The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.
That Bible verse from John 10:10 is key to the mission of Special Strong, a McKinney-based company that provides fitness programs and training for individuals with special needs.
Founder Daniel Stein says the verse embodies the foundation of Special Strong and its mission to empower people with special needs as stewards of God with the strength and confidence to live a more independent and abundant life.
“We believe that every single person walking on this earth, on this planet, is entitled to abundant life,” he said. “And we feel like the special-needs population has been underserved.”
Since opening its doors in 2016, Special Strong has worked with more than 500 clients, offering workshops, personal training and boot camps that combine exercise with brain-training techniques.
Stein’s personal experience led to the founding of the company.
At age 4, Stein was diagnosed with severe attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). However, as he grew older and started playing sports in middle and high school, he noticed that working out and exercising was helping him to manage his ADHD and learn to focus.
His diagnosis set him on the path to getting involved in the health and fitness industry, working with the special-needs population and ultimately founding Special Strong.
Stein’s vision for Special Strong came on Nov. 11, 2011, when his mentor and fellow church member, Rob Moore, told him, “Daniel … I know that you love to work out [and] I really see you personal training the special-needs population."
Stein says that after that conversation his “heart leaped,” and the next year he became a certified personal trainer through the National Federation of Personal Trainers and started his career. Along the way, he completed a certification through the National Academy of Sports Medicine, becoming a certified inclusive fitness trainer and obtaining autism and Parkinson’s disease certifications.
Once he was certified, trained and ready to get a business going, Stein reached out to a second mentor, Josh Harley, whom he met through one of his fitness clients.
Harley helped him from start to finish, including connecting Stein with lawyers to help with the legal documentation and helping him acquire a staff.
Special Strong was the result.
“I realized that there's a huge need, and an unmet need, for the special-needs population to have an outlet ... to help them channel their energy [and] to help them with meltdowns [and] their behavior,” Stein explained. “I just had this burden on my heart for this underserved population, and I saw a solution being exercise and eating correctly as one of the ways to manage those special needs.”
Stein, 29, oversees Special Strong with his wife, Trinity, and they share the roles of business owners.
“I love training so much that I can't give it up. I train about three days a week, and the other days is all business management, marketing, networking,” Stein said. It’s thanks to his wife’s handling of back-end operations from billing to customer service that he is able to continue his work as a trainer, he said.
The Special Strong staff of 19 includes Stein and his wife,
11 mobile trainers, some of whom also act as group and boot camp instructors; one brain integration expert; two registered dietician and nutritionists, a licensed massage therapist, a behavior therapist and an office manager.
What Stein started in 2016 at one facility in McKinney has seen growth and expansion since then. Special Strong now operates in 20 locations across North Texas through partnerships with Anytime Fitness.
“It feels amazing ... not because we're just really big – it has really nothing to do with the size,” Stein said. “More locations means we get to help more people live an abundant life, and that's our mission of the company.”
Certified Special Strong trainers go out to Anytime Fitness locations across North Texas and offer private, one-on-one training. Special Strong pays Anytime Fitness by the hour to have 24-hour access, and the clients become members of the gym, so they have unlimited access to any location convenient for them.
One of the things Stein likes about this setup is that it allows for integration of the Special Strong clients and the other gym attendees, many of whom Stein says offer encouraging words and high fives to his clients.
Boot camps are held at various fitness facilities and churches throughout the area. Pricing for boot camps ranges from $50 to $80 a month, and private training starts at $249 per month for weekly 30-minute sessions.
Although exercise is the company’s focus, that isn’t all it’s about. Stein said it also offers free workshops for those with special needs and their parents and the community to bring people together and empower them.
“We just offered a free nutrition workshop on how to cook, how to prepare vegetables. And it's really neat. We had special-needs individuals using a knife for the first time in their entire life — cutting a carrot. They've never done it before, parents didn't trust them, and here they are cutting things, which is incredible,” Stein said.
“It's amazing to me how even parents restrict their own children,” he added. “I've heard stories about how parents have said things like, ‘My son will never be able to help me with the laundry. Never.’ And that is so far from the truth if they would just give them a chance and teach them the right way.”
Special Strong also offers educational workshops to teach parents and others how to enable special-needs children to live more independently.
“A lot of our clients end up getting jobs outside in the community from our program,” Stein said. “They become so independent and they learn new skills from our program that they're actually able to go out and get their first-time jobs or keep a job. It's really incredible.”
The workshops are often held at rented community spaces; they were formerly offered quarterly but are shifting to monthly.
The trainers at Special Strong work with clients affected by autism, Asperger’s syndrome, Down syndrome, ADD/ADHD, cerebral palsy, spinal cord injuries, stroke, obesity and other problems.
While Stein sees significant progress with clients with physical impairments, he says that he sees more benefit to people who struggle with a mental imbalance.
“We're not just getting people on machines and having them do pushups and situps and squats,” he said. “We're actually doing scientifically proven, targeted brain exercises that literally build new neuropathways and form new brain cells through neurogenesis.”
Stein explained that doctors used to think the brain was plastic and once a person reached a certain age it was finished molding. They now realize, he said, that the brain doesn’t stop developing.
“That's why we see people with these mental imbalances have so much improvement,” he said. “That's why it's changed my life with the ADHD.”
When Stein and his wife were developing Special Strong, they consulted with brain integration expert Tricia Snyder, who holds a master’s degree in exercise science from Wichita State University and has more than 20 years of experience in health, fitness, rehabilitation and business development.
Stein says he went to Snyder because while he is an expert in exercise, he needed to know how to incorporate the brain in what they’re doing.
The pair worked to create a Special Strong trainer certification, accredited under both the National Academy of Sports Medicine and the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America. Everyone under the company umbrella now has a specialized curriculum to learn, understand and use these brain exercises, including the "top-to-bottom" exercise, which affects the inner ear balance system and emotional stability, and the "crossing over the midline" exercise that engages participants in multitasking and emotional stability.
Stein is currently limited to certifying those who work within Special Strong, but he said he has been approached by many people hoping to take the certification course and hopes to be able to offer it in the future.
Robert Hise, 17, falls on the autism spectrum and has sensory processing issues. His teachers, family and members of his church have attributed improvements in his behavior, moods and weight maintenance to his year and a half working with Stein at Special Strong.
Robert and his mother, Jennifer, learned about Special Strong after attending a Halloween carnival for special-needs people where Stein had set up a booth. Jennifer says she was initially skeptical about how Stein could help Robert, who had recently stopped seeing results with occupational therapy, but has found Special Strong to be “fabulous” for her son.
When Robert first came to Special Strong, Stein said, he had very low muscle tone, was overweight and had aggressive behavior issues.
“We were having meltdowns about three to four times a month and it was just really hard,” Jennifer said. “Daniel was able to work with him, talk to him, understand him. It was great, and I knew from the get-go it was going to be a good thing.
“He helps Robert with all of his sensory issues — his need to hit has greatly decreased since we started, [and] he's learning how to deal with feelings of frustration and anxiety.”
After working with Stein for a year and a half, Robert is down to a healthy weight and reports only one behavior episode every few months. And Stein says teachers and members of Robert’s church have personally thanked him for Robert’s behavioral transformation.
“Robert seems more outgoing now, he walks up to people and says, ‘Hi, nice to meet you,’ and he's a lot calmer all around. He seems more focused and able to handle situations,” Jennifer said. Another benefit of her son’s time at Special Strong is his weight maintenance, she said.
“We also worked with a nutritionist to turn from junk food to healthy stuff, and through that process Robert became more acceptable to try new food,” she said. “So now he’ll try any food I put in front of him and he’ll ask for broccoli!”
Special Strong’s staff includes a nutritionist who has visited with Robert about twice a month to see how he’s doing and make recommendations. Before working with the nutritionist, Jennifer says, her son was steadily gaining weight, but his doctor now reports that he’s been maintaining his weight.
Jennifer says places like Special Strong are important because they not only provide the guidance that special-needs children need when learning new exercises and working out, but they serve as a gathering place for the community.
“It gives our kids a place to belong and to be around others so they are integrated both within the special-needs community and the overall community. He develops friendships with the other kids there and I get to develop relationships with the other parents. It gives us a community of support,” she said.
“Our kids enjoy being treated like any other typical kids. They like being able to go to the gym and work out just like anyone else. It's great they have a place where they can go and belong.”
Not only has Robert progressed and made those around him proud, but he is excited and enjoys doing it. Jennifer says her son gets up, dressed and ready to go early on Special Strong days and when it isn’t time to go work out he anxiously awaits the next session.
Robert has not only learned what he needs to do to stay healthy, Jennifer says, but has begun to develop the confidence to act independently, saying “Because I’m in
Special Strong, I can do this.”
While Special Strong has been able to grow and expand through partnering with franchises like Anytime Fitness, Stein says the company is looking to begin franchising itself in the next two to five years.
“We definitely have a global vision [and] we really want to take the franchise model,” he said. “We want to be able to empower business owners and say, ‘Hey, you know what? Here's a successful, proven model. Go start your own Special Strong in Florida and go impact the special-needs population.’”
But the future for Special Strong is about more than just the addition of locations. For Stein, it will be important to expand services as well, as he says the company is always looking for new ideas to serve those with special needs.
“There's a huge need for massage therapy for special needs,” Stein offered as an example. “We do offer it very, very part time, but that's probably something that we probably want to expand on in the future and actually hire more therapists to work under our company. It's just not something that we've focused on right now.”
Stein also cited swimming.
“Another thing we may consider in the future is actually hiring people that can go to people's houses and teach adapted swimming for special needs,” he said. “There's a huge need for and it's under the umbrella of fitness.”