5 things I learned while doing the Les Mills Stronger challenge

Adoring followers, world tours, huge arena venues, gobal fame, branded merch and a networth of $1 billion…No, I’m not talking about a music megastar. I’m talking about a family-owned fitness brand from New Zealand that started in the ’60s and has now reached almost cult-like levels of success thanks to its unique way of delivering high-production, high-energy, music-based workout classes.

I experienced my first LM class as a teen, courtesy of my very fit gym-going parents. I think it was BodyStep, or BodyBalance – which is a blend of yoga, Pilates and thai chi. Fast-forward 15 years and my occasional dabbling has escalated into a daily practice.

I became aware of the online app, LesMills+, at the beginning of lockdown when I returned from Costa Rica (after 3 life-changing weeks training as a yoga teacher) to find a weird post-apocalyptic world with no gyms open.

My mum sent me a link to a free BodyCombat video. Pitched as a ’55-minute core workout’, BodyCombat is based on mixed martial arts training, using sequences of punches, kicks and stances from boxing, kickboxing, muay thai, capoiera, karate and ju jitsu – all set to music and based on the high intensity interval training technique (alternating high and lower impact).

It wiped me out but I was instantly hooked. This particular release was presented by Dan and Rach, the Holly Willoughby and Philip Schofield of the Les Mills world. I found myself intrigued by their on-screen chemistry, and, perhaps to distract myself from the endless jump kicks, wondered if they fancied each other. It turns out they’ve worked together for over 20 years so any sexual chemistry was probably nipped in the bud early on. Dan is happily married with kids now and I don’t know why I became so invested in these people’s personal lives but that’s the culty magic of Les Mills for you.

At just £11 a month, LesMills+ is a steal compared to my £35 gym membership. I loved the app so much that even when lockdown restrictions eased, I decided to quit the gym and continue being an anti-social hermit.

Every now and then Les Mills releases a ‘challenge’, which is when they give you a schedule of workouts to complete within a time frame. In October, I started the new ‘Stronger’ challenge, free to all subscribers. This involved:

  • 6 workouts per week for 6 weeks
  • a blend of bodypump (high rep weight lifting), grit (HIIT strength and cardio), bodycombat and bodybalance
  • weekly motivational email with videos
  • healthy eating advice with delicious-sounding vegan recipes.

Yesterday, I completed the challenge. It took me just over 6 weeks on account of mildly injuring myself twice and needing a few extra rest days.

As I haven’t updated this blog for ages (sometimes I wonder what the point of it is), I thought I’d share 5 things I learned while on this challenge, in case any of you feel inspired to give it a go.

1. It helps to do a fitness test before you start

You’re supposed to do a fitness test before and after the challenge so you can measure your level of improvement. I decided not to because sometimes competition scares me, even if it’s only with myself. Successfully completing every workout seemed like a worthy enough goal to me.

In hindsight, I wish I’d done the tests. I felt a sense of anti-climax upon finishing the challenge yesterday, because I couldn’t see any difference in my body shape or tone, or even in how I felt despite the hard work I put in. My weight didn’t change – in fact it slightly increased (although this isn’t really a surprise seeing as muscle weighs more than fat and I am in ‘December mode’, which means I’m eating chocolate with gay abandon).

This leads me on to my next learning…

2. Change takes time

I appreciate the psychology behind the ‘6 week challenge’ concept. It’s doable. It gives you an end point. It’s an appealing idea that in just 6 weeks time you could be fitter and slimmer and stronger than ever before. The truth is, it’s an arbitrary length of time. Our bodies are all different. Some people are walking fat-incinerators. Other people cling to it like a famine is coming. If there’s anything I’ve learned about my body after a lifetime of unhealthy body image obsession, it’s that it takes time to change.

Time and consistency. I’ve lost about 14kg (2 stone) since I graduated from uni 10 years ago. This is an amazing achievement that I’ve never allowed myself to feel proud of for some reason.

Just because the 6 week challenge ends, doesn’t mean you should stop being active. Feel proud, treat yourself to some rest, but make sure the exercise you do is enjoyable and sustainable in the long-term.

3. Know your limits

This might sound silly but something I struggle with is not exercising. On rest days I feel antsy. I feel like my muscles are melting to jelly. I feel achy and guilty and gross. Rest is so important and obviously I love having a day where I can just slob out completely – but it comes with shame, which takes the edge off my enjoyment somewhat.

The stronger challenge is ‘intermediate to advanced’ in level, and sometimes 6 muscle-building workouts a week was too much for me. When I ploughed on through my exhaustion, I paid for it in the form of injuries. Sometimes I am too hard on myself. It’s ok to pull back and do lighter weights if you need to, or skip a day, or swap a Grit for a Balance. Your body needs to last a lifetime!

4. Support helps

The nice thing about Les Mills challenges is the private Facebook group. People post photos of their workout or write things about how hard it is, or they’re feeling down because they haven’t reached a goal, or have experienced an injury. I love this because it reminds me we are all in it together.

Watching the super athletic instructors on the videos can feel demoralising at times, as motivating as their script is. They make me feel so slow and heavy and unfit. I wish they’d shove some ‘normies’ in there who get out of breath and have to lie down halfway through a set.

But the Facebook group reminds you it’s supposed to be challenging…that everyone struggles, that we are all at our own levels and the only thing that matters is showing up and giving it a go.

5. I’m worthy

Ok, it’s not Les Mills specifically that’s made me realise this. It’s a culmination of things. Choosing to change the way I see myself. Having a partner who shows me compassion and support. But as cheesy as the scripts can be in Les Mills workouts, the motivational talk actually does help. You feel connected to people, you feel connected to your body, and you feel better in yourself for completing the workouts. Exercise has increased my sense of worth, over the years. It is the simple act of starting and finishing something that gives you that rush, that realisation that you can do something…even if it’s only something small.

That concludes the 5 things I learned doing the Les Mills Stronger challenge. I can’t recommend the app enough…there’s so much variety on there, and something for all levels of fitness. Plus, it’s a lot less sacrificey than most cults.

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