We tried it: A grueling fitness class inspired by the brutal Spartan Races
By Roy M. Wallack
Jan 18, 2019 | 7:00 AM
This could be lame.
That’s what I thought as I walked into Spartan Strong, a new group exercise class inspired by obstacle-course events like the Spartan Race, in which you crawl through foot-deep mud under barbed wire, dangle hand-over-hand on monkey-bar ladders, and climb over 10-foot wood plank walls — all with the help of your friends, who must push, coax and carry you through it.
People often cite human connection as what they like most about these extreme events and what brings them back.
So, I wondered with a great deal of skepticism, how exactly were we going to replicate all that in a sterile indoor workout room at a glitzy health club? Smear our faces with mud and do human pyramids and piggyback rides?
I walked out 55 minutes later having done none of those things, but was impressed — with a lung-heaving challenge, a fast pace that made it seem to fly by in 15 minutes, and a strangely effective bonding/teamwork experience that left everyone feeling invincible.
It starts off kinda corny.
“Spartans,” exclaims a male instructor. “Spartans,” he shouts again. On the third floor of the gargantuan Life Time Athletic fitness resort in Laguna Niguel, where the toilets smell like cinnamon and windows overlook a palm-tree-framed, multi-pool complex that evokes a Tahitian resort, I’m suddenly being barked at by someone who seems to be channeling a drill instructor.
“We are warriors — and we train like warriors,” he shouts. “We will teach you athleticism. We will teach you community. We will teach how to pick yourself up and keep going. We will teach you the Spartan way.”
Oh, please …
“But first, you must learn the fabled Spartan warrior cry. Ah-Roo,” he screams. We look at each other and weakly ah-roo him back. But, I admit: By the third ah-roo, we were into it and ready for the warmup.
Quasi-martial-toned disco music kicks in. We shuffle side to side. We squat deep. We crawl forward on all fours, like bears. Then we crab walk, also moving on all fours, this time with our chest facing the ceiling. It’s work. Heart rate and respiration jump.
“Nice job, Spartans! Now grab your pancake.”
This is where the magic is.
A pancake, the only fitness implement in the otherwise empty room, is a floppy, 10- or 15-pound neoprene disc filled with sand. We each pick one up. And using one hand or two, we do the same exercises as before, but while carrying and dragging the pancake and raising it overhead and slamming it to the ground.
“Now pick a partner,” he barks. For the next two minutes, we alternate doing various exercises and relay races while holding the pancake and passing it off to our partner. At the end of this segment, we are left sitting while facing each other.
“Now give a high five with your foot,” he yells. It seems so silly. Then my partner and I do it, slapping our soles together as we would our palms. And at that moment, a wondrous moment that I will not forget, we both exploded with huge, beaming smiles and a rush of joy that bordered on euphoria.
At that moment, I got it. For a few seconds, this nameless woman and I were partners, teammates. We bonded. Just like in an obstacle-course race — except that we shared a sandbag
Doing a burpee (squat down, then do a push-up, then get back up and leap with hands overhead) is hard. Doing a burpee while holding a 15-pound sand pancake in one hand is a lot harder. Doing a burpee with a pancake after you’ve raced across the floor at full-speed to keep your team ahead of the team next door takes you to the limit.
I pride myself in not slowing down and never stopping. But on the fifth or six round of sandbag-burpee relays, I’ve had it. But at least you get rest as your partner does her round.
Otherwise, the pace was relentless.
There is no built-in rest on the individual exercises. We put the sandbags on our shoulders and move forward and side to side like we are auditioning for the chorus line of “Riverdance.” We do deltoid flys and push-ups with a chest-touch while holding the bag. We hold the bag out at arm’s length and move it in front of our bodies in a figure eight.
Hardly anyone, me included, can get through them for a full minute without stopping.
Teamwork exercises, designed to evoke the “accountability phase” of a Spartan race (those moments when you support one another), are alternated with individual exercises throughout the workout. They provide a fun, motivating break and add coordination and twisting motions while still keeping you sweating.
Near the end, we broke the whole class into two seated rows and did pancake-passing races. Ten people sat should-to-shoulder cross-legged on the floor, turning to the right to grab a pancake and to the left to pass it on, one after another. It was so simple that we could have been 5-year-olds at summer camp, yet it was so intense and competitive that you would have thought it was the Dallas Cowboys versus the Green Bay Packers.
When it was over, it seemed that Spartan Strong had met its goal.
There wasn’t a speck of mud or a wooden log in sight, or any bruises and cuts to brag about. And there was no exchange of names with your partners, but you experienced a connection that made the workout fly by. Slapping a high-five with my foot ranks as one of the silliest things I’ve done in a while, but it was a cool bonding experience you don’t often get in normal life or normal workouts. Like in an obstacle race.