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It’s 10 o’clock on a Wednesday in December at Drive495 in SoHo, New York. Hours ago the early-morning rush filled up the spacious training floor; now it’s quiet, populated with David Harbour, best known as the bulky cop from the hit Netflix show Stranger Things, and a handful of club members. Drive’s owner, Don Saladino, sits upright with hunched shoulders, a scrunched forehead, and pursed lips on a flat bench near a rack of dumbbells and a stairwell that leads to a virtual golf studio.
A freewheeling 20-minute conversation with the 40-year-old trainer proves he has no trouble waxing lyrical about anything health and fitness related—his penchant for training barefoot, the certification programs he recommends, social media strategies for the fitness space. However, when the guy who has coached upwards of 50 high-profile celebrity clients, including Ryan Reynolds, Liev Schreiber, Hugh Jackman, Sebastian Stan, and Scarlett Johansson, is asked to give advice about becoming a celebrity trainer, he comes up empty.
“I don’t know how to answer that,” he says, as Harbour reps out 225 pounds on the bench press 10 feet away. “Be a great trainer? Be a good guy? Put yourself in a good situation?”
You might think Saladino is playing coy to guard his secrets for landing A-listers.
Harbour clangs the bar against the pins to end his set. Saladino adds with a shrug and a smile: “It definitely helps that I have a club. We’re a private gym, and we’re pretty good at what we do here.”
Saladino has been the leading man at Drive495 since he and his brother, Joseph, opened the gym in 2006. Back then, “we didn’t know what the hell we were doing,” he admits. “We jumped in headfirst and said screw it. But in a way, I think it’s good to get your face kicked in business—those periods of uncomfortableness build character.”
And his insistence on virtually every day-to-day task being a one-man show didn’t help things run any smoother. In fact, according to Saladino, the most important key to Drive495’s success—even more than the eventual celebrity client cachet—was learning to trust and rely on his supporting cast.
“A lot of smart people and coaches work with me,” he says. “And while we know who signs the checks, I have this eye-level mentality: We’re all working together; they’re not working for me.”
A handful of people are working on Saladino to prep his hair and clothing for his M&F cover shoot. On a landing strip of turf in the back of the gym, the 6’1″ 206-pounder stands shirtless with black knee-length shorts and his arms stretched out to his sides. A groomer fixes his Superman curl, while another stylist adjusts the catawampus drawstrings dangling from his waistband.
“Anyone need anything—water, coffee, a shake?” he asks to no one in particular.
Despite being today’s star, Saladino can’t break the habit of tending to others. Growing up in Long Island, NY, he spent 10 years working for his family’s catering, doing everything from maintenance to cleaning toilets while learning the important role customer service plays in the survival of a business.
“I’m used to taking care of clients and club members. All of this attention is definitely out of my comfort zone,” he says with a grin before adding, “but I’m fine with it.”
Saladino graduated from Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, CT, in 1999. During college he played four years of Division I baseball for the Pioneers, manning right field and serving as team captain for his junior and senior seasons. Yet as much as he loved playing ball, he was more passionate about fitness.
“I had a couple of [pro] tryouts, but I just wanted to do something that allowed me to live at the gym,” he says.
The next logical step was to become a certified trainer and find a steady gig at a chain gym to learn the ropes. He spent six years working at a box gym. “I watched a mom-and-pop gym turn into corporate America after it was bought out,” he says. This led to the creation of Drive495 in 2006.
Cut to 2008. Drive wasn’t yet in cruise control but was finding its footing. Then an unexpected encounter with the most famous mutant on the X-Men roster sent Saladino’s career in a new direction.
In 2008 Hugh Jackman was roughly midway through a 17-year run in the role of Wolverine—the surly antihero equipped with unbreakable razor-sharp claws. He was also training at Drive and being coached by one of Saladino’s buddies.
“Hugh had just done the play The Boy From Oz and was really thin—maybe 175 pounds,” Saladino recalls.
That posed a problem considering Jackman needed to get, uh, jacked for two upcoming roles: the romance drama Australia and the action flick X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Things got even trickier once his trainer’s wife got pregnant with triplets, which left him in need of a new coach. That’s when Jackson spotted Saladino on the training floor. “Hugh approached me and said he wanted me to train him,” Saladino says.
Australia and Wolverine went on to rake in upwards of $211 million and $373 million worldwide, respectively, despite receiving lackluster reviews; Saladino, however, left a lasting impression on his first celebrity client, who became a referral machine. “Hugh sent me people like Scarlett Johansson, Ryan Reynolds, Ryan Gosling, Blake Lively—it just snowballed.”
Even now, a decade later, the celebrities continue to find him. “Not once did I have to do any outreach,” Saladino says.
The influx of high-profile clients has provided him with the ability to scale back his workload to about 20 sessions per week. And no, those slots aren’t reserved only for the famous or affluent but are filed by people who share a common thread.
“I lean more toward working with people who have a goal in mind,” he says. “Spending three to five months helping someone achieve that goal is fun for me.”
Thirty days. That’s how much time Saladino had to get cover-ready. For that one month, he shed 10 pounds of water weight, ate clean, shunned cheat meals, and trained his ass off. Yet instead of showing up on set depleted and acting moody, he’s chipper, energetic, and pleasant. That, he says, was a product of a calculated approach.
“I’ve done diets where I get rid of water or glycogen deplete and felt a little dirty about it after, like I was setting a poor example,” he says. “For this prep I stuck to around 300 grams of carbs, 275 grams of protein, and 90 grams of fat per day. It was a very sustainable—but very clean—diet.”
While the high-carb approach might at first seem counterintuitive since carb intake is often (and erroneously) blamed solely for weight gain, the 300-275-90 macro profile fit Saladino’s goal and fueled his active lifestyle, which included hitting the gym six to seven days a week and playing rec-league hockey.
“If I went 10 grams over or under on my carbs or protein, fine. When I felt flat, I’d supplement a little more fat with coconut or olive oil.”
Saladino’s workout routine allowed him to acquire strength and maintain athleticism while incorporating bodybuilding moves for symmetry.
“I think there is confusion that the program is what’s going to make the individual look a certain way—there’s more than one way to get things done,” he says. “If you want abs like Ryan Reynolds’ in Deadpool, we can get you there with an old-school 8×8 with 30 seconds of rest, or a power-building program, or a kettlebell program—it doesn’t have to be the same program we gave Ryan.”
The malleability in his programming hinges on factors such as diet, stress levels, sleep, and recovery efforts. Determining those creates better insight for training frequency and volume.
One area that has no wiggle room, however, is the need for a targeted 10-minute dynamic warmup.
“Skipping, hopping, moving side to side, neck rotation, and other athletic moves work grease the groove so you feel athletic,” he says. “Overall, I’m looking to make sure the body is as strong and as resilient as possible 365 days a year.”
Saladino also stresses top-to-bottom foundational strength—including the toes, which he accomplishes by training barefoot when possible. “Think of it like putting a cast on your hand: If your hand’s healthy and it’s wrapped in a cast half the day, you’ll lose dexterity,” he says. “And if something stops working in your foot it can affect you from a joint-by-joint approach.”
It’s 5 o’clock, and Saladino emerges from the locker room showered and wearing jeans and a black T-shirt. Turns out, the past five hours he spent ripping through exercises and executing reps were just a warmup. Later on he’ll suit up and take the ice for a hockey game.
“It’s a lot for one day, sure, but that’s common,” he says.
With an hour-plus journey home to Cold Spring, NY, ahead, Saladino needs to hustle to get back in time for dinner with his wife and two kids and then head to the rink. Despite the rush, before taking off he chats with guests, checks in with his staff, and reminds us to call if we need anything.
After spending the day in the spotlight, Saladino is back in his comfort zone—giving everyone else the star treatment.