Some men are born with confidence. Even untested, it hardens into a protective shell of self-regard. Other men—and by that, I mean me—are by nature or nurture thin-skinned. For us, confidence is only built like a callus: Through repeated use. A few months ago, while writing a piece about what the rise of 300: Rise of an Empire meant for boys and their bodies, I was at low tide, confidence-wise. In my thirties, with two young children and a marriage on the rocks, overworked, over-tired and over-burdened, I had developed satchels under my eyes, a middle-aged slump in my shoulders and the beginnings of a paunch.
One might argue that just survival under these circumstances constituted victory, but success would be measured in terms of years. And by then, by the time I made it, I’d be too old, broken and wise to care about confidence. So even as I immersed myself in studies that indicated men who want to be skinny and muscular are prone to depression, I wanted to be skinny and more muscular because, well, I was depressed.
Though I didn’t especially enjoy the films, man, did those guys look great. What could be more salutary to a battered ego than transubstantiating into warrior material?
While reading up on 300, I became interested in how a roustabout schlub like Gerard Butler could become a credible muscle-bound King Leonidas. The answer was Gym Jones. Gym Jones is the hardcore fitness program through which the stars of both 300 and its recently released sequel 300: Rise of an Empire underwent to develop their gilded, muscley Spartan bodies. Though it is often used by MMA fighters, extreme athletes and Special Forces, for the 300 sequel, founder Mark Twight developed a special 12-week training course that could, he claimed, transform a civilian’s body into that of a warrior. Three months to turn a mortal into a god? Obviously, I was intrigued. Perhaps this was the answer to my early-thirties doldrums.
Though headquartered in Utah, there are a few trainers in New York City who have undergone the brutal certification process. Two of them, Antonio Cordova and Antoinette Vo, own a gym near my Harlem apartment called Precision Athlete. One day in early spring, I went there to poke around. Unlike my normal gym (Equinox, with its mirror-covered walls and eucalyptus-scented towels), Precision Athlete devotes no wall space to reflection or allowances for comfort. The walls are white matte, and the black-matted room is spare. The room is dominated by a series of racks, a few rowing machines stored vertically, three Airdynes, dumbbells, kettlebells and a whiteboard, which I would come to hate. Invariably, death metal blasted from a Bose sounddock. It is, almost by definition, Spartan.
Vo is a tall, lean 32-year-old Columbia University philosophy grad whose favorite quote, according to the gym’s website, is by Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. It reads, “An inner process stands in need of outward criteria.” Though Wittgenstein meant that in terms of language, for Vo it doubtless refers to Gym Jones’ heavily data-centric regimen. As opposed to the other cult-like fitness program CrossFit—which often puts an undue emphasis on time, is untailored to the individual and strives for one heavy lift— the Gym Jones philosophy privileges pristine form, gradual-though-measured improvement, program personalization and, of course, suffering, Lots of that.
The Spartan program consists of three months of intensive training made up of three days of work and two “recovery” days on my own. In this topsy-turvy fitness world, recovery, it should be noted, often means 90 minutes of rowing. That should have given me an idea of what was in store. So I was enthusiastic to commit. Though I didn’t especially enjoy the films, man, did those guys look great. And what could be more salutary to a battered ego than transubstantiating into warrior material?
The author works out the workout with a trainer
I was in, but Annie was unsure of my commitment. “I’m only going to go through with this,” she said, “if you are serious. Otherwise it’s a waste of my time.” I insisted I was serious and went home to tell my wife I’d be out of the house every morning at 6:30am, right at that hellish dawn when our two children awoke. That didn’t go well at all. I believe the exact words were, “You vain piece of shit.” That was when the first lesson of Spartan training kicked in. In order to look like a Spartan, you need to become a Spartan, forsaking the comfort of home and warmth of family embrace. At the Spartan hearth, there was no “Hey, honey, please pass the soufflé,” and for the duration of my program there would be no hey-honey anything. I was training for a war, and I was in a war.
The war begins.
Gym Jones is a program and it’s also a philosophy. In fact, it’s almost a religion—hence the not-necessarily-in-good-taste name—and, like any religion, this one is ruled by a discrete set of dicta. The most important of these rules have been distilled into the Gym Jones’ 10 commandments. Among the most important is the first: The Mind is Primary. The second commandment is to train for a purpose. I think that’s why I found it so compelling. Insteand of going to the gym out of habit, I would be training to reach a specific goal. For me, the goal was to both concrete and abstract. First, the concrete: I wanted rock-hard abs, shoulders as defined as a dictionary and biceps with that weird veiny thing running across them. Abstractly, I wanted to prove to myself my capacity to transform. Life, I wanted to reassure myself, doesn’t end at 32.
Now: How do to that. The tools of Gym Jones are simple, and the exercises are as nefariously plain as they are difficult. The program relies on a mix of high-intensity interval training as well as traditional strength and power training. At the end of the day, most working out is just picking shit up and putting it back down. That’s what Gym Jones is too, just with some added bonuses. Unlike, perhaps, everyone else except the local retirement home, Gym Jones makes good uses of an AirDyne, a resolutely lo-fi exercise bike with fan for a front-wheel and moving handlebars. The olds like it because it’s easy when you go slow, but it’s the type of machine that the harder you work, the harder it is. In the Gym Jones universe, AirDyne, and an indoor erg, are really the only cardio equipment used, and both are typically used in hellacious intervals. A typical AirDyne workout at Precision Athlete might be five burpee pull-ups, 10 ball slams, plus one minute all-out on the AirDyne. Each minute burns about 31 calories. Do this four times. That’s a third of your workout.
Pain points: The AirDyne, Burpee pull-ups, kettlebell swings
If the AirDyne separates the Spartan boys who’ll be left on Mt. Taygetus from the warriors, it’s the circuits of serious hurt that test the mind. Though so-called posterior chain exercises are important—that is, front squats, back squats, overhead squats, deadlifts, etc.—one of the ten commandments states: You must carry the engine. Most of the hurt comes from body-weight circuits like this one:
10 pull ups
20 kettlebell swings
30 box jumps
The challenge was to do it for time. When I first started, I was spent by the tenth pushup. Sure, I continued on, more through pride than power, but I finished near-death in almost 14 minutes. After nearly 10 weeks of training, I had knocked three minutes off. Some of that surely was because I was in the best shape of my life, but a bigger part was mental (see: Commandment #1). Having been through so many hours of suck, I was more comfortable being uncomfortable. Pain was something to notice and move on, not a foe to which I’d surrender.
It’s hard to precisely express how difficult the program was, and it’s useless to try. Anyway, this isn’t a technical recap of Gym Jones as much as a call for all men to complete it. Words cannot adequately convey the millions of subtle mental skirmishes of which each workout consists. An extra inch in your front squat can feel like a Battle of the Somme. A minute on the AirDyne, or the last 1,000 meters of a long row, can stretch and sag through time. Each second lasts trebly long, and each push is victory against giving up. But I was only in the gym for an hour or two, five days a week. Outside the walls of Precision Athlete is where my real troubles began.
Half of the program, I felt, was eating kale. Just a shit-ton of kale, every day, and whey protein power, twice a day. When I began, Vo sent me a list of what I could eat and the following guidance: In general, you need to eat more but differently. Your main goals are to reduce your carbs and to up your fats and protein. Sadly, not on the list of approved sources of protein were JDS-staples like cheeseburgers and milkshakes. I’m a man who lives on sandwiches—but, by and large, bread was out too. Ditto alcohol, which wouldn’t have been a big deal had my life not been falling apart around me. Manhattans offered me solace. They were perfect, they were rye. They calmed me. But I had to give them up, and each night without one was struggle.
That was small-bore compared to my marriage. After closing the mental door on quitting, I was going to go to the mat to complete the program. This wasn’t because I was a vain piece of shit—as my wife called me so often I came to think of it as my middle middle name: “Joshua David Vain Piece of Shit Stein”—but because this was a wresting-back of the steering wheel of my life. I was recasting myself from browbeaten shrub to rock-hard Spartan warrior, spineless soft-centered schlemiel to a man hardened by the gantlet. My wife didn’t see it that way, and this nearly led to divorce. At any rate, it set us back thousands of dollars in couples therapy and eventually individual therapy for myself. But I wouldn’t quit, and I didn’t quit. Quitting would have meant capitulation, not to my wife—many of her objections were valid—but to the inexorable decline and fall of my body, to the torpedoing power of time. Once I entered the arena whose gladiators were the self I feared I was and the one I wanted to be, I knew only one man could leave alive.
In the event, after 12 weeks, I wasn’t divorced but I was much stronger. In a perverse way, my marriage is too. We had tussled near the precipice but, peering down into the abyss of child custody and loneliness, both backed away. And I hadn’t quit—not the marriage, not the program and not on myself. Twelve weeks of pain and soreness, of palping my mental and physical limits, buffeted by anger at home, at the mercy of the AirDyne and kettlebells at the gym, left me stronger for obvious reasons but stronger too for less obvious ones. Would I cut it at Thermopylae? I don’t know, but at least I’d have the confidence to make the stand.
Photographs by Virginia Rollison