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Man vs. Gravity
by: Jess Williard
MUSCLE & FITNESS
Jon Hinds will show you how to rebuild your body into a piece of iron at his Monkey Bar Gym. And you're never going to have to pick up a 45-pound plate or a dumbbell in the process.
I'm learning to walk on my hands. I kneel into a sprinter's stance and scissors-kick my legs overhead, locking out my elbows and managing the full weight of my body--now a swaying pillar above my head--on my palms. I begin to walk in small, timid strides along the gym floor. Three more shaky advances, and then I pick up speed. As I pass the 10-yard line, marked on the floor, I've got a rhythm going. I feel strong. And then my body starts to tilt like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and I accelerate more than I can handle. My hands break into a desperate scamper, trying to correct my imbalance, as I tip over into an exhausted heap at the 15-yard line. I've spent the past half hour repeatedly falling over, but this is the most fun I've had in a while.
Thirty minutes earlier, I walked into the Monkey Bar Gymnasium (MBG) in Madison, Wisc., unable to do a simple cartwheel. I'm a fairly strong and capable 175 pounds and a personal trainer, but the closest I had ever gotten to a handstand was a tripod in about four feet of water. I'm invigorated in a way that I haven't experienced from a workout in years. I head off to the locker room with the swagger of a grade-school kid coming in from a triumphant showing on the playground. And the analogy is suitable: I just finished playing.
That's what Jon Hinds, owner and founder of the Monkey Bar Gymnasium, preaches: mastering basic human movements that are fun to do and that utilize our natural mechanics to function at the highest level. Playing and reacting like we all did as kids, before we started "working out" to get in shape. This is the fitness revolution, and Hinds would like you to join it.
In an industry filled with notable personalities, Hinds is still a standout. His father, Bobby, is a former pro boxer and the founder of Lifeline USA, a fitness equipment company and the originator of such staple exercise tools as the beaded jump rope and resistance tubing. Hinds, now 47, started training as a kid under his dad's guidance and became a personal trainer in his teens. He moved from his hometown of Madison to Los Angeles in 1989 and, given his ability to improve the explosiveness of his pro-athlete clients, became the strength and conditioning coach for the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers. His clientele grew to include Darryl Strawberry of the New York Yankees, Charles Smith of the New York Knicks, and Anfernee Hardaway of the Phoenix Suns, among others.
More recently, Hinds has worked with Wesley Matthews of the Portland Trail Blazers (taking his vertical from 34 inches to 39 in six weeks), and he masterminded All-Pro tight end Tony Gonzalez's change to a plant-based diet. Hinds has consulted for the National Academy of Sports Medicine on functional training, invented exercise equipment of his own, and competed in Brazilian jiu-jitsu on a world-class level. He eats only plants, doesn't own a car, and can walk flights of stairs while in a handstand.
Having grown weary of L.A.'s attitude and missing home, Hinds returned to Madison in 1997 and, four years later, founded the Monkey Bar Gymnasium, confident his brand of fitness could change the world. "The fitness industry is sick," Hinds says. "Mentally, physically, and spiritually. And it needs healing. Somebody has to bring the truth back to it. And that's what I'm trying to do."
THE MBG PHILOSOPHY
There are three lifestyle criteria Hinds promotes to enhance quality of living. The first is to train skills. All MBG workouts are designed around variations on four basic human movements: running, jumping, climbing, and crawling. These include exercises like sprinting, jumping rope, box jumps, pullups, rope climbs, and various kinds of pushups and hand walking. Free weights and machines aren't used, and members train barefoot to help develop stability from the ground up.
Perhaps Hinds' greatest genius lies in his ability to progress clients quickly to a mastery of these skills. All beginners (or newbies to a particular exercise) start at what Hinds calls the "stability" level, where the simplest variation of the move is drilled with attention to proper body alignment. Someone who struggles with pushups would begin on his knees. When stability is mastered, the client progresses to the "strength" level, where a harder variation is used and more muscles are involved (this could be a pushup with a resistance band around the back). Finally, when ready, the trainee goes to the "power" level, where the impressive, acrobatic variations are done (such as a one-armed pushup or handstand).
The second priority is performing Eischens yoga. Named after Roger Eischens, a local Madison yogi who helped Hinds restore his own bad knees to the point where he was able to dunk a basketball on blacktop--barefoot--within one month of training, this particular brand of yoga helps control stress, bring peace of mind, and correct/prevent injury due to muscle imbalances. Eischens is an active, hands-on method of yoga that incorporates partner feedback during poses. "A balance between body, mind, and spirit is what separates the good from the great," says Hinds, who encourages daily practice of Eischens yoga.
The final cornerstone of the MBG philosophy is a plant-based diet. Hinds has been vegan since 2004, noting the diet's impact on his health and performance, as well as on the planet. He feels he recovers faster than when he ate animal foods, and he seldom gets sick. But what about protein? "I hate hearing that question," he says. "Only 10% to 20% of your dietary needs are protein, and that can be met easily through a plant-based diet. Plants are the strongest foods on the planet." Although MBG promotes a strictly plant-based diet, most members are encouraged to begin their intake at 80%o and work their way up. There is no counting calories or grams of anything.
Even though MBG's workouts focus on performance rather than getting six-pack abs, no one hoping to look better ever asks for his money back. According to Hinds, the average MBG member loses 17 pounds of fat and gains 5.5 pounds of muscle within his first 60 days of training. (There are no mirrors in the gym, so members have to check themselves out when they get home.) "It's hard to compete with large commercial gyms, because they sell aesthetics," says Hinds. "We don't. We promote whole health--physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. Looking good ends up being a consequence of this."
Stephon Curry, the Monkey Bar trainer who taught me how to walk on my hands, looks like a Division I linebacker. He's built like Ray Lewis circa 1997, yet can't remember the last time he touched a weight. "I'm more concerned with developing true strength and a body I can use," he says. "I guarantee if I sat down on a bench right now, I could put up at least 300 pounds, but it doesn't matter. Some guys can bench a lot of weight. But if you can't control your own body, why would you pick up a weight? If you are really strong, you should be able to do a handstand or muscle-up," in which you hang from a bar or rings and muscle your way up and over them (a pullup and dip combo with momentum).
The workouts are intense, but you won't see training partners screaming their buddies through forced reps here. The challenges come in making the exercises as efficient as possible and constantly working to a higher level of skill and movement. As Hinds explains, "All you have to do is look to nature for the answers. You would never see a monkey straining to hold on to a branch. A cheetah stops running before it burns out. Your last repetition should always look exactly like your first." Every bear crawl, chinup, and handstand walk is executed as cleanly and quickly as possible, and exercises are always stopped before form is compromised.
THE REVOLUTION SUCCEEDS
When MBG opened its doors a decade ago, Hinds had two clients and made a total of $75 in the first two months. "We were the first no-machine, no-mirror gym in the country," he says. "People would walk in and walk right back out. We challenged the notion of what a gym could be or look like, and it made people uncomfortable." Pete Brooks was one of those first members and today holds multiple records in the gym and even a world record. His 260-yard crawl with the Power Wheel--an ab wheel with foot stirrups, invented by Hinds--attached to his feet has yet to be bested by anyone on the planet. He can jump on top of a 50-inch platform from a standstill and sprint 100 meters in just over 11 seconds. He's also 48 years old. With walking testimonials like Brooks, it's easy to see how MBG caught on.
The Monkey Bar Gymnasium is composed of two large, open training rooms and a yoga studio--about 5,000 square feet in all. The first of the spaces is about half the size of a basketball court, with wood-paneled floors and hoops on either wall. Various rings and gymnastic suspension ropes dangle from the ceiling, and there is a rack of medicine balls in the corner. The second is a much larger room with a green turf floor and the football yard-line markers that my face became very familiar with while I learned to do handstands. Several iron climbing bars hang from the ceiling, a set of monkey bars lines the opposite wall, and various lengths and varieties of rubber tubing reach from the apparatus and sit in piles in the corner. It doesn't even distantly resemble the shiny, lablike gyms I'm used to. Yet MBG is gaining mainstream steam.
Hinds has franchises popping up across the country (the total should be 18 by April). He started his global expansion with his first international franchise, in Darwin, Australia, and he's constantly touring to give lectures. MBG fitness education programs have been established in several school districts throughout Wisconsin and California, and the gym is in talks with two television networks about a reality show covering MBG's philosophy and the profound effects it has had on the health of young people. "I can see the wave starting," says Hinds. "I love teaching people, talking to kids, and sharing what I know. I want to propagate the ideal of true health in being, training, and living that we promote through Monkey Bar Gym."
Think you have what it takes to be a warrior of the fitness revolution? Try this sample MBG session.
Try to complete the prescribed repetitions for each exercise in a single set. If you can't, you must complete a higher total amount of repetitions for each exercise with as few rest periods as possible.
1 Hindu pushup: 1 set of 60 reps, or 80 total reps
2 Chinup: 1 set of 30 reps, or 50 total reps
3 24-inch box jump: 1 set of 50 reps, or 75 total reps
4 1-mile run: in under 8 minutes, or 1.5 miles total
WALK UPSIDE DOWN
A three-step approach to mastering one of the MBG's core skills
If you can walk in a handstand, it's a safe bet you're going to be able to overhead-press a lot of weight and have ripped abs to boot. Follow the three steps below to get there fast.
This is Hinds' term for beginners who need to master the basic setup position.
* Get into a track stance (one foot forward and one back), with your hands flat on the floor at shoulder-width. Line your eyes up with your thumbs and straighten your arms.
* Push off the ground with your front leg so you bounce into the air, and swing your back leg up as high as you can while you're up.
* Repeat 10 to 20 times, two to three times a week, until you're comfortable with the feeling of supporting your body weight on your hands.
The intermediate stage. Perform the hops as described above facing a wall--set up two to three inches behind it.
* After a few practice hops, get up high enough so that you can raise both your legs overhead and rest your heels against the wall. Use the wall to stabilize yourself, straighten your legs, and hold a handstand. Maintain it for 10 to 15 seconds, then let your legs down.
* Repeat 10 to 20 times, two to three times a week, until you feel you can hold the handstand without the assistance of the wall. You should have a spotter around for safety.
This is where you get to walk on your hands. Pop up into a handstand in an open area. To walk, simply take small steps forward with your hands.
* Tilt your legs in the direction you are headed to establish momentum. When you feel you're about to fall, try to cartwheel or somersault out of the position and safely to the floor. Again, it's best to have some one around to catch you.
Go to muscleandfitness.com for exercise descriptions.