Meet your merchant: Academy helps people get back on track |

Meet your merchant: Academy helps people get back on track

Best Life Fitness Academy

410 Crown Point Circle, Grass Valley


Hours: 5 a.m. to 7 p.m., Mon. through Thurs.

5 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday

8 a.m. to noon, Saturday

Sunday: closed

Vivian Conly hadn’t been to a gym in 20 years, but two years ago she decided it was time to get in shape.

Today she has the energy to play with her grandchildren, who marvel at her bulging biceps. With her 70th birthday fast approaching, Conly comes to Best Life Fitness Academy in Grass Valley five times a week — not just because it’s good for her, but because it’s fun, it’s easy and her gym-mates now feel like family.

Michella Lockwood started coming to the Academy a year ago, after experiencing months of residual pain from a car accident. Doctor visits and physical therapy were not helping. On her first day at Best Life Fitness Academy, owner Justin Richards was able to identify the key source of her pain.

“Within two weeks I was pain free and starting to remember how good it felt to really move and sweat,” said Lockwood. “My worries of daily body pains from being a full-time hairdresser for almost 30 years quickly faded away. I am stronger and feel better than I felt 20 years ago. Over the course of the year, I have gotten so much stronger and lost 45 pounds. This has had a positive effect in all aspects of my life.”

Testimonials such as these are not uncommon at Best Life Fitness Academy, as most clients seem eager to share their success stories.

Fitness program

To what do they attribute their success? The common denominator appears to be an individualized approach. Each client’s unique fitness program is based on fundamental test data that identifies strengths and targets areas where there is the greatest opportunity for improvement. Additionally, the staff say they have seen impressive results through “corrective exercise,” which is defined as a movement or exercise designed to correct a specific dysfunction with the goal of fueling recovery and developing proper form for future injury prevention.

But it doesn’t stop there — clients say the fitness coaches also have a genuine interest in each person’s overall well-being, including the mental, emotional and nutritional aspects of their lives. This holistic approach is what seems to be the reason why so many clients followed Richards when he decided to leave a large fitness club and open his own academy in 2017.

More than a decade ago, Richards was a competitive athlete, earning high ranks in jiu-jitsu. He helped train the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office in self-defense, and worked with SWAT teams. This led him into the world of mixed martial arts, or MMA, a full-contact combat sport. But a fall 12 years ago during a competition changed the trajectory of his life.

“I jumped off a cage and landed on my head — it was a critical injury,” he said. “I lost hope — I couldn’t even pick up a water bottle. It was a real low point in my life. I was convinced no one could help me with my condition.”

Giving back

After four years of not maintaining adequate upper body strength due to pain, Richards decided to try working with an Auburn-based sports chiropractor who introduced him to corrective exercise. Six months later he was pain-free and armed with a new approach to life — one based less on competition and more on giving back. He envisioned one day owning a gym that provided an individualized, holistic and educational approach to fitness.

In 2017, Richards opened Best Life Fitness Academy along with his silent business partner, Connie Richards, who also happens to be his mom.

“Who wouldn’t want to invest in a place where people come to make new friends and create a new life for themselves?” she said. “My son cares — he’s an amazing person.”

Richards said he does not miss the world of competitive sports, however his experience of training world class champions exposed him to extensive research and fitness education that will serve him throughout his career and life. Today, he added, his work brings far more meaning and balance. He and his wife, Cari Cannon, have a 2-year-old daughter, Hudson.

“I grew up in Nevada County, in this beautiful place — I now have a love and appreciation for everything I do,” he said. “My goals are to be mindful, keep an open door and be compassionate if someone’s having a bad day. This is a school of fitness — we teach people how not to hurt themselves.”

A little help

The other two fitness coaches at Best Life Fitness Academy, Andreas Zeischegg and Amber Kaufman, clearly share Richards’ approach to health.

“I love the fact that we individualize routines here — we can be more personal,” said Zeischegg. “When it comes to injuries, you can attend to each person. Justin and I have a similar philosophy. There’s so much more to fitness than just the physical. It’s also mental, emotional, nutritional and even spiritual, if you’re so inclined. This place allows me to be me and share what I have to offer. It also has a fun family vibe.”

Zeischegg is a certified personal trainer, a fitness nutrition specialist, a certified massage therapist, a reflexology specialist and a soccer coach. Kaufman won a national championship in the high jump in 2010 and played three seasons of professional volleyball in Rovaniemi, Finland. She went on to coach volleyball at Duquesne University in Pennsylvania and continues to coach at the junior club level.

In addition to his experience, Richards’ credentials include being a certified personal trainer, a corrective exercise specialist, a certified fitness trainer and a sports enhancement specialist. He’s also recently become certified in “Animal Flow,” a body-weight workout program that emphasizes a variety of animal-inspired, ground-based movements.

“The personalized workouts here have been life-changing for me,” said client Eva Lea. “I started here in February and have lost 20 pounds. I feel safe here and I’ve learned to listen to my body — nobody teaches you that. I’ve never experienced this amount of care and empathy. When I first came here it brought me to tears. I feel like I’ve finally gotten my body back — I’m remembering the person I once was. And we feel like a family. Each person’s success is an inspiration to us all.”

That was the goal of Richards’ initial vision, which seems to have come to fruition.

“You have to feed yourself before you can feed others,” he said. “Our goal is to teach muscles to function in harmony. It’s rewarding to help people relieve stress and pain from their joints and repurpose their lives. Happiness spreads like a virus. Look at Vivian — when she came here she couldn’t raise her arm. Now she can swim with her grandchildren.”

To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at

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