Erik Bartell is widely recognized for his killer workouts in Men’s Health and Muscle & Fitness and for leading the community initiative around military brands BRAVO SIERRA and ECHELON. But before all of that – the veteran Army officer got his start on the streets of Chicago.
Growing up was rough – from constantly moving and being on the brink of experiencing homelessness to spending years in a shelter for the houseless, Bartell saw it all. Fitness became his escape.
“It was a way for me to get off the streets and in a different respect, not to have to go home,” he said. “I also looked at it as an opportunity to be mentored and coached. My teachers and coaches were some of my biggest role models growing up.
“I think a really big issue with kids in the inner city is if your role models are people who have done nothing with their life or are only ‘successful’ because they sold drugs – it’s what you’ll deem success. I’m not here to pitch the military but it is a great way out.”
But joining the military wasn’t always his plan. He was offered the opportunity to attend a selective enrollment high school, Lane Tech College Prep in Chicago. This was his ticket to changing the narrative, he said. It earned him a full ride to DePaul University, a private college in Chicago.
After attending classes for a few weeks, Bartell said he began to reconsider his decision to attend. It wasn’t for lack of learning or opportunity but rather watching those around him squander it. Looking for purpose – he decided to enlist. His recruiter introduced him to the DePaul ROTC program, and Bartell said he knew he’d immediately found his tribe.
“They were not only down to Earth but hungry and motivated to become better versions of themselves,” he said. “It was the easiest decision I ever made.”
He completed basic training the following summer and was switched to an ROTC contract with a direct commission upon graduation from DePaul.
“I was very different from most of my peers in general, just based on my upbringing and where I came from. And I think it did earn me a little bit more respect from my soldiers. Even my appearance because I showed up to my unit with a full sleeve, which at the time wasn’t as common for officers. But I mean, I got my first tattoo at 16 years old,” he said. “But I really wanted to earn their respect based on my leadership, nothing else.”
Bartell served five years on active duty with the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell and had one combat deployment to Afghanistan. It was during this time he started getting into teaching the fundamentals of exercise, even in the middle of a combat outpost.
He and his soldiers would use whatever they could, ammo belts, MREs and attach them to the bar off a cot to continue to lift weights on deployment. On the advice of some of those soldiers, he started his Instagram page, @realerikbartell, to share the workouts to a broader audience.
“I started sharing it with the guys in my unit and then eventually other soldiers were following along. And then I just kind of grew this really micro following that was pretty strictly military,” Bartell said.
He’d sustained a number of nagging injuries during his time of service which weren’t healing, leading him to transition out of the Army in 2018.
“I knew I wanted to do something in fitness but began studying for the GRE because I assumed a career in psychology would be more lucrative than one in fitness,” he said. “I still pursued my personal training certificate because it was a passion of mine that had grown even stronger after going through physical therapy and really learning healthier training styles outside of bodybuilding.”
While exploring his options, Bartell discovered a new nonprofit, The FitOps Foundation, aimed at helping veterans to begin careers in fitness. He began consulting for the organization as he was separating from the Army.
Just a few months later, Bartell assumed the role of executive director for FitOps Foundation. He took this role and built the small organization into a powerful initiative that caught the attention of WWE’s John Cena.
He was simultaneously recruited to New York City to run Performix House, a luxury training facility that would eventually tout celebrity members like Naomi Campbell, Mark Consuelos and Nina Agdal.
“I’m by no means the best trainer in the world or even close to it,” Bartell said. “My success really goes back to one of my prime tenets in life, which is to just keep showing up.”
Soon, he was all over Muscle & Fitness as well as Men’s Health. Bartell’s story and workouts were becoming well known. He caught the attention of the founders of the personal care line BRAVO SIERRA, too. The owners asked him to join their team, leading the military-influenced brand’s community initiative.
“At first, I was working hard at building their social following and creating a ton of events. It also became a passion of mine to mentor people in the military who wanted to use fitness as a path forward like I did,” he said. “Maybe I always had potential, but without people to help nudge me left or right, I don’t know where I’d be.”
These days, Bartell has amassed a strong following as a fitness influencer (and that coveted blue checkmark), BRAVO SIERRA is now on Walmart and Target shelves and he’s the proud father of two sons.
He’s also leading the ECHELON brand; bringing it from a cult drink sold only in military exchanges to the popular military brand now sold in every GNC across the nation.
As for what he’d advise other veterans or military members looking to pursue a purposeful life outside of the uniform, it was simple.
“I’m really big on showing up and working hard. You’d be surprised at how much you can accomplish by just doing those two things,” Bartell said.Read comments