While part of me scoffs at the cheesy get-ups, cringe-worthy workouts (looking at you jazzercise), over the top queues, and aerobic-centric fitness (I’m a weights kind of guy at heart) the other part of me believes something. They were on to something. Maybe it’s the nastalgia talking, who knows. However behind all of the outdated fluff, a lot of the 80s workout routines managed to capture something truly lasting, truly effective.
My hope was to delve deep into the depths of 80s workout culture and try to understand why I felt this way. Maybe you feel the same way too. If we can salvage even an ounce of what made 80s workout routines great and incorporate it into our own training, it will not only help us to be more informed- but better off physically. So let’s get started.
If we’re going to talk about 80s workouts, we’ve got to address the elephant in the room— and that’s Jane Fonda. If there’s two things most people know about her, it’s that 1 she’s in movies (I remember monster in law specifically). And 2 as far as 80s fitness goes she was running the game. Without having ever seen one of her workout videos her legend has become immortalized in what we perceive as 80s workout culture. That timeless nostalgia surrounding her has people raving about her workouts to this day. All you hear is how they love her personality and how effective her workouts are. So in my attempt to dissect 80s workouts I figured this was a good place to start.
Intense Interval Training
To me the 80s seemed so long ago, my mind thinks of 80s fitness like something out of the stone ages. I figure with all of the advances in the study of science, fitness and nutrition, a lot of what they trained with would be outdated. I was wrong. A lot of what Jane Fonda did in the first 5 minutes of most of most of her videos was dropping facts that ring just as true today as they did 30+ years ago.
One concept that underlies many of her workouts are the use of intense interval training.
Intense interval training (IIT) as Fonda puts it is the backbone to her successful workouts. Though in many of her workouts intensity can be adjusted to higher or moderate levels, she firmly believes that solid aerobic and resistance training is the key to “firming waistlines, arms and buttocks”.
Without getting too sciency there are qualitative and meta-analyses that back this up.
One review found significant decreases in body fat percentage during both interval training and moderate-intensity continuous training. It’s interesting to note that there were no significant differences between interval training and MOD on body fat percentage reduction. However interval training did cause a significant reduction (28.5%) compared to MOD in total absolute body fat(1).
These results could be used to rationalize Fonda’s accommodation for both high and moderate intensities during her workout. If both intensity levels stand to lose weight through consistent exercise, might as will choose the pace that works best for you.
Resistance/ Cardio Combination
While Jane Fonda had many different workouts throughout the 80s, one type I’d like to highlight is her approach in her “total workout”.
In it she focused on a resistance/ cardio combo. I love how right out the gate she tells viewers, particularly the ladies “don’t be afraid of building bulky muscles”. As a trainer it’s hard to change people’s misconceptions on weightlifting, especially around muscle development. But the fact that she was doing this decades earlier makes her a woman after my own heart. Anyway, using a few pairs of dumbbells, Fonda claims
“what you’ll see happen over time as you combine weight training with aerobics is increased definition and contouring”
How Effective Is It?
Again it seems Jane Fonda was on to something. Researchers performed a study to uncover the physiological impact of aerobic, resistance, or combined exercise on overweight subjects. And, you probably guessed it, the combination of resistance and aerobic training had significant decreases in body weight, BMI, and body fat compared to the control group or resistance training alone. Greater improvements were also noted in fat percentage, abdominal fat percentage, and cardio-respiratory fitness(2).
From what we understand, both forms of exercise together may have a greater effect than they do alone. The catch is that we’re still not entirely sure why that is. In my mind it’s crazy that Fonda knew to incorporate this into workouts 40 years ago. Just goes to show you to never underestimate a good 80s workout, or what they knew back in the day.
Granted I think the concepts hold up, but the execution in the videos (especially with weights) lack intensity. Everyone shouldn’t be smiling while doing dumbbell curls 20 minutes into the workout. If they’re still smiling, they’re not pushing enough weight. Their fake groaning was amusing though, like they were actually struggling.
Other 80s Routines
While I think Jane Fonda in herself is a symbol of 80s workouts, there are still other programs that have helped to solidify 80s fitness into our culture. What do you know about names like Greg Smithey, Suzanne Somers, or Judi Sheppard Misset? If you’re anything like me, these names don’t ring any bells. However at some point in your life you might’ve heard of Buns of Steel, the Thigh-Master, or Jazzercise.
These exercise programs built a cult-following over the years, some of them still going strong today. Jazzercise has over 8000 locations world-wide and is currently ran by Misset’s daughter Shanna Misset Nelson. You can still easily buy thigh-masters or products like it on the internet. And buns of steel, well, that’s a saying in and of itself. Each of these programs have their own distinct features, and I recommend you try them out for yourself. For the sake of time, you could boil it down to a few main features such as:
- Time under tension
- Bodyweight exercises
- Dynamic dance movements (dance moves)
I’d say with the addition of resistance training used by the likes of Jane Fonda, this literally makes up most of the 80s workouts we’re familiar with. But again the question is are they effective? And how can they be updated for an effective workout in the 21st century?
Buns Of Steel (Time Under Tension)
For clarity, there are a few programs that go by the name Buns of Steel around the same time period. One of the most note worthy is Tamilee Webb’s Buns of Steel 2000, which I recommend giving a try. However I’m specifically referring to one of its earliest incarnations, Greg Smithey’s version from 1987.
It’s fair to say workouts of the 80s weren’t big on weights, but they did love fatiguing the muscles. Buns of Steel could have you doing lateral leg raises for 2 minutes straight before even thinking of resting for a moment. Even without ankle weights or resistance bands, trying to keep the leg up that long was very difficult. Guess it goes to show it doesn’t matter how easy the exercise is, after a while you will feel the burn.
Though very basic, this use of time under tension can be challenging and rewarding in a number of different ways. Give it a try and you may find it just as useful today as it was in the 80s.
Time Under Tension
Time under tension describes the amount of time muscles are kept under strain during a working set. This can be achieved by lengtheningThis can be achieved by lengthening the phases of the movement during each rep or adding more reps to fatigue the muscle. This variety makes time under tension a very flexible mode of exercise, as it provides a wide range of ways to stress the muscles. I would say Smithey used it well in his variety of exercises and their duration. With his main program being nearly an hour and a half, you can bet every head of the glutes and thighs are worked thoroughly (even with little to no weights).
The goal of TUT and workouts like Buns of Steel is to build bigger, stronger muscles with improved control, enhanced mineral and bone density, and lower body fat percentage. Obviously it sounds good on paper, but is TUT and 80s workouts that use it actually effective?
In truth the research varies.
Some has shown that the time muscles are under tension may be pivotal in optimizing muscle growth. Even low loads (around 30% maximal strength) to the point of fatigue has proven just as effective as high intensity resistance exercise for stimulating muscle protein synthesis.
In fact it seems that muscle fiber growth on a basic level is a matter of muscle recruitment. So when exercises are performed to fatigue, it leads to eventual maximal muscle fiber recruitment.
Tamilee Webb’s Buns of Steel (Bodyweight Exercises)
Body weight exercises were the bread and butter of 80s workouts, and there may be good reason for this. When you think about it, it’s a no-brainer: They require little to no equipment, take very little time to master, and can be modified for any skill level.
Tamilee Webb’s Buns of Steel is a good example. It doesn’t incorporate weights but includes many of the staple exercises for building a solid lower body- single leg and lateral lunges, squats, kickbacks, etc. Beyond their practical application, body weight exercises offer some solid benefits that make their use well worth it. Some research suggests that high frequency, low-duration body weight resistance training is effective in increasing strength and improving body composition.
Body weight resistance training with exercises such as push ups taken to near failure can greatly increase muscular strength and thickness when performed over a 4-6 week period. If you’ve ever seen the results of push up challenges, then you’ve gotten a glimpse of what consistent body weight exercise can do for you.
There’s no doubt it has was it takes to transform the body, but the trick is that it requires higher volume. Even Jane Fonda in her Complete Workout admits that (for the sake of volume) the workout should be done every other day to stimulate change. Simply put, resistance training follows a dose-response relationship where higher training volume leads to greater strength gains and muscle hypertrophy(3).
Jazzercise (Dynamic Dance Moves)
Whether or not people take it up for other reasons, it’s an great way to develop strength, cardiovascular endurance, balance, and coordination. Many of the famous fitness instructors of the 80s started out teaching dance and later expanding it for its fitness benefits. Jane Fonda is the most famous dance instructor-gone-fitness icon, but there are others like Judi Sheppard Misset who make the cut as well. She began Jazzercise way back in 1969, and after a decade of teaching her dance routine to army wives in San Diego, it exploded on the scene in the 80s.
A lot of the older Jazzercise routines are fairly dated, but dance programs past and present still have a lot to offer fitness enthusiasts. Dance is great for:
– Reducing anxiety and depression while increasing the quality of life
– Improving social skills and cognitive/ psycho-motor abilities
– Changing the emotional state as well as self identity
It’s crazy to think that though dance is such a huge part our culture, very few studies have been done observing it’s relationship to fitness. Of the handful of studies out there, positive trends developed in favor of mental and physical health. One 16 week study found that dance fitness based on Zumba fitness classes created numerous improvements in Health Related Quality of Living or (HRQoL) in middle aged worker women. These parameters include general health, physical and social functioning, vitality, and mental health(4). Dance training produced results like these on either end of the age spectrum, both young and old. Even in college students during an 8 week intervention, researchers found a marked increase in the sum total of the HRQoL score(5).
If you’ve never tried routines like Jazzercise, Jane Fonda’s lean routine dance class, or any of Richard Simmon’s work but like dance- I’d definitely give them a try. Once you start getting into the rhythm, you’ll probably be so entertained you won’t stop. I can’t put my finger on it, but it’s definitely something you have to experience for yourself. There’s something so infectiously positive and upbeat about most of these programs. You’ll snap out of it 40 minutes in and realize you’ve got a huge smile on and actually worked up a surprising sweat
I’m a little embarrassed to say this happened to me on more than one occasion, but I regret nothing- it’s a real good time.
I think it’s important to tweak variables like TUT, tempo, reps, sets, etc if you really want results. This is true for any type of exercise at home or in the gym. However what I think 80s workouts need more of (aside from some different exercises) is INTENSITY.
After digesting so many different 80s workouts it’s easy to see why people still rave about them. Many of them like Jane Fonda’s Aerobic Class or George Smithey’s Buns of Steel offer just enough challenge to make the workouts feel rewarding. And because of nostalgia, the upbeat, sometimes cheesy magic of the 80s makes it hard to stop watching. I found myself sticking to the workouts much longer than I expected because that classic charm the workouts had were just infectious.
Are they as effective as home workouts today? Probably not. I would put my money on Ab Ripper X any day of the week- the memory of it alone makes my abs hurt. But I guess that’s the difference- where many of the 80s workouts lack in intensity, they make up for in personality. They capture something timeless and refreshing that you can only taste when looking back. And at the end of the day, if that nostalgia is helping people to get active and improve their health, that’s all I can ask for.
If you haven’t checked out any of these workouts, I recommend you give them a try, at least for laughs Feel free to share who and what your favorite classic workout instructor and programs are and why. Until next time ya’ll, BE WELL!!