'An injury left me in a dark place — Until working out got me out of it'

Meet half of our first Power Couple: trainer Bree Branker. Then, visit Men's Health to read about trainer CJ Koegel.

I started dancing when I was 3 years old, and it quickly became my life.

I danced throughout my childhood but really got serious about it in high school, when I attended a prestigious boarding school for dance. One of my teachers there really took an interest in me, which put me on track to make dance a career.

Immediately after I graduated, I moved to New York and everything took off: I was cast in musicals, movies, TV shows, and commercials. I even danced with the Rockettes. I traveled the world and had an incredibly successful career.

But then, my hip started hurting. I was 19 years old and touring with the show West Side Story at the time. We were performing in Berlin, and I couldn't ignore the pain I'd been feeling in my hip anymore. I went to see a doctor in Germany, who didn't speak English particularly well, and I still remember him trying to ask: “How do you say ‘quit dance?'”He told me my hip wasn't good enough to keep performing, but I was totally stubborn and didn't listen to him.

Then, a few months later, I was working with Cirque du Soleil, and they actually fired me because I was a liability due to my bad hip. But of course, I still didn't take the hint.

Years after that, when I was on tour with another show, the pain in my hip became unbearable. I finally caved and started doing cortisol injections for treatment. Eventually, I had the surgery doctors had wanted me to get for years.But my stubbornness persisted, and I went back to the show just four months after my procedure-even though everything hurt.

During my recovery from hip surgery, I started riding a stationary bike at the gym-but I thought it was so boring. Then I heard some people in the dance community talking about SoulCycle.

When I took my first class, I thought: "Wait, this is so fun! It's like dance but there's no impact!" I became obsessed and spent way too much money on classes. I quickly realized there was no way I could financially sustain my SoulCycle classes, so I decided to look into teaching spin.

I started my training at FlyWheel while I was still doing a Broadway show at night. I pictured having this amazing life where I taught spin during the day and then performed in the show at night-but the show flopped, and I was left with just spin.

The only problem with my up-and-coming spin career: I couldn't do the arm portion to save my life. The reality is, while I was a strong dancer, I didn't have the strength I needed to really succeed in the fitness industry. So much of dance is about making challenging movements look pretty, but I never learned how to move my body to be a functional human.

So I started taking bootcamp classes. During that time, I met Akin Akman, a SoulCycle instructor, Nike master trainer, and now the creator of Akin's Army. He and I clicked right away-his classes include a lot of dance elements, even though he’s not a dancer, and that really resonated with me.

Akin also saw potential in me during a time when I definitely didn't see it in myself. I still remember him telling me: “You're on the brink of being really great, but you need to push it.”

At the time, I kind of felt like a fraud. After all, I was just a dancer. But Akin told me I needed to get all the fitness certifications I could (so people would value my opinion) and really make a career out of it. He also encouraged me to teach bootcamp and get into fitness modeling. He opened up all these doors for me that I didn’t know existed in fitness. I’m so grateful I met him.

I moved away from dance and started teaching bootcamp with Akin. I also ended up taking his advice and joined Wilhelmina Models as a fitness model. My career kind of snowballed from there.

That's also how I crossed paths with my now-partner CJ Koegel (check out a workout from Bree and CJ): We met on the set of a rock-climbing fitness shoot. He introduced himself to me, and all I could think was that he was like a ray of sunshine-with abs. I thought "How is this guy real?" A few months later, we started dating, and we've been together ever since.

At the time, I was a little too intense with fitness-I was doing two to three workouts a day. But CJ helped me chill out and not stress too much or overdo it. He helped me remember to have fun with fitness and enjoy the people I was working out with.

Now, I feel so grateful that I get to be surrounded by CJ and the best trainers in New York-all by accident, all because of an injury that made me start taking spin classes.

I’m not dancing professionally anymore, but I still do it for fun when I can. And that's okay; I've come to peace with it. I’m really grateful that it all worked out the way it did, because I finally found something I’m just as passionate about as dance-and the industry has welcomed me with open arms.

I try to make it to one or two cardio-based workouts a week-usually spin. Then I'll do one solid strength workout (either bootcamp or boxing), and then yoga once a week. I shake it up and keep my workouts as varied as possible so I don’t get bored.

CJ and I do most of those workouts together-plus, he'll usually come to the classes I teach, and I'll go to his.

When I'm out, I can never resist a good Chipotle bowl or anything with French fries.

So rather than fight it, I try to balance things out: When I buy groceries, I only buy healthy food so there’s no junk in the house. That way, when I'm out, I don't have to stress so much.

I’m really big on making healthy bowls, because I feel like you can put anything in them. My go-to at home is a quinoa-based bowl with a protein like salmon or chicken, black beans, sautéed kale, and sweet potatoes. Oh, and pro tip: If you add goat cheese to anything, it will taste amazing.

When I was younger, I thought I was invincible, so I spent a lot of time in denial after my injury. It’s like when you have a cold and think it’ll just go away.Dealing with it head-on was hard-I like to think of myself as a strong, confident person, but it took me years to accept that I was injured. And even after going through physical therapy, surgery, and rehab, there are still things I just can’t do anymore.I don’t think I’ve ever been depressed, but the closest I ever got was realizing my dance career was either going to change or end because of my injury. It took me a long time to accept my new body and realize my limitations don't define me as a person.It wasn’t until I found fitness that I finally felt like I had a home again.

You have to find something that’s next-level fun for you. If you don’t enjoy it, you’re not going to do it. Whether that’s an instructor you love, a type of exercise, or the right music. You have to find the thing that keeps you engaged and invested.

And the people! The people are so important-the people I take classes with now are some of my best friends, and my fitness community is like my family.

Read more about trainer CJ Koegel on Men's Health.


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