Health & Grooming

Fit for purpose

High-flyers are quitting the isolation of the treadmill and the chest press for more traditional, interactive disciplines. From martial arts to boot camps, these workouts are reshaping the male physique, says Jack Dyson.

December 27 2010
Jack Dyson

One of the great montages of 1980s cinema can be found in one of that decade’s less-great films: Rocky IV. In it, Stallone’s Rocky Balboa trains for the fight of his life against Soviet powerhouse Ivan Drago, played by Dolph Lundgren. Rocky chops wood, drags tractor tyres with chains and hauls himself up snow-covered mountainsides; Drago pumps shiny weights and pits himself against sleek gym machines. We all know who won; but there’s more to this than the Italian-American-pluck-versus-Soviet-science theme. The message, if you’ll forgive the medium, is that there is no better training ground than the real world.

Mens sana in corpore sano – a healthy mind in a healthy body – was once the watchword for fitness. But look at what has happened to the way we keep fit: we exercise in windowless basements, ingesting both recycled air and asinine music piped in at a steady feed. We wear often bizarre-looking clothing, use massive machines designed to target single muscles, embrace balls of various sizes in a variety of undignified contortions to “work the core” – and then, after getting a slight bead on, pamper ourselves in mood-lit changing rooms with a range of aromatherapy shampoos.

Medically beneficial, undoubtedly; but is there a better way? The modern gymnasium may stimulate our heart rates and get muscles bigger. But there’s a growing school of thought that, in terms of overall fitness, both physical and mental, the outside world is where we should be looking, not so much for inspiration but for things to actually do; and, crucially, for the more tasking discipline required to get them done.

Straight-up gym training can, of course, be goal-driven, and as such keeps the gym relevant. David Morton, senior features writer at Men’s Health, still goes to the gym, but it’s a choice related to his crowded diary. “I don’t enjoy it as much as actually doing something real. People say, ‘Oh, I’m going training at lunch’ and often they’re not, they’re just doing it for the sake of it. If you do a sport or have a specific goal – triathlon, for example – you train in order to improve.” But as the aesthetic ideal for men shifts ever further away from the super-groomed metrosexual to a manlier paradigm, are ideal body shapes also being reconsidered? “Yes,” says Morton. “It’s starting to shift from defined, pumped, Arnie-style to a more ‘functional’-looking body. [With some of the new training styles], people run, jump and lift dynamically rather than aim for a cubic shape. It harks back to the old days when real men had muscle from work – not from a Power Plate.”

Benet Brandreth, a London barrister specialising in intellectual property, feels similarly about the confinement of the fitness centre. “[It’s] a place of isolation. Just look at a packed gym with all the people hiding in their private worlds of iPods and earphones.” His regimen, part of a trend he refers to as “functional fitness”, comprises MMA (mixed martial arts), Eskrima (Filipino knife- and stick-fighting techniques) and elements of boxing and kick-boxing training – skills honed at the Bob Breen Academy in Hoxton. “It’s not just about the positive benefits of these exercises,” he says. “It’s a conscious rejection of the alternatives – the gym bunny who has spent hours on preacher curls to build biceps the size of melons, but leaves his legs untouched, or the man with the massive pecs who gets out of breath running for the bus.”

Clearly, for this different sort of workout, a different sort of motivation is required. Boot camps have gained in popularity in recent years on both sides of the Atlantic. But the purists’ version – camps created and run by former military officers – remain the standard. Jack Walston, a veteran US Navy Seal, runs Seal PT, which gets people fit and tough in New York and Houston through old-fashioned callisthenics – exhausting circuits of chin-ups, jumping jacks – dispatched with a minimum of warm fuzziness. “[Men] have become a global society of wusses,” Walston says. “We need to get outside and man up, get bitten by mosquitoes, take charge. I’m not your personal trainer, or your friend. [I’m there to] get your ass out of your cubicle and make you remember your nature.”

“It’s not about sit-ups or press-ups,” says Walston, though within a typical two-week course – starting at 5am sharp, every day, and lasting a non-stop hour and a half – the upper body or lower body might be targeted, or a session might be given over to running exercises. “I’m there to get you to give 100 per cent and go home a better person. I make sure everybody knows everybody else’s name – you can’t have a team if you don’t.”

Boot camps have achieved critical mass in the UK as well. If you’ve been through Hyde Park in the (very) early morning, you’ll have seen the tabards of British Military Fitness (£31-£48 per month), where former army instructors set up group circuits that leave the participants ruddy-cheeked and breathless, but grinning. “We don’t really pull or push things in our lives any more,” says founder Robin Cope, “and the gym somehow evolved to reflect that. It wasn’t fulfilling, and even in classes there was no interaction. [What we offer is] a decent instructor motivating you in a positive way.”

And then there’s that most alpha of manly pursuits: going toe-to-toe in an old-fashioned fight. Matthew Nesbit, who works for Aviva Investors in London, took part in the Square Up in the City charity boxing event last year. He worked up to his bout through regular sessions with a professional trainer using the Cityboxer training system at The Ring Boxing Club in Blackfriars (£710 for annual membership). The event is affiliated with White Collar Boxing – born on Wall Street in the late 1990s, it organises amateur matches between City workers and has steadily gained cachet since debuting in London in 2003.

“Not getting beaten up in front of your friends and colleagues is a much better motivator than wanting to look good; fighting for your pride is about the best goal you can have,” says Nesbit. And there’s a desirable side effect: “I haven’t felt as fit for years.” That’s because boxing is massively aerobic, its constant motion and flexion punctuated by quick, controlled movements providing an intensive all-body workout. “Plus, you acquire a skill, and you pick up a lot of confidence.”

Brandreth seconds Nesbitt’s sentiments. “It is about rejecting artificial measures of improvement and all about finding out if you can pull yourself over the cliff edge, swim to safety from the sinking boat, pull the fallen beam off your trapped comrade,” he says.

But these things don’t have to take place in the ring. In the west London studio of acclaimed dancer and choreographer Russell Maliphant, a motley crew gathers informally every few weeks. Numbering never more than six at a time, they congregate for two or three hours in the evening for a sort of benevolent fight club, comparing fitness and training notes and techniques from varied backgrounds. In terms of career, they range from barrister to osteopath to freelance journalist (full disclosure: your writer is a regular participant). In terms of physical fitness, methods run from Maliphant’s own modern-dance-based movement to kick-boxing, Wing Chun and the Russian martial art known as Systema.

The point isn’t about cultivating a six-pack, or even learning how to fight; the club focuses on simple exploration of movement to build reflexes and speed – with increased mobility and strength the by-products. Many exercises are borrowed from Systema, the Russian Spetsnaz (secret services) martial art, focusing on manipulation and control of the various systems of the body – nervous, respiratory, circulatory – as well as on the psychology of combat.

What’s this particular club like? Shared technique and interaction are more important than targets, because they require a holistic approach in the true sense of the word. Heightened sensitivity and perception – awareness during pressure situations, building up to blindfolded exercises against multiple opponents – are often a focus, and work done on striking is carried out with much attention to breathing.

The lesson, ultimately, is in the goal: evolve what you do beyond the cosmetic. Instead of lifting weights for 20 minutes, get an axe and chop a stack of wood. If wood stacks are scarce in your area, find a group of like-minded friends and form a club. The social atmosphere will transform differences in physical aptitude into positives the group can exploit. The idea is to measure yourself alongside your peers, not against a plastic chart on a wall.

And remember: always stairs, not lifts – and never just stand on the escalator. By all means be grateful to live in a modern society, but don’t let it be an excuse for letting the machines do all the work for you.

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Exercise