The Workout Artist

by Ben Dolnick

On the off chance that you haven’t yet decided which unrealistically ambitious exercise regimen to undertake this winter, I’d like to make a pitch for one that might seem, initially, only a few ticks less dubious than a fat-melting jiggle machine. I speak of FOCUS T25, the latest set of workout DVD’s from Shaun T., former Mariah Carey-backup dancer and creator of both INSANITY and Hip-Hop Abs. These DVD’s aren’t just the best workouts you’ll encounter in 2014; they may — and I’m pretty sure this is not just the endorphins talking — be the best works of art you’ll encounter all year too.

For months a friend had been recommending T25 to me, but I’d resisted. There was the idea of mail-order DVDs, first of all, which seemed (along with CD box sets and Microsoft Encarta) a relic of the age of shrieking modems. Then there was the price (three monthly payments of $39.95, not including shipping and handling). And finally there was the website for Beachbody LLC — the company responsible for Shaun T.’s DVD sets, not to mention Brazil Butt Lift — which, with its reek of protein powder and sleaze, could just as well have featured a banner reading, OUR BUSINESS MODEL DEPENDS UPON THE SAD AND GULLIBLE.

A more basic skepticism, though, was that I had no interest, really, in becoming fit in the way that T25 seemed to promise. The ads were full of taut, desiccated women and men who resembled erect penises, throbbing with Red Bull and fury. I’ve always been basically content having a body that’s just, you know, a body. Capable of most of the things I ask it to do, as long as those things don’t involve extreme weights or touching my toes. It and I have long had an unspoken understanding: it will behave itself, and I won’t ask more of it than is strictly necessary.

But curiosity and the terrifying ease of One-Click ordering eventually prevailed. Soon all nine discs, not to mention a complimentary resistance band and nutrition plan, were arrayed on my living room carpet. I felt the same wave of post-consumer regret and sadness I felt upon first using the Power Glove as a child: reality is always so much more dismal than the advertisement.

This disappointment lasted until precisely the moment that I popped in a disc and chose, more or less at random, a workout called Speed 1.0. What you see on your screen, when you begin a FOCUS T25 workout, is a group of five or six highly fit adults arranged around the kind of brightly lit, wood-floored gym that you might find in a suburban mansion’s basement (a suburban mansion that just happened to have T25 printed in six-foot neon letters over one wall). At the front of the group, wearing a tank-top and an earpiece microphone, stands Shaun T.

Shaun T., in case you haven’t made his acquaintance, is that rarest of combinations: he’s as fit as the diagram on a piece of exercise equipment, and he manages to project the ease and kindness of an ideal therapist. Most extremely fit people seem, after you’ve watched them for a minute or two, like one of those life-sized cardboard figures with the head cut out — you see past the impressive physique to the inner self (scrawny and sallow, doughy and angry) that the muscles were meant to hide. Shaun T.’s inner self, you get the sense, has a six-pack. In the middle of a set of up-and-overs, he can barely contain his smile.

Within a minute or two of starting, you realize that T25 is not one of those self-improvement schemes in which you’re told one weird trick for burning belly-fat, or told to sit in a chair that will trick your metabolism. It’s actual exercise, genuinely difficult. Squats and pushups and Russian dance type kicks. The minutes seem to contain more seconds than ordinary minutes — you check the clock, thinking you must be about halfway through, only to find that twenty-two minutes and thirty-seven seconds remain. You reconsider the entire endeavor.

Which is exactly, as it happens, where the workout-DVD-as-art concept comes in, because the success of FOCUS T25 depends, as much as in any novel on the Modern Library Top 100 list, on the willing suspension of disbelief.

If you’re going to get through the many valleys of despair that punctuate each of these workouts, then Shaun T. needs for you to accept the premise — accept in the same way that you accept that there really once was a young man from North Dakota named Jay Gatz, or that Anna Karenina really did fling herself under a train — that he, Shaun T., can, physical reality be damned, see you, and that he cares deeply what you’re doing.

This is, of course, a common artifice. Every time a QVC host looks into the camera and tells you that there are only five of these bracelets left in stock, or when Ira Glass tells you that you really owe it to yourself to just pick up the phone and donate already, your social circuitry is undergoing an attempted hijacking; you will, if they’re doing their jobs, hear them not as strangers in studios but as friends. This job is, I’m going to posit, a great deal harder than it seems. No TV infomercial, however much I might long for an easier way to chop vegetables, has ever inspired in me anything other than a vague sadness. No chummy NPR host has ever convinced me to do anything other than change the station.

But Shaun T., in addition to his physical gifts, is a genius at the peculiar art of cultivating a connection with hundreds of thousands of people he can’t ever hope to see. “I’m looking at you right now!” he’ll occasionally say, staring into the camera with particular intensity, and for a startled second you believe it. I don’t know if it’s a matter of vocal intonation or workout-sequence or if it’s the way he deploys “focus” as a noun and a verb and a kind of all-purpose mesmeric pocket-watch, but whatever he’s doing, it works. The original miracle of TV — usually recoverable only extremely late at night and/or while drunk — is made manifest: a human being, actually separated from you by enormous distance in space and time is suddenly present in your own home. When, at the end of each workout’s “cool down,” he gives a brief farewell (“Alright, you nailed the workout, you kept your focus…”) I often find myself clapping and pointing back at him, as if we were two good friends parting after a particularly meaningful chat.

Every artist carries within him the hope of creating something so engrossing that the audience’s actual lives will be, however slightly, altered. I was so into your book that I missed my flight. I stayed up until midnight watching your movie. I was laughing so hard that people stared at me. Nearly always these hopes go unrealized: if you happen to see people in the act of consuming your art, they usually look as if they could be calculating the tip at a restaurant. But consumers of Shaun T.’s art are actually standing up, alone in their living rooms, leaping and sweating and (again, assuming I’m not alone in this) crying out to their TV’s. The workout video — the good workout video, anyway — is, I’ve come to believe, a rudimentary-seeming art capably of highly sophisticated engagement: to make you not just see or hear but do.

And this engagement is all the more impressive, of course, because what Shaun T. is asking you to do is not merely to stare at a painting on a wall or some words on a page: he’s asking you, armed with neither an immediate threat nor an immediate reward, to physically exert yourself. FOCUS T25 isn’t just any old work of fiction, then; it’s a work in a genre that has been out of fashion for the last few centuries: the morality tale. He wants you, so badly that his eyes bug out and he raises his fists in front of his face and falls to his knees, to do what you know, in your innermost core, that you ought to be doing anyway.

To this end, each workout is a short story culminating in a carefully timed catharsis (known, in T25 jargon, as “the burnout”). And the astonishing thing is that these catharses aren’t merely experienced by you, the consumer, as a shiver on the back of the neck, or as an internal nod of recognition that finally the dramatic moment has arrived — these catharses are actually cathartic. First you feel yourself arrive at a point at which something within you, the thing you usually just call you, concludes that you can’t possibly continue. There’s a Joseph Campbell-ish neatness in the fact that Shaun T. often narrates these moments by saying, “I know you’re dying right now.” And you are. But then, if you persevere — and you do, because Shaun T. is watching you with his precisely calibrated blend of menace and encouragement — you feel yourself reborn. Three more spider pushups? You could have done dozens. You have, for one half-hour anyway, in one aspect of your life, matched your actions with your intentions.

The problem with workout regimens, self-help schemes, resolutions, fad diets, isn’t that none of them work. Almost all of them work. The problem is we who carry them out — or don’t. There’s some inner kernel of resistance, a senseless demonic nubbin of anti-self-interest, that is as tireless as we are lazy, as persistent as we are distractible. And it’s in the war with this nubbin — carried out day after day, month after month — that Shaun T. really earns his $119.95.

Giving twenty-five minutes a day to something we know will make us happier and healthier ought to be easy. It’s less time, after all, than we probably spend snoozing after the alarm goes off. And yet it’s massively difficult. It’s the strangest thing. The dimension across which Shaun T. implores you isn’t time (since it’s only, as he never tires of reminding you, twenty-five minutes of your day), or space (since you don’t have to go farther than your living room). It’s a subtler, inner dimension — it’s the same one you must traverse in order to quit smoking, or to be kinder, or to finish that novel. And this happens to be the field that governs not just the shape of your abs and your glutes but the shape of your life, the thing you will some day look back on and deem satisfactory or not. And it’s on this field — where the countdown clock is forever ticking silently away, where all the yard-lines are imprinted with your own face — that Shaun T’s artistry really shows itself, and across which he may just, one burpee and power squat at a time, propel you. If you focus.

Ben Dolnick is the author of At the Bottom of Everything and other books.