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Here's What Happens When You Work Out With An Olympian

Fencer Nzingha Prescod let us in on her fitness routine before she headed to Rio.

If you’re going to work out with an Olympian, it’s crucial to pick the right sport. Swimming’s out (Who wants to stand next to a 22-year-old world-class swimmer while wearing a bathing suit?). Gymnastics, also a non-starter (Has anyone not had a traumatic run-in with a vault?). Pole vaulting? Seems like you’d need a lot of strength, coordination and an understanding of physics (no, no and no). Then, a light bulb moment: fencing! It involves…what? A lot of lunging? I could do that.

So I arranged to work out with Nzingha Prescod, 23, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native and Columbia University grad who won the bronze medal in the 2015 World Championships and will be competing in her second Olympics in Rio. I kind of assumed (all right, hoped) we’d just gear up and start hitting each other with the swords.

When I met up with Prescod, who’s 5’4” and pure muscle, at the Fencers Club in Manhattan, I had no expectations. We warmed up with dynamic stretches (think slow walking lunges) and did some high knees and butt kicks across the room to get our heart rates up. So far, so good.


Photo: Kommersant Photo / Getty Images
Prescod (left) competes against Inna Deriglazova of Russia during the 2015 World Fencing Championships.

I had no concept of how mentally challenging fencing, and fencing training, is. During agility drills where a collapsible ladder is placed on the floor and your feet go in and out of it, this way and that, Prescod moved so quickly that my eyes could barely keep track of her footwork. When I tried it, I felt disconnected from the lower half of my body. I tripped, got my foot tangled in the ladder, and moved at a snail’s pace.

Next Prescod took me through some of her favorite strategy-and-footwork games. They’re all about timing your own movements based on your opponents’, reacting to what they do and figuring out how you’re going to respond in a split second. Do they seem like they’re about to take a step backward and you could catch them flat-footed? That’s your time to strike—fast. If you don’t, you’re giving your opponent an opportunity. I was so focused on what I was doing with my feet and the rest of my body that any strategy fell by the wayside. Meanwhile, Prescod’s mind and body seemed to be in sync, lunging and extending her sword arm at just the right time.

Finally, we put on the gear and fenced, at a very beginner level, for a few minutes. And while the sword isn’t sharp, it is jarring when you get hit with it. If this was Prescod taking it easy, I pity her opponents. The woman running the club seemed nervous that I would accidentally hit Prescod in the neck or, despite the masks we were wearing, in the face and injure her. For the record, I did not. (You’re welcome, Team USA.)

A few weeks later, I met Prescod at a gym in Chelsea. This, her strength and conditioning workout, was the part I was most nervous about. I pictured us doing moves beyond my fitness level, using weights I couldn’t lift—the woman is an Olympian, after all. The gym itself, Titan Fitness, didn’t help. I saw no elliptical machines to leisurely pedal on as you watched TV, no Stairmasters. Instead, there were weight racks and kettlebells, enormous medicine balls, more resistance bands than I’ve ever seen in my life, and an AstroTurf area, which is where I found Prescod and two fellow fencers stretching and chatting about their various arrival times in Rio the way my friends and I talk about what time we’re going to get to happy hour.

Prescod’s trainer, Ahmed Yilla, NASM-certified personal trainer and head trainer forVerb Fitness, laid out the plan for the workout: warm-up, speed and agility drills, strength work, core exercises, then stretching to cool down.

That all sounded good, until I realized that by speed and agility drills, Yilla meant ladder work. Again. The three fencers and I went through the ladder one after the other, with me at the back of the line and Prescod at the front, which meant that she caught up with me every time. I ended up bailing out of the ladder a little early each time so I wouldn’t get in her way. Plus, I was getting frustrated and embarrassed by my inability to figure out where the heck my feet were supposed to go.

Next came glute bridges with bands placed just above our knees and lateral shuffles with bands around the ankles, which left my outer thighs on fire. Then it was on to the strength-building portion. Yilla had us take off our sneakers before we started—he said cushiony running shoes like the kind we were all wearing give you a false sense of stability, and that you’ll get more benefit from the moves if you can feel your feet on the ground as you do them. So it was off with the sneakers and into goblet squats with heavy weights (Prescod used 30 pounds), followed by single leg balance-and-reaches, pushups, kettlebell swings, lateral lunges, and plank holds with shoulder taps. After each set, Prescod pleadingly asked Yilla how many more we had to do. (Professional athletes, they’re just like us!)

We cooled down with a series of stretches. The workout was over, and while it was firmly in the very-challenging category, I’d made it through. It was a long session, at an hour and 15 minutes, and there were definitely parts of it that were less than enjoyable (see you never, ladder), but Prescod’s workout wasn’t impossible. The majority of her routine consists of pretty common exercises—not the crazy-complicated moves you might expect—just with heavier weights and more sets.

I was sore for the next three days, but it was worth it for the “Oh, don’t worry about me. I just worked out with an Olympian” comments I got to pull out whenever someone noticed I was moving a little gingerly. I always get an added burst of exercise motivation when the Games are on, and this time I’ll make sure to do the moves I know for a fact at least one Olympian does.

How You Can Work Out Like a Pro
After the workout, Yilla shared his three top exercises from Prescod’s workouts that you can do at home.

Dumbbell Push Press
Do 3 sets of 5 reps.

1. Stand in an athletic stance, with your feet shoulder width apart and knees slightly bent. Hold a pair of dumbbells on top of your shoulders with your palms facing away from your body.
2. Lower down into a squat, only going about a quarter of the way down.
3. Simultaneously drive yourself up and out of the squat as you push the dumbbells straight up toward the ceiling. Try not to let your lower back arch as you raise the dumbbells.
4. Lower the dumbbells back to your shoulders and return to start position.

Goblet Squat with Kettlebell or Dumbbell
Do 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps.

1. Hold a dumbbell or a kettlebell at your chest, stand with feet shoulder width apart, toes facing slightly outward.
2. Sit your hips back and bend your knees to lower down into a squat. As you lower down, push your knees out and squat down until the crease of your hips drops below your knees. Don’t let you knees sag inward, and focus on keeping your chest up the whole time.
3. Drive yourself up and out of the squat, back into starting position.

Dumbbell Rows
Do 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps.

1. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, holding dumbbells with your palms facing each other. Bend your knees slightly and bend at the waist to bring your torso forward. Keep bending, keeping your back straight, until it’s almost parallel to the floor.
2. Lift the dumbbells up to your sides, toward your rib cage. As you lift them, keep your elbows close to your sides and squeeze your mid-back.
3. Lower weight back to starting position.

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