Small Group Training: The First Month Diary
By Ed Crocker
What do you get if you cross a one-on-one personal training session with Evo Camp? No, that’s not a bad fitness joke, it’s the question posed by Joshua Paul Fitness head honcho Josh at the start of the new year when he began the latest spin off from the Evo factory: small group personal training. As soon as they were announced back in October I signed up to a weekly session, instantly won over by his heady claim of combining the benefits of personal training – the time the trainer can spend on you, the focus on quick progress and breaking personal bests – with the atmosphere of Evo Camp and the motivation you get from other people around you. The cherry on the training cake was the location: a new training studio, purpose built by Josh, allegedly filled with all the latest equipment. The signs were encouraging. So, one month on, (well five weeks at time of writing, but that’s not quite as snappy) has small group personal training lived up to its promise? Let’s find out…
Week 1 – Thursday 7th January, 7pm
I arrive at the location. It’s a rainy, cold, depressing Thursday evening (this will become a theme, thanks Manchester) and I could do with an endorphin hit. The studio is all modern materials, and inside I am slightly taken aback at what he’s been able to fit in there. Josh shows me the bench area, the bar area, the boxing area and the workout space in the middle; there’s a large mirror (I’ll be able to observe my own technique for once, which I hope will be a good thing) and a large array of handheld equipment, including some snazzy new hand-held bars for what Josh promises will be a punishing circuit workout. Oh and there’s a wall mounted TV playing the latest music videos, so I hope for his sake Josh is a fan of Adele and Drake, since he’ll be spending a lot of time in here, I assume.
A couple minutes later and everyone’s arrived. There’s four of us in total, and we already know each other from Evo Camp, so the atmosphere is already good. I have been grouped with Stacy, Mike and the endurance robot from the future named Wendy: all three Evo legends already. So no slacking, then. Josh explains the idea behind these sessions. Generally, there’ll be a main exercise each week which we can improve on week on week, and a circuit workout. After a couple of weeks we’ll get to choose our own focus to progress on, too. He points to a whiteboard in front of the mirror which already has a large array of times from the sessions this week. Some of them our colour coded, for beginner, intermediate and expert. It’s an ideal system for competing against yourself and other people. The focus, Josh explains, is on our rapid progress and constantly improving our personal bests, so we’re given a sheet to record our goals and targets. Every month we’ll be given a written report by Josh letting us know how we’ve got on. We can also measure our body-fat and waist as well if we want. Nice to see Josh has really thought this through and not just gone giddy at his new play area.
After a standard warm-up, we begin on the deadlifts. I should have guessed it would be deadlifts; as both Josh and senior trainer Jake like to tell us, it’s the perfect compound work-out, hitting all the muscles and is sure to strengthen your back after the inevitable two days of not actually having a back which follows a deadlift workout. Josh wants us to get a figure on the board after today’s session, that can we beat next week. The most reps you can do in a minute. This depends on how much you weigh, obviously. So we start off on equal weights and then progress accordingly. Once we get going, it’s obvious that already everyone is feeling it. You don’t mess around with deadlifts. I immediately notice the benefit of being able to turn my head and see if my back is straight in the mirror. By the end, I have managed 21 reps in a minute with 60kg. Mike edges it with 23. Well played, sir. Josh tells us we will try 70kg next week. I feel the fear already.
Then, after a moderate break in which we take turns to collapse on the bench and I lie on the floor cramming Custard creams in my mouth (deadlifts, eh?) we go into pairs and take turns doing the circuit workout, while the other pair does some bar work. The circuit workout looks interesting. It’s a mix of exercises using the hand held bar – (clean presses, rows, deadlifts, shoulder press, curls shoulder press) and exercises without. You get to choose your difficulty for the time. You can select from beginner (5kg weights on the bar); intermediate (10kg) or expert (20kg). There’s a smattering of colour-coded times already on the board from other groups earlier in the week. Some people have gone for expert already, the maniacs. I feel quite confident, so I attack the 20kg weights. My arms are soon paying me back for this over-confidence. Having not quite understood the colour-coded system (I take a while to work things out. I am slow…) I go down to 10k halfway through. Josh takes pity on my special nature and gives me a time that’s half blue and half black (this will cause much confusion and mirth in other sessions).
And then, after a final exercise, (which I have forgotten, probably because I was still hallucinating from the workout) it’s over. It’s gone really well. Trying to get a good first time on the board for deadlifts was satisfying, and the circuit was interesting and punishing, especially straight after the deadlifts. Satisfying, fun and punishing: if this is how the sessions are going to be, then I think they’re going to work. As I leave the studio to go find sustenance, I notice the mirrors in the studio have steamed up. I know how you feel, glass.
Week 2: Thursday 14th January, 7pm
When I arrive, it’s raining again. The lights of the studio beckon me in to the warmth and comfort of an intense workout. Josh asks how we feel after last week. The general consensus is that our backs spent last Saturday in another time-zone leaving us to stumble around without them. Mike sounds like he had a tough recovery. Wendy says she did, but I don’t believe her, damn future robot. Not that we need to be motivated for the second week, but Josh has announced that the best small group team after the month will get to go free to the Escape Room, the get-locked-in-a-room-and-puzzle-your-way-out activity that’s taken Manchester by storm. We will win, this, we decide. Of course, we have to escape this room first.
Before we start, I make a quick announcement. I have forgotten my shorts. I offer to train in my boxers, but this horrifies both Josh and the rest of the group, so Josh lets me borrow some of his for now, and gives me a target for next week of remembering all my clothes. I like this target, I think I can meet it.
It’s deadlifts again this week, the focus being on making rapid progress from last week and getting a proper personal best on the board. My back really does feel like a different muscle from just one session. As we practise the deadlifts, I can already feel myself pushing further on from last week and more able to focus on my technique (which in practice means staring obsessively at my bum in the mirror).
Wendy, Stacy and Mike all beat their previous efforts from last week and get good new PBs on the board, all going up 10kg depending on where they started off. I was 21 reps in a minute last week on 60kg. What can I manage on 70? 20, it turns out. Just like the other three, I have gone up a level while doing the same amount of reps. Josh is impressed. We are impressed. Deadlifts, all is forgiven.
Now it’s time to try and beat my circuit workout time from last week. Due to my awkward conceptual cock up last week of mixing intermediate with expert, I don’t have a time to beat really. So I decide to stick with the Expert difficulty this time – the 20kg weight on the handheld bar. I therefore look around for other people’s times to aim for. Rusty’s (aka. Male Evo Champ of the Year) time seems difficult to beat but potentially achievable. Steven’s not so much. That guy must drink engine oil for breakfast. I must be making progress, because I don’t find it quite as hard this week, which is to say merely exhausting instead of almost lethal. I manage to beat my mixed time last week by over a minute, which I am very happy with. I’m only a minute off Steven’s crazy time, too, which makes me happier. Everyone else gets impressive times, too. As a group we seem to be seeing an instant impact from the quick leaps in progress that Josh promised us at the start. And we seem to be pushing each other as well, and making ourselves laugh into the bargain (and not just because of my inability to dress myself).
Next week, Josh says things will be mixed up. Out go deadlifts (for now…), in come chin-ups (the other column on the records board). And a paired sit-up challenge to finish off. As well as remembering my shorts, I should probably practice my sit ups, then. Then again, how good can Mike and Wendy be?
Week 3: Thursday 21st February, 7pm
Ridiculously good, it turns out. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Week 3 is where Josh first mixes it up. Chin ups replace deadlifts. He warns us that these will take a couple of weeks to make progress on, and he wasn’t kidding. We practice with the aid of resistance bands first, then we get a personal best on the board. We all find this very difficult. There’s a weird moment doing chin ups where you shift from thinking that pulling yourself up is the easiest thing in the world and you’re going to smash this, to realising that your arms have lost all feeling and movement and there is nothing you can do about it. The time between the two is about ten milliseconds. After one practice go I manage 9, which I am very happy with. A couple of months ago at Evo Lift I could only do 2. Evo progress! We go one final time, and I cockily think that I will try and nail 10. Except my arms have completely gone and I can barely manage two. Josh gives a knowing nod, the nod of a wise old master who has seen many chin up novices fly so close to the sun before having their wings burned/triceps pulverised.
We then take turns in pairs trying to beat last week’s time on the circuit, or trying some squats on the bar. I really take to the squats. If you ignore the heavy pain on your neck (rest the bar more on your traps than your neck, Josh tells me helpfully) then mastering the technique is not too difficult. I go low to the floor before bouncing back up. I feel like Beyonce dancing in a nightclub. I decide not to announce this to the rest of the group. In two weeks’ time I will choose these for my optional exercise. Meanwhile, we all beat our time on the circuit. We own this circuit. This circuit crumbles at our feet. What’s that, Josh? There’ll be a new circuit next week? Dammit…
We finish this the session with a sit-up challenge. We face each other in competing pairs, and have to reach 100 sit-ups, however we choose to split this up with our partner. Me and Stacy are on fire, we are cruising, we command all sit-ups before us… until I turn to Wendy and Mike and see that they are 20 ahead of us. I don’t understand; it is beyond comprehension. I blame my long legs. No-one else agrees…
Despite the obvious progress from Week 1, I leave this session the most exhausted of the three weeks. Josh seems to be matching our progression by increasing the intensity of the sessions and how much he crams into them. It’s on…
(And yes, I did remember my shorts this week. But I forgot my water bottle. New target, I guess).
Week 4: Thursday 27th January, 7pm
Week 4 begins with a bang. Partly because Senior Trainer Jake has joined us, presumably with some surprises up his gruelling sleeve. But mainly because I have remembered both my shorts and my water bottle. My group cheers. We can do anything, now. Which is good, because this is the session where Josh and Jake seem to defy the normal conventions of time and cram a ridiculous amount in.
We begin with Round 2 of chin-ups. First we attempt to beat our reps from last week. We all do better. I manage to go one more than 9. That tenth chin-up felt like I was pushing against the gravity of Jupiter. Then we rest ourselves on resistance bands that give us a surprising amount of support and allow us to continue doing chin-ups without our arms falling off. The thick orange band in particular gives us a second wind and we are smashing those chin-ups like no-one’s business, except of course, I manage to not quite get my leg in properly and end up bouncing around the bar, my face bearing the happy expression of a drunk astronaut in zero gravity. I blame fatigue. I am not believed by my groupmates, though I console myself by knowing I have invented a new sport. After this punishing chin-up workout, my arms are already numb… let’s hope the remainder of the session is tea and biscuits.
No. Not tea and biscuits. A Jake-led boxing workout instead. Uh-oh. Josh drags out a large punching… (thing? Bigger than a punch-bag, stands on its own. Send in your guesses as to what it’s called, please) and we get into pairs. While your partner hits the standing-punch-bag as quickly as they can for ten seconds, you plank on the floor, your gloves resting on your knuckles in front of you. Then you switch, Jake’s sergeant-like commands ensuring that there is no let-up in the switchover. It won’t come to any surprise that this is murder on your knuckles. My hands feel like they are hanging in a butcher’s shop. But boy, is it fun. Mike takes the approach of slightly slower, devastating knockout blows to the bag. I think he thinks he is Ivan Drago in Rocky 4. Jake tells us to be quicker, so I opt for video game random non-stop pummelling. Probably not effective, but it does the job.
Now it’s time for the new circuit work out. It’s still a mix of the hand held bar and normal exercises. Except this time the bar ones are predominantly upright rows and standard rows, and some of the non-bar exercises have changed (greetings, ab rolls). For some reason I find this much harder than last week. My arms are in rebellion as I attempt the upright rows. Halfway through you have to do 50 squats, and honestly no man has ever been more grateful than I to do squats. I manage a time slightly slower than last week’s effort, but I feel even more exhausted, so I call this a draw.
Then it’s press-ups, but with a difference. First you do normal press-ups until failure. I’ve never been amazing at the simple press-up anyway, but after a workout of chin-ups and boxing each one is a herculean effort. Luckily Josh has added the twist of resistance bands. So once you fail on normal press-ups, you try again with an increasingly thick series of resistance bands, each time until failure, allowing you to persevere long past the point where you would normally be a heap on the floor.
We finish attempting standing ab-rolls. At this point all my muscles have left the station, so I carry on until failure by making indiscernible animal grunts. I am beyond exhaustion. Josh, clearly, is continuing to ramp up these sessions. We seem to have done so much in one hour. At this rate, he’ll be incorporating time travel and making us do the circuit twice. As we leave, he promises another new circuit next week and the beginning of the exercises we have chosen to focus on from a long list offered. Except for that, you’ll have to wait for the Month 2 diary. As I write this, I have already had Week 5’s session, so I will throw in some words to titillate you: TRX, bar squats and the return of the sit-up challenge…
Actually, that’s not quite it. Later in the week we discover that our group has won the monthly competition to go to the Escape room. Good work, group. And then Josh sends us our monthly reports, proving that the promise of reports wasn’t just the excited talk of a new venture. It has all our personal bests recorded, and targets for the next month. It’s like I’m back at school, but a good school where you actually want to hit your targets and the roof isn’t leaking (sorry, Parrs Wood old building)
So to summarise, have these small group training sessions lived up to their promise? In a word, yes. I have been going (mostly) regularly to Evo Camp for almost two years and Evo Lift for a year. Like everyone else who attends these, I’ve seen a personal fitness transformation (I got hench and stopped wheezing on stairs). But I’ve not seen as much progress in just one month as I have at these new small group personal training sessions. The sessions are intense, focused, and fun. You smash personal bests, get to use a wide variety of equipment in a motivational and relaxed atmosphere and a fully equipped studio. They really are a good value combination of the benefits of group fitness camp and one-on-one-training. And if that sounds too good to be true, let me end with a criticism: Josh still hasn’t let me train in my boxers. What’s that guy’s problem?