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Health Comes First: Hernsy Agyemang-Duah

Carving a niche in the aspirational world of fitness took Coach Hernsy (he/him) from the Bijlmer to Dubai. We ask Zuidoost’s most motivating son about his journey, and what makes his style so unique.

When you meet Hernsy, you’re immediately drawn to his open, bright energy, and a grace that can only come from years of athletics. Known for his signature training style, he’s just as at home on an indoor spinning bike as he is running a spontaneous half marathon. No wonder he’s made a name for himself in high-end fitness clubs across Amsterdam and Dubai in less than four years.

‘I’ve been an athlete for as long as I can remember’, he explains.

‘I quickly discovered my love for movement as a child. The highlight of my day was playing outside with friends. Rain, snow or shine, we’d usually play football on a concrete field, using jackets or shoes for goal posts. There had to be a tornado in town to stop us.’

Sport was a good outlet growing up.

‘Through good and bad days, I just wanted to be in a position where I represented something that would be good for people,’ says Hernsy. ‘When I discovered that my football training could help friends and family around me, I knew that I wanted a career in fitness. That would turn into my main motivation, knowing that I could help people with something I was already doing for the joy of it.’

Growing up in the Bijlmer, Hernsy noticed from early on that older kids were developing something fun into a more disciplined craft.

‘I’d see them in club kits. They played competitively and were signed to football clubs or academies. I thought it’d be sick to make a career from that. Coaches and scouts would come by looking to build teams that could make it to the national football leagues.’

It wasn’t just extracurricular sport that interested Baby Hearns. Physical education teachers played an important role in his development, introducing new sports that he and his classmates wouldn’t have got involved in otherwise, like badminton, gymnastics, softball. One teacher in particular left a real mark.

‘Shout out to Meester Remy – he had so much respect for movement, and he made everything fun. He was fit, he was jokes. He could relate to us, and we really appreciated that.’

The decision to get into sport professionally didn’t come all that easily though. Expectations as he grew up meant that he was pushed more into becoming an architect, an engineer, a doctor.

‘I thought the role of a PE teacher couldn’t really give me the life that I wanted,’ he explains, ‘but with time, I found a way back to it.’

Eventually, Hernsy’s talent in football took him international, with sports scholarships and college in the US. On his return to Amsterdam, he knew it was time for the next chapter of his career. Being from the projects, he faced challenges in establishing this new path.

‘It definitely takes work, a lot of energy, a lot of strategising. One of the biggest challenges I faced was finance. I landed a full-time job at Adidas with a good salary and work environment, great people. But I didn’t really like the job itself. That was my stumbling block.’

Around this time, he found out about a new spinning club. For the uninitiated, spinning involves high paced pedalling on a customised indoor bike, with elements of HIIT plus resistance training using dumbells. After a tester class – quickly followed by an audition – Hernsy was sure he’d found his next step.

‘At the audition, I stepped onto that stage nervous, at first, but something inside just took over the show. To this day, the same thing happens at all of my classes. It was what I was looking for all of my life, and I knew it was what I wanted to do. It was magic.’

Immediately accepted as an instructor, he got to work building his reputation.

‘The more classes you teach, the more finances you bring in, but my availability was limited, so I couldn’t make a real transition to being a full time instructor straight away.’

Feedback from his early classes was resoundingly positive. Knowing that he could refine his teaching style by giving it more focus, Hernsy made the call to leave his role at Adidas. He went back to retail, a job he’d had as a teen.

‘There was a bit of pride swallowing, but it was fine. I had this part-time job to give me more time as a spinning instructor.’

Hustle kicked in. Hernsy contacted friends he’d made over the years in the nightlife scene to show them the club feel he started to bring to classes.

‘I knew they liked the feel of those spaces: the dark little room with the bikes, plus the MC vibe and positive encouragement… all that helped people try out the classes, then keep coming back.’

At this point, tester classes weren’t a thing, so he created an account with credits he paid for himself so friends could try out a ride for free. Things quickly grew from there, with one friend bringing another along with them – he’d started the foundation of his own community and regularly sold out classes.

Within four months, he was offered the role of Master Instructor, mentoring and training new and existing instructors to ensure high quality at every class. His new title enabled him to step into full-time teaching.

Finance wasn’t the only challenge he faced. There were no mentors in the spinning field who he could relate to personally. He saw examples of classes that he liked, and there was no shortage of training, but nothing reflected his own style or cultural background.

‘There weren’t any other people who looked like me doing this, and it would have been helpful to relate to someone about the different challenges I’d face,’ he explains. ‘ So, my mission was to define my teaching style, go out there and find what I could bring that was unique to me.’

Inspiration came from another big part of his life – music and nightlife.

‘A lot of my friends are DJs, MCs. I have to give a special shoutout to Jay, who I knew as a big DJ back in the day. Hip hop, drum’n’ bass as well… He became a Nike running coach and was my first example of somebody who transitioned from nightlife to fitness. He also introduced me to the Patta Running Team.’

Hernsy decided to draw on his own love of MCing – soon to become a staple feature in his classes. Bringing his cultural background to the table was scary at first.

‘Once in a while, I’d have a person of colour in class, and I wasn’t really used to having so few POCs around. The classes were mainly white. It was a whole different world for me.

‘But, you know what? It paid off. People really liked the different dynamic, and for them, it was something new to discover. They’d go ‘hey, I didn’t know I’d like this kind of music, what is this?’ ‘Well, this is afrobeat, this is dancehall.’ They got to learn about genres that were new to them.

‘I’m Ghanaian, so I include music from there too. I’m quickly drawn to African influences in different genres, and include them in my playlists to get a whole other twist that people love.’

Despite the positive reactions, it was hard to avoid comparing himself to other instructors.

‘The biggest piece of advice I’d give is stay true to yourself. When other instructors sold out classes, I’d analyse what they did. But what they do might not work for you. I discovered that staying true to yourself is the key to giving your best classes. You do what you like because you want to introduce people to stuff you like, and the energy is just right because you are right from within.’

Another big influence on Hernsy’s delivery and presence leading classes is his Christian upbringing. As a child, he’d regularly go to church on Sundays.

‘I vividly remember our preacher being very charismatic, very motivating, and really effective at spreading the message through the entire room. When those preachers speak, it’s with an energy, with a fire.

‘The biggest thing that I would notice is the way they would talk and the energy they would put into the words. As a child, I was only interested in playing, but I always got drawn to the energy that those preachers gave. That really influenced my teaching style. I try to put the same amount of energy into everything that I say because I really believe in the power of training.’

As well as his spinning community, Hernsy looked to his immediate network to branch into other areas of training. The connection with the Patta Running Team came by chance through Jay, who also happened to be their head coach.

‘He introduced me to the concept of what the team was about – showing the world that anyone can just lace up, including people who work in nightlife who just want to sleep in the day.

‘For a group that’s not used to training daily, it ‘s hard to stay disciplined so you need to have extra people in the group who are used to it. Then you always have a little group to train with. If I help to build a sense of accountability for that person, they come in, do their training… sick.’

Heading up classes at more gyms around the city started to open new doors.

‘A lot of people came through to see me teach in these beautiful locations. It led to many opportunities, including being in a campaign for fitness app OneFit.’

So how did Hernsy go from carving his niche in Amsterdam to moving to Dubai?

‘I wish it was a very crazy story but it was literally a case of right place, right time. I approach every class like a game situation, a habit I’ve kept from my athlete days. I take preparation for my classes seriously and always give the same attention to detail, whether it’s for one person or a sold out class.’

After one of his classes, he was approached by someone setting up a new club in Dubai. An Instagram name swap and few DMs later, they made it clear that if he wanted to expand his horizons, he should think about a potential move.

Having never visited Dubai, Hernsy spent a week in the city and visited the fitness club. But a lot can happen in a week – and he connected with another club he was also interested in. They were keen to sign him up too, and before long, the paperwork to move was in motion.

‘The message is that you never know who’s going to be in your class, so always be on your A game,’ he explains. ‘Be consistent. Deliver what you have, whatever your product. Always keep the right mindset.’

Relocating is a big change for anyone, with many changes to adapt to. Living with blended cultures is a matter of course for immigrant families, and growing up in a neighbourhood like the Bijlmer, Hernsy was introduced to many different cultures from Day One.

‘There were a lot of different cultures that I was introduced to. In Dubai, you have a strong Asian community from India, Pakistan, the Philippines. There’s an African mix straight from Ghana, Nigeria, Angola, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, South Africa. Now you have Europe coming in, Dutch, British… I loved it because I was so curious about everybody’s story.’

What about friendships during that time?

‘It was a bit harder to connect with friends, but on the other hand it was a whole new beautiful world to discover.’

It was a challenge psychologically too to juggle so much change, whilst building up a reputation and client base from scratch. Having set himself a mission to have as many clients in Dubai as he had in Amsterdam, Hensy had his work cut out.

‘I experienced competitive behaviour from other trainers because you’re fishing in the same pond. What trainers don’t realise is that people will go where they want – if they don’t vibe with you, you can’t force them to train with you.

‘Clients started to come to my classes more because I always bring my energy, which led to a lot of fakeness from other trainers. I felt that – I’d try to ignore it.’

Between salty competitors, a sea of relocation admin to take care of, and no family or friends around in person for support, he burned out.

‘You have to be aware of it, you have to be honest with yourself and sit still. Even though my mission is ‘go go go’ all the time, you have to connect with friends again. You can’t see each other in real life, so at least talk with the people you really love. Those were definitely tough times.’

Now that he’s back in Amsterdam, Hernsy has his sights set on new heights, granted in a new reality created by COVID-19.

‘This time has been so strange, and career-wise a blessing in disguise as I’ve added virtual classes to my repertoire. Staying active impacts health overall, so I want to be sure to contribute to that.

‘I’m developing a fitness series called ‘Health Comes First’ that people can do at home, with just a yoga mat and cool tunes to move to.’

As well as workouts, Hernsy plans to share fitness advice, set challenges and introduce more advanced movements for people who’ve trained with him for a while for that signature motivation boost.

‘I want to keep building a community, and one day have in-person events. Tying entertainment to fitness is something I’ll always aim to do.’

Hernsy’s career has already gone to so many heights – one of the constants through all of it is the community he calls home: the Bijlmer.

‘Oh man, it’s vital to me,’ he says. ‘I always say that I’m super lucky that I grew up where I did. Living with my mum in an apartment in the Bijlmer, seeing the opportunities there are out in the world – it gave me humility and hunger. Staying humble for me means knowing where you’re from, where you grew up, the things that you value.

‘I have big dreams and I’m allowed to dream. Things that I’ve never had before, but I’ve seen that it’s possible to get to, even for people who look like me. That makes me hungry, to aspire to that. You decide for yourself what you want. It’s then up to you to do whatever is in your power to get there.’

Hernsy’s philosophy is that, ultimately, we are made to succeed, everybody has a special skill – and it’s up to each of us to find what that is.

‘It’s different for everybody. I’m not out here saying that you have to get a lot of money, just enough to get what you want. Don’t be shy about it, be hungry for it.

‘You’re surrounded with that philosophy here, it pushes you to keep going. We can take a punch out here, man. I’m out here in the Bijlmer and we can definitely take a punch. We don’t give up when the wind blows a little bit too hard. We keep pushing.’


Follow Hernsy: @hernsyhearns


IMAGE CREDITS:

Photography: Obi Mgbado

Retouching: Omar Rosalina

Lighting: Obi Mgbado

Art direction: Colinda Bijsterveld

Wardrobe: Nike

Hair and make-up: Charlotte van Beusekom

Production manager: Marie-Anne Leuty

Location: The Brouwersgracht Studio