DON’T SWEAT IT
Work out just enough.
In one corner of a Texan gym, coach Cristian Plascencia has a client crawling along the turf. In another, a broadshouldered man in his 30s wobbles on (and ten impressive seconds later, falls from) a balance board. Near a SkiErg machine, director of sports performance Jeremy Hills yells over the Drake blaring on the PA system, pushing famous NFL running back Jamaal Charles through a series of lunges done with a light kettlebell. A hallway away, Sam Pogue, a sports-performance coach, instructs a CrossFit athlete on flawless handstand form.
This isn’t the kind of training you expect to see at your local gym – let alone at the Onnit Academy Gym, a training facility in an office park ten minutes from downtown Austin. This is a gym that counts American star athletes Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith, Philadelphia Phillies basebll player Jake Arrieta, and Seattle Seahawks footballer Earl Thomas as clients. Shouldn’t its athletes be bench-pressing mounds of weights and dripping pools of sweat?
Apparently not. Onnit defies what you know about conventional fitness. The gospel according to Onnit and its trainers preaches that you shouldn’t always lift heavy, and you should train with more than barbells and dumbbells. They use maces, clubs, and battle ropes – gimmicks elsewhere – as training staples, promising you’ll feel and function better.
Lofty boasts from a place that didn’t exist five years ago. Before 2014, Onnit was mostly known as a supplement company that peddled fringe-but-buzzy nootropics such as Alpha Brain, and it had a big-name fan in comedian Joe Rogan. Onnit CEO Aubrey Marcus wanted to add a fitness arm, so he reached out to John Wolf, a veteran trainer with a love for unconventional methods who was running a gym in California. Wolf came on as chief fitness officer, and over the past three years, he’s established Onnit as a haven for unique training ideas – some of which are worth integrating into your own workouts.
ROTATION, ROTATION, ROTATION
Most certified trainers are schooled to build workouts with a “triplanar” philosophy. This says your body moves in three planes: out in front of you (walking), out to your sides (lateral shoulder raises), and with your upper body twisting.
Wolf, the main architect of Onnit’s approach, talks of something else: rotation. To him, you either create rotation or must resist all rotation during any exercise, from a plank (famous for its anti-rotation challenge) to a pull-up, in which your arms rotate subtly. Watching how you manage rotation reveals your weaknesses. “We’re looking at these asymmetrical patterns, asymmetrical loads, and using those to highlight what may be deficient,” Wolf says. “If we address your weakest link, then the whole system is going to benefit.”
This is the advantage of training with maces. Unlike the dumbbells and barbells you use typically, maces and clubs are heavier on one side, creating what’s called an offset load. Imagine a barbell with a tenpound weight only on its left side. Deadlift that bar, gripping it as if it had weight on both ends and keeping it parallel to the ground. The move should fire up your obliques, and doing exercises with a mace or club will accomplish the same.
Good old body-weight moves can also challenge your body rotationally. Do a plank, and without moving your hips, lift your right arm off the ground, reaching it forward. Alternate arms for 45 seconds, then rest for 15; do 3 sets. Or DIY a mace at your gym, placing a 2.5kg (or 5kg) weight on only one side of a barbell.
A NEW WAY TO THROW YOUR WEIGHT AROUND
The traditional way to add challenge to an exercise: up the weight or reps. But that’s not your only option, thanks to those maces and clubs, which not only add core challenge but also make lighter weights feel heavier. Why? You’re lifting something different from your normal. Apart from the physical benefits, it keeps your workout from getting boring. “It’s an opportunity to excite yourself with something other than just the increase in load as a measurement of success,” Pogue says.
He doesn’t use the word excite lightly. Muscles must adapt to different patterns of resistance with maces and clubs, a key to how Onnit challenges athletes with lighter weights. These exercises also attack stabilising muscles that get overlooked in barbell and dumbbell training.
But you don’t need maces and clubs to make all this happen. Simply benchpressing with dumbbells instead of a barbell, or doing lunges while hugging a heavy medicine ball against your chest instead of holding dumbbells at your sides, can challenge your body in a novel way, engaging new stabilising muscles.
WARM-UPS ARE WORKOUTS, TOO
If Wolf had his way, you’d ensure training included rest and recovery. Proper recovery stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system, lowering your heart rate and relaxing muscles. Your fast-paced life often stimulates your sympathetic nervous system, accelerating heartbeat and quickening breathing; a state that, if sustained, wears you down.
This isn’t revolutionary; from foam rollers to mobility drills that end CrossFit workouts, fitness has embraced recovery ideas. But Onnit focuses so intently on recovery that Plascencia and others coach a daily “durability” class dedicated to, among other things, mobility drills.
Wolf often spends 20 minutes of an It’s not all maces and clubs at Onnit; you’ll see plenty of rowers and barbells as well.
hour-long session doing joint mobility and activation moves before getting into the primary workout.
Spending that long warming up or cooling down isn’t always practical, so do what you can. If you have five minutes, Plascencia says, you can take the time to move your spine by rolling around on the floor. Yes, really. “Crawling, crouching, rolling; they’re all a big part of a naturally functioning, healthy body,” he says.
That’s why Plascencia loves this drill: lie on the ground on your back and slowly roll onto your belly and then onto your back again. Next, get on all fours and crawl. Such movements may seem basic, but in a society that spends most of its time sitting and walking, they’re not. “Being able to do something that simple,” says Plascencia, “is a great indicator of how well we truly move.”
LIGHT CLUB Examples of how Onnit challenges your body without forcing you to max out (clockwise from top left): Sam Pogue’s single-arm kettlebell squat, Cristian Plascencia’s rollback spine stretch, and John Wolf’s offset-load row.