As president of Oberlin College in Ohio,
Carmen Twillie Ambar
has hosted boot camps for students, challenged them to a tire-flip competition and occasionally joins the football team for workouts.
Ms. Ambar, 53 years old, wasn’t always this fit. Her weight yo-yoed for years, especially after giving birth to triplets in 2007. “We took a family vacation to the Grand Canyon and I couldn’t ride the mule down because of the weight limit,” she recalled. Going through a divorce a few years ago prompted her to shift her personal health priorities, she said.
She joined Weight Watchers and hired a trainer to develop workouts that felt fun rather than a chore. A former high-school athlete, she said she craves intensity, variety and competition. Her trainer tracks her times, weights and number of repetitions so Ms. Ambar can measure progress and try to beat her scores.
When she started, she never dreamed she’d be able to do a pull-up. It took two years before she could complete one. Now she cranks out sets of weighted pull-ups.
Ms. Ambar lives on campus, and having access to the gym at any hour is a presidential perk. It took a few months to acclimate to a 3:45 a.m. alarm, but she said it’s the rare time she can almost guarantee no one will need her. “I know I’ll never do anything harder the rest of the day,” she said.
She has lost 90 pounds in 2½ years. She said her blood pressure is lower, a high-school knee injury barely bothers her anymore, and she has inspired her children to embrace exercise routines.
She keeps accountable by sharing her workouts on her Instagram feed @fitprezcta. “Students DM me asking me to join their workouts,” she said. During the depths of the pandemic, she hosted a virtual presidential boot camp and a tire-flip contest, where participants received T-shirts that read “My President Is Stronger Than Yours.” Ms. Ambar didn’t win, but managed 18 flips in 60 seconds. She hopes to host an Olympics-inspired Presidential Games on campus later this year.
Ms. Ambar warms up with a 1- to 2-mile run on her home treadmill. She arrives at the campus gym by 4:55 a.m. for her hourlong workout six days a week. Mondays and Fridays are cardio-focused and involve interval training. She might do seven rounds of eight exercises, like tire flips or battle ropes, performing each for 45 seconds with 15 seconds rest. Between rounds she might run or jump rope for one minute. Some days she throws in boxing interval circuits, performing four minutes of jabs, crosses, body shots, hooks and leg kicks.
Tuesdays and Thursdays are devoted to heavy weightlifting. A workout might include step-ups with 40-pound weights, sumo squats with up to 60 pounds, 25-pound dumbbell curls, squats with 95-to-135 pounds, pull-ups and dips.
She calls Wednesdays and Saturdays her peak-performance days, as workouts combine cardio and strength and she is trying to beat previous records. The Climb, a 45-minute, nine-exercise workout that includes a ¼-mile treadmill run at 3% incline, five pull-ups, a 200-meter row and 200 jump-rope revolutions, has become one of her favorite fitness benchmarks. On her first attempt, in December 2020, she was able to complete three rounds. She can now get through nearly seven rounds.
She uses Sundays as an active rest day and will run 4 to 5 miles at a 10- to 11-minute-per-mile pace.
Advice: “You can outeat your exercise results,” she said. “You have to be mindful.”
Philosophy: Ms. Ambar has followed a vegetarian diet for 27 years.
Accountability: She credits Weight Watchers with helping her lose her first 60 pounds. To stay on track, she’d email a list of everything she ate each day to her trainer. “It makes you think twice before you grab a tub of ice cream, knowing you’ll have to admit that,” she said.
Breakfast: Three-egg-white omelet with spinach, tomatoes and cheese, plus plain, nonfat Greek yogurt and blueberries
Lunch: Tempeh with air-fried zucchini, Brussels sprouts and cooked kale, onions and chickpeas
Dinner: Red lentil soup with sautéed tofu and vegetables
Travel strategy: “I look up hotel and restaurant menus so I can slot in when and where I’ll eat and know I will have healthy options,” she said. “And I always pack my NutriBullet.” Protein shakes are a staple on the road, and at home when she can’t cook meals. She snacks on nuts, hard-boiled eggs and cheese.
Splurge: Cheese pizza and Tostitos
Equipment: Crossrope weighted jump rope ($100); Zelus 12-pound weighted vest ($40); RDX FL4 boxing gloves ($44); TRX Suspension Trainer ($190), and an old tractor tire (free from a scrap heap)
Apps and Gadgets: Fitbit Sense ($200 on sale), MyFitnessPal and WW, the app from Weight Watchers
Apparel: Gymshark leggings and shorts ($30-$35), Nobull leggings ($90) and Shefit sports bras ($65-$75)
Sneakers: Nike Air Vapormax ($200) for running and Nike In-Season TR 9 ($75) for cross training
Ms. Ambar has 42 workout playlists. “Music is a huge part of my workout experience,” she said. “If the right song comes on I can give more.” “Dies Irae (feat. Black Prez),” by Apashe has been her theme song this year. Her current playlist includes:
“Moon Dance,” by Cookiee Kawaii
“ATM,” by J. Cole
“Why You Always Hatin?” (featuring Drake & Kamaiyah), by YG
“Winners Circle,” by Anderson .Paak
Yes, You Can Do a Pull-Up
Pull-ups are daunting. But this body-weight exercise can be mastered with the right training, said
a Boston-based strength and conditioning coach. “A lot of people think pull-ups are all about arm strength, but you’re actually using the upper back muscles,” he said.
Pull-ups work muscles known as the scapular retractors, which help open up the chest and shoulders—muscles that tend to become hunched from the average seated computer desk job. Exercises like a lat pulldown are a good place to start working those muscles, he said.
To build up to a pull-up, start by trying to hold your chin above a pull-up bar for a set time and then progress to slowly lowering yourself. Many gyms have weight-assisted pull-up machines, or you can loop a resistance band around a bar and place your feet in it to get the same effect, he said.
A chin-up, using an underhand grip, will engage the biceps muscles more and be easier to achieve as you work toward an overhand grip for a pull-up, said Mr. Boyle. If grip strength is challenging, add farmer’s carries, an exercise where you walk while holding dumbbells or paint buckets, to your workout.
Write to Jen Murphy at [email protected]
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