It’s really hard. You’d probably like it.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard a variation of this refrain from friends and family. Every time, my thoughts swing from rebellious — “You don’t know me!” — to swoony and understanding — “You totally get me.”
The most recent instance occurred in late November, during a conversation with my friend and coach, Mark Schneider. I’d been celebrating the fact that I was feeling pretty great following a long recovery from a slip-and-fall accident. While the rehab process was thankfully paying off, I could tell that I had rounded a corner and “recovery” was coming to an end. And I didn’t really know what to do next.
Mark listened to me ramble about feeling lost but being “totally OK with it,” then casually mentioned a new program by Pat Davidson, PhD, a respected strength coach and exercise-physiology expert. “It’s really hard,” Mark said. “You’d probably like it.”
That night, the 2016 ebook, titled “MASS,” popped into my inbox. I snuggled into bed to start reading and devoured the book in one go. An enticing mix of science, anecdote, locker-room pep-talk, and detailed action-plan in one go, it was exactly what I didn’t know I was looking for.
“MASS is a stress bomb,” Davidson writes in the introduction to the 16-week protocol. A periodized program, it’s split into four four-week blocks, each designed to build on the one before it and meant, in short, to rough you up. The result, as Davidson explained, is multi-faceted: strength, fat-loss, cardiorespiratory endurance.
“If you go through with the entirety of this program you will be changed,” Davidson writes. “Most of you who start will not finish. This program is not for the weak and timid. This program is for those who are tough, resilient, and committed to working hard and reaching for the stars.”
It was hard at times not to giggle — the tone of the book is more aggressive and stereotypically masculine than the fitness content I normally consume for pleasure and edit here at Experience Life. But I know full well that packaging isn’t what makes a solid program. For all the talk of “I will break you” and “become a monster,” it was clear that MASS was backed by research and experience. And I wanted to try it.
To sum it up, without giving the entire program away: Each four-week block is composed of the same workout, performed four times a week. That means performing the same exact workout 16 times in the course of a single month, with no variation, and then starting a different workout that you will repeat 16 times over the next month.
“There is no chest and bi’s day. There is no back and shoulders day. There is no leg day. Every day will be an everything day. . . . This program is not built on the singular day. This program is built on the accumulation of all the days put together.”
In my first reading that night, I resolved to commit to the first four-week phase. I was content to have a plan that I didn’t have to think too much about, and curious to see what would happen.
Despite Davidson’s warnings — “Only the 1% will be able to make it through this program . . . If you give up, you are probably like the majority of people on this planet” — or perhaps because of them, as I love a good dare, I never really doubted whether I could or would get through it. Four four weeks, I would just “do.” I pulled out my calendar and charted out my workout days for the next month, 16 identical bouts in total, and drifted off to sleep.
Two days later, I kicked things off with the Block 1 workout, an interval circuit loaded up with 10 “dumb” exercises you don’t have to think about; it would take a little over 30 minutes to complete.
I “knew” these facts about the workout, but in hindsight, I didn’t really know what I had signed up for. At one point a gym bystander asked me mid-set what I was doing, and the best response I could eek out was a question: “Dying?” That must have been confusing given the giant smile on my face.
After I’d completed the workout and peeled myself off the floor, Mark caught my eye and nodded inquisitively. “It is hard,” I said. “I like it.”
The 15 workouts that followed were brutal in a way that’s hard to describe. They were a challenge, but not in an off-putting way. This was the kind of “hard” I wanted to rise up to meet. The times when I met the challenge, it was hard not to look back at the equipment and trails of sweat strewn around the gym and think “I did that.” And in the times when I couldn’t quite hit the reps, all I could think was “Next time” instead of feeling discouraged and ready to call it quits. It’s everything I love about hard work — it makes you better, and not just physically.
Even though the workout was identical the entire month — same moves, same work-to-rest scheme, same total duration — no two sessions were the same. There were times when the buzzer would go off, and I simply couldn’t bring myself to move. Other times, the reps flew by. It was hard to predict what would happen from round to round, from workout to workout.
In fact, I couldn’t focus on anything except the current rep. Having described the totality of this workout and the program — “dumb” exercises comprising unchanging, repetitive workouts — you must think it’s a stretch for me to claim there’s an inherent level of mindfulness in it. But hear me out.
By taking away the “thinking,” there is no room for overthinking or worrying. By making it hard, there’s no room for the mind to wander. I couldn’t think about the work project I was prepping to launch, or about what I’d have for dinner, or about how many total reps I’d get in the next round, or even about the next rep. My attention was in my body doing what it’s doing right now.
“Right now” is a beautiful space when you are in motion. There is so much going on physically, and this first phase gave me no choice but to pay attention. Admittedly, the concept wasn’t totally new to me; I’ve written previously about mindfulness in fitness and intuitive training that requires listening to the body and heeding those cues. These workouts just seemed to turn up the dial.
The program had other results, too. I lost some weight, gained some muscle, and watched my body begin to reshape itself; enough so that within the first month that a handful of people commented on it. These physical changes weren’t my reason for embarking on the challenge, so it feels disingenuous to harp on them beyond noting that it’s difficult to put in that much total-body work and not see and feel a difference.
More interesting to me were the speedy changes in my conditioning and movement quality, both of which improved significantly. At the same time, previous aches that hadn’t fully subsided in recovery continued to improve.
Yes, there were days when I was sore and tired and just didn’t feel like doing the workout. But, “sore and tired” is different from “broken and in pain.” And “not feeling like doing the workout” almost always dissipated as soon as I got my hands on the weights and focused my attention on physical sensations.
As you can probably guess, my experience with Block 1 was positive enough that I didn’t have to think twice about rolling right into Block 2, which I’ll report back on in a few weeks. The workout schematics are different, but my feelings remain unchanged: It’s hard. I like it.