Alert

Outdoor pool closed Tuesday, 7/16 after 3:30 pm

The outdoor pool will be closed for swim meet Tuesday, July 16, 3:30-8 p.m. The indoor pool will be open for family swim with inflatables 4-6 p.m.

I am The J: Trainer Yakov Lyublinskiy ‘started from zero’

“I grew up as a patriot of my country, the Soviet Union [now Ukraine],” Yakov explains. “I have Russian friends, and millions of people have friends on both sides of the border. So what’s happened, basically, is that Putin has sent kids of our friends to kill our friends. That’s basically how I see it. It’s horrible.”

“Frankly, I have not been sleeping well for the past few weeks,” says Yakov Ljublinskiy, 51, a longtime trainer at the Levite Jewish Community Center. His wife’s sister Julia only recently escaped from the war in his native Ukraine. She and her two children need help and he and his family are understandably worried about them. 

Conditions were quite different when Yakov emigrated from his hometown of Kamianets-Podilskyi in western Ukraine to Birmingham back in 1997. He made the move thanks to a Jewish Federation initiative that was launched in the 1980s to help Jews leave what was then the Soviet Union. Yakov neither spoke English nor drove a car, and he’d never used a credit card. 

“I started from zero,” he recalls with a chuckle. 

Even worse than having had to wait four years to navigate the Russian and American bureaucracies, though, was initially having to leave behind Victoria — his new wife who was pregnant with their first child. It was two years before the young family reunited in Alabama. Today the couple have three children: Angelica, 24; Arthur, 14; and Ariel, 4.

The LJCC was there for Yakov from the start, and over the years his collection of jobs included maintenance at The J. Then in 2004 he became a trainer, and he’s been keeping at it ever since.

Back in the USSR

Fitness became important to a young Yakov who was suffering from stomach problems. “Physical activity saved my health,” he says. “It simply got stuck in my head that physical activity is important for maintaining mental and physical health.” This is when he became interested in gymnastics.

In addition, he says being a little Jewish boy in Ukraine was not easy. “I was bullied a lot, so at age 15 I started lightweight amateur boxing.” He continued with the sport during the two years he spent as a draftee in the Red Army, where he specialized in communications equipment. 

Although there was never a fitness industry in the Soviet Union, Yakov says the nation’s youth generally loved calisthenics, and neighborhood playgrounds were always sprinkled with various basic fitness stations. In addition, coaches were constantly recruiting students for sports, and physical fitness opportunities were available through schools.

In Yakov’s Ukraine, kettlebells (a Russian creation) were readily accessible in a nation where you’d be hard-pressed to find expensive fitness equipment and resistance machines. And with bodybuilding discouraged as Western propaganda, it was easy for Yakov and his young comrades to focus on strength training. That’s where his focus remains today.

Kettlebells (a Russian creation) were readily accessible in Yakov’s Ukraine, a nation where you’d be hard-pressed to find expensive fitness equipment. And with bodybuilding discouraged as Western propaganda, it was easy for Yakov and his young comrades to focus on strength training. That’s where his focus remains today.

“New research shows us that what we were doing in the 1970s and ‘80s with just kettlebells, for example, was superior to what people in other parts of the world were doing with machines,” he explains. “Since kettlebells are more functional, your body has to learn how to work and stabilize, resulting in superior exercise.” 

Yakov also became interested in martial arts, but initially faced certain government-imposed restrictions because Eastern philosophies competed with Communist ideals. But he persisted and was able to gain experience in Brazilian jiu jitsu, kickboxing, karate, and even aikido. “I was practicing nonstop.” 

This unique background trickles down to his clients today: “A lot of people don’t realize how many movements and techniques have been borrowed from the martial arts by health and wellness.”

Yakovisms

“Build the posture first, and then build your muscles upon the posture” is one of Yakov’s favorite sayings, or as he likes to call them: Yakovisms. “If you build muscles before posture it can lead to instability and other issues,” he explains. The most common mistakes he sees on The J’s Fitness Floor are improper posture with heavy weights and incorrect use of kettlebells.

His overall philosophy is simple: “Every exercise should have a clear purpose for a particular client. How does it relate to your daily life?” he asks. “Does it help you perform your yard work better or pick up bags of groceries?” He feels strongly that overtraining is worse than undertraining, and that good rest and nutrition are as important as proper exercise. 

“Yakov’s primary goal for each client is that they do not get injured while becoming stronger and more coordinated,” says 70-year-old Barbara Gordon, who has been training with Yakov for two months. “If he sees me struggling with an exercise or weight, he immediately stops me and makes an adjustment to the weight or exercise so I will achieve his goal without injuring myself.

“While I might want to forge ahead, Yakov makes sure I give my body a chance to recover before moving to the next exercise,” she adds. “He’s very perceptive, and he makes each session very educational as well as physical.”

Horrified by war

“I grew up as a patriot of my country, the Soviet Union,” Yakov explains. “I have Russian friends, and millions of people have friends on both sides of the border. So what’s happened, basically, is that Putin has sent kids of our friends to kill our friends. That’s basically how I see it. It’s horrible.”

Yakov admits that the history between Russia and Ukraine is long and complicated, and that democracy has not come easily to his homeland. “But it’s been moving in the right direction.”

Now Yakov spends much of his free time raising money to help his family members and the millions of other refugees fleeing the war. In addition to the GoFundMe account set up for his family, he cites the Ukrainian Red Cross Society and UNICEF as two noteworthy organizations, but says there are of course many more. “Just Google them.”

In addition, we have compiled a list of some Jewish relief organizations

“But please give sooner rather than later,” he pleads. “As temperatures drop it will become even more difficult for refugees.”

Watch Yakov’s interview with WVTM 13

“[Yakov] is very perceptive, and he makes each session very educational as well as physical,” says Barbara Gordon, seen here sparring with Yakov during one of her personal training sessions.