When I got an email offering me the opportunity to train like an Olympian, it only took me two seconds to agree. It took me a lot longer to get to the facility. Onelife Fitness is in Brambleton, Virginia, past Dulles, and is the flagship for a training program called Explosive Performance that’s favored by lots of Olympians, like Katie Ledecky, the US women’s soccer team, and Thomas Hong, who all used it before heading to the Olympics. In fact, between the 2012 and 2016 games, the Explosive Performance program has whipped around 40 Olympians into shape.
So what is Explosive Performance? It offers customized workouts that emphasize speed, agility, and yes, explosiveness. You can tell you’re in an Explosive Performance gym if the pinnacle of decor is a series of yellow and black nylon straps dangling from the ceiling. There are no TVs in Explosive Performance. There are a lot of black boxes that look like unusually aggressive ottomans.
Olympic sports require extreme specialization—you may hyper-focus on nailing triple lutzes or try to perfect that half-pipe alley-oop over thousands of attempts—which in turn leads to injuries, explains Kevin Boyle, the director of Explosive Performance, when I arrive. Figure skating for six hours a day can cause ankle sprains and stress fractures; snowboarders often suffer back injuries from all that twisting mid-air. Boyle’s techniques try to avoid these injuries by “filling the gaps”: focusing on areas like flexibility and balance in order to prevent overuse injuries. “You might be an Olympian at speed skating, but can’t do a plank,” says Boyle.
Rhys Gully, who recently trained the Australian rugby team, joined Boyle and me, and we trotted over to a corner of the room where I started my Olympian workout. It began with “movement prep,” which meant getting on the turfed floor and rolling out my quads, glutes, and hamstrings using the Hyperice Vyper 2.0, a short vibrating roller that targets soft tissue and cuts foam rolling from around 20 minutes to 30 seconds per muscle group. This was followed by a stretch literally called “The World’s Greatest Stretch,” along with a series of Bunkie exercises for core stability and bird dog progressions for balance.
Then the power portion of the workout kicked off, using the Keiser Functional Trainer machine to do a half-kneeling cable chop. Even though this targets the upper body and core, the fact that I was kneeling on a thin foam tube forced me to use my hips and glutes for stability, creating a decent burn.
Next in the power segment came a series of box jumps, followed by squat-bursts on the Keiser Squat Machine (see below). Then, with very shaky thighs, I hit the strength part of the workout. This was deadlift-focused, and included back-to-back reps using a racked barbell as well as the Olympic Hex Bar. For both, weight is increased until form suffers. For some upper body action, I did one-arm dumbbell bench presses, with the fun aspect of having just half my torso on the bench, forcing me to engage my core and thighs for balance so I didn’t fall off. Which was very much in the realm of possibility at this point.
Finally, to really max out my legs, I did what is known in the fitness world as Energy Systems Development, a short cardio workout that dually aims to increase anaerobic (high-intensity) performance and aerobic (low-intensity) recovery in the span of just a few minutes, rather than repeating numerous intervals or coasting through a relatively easy bout of cardio for an hour. On a glorified elliptical machine called the Cybex Arc, I glided along for 45 seconds, then pounded out 15 seconds hard and fast. After repeating this four times, my vision was a tad spotty.
The whole thing took about an hour and 20 minutes and involved nearly 20 exercises. The good news? For the first time in my life, I was told I was coordinated. And I only fell once.
I came away from the experience with three moves that improve particular winter Olympic sports and that you can also incorporate into your regular routine. Never done box jumps? If you’re not into figure skating, these can help you dart up hills faster in your next half-marathon as they’re great for building leg strength. Keiser squats can not only make you sprint faster in your next pick-up basketball game, but help you jump higher, too. And while you may never get your shot at speed skating for gold, a slide board offers an unparalleled thigh workout that also protects your knees, which will obviously make you better at Rollerblading.
Figure Skating: Box Jumps for Balance and Power
Box jumps improve power and balance, the latter of which, thanks to weak ankles, I mostly lack. I did a series of jumps, ranging from starting on the ground and hopping onto one of those boxes with a single leg, to jumping from a higher box down to the turf and springing automatically to a lower box, landing on one leg. I then held this for as long as I could (about three seconds, which is actually good). This simulates the kind of balance necessary for figure skater to gracefully land on one foot on the ice.
Bobsledding: Keiser Squats for Power
This is where power, or explosiveness, comes in. Using the Keiser Squat Machine, I slowly dropped to a count of five before immediately springing up on my toes to determine, well, explosiveness. This move is huge for bobsledders when they launch. (It also helped Ledecky get faster on flip-turns in the pool.) With a resistance of 100, my best launch upward registered a 505 (elite athletes hit around 800). Once I stopped meeting that number—around five attempts—I was done. Boyle explained that I’d maxed my power and should move on before I got hurt.
Videos courtesy of Nick Eghtessad/Live Wire Media Relations.
This article has been updated to reflect that the Olympic athletes mentioned have trained at various locations where the Explosive Performance program can be found, not just at Onelife Fitness Brambleton.