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Survival test: Six minutes in the Steve Hess torture chamber

'Combine360' with Steve Hess nearly KOs sportswriter

Believe it or not, I used to resemble an athlete.

That was when Bret Michaels spent more time on stage with Poison than in a board room with Donald Trump.

Back then, I survived 10-mile workouts in 120-degree heat as a cross-country runner in Arizona.

I endured endless post-practice suicides when my basketball coach was in a foul mood.

Golf, racquetball, swimming, Wiffle ball, skiing, snowboarding. I’ve tested my skills on snow, in water, on grass, pavement and the hardwood.

None of it prepared me for my six minutes in the torture chamber with Nuggets strength-and-conditioning coach Steve Hess.

As a 39-year-old husband and father of three, exercise isn’t high on my priority list. The extent of my workout regimen involves swinging a golf club, chasing kids, mowing the lawn and shooting a few hoops in the driveway.

Presented with fresh meat, Hess couldn’t wait to put me through the Combine360 Challenge, a circuit workout which he helped design.

“You’re going down!” he kept telling me in the weeks leading up to our appointment in the Nuggets weight room.

Though I’d never thrown-up from physical exhaustion, losing my breakfast was a real possibility. Passing out seemed less likely, but it was also on the table when discussing potential results of Hess pushing me to the limit.

For those who aren’t familiar with Steve Hess, let me enlighten you.

The energetic South African has few peers when it comes to his knowledge and enthusiasm for getting NBA players into shape and helping them recovery from injury. In his 14 seasons with the Nuggets, he has worked with All-Stars such as Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson, along with dozens of other elite athletes around the nation.

I don’t think Hess will be adding my name to that list in his media-guide bio.

After changing into shorts and a T-shirt following a game-day shootaround, I naively bounce up the stairs to the Nuggets practice court at the Pepsi Center, where Hess and assistant strength-and-conditioning coach Matt Friia are waiting for their unsuspecting prey.

Their welcoming smiles should have served as a warning sign. They are dying to inflict a little pain upon an unsuspecting sportswriter.

Six minutes? C’mon. How hard can this Combine360 be?

Because of his respect for the human body, Hess puts me through a short warm-up so I don’t pull a muscle or snap a hamstring. The Nuggets go through some of the same drills before practice, and Hess’ enthusiasm and energy is no different while getting me ready for the challenge that awaits.

When our 3-minute warm-up session is over, I again realize I could be in trouble. My heart is pumping and I’m already trying to catch my breath.

“You ready, baby!” Hess says. “Are you ready, baby!”

“That wasn’t the workout?” I reply, half-seriously.

“That wasn’t the workout,” Hess says, shaking his head. “We’re going into the house of pain.”

I’m not very familiar with the nine circles of hell as depicted in Dante’s Inferno, but I’m pretty sure they include heavy “tug-o-war” style ropes and a well-tanned NBA strength-and-conditioning coach.

Over the next 12 minutes – nearly two-thirds of them spent hunched over with my hands on my knees – Hess takes me through some of the same circuit exercises that he puts the Nuggets through during the season.

Each exercise lasts just one minute, but time seems to work differently when you’re being pushed to the limit. The 60 seconds tick slowly as pain and fatigue tighten their grasp on my body.

I manage to get through the first station – rope-throws with 25-foot heavy ropes – without embarrassing myself, but we’re just getting started. There are five more stations to go, and my hands and knees continue to get well-acquainted.

“This ain’t easy,” Hess says. “He’s going down! 360 Challenge, son!”

The next feat of strength looks simple enough. We’ve all used a jump rope at some point in our lives, but this rope weighs about 5 pounds and looks better suited for securing a tug boat to the harbor dock.

With Hess shouting encouragement – “Can’t get tired!” – I manage to skip rope 33 times before time expires (a Nuggets player will complete about 80 reps in one minute). Just two stations into the challenge, I’m dying. Hess is dressed in workout gear, but he might as well be wearing a dark robe and holding a scythe.

Friia, capturing the fun on video, chimes in: “I’ve got to make sure I get the puke on camera.”

The next station is a man-versus-elastic tug of war in which one of the tug-boat ropes is attached to a giant rubber band. I have to pull the rope close enough to my body to touch a large knot and then control the recoil without letting it slingshot me into the mirrored wall of the weight room.

I manage to touch the knot five times in 60 seconds (compared to about 17 for an elite athlete), and the recoil got the better of me each time.

Three stations down, three to go. I still haven’t passed out or thrown up, but my odds don’t look good.

The next exercise is called “rip core burpy” and it’s difficult to describe. It’s similar to a football drill called an “up-down” where you squat, push your legs out into push-up position, return to a squat and then stand up all in one fluid motion.

Hess’ version involves a metal bar and a vertical leap on each repetition.

“If you don’t have a doctor’s note, be careful before you start this,” Hess warns.

“You should’ve told me that before I started,” I pant, wasting my breath in a feeble attempt at humor.

After 60 seconds of the “rip core burpy,” I fall onto my hands and knees. I’m spent. Perhaps out of fear of future litigation, Hess says we’ll do just one more station, instead of two. Instead of the Combine360, it looks like I’ll do the abbreviated Combine300.

My final task will be to throw a 12-pound medicine ball while alternating my feet like a telemark skier. At one point, I dribble the ball off my foot and have to chase it down under the threat of starting over.

Hess gives me a 10-second countdown and I struggle to the finish before again crumpling to my knees. If Hess was a boxing referee, he would be stopping the fight.

My arms and legs feel like overcooked linguini. Oxygen can’t enter my body fast enough. And what’s with the bright spots that I’m starting to see?

Hess continues to encourage me as only he can.

“Unbelievable. Unreal. You are a rock star!” he says. “This is how we do it at the Nuggets, baby!”

My body is slow to get up, but my mind is quick to appreciate what the Nuggets and other pro athletes go through every day in an effort to win games and maximize their potential.

Hess gives me a nutrition bar and an energy drink to aid my recovery. I have to drive home and then cover a Nuggets game in a few hours, but at this point I’m barely capable of operating my cell phone, let alone an automobile.

Hess walks me around the practice court and keeps an eye on me for a good 45 minutes before releasing me on my own recognizance.

Yes, I used to be an athlete. If I spent a year with Steve Hess, I have no doubt that I could reclaim that title again.

For now, I’m just happy I didn’t throw up or lose consciousness.

Here’s to life's small victories.


Aaron Lopez
Aaron J. Lopez is the primary writer for Nuggets.com, providing behind-the-scenes content, including feature stories and video for the site. Before joining the Nuggets in 2009, he spent 15 years covering Colorado sports for the Rocky Mountain News and the Associated Press. Follow him on twitter @Lopez_Nuggets. Aaron's full bio...