The US gym chain Crunch is known for its unorthodox approach to exercise classes. The latest to be rapturously received is AntiGravity Yoga (also known as Yoga with Wings), during which exercisers experiment with the sensation of performing yoga, Pilates, gymnastics and basic dance postures while suspended from the ceiling in a hammock. The workshop I attend in New York is full of devotees and the one other newcomer I encounter, a remarkably fit 58-year-old, proclaims herself a convert after her first session. “There is something almost magical, Cirque du Soleil-ish about it,” she says.
With the lights dimmed, we start with the simple motion of swinging in our hammocks – harder on the abs than you might think – and gradually work our way up to entwining our legs in the fabric and dangling our arms to the ground. This may sound precarious, but it doesn’t feel it. The two instructors reassure us that the apparatus can take 1,000lb of weight. And while one of them demonstrates the moves, the other walks around assisting us.
For those who have found it impossible to perform a proper bow position in yoga (essentially, a backbend with your hands and feet on the floor), it can be particularly rewarding to do it with “wings”, because the support of the hammock makes it easier to extend your spine. The tension of the fabric can also help you stretch out your legs and arms more deeply. We are led through the Warrior 3 pose, which requires you to stand on one leg while extending the other leg behind you and your body and arms forwards, parallel to the floor. When you latch an ankle or hand on to the hammock, you can hold the pose more effectively, which means you can’t get away with letting the muscles you’re using go limp for a second. The net effect is that you are forced to be more engaged than you would be in an ordinary yoga class. And because you’re so focused on performing the moves, you almost forget how hard you’re working your muscles.
Over recent years Powerplate, the vibrating exercise platform, has become ubiquitous in UK gyms. The Pineapple, the manufacturers would have us believe, is the next step in the evolution of such machines with a smoother, safer oscillating action. You can do everything from push-ups, sit-ups and lunges to yoga poses on it, but the subtle up-and-down motion makes those movements more challenging. It is reputed to provide the benefits of a 60-minute workout in a half hour.
I use the machine under the supervision of Rob Mason, a physical trainer who, in 2002, won the Mr New Jersey body-building contest. My introduction feels inauspicious: we begin by standing on the machine as it revs at a medium speed and I am chagrined to see my belly jiggle vigorously over the waist band of my Lycra shorts. I don’t know if the machine melts fat off bodies, but in my case it certainly makes it more visible.
One of Mason’s clients claims that simply lying on the Pineapple every day has shrunk his waistline. That sounds like a brilliant routine, but Mason has other things in mind for our session, putting me through a series of squats, lunges, weight lifts, sit-ups and push-ups. The lower-body drills I don’t find too hard, but doing sit-ups on a stability ball is a lot tougher on the Pineapple than on a gym floor. The shifting plate engages your core muscles, and crunching them when they are already straining makes for a challenging set of repetitions. Even harder are the press-ups. Generally I can do about 50 (resting halfway through), but on the Pineapple I surrender after 30.
I expect my stomach to be trembling and my arms to feel like noodles after stepping off the machine, but it is my legs that feel most wrecked. Apparently jumping from a standing position to a squat 15 times had been more taxing on the Pineapple than I’d realised. The “benefits of an hour workout in half the time” line isn’t false advertising.
The Krank Cycle
You probably won’t have to wait too long for the Krank Cycle to migrate across the Atlantic. It is the latest brainchild of Johnny Goldberg who introduced Spinning – intense stationary-bike exercise classes – to the world. The Krank Cycle works on the same principle as a stationary bike, except the pedals are where the handlebars would usually be. By turning – or kranking, if you will – those pedals, you work your arms, shoulders and upper back.
I encounter the Krank Cycle for the first time at the Reebok Center in Manhattan. All 10 of us in the class are novices, and the vast majority are here in the hope that Kranking will eliminate arm flab. A few sessions a week, says this instructor, can be just as effective as weightlifting, with the added benefit that the constant movement of our arms during the half-hour class will limit the build-up of lactic acid and so prevent aching muscles the following day.
We start by simply turning the wheel with one hand and then the other, but with gusto. Next, we move our hands in unison, and then keep them 180 degrees apart while turning. My arms are soon burning, no doubt because I mostly exercise on the treadmill and stationary bike, and so rarely work my upper body.
The session begins to resemble an aerobics class when we get off the bike and do half-squats as we krank. Then we move to the front of the machines and pull the pedals towards our bodies, working our shoulders and back.
One of the main attractions of Spin is that it is such an intense workout – it’s hard to find another 45-minute class that burns 500 calories. But because the arms and shoulders are smaller muscle groups, Kranking won’t jack up the heart rate as much, and hence unload as many pounds. It still provides a vigorous workout, however, and I find the class absorbing enough that I don’t mind the repetition.
• This article was amended on Thursday November 20 2008. Homophone corner: “…the peddles are where the handlebars would usually be”. This has been corrected.
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