Five seconds into my first leg-press set at MedX Precision Fitness, I felt like I was one second away from passing out. One minute in, I was sure I was going to puke. At the 90-second mark, I was determined to find any excuse not to do it again. Ever.
This entire time - what felt like an eternity - instructor Blair Wilson talked me through the exercise, coaching and reassuring me as if I was pushing out a baby.
Only afterward, did he reveal that he set the machine at 180 pounds, as in, roughly 50 per cent more than my bodyweight. No wonder it felt so excruciating.
Mr. Wilson opened up his gym last April, although to call it a gym would be like calling a cocktail shrimp dinner. Located on the ground floor of an office building in Toronto's financial district, MedX Precision Fitness consists of six weight machines (one is solely designated for people with lower-back issues). In addition to the leg press, there's a pull down, a bench press, a seated row and an overhead shoulder press.
If you're looking for a treadmill, bike, Swiss balls, dumbbells, yoga mats or any other equipment, you've come to the wrong place.
The beauty - and beast - of his no-nonsense program is that it demands a lot from your body, but once complete, you don't have to do it again for another week.
"The benefit comes from how hard you work, not how long you work," he says, dressed more like a preppy banker on casual Friday than a trainer. "We make you work harder, so you stand to gain more benefit."
Mr. Wilson's approach - intense resistance and low repetition for a brief time (up to 20 minutes but as short as six) - is not new. He's using principles espoused by such authorities as Arthur Jones, the founder of Nautilus, and Ken Hutchins who pioneered the SuperSlow workout to build a protocol that offers maximum efficiency.
This means skipping a conventional warm-up exercise or aerobic component as well as any cool-down stretches, which may seem unusual, but Mr. Wilson explains that this is actually built into his weight sequence. "Logic would state that the last rep provides the most benefit [because it requires you to work the hardest] so every other rep that comes before is a warm-up," he says. "As soon as you start flexing, you're technically warming up."
I have never taken an intellectual approach to fitness. Not to sound as if I've been brainwashed by Nike, but I really have always been one to just do it and ask questions later. Mr. Wilson is exceedingly informed about the science of exercise. Whether as a way of distracting or empowering me, he shares a lot of his knowledge while I'm working through the circuit. The downside to this, of course, is that I'm concentrating too hard on getting through the set to process the info.
What I hear is some broken combination of "compound muscle groups … breathe, breathe … max amount of work per unit of time … contract abs … breathe … hold for 10 more seconds … okay, now slowly release."
The exercises are always performed in the same order - both as a way to track progress and so that the body recognizes the workout each week (this goes against the theory of muscle confusion, which some fitness professionals advocate).
Numbers don't lie, so I was surprised to hear that, over seven weeks, I had progressed from 120 to 194 pounds with the shoulder press, and from 66 to 100 pounds on the bench press. But I was also confused. I don't think I'd ever be capable of doing this on my own.
"Everyone is a heck of a lot stronger than they think," he tells me. "We inherently don't like exerting a lot of energy. There's a difference between expending and exerting."
As for the reasoning behind only doing the program once a week, he uses a knife cut as comparison. "Does that heal overnight?" he asks. "If you pick at a scab, you prolong recovery. Also, you may be recovered but the idea is to make gains."
Fitness expert Larry Track sees benefits to the MedX Precision Fitness regime. "I'm definitely a believer in less is more; people are wasting too much time," he says, adding that there is science behind allowing the muscles to repair and grow.
But he also notes that this is not the type of exercise that should be done without supervision, as risk of injury can be higher when people are not accustomed to such resistance. His two other concerns: Attention to proper diet must be extra vigilant to notice gains and most important, regular exercise also feels good for the mind. "Some people will miss the release, the sweat, the ability to let stress out," says Mr. Track who is also a contributor to DailySqueeze.ca, a health and wellness website.
Mr. Wilson showed me I am much stronger than I would have ever believed - and how much potential I have to get even stronger. He also has me rethinking all that time I spend doing what might be perceived as inefficient exercise. I like my Pilates classes and long walks, precisely because they feel enjoyable; whereas with MedX Precision Fitness, you certainly put the work into working out.
MedX Precision Fitness
What is it?
A sequence of five exercises - leg press, pull down, bench press, row, overhead shoulder press - using MedX weight machines, all set at inconceivably high resistance so that the muscle fibres are recruited and exhausted in minimum time.
How hard is it?
It's no walk in the park. But it's not supposed to be. The biggest challenge is avoiding momentum; each rep should take a minimum of 10 seconds in each direction to complete.
What does it work?
The machines target the entire body: legs, chest, back, shoulders, arms and core. But engaging the different muscles groups simultaneously (flexing the biceps and contracting the abs for the pull down) at such high resistance can be difficult while also remembering to breathe.
What are classes like?
No mirrors, no Ke$ha, no instructor on a headset. This is a one-on-one program in a slightly chilly, exceptionally clean mini gym where Mr. Wilson and fellow instructor Nick Kordic sport ties and slacks instead of typical exercise apparel.
Who's taking it?
Bay Street types who come on their lunch break or before work (some don't even change), as well as athletes and even seniors who are concerned about losing muscle mass.
Sign me up!