In January 2013, before Michael Mosley starting promoting HiiT, before Angela Ripon discovered the hidden dangers of sub-cutaneous fat, and before Dr Chris van Tulleken started discussing physiological age, Abstract Bodyworks® Personal Training opened their gym in Newbury, Berkshire. Owned and run by Pat and Stephen McKinnon, their goal was to introduce a form of physical exercise that was not only based on medical research into ageing and loss of fitness, but was supported by significant levels of evidence collected in over a decade of practical application.
The biggest problem they faced was the common understanding of exercise in 2013, which had grown out of how exercise had been publicized and made popular all the way back to the 1980s. Back then Jane Fonda, a highly successful and healthy looking Hollywood star, introduced her first fitness video. In it she demonstrated a number of characteristics that have become standard in what is commonly understood to be good exercise: group environments lead by a cheerleading teacher to rhythmic music and lots of shouted encouragement to “go for the burn”, where the mantra was “no pain, no gain”. The belief system was summarized in this simple equation – if SHE looks like THAT doing that activity then it will work for ME.
Unfortunately, for the thousands of people who have strained muscles and twisted ankles, as well as for the hundreds of thousands who could never master the moves, this proved to be an elusive promise.
Around the same time, Arthur Jones and Ken Hutchins were publishing something a lot less glamorous but much more scientifically interesting and significant. Arthur and Ken were already well established experts in the strength building industry, having coached many men who went on to become Mr Olympia and Mr World contestants and winners.
They were also contributors to the design and manufacture of workout equipment that could be used by these muscle men to help develop and grow their amazing frames. Arthur and Ken were not only interested in what any particular individual could achieve however; they were also interested in the medical science of atrophy (muscle loss) and hypertrophy (muscle gain), and how to achieve the latter in the safest and most repeatable manner. Going back tofundamental research and their own experiences in gyms around the world they came to many fundamental conclusions, the most basic of which can be summarized thus: Muscles atrophy because the body doesn’t need the muscle to perform day-to-dayactivities. Muscles can be regrown if there is sufficient stimulus that the body cannot ignore; specifically if you exhaust the muscle to temporary failure it will grow back a little stronger.
This research discovery allowed them to become even more successful at training strong men and designing strength training equipment, and led to the publication of the first SuperSlow® Exercise Protocol manual. More importantly however were the research discoveries made by others who read and understood their work; this process (stimulus → response → improvement) was true and achievable for all people, and that the improvement was not limited to growing bigger muscles but in fact led to all sorts of physiological and health improvements. These conclusions were elegantly described in a book published in 1992 by Evans and Rosenberg, “Biomarkers: 10 Determinants of Aging You Can Control”. Unfortunately by this time the general public understanding of exercise for health was firmly fixed in the “hot & sweaty” camp of gym classes and boot camps.
It was into this environment that Pat and Stephen introduced their facility to the UK. They had been training using this method since 2000 and had personally experienced the health benefits of improved strength and fitness, and had helped hundreds of ordinary people achieve the same benefits in specialized training facilities in the USA where they lived for many years. By 2010 Stephen had retired from the technology industry and they determined to relocate back to their home country of the UK, but had also determined that they were not going to give up their exercise, and its benefits. An exhaustive set of searches led them to the unfortunate conclusion that there was nowhere in the UK that provided such exercise, and that even the specialized equipment required to perform it (from MedX® and SuperSlow®) was almost non-existent. Having done well in the corporate world, and being well connected in the exercise community in the USA, they determined to buy and ship the equipment over from the USA and set up their own facility; after all how difficult could it be?
As it turned out getting the equipment and finding a good space proved the easier parts, although even these were beset by all sorts of problems. Where the real challenge came was with potential clients; Pat and Stephen were advocating a 20 minute workout no more than two times a week in a cool, calm, and private space as the only exercise that anyone had to do in order to gain and maintain muscle mass, and thereby derive the host of physiological benefits that muscle gain provides. Stephen’s process and business expertise (gained over decades in industry) proved very useful on the logistics side, but it was Pat who had the marketing and interpersonal skills to actually get the project off the ground. In those first few weeks and months they were often lonely and worried sitting in their cold gym, but the numbers of clients began to increase, and the benefits of the exercise regime began to become obvious to their early adopters. The gym made it through the first year in business but Pat and Stephen were not complacent merely having a viable gym; they knew that the basis of their exercise was research, so they reached out to Southampton Solent University, and specifically to James Fisher and Dr James Steele, and embarked on a research programme to further confirm the real-world benefits of their approach to exercise.
Together they have had two papers published in scientific journals, not something you expect from a small personal training facility in Berkshire, and not something you see from any of the “big box” gyms around the country.
The expression is “the rest is history” and in some small way that is true for Abstract Bodyworks Newbury. Over these past five years the mainstream is slowly catching up with what Abstract Bodyworks have been saying all along; Michael Mosely promotes that you have to stimulate to extremes to get cardio-vascular benefits – steady state won’t do it. Angela Rippon has shown how a body that might look healthy can actually be quite unhealthy if we don’t take into account the composition of that body in terms of muscle and fat. Dr Chris van Tulleken and others have begun talking about physiological age (how old the body is at a cellular level) in comparison to chronological age (how many years you have been alive) and that if the first is a larger number than the second then you are increasing your likelihood of an early grave or at least a significantly impaired lifestyle.
Stephen and Pat take great comfort in recognizing that some of the measures they introduced in 2013 are now becoming mainstream concepts. But they take even more pleasure knowing that the over 10,000 personal training sessions they and their trainers have provided have led, measurably and repeatably, to improved health for their hundreds of clients.
Pat and Stephen have considered expanding their gym to other locations but having gone through the effort of getting Abstract Bodyworks Newbury up and running, and given that they are already “retired”, they have chosen not to. However their reputation has stretched around the country, with clients coming from as far as Southampton, London, and Milton Keynes for their weekly workouts. And they have found kindred spirits in the UK, and have already helped Keith Hughes set up his facility in Dorchester, providing him with much appreciated apprenticeship training, business guidance, and even spare MedX equipment, to help him get off the ground. They have not stood still with the exercises they provide either; over the years they have taken on board a wide variety of clients with different challenges and have developed the protocols to suit the individuals. They are very proud to have helped one client become the fastest marathon runner in his age group in the UK, not an achievement that most people would associate with strength training; they have also helped people with polio, the profoundly deaf, people recovering from horrific accidents, strokes and heart attacks, and ME suffers. And just everyday people, young and old, for whom the traditional gym simply doesn’t work. All begin to regain what Stephen calls “casual fitness”, the ability to do things again that you stopped doing because it was too difficult, from climbing stairs to lifting your luggage onto overhead racks to a myriad other simple
activities. And the recent acquisition of some extremely rare SuperSlow pieces has allowed them to expand the support they can offer and help even more people.
In January 2013 Pat and Stephen stood around in their cool, quiet, specialized, personal training facility and wondered if they would ever get one paying client through the door.
Now, five years later, and with a little help from the health industry which is slowly catching up with the approach they have been using for almost 20 years themselves, they are a success story not only for themselves but for the over 300 clients who have come through their doors.