Certain workouts are not aimed at those of us who consider a gentle jog or leisurely swim to be adequate exercise. The RealRyder (a new-age exercise bike I have previously tested) is one. A military workout with a trained GI in the blazing Florida heat is another. But legrande fromage of endurance training, the one that the faint of heart should definitely avoid at all costs, is HeartCore Pilates.
One Saturday afternoon, after sampling the oceanic delights of Moreno Cedroni’s new restaurant at Kensington’s Baglioni Hotel with yet another HeartCore devotee, I decided – on a whim and with time to kill – to finally check out what all the fuss was about. After a quick change of clothes, I jumped in a taxi and made my way to Notting Hill, to test out its signature class.
I do a double take at the studio’s inconspicuous setting. The main entrance looks more like a back door and leads straight into the heart of the studio – where a class is in full swing (quite literally). Each of the lithe bodies is stretched over an individual contraption that has a sliding base panel – hoisting limbs at compromising angles. The instructor notices me dawdling in the doorway and in between shouting commands at his class, introduces himself as Matt and invites me to take a seat in the waiting room.
I sit down and eye up a prospective classmate. I ask her if this is her first time, regretting the question even as the words slip out of my mouth. She embarks on a full body-stretching routine and politely explains that it isn’t. She does, however share her experience of the class: “After the first couple of sessions, I would leave shaking all over, my body felt so punished. But today – hand on heart – I can say that this method has changed my life. And my waistline.” As her words ring in my ears, I hear Matt call out from the studio, in his smooth, but not soothing, American accent, “Two more repetitions guys – you can do it.”
Suddenly, the class ends and the waiting room fills up with sweaty, exhausted-looking individuals gasping for water. My eager classmate leaps up to take a place at the front of the studio for our session. I follow closely behind and approach my metal contraption: the reformer. I give it a worried look and sidle up to Matt to declare my novice status. He nods and smiles.
Regular readers of this column will be familiar with the reformer, a piece of gym equipment that can bring about similar benefits to a Pilates class – improvement of overall flexibility, coordination, strength and balance – but is used at quite a pace to give a monstrous, sweat-inducing workout.
Matt gives me the lowdown on the ethos behind HeartCore: “This reformer-based class offers core-focused training in a high-energy class format to provide a full-body workout. A 55-minute class burns calories and sculpts the physique more effectively than traditional exercise.” He winks at me: “All levels are welcome.”
The reformer is the shape of a long, narrow bed, roughly 2m in length. Two silver beams act as a framework to support the cushioned top, and the “carriage” that slides back and forth between either end. The whole piece of equipment is quite low to the ground – coming up to around the mid-calf. At one end there is a bar; at the other, a head and shoulder rest. At both ends are straps, with large loopholes for feet and smaller ones for hands. There are also different-coloured springs, blue and orange, for adjusting the sliding resistance of the carriage.
I follow group orders and set the resistance of the carriage on my reformer to two orange springs and one blue, and lie with my back on the sliding carriage. With my feet on the bar, I extend and my legs and then slide back again, keeping my neck and shoulders relaxed and my lower back pushed down into the sliding carriage to engage my core muscles. We do this for 12 repetitions. I feel a slight resistance as I push with my legs, and this warms my muscles and stretches my body.
Warm-up phase done, the real workout begins. We are told to hold the horizontal bar with both hands, put our feet on the sliding carriage and take up a plank position. We then use our legs to drag our feet up towards our heads, drawing our bodies into a high arc, with our bottoms at the pinnacle. Repeating the move, the muscles in our legs come in for a battering, and I can feel my body lengthening and stretching as we move from plank to arc position. I really have to focus on my co-ordination to keep my legs in control and avoid using my arms.
Next, it’s time to work the arms. I take a set of 2kg weights and stand on the sturdy platform. Matt shouts out that we should hold our arms out to the sides, then lift and lower them. For each lift, we place alternate legs on the carriage and side them away and back again. The trick is to keep the body elongated and the core engaged, moving arms up and down, legs back and forth. Again, it’s tricky to coordinate my limbs. But there’s no chance to perfect the move, as Matt shouts at us to deposit our weights and do some press-up repetitions. Then, more agony: we have to hold the plank position. The muscles all over my body begin to burn.
Mal-coordinated, with bottom in the air – can Spa Junkie get more undignified? Check back on October 30 to see what reduces her to the foetal position.