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This Way Up

Conventional gym workouts will beef you up - but not necessarily make you fit. To take your body to the next level, try one of these new techniques.

health and fitness Updated: Jul 30, 2011 19:17 IST
Pranav Dixit
Piyush-Pandey-has-been-Crossfit-affiliated-since-a-year
Piyush-Pandey-has-been-Crossfit-affiliated-since-a-year

Are you fit? No, stop! We don't want to see your massive biceps and that chiselled six-pack. What we mean by our question is: do you think you could last through any of the routines described below for more than a few minutes?

Becasue we've got together the trainers of three revolutionary and intense workouts - Crossfit, TRX and Muay Thai - to show you exactly how to get fit - inside out. At least two of these routines are used by pros, enthusiasts and people whose livelihoods depend on their fitness levels - milatary men, firefighters, sportspeople and the like.

"A consistent gymming routine will only shape and tone your body. It does nothing for overall cardiovascular fitness", says Crossfit trainer Piyush Pandey. "And people who do yoga and pilates can claim to be healthy but not fit."

Adds TRX pro Abdul Qadir: "What makes TRX unique is the systematic collection of best practices, both old and new, that have been assembled, modified and formalised into a single coherent body with a cutting-edge training methodology."

And Muay Thai, a form of Thai kickboxing will not only give you the best cardio workout ever, IT WILL also teach you how to break a few bones along the way (Note: this isn't mandatory but it might be a handy skill to have). It will also burn about twice as many calories as a standard, slow and steady gym session - about 1,000 to 1,400.

Hang on, though. Since when did normal people need to get into fitness regimes meant for army men and firefighters? "Getting into these routines because you're bored with your gym isn't a good enough excuse for a normal person," advises Dr SKS Marya, chairman, Orthopaedics and Institue of Joint Replacement at Max Healthcare, New Delhi. "You shoudl find your own level before getting into any hardcore fitness regime, even if it is something as basic as jogging."

But what if you want to ramp up your fitness to a while other level? Well then, unless your idea of exercise has always been winding your watch, head right in TRX.

A few months ago, a bodybuilder signed up for TRX sessions with trainer Abdul Qadir at Gurgaon's Fitness First gym. "This man had, like, a flawless body", says Qadir." He had about seven per cent body fat (the average male has between 13 to 17 per cent) so he was like, seriously ripped."

Edgar-Noordamus

Five minutes of TRX. That was all the muscleman could take before collapsing, huffing and puffing, in a sweaty heap. "The guy had great musculature but almost no flexibility, no stability, no balance, no stamina and no core strength - all essential components of a TRX workout", says Qadir.

Say hello to TRX, a loose acronym for Total Body Resistance Training Exercise and a hot new form of resistance training in India. TRX workouts are done with the body suspended off the ground - either the legs are the upper body are kept off the floor. The idea is simple: you put your feet in stirrups suspended from 12-foot nylon straps attached to pretty much anything that will hold your weight and use your own bodyweight to burn calories.

Working out while suspended bat-like thus, TRX turns the caloric demand of every exercise way up - in other words, you involve more muscle in your workout and burn more calories.

"You don't need any cardio if you do TRX", says Qadir who trains about 20 people - everyone from students to newspaper editors - each month on the TRX Suspension Training System at Fitness First ("and more people are signing up daily!" he assures).

Unlike simply running on a treadmill or lifting weights at a gym, TRX, says Qadir, is all about working on your core strength and stamina. "You're not working muscles in isolation. Instead, TRX turns any movement into a total body workout because of its demands on the core", he says. "It exposes all the weak links in your body and thus ensures that no muscle is left uninvolved." Gym rats take note: bulging biceps and washboard abs are useless if you break a sweat after a ten-minute jog on the treadmill.

So what's a typical TRX routine like? There is no such thing as a 'typical' routine, according to Qadir. There's no schedule and the intensity varies from person to person. That said, there are over 300 exercises possible on the TRX system - everything from leg squats and inverted rows to crunches and pushups. "The difficult part comes because you need to balance yourself as you're exercising", says Qadir. "That itself takes a few weeks to get the hang of."

Abdul Qadir

TRX creator Randy Hetrick, a former US Navy Seal, calls it "the most versatile piece of exercise gear on the planet" on the official website. "Regardless of who you are, if you want to perform and look your best, TRX is the perfect tool for you", gushes Hetrick to a montage of athletic men and sweating it out on the distinctive-looking yellow and black TRX straps.

But hold your horses - of course it's not that simple. "TRX is intense and I wouldn't recommend it to beginners", says Qadir. "You need to build some sort of a foundation before diving into it. I recommend at least six months of a regular gym workout - the routine cardio and weight training should be fine - before you even think of attempting it. Once you do TRX, it is kind of like going to the next level."

Indeed, critics warn that the instability of the suspension straps can be injurious to people without adequate core strength or joint integrity.

Once you do sign up, though, you can combine TRX with your regular weight training in the gym or do it exclusively three times a week (and no more!). "The best thing about TRX is how short the sessions are!" laughs Qadir. "If you can last 30 minutes, you're really good. Anything over 45? I'll take a bow."

1. Diet: Make no mistake, TRX demands high levels of energy. "You need to have large quantities of complex carbs like white oats", says Qadir. "If you're experienced, even having a protein shake an hour before the workout would be good." Rule of thumb? High protein and moderate carbs - that's the best way to go.

2. Why would normal people want to do it if it's so hardcore?

* No gym required! Once you get the hang of it, you can simply sling the TRX straps pretty much anywhere - on a doorframe at home, in your office cabin or even a tree in a park if you go jogging in the morning. It's all about fitness anywhere!

* TRX doesn't just make you stronger, it makes you more flexible and increases your stamina.

* The straps themselves cost about Rs. 15 thousand - and that's a one-time purchase. No monthly gym fees!

3. Celebs who do TRX: Brad Pitt, rapper LL Cool J

4. Clothes: Gym shorts and a T-shirt. "We're not too fussy, really", says Qadir. "Just make sure it allows you to stretch freely."

MUAY THAI

Six months of Muay Thai with Edgar Noordamus at his Bodyforce gym in New Delhi will turn you into a lean, mean fighting machine, fit enough to break bones. No, making you violent is not the goal of Muay Thai (though being able to break bones may not be an entirely useless skill to have, especially if you stay in a city like Delhi). It is, in fact, a great way to stay in shape and learn some stylish self-defence techniques to boot. Thailand's national sport combines flexibility, stamina, balance and strength workout in one powerful package and a ninety minute session can work wonders for your agility, speed and cardiovascular endurance. It can even help you concentrate and lower your stress levels (imagining your boss as you work on the punching bag is a good way to start).

"It's a brutal sport, one that you try not to use in real life", laughs Edgar who started Muay Thai training sessions in Delhi last August - a first in India ("The world is obsessed with Karate and Taekwondo, you know!") and trains about 40 people in batches of about ten each three times a week. "Imagine having a knee or an elbow in your face!" But you don't have to fight, he quickly adds, if you don't want to. "You can just train and that would still be more intense than your regular gym workout."

On a balmy summer evening, I descend a flight of stairs in Edgar's gym to witness a Muay Thai workout session in full swing. Nine muscular men kick, punch and grapple shirtless on a blue rubber mat around a mid-sized boxing ring, muscles taut, sweat rolling down their washboard abs. The room resounds with the thumping bass of It's A Fight, the official Rocky Balboa soundtrack. In the midst of the men is a petite girl, scarcely over 5 feet, sparring for all she is worth. A fist slices through the air, coming dangerously close to the girl's head. She flinches and blocks it just in time with an enormous rubber pad on her arm. Suddenly, a loud buzzer rents the room. "Pushups!" hollers Edgar. Everyone, including the girl falls to the ground and starts heaving their bodies in a frenzied motion. A minute later, they're back on their feet, arms and legs flailing. "Just a regular day at the gym", Edgar smiles, turning to me.

Muay Thai primarily uses eight points of contact on the body - the two fists and elbows (used to strike) and the two shins and knees (used to strike and block). Here's how a ninety minute session goes: everyone does a 3 km run (uphill and downhill) to warm up, followed by skipping with a heavy rope for 10 minutes ("great for the arms", says Edgar) and stretching. Once you are warmed up, you dive into the actual training, a routine that varies everyday - one day, you might work on your kicking technique, another day, you might work on sparring and, if you're up for it, one-on-ones in the boxing ring itself. "Also, we do a minute of pushups after every fifteen minutes or so", says Edgar. "So after seven or eight rounds, you really start to feel it!"

Make no bones about it, a consistent Muay Thai workout will give you a lean, toned body with musculature to kill for. At Edgar's gym, six-packs are the norm, not an exception. It's pretty hardcore. "A lot of people tell me they'd like to sign up for a class but first, they're going to join a regular gym to get fit and build some muscle", says Edgar. "But really, that's a contradiction because anyone can do Muay Thai. You don't have to be a bodybuilder or even a fitness freak."

Edgar-Noordamus

Once you sign up, Edgar will assess your fitness levels and scale your sessions accordingly. This means if you're a chip-eating, cola-guzzling teddy bear, you won't be paired with a boxing-glove-wielding muscleman right from day one. "I start you off slow, let you do your own thing, kick and punch wildly for a while till you really start to get the hang of it", says Edgar. "As you go along, you'll automatically find yourself punching better, kicking harder and lasting longer. Then, you'll beg for more."

Edgar's Muay Thai clients range from 16-year-old school kids to 58 year old lawyers. Some do it for fitness, some simply to get a one up in an occasional brawl. "Also (and this is important for most women who want to join), it's the fastest way of losing weight", says Edgar. "We can drop 3 kilos in a week if we want."

There's a roar near the boxing ring as the petite girl battles it out with a muscular guy. "She's really good", Edgar tells me. "You want to go in there and give it a try?", he asks me. "You might be able to write better about it." If I go in there, I might not be able to write at all, I feel like telling him.

A short distance away, 21-year-old Jahangir Raza marks a target high on a punching bag with the sweat from his forehead. He stands back, takes a deep breath. Then, his muscular foot swings out of nowhere and he kicks the target with a full-bodied roar. "Impressive", says Edgar. "Thanks", says Raza with a smile. "I weighed 105 kg once", he tells me. "In 5 months of Muay Thai, I've dropped 30 kg! It's the best cardio you can ever get. I do lift weights at my gym, but that's basically all the gymming I do", he says.

In the ring, the girl ends the bout, knocking her opponent back with a well-timed punch. She smiles and strides confidently to where I'm standing. "You're a journalist, eh", she says. I nod. "If you promise not to write my name, I'm going to be really frank. A year back, I was in rehab. I was an alcoholic. Ever since I've started doing Muay Thai, I've been clean, you know. It gives me something I can really focus on." Does she feel safer? "You mean can I protect myself?" she asks. "Didn't you see me in the ring? Hell yeah."

1. Diet: Is this the best part of Muay Thai or what? "You can have…everything!", laughs Edgar. "Sometimes, we take off for a few beers after our sessions and occasionally pig out on junk food! The workout itself is so intense that everything melts away in the blink of an eye."

2. Clothes: Cotton shorts and a singlet - or, if you want, just the shorts!

Why doing Muay Thai is more fun that sweating it out on the treadmill:

* You learn a skill along with getting all that exercise.
* It's social: you're always paired with a partner who can motivate you (or vice versa)
* It's the best way to burn away the calories - a typical session can burn anywhere from 1,000 to 1,400 calories, about twice as much as a slow and steady gym session.

CROSSFIT

What strikes me most when I walk into Piyush Pandey's CrossFit Himalaya gym in Delhi is the total absence of any kind of workout machinery that most gyms are choc-a-bloc with - no treadmills, no bikes, no rowing machines and no leg presses. Also, no LCD TVs on the walls, no energy-drink dispensers, no Kanye West blaring out of speakers and certainly no air-conditioning. The large room, matted with blue rubber is strewn with a few exercise balls, large, wooden blocks, weights, dumbbells and kettle bells. A pair of gymnastic rings hangs from a frame in a corner next to a basic pull-up bar affixed to a beam. A musty smell hangs in the air. "We just completed a CrossFit session", says Piyush, perching himself on a makeshift bench. I perch myself on an exercise ball. "Nothing makes people sweat so much!"

When Piyush started CrossFit Himalaya last August, he became only the second person in the country to join a global community of what has been described as a fitness company, a grassroots health movement and a nascent sport. CrossFit belittlers have gone so far as to call it a fad and a cult. If it is a fad, then it's certainly a big one: Piyush's CrossFit Himalaya is one of the 2,000 plus CrossFit affiliated gyms across the world - and one of the only two in India (the other one, CrossFit Om, is based in Mumbai).

"It's kickass to be a part of a huge, global community of people dedicated to keeping their bodies fit", says Piyush, visibly excited. "For me, it's not just a business. It's a lifestyle."

CrossFit is a licensed workout routine developed in California in the 1980s by trainer Greg Glassman. Glassman's idea of an effective training regime is simple: short, high-octane workouts that are a combination of weight training, sprints and gymnastics. "A typical Crossfitter is an equal parts gymnast, Olympic weightlifter and sprinter", Glassman has said. The routine stresses intensity and little rest. Fitness, the CrossFit way, is proficiency in each of these ten domains -cardiovascular endurance, flexibility, power, speed, stamina, strength, agility, accuracy, coordination and balance.

"It's basically very high intensity functional training", explains Piyush. "Which means that we focus on natural body movements like pushing, pulling, running, climbing, lifting weights and squatting. There are no artificial movements in CrossFit like what you would do at a regular gym - you know, like bench press or bicep curls or crunches."

The resulting workout is nothing like you would get anywhere else. To work on your agility, for instance, you would be required to jump on and off a large wooden block; feeling stiff? Work on your flexibility by climbing up a thick rope hanging from the ceiling; for accuracy, simply hit a target with a 5-kg rubber ball multiple times (this is exhausting, even if it may not sound like much - trust me, I tried!); and if you're yearning for good-old weights, they're there too (warning: this is CrossFit so they're Olympic-sized).

A typical session lasts for an hour, but the core workout lasts only for about 20 minutes, according to Piyush. "The rest of the time is for warm up and stretching", he says. "It's as intense as it can get because you really get a full-body workout."

Routine is our enemy and will lead to mediocrity, complacency and injury, states the CrossFit Himalaya website (crossfithimalaya.com). "Every day is different", says Piyush, pointing to a large white-board hanging next to framed photographs of himself, muscles bulging, six-packs abs on full display (a guaranteed by-product of CrossFit, he assures me). "I draw up a custom WOD (Workout of the Day) for everyone to follow daily. It is never repeated."

26-year-old Neha Gambhir, who claims she is the first 'girl CrossFitter' in Delhi, admits it was tough in the beginning. "I was used to working out in air-conditioned gyms with mirrors on the walls, iPod stuck in my ears", she says. "Adjusting to this no-frills form of exercise was a challenge. However, I found that it is easier to stay focused on the actual workout in CrossFit without the distraction of blaring music or TV sets in the background." Today, she says her fitness is there for everyone to see. "Men ask me to stop lifting so much weight in front of them - I can lift about 70 kg - because they are embarrassed!" she laughs. "Can you imagine I weighed 98 kilos once? CrossFit has pushed me to a level where nothing seems impossible!"

1. Who can do CrossFit?: Everyone! While it's true that the program is used primarily by fire departments, law enforcement agencies and military organisations to keep their personnel in tiptop shape, the level of intensity is highly scalable.
"You don't have to lift 100 kilos right on day one", says Piyush. "You can start with ten. It's the technique that is important."

2. Precautions to take: It is crucial to do CrossFit under the guidance of a certified trainer to avoid injuries.
"The trainer is your God", says Piyush. "It is entirely up to him or her to design your WOD and that is something you have to follow to a T."

Be frank: Tell your trainer of any preexisting medical condition, however minor, so he or she can factor that in to your WOD.

3. Diet: Go caveman! Piyush recommends a 'Paleo Diet' which essentially a nutritional plan based on the presumed diet of wild plants and animals that human consumed during the Paleollithic era 2.5 million years ago.

This means no grains and no cereals - the Paleolithic people existed way before agriculture was discovered! "It's the best diet on the planet", says Piyush. "It consists largely of fresh vegetables, fruits, mushrooms, cabbage, salads and lean chicken - plenty of proteins and carbs!"

This doesn't mean you can't indulge once in a while, though. "I did go to KFC once", says Piyush. When, though? He wrinkles his brow. "You know, it was quite some time back, so I can't really remember!"

4. Clothes:Soft, cotton shirt, shorts and lightweight running shoes

This story first appeared the Winter Special edition of the Brunch Quarterly, the brand new magazine from the Hindustan Times.