CLOSE

Sweat Equity: How Tae Bo Conquered the Fitness World

Jane Fonda was gone, and the exercise video craze had appeared to have left with her. The Oscar-winning actress who popularized aerobics with a series of video cassette tapes in the 1980s and helped usher in a national fitness focus that bordered on narcissism had returned to her acting career. None of her obvious heirs—Jake Steinfeld; Denise Austin; the sculpted, first-name-only Gilad—could seem to equal her cultural standing. Americans were faced with the prospect of going to an actual gym.

Where others saw a dead genre, Billy Blanks and Paul Monea saw opportunity. Blanks was a lifelong martial artist and low-budget film actor who had been refining a kickboxing cardio routine for decades; Monea was an infomercial king who made headlines with the Stimulator, a device that promised to cure backaches despite being little more than a barbecue grill igniter with finger grips.

In less than seven months, Blanks’s name would eventually surpass Fonda’s as a VHS exercise icon using a simple system that would be known the world over as Karobics.

When he found out Karobics was already trademarked, he renamed it Tae Bo.   

Billy Blanks Tae Bo Fitness via YouTube

Karobics began in 1976, the year Bill Conti’s theme to Rocky became an anthem for anyone in a sweatsuit. Blanks, then 21 years old and a regular on the competition karate circuit, used it as a morale booster for workouts in his basement, shadowboxing and kicking into the air until he was exhausted.

After stints as a janitor and chemical plant worker, Blanks moved to Los Angeles in the late 1980s, intending to parlay his athletic physique into an action film career: He scored parts in video store staples like Bloodfist and The King of the Kick Boxers. At the same time, he wanted to propagate Karobics among the city’s image-obsessed population, opening a fitness studio in Sherman Oaks and earning the respect of celebrity clientele like boxer Sugar Ray Leonard, Ashley Judd, and Sinbad.

“It’s the best”, the comedian told the Chicago Tribune in 1996. “It’s the baddest.”

Tossing the Karobics name, Blanks embraced Tae Bo, a martial arts and dance regimen that promised to burn hundreds of calories per session. A hybrid of Tae Kwon Do and boxing, Blanks said it stood for "Total Awareness of Excellent Body Obedience." Not wishing a repeat of Karobics, he trademarked it in 1992.

Having studied Fonda’s tapes and how to count beats in ballet classes, Blanks was optimistic his workout would have national appeal. One of the home video distributors he approached early on disagreed, insisting that a black male would have problems convincing a mostly white, mostly female demographic to buy his tapes. Irked, Blanks broke off talks and decided to side with Paul Monea, an Ohio-based producer who sensed Blanks had the kind of charisma that played well in the early morning infomercial hours.

Monea, however, wanted Blanks to peddle exercise equipment. After deliberation, Blanks convinced him that a Tae Bo instructional would prove more profitable. There were already numerous celebrities enrolled in his classes that would be willing to provide video testimonials at no charge.

Monea was convinced. In August 1998, commercials and half-hour spots for Tae Bo began airing. For $59.85, consumers could purchase four workout tapes led by Blanks urging them to leave a puddle of sweat on their living room floors.

The infomercial aired up to 2000 times a day across various markets, costing Monea $1.5 million a week in airtime purchases. But it proved to be a worthy investment: in less than a year, Tae Bo would gross $80 million. The tapes outsold every major home video release of 1999, including The Matrix and Saving Private Ryan.

Getty Images

Previously known only to his Sherman Oaks regulars and karate enthusiasts, Blanks was suddenly inundated with up to 80 calls an hour from news outlets. (He shunted them off to a publicist.) So many people made a pilgrimage to his studio that staff would have to turn most of them away. Bantam Books paid a reported $1.2 million advance for a fitness guide. Blanks was even installed on Oprah for a guest spot—for an entire week.

Like any success in the fitness industry, Tae Bo was besieged by copycats. Blanks’s legal team issued 60 cease and desist letters a week to regional gyms advertising classes using the name without permission. To avoid litigation, prospective Tae Bo instructors could take a certification class from Blanks for $995. Those that didn’t were forced to lead derivative classes like Gotham Box, which married (loose) self-defense maneuvers with a regimented workout.

It was a flattering, if expensive, form of imitation. But Blanks was less charmed by litigation that started to bubble up from within his own inner circle. Sugar Ray Leonard, who had endorsed Tae Bo as a favor to his friend, filed a lawsuit against Monea for using his name without permission. Later, Blanks would struggle with Monea himself, alleging that his partner had cut him an unfavorable deal and had aligned Blanks’s own lawyers against him. (Monea denied the accusations: according to Cleveland Scene, the two settled out of court.)

The legal tussles took the fight out of Banks, who grew concerned the Tae Bo name was entering legally murky territory. By 2008, the tapes had slowed to a trickle, with Blanks in Japan marketing a new routine he dubbed Billy’s Boot Camp. (It sold one million copies overseas.) When he returned to the States, Tae Bo had been dethroned by new fitness trends: SoulCycle, CrossFit, and the higher-energy output of cardio sermons by the likes of Shaun T.

Now 60, Blanks continues to teach Tae Bo in both Sherman Oaks—his son now owns the school—and a location in Dana Point, California. New iterations dubbed Tae Bo Evolution and Tae Bo 2.0 promise to incorporate more equipment and variety. If instructors want to stick with a classic, they can be still be certified by Blanks personally—now for a more reasonable $250.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Live Smarter
3 Reasons Why Your New Year's Resolutions Fail—and How to Fix Them
iStock
iStock

You don’t need a special day to come up with goals, but New Year’s Day is as good a time as any to build better habits. The problem is, by the time February rolls around, our best laid plans have often gone awry. Don’t let it happen this year: Heed these three simple tips for fail-proof resolutions.

PROBLEM 1: THEY’RE TOO OVERWHELMING

Let’s say your goal is to pay off $5000 worth of credit card debt this year. Since you're giving yourself a long timeframe (all year) to pay it down, you end up procrastinating or splurging, telling yourself you’ll make up for it later. But the longer you push it off, the bigger and more overwhelming your once-reasonable goal can feel.

Solution: Set Smaller Milestones

The big picture is important, but connecting your goal to the present makes it more digestible and easier to stick with. Instead of vowing to pay off $5000 by the end of next December, make it your resolution to put $96 toward your credit card debt every week, for example.

In a study from the University of Wollongong, researchers asked subjects to save using one of two methods: a linear model and a cyclical model. In the linear model, the researchers told subjects that saving for the future was important and asked them to set aside money accordingly. In contrast, they told the cyclical group:

This approach acknowledges that one’s life consists of many small and large cycles, that is, events that repeat themselves. We want you to think of the personal savings task as one part of such a cyclical life. Make your savings task a routinized one: just focus on saving the amount that you want to save now, not next month, not next year. Think about whether you saved enough money during your last paycheck cycle. If you saved as much as you wanted, continue with your persistence. If you did not save enough, make it up this time, with the current paycheck cycle.

When subjects used this cyclical model, focusing on the present, they saved more than subjects who focused on their long-term goal.

PROBLEM 2: THEY'RE TOO VAGUE

“Find a better job” is a worthy goal, but it's a bit amorphous. It's unclear what "better" means to you, and it’s difficult to plot the right course of action when you’re not sure what your desired outcome is. Many resolutions are vague in this way: get in shape, worry less, spend more time with loved ones.

Solution: Make Your Goal a SMART One

To make your goal actionable, it should be SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound. When you set specific parameters and guidelines for your goal, it makes it easier to come up with an action plan. Under a bit more scrutiny, "spend more time with loved ones" might become "invite my best friends over for dinner every other Sunday night." This new goal is specific, measurable, time-bound—it ticks all the boxes and tells you exactly what you want and how to get there.

PROBLEM 3: YOU FELL FOR THE “FALSE FIRST STEP”

“A false first step is when we try to buy a better version of ourselves instead of doing the actual work to accomplish it,” Anthony Ongaro of Break the Twitch tells Mental Floss. “The general idea is that purchasing something like a heart rate monitor can feel a lot like we're taking a step towards our fitness goals,” Ongaro says. “The purchase itself can give us a dopamine release and a feeling of satisfaction, but it hasn't actually accomplished anything other than spending some money on a new gadget.”

Even worse, sometimes that dopamine is enough to lure you away from your goal altogether, Ongaro says. “That feeling of satisfaction that comes with the purchase often is good enough that we don't feel the need to actually go out for a run and use it.”

Solution: Start With What You Already Have

You can avoid this trap by forcing yourself to start your goal with the resources you already have on hand. “Whether the goal is to learn a new language or improve physical fitness, the best way to get started and avoid the false first step is to do the best you can with what you already have,” Ongaro says. “Start really small, even learning one new word per day for 30 days straight, or just taking a quick walk around the block every day.”

This isn’t to say you should never buy anything related to your goal, though. As Ongaro points out, you just want to make sure you’ve already developed the habit a bit first. “Establish a habit and regular practice that will be enhanced by a product you may buy,” he says. “It's likely that you won't even need that gadget or that fancy language learning software once you actually get started ... Basically, don't let buying something be the first step you take towards meaningful change in your life.”

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Live Smarter
6 Tips for Achieving Your Fitness Resolutions in 2018
iStock
iStock

If the holiday season makes visions of sugar plums dance in your head, the caloric austerity plan you have in mind for the new year will feel like a rude awakening. Between snacks, drinks, and the main meal, the average American consumes over 4500 calories on Thanksgiving Day alone, and with a calendar full of holiday parties, this over-indulgent lifestyle usually persists until January 1.

For anyone who’s planning to pursue a fitness- and health-related New Year's resolution, it’s important to start preparing before the clock strikes midnight on December 31—it's nearly impossible to make a drastic lifestyle change at the drop of a hat. Use these expert tips to get a head-start on your fitness goals in order to maximize your success.

1. DON'T UNDERESTIMATE THE DEDICATION NEEDED TO MAKE A CHANGE.

It takes a lot of patience and persistence to follow through on your fitness goals. “The problem that most people run into is that they don’t think through what they’re getting into,” says Dean Gavindane, a certified personal trainer and CEO/co-founder of SuperMe Performance.

Gavindane says that underestimating the level of commitment needed to stick to a new fitness routine is common because people see their fitness goals “as a sprint instead of a marathon.” Understanding that your new diet and workout routine won't achieve results overnight is the first step to shedding pounds and toning up.

2. START COUNTING YOUR CALORIES.

Losing weight is a simple math problem: Eat fewer calories than you burn each day. In order to count calories effectively, you therefore need to know how many you are taking in through your food as well as how many you are expelling when you exercise. Use a fitness tracker and a calorie-counting app to help you make smart snacking choices during the holidays.

3. KEEP A FOOD DIARY.

Jen Hazzard, cross country coach and adjunct chemistry and physics professor at Fulton-Montgomery Community College, has her clients keep a food diary where they record what they eat on a daily basis, using each day as a benchmark for the next. She says the diary is a way to be honest with yourself and to change the way you think about your nutrition changes. “I avoid the term diet,” says Hazzard. “It suggests giving up things you love for things you don’t like. You should never make fitness about denial, but about finding a middle ground. A good start to finding that middle ground is treating certain meals like rewards.”

Hazzard also says that by cutting out processed and junk foods, you’d be surprised at the quantity of healthy food you can consume without gaining weight. There’s no shame in filling up the pages of your food diary as long as they’re healthy foods.

4. STICK IT OUT FOR 66 DAYS.

Hazzard has also worked as a consultant for a wellness program called Commit to 66, which is based on a 2009 study that showed the average length of time it took participants to form a new habit was 66 days [PDF]. It's important to remember that 66 days was the study's average, so it may take you more or less time. What’s important is setting a long-term goal to help you curb your impulses as well as keep from getting discouraged.

5. DON'T BE AFRAID TO EXPERIMENT WITH FITNESS.

It's easy to get in a rut at the gym (do you head to the elliptical every time you're there?), but keeping an open mind about your physicality and trying new things is an important part of shedding weight. "Simple yet effective exercises and workouts can be done in several different ways depending upon the time allowed and equipment provided,” says Tiffany Tatlock, a certified personal trainer, meal planner, and competitive bodybuilder.

6. INCORPORATE BODYWEIGHT WORKOUTS INTO YOUR ROUTINE AT HOME.

If a gym isn’t available for you (or if it feels sub-Arctic outside and you can't bear to leave the warmth of your home) it’s still possible to get in a great workout, no equipment required. Here are some body-weight circuits that Tatlock has suggested that can be performed at home and aren’t very time-consuming.

Set 1:
Floor Touch Squats (10 reps)
Wide-Grip Push-Ups (10 reps)
Squat Jumps (10 reps)
Full Tuck Crunch (10 reps)
Rest (60 seconds)

Set 2:
Forward and Backward Lunge (10 reps each leg)
Tricep Dips (10 reps)
High Knee Skips (10 reps each leg)
Bicycle Crunch (30 seconds)
Rest (60 seconds)

Set 3:
Flutter Kicks (30 seconds)
Swimming Plank (10 reps each side)
Diagonal Squat Thrust (5 reps each side)
Toe Touch Beetle Crunch (10 reps)
Rest (60 seconds)

Set 4:
Lateral Lunges (10 reps each leg)
Close-Grip Push-Ups (10 reps)
Single-Leg Skater Squat (10 reps each leg)
Vertical Leg Lift (10 reps)
Rest (60 seconds)

Set 5:
Plank (30 seconds)
Skydiver (30 seconds)
Tick-Tock Squats (10 reps each leg)
Spinal Rock-Up (10 reps)
Rest (60 seconds)

Completing sets one through five marks one round, and Tatlock advises performing up to five rounds in your workout session. “Effective and great workouts are all about giving it your all,” Tatlock says. “Typically, three to four of these sessions per week can be effective when the gym isn’t achievable.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios