Extreme fitness: are you tough enough?

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Hit a tyre with a sledgehammer. That’s all I need to do. It isn’t an especially big sledgehammer, nor an especially small tyre. But can I do it? Can I balls.

Either of my grandfathers could have managed this without a second thought. They’d have put a hole in the tyre on their first attempt, such was their aptitude for manual labour. Even my dad, a month after his 65th birthday, could do this.

But me? Nope. Mine is a body rendered buttery with inertia. My hands are creepily smooth. The most violently physical I’ve been in the last six months was to hit the full-stop key on my smartphone after drafting a passive-aggressive email I never sent. Had my ancestors been confronted by my sludgy mess of a torso, they’d have been repulsed and confused. They’d have asked why I wanted to hit the tyre with a sledgehammer in the first place. I’d have told them that it was because I wanted to look better with my top off. Then they would have popped back upstairs to tell God never to let me into heaven.

I am rubbish at hitting tyres with sledgehammers. My elbows bend at funny angles. My legs are askew. Tim Walker, the founder of primal fitness course Evolution Of Man and my trainer for the day, can see this. He’s disappointed. “Straighten your arm!” he yells whenever I draw back the hammer. So, with all my might, I straighten my arm. I take a deep breath. I bring the sledgehammer down.

Crack.

I miss the tyre by about a foot. The sledgehammer crashes against the concrete floor of the gym, leaving an ugly, permanent welt. Walker grabs the hammer, surveys the damage and politely suggests that we try something else. Thor, as if you needed to be told, I ain’t.

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This is extreme fitness, and everyone’s at it. Gyms of old – full of exercise bikes, MTV and swishy ponytails – are slowly being replaced by warehouses full of loose metal. Weight machines have fallen out of fashion, and a terrifying array of explosive full-body movements have sprung up in their place. Fans of this stuff don’t just work out, they basically beat themselves to death.

You may have seen bootcamps taking place in the parks where joggers used to dwell, people springing over benches and lumbering around with backpacks loaded with rocks. Or maybe you’ve witnessed CrossFit or high-intensity interval training (HIIT) classes, full of exhausted people performing squats and deadlifts as if their lives depended on them.

Thanks to these fads, exercise in general has grown more functional. Gyms are filling up with relatively quotidian equipment, such as thick ropes you whip against the ground, tall boxes you leap on top of, sandbags that you carry on your shoulders, and hammers that you use to beat up tyres.

From a physical standpoint, these exercises tend to be great for you. They force you to use several muscles at once in a way that constitutes a ferocious cardiovascular workout. From a psychological perspective, it’s just as punishing.

Primal fitness asks you to reconnect with your animal self, and have as shitty a time as possible while you’re at it. It’s the physical equivalent of the Landmark Forum, the creepy, cultish self-development programme in which leaders break down your personality before rebuilding it from scratch. The primal fitness creed is that city living has disconnected us from our animal instincts. Once we were bears and tigers, but now we’re merely fattened calves. Regardless of age or gender, we’ve let ourselves go as a species. This is the fitness industry’s way of reining us back in.

“In the city, you wake up and you moisturise,” Walker tells me, my sledgehammer catastrophe thankfully behind us. “You have an expensive black coffee, you get on the tube in your nice suit, and then you go to work in your plush office. It’s not very animal. We’re supposed to be strong and do stuff. Instead, we dress up in nice clothes and sit down.”

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Walker created Evolution Of Man as a direct reaction to this. A three-month, four-times-a-week body and lifestyle transformation course that takes place in a studio in the City of London and limits itself to 24 new clients a year, Evolution Of Man is occasionally guilty of teetering on the brink of masculine caricature. Its website screams: “Can you eat, sleep and train like a warrior for 12 weeks to achieve YOUR DREAM BODY?” while confronting you with an endless parade of before and after photographs in which everyone ends up looking like Instagrammed flightsocks that have been stuffed with pebbles. If it were any more self-consciously macho, it would be the volleyball scene from Top Gun.

“The website’s for city guys, and that’s what they like,” Walker says. “I want people either to go, ‘That’s pretty intense. Good’, or ‘That’s pretty intense. I’m not interested’. That mindset is important, because my clients are people who know how to knuckle down and do things. You should have a body that mimics your success in life. I saw a guy in a Ferrari the other day. He was really overweight, and I thought, ‘Nah.’ If he was lean and in shape, it would be a much better fit.”

Walker, a tall, amiable, absurdly fit man in his mid-30s, knows his market inside out. And the market is huge: over 1 million people have now taken part in Tough Mudder events– vast, weird, aggressively branded obstacle courses that hype up their own difficulty in order to appeal to a certain type of superficially emasculated man. I’ve done a couple of these events in the past, and they always begin with a faux Navy Seal pledge and end with thousands of blokes taking topless selfies while they down pints of beer. Between, you’ll climb over walls, crawl under wires, receive electric shocks and, as of this year, run through a tent filled with teargas. It’s an ersatz kind of suffering, designed for would-be Territorial Army recruits who can’t commit to every weekend, because they do a big Homebase trip most Sundays.

It almost seems offensive, this wave of people paying over the odds to experience negative sensations. Your parents worked until their fingers bled to ensure that you wouldn’t have to follow them into a life of backbreaking physical graft, but, now that you’ve made a bit of money, you’re blowing it all to replicate their struggle in relative comfort. Viewed from a distance, the movement comes off as a colossal identity crisis.

But from a fitness perspective, functional training is actually pretty great. And that’s why it’s suddenly everywhere. Chris McDougall, the man credited with kickstarting the barefoot running craze of a few years ago, has just published his follow-up book. Entitled Natural Born Heroes, it’s a paean to trail running, parkour, larking around on irregular rocks and everything else that we’ve given up in the name of comfort. It’s hard work, but McDougall seems to understand that hard work is the only way you’ll get anywhere.

Thanks to my session at Evolution Of Man, so now do I. I’ve had hard workouts before, but what Walker put me through was cartoonishly punishing. Over the course of an hour, I slammed battle ropes, huffed my way through various plyo jumps, did reverse rows and leg lifts on Olympic rings, laboured through what felt like an abnormal amount of push-ups and attempted something called a weighted sledge push.

This would be my nemesis. Dubbed “The Widowmaker” by Walker – a bit drastic even for him – it consists of a metal tray loaded down with barbell plates that you have to push from one end of the gym to the other and back at top speed. I did it once, and I was fine. I did it again, and my vision reduced to a pinprick. Everything started swimming before me, and I was pummelled by wave after wave of nausea.

Once the session ended, I crawled off to fold myself into the foetal position on a changing room bench. I prayed that nobody would come in, because I didn’t have the energy to lift my head and acknowledge them, let alone speak. Between the work-out itself and the physical assessment that preceded it – involving toplessness and tape measures and fat-grabbing callipers – I ended my session quite depressed. Walker had shown me for the lump that I am, and he was the only one who could fix me. I found myself wanting to be like him. I wanted to be a machine.

If the circumstances had been different, I would have signed up for Evolution Of Man there and then. If I had, and I’d stuck with the whole course, I’d be lean and hard by now, my soft city flab rendered down to a walnutty sheen.

But, in the end, I didn’t. The gym was 50 miles from my home and I wouldn’t have been able to live with the constant tang of metal at the back of my throat from all the exertion. However, the session did briefly convince me that I was a traitor to my gender, so that was something.

“You should always be smashing something or lifting something,” Walker reminded me before I staggered out. “Hitting stuff and lifting stuff is what every guy wants to do. Saying it out loud sounds weird – ‘I just want to hit something and be a man’ – but inside, if you do it, you feel good. Even though you smashed a hole in the floor with that hammer earlier, you still felt good. Men get that sort of satisfaction only from sex and exercise. Women get it from sex and exercise and chocolate.”

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All of this seems quite problematic to me, partly because I’m a man and I more or less derive any form of satisfaction exclusively from chocolate these days. But also, once you’ve clawed away all the knuckleheaded philosophy about men being the king of the jungle, primal fitness is a far more inclusive movement than you’d think.

Farrah Storr is the editor of Women’s Health magazine, a publication that’s almost entirely given over to functional training. “It’s hugely popular among our readership, which spans from early 20s to early 50s and beyond,” she says. “It enhances the body’s movement outside the gym. That’s a big deal when you consider that most women – and I’m generalising here – do the same movements every day, like sit at work and commute and carry bags and children. Functional training allows us to move our bodies in many of the ways we haven’t had the opportunity to do for years.”

I can vouch that women are a big part of the craze for primal movement – at Judgment Day, an obstacle race I took part in last year, I found myself surrounded by fiercely fit and competitive female participants. Mark Buller, the race’s founder, says, “We’ve seen the number of women taking part in our events rise from 18% to 32% in 12 months. And we expect that to continue at that rate for the foreseeable future.”

Judgment Day isn’t one of those genteel, insultingly pink affairs with manicures on the finish line; in fact, it’s one of the more fundamentally primal events around, shunning the empty, macho spectacle of, for instance, Tough Mudder for sandbag hauls and tyre flips and awful obstacles where you have to drag gigantic clumps of concrete through ankle-deep mud.

It’s very easy to look at the rise of primal fitness and get a bit God Help Us If There’s A War about it. After all, if you dropped any of these fanatics into the wild, they’d be just as screwed as the rest of us. And, for all the good it does you, bashing a tyre with a sledgehammer isn’t exactly a marketable skill. It isn’t anywhere near as functional as panel beating a car back into shape, or digging a ditch, or tiling a roof.

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But it’s no less ridiculous than any other form of exercise. It’s just as silly as spending an hour furiously pedalling on a bicycle that doesn’t go anywhere, or lifting a metal bar above your head again and again while making a noise like a constipated ox. In the grand scheme of things, primal fitness training will only ever be about a tenth as silly as Zumba.

Plus, there is a bit of a point to it. More than ever, city dwellers are just plumped-up baby-people, waddling from seat to seat with a snack in one hand and a little distraction machine in the other. So maybe Walker is right when he says: “Everything’s so nice now. It’s plush. We’ve taken the rawness out of everything. You need to suffer a little bit. It’s hard, but you learn to enjoy the pain.”

You need to suffer a bit. You need to learn to enjoy the pain: those are certainly rules to live your life by. But you go first. I’m clearly not to be trusted with hammers.

 

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