Train like a gladiator

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April 26, 2010
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott
// YWCA program aims at aligning strength training with real-world physical activity //

You know those swollen muscle heads at the gym, the guys who bounce iron-leaden bars off their chests over and over and over? They may fill out their Under Armour well, but those bulky pecs aren’t telling the whole story.

Just ask Tony Meyer, a mixed martial artist and trainer at the Uptown YWCA.

“When I’m grappling with a weightlifter, I know that he’s going to be really strong for about 30 seconds. But then he’s going to burn out and give up. He’s going to be as weak as a baby,” says Meyer, who has trained in Brazilian jujitsu since 2001. He doesn’t sweat squaring off with a gym-pumped meathead. The guys he really dreads locking arms with? Construction workers and farmers.

“Especially farmers who have been doing that since they were kids. I find them to be some of the strongest people I have ever met.”

Meyers tells me this after we’ve spent one minute shoving a standing tractor tire back and forth. It was a manic inversion of the old tug-of-war: catch the tire before it hits the floor and then heave it back at your opponent, sending it to and fro like the rod of some testosterone-fueled metronome. The exercise is just one component of a new fitness class offered at the YWCA, a once-a-week ordeal that has participants hoisting sandbags, slamming sledgehammers and balancing PVC pipes overhead that have been filled with sloshing water.

The idea is to make you less like the weightlifter and more like the construction worker.

It’s called the Gladiator Workout, and it’s everything that traditional weightlifting is not. Currently the class is only offered at the Uptown and Midtown locations. But YWCA officials said they have plans to bring it Downtown as well, possibly as early as this summer.

Born of the recent trend toward functional fitness, which attempts to align strength training more closely with real-world physical activity, the Gladiator Workout shuns the abstract, isolated movements of the weight room for a more “purposeful” brand of explosive, full-body exertion. It blends cardio with strength training. It forces muscle groups to work in concert rather than in isolation. And it actually encourages using momentum, something that personal trainers have been telling us for years to avoid.

So instead of a bench press, you get a pair of boat-rigging ropes to sling vigorously back and forth. Instead of a lat pull, you get a weighted bar to paddle like a kayak oar. And instead of an isolated burn — that familiar, muscle-promising pain in a tricep or an oblique — you get a full-body exhaustion, the kind a kid usually feels after throwing a temper tantrum. It’s like grad school for the kettle bell crowd. And apparently, it works.

“Everyone who’s tried it has loved it,” says Meyers. “You’re using your entire body the way that it was basically meant to be used, going in all three planes of motion. Some of the guys that come in who do triathlons or are swimmers have commented on how much stronger they feel doing their sports.”

He added that he rarely uses weightlifting in his own training anymore, relying instead on plyometrics and so-called caveman workouts.

Jill Winegar, a YWCA program manager who has helped develop the Gladiator Workout, has worked in the fitness industry since 1978, back “when pretty much the only qualification was that you looked cute in a leotard and you could keep time.” She knows a fad when she sees one, and she is convinced that functional fitness is the future. Traditional weightlifting, she says, is not only outdated and overly time-consuming, but it also has a tendency to backfire.

“The truth about that stuff is that it was designed for an aesthetic purpose,” she says, “so you get muscles that look a certain way but that don’t always function. In fact, it often creates dysfunction.”

Winegar tells a story about her boyfriend, a former bodybuilder who set out to get a huge chest. “He would go in and do bench presses, which isolates your shoulder joint mostly. Five sets, as heavy as he could go. And he’s got a big chest, nice and hard. But it created dysfunction in his muscles. If you can imagine trying to lift your arm above your head to screw in a light bulb, he can’t do it. Because he’s so restricted in his shoulder joints. I always tell him it’s a good thing he has no hair because he wouldn’t be able to comb it.”

In real life, Winegar said, “you don’t get to move slowly and carefully with your back fully supported all the time. So we have to train for that, so that we don’t get injured by real-world activity, athletic or otherwise.”

Simba Blood, a 48-year-old woman who came to a free trial class, likes the idea of exercising with a real-world purpose. As a natural resources technician, she has to do field work in the spring and summer, digging holes, planting trees, lighting fires and putting them out.

“I use a sledge hammer professionally,” she says. And if she doesn’t stay fit in the winter months, the outdoor labor becomes too much of a shock to her system. So she’s been doing kettle bell classes regularly at the Y for the last year. “The fact that I can go back to work in the spring and not come straight home and fall asleep on the couch is a pretty big deal.”

Blood liked the Gladiator Workout. “I thought it was amazingly intense. I thought it was really hard. And I haven’t felt that stressed by a workout since my first kettle bell class. I will definitely sign up in the fall.”

But what about those of us who sit in an office all day, who just need to build a few muscles for our weekly sprawl at Hidden Beach? Construction workers may be famous for their strength, but they aren’t exactly envied for their physique.

So I asked Winegar, “Can you really get ripped doing this?”

“Did you see Tony with his shirt off?” she responded.

I didn’t. But I’ll take that as a yes.


Join up
The next session of the Gladiator Workout begins May 17. Call the YWCA at 612-332-0501 to sign up.