Chinese fitness fanatics explore novel ways of working out

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Gao Yunqing (front, C), a CrossFit instructor, explains as CrossFit starters learn how to use the rowing machine in southwest China's Chongqing Municipality on May 13, 2023. [Photo/Xinhua]

Gaining muscle and losing fat have long been the goals of fitness fanatics, but these days, China's fitness crowd is exploring new ways of working out -- some the product of modern innovation, others as old as the hills.

At 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, a clubbell training class began at a gym in southwest China's Chongqing Municipality. Clubbells are an ancient fitness tool originating from Persia, but they are experiencing something of a revival in today's China.

In the distant past, human ancestors used clubs for hunting, and ancient Iranian warriors adopted them as a means of building strength. Even today, the clubbell is still an important training tool for Indian wrestlers.

Among those facilitating the clubbell revival in China is Zhang Xiaoli, who leads clubbell classes at the gym.

"In the traditional gyms, movements like squats, bench presses and deadlifts are all linear movements. But in fact, our bodies can also do multi-dimensional movements in daily life, such as rotation," said Zhang. "By practicing the clubbell, trainees can not only practice such multi-dimensional movements to improve their muscle strength and joint flexibility, but also strengthen the endurance of their ligaments," explained the clubbell tutor.

A one-hour clubbell class usually teaches just a few movements, but these are intertwined to form a complete set of flowing movements at the end.

"With repetitive practice, the trainees will not only increase their physical strength, but also test their concentration. The whole process of the flow is more like a dynamic meditation," Zhang added.

On Chinese social media platforms, such as Xiaohongshu and Douyin, it is easy to find videos shared by fitness lovers who walk through the streets shirtless and barefoot while swinging clubbells, seeking control over their body, strength and awareness. Clubbells have met the needs of some fitness enthusiasts who want flexibility in their training location, as well as functionality, and has thus gradually won hearts both online and offline.

"Practicing clubbells places demands on the trainee's core strength and their breathing control," said trainee Yang Weiyu. "Meanwhile, they can improve shoulder flexibility and strengthen certain small muscle groups, making them a good supplement to my daily training," said Yang.

Exercising with clubbells alone will not quickly build strength and shed weight, but the recent popularity of clubbell classes across China shows that Chinese fitness lovers now have a longer-term training plan for their bodies. It also shows that they are willing to pay more attention to the element of functionality in training.

"Because of the rise of non-professional physical competitions like Spartan DEKA and CrossFit Games, more and more people have started functional training of various sorts," Zhang said.

First, use the rowing machine, then do the clean and jerk with the barbells, and finally do some pull-ups on the horizontal bar... Walking into a crowded CrossFit studio, one can easily spot lots of trainees experiencing a novel training system that originates from the United States. By following the CrossFit system, a trainee does not necessarily train the muscles in isolation to get a good figure, but will improve their athletic ability through compound movements.

CrossFit includes three aspects: weightlifting, gymnastics and metabolic training. All the movements come from the most basic actions of squatting, pushing and pulling that we use in daily life.

"Anyone, despite their different athletic abilities, whether it be a teenager or an elderly man, can find suitable movement options in the system," said Gao Yunqing, a CrossFit instructor.

Luo Jun, who has been training in CrossFit for three months, used to focus on resistance training and aerobic exercise, but has recently discovered more exercise options open to her.

"Under the functional training system, I learn about my own shortcomings and can continually unlock new movements. I'm now working hard on gymnastics, hoping to complete the muscle-up on the bar as soon as possible," she said.

In addition to the different daily training programs, the unique community culture is another reason why people are becoming obsessed with workouts like CrossFit. With the encouragement of their classmates, the trainees enjoy the social interaction during their workouts.

"We use the term 'drop in,' which evolved from skydiving and the military. There are many CrossFit studios all over the world, and as CrossFit enthusiasts, we can travel to new cities to 'drop in' at any studio and experience the local customs," Gao said. 

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