Mike Barwis is a complicated fella. As one of the world’s top strength-training coaches, Barwis – who is the focus of Discovery’s new sports docuseries, American Muscle – can often be seen reducing 300-lb. NFL linemen to quivering, sobbing and vomiting wrecks with his insanely grueling workouts.
“How many people have I made vomit? I don’t know if I can count that high,” the raspy-voiced Barwis, the former strength and conditioning coach of the University of Michigan’s football team, tells PEOPLE. “I push people to the wall and sometimes that involves … well, a little upset stomach.”
But there’s another side to Barwis, who can squat 700 lbs. and bench-press over 450 lbs. When he’s not training Olympians or some of the nation’s top pro athletes at his gym in Plymouth, Michigan, he’s putting in countless hours (often for free) each week helping people with debilitating medical conditions regain the use of their legs.
Barwis estimates that over the past five years, he’s helped more than 50 people get back on their feet and begin moving. Some have spinal-cord injuries, others suffered a stroke or live with cerebral palsy – and many have been told by doctors they “would never walk again.”
“It’s a hell of a lot more important to me than somebody winning the Super Bowl,” says Barwis, 41, who holds numerous degrees in sports physiology. “The science that we integrate with these people is no different than what I use on the athletes I train. I took my scientific background and prescribed a program that stimulates the neural fibers to try and establish some conductivity to re-assimilate neuromuscular function.”
One of those he’s helped is 29-year-old Brock Mealer, who was left paralyzed after a tragic car accident claimed the lives of his father and his brother’s girlfriend. Mealer had been told by his surgeon that he’d never regain the use of his legs, but Barwis – who coached Mealer’s younger brother at the University of Michigan – showed up at his hospital room and insisted that his doctors were wrong.
“When he first told me that, I thought he was crazy,” recalls Mealer, who now walks with the use of a cane after spending about six hours a day, six days a week, working out with Barwis. “But I liked hearing it. I don’t even want to think about what my life would be like if I hadn’t met him. I know I’d still be in a wheelchair.”
To learn more about Barwis’s work helping people regain lost motor control, check out his First Step Foundation.
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