Interview with Founder of Integrated Movement Arts, Kaz Azim

10/19/2016 08:25 pm ET
Kaz Azim, Founder of Integrated Movement Arts
Kaz Azim, Founder of Integrated Movement Arts

I got out and about, and got the chance to sit down with Kaz Azim, founder of Integrated Movement Arts - an online fitness platform with a no-nonsense syllabus. I worked on their public-facing website and apps, and this felt like a great opportunity to share something very important that we've been working on together during an important time for IMA as a startup rapidly gaining users.

Hammy Havoc: Hey Kaz, pleasure being able to talk to you today. I know things have been a little hectic with the launch of Integrated Movement Arts.

Kaz Azim: Thanks, Hammy, likewise. Well, where do I begin? When I first decided to establish IMA, I knew it was going to be a big project to master. It's been two years of long days and nights, working around my existing coaching career, as well as many personal battles and hurdles that came up. Though, finally, now we're starting to see the fruits of our labor.

HH: Tell our readers a little bit about yourself, including your accomplishments and physical journey so far.

KA: I started studying martial arts at a young age, experimenting with kung fu, Shaolin, karate (2nd Dan Shotokan), and boxing, until I found my home at The Bob Breen academy. In early 2000 under Bob's guidance, my training partners and I became proficient at various martial arts. But, being a teenager, I craved something more hardcore, so I turned to Muay Thai, often travelling to Thailand to train with great coaches. I eventually built a small school and stable of competitive athletes. My own combat sports journey was short-lived due to injuries but this still was a great way of testing many years of martial arts research in a controlled environment. There are so many benefits of practicing martial arts and I would recommend this journey for any young person interested in bettering themselves.

My academic background is in sports rehabilitation as well as being a strength and conditioning coach. These days I mainly coach and treat clients and students although I still practice many different physical disciplines and activities.

HH: What was the journey from student to teacher like?

KA: Throughout my journey, I came across a common theme: Schools or gym facilities with great energy, coaches and students helping lift each other in many ways. These communities would naturally grow and the members would learn, share and inspire each other in quite a magical way. This inspired me to become a coach /trainer and spread that energy and knowledge of physical wellbeing and performance. As a teacher, I try to share what I have learnt and I am also continuing to learn, so in many ways, I still consider myself to be a student.

HH: What led you to create IMA?

KA: Well after a decade in the health, well-being and fitness industry it became clear to me that the concept of purely supplementing exercise due to the lack of activity in daily lives these days, is just not the best approach especially when you ask yourself: what am I training for? Whatever the goal, whether it be aesthetic gains or strength gains, the journey is more important than just the results. With IMA, the aim was to create a worthwhile journey that would be long lasting. Practicing to become better at a sport, movement art or craft will give you a lot more motivation and purpose to chase attributes and physical state that will lead to better performance.

HH: What differentiates you from the other options within the industry?

KA: The IMA team and I created a syllabus of what we believe to be the most useful; scientifically backed approaches and methods of strength and conditioning, injury prevention, along with some basic introductions into skill based practice of different arts such as martial arts, bodyweight control aka calisthenics, dance and a little bit of basic parkour. Thanks to technology and your efforts, we can deliver this syllabus to students in a non-generic but specifically tailored way, not only with personal training but also online via our student portal.

HH: Off-the-shelf products like Beachbody’s INSANITY can be dangerous. I almost broke my ankle landing awkwardly from the umpteenth jumping rep of an INSANITY workout in 2013, wasn't the same for about six months. How do you feel about this type of promoted "fitness"?

KA: I believe health and fitness is a slightly confused industry due to the marketing and generic approaches. Again, the aim was to create something different and comprehensive, like the schools and facilities I'd had a pleasure to manage or be a part of, that were more than just a follow-along program.

With the power of technology, I slowly realized that it's now possible to have a service with access to good coaches from many fields and disciplines based in various locations; all coaches are available to help the members achieve their goals or physical needs in a simple, yet comprehensive and bespoke way that can reach beyond our local community. That was the mindset behind creating IMA.

HH: Had IMA existed at the time I was using these off-the shelf products and I'd been enrolled on it instead, I'd have had a more tailored workout.

KA: Certainly. Preparation is an important part of IMA. We make sure that functional aspects work well and prepare people for hard training before exposing them to high volume, increased loads, or complex skills practice. I've been working hard getting our online courses ready; the courses cover things like prerequisites and preparation training.

Everyone has different needs in terms of lifestyle design, values, and physiological factors. Therefore, we ask a lot of questions when people sign up to IMA, as we want to make sure that we're recommending the correct attribute development plan or conditioning programs for them. We assess and guide our members toward reaching their goals. Our syllabus structure is progressive, so people can slowly and safely work their way to a better physical wellbeing or just get a program tailored to their specific goals. Whatever skills or attribute you're learning, at IMA we try to pave the safest, most effective route possible.

HH: What gave you such a passion for self-improvement and physicality?

KA: Well, that's an easy one. For a very long time now, my family and I have been caring for my mum, who was unfortunate to have developed an autoimmune disease called MS (Multiple Sclerosis), hence this has been the driving factor behind my studies. And of course, how could I neglect the amazing physical abilities and freedom that we are gifted with after witnessing what it's like to have it taken away?

That's why my mission is to spread and inspire good health, wellbeing, and improved physical potential.

HH: Can you tell me a little more about your previous business involvements and the places you’ve worked?

KA: In my early days as a coach and trainer, I freelanced out of several gyms in Central London. I then started to manage a martial art, and strength and conditioning gym in London. With the help of passionate colleagues and coaches such as Ben Medder and Glen Akwei to name a few, we built a great community, as well as housing a reputable and professional combat sports team. Unfortunately, the gyms founders could not justify the increase in London lease prices, and after 5 years of success we were forced to close our doors.

Soon after, I was fortunate enough to become part of a highly knowledgeable multidisciplinary team at a holistic health clinic. Here, I met and learnt from some amazing and inspiring practitioners. Now I just work on IMA from home and coach my clients in the Central London area.

HH: Obviously, starting a business from scratch means wearing a lot of different hats to fulfil all the different roles needed within the structure of it. What have the most useful skills you've learned in the past two years?

KA: I'd say editing videos and database skills. I've always had to be a versatile individual, plus I'm a firm believer that people should have many functional skills and try a variety of new things. This also stops me from getting bored... you know I get bored easily, Hammy.

[Laughter]

During university, I started to understand technology better. I was completely unfamiliar with it, being the physical type and all, but in the back of my mind I knew this had to change. So, when the idea for IMA came about, I got real excited about learning more about technology. Although I was a firm believer in outsourcing for things like filming, editing and all that jazz, that didn’t go down well as the freelancers I encountered were mostly busy and were unenthused.

HH: How do you feel about the team that's gathered around IMA over the past two years?

KA: I like to surround myself with equally passionate people who care about and share similar ideals, and this has gone well as we have a great team of coaches and hopefully will keep growing. Behind the scenes wise, with your advice we've moved everything in-house and I learned new skills as we’ve gone along. Filming with a DSLR, editing, and elements of software design like UX have been very tough to learn, yet incredibly rewarding.

HH: What DSLR camera do you personally shoot for IMA with?

KA: Canon 750D. I was shocked with how much quality you can get from just a simple DSLR these days. I can see why even some big-budget TV shows are now shot entirely on them.

In the early days of creating the IMA syllabus, I wanted to invest huge amounts into filming and high quality music scores, but I soon realized that it isn’t what’s important in this industry. We don’t need all that if the core product and the information itself is presented and displayed well. This also enables more resources to go into personalized feedback and motion analysis, as that's where customers are going to gain more value and be more interested.

HH: How have you found learning to shoot and edit videos in such a short space of time?

KA: I still use a professional cameraman for slow-motion 1/800th shutter speed for tutorials which require greater detail. Carlos has taught me a lot, and being good at learning through osmosis and mimicking from all the martial arts, I just shadow his movements and techniques of using the camera. Plus, YouTube is an almost unlimited resource for tech and gadget tutorials.

HH: What software and productivity tips have changed your workflow and overall approach to getting things done?

KA: My Microsoft Surface Pro 3 is my main computer so I can keep my business life portable. I mainly use it as a laptop, but it can be docked to an external display, keyboard and mouse if you want to do some hardcore video editing.

We now use a project management system, based on your recommendation, to assign tasks and exercise prescriptions in a quick and simple way that makes sense. Better yet, it allows us to keep track of how things are going, and if necessary, reassign them to make sure that a deadline is met if there's a problem anywhere.

Open-source is understandably an important part of our development workflow, as well as our internal workflow; we're now beginning to understand the importance of libre software. We're also currently considering open-source communication solutions that we can modify to suit our needs as a decentralized team of coaches, writers, developers - resulting in a refined experience talking between ourselves and with our students or readers.

HH: What does an average day look like for you?

KA: I wake up early, do my preparatory exercise routine early, and usually see several clients early in the day which is followed by breakfast. In the afternoons, I sit down to critique IMA videos from members and immerse myself in user feedback on the IMA site, apps, and curriculum, then maybe go and practice, train with my friends and fellow coaches. Emails while I'm on the go are how I do the bulk of my communicating outside of IMA, which is fairly standard in business. That's how most of the admin is done too. It's good to have records of decisions on our own servers. In the evening, I usually see a few more clients and then wrap up for the day.

HH: One of the most interesting aspects of IMA is the way you annotate videos from users to grade them; can you talk a little more about that?

KA: Our video motion analysis is an interesting topic!

We finally decided on the concept of video motion analysis after years of delivering online coaching via email, which just lacked the personalization aspect. How the hell is someone supposed to know if what they're doing is done correctly and safely? Plus, it adds accountability and we can clearly see the level of student compliance.

HH: It's just impossible to safely and effectively convey what to do without adequate visuals.

KA: Exactly. Olympic coaches have been using motion analysis for years. I wanted to bring the industry standards to consumers in an accessible and affordable way to aid their training, so I took inspiration from that to integrate a cloud-based system that holds multimedia files for each members' movement or exercise videos. There you will find annotations that our coaches write for your video, screenshots, joint angles, correct execution, as well as audio coaching cues specific to the individual.

Motion analysis is only available to our higher-tiered membership as it requires a lot of effort and time from the coach.

HH: What fitness or skill level do people need to start IMA today?

KA: We cater to all people. On the back end, we work with athletes, teams and various schools but our consumer audience is mostly beginners. Our syllabus is a combination of movement art disciplines accompanied with scientifically sound strength, conditioning, and preservation methods. We assess strengths and weaknesses, giving you feedback on our assessment and then tailor-make the progression or regression plan with the most effective way to get you to where you want, or just progress up the IMA levels gradually.

The levels are carefully put in place to make sure components of our syllabus are understood and applied effectively without causing too-much-too-soon types of injuries or breaking you down with a draining as opposed to training approach. Progressive physiological adaptations, from training and learning new skills, and from practice are some of the main focuses with IMA curriculum.

HH: What courses are offered by IMA?

KA: We cover Fundamental Movement, which consists of training methods and movement exercises to regain good human physical function; Martial Arts Basics: Level 1 - 2, which covers basic strikes; stance and guards from Muay Thai and boxing, as well as various other forms. Basic Calisthenics: Level 1-2 covers some gymnastic strength and skills, plus various bodyweight control exercises. Parkour Level 1 covers basic vaulting, jumping and break falls. Conditioning: Level 1 courses cover metabolic energy systems, kettlebell, barbell and Indian clubs for various types of strength and conditioning development. Plus, much more courses are too come soon.

HH: Talk to me about why movement is important and not just fitness!

KA: Well, I'm a big advocate of the evolutionary approach to health and fitness. We are not designed for sedentary living, and merely supplementing repetitive, mindless exercise to counteract this may not be sufficient and uninspiring to many as I explained earlier.

HH: Standing desks are popular. Is sitting and the modern sedentary lifestyle killing us? Scientists now reckon that standing stationery in one spot is as bad as sitting.

KA: Good question, I'll try to answer it briefly. It's now known that we are not meant to stay still for too long in one position. This will result in body parts becoming fixed or weak, eventually shutting off communications to that area. If your body doesn't receive enough stimulus or if you neglect certain functions, it will simply think that function is not needed anymore, and for the sake of efficiency, it will lose it through the process of atrophy. So, you see, Hammy, humans are designed to keep moving and not stay still as much as we do currently, unless in a fully rested state, i.e. sleeping. I could discuss this topic for hours but to summarize, I'll just say that modern lifestyle and most jobs involving physical labor now involve machines, causing the amount of work we require of our bodies to be less than ever before. A lot of our health issues these days are thought to be a result of this sedentary culture, along with a highly toxic chemical environment around us.

HH: Does IMA offer face-to-face services?

KA: Yes, of course. You can only go so far with physical coaching on a virtual level online. As much as I feel I have covered all aspects to make the delivery as close to having a live face-to-face coach as possible, you can only achieve top-level performance and potential through consistent and regular personal time with a coach. Assessing, cueing, guiding with touch, feeling, and camaraderie is a big part of coaching and encouraging people to push that little bit further to achieve their goals.

Therefore, we aim to limit the IMA syllabus from basic up to intermediate level. To get the best experience of learning the syllabus, I highly recommend face-to-face sessions. The online platform is an alternative, rather than a replacement or ideally I would recommend a continuous combination of both. Now that’s seriously powerful! Combining technology with learning and self-improvement is the future, I think.

HH: I like to work hard as well as play hard, and one of the things that has me excited about the future of IMA is the idea of retreats; can you talk a little more about that? What locations have you got in the works, and what kind of things will you be doing at the retreats as activities? How much will it cost and how long will it last? Is food included?

KA: We have been playing with the idea of retreats and the rest of the IMA coaching team are keen too. Here we will provide a place for like-minded individuals to interact while IMA coaches set up an itinerary of nutritious movement, good food, physical games and a general movement approach to training, worked in and around exploration and social hours.

HH: Who or what inspires you?

KA: My Family, my many teachers (there are too many to name), and of course, all of my friends and students who work so hard and inspire me everyday to learn and achieve more.

HH: You mentioned in a conversation we had earlier, that you've started doing a lot of real reading lately that isn't meaningless social media. I've found myself reading a lot more physical books lately, and I am mulling over getting an e-ink reader to enjoy in the sunshine so I can have some time "unplugged". Do you find that you prefer digital over physical mediums, or do you balance yourself between the two?

KA: Well, to me a good book with old paper just has that physical, tactile aspect, such as the smell and touch etc., but currently I find myself looking at and reading from my iPhone, and I do like that; it reminds of Star Trek back in the day!

However, I think that the blue light emitted from these devices doesn't do any good for sleep cycles, so before bed I keep strictly to paper books.

HH: Any must-reads that you want to mention?

KA: Depends what genre you're after, but there are too many to list either way, so I'll give you three important recommendations: The Way of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman for fiction; The Book of Five Rings as a martial art classic; and The Power of Habits by Charles Duhigg, a nice easy read on subject of habit forming.

HH: IMA isn't using social media as anything more than a means of automatically syndicating content. Can you comment a little more on that?

KA: I think we can both agree that social media is dead for brands, and that building your own CRM of data that you own is everything now; you can't rebuild your following every time a new social network comes along. You need constant access to your audience, both through emails and push notifications to your own apps if possible.

HH: The 00s were about outsourcing everything, from manufacturing to marketing. Whole businesses could be run without ever having to do anything yourself, but this is of course a massive negative in the world of marketing. You and I are both very privacy-conscious, and IMA goes out of its way to protect user information as it is always of a sensitive nature with health details, and body image.

KA: I make sure that IMA's collection of data will have a practical, tangible benefit to our students. We don't collect anything that we can't use. There's services on the market that mine all kinds of data on you, even present it to you, but it has no use for the end user other than mesmerizing them with infographics and the inevitable cool factor. There's too much of that within the industry today. This is where IMA differentiates itself in being able to provide a fluff-free and personalized service with just the facts, and with solid, reliable content, and the team to do it justice.

HH: People can't stop taking selfies, yet they spend so little time on improving themselves at a very fundamental level. Lads want to be jacked, and girls want to be stick-thin; they’re willing to take shortcuts to get there with ephedrine stacks and steroids. What do you think of Britain and America's body-image problem of aesthetic over performance?

KA: It’s good to have an aesthetically pleasing body, but it should simply be a by-product of your movement practice, or attribute development. Way too many people get injured and mess up their body, or even worse, become obsessive in that kind of approach. I reckon we evolved to move around first, then maybe to be great looking statues. I do like to stay lean and in shape, but I try to encourage others not to let vanity be their number one driving factor to pursue training and practice.

Don’t get me wrong, I'm all for whatever gets people in touch with their physical side, but I’m against the approach of purely aesthetic gains with non-functional aspects behind them.

HH: What's your stance on the likes of supplements versus a balanced diet of nutritious food? And what's your stance on people turning to pharmaceutical companies for the answer to all their problems?

KA: I personally believe that an optimal nutritional intake, along with some precise supplementation, will take most individuals far in terms of health and wellbeing, but this is a complex topic for another someone more experienced in that field to answer.

HH: How much time on average, do people need to spend per day on vigorous movement to remain, or become healthy?

KA: It varies depending on the goals and needs of the individual, but I generally recommend between 30 minutes to 1 hour of heart rate raising exercises 3 times a week as set out in our conditioning courses, along with a daily practice of fundamental movement which takes between 15 to 30minutes - a good starting point. This is obviously much easier to achieve if you're doing something you enjoy or love, which is why we recommend the integration of movement skills and strength conditioning.

HH: Where do you see fitness and tech in five years’ time?

The fitness market has always had its fair share of gimmicks, and bringing wearable tech into the equation is no exception to that rule, but now I feel like we're starting to see some innovative and useful products and services emerge. Plus there are a lot of new studies into motor control, genetics, and the mental side of training which will slowly bring about new exciting findings.

HH: The democratization of education will be a very interesting thing to watch develop, as it means putting good information into the hands of people who want it. Can you tell me a little more about IMA potentially being used in schools in the South of England?

KA: We’ve been working with the younger population, as well as PE teachers in public schools to try and expose some of our approaches and methodology to the younger generations.

HH: Who would you like to see answer some questions next?

KA: My good friend and fellow coach Ben Medder, and how he applies his extensive experiences in social reconnection through human touch and group exercises in general movement practices and Rickie Brown who manages some cool retreats.

HH: Think we'll have to wrap it up there so you can go back to editing down the video footage for the rest of the course you're working on!

KA: Good to catch up, Hammy! I'd also like to add I'm inviting everybody from Previous Magazine to try out Integrated Movement Arts, so I'm going to be giving the first 100 readers a voucher code to use on the IMA website for a 25% discount on our online coaching services (participant membership) . The code is as follows: PREVIOUSMAGAZINE

HH: That’s very kind of you! It's been great talking with you today, Kaz. I'll be carrying on my IMA program and looking forward to seeing you soon, hopefully somewhere sunny on a retreat!

KA: Thank you; it’s been a pleasure. See you soon!

This article first appeared in Previous Magazine.

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