All Hail the Prince of Pull-Ups: Michael Polito of Old School Street Fitness
This personal trainer spices up classic calisthenics with martial arts and yoga moves
Personal trainer Michael Polito works with a pair of dipping bars
Photographs by Tom Moore
Think of him as a Zen Jack LaLanne. Combining good old-fashioned calisthenics — the darling of military workouts — with yoga and martial arts, Poughkeepsie’s Michael Polito is not your typical fitness trainer. With the body of a 25-year-old at age 54, the founder of Old School Street Fitness has been around the block, beginning in 1979 when he discovered what was to be his lifelong passion for the martial arts (he has black belts in two disciplines). For decades, he has avidly studied Zen meditation and breathing practices — all the while plying his trade as a photographer whose name has appeared in these pages many times. In the ’80s, Polito embarked in a new direction, as a personal trainer and serious weight lifter who competed in bench-press competitions.
But those years of heavy weight lifting had a downside: a bicep injury, which warranted an operation two years ago. Here’s the silver lining: The injury led him to develop his own proprietary mix of do-no-harm exercise, dubbed the Progressive Movement Method.
“All the stuff I show my students I’ve done myself, and I know it works,” says Polito, who is so muscled and toned, you’d think he was still pumping iron. “I saw fitness getting out of hand with machines. In high school we did push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups, and everyone got in great shape.”
What worked then still works now. At a recent small-group instruction class at Diamond Gymnastics in Poughkeepsie, students did all of the above — including lots o’ squats — along with a few surprises, like slithering across the floor mimicking animals in “ground flow” moves adapted from judo and jujitsu. They also did handstands on milk crates and contorted their bodies 360 degrees around hand-held sticks — which looked very Bruce Lee.
When students first come to him, Polito determines their physical strength, and uses that as a starting point. As the training continues, the exercises become more complex. “A lot of people have more strength than they think, but they start at a level over their heads,” he says. “They need to find a good starting point to prevent injuries. Your body likes to be challenged.” Take Polito’s own 80-year-old father. He started out doing gentle push-ups against the wall; then against a counter; then, finally, on the floor (the one-handed variety is a future possibility).
Although he trains students at a gym (or one-on-one at his home or in a local park of the client’s choosing), Polito says you don’t actually need one to get an effective workout. “I work out in the kitchen. My wife isn’t crazy about me doing headstands against the refrigerator, but my office is in my house, and I pretty much incorporate fitness and exercise into my day.” Fifteen-minute sessions spread out over the day are ideal, he says, as long as you switch it up and incorporate a variety of movements.
Typical clients are in their 40s and 50s, like the 49-year-old guy who double-dipped to lose 15 pounds in a month. He cut back on wheat (bread, beer, pizza) while also switching his fitness routine from cardio (treadmill, exercise bike) to strength-training exercises like push-ups and pull-ups. These more-intense moves burn more calories, and continue to do so for a full 48 hours as the body repairs muscle tissue. Then there’s the 51-year-old former junk-food maven who dropped three sizes and is now addicted instead to short bursts of ground flow exercises done in the privacy of her own home. But not all of his clients are middle-aged. Last summer, Polito helped a teenage athlete achieve his dream of six-pack abs with a regimen of progressive calisthenics. “We all have six-pack abs,” says Polito. “There’s just fat covering them.”