Alumnus combines fitness with playing cards

It was a late night in 1991 when Phil Black ’92 and his three suitemates living in Pierson College’s Moose Room broke up their poker game in favor of a more original form of entertainment. The four Yalies — all varsity athletes — decided at Black’s suggestion to have an unconventional push-up contest based on the deck of cards they had been using.

“As athletes often do, we would compete over everything,” said Black, who was a member of the Yale varsity basketball team. “I challenged them to a push-up contest in the middle of the poker game, but didn’t feel like just maxing out, so instead I pulled out 15 cards from the deck and turned them over one at a time and did as many pushups as the number on the card said.”

That was the first game of what Black and his friends would come to call the “Push-Up Game,” or PUG. But it was not until long after he graduated from Yale that Black realized this could be a marketable product: Fitdeck, launched in 2004. Only two weeks ago, he released Fitdeck Jr., the children’s version of the game.

Soon after PUG’s inception, other students from Black’s entryway and college were stopping by the Moose Room to participate or just watch as Black and his friends competed over who could complete the most push-ups with the luck of the draw.

“It was fun, because we were trying to stay in shape and it was a fun study break,” Black said. “PUG became a funny event that we all still talk about to this day.”

Kathy Butler ’92 said PUG was a funny pastime that could not have been invented by anyone but Black and his roommates.

“It totally made sense to us that these four basketball and football athletes would come up with a game that involved a sadistic number of pushups,” Butler said.

Black’s wife and fellow Yalie, Cyndi Pitt Black ’92, was not yet dating Black when he first invented PUG in his junior year, but she said she remembered the commotion it caused on campus.

“I heard and knew about it, but I never played,” Pitt Black said. “I would just see them come into the dining hall in costumes before a game or trash-talking to each other about a game from the night before.”

Compared with other drinking-related activities on campus in the past and present like Pierson Inferno or Tuesday Night Club, Pitt Black said PUG provided a very different alternative for students.

“It’s just so funny to think that you’ve got all this other partying going on, and then there’s these tall, athletic jocks who are playing this fitness game for fun,” Pitt Black said.

After graduating from Yale, Black pursued an unconventional career path, working at Goldman Sachs before joining the Navy SEALs and ultimately attending Harvard Business School. It was not until 2004 that he realized PUG might have a future as a profitable commodity in the form of a deck of cards labeled with specific exercises.

Made out of the same material as regular playing cards, the FitDeck includes over 50 exercises that use an individual’s body weight to provide a natural body workout any time and any place. Targeting the upper body, lower body, core and total body, each type of exercise requires no benches, barbells or balls, like other popular fitness routines.

“We like to say it’s simple, convenient and fun,” Black said of his invention. “It’s been a hit with everyone from firefighters and business executives to college students and stay-at-home moms.”

Self-professed FitDeck fan Colin Mahoney, a businessman who travels frequently, said the product’s primary attraction is its convenience.

“All you need is a 4-by-7-foot space and you can do an entire workout,” Mahoney said. “It’s like having a personal trainer, only cheaper. I’ll go through the entire deck in about a week, reshuffle it, and then have a whole new routine the next week.”

Varsity softball player Kyli Hanson ’09 said that while the FitDeck may be a creative invention, she thinks it caters to people just trying to just stay in shape on their own more than to athletes training for a season.

“It sounds like a cool way to get motivated, but I probably would prefer a little more consistency in my workout,” Hanson said. “But it’s good that the product is simple and has straightforward directions, especially because you don’t want to get hurt or cheat yourself out of a real workout.”

Black said he credits many of the exercises contained in FitDeck to the large repertoire of body-weight exercises he learned training as a Navy SEAL. As an investment banker at Goldman Sachs who had to travel frequently for his job, he said he knows many people want to stay in shape but need some prompting. He also said his later experience in business school proved helpful in determining demographics and marketing for FitDeck’s product launch.

Butler said Black’s character has just as much to do with his success in marketing his idea as his fitness or business know-how.

“Phil was always one of those incredibly motivated and disciplined people,” Butler said. “It was clear he’d do something about this idea right from the beginning.”

The success of FitDeck prompted Black to launch the younger version of the game, FitDeck Jr. Pitt Black said this new edition, which contains easier exercises designed for children aged 5 through 16, has been a big hit with their three children.

“To tell you the truth, as a mom, FitDeck Jr. is hard enough for me,” Pitt Black said. “But it keeps them busy, and they’re silly with it — they really have a good time.”

As for the product’s roots, Pitt Black said her husband could not have done it without experience at and contacts from Yale.

“We had a lot of support from Yale and our former classmates,” Pitt Black said. “You’d be amazed at how much you gain from Yale outside the academic sphere. The encouragement and assistance we’ve received from our friends has been unbelievable.”

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