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Spartan Obstacle Specialist Review

Over the last few years, I have grown quite comfortable with the Spartan Race obstacles; I can tackle most of them without issue. There are the couple, like the rig, and the spear throw that usually have me doing burpees. Sometimes it is because of environmental issues (mud), sometimes it is because of grip strength, and sometimes it is just because the Spartan gods have a great sense of humor. In an effort to stay fresh and try something new, I wanted to see what the Spartan Obstacle Specialist course was all about. I wanted to see if it is worth the hefty price tag.

The Spartan Obstacle Specialist course is a class designed specifically for the obstacles. The class is intended to teach you how to prepare for obstacles and then to dominate them. This is far more than just climbing a rope or throwing a spear with a few people in a controlled environment. If you are a fitness professional, the exercises and techniques learned will most likely end up as an addition to your gym’s curriculum. If you are an athlete (not a trainer), the class will teach you techniques and exercises that can help you recover those precious seconds that could be lost on an obstacle due to failure or bad form.

This one-day, live class explores Spartan’s toughest obstacles and provides a step-by-step, progressive training strategy that can be scaled for all fitness levels. Spartan Obstacle Specialist even prescribes troubleshooting exercises for each obstacle. After just six hours, it’s time to go home. But you will walk out of the gym feeling more excited than ever, brandishing your spear and ready to kick up your training.

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S.O.S. for NJ would be held at Vita Athletics in Summit, NJ. Vita Athletics is an impressive facility, without question. The facility is packed with gear; they have a full rig and a huge rock wall (horizontal) to supplement their standard box gym equipment. In addition to the gym, they have a complete nutrition studio that offers organic and natural options for those looking to take control of their diet. Dominick Delli Paoli and Rocco Flores, the co-founders of Vita Athletics, were present for the class. There is a truth I live by when shopping for gyms, or general goods for that matter; customer service and a friendly approach is paramount, beyond price and availability. Dominic and Rocco were instantly engaging and inviting, we all felt like friends from the first handshake.

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If you are experienced in any sport, you will inevitably have some doubts about what you may learn in a one day class or seminar. For example, I am a seasoned martial artist and many of the seminars I attend leave me with a feeling of being robbed. The sandwich was good, but I could have saved $300 and went to Quick Check for a roasted turkey with mayo and Swiss. There are those great surprises, however. Those times that I have been thoroughly impressed with content and presentation; that ends up being money well spent.

The real truth is that any class you take, no matter the type; college, sports, anything, is only as good as the instructor or presenter. That being said, this can make or break your experience. Having a knowledgeable coach is important, but having a knowledgeable coach that can deliver the information in a method that results in absorption is invaluable. Our coach for the Spartan Obstacle Specialist class would be Master Instructor Todd Cambio.

A Master Instructor is the highest level of Spartan Coach. Master Instructors train a select group of individuals in how to train others to teach Spartan SGX and OS courses. They not only teach Spartan training courses, but they teach others how to instruct workshops as well.

SpartanOS (1)Todd Cambio (a.k.a. The Red Gorilla) is not a couch to course athlete. He is not someone who woke up one day and decided he would become a Spartan Coach. As an accomplished, and ranked, BMX racer, a college Linebacker, a basketball player, and a Spartan Master Instructor, Coach Cambio is the real deal. His philosophy is simple, “I believe in training the whole body from your fingertips to your toes.” For more on Todd, visit his website.

Our class started with introductions, we all got to know each other outside of our OCR accomplishments. Coach Cambio introduced himself, his purpose, and his philosophies. Our introductions were personal in nature, not athletic. It was very clear that Coach Cambio wanted to know the type of people he was working with. Some of us are fitness professionals, some of us are desk jockeys, some of us are road warriors (sales, me) that sit in a car all day stuck in traffic.

Spartan Obstacle Specialist classes are very scripted. Not by the coach, but by the creators. The attendees are given a 59-page manual (page count at the time of the class) that details a readiness test for each obstacle, the obstacle breakdown, and a training breakdown. There is a total of 5 sections and an Exercise Index. The idea is that the class will follow much of the manual and thus, it will serve as a reference guide after course completion.

Each obstacle training breakdown is designed with flexibility (not the stretching type) in mind. You do not need to be a member of a large gym to follow these training outlines. Many of the exercises can be done with the most basic equipment. For instance, Bucket Carry training breakdown:

  • Deadlifts
  • Active Hangs
  • Body Row
  • Hollow holds
  • Weighted carries
  • Back extension holds

Although there is a detailed manual for the class, Todd takes it upon himself to offer personal knowledge and manipulate the order of the manual to fit the ebb and flow of the class. It was easy to see that he was evaluating us along the way and adjusting the curriculum accordingly.

Quickly we engaged in soft tissue work as part of the warm-ups. Coach ditched the tennis balls we were required to bring (If you read my HH-088 Lessons Learned article – READ THE EMAILS – I didn’t bring one) and provided the class with Lacrosse balls, they offered a bit more meat. We targeted areas of discomfort and began to work the areas he typically finds to be problem areas.

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Earlier in the week I had done a number on my Achilles and was feeling an incredible level of discomfort, leaving me a bit skeptical about the quality of participation in the class. I wasn’t going to offer up this information, but he asked for it… Coach Cambio provided some tips and tricks, like using a barbell to target the Achilles al the way up to the Calves, which turned out to be odd-looking… but very effective. Try breaking that out in the middle of your local gym without getting any strange looks.

Once warm, sweating actually, the class transitioned into participating in obstacles and this truly is where the sliced turkey meets the bread. Todd began to demonstrate the manual’s recommendations for tackling the obstacles and started to incorporate practices that some of us in the class had learned over the years. We hit just about every obstacle from Bucket Carry, Rope Climb, Walls, Spear Throw, to the upcoming Tyrolean Travers (ladder).

Personally, I have always thought I had the bucket carry, wall jumps, and the rope climb nailed. However, it was quickly realized that there are better ways to conquer these obstacles that require less effort and less explosion. A simple change in grip on the Bucket Carry reduced the amount of effort required and the amount of strain on my lower back. Small changes like this can make obstacles that occur later in races far easier… fried grip usually equals burpees.

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When tackling the Ropes, I have always relied on the strength of my upper body, using my legs as a mechanism to stabilize the climb. I will typically engage an S-Wrap, not because it is something I learned, but because it just came naturally. As a class, we participated in some activities to engage our core and tax grip in an effort to reinforce the techniques presented for the obstacle and emulate, as much as possible, a fried grip. Many of us quickly transitioned from muscling our way up the rope to jumping nearly half way up and actively enacting a J-hook in just a few short minutes. These tactics were put into action in HH-088’s rope climb team contest and have since become easier to engage.

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With walls, I never have an issue. My strange practice of clapping hands before jumping has always worked for me. It requires a bit of effort along with some superstition (that the hand clap actually does something) and resembles a muscle up at the top of the obstacle, but it gets me over. To be honest, this mix of effort and superstition is strange to watch, but it works. A few minutes into the wall, many of us changed our approach. For me, the hand clap was gone (it still makes an appearance here and there) and replaced with my foot thrusting against the wall in an effort to propel the body that follows. The shortened approach and engineered movements made the obstacle far less reliant on pure strength and much smoother to complete. In a count of actions, I was able to bring my wall jump down from two distinct, and counter-intuitive actions, to one smooth action. While in practice this works effortlessly, the shoes I employ on the course offer very little in the way of grip against a wall. However, it is still far more effective than clapping at the wall.

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When it comes to skill, I have always been an 80% spear throw. I can throw a baseball, I can throw a football, but I am a sidearm thrower and always have been. I can generate a ton of force and move objects through the air with rapid velocity when throwing; however, the spear throw doesn’t require a ton of force or incredible velocity. In fact, a well-controlled and moderate throwing action will more often hit the mark than a throw based on power. Balance and patience win this obstacle. Although my accuracy has not been greatly affected in races since the class, the amount of effort and time taken prior to spear release has been noticeably reduced.

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As we rounded out the obstacle portion of the class (basically the entire class) Todd took some time to discuss one of his passions, the kettlebell. Now, this may come as a surprise to many given the incredible popularity of kettlebell exercises and workouts, but I have never even touched one. As a martial artist, they are completely foreign to me. Todd’s passion is quickly made clear as he had us hip hinging (I still can’t do it, I squat), thrusting, and tightening through repeated attempts at proper form. We spent time on correcting our movements and performing variations of standard actions. Although this wasn’t part of the curriculum, it was one of the most interesting periods of the class. With even little time spent holding a kettlebell, I was sore the next day.

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As an experience, I would have to say the Spartan O.S. class was worthwhile. I have read some mixed reviews and comments on the offering, but it all boils down to personal experience. I am not an athlete that thinks he knows it all, I am always open to learning and trying new things. With that in mind, I picked up valuable information from the class as well as exercises that target areas recommended for tackling the obstacles with efficiency.

Although the class does come with a heavy price tag, you must not think about it as a single expense. This is where many get hung up on the cost of the class alone and don’t account for the experience. Money spent on a better race experience is money well spent.

But… Wait! what else do you get for your money? You get insight into the things you don’t normally see yourself doing. Unless you are constantly recording your actions, it is nearly impossible for you to evaluate form and mechanics enough to make valuable changes. The class not only allowed me to relieve effort and tackle obstacles more efficiently, it opened me up to exercises and dialogue that makes every aspect of the sport I have grown to love more endurable, accomplishable, and measurable.

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Todd is an incredible instructor with deep knowledge of presentation and body mechanics. He took time with us to evaluate our issues and instructed us on ways to relieve tensions and improve mobility. For one classmate, he took before and after photos of his range of motion to demonstrate the effectiveness of concentrated efforts.

It may seem that this has been more so a review of Todd and not the class, and it basically is. The instructor is the deliverer of information. Your curriculum could be the best around, but if it never hits the students, it quickly becomes useless.

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Bottom line… did I get my money’s worth? Yes. I honestly feel like I came out of the class better than I went in. Not only in regard to the obstacles, as the class is intended, but in having an instructor with the knowledge and experience to affect how you tackle more than just the obstacles. I have since incorporated many of the movements and exercises Coach Cambio covered with us in my TaeKwonDo classes, in my general training, and finally, the techniques learned for the obstacles on the course.

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About Joe DiFiglia

Fitness and sport enthusiast. Spartan Race Junky. I have been a martial artist since the age of 4 and addicted to anything challenging. Years of Martial Arts training provides the ability to keep going when my body really wants to quit.

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