In the 70s, Joe De Sena pushed back against his mother’s orders: yoga, medication, veganism, a new way of living. Everyone pushed back. Fast forward 40 years and the fitness entrepreneur has fully embraced the lifestyle, creating Spartan, a military-style obstacle course that pushes contestants to their limits to help them become the best version of themselves. We spoke to the best-selling author to find out more about his journey and what he’s planning to do down under.
Men’s Health: In a nutshell, what is, I am Spartan?
Joe De Sena: Basically, it’s this idea that everybody is a Spartan. Basically, we are learning helplessness in our current soft lives. We don’t have to read maps anymore, we don’t have to go hunt for food, we don’t even have to shop for food, we just go on Amazon and get it delivered. We don’t even need to hail a taxi. In this new “advanced world” where we’re learning helplessness, we are suggesting that people will be happier and healthier, if they dig deep and find that Spartan inside, which helped us all survive 1 million years on this planet. Storms, locusts, disease, we’ve survived all kinds of stuff and now we can’t handle no wifi on the airplane.
Men’s Health: How did you first come up with the idea to start I am Spartan?
Joe De Sena: Yeah. We are 1.3 million participants globally. We’re in 45 countries. It’s the largest endurance events series in the world. The name of the company is Spartan, but I am Spartan is a campaign that we’re doing in Australia. By the way, you guys, Men’s Health, believe it or not, are our partners first. Yeah. Hearst owns Men’s Health. Anyway, Spartan was an idea that really started 40 years ago with my mum where she got into yoga, meditation, health, food became vegan and just started opening people’s eyes up to a new way of living. Rather than TV dinners and Marlboro cigarettes, she got people doing yoga, she got them eating plant-based foods. I pushed back, everybody pushed back, but later in life, I really embraced that idea myself, personally, and then, came up with the name Spartan thankfully because it’s the greatest business name in the world – It’s 2500 years of history. It really means something when people hear it, and wrapped it with a military-style obstacle course, which we could all use a little bit of, for the reasons I mentioned earlier.
Men’s Health: With people competing from all around the world, what’s the ultimate prize for the obstacle course?
Joe De Sena: Health and wellness. They get to live a little longer, a little happier. I heard a statistic the other day, aside from diabetes and obesity and all the normal stats, I heard 50% of women over 40 are on antidepressants in the US. When you say what’s the ultimate prize? Take a look at the smiles coming across the finish line after people do hard shit. You got a commitment on the calendar, you got a race coming, whether it’s a month, two months, three months, five months away. You start going to bed earlier, you stop eating the cookies, you train in the morning. You might even take a cold shower or two, and you feel more alive. At the end of the day, we’re animals and we’re really living in a zoo these days. And animals that live in a zoo are not too happy. I’m letting people out of the zoo. They get out of the cage for a day, they run around and they feel like the wild animals that we are.
Men’s Health: So, what does a Spartan-style workout look like?
Joe De Sena: We believe in body weight exercises. We believe in flexibility and mobility. Basically, we believe a human being can do anything they put their mind to, unless they get injured. To avoid injury, we suggest a few less bench presses and a few less squats, and a little more yoga, stretching, running, really being very flexible and mobile and consistent. We’re not looking for you to do Olympic level training on a daily basis. We’re looking for consistency, even if the intensity is not… I tell people, if they did a one mile walk every day, if they just did a one mile walk, they did 30 burpees and 30 of the best pull-ups they could muster together, they’d be a hell of lot better off than where they currently are. You mix in a little yoga with that stretching, you’re golden.
Men’s Health: 100 per cent. You mentioned one mile walk, burpees, a little yoga and stretching, as well. What’s an example of the workout that is typically done in preparation to the race?
Joe De Sena: For me, I’ve got 21 body weight exercises I do. I’ve got lots of burpees I do. I try to run. I don’t run that much. I try to run somewhere between one and three miles in the morning. I could give you a list of 500 different workouts. We did a workout yesterday at the Opera House where we had people do 30 burpees. We ran the stairs in front of the opera house five times, up and down. We did 100 crunches on the grass across the street from the opera house. We did a bear crawl for about a hundred yards. We did 300 jumping jacks. And we did a hundred lunges. Everybody from all fitness levels.
Men’s Health: You mentioned before how you grew up and how you learned about this whole Spartan mentality. Were you always into fitness then?
Joe De Sena: My mum was, as I said, 40 plus years ago, she got into it. I grew up in a neighbourhood that was a pretty rugged neighbourhood where most people went to jail and that was referred to as college. I was always questioning myself as a young lad, am I tough enough? If everybody goes to jail, could I do that, because that was part of the test. That led me to push myself a little harder, and then my mom introduced me to a 3100 mile run in Queens, New York that still exists today. It’s called the Transcendence Run. It goes around a one mile loop and you just run around for 50 or 60 days around this one mile loop. And I saw that as a young person, and I thought, wow, the human mind is much more powerful than the body. Really, it all started back then.
Men’s Health: You touched on the workout you did in front of the Opera House, your 3,100 miles run that you got into, but what kind of training do you usually take part in? What does a typical week of training look like for you?
Joe De Sena: As I was saying earlier, when I wake up in the morning, fairly early, between 4:00 and 5:00 AM, I’ve got 21 body weight exercises that I picked up from around the world and from my mum – obviously includes lots of burpees. Those exercises are centred around, not only building some strength and stamina, but mobility and flexibility and I do them religiously. Then I do a very short run, somewhere between 20 and 30 minutes and that’s pretty much it. I carry around a kettlebell. In the office, I have a continuous rope pulley. When I’m on phone calls like this, I’m just literally pulling the rope doing all my conference calls. It’s really integrated in my life, take stairs instead of elevators and escalators, park the car a little further away from the grocery store, than you otherwise want to, and just really integrate fitness in my life.
Men’s Health: We know that nutrition is just as important as working out. What does your day on a plate typically look like? Is there a Spartan why of eating?
Joe De Sena: Yeah, fitness begins in the kitchen, no doubt about it. I definitely lean plant-based, and that comes from my mum and some mentors. When you eat plant-based, your blood’s a lot thinner, a lot easier on your body to digest, and any long distance events I ever did in my life, when I saw the difference between being plant-based leading up to those events and doing those events versus eating a typical diet, my performance was incredibly different, noticeably different. We recommend a more plant-based diet. The book we recommend people read is The China Study with a 30 year study done by Dr. Colin Campbell, Cornell University, China and Oxford. During those 30 years, they concluded that there was a massive connection between most of the common diseases we see today killing people and meat and animal protein. So we try to avoid that as much as we can.
Men’s Health: I can tell you’re a fan of Game Changers.
Joe De Sena: I am a fan of Games Changers, as well as, Forks Over Knives.
Men’s Health: Yeah. You’re currently in the country obviously helping with bush fire recovery efforts. Can you tell us a bit more about how I am Spartan is helping out?
Joe De Sena: Yeah. We have a bunch of events this year in Australia in lots of towns that were affected by the fires. I think sometimes when disaster strikes around the world, it’s really the second component that creates more of a disaster. People, they might not go out, they might not go to events, they might not go visit those areas because of that natural disaster and that really crushes the local economy. Our message is, when we roll in with 5000 or 10,000 participants, maybe we buy a little more petrol, maybe we shop in the local stores and the restaurants, and that’ll really help those communities that have been really crushed by these wildfires.
Men’s Health: Absolutely. Is there anything else we should keep an eye out for?
Joe De Sena: We’ve got a bunch of books out there, Spartan Up, The Spartan Way, Spartan Fit. We tend to like this word Spartan. Here’s a little sentence for your. A lot of people don’t realise, but the movie 300 centred on a battle from 2,500 years ago, the Battle of Thermopylae, and they don’t realise that this year, 2020, is the 2500 year anniversary of that battle.