I Tried a Biohacked Workout and I’ll Never Look at Exercise the Same Way Again
Who wouldn’t want to constantly feel invigorated, productive and in love with the body they’re in? That’s the promise of biohacking, a science-based discipline that aims to make your workouts as efficient as possible. I visited Upgrade Labs, a workout center with locations in Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, where you’re supposed to get more out of less time and effort.
Founded by Dave Asprey, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who initially gained fame as the creator of the wellness craze Bulletproof Coffee, Upgrade Labs uses a concept dubbed minimum effective dose (MED), which involves finding the smallest dose it takes to produce an ideal outcome. Using the lab’s futuristic equipment, I could achieve the same physiological results while spending way less time at the gym. More time for bingeing Netflix? Count me in.
First, I met my trainer, who took my weight (gulp) using not a scale but an InBody machine, a sort of electronic contraption that you stand on while holding hand grips so that the machine can pump electric current through your body. I didn’t feel any electricity, but I was a little shocked when my biometric reading came back with the suggestion that I lose seven pounds. Ahem.
Next, I moved on to the workout. First, I sat on a strange-looking bike that looks similar to a Peloton bike. My workout took just nine minutes, during which a woman’s soothing, British-accented voice (that I wish I could hire to read bedtime stories) guided me through the workout via headphones. The voice calmly explained that I was pedaling during primitive times and then suddenly… a tiger was chasing me. Corny, yes, but it did motivate me to sprint. The resistance was excruciatingly heavy, but for such a short length of time, it was totally manageable.
Total time: 9 minutes
Next, I sat on what looked like a standard weight-room bench, except there were no weights, just a paddle to press against. I used it to do a chest press, a row and a leg press. I did just six reps of each, but there was no way I could handle more—the machine actually adjusts the weight moment by moment according to what you can handle and tracks your max amounts. Unlike typical gym machines, which have resistance in only one direction, this one is engineered so that you have to push against resistance in both directions.
Total time: 5 minutes
Finally, I did a “cold HIIT” series, in which I sat on what looked like an incumbent bike and put my bare feet on flat metal panels. The trainer put compression cuffs on both of my arms and around my thighs. I leaned back against a cold compression pad that initially was—as expected—freakin’ cold, and started pushing and pulling the foot and arm pedals. I alternated periods of moving at a steady pace with intermittent 15- to 30-second sprints. Halfway through, my thighs were burning, which makes sense since this brief workout is supposed to be the equivalent of three hours of intense exercise. But hey, if Tiffany Haddish survived with a smile...
Total time: 15 minutes
Right when I felt like I couldn’t take much more, it was recovery time. I lay down on a table with that same cold compression pad on it. While the cooling soothed my burning legs, a panel of infrared LED lights—which I was told helped with inflammation—hovered above my face. With my eyes closed, I imagined I was on a pool float with the warm sun shining on my face.
Total time: 10 minutes
The Big Squeeze
I learned that inflammation is your body’s natural, protective response after a workout, which isn’t a bad thing. However, as Upgrade Labs’ VP of experience and programming, Amanda McVey, explained to me, it’s chronic inflammation that can cause things like weight gain, brain fog and swelling. One guard against chronic inflammation is massage. For post-workout recovery, I lay down and my trainer zipped me into what looks like a very tall man’s padded ski pants. For about ten minutes, these “pants” compressed against my body, working their way up from the bottom to the top before releasing. It was like wearing a blood pressure cuff on my entire lower body and it was strangely relaxing.
At the same time, a tube with water vapor was placed under my nose to “help with cellular repair.” There wasn’t much of a scent to it, so I inhaled deeply, even if I didn’t fully understand the science behind why this was way better than average drinking water.
Total time: 10 minutes
The No-Water Float Tank
Now on to a giant pod that spins around approximately ten times per minute to simulate a floating sensation, no water needed. Could this be the device to get me to that desired Zen state I was never able to achieve through normal meditation? (And not bring back memories of the Gravitron carnival ride that used to make me nauseated as a kid?)
My trainer placed a weighted blanket over my body as I lay down inside the pod. She then put goggles on me (that emitted different bright lights) and headphones (that played the soothing sounds of water trickling and birds chirping). I was told to close my eyes as the cover of the pod closed over me.
I didn’t feel like I was spinning but rather, as the name suggests, floating. My mind, which is always racing a mile a minute, struggled to focus on anything but the many light sequences distracting me as I saw varying bursts of color and design. (It’s what I imagine an acid trip might look like.) I did experience a deep calming sensation, and at one point I noticed my eyeballs vigorously moving, like what happens (but you’re usually not aware of it) during REM sleep. I had some dreamlike visions but was keenly aware that I was not dreaming. Weird, right? But like the end of a really good massage, when the pod came to a stop and my half hour was over, I was both relaxed and bummed to be done.
Total time: 30 minutes
Stripping down to a sports bra and shorts, I put on high socks, mittens, earmuffs and a mask over my mouth before stepping into a freezing-cold vessel the size of a phone booth (you know, those things your grandparents used to call each other from). My trainer allowed me to select a song for the three minutes I would spend in the negative-250-degree torture device. I picked DMX’s “X Gonna Give it to Ya,” naturally.
They told me cryotherapy tricks your body into thinking you’re dying, which apparently is a good thing? After a few seconds, I felt pins and needles all over my exposed body parts. As I thought to myself, “Isn’t this why I left the East Coast?” the trainer radioed to say I was halfway through. After awkwardly bopping to DMX for the next minute and a half, when that door opened, I felt victorious. Cryotherapy is supposed to release feel-good endorphins and I must say, once it was over, I did feel joyous. Whether it was the hormones or the fact that I was no longer half-naked and freezing, I can’t really say.
Total time: 3 minutes
The Light Bed
Afterward, I moved on to something called the REDcharger. This was the perfect recovery method to follow cryotherapy, since it involves putting your body up against something warm. I lay down naked, on my back, on a flat panel with LED lights underneath it. For the first ten minutes, I had that red panel (from my post–cold HIIT experience) over my face again. This apparently is good not only for recovery but also beauty: It helps with collagen production, meaning it strengthens your hair and skin. (Two of the employees there told me how the LED lights had helped greatly with their eczema.) After ten minutes, like a pig roasting on a spit, I turned over onto my stomach and put my face into the face rest. I have to say I was a fan of all this lying down as part of my “workout.”
Total time: 20 minutes
I left Upgrade Labs feeling relaxed and blown away by all the technology-driven devices they have at their disposal. I wasn’t sweaty like I typically am after working out, but the next day I was certainly sore. And that night? I slept like one big happy biohacked baby.
If you’re interested in having your own futuristic wellness session, you should expect to spend about an hour at Upgrade Labs for the full experience. It isn’t cheap, though. One session is $150, on average—and membership costs go up from there. But hey, if you biohack your brain to think more clearly, maybe you’ll be able to afford it after you have the next big million-dollar idea? Either way, it’s worth getting a free consultation, because this place is like the Disneyland for fitness-obsessed data-driven geeks. Turns out, I’m one of them.
Total time: 1 hour and 32 minutes