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


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.

The Test

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.

The Work­out

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.”

The Core

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.”

The Cooldown

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.


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.”


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