I’m about halfway through the Spartan Strong class and I’m feeling it; I’m hot, sweaty, and tired. At least I hope we’re halfway through. We’re in a traditional fitness studio at a Life Time Fitness location, and I’m trying to read the clock backward through the large mirror across the front of the room. But the studio is about the only traditional thing in the Spartan Strong class, Spartan’s foray into fitness studio training.
At the moment, we’re immersed in the “wheel of burpees.” The class is arranged in a circle and we’re doing burpees while each person takes a turn running around the outside of the circle carrying a 10-pound pancake (sandbag). It’s like a Spartan version of duck-duck-goose.
My temporary daze is interrupted by the instructor. “Look to your left! Look to your right!” she yells. “Do not let your fellow Spartans down.” It’s all part of the accountability segment of the class, where, working as a team, we’re encouraged to push harder because others are relying on us. So even though I want to stop, I keep doing burpees.
Today, our leader is Aimee Nicotera, who is more than your average class instructor. She is the architect of the Spartan Strong program. Nicotera is a 25-year veteran of the fitness industry, including a bachelor’s degree in nutrition science and a master’s degree in health education. She used this experience, along with a heavy dose of Spartan principles extracted from Joe de Sena’s books, to develop Spartan Strong, a 56-minute studio class that brings Spartan grit to the gym. She has invited me to attend the class today to get the first-hand experience on how we are conveying the Spartan ethos into the studio fitness world. “We’re going to get you race ready and life ready in 56 minutes,” she tells me as we sit in a well-appointed lounge area before the class.
On the surface, Spartan Strong looks like other studio classes. Offered in a growing number of Life Time Fitness locations, it takes place in a standard fitness studio and uses the Spartan pancake for resistance. The class is broken down into five sections:
Nicotera explains that, in addition to Spartan principles, the class was designed using research done by the Institute of Motion. Using the institute’s four-quadrant model, the Spartan Strong program balances training with recovery, intensity with rest, specificity with randomness, and structure with variability.
“Athletes tend to train in linear motions, but life isn’t linear,” she explains. Whether you are on the race course or going through your daily routine, your body does not move exclusively in a straight line. On the race course, you need to be prepared to perform any challenge that’s thrown your way, twisting and turning to crawl, carry, jump, run, and climb your way to the finish line. In life, it’s no different. You need to move in a variety of ways in your daily activities, from playing with the kids to doing chores around the house and yard. This is why it’s essential to exercise in various planes of motion.
The only equipment used in the class is the Spartan pancake, a soft-sided, circular sandbag. The class offers the option of the 10-pound or 15-pound bag. My personal recommendation is to start with the 10 pound; it’s heavier than you think. Using the pancake not only enhances the effort, but also strengthens the muscles being used effectively and efficiently. Through the course of the class you’ll lift it, swing it, drop it, pass it, and carry it through a variety of motions.
In addition to the unique aspect of working in multiple planes of motion, the second unique feature of the class is the use of variable intensity. Most studio classes use consistent aerobic effort (for example, spinning) or they follow the current trend of HIIT (high-intensity interval training).
“HIIT is awesome, but not as awesome as you think,” Nicotera says. “Most HIIT is done without enough recovery, and your body needs to recover in order to build itself back up.” Variable intensity is not just specific to the physical aspect of the class. Nicotera includes mental challenges as well. In the tenacity segment, she runs through some movement variations using clock positions (three o’clock, six o’clock, etc.) as mental prompts. She then calls out the prompts in varying order and cadence, requiring you to mentally focus before you move. This is always harder than you think when you’re physically tired.
The third unique aspect of the Spartan Strong class is based on one of the underlying foundations of the Spartan brand: community. In most studio classes, people come in, grab their equipment, and stake out their space. Spartan Strong is unique in that it encourages and involves interaction with other people.
Nicotera warns me about this up front. “You’re going to be giving high fives and making eye contact with your classmates. The world doesn’t revolve around you. It’s about community and connection.” We talked about how this engagement can make some people uncomfortable, especially in a world that relies on digital interaction. But, like the race course, Spartan Strong is about community and connection.
Fran, one of my fellow classmates, echoed this sentiment. Her introduction to Spartan was the Fenway Park Stadium Sprint. “I love that the same feeling of community I felt at the race is part of the class,” she says.
I end up surviving the “wheel of burpees” and make it to the end of the class. The class can be scaled for any individual level, from those just getting started in their fitness journey to the hard-core athlete. Nicotera is very conscious of encouraging people to go at their own pace, and offers a variety of movement options.
Did I ultimately get race ready and life ready in 56 minutes? Not in one class, but I can see how regularly incorporating Spartan Strong into your fitness routine will get you there pretty quickly. I see the value of incorporating multiple planes into my fitness routine, and I like the variable intensity approach. But more than anything, I appreciated the high fives and eye contact with my fellow classmates. It was a welcome change, and as the proverb says, “If you want to go far, go together.”
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