“BODYPUMP was the biggest challenge I’d ever encountered.”

From the rugby field to the barre, Des Helu has shown himself to be quite the chameleon of the fitness world. He opens up about his learnings from teaching, including his humbling first experience of BODYPUMP™.

Hi Des! You're a regular presenter on Masterclass, as well as a Reebok Sponsored Athlete. How did you get into teaching?

Kind of by accident! My background is in rugby. I was playing club level in Auckland and was looking at whether it might be a career, but then my son was born and my priorities shifted. I began working as a builder and figured that would keep me fit.

My wife, Lucy, was teaching BODYBALANCE™/BODYFLOW® and she encouraged me to try BODYPUMP™. I watched the Masterclass and, being a typical rugby bloke, my initial reaction was, no, no – that’s not for me. However, because it was a workout to music, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to try because I love music [Des went to a performing arts school].

I went along to Kylie Gates’ class and she said, “If you’re brand new, start light…”but being a big bloke, I ignored her advice and loaded all these tens onto the bar. Quite quickly, I could feel my body starting to give up. I went to do a Clean & Press and almost pulled a muscle! I had to swallow my pride, put the bar down, and change my weights down to being three and a half each side. There were all these older people around me lifting much heavier and I was so embarrassed to be only lifting these little weights.

I went home and realized I’d never felt so challenged in my life. I was used to being good at new things and so I felt it was a sign. I was looking for something new to put my energy into, having decided to give up rugby, and it seemed like BODYPUMP was a challenge I needed.

Can you tell me about teaching your first ever class by yourself?

After I did my BODYPUMP Initial Training, I was being mentored by T [Tauvaga Siolo] out at Les Mills New Lynn. I was team teaching with him but hadn’t yet taught a whole class by myself. Anyway, one day I was all set to teach a 730pm class with him – and it was a super full class because it was T’s class – and I got a message from him asking if I could teach the whole thing by myself.

My initial reaction was, why are you doing this to me?! Haha. I didn’t think I could do it. But I thought about it and was like, no, I can do this. So I said yes. And it was the absolute worst 55-minutes of my life! I was so glad when it was over. But it did make me realize that, even though it was massively out of my comfort zone, I had survived. Despite my lack of experience, I had still managed to deliver the class, and that really gave me the confidence to keep on trying and learn from my mistakes. And as I progressed, I realised what my strengths were as a teacher.

Once I realised that connection was my strength, I just focused on that and made it my priority to keep developing.

The new Les Mills Qualifications are all about focusing on our strengths as an Instructor so we can pack our classes. What’s your strength?

I’m a connector. Even as a new Instructor, I would always get to class early and make sure that I spoke to somebody and learned their name. As time went on I learned more and more names and I’d use them in class. It was amazing to see their faces light up when I acknowledged them, or used praise like “Woah, look at that, that’s a great squat! Keep it up!”

Eventually I realised that the members were waiting for me to come and talk to them before class, and as more people heard about me, the numbers started to increase. I didn’t actually know what my strength was for a very long time until T said: “You’re a connector, you need to see that.” He told me: “People love you because you make them feel special. They always come to reception and say how much they love your class.” They would comment on how I would help them pack away their gear after the class, and keep talking to them while I was helping.

I realized that I didn’t need to be great at everything – it’s enough to be really good at one thing and anything on top is a bonus. Once I realised that connection was my strength, I just focused on that and made it my priority to keep developing.

And is that something that you continue to work on?

I’ll be honest, I’ve had moments where I’ve turned up to class and forgotten to focus on the connection and I think that’s probably normal. So yes, it’s something I’m continuously working on.

For me, the connection starts on the gym floor. I have a friend at the gym called Drake, who’s a personal trainer, and sometimes when I’m walking through the club I’ll suddenly hear him go, “Yes Des!” And of course, I respond, “Yes Drake!” It feels awesome – like someone is cheering you on, and I’ll take that energy into class with me and continue to create the connections in the studio. It’s good to feel noticed, and to make others feel noticed in turn.

I feel like I’m friends with everyone in the gym. When my son comes into the club, he says, why do you have so many friends, Daddy?

In Advanced Training, we explore what our 'why' is as Instructors. What gets you out of bed at 4am to deliver the first class of the day?

My parents got divorced when I was very young. My mum remarried, and my step-dad really set an example for me of what a hard work ethic looked like. He worked his ass off. He’d get up at three in the morning to go to work and often wouldn’t be home until five or six at night. And he wouldn’t stop working. He’d be outside hanging up the washing, and then he’d go cook dinner for the whole family. He was a huge role model for me; I really learned everything from him.

I didn’t grow up in a particularly wealthy family. I didn’t get everything I wanted. For example, my school lunchbox would literally just contain a sandwich. Maybe I’d be lucky enough to have peanut butter on it, but most days it would just be butter. I found it hard, knowing that my friends had food that I didn’t have. Once in a while – like every couple of months – I might also get some kind of treat, like crackers with cheese, and I’d savor that treat and try to make it last the whole week. It made me think: one day, I’m not going to be like this.

When I was a kid I didn’t understand the value of money, and I would ask my step-dad for expensive things. He would actually sacrifice some of the bills and get into debt to buy those things for me, and then work extra hours so he could pay the debt back.

From him I learned you’ve got to get on with life, no matter your circumstances. I learned even if you don’t have money, you’re going to be OK. I’m still not rich, I still don’t have a lot of money, but what I have is enough to give my kids what they want – whether it’s the food they like or being able to afford presents for them to take to another kid’s birthday party.

So when you ask about my why and what makes me get out of bed, that’s the stuff I think about. My wife, and our kids, and how I can provide for their happiness. That’s what’s most important.

And what has teaching done for you?

It’s given me way more friends, haha! I feel like I’m friends with everyone in the gym. When my son comes into the club, he says, why do you have so many friends, Daddy?

It also helps with my mental health. You know, sometimes I have hard times and it can be tough to get through the day, but then I get to teach and connect with these people I haven’t seen all week. It’s refreshing to see them smile and know that they’ve come to your class because you’re going to make them feel good.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

My mum taught me, show respect to others. Even if they don’t treat you right, you should still show them respect.

And Lucy always says to me: “Think about being in their shoes.” This advice has stopped me being so quick to judge, because you never know what’s going on in someone else’s life.

So that’s my approach: show respect, and never assume you know what’s going on for other people.

Finally, for all the people who come to your class or do a workout with you in the Masterclass, what would you love them to know about you?

That I love hugs. I’m a hugger. So if you’ve had a bad day and you feel like you need a hug, I love hugs and I’m pretty good at them. Don’t be afraid to come and give me a hug. I’m here to help! Haha.

Des Helu is a BODYPUMP and LES MILLS BARRE Instructor and a LES MILLS GRIT Coach. He is based in Auckland, where he's also a personal trainer at Les Mills Auckland City.