Far Out Fitness
The explosion of alternative workouts
When I first arrived at the local senior center to observe a fitness class for about 25 local seniors, I thought maybe I had wandered into the wrong room. The man conducting the class seemed more teacher than trainer, and he was lecturing the class on vestibular systems, neuroplasticity, and ATP fat reserves. Was this a biology tutorial? Continuing education? Neuroscience 101?
As it turned out, the class was being conducted by George Gomola, the assistant fire chief in Fairfield, Connecticut, and owner of Ash Creek Fitness, a popular gym that practices a new approach to fitness called functional movement training. The philosophy behind this approach, which he teaches here and elsewhere, is simple, and is fueling an explosion of new gyms around the area. It goes like this: people spend too much time repeatedly strengthening the same muscles on machines that force them into unnatural movements and lead to injury or boredom or both.
“Traditional gyms are great if you’re 22 and you don’t really need to workout anyway,” says Palma Senatore, a participant in the senior fitness class. “It’s also pretty boring. I find this to be much more productive.” This belief has given rise to any number of new training regiments designed by Navy Seals, British Special Forces, German gymnasts, or Russian ballet dancers. As a result, it’s not unusual these days to walk into a gym and see trainees lifting giant, Russian kettlebells over their heads. Or suspending themselves in the air with nylon and elastic straps. These programs go by names like Z-Health, TRX, Zumba, yoga, and Pilates. And while they may look crazy, they are all part of a movement toward fitness programs that vary the routine and focus on movements that are actually useful in life; as opposed to, say, the stationary leg curl, which I almost never have an occasion to use in real life.
“Movement lives in the brain, and that’s why we focus on using the central nervous system as a basis for functional movement,” says Gomola, who will often tap a client’s ankle or wiggle their thumb in an attempt to send signals to the brain and restore movement to some other far-flung part of the body. “If you want to strap yourself into a machine and watch a TV for 45 minutes, we’re not the place for you.”
It’s a sentiment that Sharon McSpedon knows all too well. For the last 27 years, McSpedon has taught Pilates, a fitness routine that is part yoga, part chiropractic, and part strength conditioning. Pilates was born during World War II, when German Joseph Pilates was interned as an enemy alien while touring Britain. In these camps, Pilates devised a method of exercise for bed-ridden internees with rigged up bed springs as a form of resistance to help rehabilitate patients.
Today Pilates uses the same spring-resistance techniques with a machine called a Universal Reformer, a contraption of vinyl padding, springs, levers and pulleys. And McSpedon’s PilatesBarre studio in Ridgefield also features an emerging practice called Barre, which uses ballet training techniques to build core strength, shape muscles, and improve mental focus. In fact, McSpedon says that while her practice has grown significantly in the last two years, she’s now starting to get more and more referrals from doctors looking to rehab patients. “I’ve worked in gyms all over the country, and I’ve tried every different kind of fitness routine,” says McSpedon at her ultra-hip studio. “But in so many of them, there is no discussion of form, and most of the exercises are unnatural. Pilates and Barre train you for life.”
That’s not to say there isn’t room for machines in fitness these days. In fact, Lara Keidel sees them as a critical element of a complete fitness routine. Keidel owns Spin Cycle Pound Ridge, a one-year-old spin studio that also features yoga, TRX, and Barre. Spin classes put a group of about 10 people on stationary bikes and creates imaginary scenarios for them as they pedal away. Keidel sits on her bike in the front of the class and, with a microphone strapped to her head and music thumping in the background, calls out changes in the cycling pattern. Now you’re in the country. Now you’re going up a hill. Now you’re passing another cyclist. The spinners adjust resistance levels accordingly. It requires some imagination on the part of the spinner, but Keidel says you can’t beat the cardiovascular benefits. And she insists on mixing in strength training (using TRX, balls, and free weights) to provide a comprehensive workout. “The cycles are great because they’re a very safe way to exercise,” says Keidel. “I’ve never heard of someone getting hurt on a stationary bike. But it does get very repetitive, and our body can get very efficient at that one movement. That’s why I stress cross-training with yoga, TRX, or other strength conditioning.”
Like diets, exercise fads come and go. There were the exercise gurus like Jack LaLanne and Jane Fonda. There was Tae Bo, Body By Jake, and 8-Minute Abs. There were infamous machines, like the ThighMaster, the NordicTrack, and that jiggly band of cloth that was supposed to vibrate your beer gut into submission. There was even a time not so long ago when pole dancing was considered a perfectly appropriate way to get into shape.
The merits of all of these approaches can be debated ad nauseum. But the mere fact that exercise methods proliferate so quickly speaks to how difficult, and often how boring, exercise can be. Experts may disagree about which approach is most effective. But there is one thing that we can all agree on: if it gets your butt off the couch and into the gym, that’s gotta be a good thing.