When I first set out for my one-on-one training session with Leyon Azubuike, founder of Gloveworx boxing studio and trainer to the stars (including toned comedic goddess Jennifer Aniston), I was intimidated. OK, I was terrified. I only got serious about incorporating exercise into my life this year. And at about three workouts a week, which generally lean toward the yoga side of the fitness spectrum, let’s just say you won’t be seeing my face on a Wheaties box anytime soon.
As for boxing: My knowledge of the sport begins and ends with a mental image of Clint Eastwood standing uncomfortably close to Hilary Swank.
Adding to the stress surrounding this workout, I stumbled upon Azubuike’s Instagram.
On top of his work with celebrity clients and duties at Gloveworx, Azubuike will be taking on a new role as a trainer in season 3 of Revenge Body with Khloé Kardashian, which premieres on E! July 7. This all made working out with him daunting. But I had committed, so I headed to the new Gloveworx studio in NYC for our training session.
In addition to being the buffest person I’ve ever met, Azubuike also proved to be one of the sweetest. I’m not a quick learner, especially when it comes to anything physical — I still have nightmares about the time I mistakenly released the opposite team from jail during a game of Capture the Flag in third grade P.E. So learning new moves and combinations without a classroom of people to copy (and/or hide behind), is a point of major anxiety for me. But Azubuike was incredibly patient and made sure I not only understood how to execute every movement but knew the benefit of each one, too.
Contrary to the Rocky film playing in my head, boxing isn’t all aggressively punching inanimate objects. In fact, about half of our session took place outside the ring. “Sometimes people associate it with fighting, but you don’t have to spar if you go to a boxing gym,” he said. “Punching the bag, punching the mitts, doing a plank, and losing yourself in the speed bag once you get that rhythm … it’s very Zen.” He stressed the importance of a proper warm up, which, for me, included a few minutes on the treadmill, a VersaClimber, jumping jacks, and incorporated my yoga-heavy background into some hybrid floor exercises. We also did a bit of work with resistance bands, the arm-toning technique he uses with Jen Aniston.
“Me and Jennifer love the bands,” he told me. “They allow you to achieve a large rep range. For example, you can get 15-20 reps rather easily, but it burns. So the toning method comes from having to complete rep after rep while recruiting all these different muscle fibers, but keeping the tension constant so it doesn’t build bulk, but it builds long, lean muscle.”
To my delight, once we reached the ring I was promptly handed a Smartwater (which I like to think brand ambassador Jen had something to do with). From there, my poor coordination was put to its greatest test of the day as I was taught some basic punches (Jab! Hook!) and foot movements. I struggled to find my footing (literally), and Azubuike had to correct my form several times, which he did as patiently as possible. I felt like a disgrace to the “champ” nickname Jen and I once shared.
We then moved to the very gratifying speed bag — which, as the name implies, moves with such haste when struck that my internal monologue soon turned to “Yes, you are a champ!” The session concluded with a two-minute plank, a.k.a. my own personal Everest.
I never really got into the groove of boxing, but I can see how a better-coordinated person would find it therapeutic. In fact, Azubuike told me that’s one of the most misunderstood elements of the practice.
“Sometimes people get intimidated by the sport,” he explained. “It’s a sport that involves a lot of discipline. The workout is very physical, it’s hard, but it’s fun. It’s also a very good mental workout as well. It relieves stress, it’ll take any bad energy you have and kind of leave you void of that — because after an hour of a boxing workout you don’t have the energy to be mad at anyone … Boxing can be a very Zen workout.”
Though similarly “Zen,” Aniston’s sessions with Azubuike are a bit different than mine was. He’s worked with the actress for years and continues to train her as her schedule allows.
“Jen’s always at the top of her game,” he told me. “She’s always been in incredible shape; she’s been an incredible athlete. Keeping her there and adding to that is the challenge that I have as her strength-conditioning coach. That really will dictate what activity we’re doing. Sometimes we might be trying to achieve a certain goal, we want the cardio threshold to be higher, maybe we want her to be more flexible or more mobile, depending on a role or something like that.”
And that “something” determines the frequency and intensity of her workouts. “We could be training three times a week, we could be training seven times a week, depending on where she is,” Azubuike continued. “We have a calendar, it’s 365 days — we have events on there, shows on there, shoots on there. Sometimes the workout program is more intense, sometimes less intense, but it all varies depending on where she is on that macro calendar.”
One constant in Jen’s routine? “Jennifer loves the jump rope.”
“It was hard at first because it was such an intense cardiovascular-intensive move, but now that she’s mastered it, it’s become her favorite part of her repertoire,” Azubuike explained. Maybe there’s hope for me and boxing yet.
Credit: @leyon /Instagram