From ultra-scientific performance centres to innovative gyms with revolutionary training protocols, training facilities are becoming more dizzying futuristic every day. Will we all soon be training in a super-gym?
On a Friday morning in late 2014, Wayne Rooney and the rest of the England football squad were training at the cutting-edge perform training facility at St Georges Park in Burton-on-Trent. Here the players enjoyed access to an altitude chamber, an Alter-G anti gravity treadmill, a Batak Pro reaction wall, an in-door sprint track with Run Rocket resistance harnesses and on-site facilities for testing blood, hearts, lungs and joints.
So is this an exclusive place Reserved for elite athletes and millionaires? No. Once the Premier league stars had departed, this temple of fitness was open to amateur athletes corporate groups and schools, enabling ordinary punters to sweat, sprint and squat in the same place as the pros.
Its not only groundbreaking facilities that this kind of super-gym offers, but also elite coaching. Michael Johnson performance (MJP), a training company set up by the four time Olympic sprint champion in Texas in 2007, offers advanced coaching to athletes of all abilities.
‘We work with youth athletes and amateurs as well as elite and Olympic athletes,’ says Johnson, now a coach and TV pundit, whose company’s tagline is ‘World Class Training For All’/ David Thomas, performance specialist at MJP, adds, ‘Any athlete in any sport, regardless of their ability or experience, can improve, Whether you’re an NFL Pro Bowler or a Sunday League footballer, the raw ingredients of athleticism remain the same.’
Taking their cue from scientific facilities such as the GSK Human Performance Lab, which combines cutting-edge research with its innovative training facilities for elite athletes, universities are also democratising state-of-the-art training – as Loughborough’s Performance Centre, Baths Sports Training Village and Birmingham’s High Performance Centre (BHPC) show. ‘ We can support all athletes wether they’re recreational runners clients referred by a GP or elite downhill mountain bike racers, says Alex Taylor, head of performance and coaching at BHPC. Athletes can train in the advanced strength and conditioning hall, undergo body composition analysis by anthropometrics or use isokinetic machines to assess the peak torque and fatigue rates of individual muscles.
We can’t all kick, run or lift like a professional athlete, but thanks to the evolution of fitness centres an increasing number of us can train like one. This fusion of elite and amateur facilities is driven by both economic and philosophical concerns. “we can’t afford to have two separate facilities,’ says Johnson. ‘But it is really about how we train athletes: the facilities and principles are the same for everyone.’ BHPC’s Taylor believes this approach has many advantages. ‘Everything is on the one site, which enables a multi-disciplinary approach,’ he says. ‘ A Nutritionist can work with a strength coach and a physiologist to optimise your performance. We have lots of crossovers of expertise.’
Advanced training systems also bring enhanced monitoring options. ‘We have a BASES-accredited lab with a team of physiologists who monitor training and perform tests. A cyclist might monitor their power and torque in the lab and out on the road. For example, while a middle-distance runner might check their blood, oxygen and recovery processes.’
Athletes who work with MJP or visit perform at St Georges Park have access to a range of advanced equipment, including a VertiMax (a platform with resistance cables which trains first-step speed and jump height), a Keiser Air 300 runner (which uses pneumatic resistance to enhance sprint speed) and Elite Form video trackers (for gauging power and velocity during squats and bench presses). This results in highly targeted and accurate training.
‘We don’t believe in training until you’re throwing up,’ says Thomas. ‘Its about training smarter, not harder. For example, we use Dartfish software to provide slow-motion playback of your form and monitor important angles such as hip separation and arm positions. Everything is targeted. When we use the Keiser runner we can do drills that target 90% of your maximum power and monitor that accurately.’
However, Thomas stresses that the coaching philosophy is as important as the gadgetry. ‘We’ve stripped down the concept of athleticism into its raw ingredients: speed, strength, power, stamina skill and suppleness. If you’re not functional somewhere down the chain it will be detrimental to your performance.’
At an MJP training camp, every session is tailored to this concept of fitness. Speed sessions are divided into linear days to develop acceleration and top-end speed, and multi directional days to train changes in movement. Strength sessions are built on fast lifts with three-count eccentric movements. The benefit of this targeted system is its fast results, says Thomas. ‘We took on an international footballer know for his pace but we noticed he lacked power in his foot-strike so we addressed that. When we sent him back to his club three weeks later they were amazed.’
Check Your Tech
Scientific facilities and innovative protocols aren’t confined to high performance centres, though – many gyms are upgrading their facilities and fitness cultures to provide more effective and engaging training. In major urban centres, high tech systems are already filtering down. Londons centre for health and Human performance offers an electronic Milon assistance training suite that delivers total-body conditioning in 17½ minutes, integrated cardiopulmonary exercise tests to check the simultaneous performance of your heart and lungs during exercise, and sports science advice from Professor Greg Whyte, the fitness guru who coached David Walliams for his Sport Relief Channel swim. At regional level, local gyms are innovating too, but in different ways: for example, Rhinos Elite Sports and Conditioning in Lincolnshire has built a range of facilities, from climbing walls, functional fitness rigs and sprint tracks to an outdoor Renault Clio dead lift and a Land Rover pull to provide an eclectic mix of training options. Popular gym chains are changing too. Fitness first has increased the space in many of its gyms by 20% by ripping out non essential offices and has dedicated 30% more floor space to freestyle training areas. ‘Our clients are becoming better educated so we needed to give them the opportunity to do more,’ says UK fitness product manager Scott Mackenzie. Gym goers can use a range of ViPR tubes, suspension training rings, steelbells and power bags, or join a freestyle group training class ‘We don’t just move forwards and backwards – we twist, run, bound and jump. And we wanted our gyms to reflect that.’ Elite Expertise and technology are involved here too. Fitness First has teamed up with the British Olympic Assocication to inject elite training methods into daily fitness classes with a range of Team GB workout classes. ‘The classes help people mimic the movements and training of GB athletes,’ says MacKenzie. ‘We also have some indoor running tracks with electronic starting gates so people can perform athletic training. On the gym floor were introducing touch-screen trainers with access to 1,000 exercises.’
While some gyms are incorporating the latest technology, others are evolving in different directions. CrossFit has influenced the shape and atmosphere of many modern fitness centres, yet its message remains one of simplicity, not science. ‘What is unique about our facilities is our warehouse, garage-like feel, but also the group aspect, which makes training more fun and social,’ says Phil Morton of CrossFit Thames. ‘We don’t need lots of kit, just space and a good atmosphere.’ The London chain Gymbox has created its own revolutionary training methods. Its plan has been to develop uniquely appealing facilities with contemporary interiors, live DJ’s, workout spaces that are braod enough to include combat cages, boxing rings and gymnastics kit, and innovative classes covering everything from Muay Thai to Spartan training. ‘We create stimulating environments that are designed to make people want to exercise.’ Says brand director David Cooper. ‘We make sweating fun’.
Gym facilities around the UK are changing fast. Whether your local gym focuses on high-tech equipment, functional training spaces, elite coaching protocols and engaging sociability , the common theme is that most of us are working out in facilities that are more innovative, varied and intelligently structured than ever. The battle between science and simplicity, innovation and functionality, raw data and sociability, will continue. Which kind of facility proves the most successful remains to be seen, but your future gym will be shaped as much by you as by the people who run it. ‘There is a new culture of fitness growing thanks to well-read customers demanding more autonomy and variety.’ Says MacKenzie. ‘And this is changing the way gym facilities are being shaped.’
Fitness For All – This advanced training kit can aid pro and amateur athletes alike
With a wealth of benefits for elite and amateur athletes, the alter-G treadmill at Perform, St Georges Park, supports the body to reduce the effect of gravity. It can help elite athletes increase their training load while limiting the impact on their lower body, and enable heavier people to exercise without wrecking their joints. ‘Athletes sometimes use it on rest days to increase their training volume without affecting their recovery, and it can help athletes recover from injury,’says David Thomas of MJP.
Available at London’s Centre for health and Human Performance (CHHP), Milon is an eight-machine circuit that promises total-body training in just 17 ½ minutes. The machines electronic resitance can be altered for eccentric and concentric motions for a 30% more efficient workout. Its deal for people who are time-poor because you can stress the muscles more effectively, but the variable resistance means it’s also ideal for experienced athletes, ‘says CHHP co-founder Dr Jack Kreindler.
Keiser Air 300 Runner
Popular at MJP clinics, the Keiser Air 300 runner places athletes in a powerful drive position where they fight resistance from compressed air to train their acceleration and explosive leg power. A force monitor helps you train at the right intensity. ‘We can aim for 90% of your max ever rep is very focused.’ Says Thomas. ‘Amateur athletes will find it work muscles that are hard to target with traditional drills, whereas elite players will find that it enhances their peak power over 10m sprints.’
Men’s Fitness, The Rise of the Super Gym, [Mark Bailey | May 2015]