Girls aren’t born angels. For the 2017 and 2018 annual Victoria’s Secret Fashion Shows—which turned out to be the last two—the lingerie company asked models to “train like an angel” before they walked down the runway. The waifs with six-packs posted photos and videos of themselves attempting pull-ups and 36-inch-high box jumps on Instagram. Beyond good genetics, these contractually obligated fitness posts revealed something many models had in common: Joe Holder.

Eight models, including Bella Hadid, worked out with Holder to prepare for these shows. “They’re athletes,” he tells me—models, like tennis players or gymnasts, must “mold [their] body for a specific purpose.”

Similar to the models he trains, 31-year-old Holder was scouted. In 2015, he was teaching semi-private group fitness classes at a luxury gym in the West Village when, unbeknownst to him, a few Nike recruiters took his strength-training-for-runners class. Soon after, Nike signed Holder as a “Master Trainer”—a capacious title that, in his case, includes creating workout programs for the brand’s app, consulting for product launches (such as the company’s collaboration with designer Matthew Williams), and working at think tanks within Nike.

Holder with client Naomi Campbell.

Early on, he also worked with Nike’s concierge service, a program that paired trainers with fashion editors, influencers, and models. While 2016’s Paris Fashion Week was underway, Holder worked out with Derek Blasberg, then a fashion consultant, Vanity Fair contributor, and friend of, seemingly, most fashion influencers. (He is currently the head of fashion and beauty at YouTube.)

Blasberg took a liking to Holder, helping connect him to one of his now longtime clients, Naomi Campbell. Says Holder, “He kind of put me in the fashion world.” Holder also trains the designers of the clothes that his models wear, such as Riccardo Tisci, the head designer at Burberry, and, before he passed away, Virgil Abloh, the Off-White and Louis Vuitton men’s-wear designer. Now he’s often photographed at his clients’ shows and after-parties.

Health and Heidegger

I met Holder late last fall, in the basement of the pop-up community center hosted by System of Service (S.O.S.), a nonprofit he co-founded in 2018. For one week in New York’s SoHo, S.O.S. offered fitness classes, workshops, and a place to hang. The nonprofit isn’t a side project—it’s an extension of his training. Health, according to Holder, is communal. “Heidegger talks about it a lot,” he says. “There’s interconnectedness between things.”

Holder lives, and trains, by his “political and social theory” of health, which he calls the OCHO system (a loose acronym for “One Can Help Others, Others Can Help One”). It’s also a reference to the eight components that he believes make up health—the physical (diet and nutrition), mental, emotional, spiritual, occupational, intellectual, societal, and environmental.

“Health isn’t a food. Health isn’t a location. Health isn’t an activity,” he explains. “Health is the end result.”

The theory began with a football injury. In his second year playing at the University of Pennsylvania, he came down on his ankle wrong during practice. He sprained it, bruised the bone, and developed bone spurs. He continued playing, and the pain got worse, as did his mood. To heal, he worked with his father, a doctor in South Orange, New Jersey, to approach the injury from a “holistic perspective.”

“It started from the physical,” he says, like losing 10 pounds, eating whole foods instead of “food stuffs” (highly processed food-adjacent matter, such as Oreos), and implementing “time-restricted feeding” (the now popular practice we know as “intermittent fasting”). From there, “it went to the emotional and mental.” He prayed; he meditated. His ankle healed.

Holder’s ambition with the OCHO system wasn’t to become a celebrity trainer—it was to establish a framework of health, and then to “make health accessible.” Models and designers just happened to like his style of training.

Since the onset of the pandemic, he’s shifted away from personal training. “When an athlete starts to age, they can’t rely on their athleticism,” he explains. “I can’t beat the Joe Holder of 2015 or 2018—I was training everybody.” His scope has broadened since 2015, anyway. “I want to be more of a thought leader and expert in the [wellness] space,” he says. “But just like a head chef can go in the kitchen and cook,” Holder can still train.

Jensen Davis is an Associate Editor for AIR MAIL