When Omar Burgos is confronted with a challenge, his mind goes into creative overdrive. The 20-year fitness veteran from Bogotá, Colombia, sees a pyramid of possibilities where others see an empty lot. His academic prowess, love for dance and movement, and compassion for others combine to form a nonstop powerhouse. This drive served him well when he started working at Compensar, a not-for-profit organization in Bogotá that provides recreation, sports, health care and other services to mainly low-income people. Not only did Burgos open the proverbial door to people who would otherwise never have had the chance to enter a gym; he also created a special training system specifically for their individual needs.

Democratization of Exercise

Take off your fitness professional hat for just a minute and think about how an exercise class might look to someone who is poor, works more than 10 hours a day at a grueling job and has not had the resources to seek higher education. The world of fitness can seem intimidating and inaccessible—a bona fide luxury that might as well be a spa treatment at an exclusive resort. This was the situation Burgos was presented with.

“Our clients come mainly from the low-income classes,” he says. “These are people who would otherwise not have the opportunity to join a private gym, because of the cost. Their experience as exercisers has often been limited, giving rise to the development of a program and training method that incorporate new exercisers and grow with them as they evolve. Many of our clients are also retired persons with their own set of needs and limitations.”

To address the vastly varying needs of all exercisers while ensuring a good workout for everyone, Burgos created a teaching system he calls “three-tier personalized training zones.” Participants are divided into three skill and fitness levels: beginner, intermediate and advanced. The levels vary by complexity and intensity, but all keep track of heart rate. “This methodology is innovative because it provides interest and challenge to the experienced exerciser while welcoming the newcomer in a nonintimidating atmosphere,” Burgos says. “The incentive to progress is immediately obvious by example of one’s peers, who are ordinary people too. The key is that the entire class performs the basic steps and then the intermediate and advanced exercisers are given the modifications.”

While Burgos’s system may seem like a regular way to approach a multilevel class in the United States, he had few if any local references or resources to cull from. He simply saw a need and researched ways to approach it, starting from the bottom with nothing but drive and initiative. He has taken it upon himself to confront the “gaping lack of theoretical and applied knowledge available in Colombia” and is committed to improving instructor training.

Shattering Barriers

Burgos says the response to his three-tier personalized training zones has been “overwhelmingly positive.” “The clients enjoy the challenge and the opportunity to demand more of themselves, while always having the option to select the less demanding variation,” he says. “Part of my responsibility as an instructor is to ensure that everyone is working at an adequate level and to encourage people to try new things. I also reaffirm that they are in fact working in an appropriate range. This is the personalized factor of the three-tier training. Clients who have gone to gyms outside the country say that when faced with the option of attending a class designated as ‘advanced,’ they find the prospect too intimidating or feel they might get injured.”

Thanks to knowledge he gleaned at the 2004 IDEA World Fitness Convention®, Burgos presented a proposal to Compensar that would introduce periodization to his current system. “The target populations for this program are mainly retired persons and the elderly in the mornings, and workers and their families in the evenings and on weekends,” Burgos says. “The total amount of time spent training each week will vary. Every 8 weeks each person’s progress will be evaluated and the follow-up assessed jointly by the instructor and the client.”

In addition to making improvements at Compensar, Burgos is pursuing a postgraduate specialization in physical education, sports and recreational administration at the National Pedagogical University in Colombia. He also organizes and teaches local and national fitness-related courses. Burgos is proud to see his efforts branching out and making a difference in his country. “Many of the people who attended these courses are now heading up some of Colombia’s most outstanding enterprises in the field of exercise and health,” he says. In 2005, Burgos won IDEA’s Patty Howard-Jones International Scholarship.