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Squats, Swings, Sandbags: Comparing NYC's Obstacle Course Training Classes

Welcome to Workout Wednesday: every hump-day, we'll be rounding up some of the city's hottest fitness trends and studios.

Welcome to Workout Wednesday: every hump-day, we'll be rounding up some of the city's hottest fitness trends and studios.


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Warm(er) weather is upon us, meaning that people are gearing up for outdoor activities like flipping tires the size of studio apartments, scaling walls three times their height, and crawling under barbed wire nets that hang precariously low over mud pits. Of course, this isn't your typical walk in Prospect Park—these are elements of an obstacle course race, the likes of which have seen a huge increase in popularity in the past few years. And where the fitness community goes, the fitness class offerings follow.

Though I don't have any Spartan Race or Tough Mudder experience under my belt, I decided to try out two of the city's programs that are dedicated to preparing for these types of races: the Obstacle Course Race (OCR) Training class at the Sports Center at Chelsea Piers, and the SGX class at Epic Hybrid Training. Below, a breakdown of each sweaty, sandbag-lugging session that'll inspire you to sign up for your next local OCR—or maybe avoid it completely.

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Sports Center at Chelsea Piers/Virtual Tour Group

Chelsea Piers

Anyone who's been inside the Sports Center at Chelsea Piers knows that it's basically a huge playground for adults—adults who want to toe the line of professional athleticism, that is. Walk down the track past a boxing ring and basketball courts to reach the Functional Training Area (read: big yellow jungle gym) where OCR Training meets, adjacent to a volleyball sand court.

OCR Training launched earlier this year and is supervised by Rebecca Goilan, a personal trainer at the fitness center and a certified Elite Spartan Race competitor (that means she goes against the top dogs in the highest-level races). Classes are held on Monday and Wednesday evenings and Tuesday and Thursday mornings, with most participants coming to two alternate days per week. While it's currently only open to Sports Center members, Goilan says the gym will soon offer class packages to non-members as well.

"Most people don't work out like this, you know? They sit on machines, and they're not as mobile."

"We do a lot of leg strength work here," Goilan told Racked about the program. "That helps people with endurance on hills," or on stairs if they're doing stadium races like the one coming to Citi Field this spring. The first part of the program focused on endurance, and getting people used to the moves they'd need to be performing. "Most people don't work out like this, you know? They sit on machines, and they're not as mobile. But it takes so much core mobility for these events," she stressed. "We need to get people using their own body weight first, and then we add weight in certain exercises to simulate."

My class consisted of four women and one man and began with a warmup fit for a Spartan: jumping rope for five minutes, a half-mile jog on the track, and squatting leg thrusts meant to prep us for the work ahead. That was followed by three circuits involving moves like squats, push-ups, and walking lunges while holding 20-pound sandbags, all interspersed with more laps around the track. Practicing going from lifting straight into running helps simulate what you'll actually be doing during the race.

Practicing going from lifting straight into running helps simulate what you'll actually be doing during the race.

The more Spartan-like moves we did consisted of hoisting a 40-pound dumbbell tied to a rope over said yellow jungle-gym, bear-crawling along the track as if we were crawling under barbed wire, and—of course—burpees. For the Spartan Race-uninitiated, the penalty for not completing an obstacle is 30 burpees—so while racers should be preparing for the obstacles to come, they should also be prepared for the insurmountable challenges.

While my session didn't get into some of the meatier activities like crawling through the sandpit or flipping tires (yes, they have tires taller than an average woman at the Sports Center), tossing a sandbag to the ground and hitting the track at full effort was certainly a departure from my regular workouts.

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Epic Hybrid Training

Epic Hybrid Training

Epic Hybrid Training's Bryant Park studio might be the exact opposite of Chelsea Piers. Located on the fifth floor of an office building, the single room gym's fanciest amenity might be the refridgerator full of water bottles behind the front desk, and the floor space in the "locker room" (an alcove with a curtain) rivals that of your bathroom. But just like an OCR challenges you with the simplest of items—ropes, sand, mud—so does Epic.

I came to Epic's SGX class and joined a group of 16 or so dedicated fitness buffs who were preparing for their next race and certainly weren't new to the OCR game. Everyone here works out barefoot or in socks, so now is not the time to be embarrassed about foot odor—especially when the first warm-up activity is a partner exercise where one person pushes back the other's feet after completing a leg lift. That was followed by push-ups, planks, squats, and burpees (the first of dozens to come).

The hardest work by far was anything hanging: turning back and forth on monkey bars, pulling your legs up while hanging from rings, and the "Tarzan swing."

The only time you can catch your breath in SGX is when the instructor breaks down the upcoming circuits, where you'll do as many sets of the three given exercises in each circuit as possible in ten minutes. These exercises ranged from the average (kettlebell swings, quick jumps with a resistance band, more burpees) to the challenging (planks with a wheel attached to your feet, pulling yourself up to standing from lying down with a rope, pushing a heavy box across their uneven mats).

The hardest work by far was anything hanging: turning back and forth on monkey bars, pulling your legs up while hanging from rings, and the "Tarzan swing"—holding onto a short rope overhead while kicking off a wall. "Rope climbs and monkey bars are things that you commonly see in a lot of these obstacles races," explained Julia Falamas, Epic's program director. "We're trying to build that skill set so that when people encounter them in a race, they don't feel as intimidated by them." For newcomers who aren't yet used to holding themselves up against gravity, Falamas recommends starting with tightening and loosening the shoulder blades while holding on for as long as possible.

Good luck finding a spot to complete [burpees] without running into someone swinging, pushing, or burpee-ing themselves.

Epic wants you to get used to burpees, too. After you complete one round of exercises at a station, you get a chance to toss a ball into a bucket to score a point for your team (an arbitrary class division meant to spark a bit of competition). If you miss, that's ten burpees before getting back into your next round of exercises. And good luck finding a spot to complete them without running into someone swinging, pushing, or burpee-ing themselves.


The TL;DR? Sign up for an obstacle course race training class if you're registered for a Spartan Race or Tough Mudder in the near future, especially if it's your first time. The Sports Center at Chelsea Piers' program is great for working on transitions into and out of running; and since the classes are very small, students can get personalized attention to perfect lifting and crawling techniques (hello, beginners). Head to Epic if you're more of a self-starter and don't need anyone to push you through your eighth round of burpees—and can deal with humans as obstacles, too.