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Forget looking sexy at the gym. At the Soldierfit gym in Gaithersburg, Maryland, the first thing you’re told to do is don a T-shirt bearing two dog tags and the words: “I am.”
The trainer snaps the class to attention, saying, “Troops, you are.” And your response? “We are, I am.”
The lesson here? “We have a saying: Pride, not ego,” says Danny Farrar, the founder and co-owner of Soldierfit gyms, of which there are four in the Washington, D.C. area. “You’re not worried about the shirtless guy taking selfies or the cute girl in short shorts and a sports bra. My main thing is create an environment where you put the team before self. That comes from the military.”
Farrar established the gyms in 2007, just a year after returning from Baghdad, where he was in more than 700 convoy missions. After having been in the military for 13 years, and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Farrar was looking for a project that would revitalize his own American dream. So he took military-inspired exercises and training ethos and came up with Soldierfit.
Military-inspired fitness classes have gained ground in the fitness world over the past decade. Boot camp, CrossFit and other off-shoots have introduced rigor and teamwork into mainstream workouts, displacing the allure of fancy gyms with warehouse-style facilities. What makes Soldierfit unique is that it’s taken the military inspiration and made it literal.
“Our entire facility is outfitted to work. We have a full Humvee for a front desk. Every room is dedicated to fallen soldiers. We’re extremely patriotic,” Farrar says.
“Servant-based” Model of Fitness Training
After the call to order, class begins with a 15 minute warm-up that includes a five-minute jog and calisthenics such as planks, squats and pushups. The gym prides itself on variety. There are 400-some exercises, including battle ropes, sledgehammers and the infamous burpees. “Every workout is different,” Farrar says. “We do everything other than Olympic lifts and bench presses.” The gyms do include weight rooms, but the trademark workout doesn’t use weights, and instead focuses on metabolic training that maximizes weight-loss goals. Participants typically burn between 750 and 1,000 calories per hour-long session, depending on their body weight and level of exertion.
“We’ve had people lose hundreds of pounds,” Farrar says, adding that the novelty of the program is that it places conditioned athletes next to novices. The trainers work with everyone on an individual level, making people accountable much like an officer in the military would.
“Your NCO [noncommissioned officer] in the military talks to you every 30 days,” calling soldiers out if they’ve bounced a check or stayed out too late drinking, Farrar says. At the gym, the trainers also check in with clients every 30 days, counseling them on nutrition and staying on top of what’s going on in their lives, in addition to keeping tabs on their fitness levels. “It’s a very servant-based model,” Farrar says. “We’re here to help people discover their mission and push them.”
What they don’t do at Soldierfit – and what distinguishes the model from other military-inspired classes like CrossFit, Farrar says – is pin people against each other. At those classes, he adds, “it’s all competition-based. You come out of facility ranked every single day. That doesn’t work too well for a lot of people that are scared to come into a gym.”
Yelling – of the drill sergeant genre – is also notably absent at the Soldierfit facilities. “We joke and play,” Farrar says. “The troop of the month is a person who has accomplished their mission and motivated others to accomplish theirs.”
Life in the Trenches
With mainstream Americans now working out like their military counterparts, just how much does a military-inspired workout resemble the real deal? “At this point, the military is doing all of the exercises [that we do],” Farrar says. “They’re just doing it in adverse conditions, or with extra battle rattle.”
And oddly, mainstream fitness culture has actually outpaced the military when it comes to working out, he adds. “The military kind of plays catch-up when it comes to fitness. They wouldn’t let you in the weight room. They were all for: ‘Let’s go run five, six miles.’”
But swinging kettlebells and holding your plank is what actually prepares you better for the battlefield – say if you have to drag your buddies to safety, he adds.
Those real-life scenarios are what inspired exercise physiologist Josh Henkin to create a routine that is inspired by the needs of the military – but also for the military. Henkin’s Ultimate Sandbag workouts have been used by professional athletes, fitness facilities and rehabilitation clinics in several countries, in addition to the U.S. Army.
“The Army was taking Army duffel bags, filling garbage bags with sand and putting them in the duffel bags for training,” Henkin says.
Henkin essentially made this scientific. He created different-sized bags, filled with sand, which could be used in about 400 different exercise moves. “It’s a full-body workout,” he says. “There’s a huge cardio component.”
While some of the moves directly mimic those in the Army, others are tailored to the nuanced moves of everyday life.
“Most things in life are not perfectly balanced …picking up groceries, holding a kid,” Henkin says. “We change how the Ultimate Sandbag is held. That way we can really address specific needs of people.”
Personalized training is something that Soldierfit emphasizes as well. David Daniels, of Frederick, Maryland, has been going to classes for three years and hasn’t done the same class twice. Burpees, kettlebell swings, penguins, pushups – the variety of exercises makes working out interesting, and the positive re-enforcement has kept Daniels coming back for more. “I’m mentally and physically in better shape than I was in my 20s and 30s,” the 47-year-old says, adding that notably absent from the class is “the competitive gym scene.” Instead, it’s family-oriented, much like how the military can be considered a family.
"Since the first class I’ve been hooked," Daniels says. "It’s an addiction – a really good one."