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Ask any good trainer what the future of fitness looks like and you’re likely to hear that it bears more than a passing resemblance to the present. For many wellness professionals, the math is simple: The old equation—more movement, the right food, adequate sleep—always has, and always will, add up to improved physical condition.
But ask elite trainers—the medal-winning sports champions, published kinesiologists and others at the absolute top of the game—and the answers sound a lot different. They’ll expound upon the lesser-known nuances of the field, the rarefied insight that sends the most serious clients—celebrities who need to look amazing on camera, athletes pushing the limits of human potential and high-flying executives trying to fend off Father Time—flocking their way.
So Robb Report assembled five of the world’s leading trainers to discuss what, in the endlessly expanding universe of fitness apps, tips, tricks and modalities, is actually worth your time and energy. Their responses—from injury-prevention techniques to strength-training protocols that turbocharge muscle building with equipment you might already have in your home—may surprise you.
And as it turns out, surfing the bleeding edge of technology isn’t a salve for all your wellness woes. Those algorithm-driven weight-lifting routines generated by artificial intelligence aren’t necessarily all they’re cracked up to be, while some invasive, expensive, “gold standard” fitness tests might soon be obsolete. One member of our panel even told us that working out with a trainer who doesn’t understand your psychology is a missed opportunity—and who wants to waste an hour of hard-earned sweat?
The most intriguing thread that all their answers had in common? You can incorporate these upgrades into your current fitness regimen with little fanfare. Here, our panel share what they’re doing with clients today, so that you can start doing it tomorrow.
Bev Ratcliff, 41, whose work is focused on injury rehabilitation, physique and sports-specific programming, has a list of clients ranging from A-list celebs to Olympic athletes to world-record holders, including four-time world squash champion Peter Nicol and two-time SkiErg world-record holder Dan Norman. They seek her out because they want to stay in top form as long as possible.
Although Ratcliff, who divides her time between New York and London, has scant social-media presence, those in the know recognize her reputation for using science-backed techniques that keep bodies at peak performance for decades. “I aim to incorporate longevity strategies to best prepare clients for future unknowns,” she says. “We are all aging, and with that comes new challenges. Luckily, evidence-based science is coming up with new ways to prepare us, and the future is bright for keeping us healthier, longer.”
Blood-flow restriction (BFR)
When the physical therapists and elite athletes in Ratcliff ’s orbit started using blood-flow restriction a few years back, she took notice. The technique involves placing bands or cuffs around the thighs or arms during a workout, to curb the amount of blood leaving your muscles—the stress of which creates chemical changes that cause your body to believe it’s under more load than it is. “Your body thinks you’re working harder than you are,” she says. “We’re tricking it to give you a higher training output.”
Today, Ratcliff straps cuffs on most of her clients. She believes BFR could be the ticket to everything from rehabilitation to increasing strength throughout life, and a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology suggests it may even increase pain tolerance. “We know that a by-product of aging is more inflammation, so we’re constantly trying to find ways that we can create intensity and maintain and improve upon strength in different ways,” says Ratcliff. And working smarter without working harder is more important as we age; lower-intensity workouts help minimize the inflammation the body produces when exercising.
According to a recent study, BFR allows people with injuries to exercise without weights but make gains comparable to those they’d see with them, while also speeding recovery time. “The sooner we can get injured people back to moving, back to confidence and back to strengthening their limbs, bones and neuromuscular system,” Ratcliff explains, “the faster we get them out of that initial rehabilitation phase.”
Working out with BFR can also make other forms of movement more effortless—and, therefore, more fun. “A lot of people don’t love training; they love their other activities,” says Ratcliff. And how can you make pickleball or jogging more enjoyable? “With strength,” she says. “The stronger you are, the easier life is.”
BFR isn’t meant to replace traditional weight training; you use it in an injury-rehab setting, on a lighter training day or as the final set of a work-out. Companies such as Kaatsu sell automated compression cuffs that remove the guesswork, but you can also tie an elastic band or an Ace bandage at the top of your thighs or arms (right around the deltoids). The higher the cuffs, the safer and more effective the technique is, according to Ratcliff: “Arteries, veins and nerves are closer to the surface of the body at elbows, wrists and knees; these can be damaged with pressure stress from cuffs.” Be sure you can fit a few fingers underneath the band. You’ll likely notice your pulse, some discomfort and even some slight change in color in the restricted limbs, but it shouldn’t be extreme. If you feel intense pulsing or lightheadedness or if your skin turns purple, you’ve gone too far. Loosen the cuffs or take a break and start over later.
Arnar Pétursson, 32, one of Iceland’s top athletes, didn’t really try running until he was 18. When he did? He entered a marathon without training for it and broke a national record in his age category. Since then, he has become a 53-time national champion, winning races ranging from 1,500 meters to the marathon. He has also written a book, and he now coaches people all over the world, virtually, from the capital city of Reykjavík.
But from day one, he says, he has been “fascinated about the science behind running.” In 2019, when Driftline—an in-development app that measures aerobic endurance based on heart rate alone—approached him, he was intrigued. Like most athletes who want to perform at their peak, Pétursson had done all of the advanced (and expensive) aerobic endurance tests—VO2 max, lactate threshold and running economy—to obtain that data. Driftline, which was set to do a soft rollout of its technology in March, promised to reach the same conclusions using only heart-rate figures collected from any type of run. And it did. “They matched everything I knew about myself that I had to go through all of these kinds of difficult tests to obtain,” Pétursson says. He was hooked.
Soon, current gold-standard fitness tests such as VO2 max may fall by the wayside. “We want to replace [tests like] that—they’re expensive and exhaustive, and when you get the results, sometimes they’re hard to understand,” Pétursson says. Knowing where you stand, fitness-wise, won’t be reserved for elite athletes via invasive lab tests. “We strongly believe that everybody should have access to important health data like this,” he says. “How our heart rate behaves during exercise reflects our energy systems and even our muscle typology.” Via heart-rate data, Driftline’s technology can accurately predict run times and provide heart-rate and speed thresholds, calories burned and more. This information will help everyday runners train as efficiently as pro athletes, reduce the risk of injuries and see better results from exercise.
If you’re not tracking your heart rate already, now is the time to start. It’s the most accessible biometric available, and it’s embedded into every smartwatch and wearable on the market. Get to know your resting heart rate, too. For athletes, “unusually high numbers can signify overtraining,” Pétursson says. He recommends staying around 55 to 65 percent of your maximum heart rate during your easy runs, which you can find by using Driftline or monitoring your smartwatch during a demanding session. “If you can’t maintain a relatively easy pace without your heart rate skyrocketing, and you want to increase your endurance, the best way is to simply slow down,” he says. “Don’t be afraid to walk—it’s a great way to start increasing endurance. Too many people start off by running when it would be optimal to first do three to four 30-minute walks for three to four weeks.”
Gideon Akande, 39, a three-time Chicago Golden Gloves boxing champ turned fitness consultant and coach, knows a thing or two about being on your toes. “Boxing is a game of milliseconds,” he says. “If you miss your opportunity, that may be one you pay for.” For him, strong instincts are what separate the merely good from the very best. “The greatest athletes perform in a very instinctual manner because they’ve repeated these movements over and over and over again.” When the game is on the line or when the pressure ratchets up, instead of getting overcome by nerves, these athletes simply act. “They can get to that flow state faster,” he says. These instincts are key not just on the playing field but in everyday life. And luckily, Akande has found that even regular humans can improve their reaction times by being smarter about the way they train.
Flash reflex training
At a recent fitness expo, Akande encountered BlazePods—flashing circular-shaped devices designed to help bolster your reflexes. The technique they help master, called flash reflex training, is popular with soccer players and other professional athletes. The cones emit bright bursts of light—which indicate where to sprint, kick or punch next—in quick succession. The result: strengthened reflexes that not only help you react faster but can also prevent common-place injuries. “Oftentimes, when people throw out their back or blow out their knee or screw up their shoulder, it’s because they move too quickly and their muscles aren’t able to fire properly or their joints aren’t able to stabilize in time,” Akande says. “This type of training helps your body react fast and be protected and safe.”
That means, if a ball is coming your way in a pickup league, or if you trip on a run, you’re “shortening that time that the brain sends a signal to the body to respond,” he says. Plus, it’s fun. “If we gamify training opportunities, I think more people are likely to train,” he says. “All fitness levels are able to do it because you’re able to easily gauge your progress.”
Set up BlazePods in a variety of configurations: Tie them to a punching bag or even play along with your kids by having them experiment with different arrangements and then run around with you. Don’t have the pods? A workout partner or a trainer can surprise you by simply yelling out different cues for exercises or runs. The randomization will lead to the same types of responses, Akande notes. “In my clients, I’ve noticed improved body mechanics as a result of drills designed to encourage rotation and single-arm or single-leg work,” he says. “In my athletic performance, specifically boxing, I’m quicker and more relaxed even when fatigued.”
Before finding fitness, Betina Gozo Shimonek, a Nike global trainer based in Dallas, now 36, says she would “stay up really late every weekend drinking and eating gas-station food.” She’d never exercised until a college roommate took her to a strength circuit class. “She had 15-pound weights, quickly moving through the class, while I had the 5-pound weights, barely surviving,” she remembers. “Instead of letting it defeat me, I let it empower me. I loved seeing myself get stronger.”
Shimonek noticed that exercise’s feel-good effects bled over into other areas of her life and wanted to dedicate more time to fitness. So she earned her personal-training certification to make some extra money on the side, and her career took off. In the past 10 years, she has trained big-name execs from Nike and other companies, as well as everyday athletes looking for a professional-level edge.
Today, Shimonek centers most of her work on tried-and-true resistance training. “A lot of people assume that when it comes to strength training, you are going to be throwing around barbells and heavy weight,” she says. And while there’s nothing wrong with that (assuming you’re doing it right), she favors something simpler: homing in on a specific part of a strength move—the eccentric contraction.
The eccentric contraction of any exercise is the lengthening portion. (In a biceps curl, for example, it’s when you’re uncurling from the top position; in a pushup, it’s when you’re lowering yourself back to the ground.) “Because of gravity and the controlled tempo, you’re able to challenge your muscles under a higher load than you would with just the weight you’re using,” she says. “This gives your body the opportunity to adapt and get stronger, as if you were lifting a heavier weight, especially if you’re only using your body weight.”
Tonal’s wall-mounted home gym is a low-profile piece of equipment designed to help you master strength work in general and eccentric contractions specifically. (Shimonek, who notes that she’s seen trends come and go, recommends Tonal as a solid, reliable alternative to filling your home gym with cumbersome weights.) The machine has an “eccentric mode” that provides increased tension on that lengthening phase of a move, making your muscles work harder.
No machine? Simply slow down those parts of an exercise on your own. “You want resistance as you’re moving through these movements to make your muscles work,” Shimonek says. “Challenging yourself to move through the eccentric portion for a good tempo of three to five seconds will be a great way to get the most out of the exercise. You can even go as long as 10 seconds if you’re really up for the challenge.” Add the technique to a strength-training program with heavy loads and a lower repetition range—anywhere between three and eight reps—for the best results.
Growing up, Jonathan Goodman, 37, hoped to be a physician even while struggling in a traditional classroom setting. At 15, he took refuge from the rigors of academia in a local YMCA, where the satisfaction of working out planted a seed for what may be an even more impactful career path. “I wasn’t quite smart enough to get into medical school, so I studied kinesiology instead,” he says.
Before he got his degree from the University of Western Ontario, Goodman started training students and faculty. Then he took on private clients at Body + Soul, a high-end gym in Toronto predicated on the idea that people need to love being in a gym if they’re going to use it regularly. When he founded the Personal Trainer Development Center in 2011, through which he certifies other trainers, he emulated the strategy of targeting clients’ psychologies in order to help them look forward to sweating it out. Goodman is unimpressed by flavor-of-the-month techniques, tips and tricks, preferring instead to take the long view when it comes to fitness.
Skip the trainer, hire a coach
It’s been said that a gentleman’s most important relationships are with his tailor, his barber and his doctor. Goodman might argue for adding a fourth professional to that list: whoever’s designing your exercise regimen.
He scoffs at AI-powered apps that devise routines for you, considering human connection imperative for a productive training experience. As an educator, Goodman helps trainers develop what he calls human self-efficacy, or finding motivation within. While most of us have fitness pros who are capable of devising a training program, Goodman suggests a coach—someone who exhibits high levels of empathy and develops meaningful ties to clients in the service of furthering their fitness goals.
“If I don’t have an opportunity to get to know you really well, get to know your body, get to know the ins and outs of how you respond to exercise and get to know the pace of your life,” Goodman says, “I can’t do anything better than that program you found elsewhere.”
Instead of emailing availability requests to any of the pros who appear in this piece, treat the hunt for a trainer as you might approach finding a watch dealer or a chief of staff—or, perhaps for the most accurate analogy, a psychiatrist. Don’t be afraid to ask for a formal interview. After all, fitness is a lifelong pursuit, so it’s worth hiring someone you feel you can trust, which Goodman says is nonnegotiable.
The ultimate sign that you’ve found an ideal coach? They have as many queries for you as you do for them. “Coaching is about curiosity and asking questions,” Goodman says. “The value of a coach is not to come down from the heavens and distill upon the leeches some perfect plan. It’s to help people figure out how to fit the Tetris pieces of their life together.”