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Mini-Experiment: Manual Resistance Training [Plus: Boot Camp With a Real Sergeant!]

Posted May 05 2011 11:05pm


Allison, Sgt. Peterson and I post-workout (hence my sweaty bangs!)

“Is there any exercise you hate?”

“Burpees.”

“Oh good, we have lots of those in the workout today!” And that was my introduction to Sergeant Peterson of the eponymous Sergeant Peterson’s Boot Camp.

When Sergeant Tim Peterson (he was in both the Air Force and Army) first contacted me about trying out his program – I believe his exact words were “You can’t say you’ve tried everything until you’ve tried my boot camp” – I wasn’t sure what to expect. Even though I’ve done all kinds of boot camps with all kinds of instructors this would be the first time I would be doing one with an actual drill sergeant.

I don’t know about you but when I think “drill sergeant” I think yelling, whistles and Jillian Michaels clinging to my back like a deranged monkey while I push-up until I puke. (Feces flinging may also be involved – I have a terribly vivid imagination.) So imagine my surprise when the heavily muscled and tattooed Sgt. Peterson sat me down for a little heart-to-heart before we got started. We went through my fitness history, my goals, my mental and physical motivations – there was a moment when he asked me a third “But why do you feel that way?” that I had to answer, “With all the therapy I’ve had in my life, you’d think I’d have a good answer for that. But I don’t.” He’d exhausted even my considerable ability for self-examination. I was impressed.

Gym Buddy Allison was paired up with a firecracker trainer of her own and Sgt. Peterson started me off with some warm-up drills. As I started banging out some push-ups I heard him say softly, “Okay good. A little lower. There, perfect. Great form.” Wha…? Where was the yelling? The whistle blowing in my ear? The puke bucket? (Although secretly I’m a little proud that a real sergeant told me I have good push-up form.) “You’re making that look a little too easy though.” And then I felt his hands on my shoulders. Pushing down. Suddenly those push-ups were excruciating. The harder I pushed up, the harder he pushed down. “Just five more,” he said in that same even voice. Five?! I wasn’t sure I could even do one more. He kept the pressure just enough to where I could get up but still had to fight for every single rep. “Great job!” he said as I collapsed on the floor, glimpsing Allison in the same agony out of the corner of my eye. As he helped me up he asked, “Dizzy?”

YES. “No.”

The rest of the workout continued in the same vein: step-ups, back extensions, tricep dips, sit-ups, shoulder presses – all with the Sarge adding extra resistance on the last few reps. The hardest moment was doing static lunges with my back knee an inch off the floor and him leaning down on my shoulders. As I felt every fiber in my glute and quad contract I decided I probably would’ve preferred Jillian – at least she’s lighter. When we got to pull-ups I was freaking out. “I can only do one from a dead hang, without any added resistance,” I explained. I was having nightmarish visions of those guys that rip out pull-up after pull-up with a 45-lb plate chained to their waist, clinking like Jacob Marley on ‘roids.

“You can do more than that,” he said quietly. (Seriously, no yelling! None!) As I set out to prove him wrong, I felt him give me a little boost up. He helped me! I did 5 assisted pull-ups. “See?” he smiled again. Nicest drill sergeant ever.

“What do you call that pushing-down technique?” I asked him afterward as he contorted me into different stretches on what looked like a massage table (his verdict: I’m too flexible for assisted stretching). I was intrigued because I have done a lot of workouts in my time and I’ve never had anyone do that before.

“Manual resistance to acute muscle failure.” I had him repeat it like five times and even now I’m not sure I got the words in the right order but you get the idea. “It’s a way to get you to muscle failure faster and harder than you could on your own.” True that. I freaking loved it. I loved it so much that on Monday I tried it out on Gym Buddies Krista and Megan. It worked so well that we didn’t even snicker as we yelled “Do me! Harder!” across the weight floor to each other.

Manual Resistance Training , as explained by strength coach Scott Greenwalt in an interview with Stack magazine:

“An alternative to conventional forms of strength training with weights, manual resistance is performed with a partner who provides force throughout the entire range of motion. Benefits gained cannot be achieved with standard weightlifting. The athlete performing the exercise can exert maximum effort into each rep, because his partner controls the amount of resistance, increasing or decreasing it to match the athlete’s strength capability throughout the set. With manual resistance, the partner provides steady resistance in the opposite direction throughout the whole range of motion. Because of this, you can work through different angles of resistance rather than in a fixed plane. With weights, resistance is always directed toward the floor, regardless of where you are in the movement. Bonuses of manual resistance exercises: you can perform them without equipment, in the confines of your home, and you can replicate nearly all non-explosive weightlifting movements.”

In the end, we only got a taste of what Sgt. Peterson’s boot camp was like (Allison and I got dreadfully lost and so were late – in our defense, his boot camp is housed in an industrial warehouse fronted by an art gallery.) but I really liked it. First, I learned something new and really useful. (You totally want to try manual resistance now, don’t you?) Second, I really liked his style ; as I’ve mentioned before I really do not like being yelled at but I do like being pushed and that’s a fine line for most fit pros to walk. Third, all of the trainers working for him were women; I think a lot of girls are afraid to try a  boot camp because it seems so masculine but watching these super fit girls doing the coaching was inspiring not intimidating. Lastly, as we were walking out, a woman wearing a pink bunny suit, complete with construction paper ears, came in for her class. Sgt. Peterson explained, “We like shenanigans around here.” Shenanigans. My kind of gym! If you live in the Minneapolis area, San Francisco or Apollo Beach, Florida then you definitely need to give this one a try!

Do you like boot camp type classes? What’s your workout style – does in-your-face yelling motivate you better or do you prefer a gentler approach? When you come into a new gym, do you notice if the trainers are men or women and if so, do you care either way?

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