Turning Pro: How Sam Wilbur Transformed His Body and Became a Professional


Senior men’s hockey player, Sam Wilbur, ’18 (photo by Ron Szot)

“What happens when we turn pro is, we finally listen to that still, small voice inside our heads. At last we find the courage to identify the secret dream or love or bliss that we have known all along was our passion, our calling, our destiny.”  ~ Steven Pressfield, Turning Pro

Researchers studying body fat percentage in humans often use 25% as the threshold at which a male is considered obese. Sam Wilbur had a 24% body fat as a sophomore on Fredonia’s hockey team.

Two years later, Wilbur is down to 8% body fat**, and enters his senior year as the team’s leading goal scorer from 2016-2017. He credits his trainer Ben Clarfield of Reach Personal Training in Toronto for helping transform his body and mind as he moves closer towards his goal of signing a professional hockey contract after his senior season.

As Wilbur told me, “if you want to play professional hockey you’ve got to act like a pro, look like a pro, train like a pro, and skate like a pro.”

This is a story of how Sam Wilbur learned to work like a pro:

Jon-Ryan Maloney: What was your motivation to start training?

Samuel Wilbur: I was selling myself short. My first season here I did alright, but I was only going through the motions. I wasn’t motivated and I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do.

Maloney: You weren’t sure if you wanted to keep playing?

Wilbur: No, I wanted to keep playing but I wasn’t sure if I really wanted it. Once you get to this level you’ve got to put in the work or else you’re going to get beat. That was the one thing I was missing; I always had the skill and talent but my conditioning was never there, and I always thought I’d be alright. But why not be stronger, faster, and more athletic? That benefits everything, even in life: why not feel good about yourself? It’s changed everything. It’s made me a more positive person.

Maloney: How so?

Wilbur: It made me disciplined. I used to eat whatever I’d want, do whatever I’d want, and party whenever I’d want, but if you want to play professional hockey you’ve got to act like a pro, look like a pro, train like a pro, and skate like a pro. The only way you can do that is if you work like a pro.

Maloney: So you wanted to be a professional hockey player, but you weren’t doing any of this stuff?

Wilbur: Yes, my goal is to sign somewhere next year. We had a senior last year (Marcus Ortiz) sign with a team in the East Coast League. That’s a good league because it goes from the NHL to the AHL (American Hockey League) to the East Coast, and they’re all affiliated. So if you go to the East Coast you’re only one good weekend of hockey away from getting called up, and the next thing you know you’re in the AHL. Again, you’re one good weekend of hockey away from getting called up, and the next thing you know you’re in the NHL. You’ve got to put in the work to get there.

Maloney: So how did you end up training in Toronto after your sophomore year?

Wilbur: My training partner Zach Pease, who used to play here, asked me if I wanted to be his training partner. I told him I wanted to play pro, but I’d never worked out before. I was a lost dog in the gym; I didn’t know anything. He gave me the opportunity to come up and stay with his family, and we train at Reach Personal Training in Toronto with Ben Clarfield. Ben was a blessing in disguise.

Maloney: Tell me about that. What did Ben do with you?

Wilbur: He’s not a hockey coach; he’s a trainer. He can’t make me stick-handle better, but he promised me my shot would be harder, that I’d hit harder, and that I’d be fast as hell. The leaner you are the faster you go; that’s what he always emphasizes. He pushed me to levels I never knew I could get to. This summer I was doing clean and jerks, and I failed a rep twice-in-a-row. I just couldn’t get it. He got me into this mindset where it’s, “Reset. Every rep is a new rep. You just hit the post so go to the bench, then go back out and score. It’s in the past. Keep playing and stay positive.” I went up for my third rep and got it. I literally failed it twice, heavy, I couldn’t do it. The third one I just dug in and got the press. It pays off. Right now I’m putting in effort but I’m not getting paid. It’s hard to hold a summer job but I’m getting paid in different ways, because I’m putting in the work. Hopefully it’s going to help me with the goals I’m trying to reach — to get a professional contract.

Maloney: What does your daily and weekly schedule look like when you’re in Toronto?

Wilbur: This summer we did two-a-days, every day. After we were done we’d usually take saunas which really helped lean you out if you’re working hard. I’d take a 20-minute sauna after each workout, get some food in me, then come back around 2 p.m. In the morning we did a lot of Oylmpic complexes, like snatches and cleans — we really got after it. I went in with 15% body fat, and I left at 8.2% and had put on 18 pounds of muscle.

Maloney: What are you using to measure your body fat percentage?

Wilbur: He uses calipers; he does my legs, knee caps, cheek, all the back muscles and some other areas.

Maloney: What are you eating between workouts?

Wilbur: When I first went there Ben told me that if it could run, swim, or fly, eat it; if it can’t, don’t touch it. So a pizza can’t run, swim, or fly, so I don’t eat it. Chicken breast, yes; salmon, yes; steak, yes; ground beef, yes; you know what I mean? Run, swim, or fly and strictly greens. I didn’t eat carbs all summer. Very rarely, every 5 days, I’d get a meal with carbs, and that was with dinner. I was allowed to have pasta or rice, and that’s because I was working hard.

Maloney: So he makes your nutrition plan for you?

Wilbur: He just told me what to eat. The first summer I had a food journal, so that helped keep me dialed in. It’s hard to quit everything cold turkey — your body is used to snacking all the time, but then your taste buds change. So he told me, “run, swim, fly, and greens.” That’s what I’d eat.

Maloney: It’s so simple.

Wilbur: It is, and no one wants to do it, but that’s how you’re going to get the most out of everything. Once you’re at that point where you can start building muscle (low body fat percentage) you can start hammering carbs and protein. Protein like crazy.

Maloney: And you’re not necessarily talking about protein shakes.

Wilbur: No. I didn’t take protein all last year, and I’m not taking it now. The only time I took it was in Toronto, because he would give us protein shakes after each workout. He’d tell me it was alright as long as I was eating good, and getting my protein in my meals. I’m a bigger guy — 6’2″, 208 pounds — so he would say, “If you’re hungry, eat. But eat the good stuff. You can eat as much chicken, salmon, ground beef, or greens as you want. Just don’t eat the bad stuff. If it’s 10:30 p.m. and you’re hungry, eat a chicken breast.” But you have to get yourself to that point where you either want it or you don’t. I wanted it — I wanted to change and better myself.

Maloney: Do you have a meal plan on campus?

Wilbur: No, I don’t have a meal plan. Usually I’ll cook at home.

Maloney: What does your shopping and cooking look like?

Wilbur: Like I said, if it can run, swim, or fly, I buy it. I’ll get chicken, ground beef, shrimp, any sort of good protein. And I always get organic everything. My trainer really emphasized grass-fed, because you never know what people are putting in meat these days. Now I can eat carbs with every meal, so I usually eat rice, gluten-free pasta noodles, yams, or potatoes.

Maloney: Where do you shop when you’re in Fredonia?

Wilbur: When I’m here I go to Wal-Mart. They have organic chicken and organic beef, and I’ll go to Tuscany if I want to get a steak.

Maloney: Is it challenging to maintain this lifestyle when everyone around you isn’t doing that?

Wilbur: It’s hard to keep a clean head sometimes, but now if I eat bad stuff it doesn’t affect me as much. I might feel less energetic skating the next day, as opposed to if the night before I ate chicken and rice, or chicken and green beans. Clean eating is huge. Nutrition is everything. Changing my diet was the hardest part, but after that it was smooth sailing. Now I don’t even notice it.

Maloney: Now it’s just a habit.

Wilbur: Yes, now I just expect to eat some sort of protein at night, and a carb. That’s how I think now. I don’t panic if I eat McDonald’s, but even if I do I’m going to get some benefit from it. You still need nutrients from other foods, but now it won’t store as fat.

Maloney: A lot of guys are working hard, but not many are bringing your level of discipline to this.

Wilbur: Everyone has their own motives. I’m running out of time: I’ve got one year, so if I can do everything in my power to win here, that makes finding a professional contract way easier. If we do well it’s easier.

Maloney: Say you could only pick two or three exercises to do in the gym. What would you pick?

Wilbur: I would do back squats and split squats (dumbbell split squats with front foot elevated). I pick squats because they’re the best way to lean out. I didn’t do any cardio over the summer — didn’t run, didn’t skate, I just weight trained like an animal.

Maloney: Which is helpful for some people to hear who dominate the cardio machines with that goal in mind.

Wilbur: I got my cardio through weight training. There were no rest times. I had the hardest workout of my life this summer, and it was eight minutes long. I was dying . . . but my trainer would be over my shoulder saying, “Do you want that professional contract or not?” Other people are out drinking beers and golfing. What am I doing? I’m in the gym at 8 a.m. That’s where my mindset has changed. I used to party over the summer and always thought I’d be fine, whereas now it’s, “If you want to be a pro you’ve got to train like a pro.” The hardest-working guys end up making something happen.

Maloney: You’re also always healthy: no injuries and very little soreness. Do you have anything to say as to why?

Wilbur: My trainer emphasized making my joints bulletproof. My training partner tore his MCL, tore a muscle in his back, and now he’s front squatting over 340 pounds. He was scared to squat or run because his chiropractor said he couldn’t do it. Now he can.

Maloney: How?

Wilbur: Slowly. I watched it, every day.

Maloney: So just practicing the movements?

Wilbur: Yes. We did a lot of (front foot elevated) split squats that first summer. We did them on-tempo, four seconds down and up. Everything was on-tempo — that’s what was big, that’s what builds strength. I do that with everything: squats, deadlifts, bench press, incline press, everything is four seconds down.

Maloney: That puts mass on pretty quickly if you’re eating enough.

Wilbur: Tempo is huge, but honestly it’s nutrition. It’s nutrition, and how badly do you want it? Are you going to sit there and walk around the gym, or are you going to get after it?
Practical takeaways:

* Wilbur followed a low-carbohydrate diet as he dropped body fat. The diet was most recently popularized as the Slow-Carb Diet in Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Body. Once he reached a low body fat percentage he was allowed to reintroduce select carbohydrates. That said, for in-season athletes it’s most important to maintain body weight to maintain muscle, regardless of where the calories come from. 

* Wilbur didn’t run long distances to get in shape for his sport. Instead, he conditioned using complexes of Olympic movements with a barbell. These are highly technical exercises that should only be learned with an experienced trainer. Robert Dos Remedios’s Power Training is an excellent resource for more information.

** Wilbur’s body fat measurements were taken with calipers. Results can differ dramatically depending on the method used, others being a Bod Pod, a DEXA scan, underwater weighing, bio electrical impedance, or an MRI. It’s important to only compare measurements taken with the same method. (i.e. don’t compare the results from calipers with the results from a Bod Pod.)

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