You’ll also find the Sports Illustrated model lifting epic weight. As in, hundreds of pounds. We’re talking pulling a rope attached to a 150-pound sled, and hoisting a barbell with 215 lbs on the end. Blow-your-mind, cry-for-mama, text-your-gym-buddy-now type of weight.
Scroll through Kate Upton‘s Instagram and you’ll see stunning photo-shoot outtakes, behind-the-scenes silliness, and adorable puppies.
Chelsea Handler’s posts paint a similar picture: There, we find the comedian pushing a sled piled with half a dozen weight plates. . .with her male trainer standing atop it. And then there’s another comic, Whitney Cummings, hip-thrusting 315, quipping about the feminism that comes with hauling a man around the gym on a metal sled. How’s that for equality?
Considering that women have been erroneously told that we shouldn’t lift heavy weights, this feels like the makings of a fitness revolution—overthrowing old, tired exercise ideologies by brute force. But who is the trainer behind all that lifting, and how did he convince models, actresses, and all-around A-listers to go heavier, go harder, or go the eff home? He’s Los Angeles trainer Ben Bruno. WH enlisted one (very brave, very fit) writer to experience his routine for herself. (Learn how to lift like a badass with Women’s Health’s Lift to Get Lean by Holly Perkins.)
Into the Underground
I’m double-parked on Roxbury Drive in Beverly Hills when Bruno—a dark-haired, tightly muscled bear of a guy—runs out and points me toward an underground parking lot that would take me to Granite Gym, a by-appointment-only private training studio hidden from paparazzi and tourists.
As I wind my way down the lot’s levels, my nerves creep up—What did I get myself into? (After all, I’ve seen the aforementioned Instas from his client’s sweat sessions. They were no hallucination.) It’s too late. While pulling into one of six parking spots, I eye a 30-to 40-yard strip of green turf, a rowing machine, some weights, and a treadmill tucked off into the corner. No fancy heated towels, luxe locker-room products, or smoothie bars in sight. Not exactly where I imagined Victoria’s Secret runway models working out. But in this dimly lit, bare-bones basement of a gym, Bruno is bringing to light a fitness theory that’s lingered in the shadows for far too long.
Now for the sake of context (not #humblebrags), I should probably disclose that I’m pretty fit. Okay, actually, most people would consider me very fit. I’m a fitness writer, I’ve dabbled in triathlons, I bike a ton, and I lift regularly. So I somehow convince myself that today’s one-on-one training session with Bruno will be tough, but not too tough.
After a quick warm-up, we hop over to the weight sled, Bruno’s personal favorite piece of equipment. He demos proper form, then loads up the sturdy metal frame with 100 pounds. Now, my turn: I lean forward, grab the handles and drive with my legs to push it across the turf, then immediately turn around and use the attached rope to pull it back to where I started. This isn’t that bad, I tell myself. Then I immediately regret the smug thought—because he has me do it again. And again. Each time with more weight.
Five minutes in, my lungs and quads feel like I just sprinted up five flights of stairs. After 15 minutes, about 10 or so rounds, Bruno gives me a break. Catching my breath, I can’t help but wonder, Does Kate Upton really do this stuff? Bruno pulls out his phone and shows me a video. Oh yes. Yes, she does—except she does it with 500 pounds. Twice what I’m pushing around by the final set. Damn, girl. Respect.
That was just phase one of the workout. Now we’re across the parking lot in the main weight room for a 30-minute total-body lift. The space is small, but not cramped, even with two other clients there working out one-on-one with personal trainers. We bounce around the outside of the gym floor utilizing the cluster of weight plates, dumbbells, kettlebells, and squat racks. We wrap up with a series of squats and deadlifts using a landmine, another one of Bruno’s favorite tools (picture a barbell with one end fixed to the floor). “Kate usually will do three sets of these, but I don’t want to wear you out,” he tells me. I don’t press it. He’s right; one set is enough.
As we cool down and head to the cafe upstairs for lunch, my body feels tired but not destroyed; I feel accomplished and empowered, not demoralized and defeated. Mad props go to Bruno for this; the guy has a way about him that just makes you feel like you can take on the world—or at least another weight plate.
To lift heavy or not to lift heavy—that is really not the question. Or, according to Bruno, not the right question. But somehow, even halfway through 2016, it continues to be one of the biggest points of contention in fitness. “There’s still a lot of stuff out there discouraging women from strength training,” Bruno tells me as I inhale my protein-packed veggie omelet. (Gotta fuel those muscles we just built!) “You have a lot of trainers telling women to avoid weights—to only lift three-pounders or do only body-weight exercises—because it’ll bulk them up. Then, almost as if to counteract that, you have others saying it’s impossible for women to bulk up because they don’t have the testosterone that guys have.” And this, dear readers, is where Bruno may surprise you. “But it’s not impossible. Some women have a propensity to add muscle more easily than others, so it’s not as simple as having everyone lift as much as they possibly can.”
Bruno’s approach centers on a middle ground. He embraces heavy lifting, but not for every single exercise. “My clients want to look lean and slim—yet toned and strong,” he says. (That clearly resonates with women: A WH survey found that our readers wanted to see words like toned, lean, and strong on our covers.) To get them there, Bruno targets the spots that females ask for again and again: “Pretty common requests are, ‘I want to work on my butt, the area around the bra strap, and the triceps,'” Bruno shares. “So guess what? I work on the butt, the area around the bra strap, and the triceps. I’m like the Captain Obvious of Fitness,” he jokes.
Almost universally, his clients are hesitant to haul hundreds of pounds—until they start seeing results. “And the next thing I hear them telling me is, ‘Hey, I went down two pants sizes!'” Bruno chalks that up to a tailored training style. “You have to get stronger to change your body, which means you have to challenge it. But there are certain things that I push women to get really strong on, and certain things that I don’t do with women.”
Take deadlifts and rows. He’s not afraid to have women load up on those exercises because they strengthen the big metabolic-boosting muscles on the back side of your body, helping to improve your posture, shape your butt, and flatten your belly. And let’s talk about the sled push that Bruno loves so much. The pushing and pulling actually primarily targets your butt and hamstrings—delivering a perkier, tighter posterior and firmer, leaner legs. Plus, it sends your heart rate skyrocketing in minutes, so you get the calorie-burning benefits of cardio while you do your strength workout. And even when you throw on more and more weight (which, if you’re Chelsea Handler, means up to 500 pounds!), it’s going to keep inching you closer to your lean-body goal because it’s the right exercise to go heavy on. On the flip side, Bruno lightens the load on barbell back squats and avoids moves like shoulder shrugs, which can overdo it on already strong quads or build up the shoulder muscles that can make your neckline appear wider.
It’s a yin-yang formula that’s obviously worked for his famous clients.
This article was originally published in the July/August 2016 issue of Women’s Health, on newsstands now.