The gym did incredibly well its first year and has since tripled its membership. Competitors have popped up, including 10 Planet Fitness locations in Moscow, and eight more in St. Petersburg. At the same time, the country has seen its average life expectancy finally begin a gradual increase to the mid-60s (not long by American standards, but a marked improvement).
Inside, Russian gyms are virtually indistinguishable from an American club. The aerobics studio offers the same classes taught by midriff-bearing beauties, and the same thumping tunes blast from the stereo. And the training that made the Russians such fierce Olympic competitors? It’s not a priority anymore. “The members are regular people of all ages,” says Kuebler, “only now, they’re working out for themselves.”
The Russian Workout
As fascinating as my tour was, I was still desperate to see an old-school Russian workout in action. To appease my curiosity, Paul calls Igor over and whispers a few words to him in Russian. Then he announces that Igor will take us through the kind of workout his father did to condition athletes. Igor then leads us to a secluded area of the gym, grabbing a couple of broomsticks along the way. “That’s it?” I think. “Piece of cake.”
Igor has us take off our shoes and begin making fists with our feet to move across the floor. Despite writing about hundreds of workouts, I have never heard of such a warmup, and by the time I reach the opposite wall, the bottoms of my feet are aching. We reverse the motion, unclenching our toes to move back to the starting position. “This must be a good exercise for runners,” I tell him, since it reinforces the arches of the feet. Igor’s English is limited, but he nods and throws me the broomstick. Next, he has us swing the sticks from our bellies, over our heads, and down to our lower backs, back and forth, with arms kept straight. It’s painful at first, but within seconds, I feel my shoulders and chest start to open up. After years of benching without flexibility work, the front side of my upper body is like a Gordion knot—but it feels better with every rep.
Next, we throw the sticks up into the air, rotating our torsos, almost as if throwing a punch, to catch them in one hand before letting go and catching them with the other hand. Paul and I drop our sticks several times. “Russian children can do this,” Igor says with a laugh. The exercises aren’t as macho as going for a max squat or bench press, but it’s immediately obvious that they work. Each one gives special emphasis on stretching the muscles that are typically tight—the pecs, shoulders, and hips—while strengthening those that are often weak, such as the glutes and upper back. I ask Igor how the Russians arrived at this routine. “They found it was a way to make their bodies proficient,” says Paul, translating. “Not just strong or flexible—everything at once.”
The following day, Paul, Jake, Dave, and I make for the banya. All I know thus far is that I’ll soon be sitting naked in a hot room and beaten with sticks, and this is supposed to be relaxing. An age-old Russian tradition, banyas served as communal bathhouses in the days before indoor plumbing. Whole families would go there to wash, and even treat their illnesses. Nowadays, they’re viewed as more of a health spa. The banya process involves sitting in a sweltering sauna—not unlike a Roman bath, but it’s humid, not dry—and then immediately plunging into an ice-cold pool. Originally, the contrast was believed to be not only invigorating but ideal for clearing the head of colds and ridding the body of toxins (and, you guessed it, curing hangovers). In recent years, the process has also been found to boost metabolism and improve recovery post-workout (by increasing blood flow).
We change into towels and nothing else, except for pointy wool hats fit for elves, meant to keep your head from overheating in the sauna. Paul opens the door, and we’re immediately blasted with a rush of escaping hot air. “Close the door quickly once you’re in,” he barks. Inside the sauna—a wooden lodge of a room with two levels—we climb the stairs (where it is supposedly 10 to 15 degrees hotter) and sit down on benches. Twenty or so naked Russian men surround us, making it as hard to see as it is to breathe. It’s too hot to talk, and I try to control my heartbeat, which is telling me to panic. We last about 10 minutes and then burst through the doors, where we run down a tiled hallway to the cold pool. The relief is instant, and temperatures that would otherwise be considered freezing feel like a refreshing cool breeze.