East meets West: an exercise in fitness philosophy

A man working out on a beach.

When former pro rugby player Max Woodward joined Soho House Hong Kong as a personal trainer, he pioneered a unique workout drawing strength from two worlds

By Aatish Nath   Mon, Jul, 20, 2020

On the field, Max Woodward assures me he’s a different person. The former international rugby player’s celebrated stints on the turf took him to Wales, Hong Kong, Japan and be-yond — with Woodward becoming a star player in the process. 

But when we meet (albeit via Zoom), Woodward — who was born and raised in the former British colony — is in his new incarnation as a trainer and class instructor at Soho House Hong Kong, and rolling out his successful House Strong workout (think an adapted version of HIIT). Forged from an innovative blend of East and West fitness philosophies, Woodward talks us through the experiences that have shaped his popular Soho Active series. 

How did your fitness journey start?

‘Through my rugby career, which I started as a young player in the UK. My dream was al-ways to turn pro and I was very fortunate to achieve that, but it was a turbulent path with multiple injuries. I had some knee trouble — ACL [anterior cruciate ligament]; a couple of tears. That’s what sparked my journey: a series of injuries that I researched myself in order to rehab. Afterwards, I developed a passion for helping other people and wanted to share this knowledge and experience I had discovered through strength and fitness training.’

Talk us through your training experiences in Europe and Asia. How did they differ?

‘It’s very much a case of working yourself into the ground when it comes to rugby in West-ern countries — only the strong survive. Japan has that same training mentality, where you basically drill the basics and repeat, repeat, repeat. But with my injury history, and as my career has developed, I’ve definitely come to appreciate the importance of taking a step back, slowing things down and recognising that the mind is something that needs to be worked on as well as the body, which is a very Eastern philosophy.

‘Now, what I’ve noticed with team sports especially is that they’re starting to adopt more of what we would have once called “unconventional practices”. Things like mindfulness, yoga and stretching — which I see as important facets of training. Personally, what’s been important for me is having an entire day off from exercise every week. It sounds simple, but the Eastern practice of mindfulness has helped me to realise that. I’ve also noticed that the best and the most successful athletes are the guys who are most flexible. So, I incorporate a lot of mobility work into my training — far more than I used to, and it’s made a big dif-ference.’
Two men sparring in a boxing ring.

'It sounds simple, but the Eastern practice of mindfulness helped me to realise that what’s important is having time off from exercise every week.'

What other ‘unconventional practices’ have you adopted?

‘I’ve been doing a lot of work with things like juggling and Hacky Sack [a freestyle sack-kicking exercise] as a sort of closed-skill development that combines meditation with skill learning, and I often bring a Happy Sack to my client sessions now as a training stimulus for in between weight-lifting sets. 

‘Initially, I started working with people who shared the same training philosophy as me. Through that method of learning, I taught myself how to juggle and how to keep it going. It’s definitely a form of mental-skills training too, which benefits my mood, concentration levels, and ability to learn. I think it’s important to keep those things going as we get older.’

Has the closure of gyms during the pandemic changed how people train in Hong Kong?

‘It’s definitely affected people’s behaviour. I think that people will split their routines now if they’ve really enjoyed outdoor training, especially when the weather is good. What it’s forced me to do is get creative with limited equipment, like resistance bands or kettle bells. I happened to buy a little bit of equipment right at the start of lockdown, which I thought was a bit premature but turned out to be a good decision.’

Do you think hiking and staying active outdoors will remain a big part of fitness regimes going forward?

‘Being in nature was a really good change of scenery for me and I think that a lot of my cli-ents enjoyed training outside, too. We’d go around Hong Kong and find somewhere to hang gymnastic rings or train on the beach — we got creative with it. For people in Hong Kong, it’s such a regular occurrence to go hiking or do Tai Chi in the park, but what I’ve learned is that everyone’s form of practice is always a little different, so it’s about finding your own sense of enjoyment and escape.’
A man resting in a changing room after a workout.
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