Friday, November 28, 2008

Can You Bounce a Quarter Off Of Yours?

I assume everyone overindulged yesterday (or was that just me?), so I thought a post on exercise would be appropriate.

Do you ever see those  impossibly well toned forty-something women (by they way they're probably closer to fifty, given how many talented dermatologists we have here in Manhattan) running around the City and wonder how on earth they look so good?  Well I'll tell you.  It all started with Lotte Berk.

Lotte Berk was a dancer, born in Germany in the early 20th century, and she at some point devised an exercise program based on her experiences as a dancer and brought it to America.  By the way, I have no way to verify whether this version of history is correct, but I will say that it seems strikingly similar to the history of Mr. Joseph Pilates, so I'm hoping Wikipedia isn't yanking my chain here.  Anyway, eventually a Lotte Berk studio was opened on the Upper East Side, and socialites and celebrities alike began to flock to it to tone their nether regions.  It was wildly popular in the 80s and 90s, but eventually, like all good things, it came to an end.

A few years back I recall a mini explosion of new studios opening throughout Manhattan that specialized in exercise methods based on the original Lotte Berk methods (basically, tone your core, do exercises at a ballet barre, make tiny targeted movements that hurt more than you thought possible and stretch a lot).  I guess all of the newly unemployed Lotte Berk teachers wanted to put their prior training to good use.

The first of this new generation was Exhale, a spa and fitness center whose Core Fusion classes are an updated version of the original Lotte Berk routine.  Physique 57 then followed.  I had minor flirtations with each of these establishments, but at $33-$35 per class, I could never afford to make a habit out of either of them.  

However, in the past couple of weeks I have been for some reason the happy recipient of a few coupons for free classes from each of these establishments, plus one from a newcomer, by the name of The Body.  These coupons made me remember what a great workout these places provided, how I avoided getting on the subway immediately after the class was over for fear that my poor worked-out legs would collapse beneath me as I attempted to walk down the stairs to the station.  So, since it was all free, I decided to revisit them all and answer some burning questions.  Do the workouts at each place really differ from one another?  Where are the best teachers?  Am I the only one who doesn't own a pair of those Lululemon pilates pants?

I started with Exhale.  Although there are several locations, even one downtown, I opted for the one on the Upper East Side to get the full experience.  Exhale certainly has the most posh facilities of the three.  It is all very zen, very yoga, lots of natural wood and muted sages and taupes.  And the locker rooms are quite stunning and well appointed.  

However, I find that this atmosphere almost works against the workout.  It's too relaxed, and somehow the perky instructor with her little Madonna Blond Ambition Tour microphone looks a bit ridiculous trying to get the class pumped up in a feng shui studio.  But the workout is very effective, and if you're not used to it you definitely will be feeling it the next day.  And of the three, I would say that this place smells the best...probably all of those essential oils from the spa wafting over.

Moving on to Physique 57.  This has the feel of a very clean, high end dance studio, but with blue carpet.  The locker rooms are not quite as luxurious as Exhale, but they still provide quality bath products to use and plenty of hair dryers.  Either way, it's certainly several steps up from utilitarian.  

Physique 57 has been packed from the very beginning, and once you take a class there it's not hard to understand why.  Although the crowd, at least at the uptown location (they also have a downtown studio on Sixth Avenue and Spring Street), is a little elite and competitive for my taste, the workout is still undeniable.  Just try hanging on to some equivalent of a ballet barre, straighten your arms, bend your legs to a true ninety-degree angle and then lower just an inch, then raise an inch and repeat for two minutes straight, and you'll get the excruciating idea.  After an hour of these types of movements you're going to feel totally spent, and perhaps vaguely immobilized.  Although the moves are almost identical to those at Exhale, for some reason I find the workout at Physique to be more challenging.  I guess they just work you longer and harder on each move.   

My only quibble is that the teachers, most of whom are 20-something current or former dancers, can tend more towards the sunny side than I generally am comfortable with.  But honestly, you'll be in such pain most of the time that you probably won't notice.

And now to the new kid on the block, The Body.  I'll just break the suspense now and tell you that this is my favorite of the three.  It's a totally unfair comparison because I went only a couple of days after it opened so I was the only one in the class, and hence got what was essentially a personal training session.  But, aside from the amazing, quiver-inducing workout (same types of moves as the other two studios, but updated), I just liked the feel of the place.  

It's small (only one studio), comfortable (they give you a key for your very chic dark wood locker) and the teacher I had was distinctly un-sunny (I mean that in the best way possible).  She was a no nonsense mom in ridiculously good shape who was firmly, and seemingly happily, entrenched in her 30s.  She really worked me out, paying absolutely no heed to my pleas for mercy.  The arm and ab workout was superior to either Physique 57 or Exhale, and I don't think my quads have burned so much since I was rowing back in college.  It actually occurred to me that when people say things like "feel the burn" they generally don't know what "burning" feels like.  My thighs literally felt hot.  So hot that, in my slightly addled state, it didn't seem totally inconceivable that they could burst into flame.   

All new clients get one class for free, so give it a shot.  And if you like it, take advantage of their introductory offer of a month of unlimited classes for $250.  Those who walk behind you will appreciate it.  And an added plus, the lovely Fig & Olive is just up Lexington from the studio.  You can hang out here with a glass of wine and some light Mediterranean fare while you wait for your legs to regain enough strength to carry you down the stairs to the subway.

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