Looking out across a quiet inner-city Auckland park, Phillip Mills remembers when it was the premier track and field venue in New Zealand’s biggest city.
The Mills family home was nearby, and his four-time Olympian father Les Mills was national track and field coach during the park’s heyday. “I remember watching Peter Snell and Kip Keino race over the mile on this track,” Phillip says. “This was the hub of track and field, and this was our lives, at least until I went off to university.”
It’s remarkable to think that this small suburban park, now home to family picnickers and dog-walkers, once hosted legendary runners such as three-time New Zealand gold medallist Snell and two-time Kenyan Olympic gold medallist Keino.
Almost as remarkable is that the skills practiced here would help form the beginnings of a global fitness trend.
As a 400 meter hurdler, Phillip Mills ran on the same park himself, learning and practicing fundamental athletic training principles to build speed, strength and fitness. Taking up a track scholarship at UCLA in California in the 1970s he encountered the beginnings of the aerobics group fitness revolution.
When the two were combined – group workouts based on athletic techniques – the public demand was immediate. “In the family gym we had then, we turned it into a boutique group fitness studio, and it was a revolution,” says Mills. “There were people lined up down the street for 50 meters waiting to get in.”
“We knew very well from decades of sports training that this is what got great results. And we were determined to take that into the gym.”
One of the early classes taught at the original Les Mills gym was an athletic-based aerobic workout, based on the kinds of exercises used back at the athletics track – callisthenics, running, sprints, agility, and what would now be known as interval training.
As the program was refined and developed it evolved into what it is known as now: BODYATTACK™. Not that it was a smooth process.
“In those early days of the gym industry,” says Mills, “this was completely opposed by the establishment. You had people saying, ‘no that’s terrible, you have to do steady-state basic aerobic training, you have to keep it very gentle.’ They argued that would get you better results. But we knew very well from decades of sports training that interval training was what got people great results. And we were determined to take that into the gym.”
In a sense, the traditional gym establishment – and the science of fitness – had to wait years to catch up with the idea of working out at a high base intensity, adding periodic spikes of even higher intensity.
As Les Mills Head of Research Bryce Hastings explains, “There’s a lot of science now around those spikes of intensity being really effective at transforming fitness and body composition. I think BODYATTACK was one of the first programs to really start to use that as an approach. And I think that was because it was designed by athletes, people who really liked to train. They knew how they’d want to train, and they knew what kind of results they were after, and they just designed the program that way … They transformed the approach to fitness, and now we know they were really onto something. And now everyone is doing it!”
While it might have been intuitive to begin with, these days the research and knowledge around a “cardio peak training” workout such as BODYATTACK is substantial. There is plenty of evidence that it gets results. Says Hastings, “You’ve got your base of intensity, which is going to improve your VO2, give you stamina and endurance. But when you’ve got these little spikes of intensity on top of that – your body goes into overdrive, because the spikes take you to an inefficient training zone. When you do that, the body scrambles to try and get better at that. And then you’ve also got the strength elements – push-ups, abdominal training and squats – so it’s really a very well-rounded athletic training program.”
But let’s not get lost in the science. The other element of BODYATTACK that everyone acknowledges is a major part of its success is the group effect – the added motivation and enjoyment that comes from working out with others.
“I think the first thing BODYATTACK achieved was the use of music to bring people together to exercise,” says Hastings. “It was one of the first programs to create this massive tribal approach to exercise, where people really got into it, and got the group effect from that type of program.”
You might not have to queue around the block any more, but 100 releases into its long life, BODYATTACK is living proof that age doesn’t have to slow you down.
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