The Beverly Hilton feels pretty peak Los Angeles. Under a bright blue sky, valets park luxury cars with views of palm trees. In the lobby, chandeliers twinkle for the guests who will soon be heading out to a pool cabana.
Or perhaps they’re here to visit Upgrade Labs, a startup that bills itself as the world’s first biohacking health and fitness facility. Both its Beverly Hilton and flagship Santa Monica locations offer what the website describes as data-driven technology, “dedicated to improving mental and physical performance and recovery.”
The new Upgrade Labs facility has the gleaming white, spa-like aesthetic of your standard five-star hotel gym, but the front desk staff has you fill out a lengthy waiver before you enter. Personal trainers are called Biohacker Technicians.
It’s exactly the kind of gym you’d expect from its creator, Dave Asprey. The longtime Silicon Valley executive, who in 2013 founded the seemingly unstoppable lifestyle company Bulletproof (nutrition supplements! coffee! books! monster podcast!), is perhaps the world’s most high-profile biohacker (he’s even name-checked in the Merriam-Webster definition of the term) and claims to have spent more than a million dollars investigating ways to improve his biology.
Asprey, 45, has always been an active person, though you might not have guessed that if you’d seen him a decade ago. “Maybe I need to do some therapy around my experience with exercise,” he tells me, laughing, in a phone interview. He played soccer competitively until his body couldn’t handle it anymore. In his twenties he weighed in at 300 pounds.
Moving his workout indoors didn’t help. “I just beat myself up in the gym, in this desperate quest to get healthy and to get to at least a reasonable body weight,” he says.
Starting in 2010, Asprey developed his Bulletproof lifestyle, switched to a ketogenic diet, and started amassing biohacking gear that helped him recover faster and exercise more in less time. He was constantly on the hunt for tech that created the biggest benefit faster.
A lot of the equipment found its way to him thanks to his podcast, Bulletproof Radio. “I basically get to try all of the world’s performance enhancement technologies as part of my job, which is the coolest thing I can even imagine,” he says.
In the years since, he has gotten results. He now carries 204 pounds on his 6’4″ frame. Upgrade Labs was born from the idea that someone needed to bring the best of this often pricey technology to as many people as possible.
It seemed a natural extension of the Bulletproof ethos. “We value your time and energy above all else, and we want you to value your time and energy,” he says. “This is an experiential manifestation of that.”
Martin Tobias has been a fan of Asprey’s since he randomly listened to a Bulletproof Radio podcast on meditation, specifically the 40 Years of Zen program that purports to deliver the brain state of a 40-year meditator in one week. (Would that be nirvana hacking?)
The program appealed to Tobias, a tech industry vet, but the $15,000 price tag did not. In a freak coincidence, Tobias won exactly $15,000 in a poker game shortly after he heard that podcast episode, and in three weeks he was at the 40 Years of Zen training center. Tobias became friends with Asprey and asked to see more of the biohacking tools he had at home.
“The first thing he told me to try was a Vasper machine, which we have here at Upgrade Labs. We call it the Cold HIIT machine,” Tobias says in a phone interview. The Vasper manufacturer claimed that the contraption—resembling a recumbent bike with pressure- and cold-wrap sleeves for the arms and legs—could double your testosterone in two weeks. “I said that sounds pretty attractive, but it also sounds like bullshit. It sounds like Suzanne Somers and the freaking Ab Blaster or the Thigh Master thing. You’ve heard this in fitness a lot of times, you can do nothing and get the benefits. And so I’m pretty skeptical.”
Tobias had his blood testosterone level tested and then did the machine three times a week for two weeks. After a total of two hours on the machine—the company recommends 21-minute high-intensity workouts—Tobias said that his testosterone went from 468 nanograms per deciliter to 1,098. (The normal range for men is between 300 and 1,100.)
He tried some of Asprey’s other machines with the same “that sounds like bullshit, let me test it” approach and found they made significant changes to his personal life. The experience and resulting data convinced Tobias that Asprey was onto something new and different.
“That’s really why I decided to help Dave bring these technologies into a retail environment, because basically these are all the things that Dave just has at his house that he’s doing to try to live to 180,” Tobias says. “Tony Robbins has all this stuff at his house, a lot of professional athletes, the Navy SEALs have all of this equipment in their training facilities. These are things that are pretty well known at the super-high end of performance but have not really been available in a retail setting for people to walk in and join as a regular member and get access to.”
And so Tobias joined forces with Asprey and became CEO of Bulletproof Labs—a separate company from Bulletproof 360 that raised its own round of funding. They picked what Asprey calls 11 “exceptionally effective” pieces of equipment from Asprey’s trove and installed them at Bulletproof Labs in 2017 (they’d change the gym’s name to Upgrade Labs the following year).
There’s the adaptive resistance stationary bike said to help you deplete as much glycogen in 40 seconds as from a 45-minute jog. The REDcharger is reputed to promote recovery by using red (630-nm) and infrared (880-nm) LED light. “I have a variety of these things at home,” Asprey says. “I see a difference in my skin, energy levels, healing. It’s been a profound thing.”
Each of the gyms—if you can call them something as humble as a gym—is stocked with $2.5 million worth of technology. They’re in the process of figuring out how to scale the operation and get costs down—the average member now pays about $1,000 a month—and hope to expand nationwide. The company is exploring LA locations for its first Express Labs, with memberships running about $200 to $300 a month.
Unlike a luxury gym like Equinox (where LA memberships start in the $200-a-month range), the Labs team says it will prove the value of its memberships through quantifiable results. “If it doesn’t work, you shouldn’t do it,” Asprey says.
About a week after I talk to Tobias and Asprey on the phone, I’m parking my 2007 Jeep Liberty among the hulking Mercedes G-Wagens at the Beverly Hilton for the sixth annual Biohacking Conference, hosted for the first time by Upgrade Labs. Keynote speakers include the likes of Arianna Huffington, doctors, entrepreneurs, speed reading experts, and best-selling authors. I make my way to the main conference hall for Asprey’s opening talk.
My press badge is scanned and I enter the auditorium, where a marching band is kicking things off with a big, blaring rendition of the Macklemore & Ryan Lewis song “Can’t Hold Us.” The Bulletproof logo, a futuristic dove, is projected on the walls of the conference’s main hall, where events like the Golden Globes take place.
When the band exits, the conference emcee, actress and lifestyle guru Michelle Sorro, welcomes us and introduces Asprey with a video that covers just about the entire Bulletproof empire: a podcast, his signature orangey TrueDark glasses, Upgrade Labs, the Bulletproof Vibe vibrating plate—a plastic platform that shimmies and is supposed to improve circulation and recovery. (It’s worth noting that the scientific jury is still out on this technology. A report from the Mayo Clinic notes, “Comprehensive research about whole-body vibration is lacking,” adding that “some research does show that whole-body vibration may help improve muscle strength and that it may help with weight loss when you also cut back on calories.”)
The video tells the tale of Asprey’s journey from a 300-pound CEO plagued with health issues to establishing Bulletproof Coffee thanks to his encounter with Tibetan yak butter tea on a Himalayan meditation retreat. Asprey takes the stage and the audience of about 1,500 stands and applauds, a cacophony of jingling lanyards.
“Is this room epic or what?” a beaming Asprey asks us, a cup of Bulletproof Coffee—a concoction infused with butter and an easily digestible oil—in his hand.
The self-proclaimed father of the biohacking movement looks the part. He’s wearing toe shoes and compression pants that accentuate his sleek frame (body fat percentage: 10.1). Every so often, the continuous glucose monitor implant he has in his tricep peeks out of his snug shirt sleeve. He talks about raising IQ, living to be 180, and giving back instead of making abs the goal of your fitness regimen.
“It’s time to get upgraded,” Asprey concludes. “Thank you.”
The audience applauds. Some of the crowd disperses for various programming, others stay to hear a Q&A with Tobias about Upgrade Labs. Blond influencer-types sit next to septuagenarians in plaid. Business attire blurs with athleisure. Some people look ready for Burning Man, others to present pitch decks. It’s a strange mix, but it seems fitting for a conference that offers cacao ceremonies and talks on stem-cell treatments.
With a Bulletproof Coffee of my own, I wander into the tech hall where exhibitors stand ready to explain their products. Everything at Upgrade Labs is here for the trying. I want to believe it all, because who doesn’t want to get maximum results from minimal effort? I’m no Luddite, but I can’t help approaching the equipment and the eager, hovering spokespeople with a narrow-eyed skepticism. I try out the Bulletproof Vibe, wincing as my eyeballs and brain feel like they’re being rattled out of my head.
In her new book Good to Go, science writer Christie Aschwanden looks at the efficacy of popular recovery methods we tend to accept the minute we learn about them. Maybe something is backed by science, or maybe it just seems that way. “Sprinkle an appealing idea with a dash of science, and it can seem more powerful or true than the evidence really shows,” Aschwanden writes. “When the story fits what we want to believe, it’s easy to overlook its flaws.”
One of the recovery methods Aschwanden looks at in Good to Go is cooling technology like icing and cryotherapy. While icing and cryo enthusiasts claim that these methods reduce inflammation and help muscles recover faster, Aschwanden suggests that recent research says otherwise. She points out that even the guy who first popularized the concept of RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation), physician Gabe Mirkin, has changed his mind. “He now denounces the icing methods he once championed,” Aschwanden writes.
The book makes a case that icing can be better for short-term recovery and not after training when you’re trying to get stronger, pointing to recent studies that icing or cooling can hinder rather than speed recovery for athletes. Aschwanden also points to an article on cryo from the FDA titled “A ‘Cool’ Trend That Lacks Evidence, Poses Risks.”
So what does it mean that cryo is at Upgrade Labs and the Biohacking Conference? Asprey and Tobias seem like smart people who cite independent research to back up some of their claims. Then again, they have a vested interest in claiming their products and services work. It’s even difficult to back up claims like Tobias’ that the Navy SEALs “have all of this equipment in their training facilities.”
I reached out to the Navy Special Warfare Command to follow up, without much luck. “As a matter of policy, it would be inappropriate for Naval Special Warfare Command to endorse or imply endorsement of specific fitness technology/equipment,” deputy public affairs officer Patricia M. O’Connor told me in an email. “Further, having someone mention that it’s used by Navy SEALs cuts a wide swath.”
What I could do was see the tech in person. So here I am at biohacking ground zero, trying my best to find out if I’m being duped. I find the ARX Fit booth with two of its “Cheat Machines” (as Upgrade Labs calls them) on display.
The machines—which Asprey calls core pieces of tech at Upgrade Labs—look like a seated squat machine with a computer screen at eye level. There are some handles on the sides but no weight stacks. The machine is motor driven and computer controlled. How do you know it works? “You can see it, because we have the data,” says Jason DeBruler, COO of ARX.
DeBruler explains that humans are somewhere between 50 to 200 percent stronger on the eccentric phase (resisting force) of muscle contraction than we are on the concentric phase (creating force). The muscle growth we want from exercise, the bone density improvements and strength gains, only happen under high loads during the eccentric phase, which the ARX machine is designed to maximize.
Users create the force and the machine responds accordingly. “If you look at the software , we are tracking every fraction of a second how much force output somebody is creating,” DeBruler says. “This is simply the most advanced tool to accomplish what we already know, which is that mechanical tension for creating large forces improves bone marrow density, improves muscle, and in general glucose clearing.” He says it’s not unusual to see customers’ strength increase by 50 percent after three or four months of using the machine.
Next up: the pulse electromagnetic field system marketed by Pulse Centers. It’s a technology that’s supposed to energize your body “with soothing pulsed electro-magnetic fields,” according to the company’s website. Melissa Vair, a product specialist, helps me into one of the blue leather chairs on hand for demonstrations.
Once upon a time, she says, humans had access to the earth’s natural electromagnetic field. We walked barefoot, put our hands in the soil, felt the sun IRL. Now we live and work inside, protected from nature with bricks and shoes. PEMF combats that.
There is intriguing science on this theory, but it’s still in a nascent phase. Nevertheless, Vair is barreling forward with her pitch. “We’re essentially using Tesla technology to create a little lightning storm inside of our generator that has been passed through the hose and through the accessory, where the accessory has coils in it,” Vair says. “From there it emits into the body, and that pulsing is visible on a muscle level, so we can see the muscle visibly contracting. That’s actually happening, though, on a cellular level, where the cell membrane is expanding and contracting, and so when that happens it helps to increase cellular voltage and also detoxes the cell.”
Vair turns up the knob on the machine next to my chair. I’m supposed to say when it’s no longer comfortable, but the sensation is so strange that I have trouble understanding my own limit. There’s a twitching and pulsing in the back of my ribs. It feels like the crackling that goes on in your mouth when you eat Rice Krispies cereal, but in my tailbone. I have a stressy feeling in my torso. It’s not painful, just weird, best represented by the new Woozy Face emoji.
After about 10 minutes of the chair-sitting experience, Vair places some pads around my right quad. She cranks up the power, and the charges send my foot tapping uncontrollably. I look like I’m overcome by the power of jazz. I watch my foot jolt rhythmically beyond my control. When it’s over, I stand up not knowing what to expect. My right quad feels looser, but it’s not a crazy difference. I thank Vair for the information and call it a day.
I go straight to the gym and then home to sleep. In the morning, I’m pleasantly surprised that my right quad is less sore than my left. I’d done squats at the gym. Was it a placebo effect? Quite possibly. There’s very little science behind the technology. The debunking website Science-Based Medicine concludes that electromagnetic pulse treatments like PEMF are a “quack scam” and calls them snake oil and pseudoscience.
Day two has more speakers, breakout sessions with industry leaders, and early morning workouts with celebrity trainers. I get more Bulletproof Coffee and try a 20-minute Electrical Muscle Stimulation workout from Katalyst Fitness. Like the PEMF chair, it’s a jolty, strange good time. In a lecture on how to “biohack your brain with light, sound, & vibration,” Patrick K. Porter breaks down what he describes as the science-proven power of meditation. I’m taking notes like an eager biohacker in training, just like the lady with the Cartier bracelet next to me, who traveled here from New Zealand.
I find the Vasper booth to talk to Sebastian Wasowski, the company’s president and cofounder, about what Cold HIIT means. It’s an eye-catching machine, sort of like a seated elliptical where you wear ice pads on your arms and legs. The pedals are cold, as is the chair.
The machine is one of Asprey’s favorites. “You don’t sweat, and all the blood that was supposed to cool down your skin stays in your brain and organs, and then you get a wave of lactic acid t