Suzanne Palazzo smashed a home run when she started Upper Deck Fitness (UDF), her personal training and fitness business at the former home of Bobby Valentine’s Sports Academy in 2015. Today, as she changes the lives of a growing legion of fans who are giving her thunderous ovations, the Stamford native and Trinity Catholic High School grad is going for extra bases with a recent expansion to two additional locations, one on High Ridge Road and another in Westport.
At the heart of her success is the delivery of what she calls “prescribed fitness” to each client, and a dedicated team of trainers and instructors who work with anyone who signs up for this model—whether in private training or group session, in the facilities’ studios or remotely. Simply put, there is no one-size-fits-all training for UDF clients. Though everyone is encouraged to complete weekly schedules that include cardio, strength (including core), balance and stability, flexibility and recovery, movement is adapted where needed to meet a client’s strengths, weaknesses and goals, with the sole aim to improve technique and overall wellness.
“It’s practical,’’ explains Palazzo, a petite powerhouse with a strong gaze and deliberate, firm manner. “It’s not a list of twenty things. It’s baby steps with the goal to establish momentum and productivity, and feel some sense of accomplishment.”
For Palazzo, launching and building on how UDF has evolved so far has taken perspiration, inspiration, determination and innovation. With some added good timing and a little welcome luck, Palazzo not only hit on a new service niche in an already competitive local market, but she refined it—continues to do so—and now works with a growing client base hungry to achieve their fitness goals.
Running a thriving fitness training business seemed unlikely for Palazzo a little more than a decade ago. After graduating from Trinity Catholic, she attended Fordham University to pursue a degree in dance from the Ailey School, a Fordham partner. She had danced competitively in high school, and her goal was to perform on Broadway. “That’s where I wanted to be,” she says, matter-of-factly. (At Fordham, she also studied communications and writing, and minored in journalism.) But her path started to pivot when she suffered an injury during her junior year. “I did a lot of soul searching,’’ Palazzo says. “I had to build an identity in case dancing didn’t work out.”
After college, Palazzo faced another stumbling block: She found her independent spirit ran contrary to demands of artistic directors. “It made me pump the brakes and step back,’’ she says, noting she soon landed an internship with Dance Magazine, where she began to flex her writing muscles. “Leaving the dance world was not an easy decision,” she continues. “There were a lot of people that were invested in it, including my parents. I don’t regret taking the chance [to pursue dance].”
Though Palazzo eventually found full-time work in print media, the career switch from dance to desk did not sit well with her either; she grew weary of the sedentary environment and commute. “It was a shock for my body, my spirit and my mental health,’’ she says of what prompted her early “gym rat” days.
The first hint of what would come occured then, as other gym members began turning to her for advice. After earning required certifications, she began training others as a side job. A few years later, Palazzo dove into fitness full-time. “It was not easy to step away from the security [of my day job],’’ Palazzo admits. “I really hesitated [before moving forward].”
Palazzo might have been worried, but her track record proves she had what she needed to hit it out of the park, first working as a trainer and nutrition coach at Carozza Fitness, and eventually as director at the Darien YMCA, then at Chelsea Piers Connecticut. It was from all these experiences that Palazzo honed the new fitness model that would define the mission of UDF.
Deirdre McParland has worked with Palazzo privately for six years and followed her to UDF when it opened. “She has changed my life completely,’’ McParland says.
The Stamford resident had tried other gyms for years, without success. “I’d buy a membership, go three times and just give up,’’ says McParland, who at one time belonged to three clubs and did not visit any of them. “I don’t have the perfect body, and I don’t have the drive and desire that many people do. I’m typical of many people, always looking to lose a few pounds and eat better, but a little nervous of the gym setting.”
McParland doubted Palazzo at first. “At our first meeting she told me how important food was and I didn’t want to hear that,’’ McParland says. “I wanted to hear there was a quick fix and that going to the gym would magically transform my body. I promised I would give myself eight weeks to see how it went.”
After about two months, McParland saw results, and since UDF opened, she has increased flexibility, strength and cardiovascular fitness. She has lost more than forty pounds and felt fit enough to run a couple of 5K races—something she has not done in decades. “I’m a typical woman who always thinks they have to lose weight,’’ McParland says. “For Suzanne, the gym is just a part of the overall equation. It’s about diet, too. While the fitness part is one important piece, learning the importance of good nutrition brings it all together.”
McParland points out that UDF’s personal approach is an important motivator to many like her who share a common goal to live a fit lifestyle. It is mostly due to Palazzo’s customizable, results-driven system that incorporates cardiovascular, strength and recovery training.
The program begins with an hour-long consultation to determine fitness goals and abilities. Palazzo then builds a color-coded fitness plan that also incorporates nutrition and wellness coaching. “We focus on working smarter, not harder,’’ Palazzo says. “We’re not going to promise beach bodies. It’s a process. If you keep an open mind and are open to making changes, you’ll make progress.”
To encourage such progression, Palazzo established procedures that encourage open communication among trainers and between staff and clientele about often-shifting goals. “This ensures that we are all on the same page about the client and are therefore able to deliver results in a more efficient manner,” she explains. “This leaves our clients feeling like they have their own team of professionals in their corner, collaborating to make sure that no stone goes unturned.
“Of course, this type of approach takes a lot of time and coordination. There are assessments and follow up, and plenty of check-ins to ensure we’re heading in the right direction. I typically oversee the logistics of that process, but [the staff] meets once a week to make sure that everyone knows what is going on with each client. I also make a point to debrief the trainers on any incoming clients so that they’re well informed about their history and any relevant limitations before the client even steps foot into their class.”
A incentivizing consequence of Palazzo’s business model is it draws people of different ages and fitness levels to UDF group sessions. (It’s not uncommon to see parents and adult/teen children working out together.) As a result, the class dynamic fosters community, a camaraderie that is supportive of personal progress, something that is unique to UDF. “It creates this environment where everyone feels like they’re on a level playing field,’’ Palazzo says. “We find that it motivates the beginners and gets them to aspire to move to the next stage. We treat everyone individually, but equally.”
Early on in UDF history, McParland encouraged her teenage niece, Emma Connolly, to try it out. At the time, it took a lot of convincing. “I had always said no, because I didn’t want to work out with my aunt,’’ says Connolly, a sophomore at Loyola University in Maryland. “I thought it’d be awkward.”
McParland purchased three private sessions for Connolly, who immediately found a fitness home. Connolly, a former Irish dancer, connected with Palazzo because of their dancing backgrounds. “All I wanted to do,’’ Connolly says, “was get abs and be skinny.”
Palazzo got Connolly to switch her focus to “getting strong instead of skinny.” Connolly says: “She inspired a sense of trust. She’s all about building self-confidence and self-esteem. She focuses on empowerment and motivation. It’s amazing how natural Suzanne is at building relationships. It’s not forced or fake. She has a sincere desire to help people.”
David Genovese of Darien met Palazzo when she worked at the Darien YMCA, and has trained with her for five years. “She is a great trainer,’’ Genovese says. “But also a bit of life coach, a guru. I know that sounds hokey but it’s true. She’s always planting reminders, providing inspirational messages through social media, and her message is, in my view, spot on.”
Though Palazzo’s original business plan included opening more locations, she admits it happened sooner than anticipated. “We had opportunities [come up],’’ she says, “and they fit into our model.”
Given the current momentum, Palazzo hopes to keep apace. On top of building on other personalized services already offered at UDF—therapeutic massage, athletic training—she intends to add more locations, and envisions a UDF-branded online platform clients can use to connect with trainers remotely (Palazzo currently works with some clients online, including Connolly while she’s at school).
“[I picture] a web-based gym where you can have access to the prescribed fitness philosophy, including private training, color-coded classes, nutrition workshops, consults. Everything you’ve come to expect from us—especially the community aspect—but available online and accessible [from around] the globe.”
Palazzo also envisions a larger, full-service recreational facility where gym-goers can participate in sports and recreation, and understand how these complement fitness goals. “I think really big. I’m very passionate about expanding our reach.”
Genovese, founder of Baywater Properties of Darien, has been more than a client; he offered real estate advice and encouraged her to bring her concept to the fitness center at 225 High Ridge Rd., a large office campus that his business recently purchased. “She breathed new life into our facility,’’ Genovese says. “She has the energy, the smarts and the drive. I am looking forward to seeing where she takes all this. She is truly an amazing person with great ambition and drive.”
The takeaway? UDF succeeds because it puts customers above all else, offers competitive pricing and conducts classes seven days a week. Palazzo has built a fitness community in which clients train, play and improve together. There is no fitness hierarchy, judgment or derision. Everybody works together on a prescribed plan to improve their health and lifestyle, one sweat bead at a time.
It has proven to be a winning strategy. In an ultra-competitive business landscape, Palazzo has managed to strike a balance between personalized service and business acumen that seems destined to thrive for years to come. “Not an ounce of our success has happened by chance,’’ Palazzo says. “Every day, the first hat I put on is a business hat. As important as the training is, we want our quality to be exceptional.”
For that to happen, she remains focused on how to build and improve. Every day, she says, “I think about [our clients] and the hurdles they’re facing, and try to figure out ways we can help. What’s stopping them from becoming their best self? That’s the code I want to crack. Why? Because doing so creates loyal clients, which in turn is good for business.”
Palazzo wouldn’t want it any other way. “I’m astonished by how much life has changed, and all of the people who are in my life now who wouldn’t have been if I had not started this business. They have become family. In every sense of the word, every step on this journey has been very right.”
What you can stop believing now!
Suzanne Palazzo sets the record straight
Myth: Women who lift weights develop big muscles.
Fact: “This is categorically, undeniably false. What is true, however, is that the body is made in the kitchen, so it’s diet that plays a much larger factor in whether women bulk up.”
Myth: You can eat what you want as long as you sweat it off.
Fact: “Oh, how I wish this was true! Unfortunately, what you eat and when you eat it influences that number on the scale the most. At the end of the day, long-term, sustainable weight loss or weight maintenance comes down to more than calories in, calories out.”
Myth: Cardio is a must if your goal is to lose weight.
Fact: “Step off the treadmill to nowhere! If you’re looking to truly change your body, you should be focusing on strength training with a combination of body weight, free weight and resistance exercises. Insert cardio bursts (i.e., a minute of jumping jacks or jumping rope) between sets and watch your body respond.”
Fitness and nutrition tips for the new year and beyond
ON STAYING MOTIVATED
Keep your goals—whether they be personal, professional or health related— top of mind.
Articulate them every morning to yourself by writing them down.
Start the day by completing the sentence, “Today, I will…” with a positive affirmation. Instead of saying “Today, I will say no to the cookies at work,” say, “Today, I will be in control of my choices when it comes to food.”
RESOLUTIONS THAT MAKE SENSE
If you are just getting started, shoot for three to four days of movement a week. Do this for a month, and you’ll be physically and mentally ready for more.
If you’re already working out regularly and are not seeing the type of results you desire, incorporate a type of exercise you’ve never tried before. Sign up for a boxing class, get in the pool, start dancing. The change and variety will serve you very well.
FOOD PANTRY CLEANSE
Breakfast cereals should go. Even the so-called healthy versions are highly processed and nutritionally imbalanced.
Ditch anything that has the words ‘partially hydrogenated’ oil (regardless of what type) in the ingredient list. These indicate the presence of trans fats and there is just no place for them in a healthy diet.
DESK JOB? GET MOVING
Rethink your interoffice email habits. Can you deliver your message in person? If so, do that.
Get up at least once an hour to walk stretch, or climb some stairs. Set a calendar reminder if you need to and do not allow yourself to ignore it. Also, take tension off your lower back by touching your toes from a standing position ten times, and then reaching up for the ceiling ten times.
Use your desk chair to practice informal squatting, which will help to mobilize the hips. Stand up and down out of your chair without using hands for support fifteen times. Add this to your every hour-on- the-hour routine to notice a real difference.
Ladies: If you’re wearing heels, ditch them behind your desk when you can.