As a meathead, I’m fairly obsessed with training and I use each session in the gym as a way to get bigger, stronger, and faster, not as an excuse to loaf around while wearing a tanktop. I’m there to work, and I take that obligation very seriously. I try and eat as much clean food as I can, and I lift weights a few days a week – mostly compound movements like squats and deadlifts – and for the 45 minutes or so that I’m training, the gym is all that matters.
So when MF suggested I give Pilates a shot, just to see what it was all about, I almost choked on my protein shake. Pilates sounds so…well, girly. Would I have to talk about my feelings before class and meditate afterwards? I wouldn’t have to wear tights or anything, right? I mean, the name alone sounds like an Italian dessert, doesn’t it?
You’ve got to be kidding me.
But they weren’t kidding, so I set out for a session with Michael Feigin, a Pilates instructor nicknamed “The Fitness Guru,” at his studio in Brooklyn, NY, fully expecting to have no trouble with his brand of ballerina yoga. His studio was located at the top of a staircase, directly across from Gleason’s, the famous boxing gym. I followed the sound of gloves whacking heavy bags and poked my head in. Someone was rolling around a ring. Guys pounded away on treadmills. The place looked dirty, like a thin film of dust coated everything in the room. I thought it looked like heaven.
I silently hoped that this was the place to find “The Fitness Guru,” like he was some kind of super-athlete who boxed, skied, and cross-country ran in his free time. I asked to see “The Fitness Guru.” The girl at the desk snickered.
I should have known better. I cleared my throat and asked again if she could show me where I needed to go. She smiled, slightly condescendingly, and gestured towards the door. “Across the hall,” she said. That was that: boxers, wrestlers, and men over here, and I’ll take my tutu and tights over to the Pilates studio with the women.
Fantastic. We were off to a great start.
Tail tucked firmly between my legs, I made my way into Feigin’s modern space: Loaded with a combination of Pilates equipment, dumbbells, and treadmills, the studio was diverse, surprisingly spacious, and very sleek, with white walls trimming a shiny, gray floor. Skinny girls and lean guys worked one-on-one with instructors at various stations throughout the room. They looked happy enough, but I still had my reservations. After I switched out of my button-down and khakis and donned some sweatpants in the changing room, Feigin and I chatted about Pilates. When he mentioned Joe Pilates, the boxer who developed the discipline in the early 1900s to help those bedridden and stricken with influenza, my ears perked up a bit. A boxer, I thought? A boxer invented Pilates? Maybe there was something to this, after all. I looked around the modern studio and noticed that everyone around me seemed to be fairly lean, something I’ve struggled with all my life. Maybe they knew something I didn’t. At a stocky 5’6”, 195 lbs, I could feel my waist pour out from the tops of my sweatpants like muffin batter as I scanned the athletic bodies stretching out.
I looked back at myself.
Then I looked at them again.
I became concerned. Meathead or not, I was pretty sure I was in slightly over my head.
He introduced me to something called The Reformer, which may sound like a torture device, but it’s not. It’s a rectangular pad fixed on tracks which allow it to slide forward and backward. Nylon loops were attached from either end of the frame, so if you held them as you put your arms through a range of motion, you’d slide back and forth.
As I laid flat on the pad, I listened to Feigin explain how my body should be positioned. He was very specific – tailbone in contact with the floor, pelvis tipped up, flexed lats, shoulders down, tight abs. I forced my sore muscles to cooperate, and I fixed myself into proper position. This mental checklist was endless. My body hurt immediately.
I felt my tee shirt stick to the small of my back and noticed droplets of sweat beginning to appear on my upper lip. I envisioned the Tae Kwon Do class I quit on when I was eight years old. I was going to fail at Pilates, too, I thought.
But then, Feigin got a little spiritual with me. He explained that the goal was out of reach of the student, and one could never (or, almost never) get to the point where they held their body in perfect position throughout the course of one session. By striving to keep correct alignment, you’re constantly readjusting your body and tensing your muscles. So if I was hurting from just the start position, how would I handle the actual workout?
Ballerina yoga this was not. I took a deep breath, prepared myself for the hour ahead, and we got started.
I began by lying on the pad, heels together, with my toes pressing on the device’s frame. As I pushed away from the bottom of the contraption, I squeezed my legs together. I couldn’t count reps, partly because Feigin was keeping track for me, but also because I couldn’t stand to lose one ounce of concentration or else I’d like my pelvis sag, my abs expand, or my lats relax, any of which, I was told, would be a very bad thing. One 45-second movement and I couldn’t tell if I was going to make it. This wasn’t exactly how I envisioned my first Pilates session.
My quads, he told me, were massive. Nice, I thought to myself. The squats have been working. But my inner thighs, I was also told, were weak, and therefore we were going to work them extra hard. Wonderful, I thought. Just wonderful. We stuck a foam brick in between my knees and I pushed inward as I went through the motions of torture technique #2 – as I laid flat on the pad with my heels on the frame, I grasped the handles from behind my head and kept my arms straight while I moved them down, then out to the side, then back up to the top position. At least, that’s what I think I did. I was too busy spitting out breaths to pay much attention. My core was absolutely on fire. Just stabilizing used up so much of my energy.
As tough as the first few exercises were, they paled in comparison to the 100s. Flat on the pad (in proper position), legs straight out ahead, hands in handles at my side, while crunching up, I had to bounce my arms up and down in a tiny movement 100 times. I was feeling it at 25. My form was sloppy by 60. When I had come to, we moved on to The Cadillac, which reminded me of the wooden device Jean Claude Van Damme used to stretch out in Kickboxer. Imagine a hospital bed without the mattress. Now picture a frame parallel to the bed directly on top of it. The second level had various attachments draped from the support: I noticed chains, springs, wooden handles and padded nylon grips.
I did some upper body work by pushing a spring-loaded wooden bar away from my chest while laying flat on The Cadillac, and some lower body work by pulling each leg down with the help of a strap while keeping the other still. I now had a rubber ring in between my thighs which made sure I was continually pushing inward with my quads as I pressed or pulled. I slipped my arms through padded cuffs attached to the top of the frame and hung with my toes balancing the rest of my weight. This was the Pilates version of a pec-deck, only with my own weight as the resistance. Michael barked commands: “abs tight, shoulders out of your ears, tailbone on the mat!” He was a great guy, animated and obviously passionate, and he was comforting, which was very important, because I’d been reduced to a sniveling mass of nerve endings by this point, but by the end, I wanted to kill him.
But it wasn’t all bad. Nothing was too hard. I didn’t feel like I was doing anything outrageous or impossible, it’s just that Pilates worked my muscles in a way that they aren’t used to being worked. There’s something to be said for body weight movements: you should be able to haul your own carcass around, and after doing it for an hour, I felt more energized than I ever did in the gym. I couldn’t even sleep on the train home. Surprisingly, I thought, I might have actually enjoyed myself. Anyone who thinks Pilates is for girls, I realized, is working out for the wrong reasons. You’ve got to try stuff you’ve never done before, or you’ll never progress. Before you know it, you’ve got a beer belly, you’re 65, and you’re still doing curls with 10 lb dumbbells. I’m hoping to never get to that point. So as I packed my clothes in my bag, I reaffirmed my vow to always be open to new things, reminded myself that I’ve got to drop 10 lbs, and realized that sometimes, the best workout is the one you’re not doing yet.