After a workout in early May, my body felt like it was moving through water. Gravity’s gripping pull felt so much heavier than normal, but it wore off sometime during my 15-minute ride home – the same length as my workout.
Flex 151, a gym no bigger than an office, is located inside Jennings Station near Newburgh’s riverfront. Five pieces of MedX exercise equipment line a tan wall, and five face clocks have only the second hand spinning.
The interior is simple, but who needs ambiance? Clients spend 15 minutes a week in here. That’s all their bodies can handle from a workout so intense they need seven days to recover.
I’ve always been active, and recovery from exercise was never my forte. In college, I overdid workouts, often training for four hours a day. Considering I wasn’t training for a race or sport, these workouts were too long for an adult with a full-time job.
Still, even with a position that keeps me at a desk well past 40 hours a week, I lifted weights and ran an hour a day, at least four times a week for five years post-graduation. Then, in March 2011, I lackadaisically pushed my legs on an elliptical machine for one minute. I sighed and walked away.
I was bored. My feet had hit pavement, my arms had curled dumbbells, and my heart had pounded on the basketball court. I wasn’t seeing new results. I needed a revived motivation. Looking for a new program, I took a month off from exercise. Then I found Flex 151.
My first 15-minute session left me wiped. The premise is not new to Evansville, but it does defy popular opinion: People run ultramarathons (races more than 26 miles long), they pump out sets on P90X (about 60 minutes of nonstop exercise), or they strike poses in yoga (a 90-minute workout). Exercise takes time. The Department of Health and Human Services recommends Americans have “at least 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes a week of vigorous aerobic activity” and weightlifting twice a week.
Yet, here’s David Hammelman, who launched Flex 151 a year ago, acting as a mouthpiece for a highly intense workout requiring only 15 minutes a week. If it sounds too good to be true, Hammelman has someone you should meet: Dick Conner.
At 17, Conner joined the U.S. Navy (he’d later become a member of the Army), and the Evansville native was stationed in California. This was the mid-1950s when a well-defined muscular man wasn’t the definition of an ideal body. Covers of men’s health magazines didn’t display men with washboard abs. Instead, popular opinion proclaimed more muscle meant less agility and speed, says Conner.
He believed that sentiment until the catcher on his intramural softball team in the Navy introduced him to weightlifting. Conner’s commitment to barbells made him not only stronger but also more agile and quick. This statement has no eye rolls from readers today when Olympic sprinters are as big as tanks, but the 1950s was a decade when doctors advised against rigorous exercise.
Conner didn’t listen. Weightlifting was his passion, and he learned everything he could in the burgeoning Golden State gyms which would later birth bodybuilding. When Conner returned to Evansville, he became a police officer and bought weights for his basement. Years later, Conner’s physique intrigued a colleague who brought his son to Conner’s house for personal training.
Word spread, and armed with a muscled following, Conner opened The Pit Barbell Club in 1970. There, he coached teams to dozens and dozens of state, regional, and national powerlifting titles over the next 30 years. His clientele squatted, deadlifted, and benchpressed to better health.
Or so Conner thought.
In 1981, a teenage Hammelman from Poseyville, Ind., trekked over to Evansville to lift weights at The Pit where he was surrounded by like-minded juiceheads. He was like a sweat towel soaking up weightlifting knowledge from “the big boys.” Hammelman admired Conner’s success as a powerlifting coach. The two became acquaintances, but it wasn’t until 2009 that Hammelman sought Conner out.
Hammelman’s son was then an eighth grader interested in high school basketball, and he wanted an advantage in muscle development: a Conner-led personal training program. The session lasted 15 minutes. Conner told Hammelman to bring his son back next week.
At first, Hammelman balked. This was not a workout, and once-a-week seemed too short a time period for significant gains. Conner insisted, and Hammelman relented. “I consider Dick to be a genius,” Hammelman says. “Here is a guy who, even through all of his success, has said, ‘Hey, I have something different that works better and keeps you injury free.’ That sold me right there.”
Hammelman watched his son go through a weekly series of slow repetitions of heavy weight on Nautilus machines. Conner made him hold reps for long periods until his muscles failed. Then, it was on to the next exercise. Conner pointed an intrigued Hammelman to books on the long history of this type of workout.
His lesson began with the writings of Arthur Jones, the founder of Nautilus weight equipment, who created high intensity training. HIT, as it’s called, requires repetitions to be performed until momentary muscle failure (when muscles are so fatigued they can no longer lift the weight). Jones influenced Ellington Darden whose work helped Ken Hutchins develop his Super Slow program, and he wrote a book, Super Slow: The Ultimate Exercise Protocol. When someone handed this book to Conner at The Pit, the longtime powerlifting coach couldn’t set it down.
After decades training others, the then-64-year-old Conner was concerned. He had taught proper form to perfection, but he was receiving an increasing number of phone calls from former athletes and colleagues as each year passed. All had similar themes: These fine-tuned competitors had knee, back, and shoulder pain. They had seen chiropractors; they had had surgeries. Their bodies were breaking down quickly.
Conner was in the same camp. He had a kneecap removed to fix chondromalacia, a common overuse injury for runners. (Conner was over-squatting.) Sure, old age wears down the body, but shouldn’t exercise be helping them? “I know strength training works,” Conner says, “but how do you do it without killing a guy over a period of time?”
The book had the answer, Conner thought. He applied a few of the ideas to the decades of experience he had as a multiple national champion powerlifting coach. He tested it out on several football players. One was a bench player for Mater Dei High School’s reserve football team. The student wanted playing time for the school with a powerhouse pigskin program. After one year on Conner’s program, the reserve bench player was a varsity starter and led the team in sacks. “It was incredible what happened,” Conner says. “I said, ‘This stuff works.’”
Hammelman was 6’3” and 245 pounds when his son began training with Conner. He delved deeply into exercise books. He was “semi-retired” at the time having sold his business Dashco Logistics, a transportation solution provider.
Then, 2009 brought along a financial crisis that made retirement seem more difficult. Hammelman thought of returning to work, but he was too captivated by a new exercise program that in only a few months had dropped 20 pounds from his body. “This program hit my plate and became a passion, something I really enjoyed and I really believed in,” he says. He became a certified personal trainer, studied several workout books, and tested ideas for his own program.
Before Dr. Mike Roberts was an anesthesiologist — or ever knew Hammelman — he was a high school football player, lifting weights every other day. In medical school, a busy Roberts became a jogger, often going for quick runs between eight hours of classes a day and hours of studying at night.
His life as a doctor didn’t afford him much opportunity for exercise either, and this fact concerned him. “After age 30,” the physician says, “the body loses muscle mass by 3 to 5 percent per decade.” The 50-year-old Roberts wanted to reverse this trend.
When his friend Hammelman told Roberts about a new workout, they headed to The Pit where Hammelman walked Roberts through five different exercises. All involved slow repetitions on Nautilus machines taking six to 10 seconds to push out and just as long to bring back down. Roberts did each machine until his muscles failed at which point, he held the weight for 10 seconds. He was done in 15 minutes.
He was the first client for Hammelman’s deliberate and deep workout. A couple of months later, Roberts felt stronger. “It was amazing,” he says. “I felt like I was pushing the same weight every time, but I was pressing 40 percent more weight than when we figured out what my maximum was.” But Roberts wasn’t the only one convinced.
While Hammelman was recruiting for the program, Wes Kemp sought Hammelman out. The chiropractor had been studying similar programs because for years, he had seen clients with several back problems. There were two overwhelming causes of injury: overtraining or lack of fitness. Each required the same prescription — an intense exercise program that demanded a long recovery time and low risk of injury. And that’s why Kemp often trains his clients at Flex 151.
Another disciple of these workouts is Shaun Angel, a black belt in multiple martial arts, and as much as he loves practicing his kicks, Angel was a sales manager on the road, attending grad school, with a young family at home. He was in the worst shape of his life. Then he found Flex 151.
His wife Molly started the program, too. She was a half-marathoner eager to shed weight after her second pregnancy more quickly than running mile after mile. The young mother needed more hours than she could afford to work off the extra pounds, but after 10 sessions at Flex 151, she was a size 4. She hadn’t worn that size since before her two pregnancies. Convinced, the couple became co-owners with Hammelman in June 2011. Both train clients, and they’ve made changes with Hammelman. By mid-August, the facility will have new computerized machines.
After six weeks on the program, I wasn’t as thoroughly convinced. I had spoken with Flex 151 clients who had claimed lower blood pressure and less cholesterol from the program. But I didn’t have those problems before I started the program. I was healthy.
Was the program working? I put on khaki shorts I had bought weeks ago, and there, my fiancée saw it. These new shorts were a size too big.