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"Ten more seconds!"
My ears are ringing, my heart is hammering, and my lunch is creeping up my gullet as I sprint on the treadmill.
I half fall off the machine and bend over, bracing my hands against my thighs to keep from face planting.
"Awesome! One more round," says trainer Brett Hoebel, last season's addition to The Biggest Loser's cadre of drill sergeants, as he vaults into the show's notorious boxing ring.
I don't have enough breath to say "Bite me." Instead I hold up a finger (not that one) to indicate "Hang on, I have to vacuum up a ton of oxygen while willing myself not to vomit."
As I lurch toward the ring for round four of sparring with Brett, I can't help but think, How do Biggest Loser contestants survive this? Better yet, how am I going to?
Rewind a few weeks. Sitting in front of my flat-screen watching the show's contestants pant through another episode, I skeptically thought, Oh, suck it up. Then when my editor at FITNESS offered to send me behind the scenes of the top reality weight-loss programs to work out with TV's toughest trainers, I practically leapt through the phone and hugged her. Not only was it perfect timing -- I was getting married in an unforgiving silk slip dress in a few months -- but as a veteran fitness writer and trainer, I had always wondered how hard these workouts could possibly be for the regular Joe or Jane. (Okay, I'd also put on pounds lately courtesy of red wine and chocolate kisses, but I was not yet due for a muumuu.) I picked up the phone and immediately scheduled my sessions.Ass. On. Fire
The scene: A woman walks into a 24 Hour Fitness Gym in Beverly Hills to meet her trainer, who is in full military gear. There's Harvey Walden waiting for me in his signature fatigues, appearing just as he does on VH1's Celebrity Fit Club when he's chewing out crazy Gary Busey for skipping push-ups. And it's not even the day of our photo shoot.
"I am not the type of trainer who holds your hand and begs you to do it my way," he explains in a deep baritone as I warm up on the treadmill. "I take you out of your comfort zone. You might think I'm an a-hole, but in the end you'll see I have only the best intentions." He's intimidating, all right, but, heck, if Kevin Federline could do it, so can I.
Been there, done that, I think.
We begin with jogging in place; then we do some squats, more jogging, push-ups, jumping jacks, split lunges, burpees, scissor kicks (killer on-your-back ab exercises), V-ups, and more. In all, we do 15 exercises that work every muscle without my touching a single piece of equipment, as well as 15 minutes of cardio intervals that get progressively tougher. Breaking for a moment to drink water, I'm surprised to find that I'm pretty darn winded and a little shaky.
"That was harder than I thought it would be," I admit. I am used to strength training but realize I've become dumbbell dependent: I rarely do push-ups, pull-ups, or other body-weight moves.
Harvey consults his watch: "Again! And this time do it like your ass is on fire!"
I swallow hard, then channel my inner Federline and get back to work.
Two days later we meet at a park, where Harvey, again in uniform, arranges 15 stations in a giant circle. Each is a sheet of paper with an exercise written on it; I recognize many of the moves from our previous session, and a few new ones have been thrown in. Stopwatch in hand, Harvey instructs me to do one minute at each station, then sprint once around the circle past that station and on to the next.
For the first round I am definitely slacking a little; I'm sore all over from our last workout. Harvey eyeballs me and bellows orders as I trot around the circle instead of sprinting. When I pause between rounds to grab some water, he scowls and asks, "How are you feeling?"
"Pretty good," I lie.
"Then you're not working hard enough," he snarls. Then, in my face: "Ass. On. Fire."
And he's right. During the next round I really push myself. Harvey seems to know I've stepped it up and switches from bellowing to offering encouragement, calling out the time increments and praising me when I'm struggling. I finish the workout drenched in sweat and guzzle my water. Harvey smiles widely, white teeth gleaming. He is pleased. And so am I.
When we meet at Tao Athletic Club (formerly the Sky Sport & Spa of Bravo's Work Out fame) in downtown Beverly Hills, celebrity trainer Jackie Warner commands attention the second she exits the elevator. Tall, willowy, and superhumanly ripped in a trademark sports bra top and what she calls baseball pants, Warner strides into the gym, greets me, and then hustles me onto a treadmill for a warm-up. We dive right in.
How did those mouthy contestants on her hit show Thintervention with Jackie Warner give this woman lip? Walking when they should have jogged, faking hyperventilation, phoning in their reps. (That's right, Jeana from Real Housewives of Orange County, I'm talking to you.)
"We're going to work out exactly like I do with all my clients on TV and off," she says, and my mind flashes to the episode in which chubby twentysomething Stacey nearly needed an oxygen mask to continue her routine. "We are going to start with ladder sets. This is where you combine two exercises and increase the number of reps per set from one to 10." Translation: You do one push-up and one shoulder press, for example, and then move up to two push-ups and two shoulder presses and so on, until you reach 10. "Then you do heavy biceps curls for 15 reps."
Jackie hands me my weights: 15-pound dumbbells.
I start off strong, but by the seven-rep tier my shoulder presses are as slow as molasses and my push-ups are getting sloppy. Jackie steps in to spot me and "force [me] to failure," increasing the burn tenfold. Finally I get to the 10-rep tier, the so-called top of the ladder. (In case you're not doing the math in your head, that's 55 push-ups and 55 presses.) Then I have to do 15 heavy biceps curls. Did Jeana from Orange County really do that? Maybe I'd cheat with fried shrimp after six weeks of this, too.
My arms are quivering.
After that I do a giant superset that combines six exercises and finish on the treadmill, running at five miles per hour on an 8 percent incline for two minutes. Then suddenly it dawns on me: For all my treadmill time at the gym, I have not been working out intensely on my own -- not at all. I try to recall the last time I achieved failure (baking a souffle maybe?) and can't come up with anything. I grit my teeth in determination and finish my cardio with gusto. Then we go through two more giant sets. As I leave, I am already looking forward to a rematch.
Our next workout is also composed of the giant sets, but today Jackie has brought out the big guns: a truck tire and a sledgehammer, a loose heavy bag and a huge medicine ball. Instead of being scared, I'm excited to use these fun toys. Really, how often do you get to hit anything with a sledgehammer?
I wield it like some kind of Angelina Jolie action heroine as Jackie eggs me on, telling me to hit the tire harder and laughing when I hit it off-kilter, propelling the sledgehammer sideways and sending myself backward onto my butt.
When I nail the rest of the workout -- pull-ups, plyometrics, assisted handstand push-ups, heaving the heavy bag, jogging backward, and tossing the medicine ball -- I mentally give myself a fist pump. I'm not in this to score 15 minutes of reality-TV fame or prize money or a new, non-obese lease on life. I've become a sweaty mess just to impress Jackie Warner. Maybe those TV contestants aren't turning to mush in front of the cameras for anything more than that high-five feeling. As I limp out of the gym afterward, I know that I'll be sore for days.
This makes me smile.
Arriving at the Biggest Loser ranch, a secluded oasis near Malibu with a few simple buildings set on acres of woods and wildlife, I imagine myself at some sort of Dirty Dancing-era Catskills resort -- if Patrick Swayze worked at a summer fat camp. However, I quickly change my mind after realizing that although I'm on the set of a hit TV show, this is the least glamorous place you could be.
When I meet trainer Brett Hoebel in the ranch's 6,800-square-foot gym, it's midway through season 11 of the show. He tells me that much of his approach to exercise is something called metabolic resistance training, in which you do four high-intensity rounds of a circuit of five resistance exercises, each for 30 seconds with 30 seconds of rest. This is followed by a four-minute Tabata routine: 20 seconds of all-out boxing with 10 seconds of rest and then 20 seconds of sprinting on the treadmill with 10 seconds of rest, repeated four times. According to Brett, if you use the right equipment, this method gives the most calorie burn with the least morning-after muscle soreness. The show's fans will recognize our first workout as a high-intensity highlight reel of everything that makes contestants pant furiously: flailing giant ropes, pushing a Prowler, pulling a sled, tossing sandbags, and doing tons of planks.
I feel sure Brett is putting me through this workout to impress FITNESS readers and that there's no way those TV tubbies could withstand such a butt whooping in one sitting.
As if he could read my mind, Brett enlists three contestants to train with me for the second session. It's a Saturday, when the set is dark -- which means there is no filming and that contestants are left to do their own workouts. But some have caught wind of what we're doing and want in. There's Austin, a hulking 21-year-old radio-board operator with wild curly orange hair who came to the show with his dad; Kaylee, a 20-year-old student who tried at one point to be voted off the show; and Courtney, a 22-year-old restaurant manager who is a fan favorite for her upbeat attitude. The trio warm up beside me on treadmills as Brett lays out equipment. Though the contestants are four months into their transformations and are looking more fit, they still have a long way to go.
Austin hoots excitedly as Brett turns on some club music and we each assume a station. I stand at the battling ropes, Austin at the heavy-bag lift-and-walk, Kaylee at the sandbag toss, Courtney at the Prowler pull; sure enough, Brett takes the dead man's crawl. The energy in the gym is off the charts, and the contestants are animals! They cajole each other, encourage me, and playfully give Brett a hard time on occasion.
When it's my turn with the stopwatch, I look on in awe as Austin hurls the sandbag across the floor and Kaylee frenetically whips the battling ropes. Brett, on his 30-second break, rallies Courtney and corrects her form in the dead man's crawl. It's clear that they've done this before, with the same go-for-broke focus. Together we make our way through the first 20 minutes, and I complete my last exercise feeling as if I'm on a high. We all slap hands, then brace for part two of our butt kicking.
By the time we finish up with the Tabata portion, I'm so close to losing my lunch that I put a hand to my throat. As I step off the special Force treadmill on which I've been harnessed in full-tilt sprint position, Kaylee pats me on the shoulder. "It's okay," she says. "I feel like that all the time." Nobody tells me to suck it up.
They don't have to. I'm saying it to myself.
As I watched the season finale of The Biggest Loser last spring, I teared up. In my tour of duty on reality TV, I had lost 11 pounds. To be standing onstage, these people had worked off more than 100 pounds, so who was I to be so snarky from my sofa seat? I think it's safe to say that Brett, Harvey, and Jackie have collectively stripped more than two tons of fat from their on-air contestants. (They not only got me into my wedding dress but also gave me back my boy-push-up ability.) Let the cameras play up the drama and dripping sweat. Those reps are real, and the scale doesn't lie.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, September 2011.