Sometimes, Dr. Carlon Colker says he ponders genuflecting in front of the squat rack. That’s his word, too—genuflecting.
"I approach it with a religious fervor,” he says. He’s kidding. But also he isn’t. A quasi-beatific and yet winking grin spreads then fades.
Colker—52, tanned, bursting with optimism and immaculately bald—is the founder and medical director of Peak Wellness, a healthcare and wellness facility in Greenwich, Connecticut. A former competitive bodybuilder, powerlifter, and mixed martial arts fighter turned M.D., FACN, nutritionist, author, diet inventor, and personal trainer to stars and non-stars alike, Colker’s frame is bursting with comic book-sized muscles. He looks like the actual peak of wellness.
Seated in an examination room, he downshifts into a serious unpacking of the careful mechanics of the squat and why it’s central to the strength and conditioning sessions he’s conducted with his prized client, the New York Knicks’ burgeoning star, Kristaps Porzingis.
They’ve worked hand in glove starting at the end of last season, and Colker traveled all the way to Latvia this summer to train Porzingis while he was playing for the national team. The relationship continues to this day. Even if they can’t carve out time to meet, Colker says they talk frequently, and get together at least once a week.
Porzingis is the latest in a string of celebrity clients for Colker, and the workout room at Peak Wellness bears witness to the span of his career. Movie posters featuring stars who Colker has helped get buff and game-worn jerseys adorn the white and taupe walls. There are MMA gloves worn by ex-champs, a racquet used by Andre Agassi when he won the French Open, and on a plexiglass-encased pedestal, an autographed pair of Shaquille O’Neal’s size 22 sneakers. (Colker co-starred with Shaq on a short-lived reality tv show fighting childhood obesity.)
Still, why would Porzingis, who has the full attention and resources of a billion-dollar franchise invested in his well-being, turn to his very own personal, non-team affiliated guru? Especially one who, like Colker, has performed studies at the behest of ephedra-based supplement manufacturers (a substance banned by every major sporting body), has been named in multiple lawsuits, and once found himself in the middle of a scandal involving Jeremy Piven, sushi, and a Broadway revival of a David Mamet production?
If you spend a little time with Colker, it’s easy to see why Porzingis might believe in him and his workout regimen. Spend a little more, and you might believe too.
The reason Porzingis sought help outside the Knicks organization is fairly obvious. Porzingis has dealt with New York’s near-constant turmoil in its coaching and front office ranks since he was drafted in 2015. The relationship seemed to reach its nadir after he ditched what would turn out to be his final exit interview with Phil Jackson, reportedly in response to yet another cycle of Knicksian chaos and dysfunction. Meanwhile, Jackson pondered trade offers leading up to the 2017 NBA draft. After Jackson was summarily canned, Porzingis still spent part of the offseason dodging text messages from his head coach.
Further, the chief concern pre-draft regarding Porzingis was whether his spindly frame would be able to withstand the rigors of an NBA season or if he’d get tossed around like a sublimely skilled version of a wacky inflatable tube man. As Jackson himself fretted in August 2015, unless Porzingis developed the necessary core strength, maybe he’d peak at Shawn Bradley 2.0.
Then there are the nagging injuries that had caused Porzings to miss ten and then 17 games over the past two seasons. All of this meant Porzingis needed to get stronger, and that’s how, with a helpful assist from his brother-slash-agent, Janis, he wound up at Colker’s door. In a short amount of time, like Justin Bieber, who called Colker a “genius," Porzingis has completely bought in.
In a recent interview with the New York Daily News, Porzingis positively gushed: “[Colker] knows what I need all the time — when I’m tired, when I’m not, whenever.” When a lingering shoulder injury healed shortly after they began working together, it was all the proof Porzingis needed, “I gained so much trust in him,” he said.
According to Colker, the goal wasn’t just to untangle the ongoing health issues, but to create a stronger foundation and a more powerful core. What he does, Colker said, is to “Make their bodies better, stronger, more flexible, balanced. More rugged, if you will."
The prescription was lots of Colker’s prized squats. “The squat to me, is the single most valuable thing I do for my athletes, and for myself,” Colker said.
In June and July, Porzingis would post brief clips of his time in the gym with Colker, where he could be seen grinding through a set or two of squats. Colker explains that when working with a client, he’ll often start unburdened and then slowly begin to add weight to ensure that the proper technique is locked in, a process that is carefully monitored and supervised.
The other key factor is rest. The grind of an 82-game NBA regular season makes it a difficult mandate to enforce, even without the extended slog through the playoffs. "It's a beating the body takes,” Colker said. “I'm very big on rest.”
Some of the results are plainly evident. Porzingis’s increased strength has unleashed his most obvious advantage: He’s really, really tall and can still get off a good shot over a defender that’s draped all over him. December and January swoon notwithstanding, Porzingis is far surpassing the inconsistent glimpses of unicorn-like dominance he displayed in his first two seasons.
Colker says that yes, some trainers have questioned the value of squats, but he remains ur-confident that he possesses both the skills and commitment to safety to make it work for him. He told the Daily News that others have scoffed at his “unique” methods, because they can’t stand someone who won’t toe the party line.
“When one lone beast raises his head to take stock of a situation, turns and goes a different direction, it draws the ire of the herd,” Colker told the paper.
But are his methods actually all that controversial? I spoke with three strength and conditioning professionals, showing them the brief clips that Porzingis had made public and sharing the contents of the Daily News article. They all stressed that it was impossible to make a complete assessment without a first-hand look at what Colker was doing. Still, while some said they’d go about training Porzingis in a different way than Colker, nothing they saw in the videos looked like it was contraindicated or in any way damaging to Porzingis.
Mike Fantigrassi, the director of services for the National Academy of Sports Medicine, said that when it comes to weight training and exercise, all reputable and qualified trainers are working within the same basic principles.
“The reality is that with weight training and exercise, there's really nothing that anyone's discovered at this point that someone hasn't tried or done before," he said. "I sincerely doubt that there's something that [Colker]'s doing that no one else is doing out there."
Some personal trainers will claim otherwise, even if it isn’t so. One way to package and sell the work is to maintain an air of secrecy and, oddly enough, to claim an element of danger or that the rest of the strength and conditioning world is railing against their “radical” methods.
"That's snake oil 101,” Dr. Tim Kremcheck, who has served as the chief orthopedist and medical director for the Cincinnati Reds for 24 years, told me. “That's all that is. The mystery and even the danger is part of the sales pitch.” It’s a marketing pitch recognizable to anyone who’s stumbled upon a "The One Weird Trick That Doctors Don’t Want You To Know" ad or "Trainers Hate Him" supplement-hawking site.
It's possible, Dr. Kremchek said, that Colker may have uncovered some miraculous heretofore-unseen methodology, but the odds are against it. Overall, the lack of supervision means that personal trainers should be viewed as “very, very dangerous.”
Dr. Kremcheck is highly critical of personal trainers, dismissing them as little more than “used car salesmen” who play to the ego of the athlete, promising both exclusivity and miracle results, even if that advice often runs counter to what the team is prescribing. They don’t have the best interests of the athlete in mind. Rather, the goal is to ingratiate themselves into the athlete’s inner circle and remain on the payroll, by hook or by crook, all while brandishing their association with Famous Athlete X as a validation of their work. "It's a very, very vicious, ugly program,” he said.
Take Tom Brady’s infamous trainer, Alex Guerrero, who Boston Magazine called a “glorified snake oil salesman.” He once claimed he could cure cancer, and has been sued twice for fraud. Per a recent ESPN report, the Guerrero-Brady relationship has caused a serious rift in the locker room, causing the Patriots to erect a firewall between him and the team. According to one staffer, the devotion that Brady and some of his fellow Patriots have to Guerrero functions "like a cult.”
Guerrero may not be the best advertisement for quality medical care or honest business practices, but his relationship with Brady speaks to the potential benefits of a deep trust between athletes and trainers.
Andy Barr, the founder of Innovate Performance, has trained with a slew of NBA All-Stars over the years, and was working with the New York Knicks as Director of Performance and Rehabilitation when they drafted Porzingis. He said that as long as no harm is being done, you can’t dismiss the value created when an athlete buys into a program. "I would never disregard what a player feels from a trust value with another practitioner,” said Barr.
Fantigrassi agreed. A client who buys in 100 percent will see positive results, regardless of whether a trainer is offering little more than standard, industry-approved exercises. “[Colker's] just getting very good compliance from his client,” he said. “And that's going to produce… Compliance is huge.”
Colker does not have the shady past or shady methods of a Guerrero, but he does have a few red flags. In 2008, he made the media rounds defending his patient, Jeremy Piven, who had pulled out of a production of Speed the Plow, claiming that he’d eaten so much sushi he’d contracted mercury poisoning. (The prevailing sentiment was that Piven’s exhaustion and inability to perform were the result of his excessive post-show evening activities and not his excessive meals at Nobu.)
He was also cited in multiple lawsuits concerning ephedra-based dietary supplements. In one such class-action lawsuit, it was alleged that Colker had fudged the result of a clinical study he performed on Xenadrine-EFX while he had been employed by the manufacturer. Though Colker denied that he produced falsified results, the presiding judge found him "not credible." In 2003, the overuse of ephedra contributed to the death of Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steven Bechler, according to the autopsy. He’d had a bottle of Xenadrine crammed in his locker. Multiple NFL players also suffered premature deaths in the early 2000s, though coroners did not specifically blame ephedra.
In response, Colker repeated what he’d told Entertainment Weekly at the time: Piven was shown to have mercury in his bloodstream levels six times higher than normal, and he had the medical tests to prove it. When it comes to the lawsuits, he says he was never found personally liable, maintains that he never altered the results, and insists that if prescribed and ingested properly, ephedra has legitimate medical uses. All four major U.S. pro sports leagues, the NCAA, and the USADA have banned the use of ephedra and its derivative alkaloid, ephedrine.
So what makes celebrities and athletes like Porzingis turn to Colker? It’s as simple as this: they believe him. Beyond any questions about his training methods, what’s undeniable is that Colker is a great motivator and celebrity-whisperer, the kind who can make people like Porzingis think they are getting the best care. And yet, if he gets results, well, should that be discounted? As Fantigrassi said, “Compliance is huge.”
As to how he builds that trust, Colker offers something that his clients—celebrity or not—need.
“I consider every one of my patients to be, at the very least, friends, some better than others,” he said in an interview with MTV. “They're family.” Colker is aware that attitude doesn’t jibe with the “conventional wisdom” when it comes to patients and doctors, he said. “But I believe that conventional wisdom is flawed if you can get in touch with your heart."
It’s true. Or at least true in the sense that he probably does treat his clients like they were a blood relative. The overall impression I got was that, for an hour at least, nothing in the world was of greater importance and interest than our conversation. At one point, he told me I came across as very knowledgeable and in another he complimented my ability to recall an obscure Chicago Bears quarterback from the early 80s. But it didn’t read like flattery; it felt as if these were honest responses he had and he wanted to share them.
If it all was some kind of act—an appealing character Colker has cobbled together to snag clients and butter me up—I didn’t see the mask slip. Not once. Not even when he brought me in for a musclebound bear hug as I was leaving.
More to the point, I get why Porzingis might feel the same way after many more hours spent in his company, regardless of the fact that his injury-prone tendencies haven’t abated in 2018 and he’s been complaining about exhaustion of late. If you are a famous person, think how alluring Colker’s combination of concern and warmth and disarming humility would be. You’re invariably going to be besieged by all manner of grifters and hangers-on. Here, you stumble upon someone that really cares. Someone who cares about you and wants nothing more than to help you succeed. If the results, like Porzingis’s increased strength and improved performance, are there for all to see, how could you not buy in?
At one point I tried to drill down on the faith his clients have in him, and how that might relate to the ample studies which show that the placebo effect is very much a real thing. Colker, citing his 22 years of experience, said “It's very real what I do." But he also said that he knows belief does play a “huge part” in aiding the recovery and healing process. It’s a question Colker explores when working with residents, even if he can’t quantify it.
“How much is their belief in you and getting them open to healing and getting them in a good place mentally and spiritually?” he asked.
“Is it five percent? Is it eight percent? Is it 18 percent? Or is it 75 percent? I don't know. But I know this much: It can't all be me. It cannot."