What it’s really like to train with volleyball goddess Gabby Reece

Claudia Lebenthal is the editor and founder of Style of Sport.

Ever wonder what life is like for Gabrielle Reece and Laird Hamilton? Well, wonder no more. Gabby and Laird, along with Brian MacKenzie, a human performance specialist, have created The XPT Experience, a three-day turbo-charged immersion into their lives. XPT stands for Extreme Performance Training and for $5000, you get full access to this trio and a roster of the most buzzed about – although you may not have heard about them yet — trainers, coaches, health and wellness experts. The XPT Experience is an action-packed program of workouts, lectures, and playtime too, all of which comes from the cutting edge training, nutrition and recovery these professional athletes have integrated into their daily lives.

For those who don’t know this Amazonian beauty, Gabby Reece is a former professional beach volleyball player, model, best-selling author, mother, and world-renowned fitness personality, most recently seen as the host of NBC’s Strong. At 6’3 she is a towering presence, and at 47 years old, as gorgeous and fit as ever, enhanced by a big heart and generosity as large. Husband Laird Hamilton is the world-famous big wave surfer, who at 53 defies age and gravity, riding massive walls of water for a living and inventing new water sports for the rest of us to enjoy. He is recognized as the creator of Stand Up Paddleboarding. His rock hard physique and hunky good looks are hard to ignore, along with an engaging stream of dialogue that questions many common assumptions on health and fitness, while offering alternative ways of thinking with the latest discoveries in human performance.

Then there is Brian MacKenzie, the third member of the XPT trio, whose intensity matches, if not outdoes, this duo’s. Equally irreverent, he is a renowned strength and conditioning coach, and endurance expert, with multiple 100-mile ultra-marathons under his belt. Tattoo covered with a no-excuses attitude and a rapid fire delivery that demands attention, much of what he expounds, along with Gabby and Laird and the others to whom you are introduced at XPT, is antithetical to what you think you know. This is the anti-authoritarian approach to fitness, that teaches you to question everything and be your own judge of what works. Says Brian, “Before anybody was doing HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training), I had exercise physiologists coming in saying I was going to kill these people. They just kept getting better and better and fitter and healthier. Nothing I teach has not been done by me first. Then we share.”

I’ve had the opportunity to attend two of these XPT Experiences, one in The Hamptons last summer and one a couple of weeks ago in Malibu, Calif. The itineraries vary with each, but the most recent included: Hamilton’s beach workout; Reece’s High-X circuit training; and MacKenzie’s strength and alignment clinic; as well as a seminar with nutritional sports performance guru, Mark Sisson, founder of Mark’s Daily Apple and author of The Primal Blueprint, who lectured on ketogenics, and using fat instead of carbohydrates for training fuel. And besides workouts, although equally physical, are activities like stand-up paddleboarding and mountain biking. XPT is centered around the notion of enjoying being fit, and all activities are designed to be entertaining. I’ll take running with a sandbag and rolling a tire down the beach over lifting weights in the gym any day.

With Gabby Reece and husband Laird Hamilton at the XPT Experience. (Photo courtesy of Claudia Lebenthal)
With Gabby Reece and husband Laird Hamilton at the XPT Experience. (Photo credit Claudia Lebenthal)

These are just a few of the highlights, but at the center of the both XPT Experiences has been the pool training and breathing clinics. XPT originally stood for Extreme Pool Training, the underwater workout Hamilton developed as a way to train in his off season. At its origin, the pool training was designed to prepare for being held underwater after wiping out on a giant wave, but this has evolved into much more. This is a workout for the rest of us. As Hamilton says, “It’s not so much about under, as in, and your ability to move through the water more efficiently, more confidently, effortlessly.”

If you pull up to Reece and Hamilton’s hilltop home in Malibu on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, you will find their pool filled with an elite group of athletes, celebrities, and other by-special-invite only friends. Gabby and Laird have turned their pool into an underwater gym. Around the deck are dumbbell racks filled with an assortment of weights and a cabinet filled with scuba masks. Grab one and jump in. In the pool all are engaged in a variety of drills performed with weights and without oxygen, like underwater running, explosive plyometric movements, and swimming drills. There is a sauna barrel, almost like a sweat lodge, at one end of the pool, and an ice bath at the other, with people alternating between the two extremes for post-workout recovery.

Describes Reece, ”The thing with Laird is that SUP and pool training have all been birthed out of, ‘What I do in the off season to prepare. I’m bored out of my mind. I can’t stand swimming laps but I want to do stuff in the water to expand my lung capacity and be in water.’ It became another form of training that yes, would compliment his surfing, but was a way to do dynamic explosive work with low impact as well.”

Underwater breath holding is another example and has evolved into XPT Performance Breathing. There are 45-minute sessions everyday on the XPT Experiences consisting of long and short intervals of inhales, exhales and breath holds designed to get more oxygen into the lungs and in the blood. At the core is training to stay underwater for long periods of time if necessary, but there are also more practical applications. Picture yourself breathing heavily after sprinting, trying to get as much oxygen into your lungs as possible. What if you did that before a workout? The theory is increasing lung capacity and getting more oxygen translates into more endurance and better performance in any sport. Conversely breathing drills are taught to relax the body after a workout. Exercises on land as well, like those on our beach training session, were performed for only as long as we could hold our breath. If you think dragging a log down the beach is difficult, now try it without air! You can only get stronger from that.

It is access to this exclusive kind of training that XPT offers. On the Malibu XPT experiences Reece and Hamilton open their pool and offer this workout to anyone who can afford it, and given the jam-packed itinerary, the $5,000 price tag, that includes food and lodging, seems pretty reasonable. Participants range from everyday folks looking to expand their fitness horizon to professional athletes like beach volleyball star and four-time Olympic medalist (three golds and one bronze) Kerri Walsh Jennings, who joined us with her husband, another pro beach volleyball player, Casey Jennings, not just for the Experience but as a featured part of the program. Regardless of skill level, how many people can say they were coached by Kerri Walsh Jennings in volleyball drills? How often does one get to spend three days with that level of athlete, and not just as a coach but as a team member? Walsh Jennings was my partner in the gym, spotting me on deadlifts, as I did her. Says Walsh Jennings, “We were there to share our love for our sport with the group, but we wanted the experience too. This is quality time for Casey and I. Hearing everyone’s reasons for being there… everyone’s answers were my answers.”  

Partnered with four-time Olympic medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings for a beach workout at the XPT Experience. (Photo courtesy of Claudia Lebenthal)
Partnered with four-time Olympic medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings for a beach workout at the XPT Experience. (Photo courtesy of Claudia Lebenthal)

The common thread of all the programs on an XPT Experience is performance. Athletes don’t workout to stare at themselves in the mirror, although their bodies show the results. “Viewing fitness, strength, and conditioning through lens of performance is fundamentally talking about training not just for the sake of training,” says Logan Gelbrich, owner of Deuce Gym in Venice Beach, Calif., who was one of the featured instructors on the Malibu XPT.  A “Strongman” competitor and coach — think large men with Swedish names pulling cars on ESPN2 — he has a far more regular sized and functional athletic build. Gelbrich taught us to lift, carry, and run with Atlas Stones and Sandbags weighing up to 65lbs, and has found this training to be very effective “helping general people achieve general goals.”

Says Gelbrich, “The movements in Strongman are very basic and rudimentary — lift, drag, push, pull. If I am humble enough as a coach to think about why people are coming to me – they want to look better, feel better, perform better — I should at least consider the lowest hanging fruit of training. I can teach you to flip a tire or carry a sandbag and in four minutes you’re going to be a competent mover. In seven minutes you’re going to be able to be under load and with intensity, which means you’re getting fit right now. Plenty of people come to me and say, ‘I’m not interested in heavy weights or running fast. I’m getting married and just want to look great.’ If you are faster, more flexible, and stronger you’ll probably look the part as well. Without some tangible measurement to hang your hat on then were just looking at ourselves in the mirror and the feedback loop is always negative.”

For all of the featured coaches and and speakers, as well as Reece, Hamilton, and MacKenzie too, the XPT Experiences are as much about learning as they are teaching. All participate in the other’s programs, but also get back data from us — seeing what works and what doesn’t, what we take away from the three days and what we leave behind. Beyond that though is a desire to share that learning. Says Hamilton, “We get so much exposure. We’re just doing what we love to do. Part of this is the unselfish act of giving, but we’re always learning and were going to learn from you guys. This is an evolving concept. It’s never going to be the same twice. In fact, none of our workouts are ever the same twice, because nothing is ever the same. The day is never the same. Your performance is never the same. Everything is always evolving. ”

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