Augustana alumnus and Top 40 Under 40 class member changes the fitness game

According to Tony Nguyen, creating healthier communities requires understanding, flexibility and a bit of muscle.

Tia Lalani - 20 December 2021

Although sports and fitness have always been a part of Tony Nguyen’s, '14 BSc, life, it was his time spent working in a commercial gym that really got him thinking about access to health and wellness services. “I started to realize that fitness—and especially personal training—isn’t really accessible to most people and is still seen as a luxury meant for those with disposable income,” he explained. “When you walk into a gym, it can be intimidating if you’re not already comfortable being there. On top of that, it’s expensive.”

Six years later, in 2016, Tony and his team came up with a different model of operating. This model has led their gym, F.R.E.E. Fitness, to countless clients, free bootcamps and training events all over the city of Edmonton, thousands of dollars raised for charitable programs and nonprofits, various awards and accolades and, soon, a new 7,800 square foot space in central Edmonton that will offer an open gym space, personal training and physiotherapy. This level of success—including a recent Top 40 Under 40 award for Tony from Edmonton’s Edify magazine—all boils down to just a couple of things in Tony’s mind: hard work and community.

“[At the gym], we frequently remind each other that we are a people-first service. We’re always asking ourselves how we can put our clients ahead, and how we can offer as much value as possible. We’ve lived by that for the last six years, and it’s brought us a lot of success in different ways,” Tony said. “Building community and building relationships is why I got into the industry.”

To lead and to serve (and to deadlift)

A photo of Tony standing in front of a black chalk board with various images written on it, including a barbell.Tony played sports while growing up in Whitehorse, Yukon. After high school, he was recruited for the Viking’s men’s basketball team. Although he gained a lot of technical skills during his time at university, earning a bachelor of science in physical education (kinesiology), it was the people he met and connected with that helped him to identify F.R.E.E. Fitness’ unique business model.

“At Augustana, I learned that if you serve and care about the people around you they’ll care and make you a better person as well,” Tony explained. “I took that notion and dove into F.R.E.E Fitness with it. There’s a lot of power that can come from a smaller group as long as everyone is on the same wavelength.”

After recognizing that future fellow co-owners Jordan Pariseau, Tyler Khan and Max Larocque were on that same wavelength after working at commercial gyms themselves, the four of them created a “pay how you feel” personal training service.

Clients at F.R.E.E Fitness—which stands for “focus, rise, energy and empower”—train, fittingly to the name of the gym, without cost during what is called a “commitment phase”. If the person is committed, they then “earn the privilege” to pay how they feel—choosing an hourly rate based on the value provided to them, as well as what works in their budget.

“By operating this way, we notice that people are really ‘in it’,” Tony explains. “We don’t have to sell personal training anymore because people are putting in the time and effort to train with us, and we’re giving our expertise back. You have to earn your spot to train at F.R.E.E. Fitness, but if you do, we’ll give you everything we have to accommodate you.”

Training the whole person

This personal, holistic approach to health and wellness is evident in every service offered by the F.R.E.E. Fitness team. And these services aren’t just relegated to their gym.

Early in their history, the team offered free outdoor bootcamps every Friday evening at the beginning of April. While they had five people attend the first event, they were up to 80 by the end of the summer.

When the pandemic struck, they innovated their original idea and began hosting pop-up balcony bootcamps at various locations in Edmonton. DJ Kwake, local DJ legend, would accompany one of their trainers to a condo or apartment building where residents would participate on their balconies while respecting physical distancing measures. Participants were encouraged to get their sweat on while grooving to the music at a time when fitness classes and dancing with a crowd had become obsolete.

Various people outside running towards the camera in Free Fit shirts.
F.R.E.E. Fitness had early success by offering free outdoor bootcamps to anyone who wanted to attend. (Submitted)

This idea of giving back has always been central to Tony’s work ethic and to the company’s success. His Top 40 Under 40 profile outlines the various ways Tony is involved in the community, from running fundraising events to giving presentations in elementary schools and even spending time training with current Augustana Vikings.

For Tony, hard-work, dedication, innovation and drive aren’t just what he expects from his clients—they’re what he gives. F.R.E.E. Fitness’ training philosophy doesn’t just include lean muscle mass and spending time in a gym—it also seeks to improve self-confidence, overall health and a foundation for wellness.

“It’s about pushing your boundaries,” Tony explains, something he knows all about, “and taking care of your mind mentally, as well as your body physically.”

But most important of all are the people who make it possible to do so—from his team to his clients to community members getting their sweat on, even if it’s from 20 feet up on a balcony. The team’s future is bright, with a new building that will be able to meet the needs of more gym goers, offering more space and services.

“Health and wellness are key to building strong and productive communities.”

This article was originally published in the 2021 CIRCLE alumni magazine.