer, the brother of Michigan offensive lineman Elliott Mealer, was in an automobile accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. Doctors gave him a 1% chance of ever walking again. At the behest of Elliott, Barwis met with Mealer, and remembers being immediately impressed with the younger Mealer’s positive energy. Barwis made no promises, but told Mealer that if he was willing to work, and work incredibly hard, something good might happen, telling him the outcome depended on, “God’s will and your work.”

After two years of traditional rehabilitation work resulted in little improvement, and with his insurance benefits running out, Mealer decided to take Barwis up on his offer to help. After less than a year of working together at the University of Michigan, on the day Michigan christened its newly renovated stadium, in front of a then-record 113,090 fans, Mealer walked to midfield without assistance, walking under and touching the same banner under which Michigan players famously pass every Saturday.

It was that work with Mealer, and similar work with the daughter of a Michigan staff member who was given a similarly slim chance of walking, that got Barwis and his wife thinking there was more he could do in life, an epiphany that ultimately led to his vision of Barwis Methods.

Since opening his first gym in 2011, Barwis has opened two more in Michigan, one in Florida and one in Georgia (the country, not the state), with more set to open in Los Angeles and South Florida. He’s also expanded his business to where he is involved in almost every manner of training, from designing and manufacturing training equipment to developing a line of nutritional supplements. Despite the increase in scope and scale, the vision that he and his wife laid out nearly ten years ago hasn’t changed. Nor has his impact on peoples’ lives.

Special thanks to Mike and his staff for their time. For more information on Mike’s charitable organizations, the First Step Foundation and the Athletic Angels, follow the links.