Aubrey Marcus and the Cult of Onnit

Playboy talks to the founder of a movement that's part fitness and part spiritual

Photo of Aubrey Marcus courtesy of Jared Ryder

We live in a tragically unoptimized world. Signs of physical degeneration abound: our posture is bad, our teeth decayed, our arteries clogged. We’re addicted to pornography, marijuana, alcohol, social media, junk food. Rather than eating diverse foodstuffs, we suffuse ourselves in pastes, compounds and chemicals synthesized only a few decades ago, tainted by pesticides in the air and water, and wonder why ailments like Alzheimer’s, cancer, autism and depression increase at an alarming pace.

In the West, year after year, new movements are unfailingly marketed as cure-alls: the Atkins diet, the keto diet, the paleo diet; yoga, meditation, healing crystals; psychedelics like ayahuasca, psilocybin, ketamine; nootropics, supplements, homeopathy; the list goes on. But the difference between snake oil and salves is often hard to tell.

Then there is Onnit, an Austin, Texas-based company that generates more than $70 million a year, that culls many of the above approaches, blends them together, and serves them up as a lifestyle of “Total Human Optimization.” Onnit exists between the online “manosphere” and progressive health nuts, and advocates a compelling sort of Archeofuturism: “ancient movements,” cryogenic therapy, hunter-gatherer-inspired polygamy, brain-enhancing nootropics, and a version of the paleo diet. Their pro team includes Olympian Bode Miller, entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk, UFC fighters Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone and Michelle Waterson, and author Ryan Holiday.

Most consumers have been introduced to Onnit through the popular Joe Rogan podcast. Rogan, a partner in the company, frequently touts the efficacy of Onnit’s first and signature product, Alpha Brain—a nootropic blend that claims to improve cognitive abilities—and frequently invites Onnit’s CEO, Aubrey Marcus, to his podcast. Marcus, a 37-year-old from Austin, has parlayed Alpha Brain, first sold in July of 2011, into an impressive empire that includes a flagship gym, a line of supplements, workout equipment, and recently, a New York Times bestselling book, Own the Day, Own Your Life.

The success of Onnit—and the ability for a consumer to “Onnit” every part of their life, from their workout, to their workout equipment, to their post-workout meal, to their post-meal supplements—has led some to label the company as cult-like. Indeed, say the word “Onnit” to the right person, and you’ll either elicit a reaction of total adulation or strong distaste.
Everyone here is a seeker of some sort. People who might have been into fitness but wanted something a little…more.
For instance, while working on this story, a coworker noticed I had “ONNIT” written on a notecard tucked in my shirt pocket. “I couldn’t help but notice what you had wrote…” he pointed, and started gushing about Onnit. “I was a D-student when I had first went to college,” he said, and, after two failed semesters, he claims, Alpha Brain gave him the ability to become an A and B-student and successfully graduate. “I listen to Aubrey any chance I get, and I’ll still use as many of their supplements as I can,” he said, before showing me several bottles of Onnit’s sport and mind supplements.

Then, of course, there are the skeptics. Do enough Googling, and you’ll find a shadow contingent of internet users focused on dismantling Marcus’ success story, mostly pointing to his family’s wealth: his multi-millionaire father and commodities trader, Michael Marcus; his acupuncturist stepmother, Janet Zand, who is credited with formulating Alpha Brain; and his biological mother and co-founder of the Fleshlight, Kathy Shubin.

When I traveled to Austin to report on this story, the mere mention of Marcus’ name provoked my Uber driver. “I hate that guy,” he spat out. “He walks around like he’s some sort of saint.” He referenced local friends he had apparently lost to Onnit—who now only used Onnit products, trained at the Onnit gym, and associated with other Onnit users—and claimed Marcus was a fraud. He implored me: “Why don’t you start with the fact he changed his name?”

Marcus owns up to his name change in the beginning of his book—after his 30th birthday, and a powerful experience with ayahausca, Michael Aubrey Christopher Marcus decided to just go by his middle name. After a lifetime of “stress, depression, and suffering,” married by bouts of alcohol abuse, it was a metaphorical turning-of-the-page that aligned with the founding of Onnit.

It is this type of life transformation that Onnit promises to its adherents, and I decided I had to try it out for myself. Over 60 days, I would “Onnit” my life and see where it took me.
My Uber driver dropped me off at Onnit’s headquarters and gym—an unassuming beige building located off a corporate drive—and wished me luck. In the front is a cafe, which sells supplements, apparel and smoothies whose ingredients read like a nutritionist’s fantasy. I ordered the “Optimized Warrior,” which contains organic almond milk, berries, banana, colostrum, vanilla emulsified MCT oil, whey isolate, steel-cut oats, chia seeds, and other rare-sounding ingredients.

I walked into the gym and met none other than Marcus himself. Marcus cuts an intimidating figure, standing well over six feet. His face is classically handsome, with a strong jawline and Greek curls, but his nose bears the crook of someone who’s taken an extraordinarily nasty punch. He smiled, greeted me and moved on.

The gym pumped out a mix of Young Money B-sides and Migos singles. A number of fit, happy, beautiful, and—I couldn’t help but notice—majority-white people walked around, greeting each other enthusiastically. The sparkling white-teeth perfection made me feel like I was in an episode of Black Mirror—that I’d knock something over, everyone would bare their fangs, and the jig would be up. Nervous, I sat down and sipped from my smoothie.

Finally, a stout, silver-haired gentlemen walked up to me. He introduced himself as John Wolf, Onnit’s Chief Fitness Officer. “You’re my second appointment for the day—I just trained Lance Armstrong this morning,” he said casually.  
Wolf is a mixed-race Japanese, Mexican and English former bodybuilder. We hit it off immediately, and he explained the Onnit workout philosophy. “We’re going to be focusing on the whole body,” he said. “Not just muscles. I’m talking joint mobility, restorative exercises.” He guided me through strange lifts that were the muscular equivalent of going to a chiropractor—I felt soreness in parts of my body I didn’t even know I could exert, like my lower back. As we worked out, he told me his story.

"I was strung out in my early twenties, and I wanted to do something more holistic, not just body building,” he said. “After a while, I found Onnit.” He gestured around the gym. “Everyone here is a seeker of some sort. People who might have been into fitness but wanted something a little…more.”

Later that night, I ate dinner with Kyle Kingsbury, a former UFC fighter who serves as Onnit’s Director of Optimization. A known ayahuasca enthusiast, his peaceful demeanor obfuscates his fighting past. Kingsbury walked me through a plan for the next six weeks, that would involve daily use of Onnit’s supplements, intermittent fasting, and even recommended reading, such as “Extreme Ownership” by former Navy SEALs Jocko Willink and Leif Babin.
If Onnit is the future of the jock—kind, inquisitive, purpose-seeking—then that’s fine with me.
The next day, armed with knowledge and supplements, I flew back home and began my 60 days of “Total Human Optimization.” This is how it all went down.

After waking up early in the morning, I’d drink water mixed with Onnit’s Powerfood Active supplement and Alpha Brain. I’d meditate for a few minutes, read, then write and work until about noon. At noon, I’d eat my first meal of the day. Kingsbury recommended I go on the keto diet, which meant no carbs. Breakfast was often bacon, eggs or a mixed salad with salmon.

Afterwards, I’d drink Onnit’s Fulvic Acid and swallow a few capsules of their Shroom Tech Sport—a pre-workout pill that would tweak me out—and embark on intense exercise: either weightlifting, swimming, running or a row machine. I’d take a cold shower afterwards, then drink a smoothie mixed with Onnit’s Recovery Protein.

For dinner, I’d eat a lighter meal, then down six capsules of Onnit’s Gut Health supplement. I’d fast until the next day, and spend the rest of my night winding down and relaxing.

I repeated this regimen for 60 days. The big question is: what changed? A lot, actually. Physically, I became stronger, noticing the biggest gains in my thighs and shoulders, and more flexible. I’m pretty sure some combination of the weightlifting and Fulvic Acid increased my testosterone—oddly enough, I sprouted chest hair for the first time in my life. Mentally, emotionally and spiritually, there were days where I felt incredible—brimming with positivity, bursting with energy, able to focus for hours."

At least, those were my perfect days. Of course I slipped up: I’d eat carbs, skip workouts, and feast on junk food. At one point, I gave up everything for a week. I called John Wolf afterwards and recounted my binge. He didn’t sound surprised. “That’s life,” he said. “It happens to all of us.”

In a brief conversation I had with Marcus in Austin, he said as much. “It’s a constant process,” he said. “There is no destination—the destination is a fucking myth. I’ve gotten completely out of whack many times. I’ve had my health fall apart, my emotional state fall apart, everything fall apart, but the principles to get you back are always similar.”

Onnit isn’t the answer to everything—nothing is. Those who look to any movement to solve all their problems are making the same mistakes as religious zealots or misguided ideologues. But the folks over there in Austin are trying, and for what it’s worth, they seem happy and healthy.

We live in an age of shifting paradigms. Standards of food are changing, the nuclear family is being re-evaluated, and enforced norms of masculinity and femininity are crumbling. If Onnit is the future of the jock—kind, inquisitive, purpose-seeking—then that’s fine with me. I’d rather our athletes take ayahuasca, meditate and read books, than focus upping their bench press and body count.

It’s a step, I believe, in the right direction. And it’s certainly better than not trying at all.