Shaun T’s workouts have rebuilt the bodies and lives of millions of men. you can be next. Just don’t call it a New Year’s resolution
IT’S ALWAYS THE SAME. A FAT NEW YEAR ROLLS UP LIKE SOME SWAGGERING DEBT COLLECTOR. YOU REACH DEEP INTO
your pocket for whatever you’ve got to offer – a weight-loss resolution or a vow to wake at 5am for a run. (Ha! Yeah, right.)
Then you hit March and nothing has changed, and you stand there feeling like a total failure.
“I never make New Year resolutions,” says Shaun T, 36, creator of the Insanity workout. This is mainly, Shaun explains, because a year – the 365-day interval itself – has nothing to do with the actual time your body needs to change or your mind’s ability to stay focused.
“You hear a New Year resolution in the first week, then you hear nothing about it ever again,” he says.
If you want to change your body and your life, Shaun T claims to know a better way. And he can point to a rabid fanbase – and over R4-billion in DVD sales – to prove it. Ever since Jane Fonda’s Workout and Greg Smithey’s Buns of Steel hit the shelves back in the 80s, home exercise videos have primarily targeted women. But much like shows about cooking – another domain that was once the exclusive purview of women – that’s changing fast.
“More men are starting to participate in group workouts, and guys are buying fitness DVDs now too,” says Chris Freytag, a senior consultant with the American Council on Exercise. This is partly because people started wanting to combine strength and cardio in the same workout. “Everything used to be very choreographed, very routine-oriented,” explains Freytag. “Now, group fitness is boot-campish. It’s more circuits, more intervals. It’s athletic driven, movement driven.”
Fair enough. But let’s be honest: even without the unitard, video workouts still don’t come easy to most guys. After all, we don’t want to be just anyone’s puppet, twitching our limbs to their tune.
If you want to lead us, you need to prove that you are worthy. So how are we supposed to know Shaun T is worthy?
The fact is, we don’t. For all we know he could be just another fraud with a bumpy stomach, cashing in on our glorious reserves of low self-esteem.
But that’s why we’re flipping the script. Anyone who’s ever signed up at a gym has been through a fitness test.
Now it’s the trainer’s turn.
As he stands before the counter of a Dunkin’ Donuts in Mesa, Arizona, not far from the airy three-bedroom home that overlooks his flourishing fitness empire, Shaun T runs his eyes over the racks of sugary confections. Some things you can’t look at too closely. Because if you do, your worst impulses may be aroused. In time, you learn to shepherd your gaze. Not Shaun T. He doesn’t steer away from temptation. “I love doughnuts,” he says. “I’m not going to eat lettuce for the rest of my life.” His typical move: order three and eat a quarter of each.
Why is this relevant, you ask? Well, because it points to the central riddle of fitness: how can you be tough enough on yourself that your goals actually count for something, yet easy enough that you don’t lose heart before you achieve them?
Shaun T’s answer to this riddle is the first thing that sets him apart from many famous trainers.
“You don’t have to be perfect,” he says. “The only thing I care about is if you dig seriously deep.”
It’s a line that’s familiar to anyone who has worked out to Shaun T’s videos – especially Insanity, the cornerstone of his, um, oeuvre.
It all began in 1992 with the tall, bald New Jersey state trooper who coached the Deptford High running team. Sonny Anderson was one of those classic coaches, the kind of dude who never cracked a smile even if you lapped the competition.
Shaun T had played other sports. But running required a self-awareness and inner focus that resonated with him. Even today he uses some of Coach Anderson’s lines – like the one about pretending to hold a potato chip between your thumb and forefinger to keep your body relaxed.
“I created Insanity 100% from my first day of track and field,” Shaun says.
That first day began with a 1.6km run, then drills – mummy kicks, high-knees, Heismans, butt kicks. Then stretching.
“I was like, this is easy,” Shaun T says. “And the coach is like, ‘That was just the warm-up. Get on the track. Eight 400s with a 30-second rest.’”
Seventeen years later, Shaun replaced the run with a series of 30-second aerobic warm-ups, and the 400s with intensive two-minute intervals of push-ups, frog jumps and whatever else he could think up.
“And right there you have Insanity,” he says. No weights, no equipment. “You’re not pushing a dumbbell. You’re pushing yourself. Your body is your equipment.”
Most Shaun T workouts entail a 60-day commitment – a stretch of time that’s far less likely to end in apathy or burnout than your typical January vow. (“Sixty days is just the right amount of
time to keep your attention,” he says. “Thirty days is not enough to see amazing results.”)
The goal, says Shaun, is not a perfect, model body, but peak physical condition. After all, everyone is different. And our bodies always change over time. Your 20-year-old self will not look the same as your 50-year-old self. But everyone has a peak physical condition.
And there’s one other thing that everyone has in common – regardless of age, weight or current state of fitness. “You know that moment when you feel you can’t do one more, but somehow you get there?” Shaun says. “Everybody has that.”
Here you see the democratic spirit that animates the Shaun T approach. It doesn’t matter who you are. Even the lithe young gods you see populating his fitness videos occasionally reach their limit and stagger to the sidelines. And they’re not faking it, Shaun insists.
“I don’t care how fit you are. If you work as hard as you can work, you’re going to get tired.”
Partly this is due to the heterogeneity of the exercise. Unlike machine workouts, which isolate specific muscle groups, Shaun T’s workouts involve such a broad range of motion that it’s hard to settle into them. You’re constantly hustling to adjust and keep up – and this ensures that the red zone, where real sweat (and real transformation) happens, is always close at hand. In other words, you don’t need to run 10km to reach it.
But the ultimate measure of these workouts is how they leave you feeling. The first week or two kind of suck. But after that, you begin to notice a new lightness, as if a wet cloak has been cast off. Mentally you feel clearer, like a window rubbed free of fog.
And then one day it happens. Eventually, no matter where you are, like maybe in the middle of a meeting or standing in a lift, you’re overcome by this strange urge... Like more than anything, you just want to hit the floor and crank out some pushups. And unless you happen to be alone at the time, you have to restrain yourself.
It’s a weird moment because suddenly you feel like a different person. It’s as if the skedonk you were driving suddenly changed into a Maserati.
Every morning he leads a workout for his own tight-knit, tight-bodied crew: Scott, president and COO of Shaun T, Inc. (and his husband); Danielle, the “Sh*t Thinker Upper”; and Darren, the tech guy. Danielle and Darren, who are engaged, live two houses down; they swing by for the workout and then stick around to brainstorm new directions for Shaun T Fitness. The vibe: friendly, casual. The dress code: shaved chest or sports bra, shorts. Most of the strategising takes place in the kitchen, overlooking the pool. Laptops clutter the kitchen table. The coffee machine squeezes out another cup of chocolate-glazed-doughnut coffee. The fridge is stocked with boxes of protein bars, cartons of coconut water, orange juice, vegetables and packages of ground chicken and turkey. It’s hard to keep food in the house because they travel so much, but Shaun prioritises cooking meals.
It’s an unusual setup, but it suits Shaun. Authenticity is important to him, which is why he designs all his own workouts. “If I’m doing something someone else created, I feel a disconnect,” he says.
Now, with the workout about to begin, the four gather in the gym, a repurposed study next to the living room. This much Shaun knew when he bought the place: he wanted to bring fitness into the physical space of his life.
“All right, guys,” Shaun says. “Get ready. Tabata style. Sixteen rounds, four moves each circuit.”
He’s no drill sergeant, overplaying his authority to conceal the relative lack of it. He never quite orders you to do something. Instead he says stuff like, “I’m right there with you,” and, “You can do it.” At times, he can sound a bit like a big-hearted air traffic controller telling a terrified 12-year-old how to land a burning plane.
“I’m your biggest fan,” Shaun T will say. It’s almost like he carries this image of you in his head that only he can see. The person you could be. You know, like the “after” picture in all those fitness infomercials. This is his superpower, to accompany his Justice League muscles.
Here he has us at a disadvantage, because he can also see the dudes we are now. But what of his “before” picture? Who was Shaun T before he was Shaun T?
The answer is Shaun Thompson. He wasn’t always going to be an exercise guy. At first he wanted to be the next Anderson Cooper. But 20 kg stood between him and this particular fate. He gained the weight his first year of university, the usual fairy-tale story: kid who grew up hungry is given a magic food card that lets him order as much as he wants from the local pizza place.
Next comes the mirror moment, looking up one morning to find a disturbingly familiar fat guy staring back at him. The fitness regimen that restored the fat guy to his prior self was so gratifying that Shaun decided to switch his major to health and fitness. Here’s where the story starts to take off. Two years out of university, fleeing an asshole ex, he flies to Los Angeles to visit some friends. A guy he knows at a car rental company gets him some wheels, which lets him take a class at a famous L.A. dance studio.
At the studio, they like his style enough to refer him to an agency around the corner that’s holding auditions.
Twenty minutes later he’s getting down with 200 other applicants to Outkast’s “The Way You Move”– a song groovy enough to kick off almost any career. A few weeks after that he’s watching clothes spin at the laundromat, when an unknown number pops up on his cellphone.
We know how these stories go. It always seems so damn easy, as if a divine hand were clearing a path. It’s not just the agency thing. Like, somehow, within two months of moving to Los Angeles, Shaun is introduced to Kathy Smith, a titan of the fitness video world who, yeah, decides to take him under her wing.
Within a year he has appeared on the HBO show Six Feet Under, and someone from the gym where he’s working connects him to another guy, who choreographed for Michael Jackson, and then this guy hires him for The Ten Commandments, the musical.
Then he’s discovered by Beachbody, one of the biggest fitness video companies, and they hire him to produce Hip Hop Abs. Next comes Insanity, in which Shaun formulates his approach to intensive interval training. Insanity: The Asylum follows hot on its heels, adapting the Insanity model to optimise athletic performance. And then Focus T25, which compacts the Insanity workout into a shorter time frame. And most recently, Insanity Max 30, his most intense programme ever. Today Shaun T’s net sales stand at around 10 million DVDs.
Shaun T tries not to be surprised by life’s vicissitudes. He shrugs and quotes Wyclef Jean: when you’re rolling to the carnival, anything can happen.
It’s a tiny bit disingenuous. Highly successful people are often reluctant to take credit for their own success. Why tempt fate? “I just happened to be at the right place at the right time” is one line you hear a lot.
But even if you happen to be at the right place at the right time, you might be doing the wrong thing, and good fortune could still pass you by. If Shaun T hadn’t seriously rocked that exercise class, for instance, would that gorgeous woman working at the front desk still have introduced him to one of Michael Jackson’s choreographers? Maybe. Then again, maybe not. It takes you back to that tricky question of what you can and can’t control in your life. But this is what you learn from the Shaun T story: There’s always going to be some stuff you don’t control, and some stuff you kind of control. And then there are the very few things that you totally control. So that’s where you want to begin.
And this is exactly what Shaun T did. He began with his body. Thus the importance of “digging deep”. “Because,” Shaun T says, “if you do that with your body, you do that with your life.”
So far, so good. But even if we know where Shaun T comes from, we still don’t know what drives him. If you listen carefully, you hear hints along the way. Like when he declares that everything starts and finishes with the core. Sure, he’s talking abs. Shaun T has the best abs in the business. Mariah Carey picked him as a backup dancer on the basis of a single shirtless photo. (You can almost picture that slim fingertip tapping the glossy image.) But ultimately it goes deeper than a six-pack. “When I tell you to use your core, it’s a double meaning,” says Shaun T, as he pilots his red sports car back from a tennis lesson one morning. “It’s ‘Use your core,’ but this thing has to come from the core of you.”
It’s this inner core that Shaun T calls on whenever he’s trying to motivate. “Every time I shoot a video,” he says, “I fill my soul up with every struggle I’ve ever had, because I have to tap into myself to get you to understand. That’s why I’m there for you. That’s why I tell people: I’m your biggest fan.” And as the car leaps forward on the wide desert street, you begin to see where Shaun T is coming from.
For him, there’s a link between invoking the deepest, strongest part of himself – his “core” – and the deepest, strongest part of the people he wants to inspire. People like you. It’s an emotional experience, he’ll say. In fact, he may be the only trainer whose own classes give him goosebumps. One line in particular from the Insanity videos still manages to choke him up whenever he hears it: The stronger you get, the better you’ll feel.
Why this line? And what struggles, exactly, does he summon to fill up his soul? Certainly gaining and losing 20 kg must have been a struggle. But enough to explain this level of passion? Okay, here goes.
“I was molested for four years as a kid,” Shaun T says. Yeah. There you have it: Shaun’s core – not the abuse, but the strength he found to cope with it. He won’t say who did it. But he was 8 years old when it started. And for those four years, and many years afterwards, he bore the weight of the secret.
“I can compartmentalise the sexual abuse,” he says. “I was more worried about what would happen if I were to say something. Because I can handle what happens to me. But how is it going to roll over to affect my entire family? Like, the pain that everyone else would go through?”
In this way, at age 8, Shaun T became protector of all who were dear to him. A premature adult, tasked with bearing the piano weight of what had been done to him.
And then one day, at age 21, he walked up the steps of his grandparents’ house. And his mother was there. And he said, “You know what, Mom? I need to talk to you.”
“For that whole time,” he says now, “I had to suppress my entire life. Once I realised what it felt like to live, and to be out of that space, I refused to have anything be a barrier to me ever again.”
This concludes Shaun T’s fitness test. Now we know where he’s coming from. What his core is. And why he doesn’t hold back.
Meanwhile, a new year has arrived. A time for taking stock. A time to ask the question, Why do we hold back? Is it just because we’re lazy? Or because we fear that if we crank it up, we won’t be able to sustain it? That we will, inevitably, disappoint ourselves? Or maybe we just can’t figure out how to get our full force into the game. And so we settle for a body, a job, a life that uses the barest fraction of what we have to offer.
This is where a guy like Shaun T could be useful. Because when he says dig deeper, he’s reminding you: just because no one has asked doesn’t mean you don’t have more to offer. Shaun T asks for it.
For him, that habit of totally going for it, whatever the context, has itself become a kind of celebration. It’s a way of popping the cork and throwing the confetti every damn day of the year.
THE NEW INSANITY WORKOUT
WARNING: THE FOLLOWING WORKOUT MAY CAUSE EXTREME sweating, uncontrollable grunting and intense muscle burn. Repeated exposure can result in rapid fat loss, accelerated muscle growth and a daily workout obsession. “There’s only one word to describe it: insane,” says trainer Shaun T, who designed the workout based on the principles of his new fitness DVD, Insanity Max:30. “I took the same exercise volume I had in the original Insanity programme and condensed it,” he says. “Instead of going for 45 to 60 minutes, you’ll be done in 30 or less – but they’ll be the toughest 30 minutes you’ve ever done.” The key to the programme’s effectiveness is a Tabata-style high-intensity interval training (HIIT) protocol involving short periods of lung-busting work alternated with even shorter periods of rest. “It’s all about going as hard as you can until you need a break, such as modifying an exercise to make it easier or pausing to catch your breath,” says Shaun. “Mark down when that happens – each workout is a test – and every week you’ll see yourself getting stronger, leaner and fitter.”
“THERE ARE VERY FEW THINGS THAT YOU CAN CONTROL TOTALLY IN YOUR LIFE. ONE IS YOUR BODY: THAT’S WHERE YOU BEGIN”