Strong Man

Center Grove’s Marty Mills brings passion to his strength and conditioning program

By Alisa Advani  | Photography by Mark Freeland

Underneath that 200 pounds of muscle, Marty Mills is all heart. At first glance, Center Grove High School’s strength and conditioning coach looks as steely as one of the Russian kettlebells that his athletes swing, but don’t be fooled. His students adore him for his passion and persistence even more than they appreciate the results of his rigorous program. As he stands at center command, giant arms crossed, and watches his “kids” transform into elite competitors, girls and boys move quickly through the carefully designed stations in his gym. Thumping music blares just enough to soften the sounds of clinking bars, chatter and the occasional grunt.

Newbies might walk in and think that they’d never measure up, but the 40-year-old coach leaves no one behind. He promises that anyone can do his workout, jumping up to illustrate that a proper squat can be broken down into 12 different scaled exercises. “I can watch you do one squat with a kettlebell, and I will know how to fix you,” he says. In the middle of his demonstration, a sophomore on the girls’ soccer team runs up and puts her arm around her coach. Mills beams. “I’m his favorite,” the young lady explains, then she happily skips away to do another rep. “Kids know if you aren’t being sincere. They see right through you,” he says.

Nearly 13 years of interacting with every student within Center Grove’s athletic organization has taught him that lesson. His storied weightlifting career helped him hone the kettlebell program for which he’s well-known. A natural athlete, Mills played football and baseball, ran track, learned judo and wrestled in high school, also participating in the latter in college at the University of Indianapolis.

After college, Mills began a 10-year powerlifting career that included winning a United States powerlifting national bench press championship, making the U.S. powerlifting national bench press team, finishing fifth in the world championships in Hungary and setting an all-time state bench press record of 620 pounds within his weight division.

After accomplishing these formidable milestones, in addition to receiving his Russian Kettlebell Certification (RKC), Mills decided to implement his personal training regimen at Center Grove.

He arrived in 2002 and convinced the district to let him loose. The student body has reaped the benefits. Year after year, Center Grove leads the pack in its division. Most recently, former student Nick Stoner joined Indiana University’s football team as a receiver. “Nick weighed 110 pounds as a freshman,” says Mills. “Now he is playing in the Big 10.”

Despite that record-setting Indiana State Bench Pressing certificate, which hangs in his office, and his ranking as the No. 1 kettlebell instructor in the U.S., Mills is hesitant to discuss his lengthy sports resume. His attention consistently redirects to both his kids and his program, as he worries that someone might believe that he is partial to football.

“We all know most athletic high school programs focus on football,” he says. “Center Grove does it differently. My favorite thing — the most important thing — is the kids. I love them all equally. Soccer, volleyball and tennis players need to be just as conditioned as basketball players.”

Under Mills, girls receive the same training as the boys. “Athletes are athletes,” he explains. “We train all year. If you lift year-round, you don’t get sore, so we focus on big athletic movements that protect the joints to create fast, explosive, healthy athletes.”

With the evident success of the student program, adults began to take notice. “And the kids started asking me to train their parents,” he explains. Before long, Mills found himself in front of 40 adult students ready to participate in his school of strength in June 2011. The response was tremendous.

Word-of-mouth reviews spread throughout Center Grove and Greenwood rapidly while blogs echoed praise and accolades to the coach. Entry after entry talks about weight loss, renewed energy, pain-free living and a respect for self.

Hanna Johnson, 18, has been training with Mills most of her high school career. Before starting her regimen, Johnson describes herself as “that small player on the team that was easily pushed off of the soccer ball.” After three years of training, however, she is now committed to a Division 1 college on an athletic scholarship. “His training has completely reshaped me as an athlete and improved every aspect of my play,” she explains. “I am now stronger, faster and a more dedicated player on the soccer field.”

Mills takes all the fuss in stride. “I have 10 other coaches who help me teach,” he says. “They are all RKCs or are certified as sports performance coaches. I’d put my coaches up against anyone. I encourage people to try. I always tell my kids not to go through the motions. I ask them to really be tapped into their passion.”

Fortunately for Center Grove, Mills lives his bliss daily while running the school’s program and being an involved husband to wife, Tiffany, and father to two daughters and one son, Kaley, 15, Kenzie, 12, and Drew, 9. “I would do this job for free,” he says. “I am so blessed. I know that I am fulfilling my purpose. This is what I was supposed to do.”

Then with a tiny smile he adds, “well this, or maybe a drill sergeant.”

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