Regular readers of this column might remember my first experience at HeartCore, the Pilates and circuit-training hybrid founded by German-born Jess Schuring, whose Signature Pilates class left my muscles shaking so badly afterwards that I was almost incapable of operating my BlackBerry – something I never thought possible. Hardcore is an understatement. These classes stretch you to near breaking point.
Despite its extremes, for the junkies and masochists among us, it's scarily addictive. With bikini season fast approaching I decide to give the club another go and, my Eres two-piece beckoning, decide to try KettleCore Pilates, which, as you may have guessed, throws in kettle bell interval training between reformer Pilates stretches for an added cardio blast. If that wasn’t enough, I opt to pair it with TRXCore suspension training, which involves using the resistance of your own weight to improve strength, stamina, flexibility and balance.
Overly confident of my cast-iron stomach, and with misplaced bravado (I should know better), I sign up...
I make my way to the bijou Notting Hill studio, a stone’s throw from the station on Uxbridge Street. It’s so small, there’s really nowhere to hide – not even in the unisex changing area where I suddenly find myself locked in a tête à tête with semi-professional rugby player Robbie, the class instructor.
“You've only been here once before, is that right?” he asks. I nod my head rather sheepishly. The room falls deathly silent, bar the odd grunt and moan from the class next door. “You know you're only supposed to do KettleCore after at least five Signature Pilates sessions,” he continues. “How did you find your first class? A bit disorientating?" I nod in agreement, although disorientating seems an odd choice of words. Excruciating would be more apt. He rolls his eyes as my face reddens. But he assures me that I’ll be fine – with a bit of help. But I should be prepared to work hard.
Because I have done a HeartCore Pilates class before, I’m used to the colour-coded springs, which are switched to vary the resistance on the reformer’s sliding carriage. We begin by gripping the horizontal bar at the front – hands shoulder-width apart, feet in the centre of the sliding carriage, positioning ourselves in a table-like pose. We push the carriage back and forth using our legs, bending our knees in towards our chests in order to drag the carriage forwards. I can feel the burn almost straight away in my lower abs. “It’s all in the hips. The shoulders should not hunch,” shouts Robbie. To finish the warm-up, we drop to the floor, seguing from a downward-facing to an upward-facing dog sequence.
Luckily, there are only four of us in the class, including two other girls – one blonde, kitted out in high-performance gear and with the sort of muscle definition that most men, let alone women, could only dream of, and another slightly less advanced-seeming girl who appears to be disguising her fear well. The chap, quite wisely, keeps himself to himself. Our small group allows for lots of one-on-one attention with Robbie, so much so that at times it almost feels like it’s a private class.
Now for the kettle bell squat and lift. I’m handed a baby-pink one to start – which may look harmless but is in fact a whopping 8kg. We hold them out in front of us while we perform a set of deep compound squats to target glutes, quadriceps, shoulders and abdominal muscles. We look at ourselves side on in the mirror to ensure our backs are straight at all times, while painstakingly avoiding awkward eye contact with one other. After about 40 seconds, my quads are burning and I’m already starting to sweat.
Back on the Pilates bed, we do some dynamic hip raises while on our sides. We start by lying down on our right side, legs extended, feet slightly overlapping to secure balance, keeping our bodies in a straight line. We inhale, contract the core and exhale as we raise our hip as high as we can while arching our left arm over our heads. We inhale again as we drop the hip and arm back down, being careful to not let the hip touch the carriage – keeping a slither of space in between. My outer thighs and obliques are on fire. It’s excruciating and demands a serious amount of co-ordination, as I must also keep the sliding carriage level with a red marker on the frame.
After several reps it’s back to the kettle bells, this time holding a heavier 10kg weight. We hold onto either side of the handle, squat and bend forward, swinging the weight back between our knees, keeping our abs engaged and backs straight. Robbie stands in front of me and pushes the kettle bell back and forth to set me in the correct rhythm – he is very keen that I master this move properly so as not to injure my back. (And I, my ego). I must say I feel slightly ridiculous thrusting away, and have to resist the urge to bring a premature end to the class with one strategic swing at Robbie’s groin. We shift the weight back onto our heels and thrust our hips forwards using the power of our lower bodies to swing the bell up and forwards. After what feels like an age of thrusting back and forth, I am pouring with sweat.
For the Windmill move, we each take a kettle bell (or 2kg dumbbell in my case as a beginner) in our left hand, stand with our feet shoulder width apart, toes slightly out and raise our bells overhead, jutting out our hip slightly to the left to balance the weight while the right hand is loose, dangling freely. We breathe in, look up at the weight and bend our hips to the right. Keeping the weight raised over my head and my arm completely straight feels like it’s working virtually every muscle in my body: the shoulders, core, glutes and hamstrings. My weight is light for a reason – it’s a tricky move to master. “The left leg should be locked, the right may be more loose, but that’s fine,” Robbie says to the class. “You can bend to the side and slightly forward, but never backward – and don’t wiggle your hips,” he winks at me. I’d blush, but my complexion is already beetroot.
Back on the Pilates bed we perform the same dynamic side hip raises as before but lying on the left side, with our right legs in the air. Robbie corrects me several times here and, with the patience of a saint, fights to position my feet correctly.
Once again, we do the Windmill exercise. We take the weight in the right hand. Without thinking (perhaps disorientation is the right word after all), I pick up the pink kettle bell. Robbie just looks at me with one brow raised as if to say “Really?” and quietly gestures to the dumbbell behind. Damn.
Time for the Scrambled Eggs manoeuvre. Yes, really (I wish I was joking). Facing the rear of the reformer, we kneel on our right knee and elbow, and with our left feet hooked inside a loop at the end of a cord attached to the reformer, hold our legs up at hip height and draw circles in the air with our feet. The back and shoulders should stay firm, allowing the leg to do all the work: “It’s not about the size of the circles,” says Robbie. “Have a rest in between, to make the most of each movement.” We work the left side first followed by the right. It’s a real test of co-ordination. I can feel my glutes, hips and obliques working overtime. It’s a mental challenge as much as a physical one. I wonder, as I fight to perfect the move, what it would involve if it were called Poached Egg?
By now I am bright red, dripping with sweat and slightly delirious. My entire body is quivering, particularly my thighs.
Now for the finale, which involves a circuit of kettle-bell squats, lifts, press ups (on the kettle bells, which I find almost impossible), followed by a plank, which we perform on the reformer bed. The plank move is agony.
To warm down we lie on our backs, nestling shoulders on the pads. Robbie feeds my feet through the loops of the leg straps and we draw big circles in the air with our legs – clockwise and anti-clockwise to stretch out the inner-thigh muscles and hip adductors. This is the best part of the class, particularly for me, as Robbie tells me how impressed he is with my efforts. He says he’s had people come to their fifth or sixth class who have struggled more than I have, and that my fitness and endurance were both good, it’s just that learning the more complex Pilates movements inevitably takes time. Now in the grip of some sort of cardio-induced Stockholm syndrome, I melt like butter and almost consider signing up for more classes on the spot.
We bring the soles of our feet together to stretch out our groin muscles, then step off the beds and stretch out our hamstrings to finish. I try not to fall over as I get back to my feet.
I collect my things from the changing rooms where the two girls tell me how they had done six Signature Pilates sessions before attempting KettleCore. They also go on to say how this session was a lot easier than usual. Realising that he might have made an allowance for me, we all agree that Robbie may be a saint after all.
Bottom in the air, hanging from the ceiling, Spa Junkie’s next class takes it up a notch – literally. Check back on Tuesday June 18