Gym Jones: taking on the world

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Rob MacDonald is…bigger. The first time Gym Jones came to the UK, back in 2011, the organisation’s general manager was battling an infection, fit but hyper-lean, thinner even than when he used to weigh in during his time in the UFC’s light heavyweight division. Four years on, things have changed – dramatically. Experimenting with mass-gain plans for the team’s redesigned website means that he weighs in at a still-pretty-lean 250 pounds, fuelled by steaks and waffles and shaped by 200-rep squat sessions. Being training buddies with Tommy Hackenbruck, who’s led the winning team in two seasons of the CrossFit Games, has made him stronger than ever. And leading the ever-expanding Gym Jones team – by example as much as via training plans and Instagram posts – has made him fitter, more outgoing, a bigger presence all round. He’s a man worth listening to. And he doesn’t believe in sugar-coating anything (except maybe pancakes).

‘As a coach, you should be good at every single thing,’ he says, addressing a roomful of coaches and trainers who are aiming to become fully qualified Gym Jones instructors. ‘I’m sick of “coach” meaning “fat guy with a visor and a clipboard”. If you’re talking about general physical preparedness for coaching, that means looking good, feeling good, being capable of everything… and being able to lead.’

MacDonald needs to talk this way because, well, Gym Jones is bigger too. In 2011 most people knew them for the workout that got the Spartans ripped for 300 – if they knew them at all – and the instructors were a tight-knit bunch mainly operating out of one gym in Utah. Now there are more than 30 fully-certified Gym Jones instructors operating around the world, from California to Cape Town via Cairo. After getting Cavill physically and mentally in shape to play Superman, the team are taking on training duties for several of DC’s upcoming raft of super-movies, with people who were getting their first look inside Gym Jones back in 2011 – including UK-based coach Pieter Vodden – front and centre. The official Gym Jones website, Salvation, has grown from a collection of essays and a diary of workouts to a huge training resource for converts around the world, packed with videos, routines and entire training programmes designed for everyone from soldiers to pro cyclists and paralympians (Rob Jones, who won bronze in the double scull event at the 2012 Paralympics, is here at the seminar, pushing harder than almost everyone). FYF - also known as ‘Fuck You Friday’ - typically the toughest day in the Utah gym, is now must-see viewing for disciples everywhere.


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The problem, of course, is that even when you expand, you still have to keep the standards high.

Case in point: doing a 2km row. It’s only 11am on a Saturday, and everyone in the room has just done an all-out 2,000m on a Concept 2, aiming for the seven-minute mark that’s considered the GJ minimum. Just over half the room made it. I came in at 7min 16sec, thankfully not the slowest man in the room. MacDonald does not seem impressed. ‘We did this at the advanced seminar recently,’ he says. ‘And even then, some people didn’t make it. To say that I was absolutely disgusted would be putting it mildly.’

‘Should we call that… failure to inspire?’ asks Mark Twight, giving MacDonald a grin from the sidelines. Twight, renowned alpine climber, founder of Gym Jones and writer of the website’s regular Sunday Sermon articles, is taking a back seat to MacDonald for this seminar, but obviously enjoying it. MacDonald smiles back, and carries on preaching.

‘People make the standards into some big thing,’ he says, ‘But they shouldn’t be. Seven minutes is a prerequisite, it’s not a gold star. Honestly, until you hit seven minutes, what you need is an attitude adjustment and a work ethic.’

This is a recurring theme: the insistence that ‘The Mind Is Primary’ is repeated, Fight Club style, in the main set of Jones commandments. Much of GJ’s training is about teaching yourself to push harder, to stop the inner negotiation that lets you slack off on hard efforts, to remind you that it’s OK to go all-out. But this isn’t to say that Team Jones neglect smart programming. MacDonald, for instance, planned two years of workouts for Hackenbruck’s field-dominating team Ute CrossFit, which means packing endless skill training and Olympic lifting practice into a programme that also needs to tackle every other element of fitness.

The ‘secret’? Conjugate periodisation – or, more simply, keeping your work capacity high and making sure you’re hitting every area you need to work on, regularly. A typical Gym Jones training session, for instance, might include a strength segment followed by some structural work on weak areas – core strength, say, or shoulder stability – but there’s usually what they call a ‘breathing’ segment thrown in, even if it’s short. Just done a big bench session? A short, nasty row might be just what you need to keep your power endurance online. Oh, and don’t make the mistake of thinking that 500m on the Concept 2 is an easy workout. ‘People row 500m and they go, “Oh, I didn’t do anything today”,’ says MacDonald. ‘Wrong – you didn’t do anything to improve. A hard 500 is one of the worst workouts you can do.’

Oh, and that structural stuff? That’s not going to be easy either. Take, for instance, the Z-press, popularised by World’s Strongest Man competitor Zydrunas ‘Big Z’ Savickas. Done Jones-style, seated on the floor with an empty barbell pressed overhead for reps, it looks like fun. Done for ten minutes, for as many reps as possible, it definitely isn’t. ‘I’d go for ten reps every 30 seconds,’ says MacDonald, seated right in front of me, cranking them out. I match him for about three rounds before the drop-off starts, and quickly find myself scrambling to do eight, then seven, then five… By the end of the ten minutes I’m reduced to grinding out singles, each one a miniature challenge in its own right.

‘Joel, you look...awful,’ says Twight as I stagger back to the sidelines. He’s smiling. In what I think is a good way.

‘I never imagined how bad that could be,’ is all I can manage to say. Five minutes later, I notice that I've made it onto the whiteboard.


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This is the pattern for the rest of the weekend. Lessons are learned, then reinforced with serious physical effort. We do explosive broad jumps and dead-stop leaps onto boxes, a reminder that power workouts should be as effortful as cardio ones. We do a nasty little test made up of Bulgarian split squats and isometric holds, which brings single-leg weaknesses to light among a few of the strongest guys in the room. Near the end of the day, we do a Gym Jones signature, the IWT, which pairs explosive and grinding workout moves (in this case, the front squat and kettlebell swing) with fast-paced cardio intervals. It almost leaves me on the floor, but there’s one final challenge to contend with: a 5,000m row, done in teams of four, against everyone else in the room. My team decides to split the whole thing into 250m chunks, done at breakneck, all-out pace that gives each man a couple of minutes to recover before his next onslaught. As ruined as we all feel, everyone hits it at a faster pace than we’d have thought possible ten minutes previously. It’s another learning experience and, like all the others, it’s deliberate.

‘I’m building an army,’ says Twight when we gather for the final talk of the day. ‘My job is not to make people more dependent – it’s to make them independent. I want people to realise that education is the lever that expands our opportunities no matter what. Of course it happens in the gym, but really, it happens everywhere.’

And this, really, is why Gym Jones is expanding. Man Of Steel, the 300 workout, the new-look Salvation website – they’re all just better ways of spreading the word. There’s only so much Twight and MacDonald can do together, going to seminars like this one, but online, on screens, going viral, maybe they can change things that go far beyond the gym. ‘The whole point of this isn’t just getting fitter – it’s about making society more capable,’ says Twight. Gym Jones is getting bigger, but it’s also getting better. Time to join up.

Find the new-look Salvation site at – and find five training plans available for free.

Joel Snape

From 2008 to 2018, Joel worked for Men's Fitness, which predated, and then shared a website with, Coach. Though he spent years running the hills of Bath, he’s since ditched his trainers for a succession of Converse high-tops, since they’re better suited to his love of pulling vans, lifting cars, and hefting logs in a succession of strongman competitions.