Beachbody workouts, Expensive Barre classes, and Aerial Acrobatics: A Tale of Sweat, Lies, and Bruises

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I was not a particularly athletic person growing up. I dabbled briefly in middle school volleyball and got pretty serious on my varsity badminton team in high school, but such athletic pursuits vanished when I went to college and was swiftly assaulted by an onslaught of exams, papers, problem sets, and minimal sleep. After two years of being overworked, I earned a classic freshman 15 in the form of a pinchable amount of belly fat, but managed to work up the diligence to play enough Dance Dance Revolution to shrink it down to slightly-less-pinchable size by graduation (yes, that actually happened, and oh yes, my downstairs neighbors were not happy).

My “workout” efforts through the first 22 years of my life are best described as half-hearted maintenance, but at the time, it kept me healthy enough to get through school without getting horrendously out of shape. I was never taught anything about cardio, lifting, or any other fitness fundamentals. Perhaps if I had stuck with physical education in high school instead of substituting it with badminton, I would have gotten familiar with such things, but I remember gym class to be something like a bubbling broth of  torture mixed with passive aggressive competition, so I was happy to do anything else.

The point is, it wasn’t until I got to working life that I started seriously taking fitness seriously, and this is only because in most cases, instead of being on a sports team, adults do something called “going to the gym.” I often joke that my fitness pursuit started as a result of being bored in the dying city of Buffalo, but it was my oldest brother who introduced Beachbody workouts to me, and as someone with a naturally competitive spirit (thanks, MarioKart), I thought I would give it a try. Little did I know that it would lead to completing all 90 days of the entire P90X program which snowballed into spending 2-3 hours a day at my amazing onsite corporate gym doing HIIT workouts and group exercise classes to spending $16 for an hour of barre class once a week, to finding a hidden passion in aerial acrobatics, to where I am now: happily learning and continuing to learn about the realities of fitness and the fitness industry in general. And now I get to share it all with you!

Beachbody’s P90X: My Foray into Fitness

P90X is awesome for beginners, though some might argue it’s more appropriate for people who are not in dire health (as in, you should probably start with something easier if you’re at risk for a heart attack). It has helped me get to know fitness jargon without going through the embarrassment of asking a guru. When I first started the program, I thought it would be a great way to get through long, lonely, and dark Buffalo winter. I wondered what it would be like, and I had a friendly co-worker doing the same program in parallel, so I thought I’d enjoy sharing stories about the workouts with him. I was pleased with the prospect of doing different workouts every day, and didn’t have to spend a penny on a gym membership. As the days turned into weeks, I was astounded at how quickly I was gaining flexibility through Yoga X and couldn’t believe I was starting to be able to lift more than ten pounds (I started with 5 and 10 pound weights). I quickly got addicted because I was getting visible, tangible results. Because I lived within walking distance of work and had no other obligations, the time commitment (about an hour per day) easy.

P90X was great. I thoroughly enjoyed the 90 day commitment. But it was just the beginning.

Joining the Gym and Doing InsanityLong Nights After Work Hours

I moved to Chicago after a year and a half in Buffalo. My new job was located at a suburban corporate campus in the Midwest and included an incredible onsite gym that offered group exercise classes, an assortment of machines, supportive and easygoing instructors, and fun events and challenges. It was a no-brainer to join and it would help me get to know coworkers. Hot off the P90X program, I signed up on my first or second day, excited for a new phase of my fitness journey.

Because I’m there so often, I get to witness all sorts of people of different ages getting stronger, not getting stronger, looking the same, and not looking the same over the three plus years I’ve been there. Since I started doing that adult thing we call “going to the gym,” I’ve lost between 7 and 9 percent of my body fat, gained ten pounds (yes you read that right!), and have never slept better or felt so strong and energetic in my entire adult life. See, everyone knows the benefits of exercise, but if everyone was able to FEEL what being strong is like, I’m sure they’d make it more of a priority. Knowing the benefits is just not enough to motivate people – we really need to feel them to understand them. And boy, I felt them after hearing about Insanity.

Somebody generously left a copy of the Insanity DVD’s at the fitness center. The workouts are between 35 and 60 minutes long and require no equipment. As a minimalist, I loved the idea of using my body as my equipment and eagerly decided to try the program. Insanity is technically a 60 day program, but I was doing all the DVD’s for at least a year, so I probably did the entire thing several times. After a few weeks, doing the workouts became a no-brainer. Oddly, I craved being sweaty. It made me feel accomplished. I didn’t follow a schedule, but I knew all the workouts by heart. I managed to get my resting heart rate below 60 BPM through all the cardio, and I was feeling amazing.

Barre: A Fun, Expensive, & Misguided Pursuit

Wanting to expand my workout repertoire outside of work, I found a studio right in my hometown that taught barre classes. The philosophy of Pure Barre, Barre Code, and other such studios was basically do an hour of isometric, low-impact, low weight exercises to “fatigue” the muscles, “tone” specific parts of the body, and stretch the out at the end to achieve a “long and lean” muscles, just like that of a dancer. And who doesn’t want to look like a dancer?

After getting ripped apart by Beachbody, I fell in love with barre classes. I was already pretty fit when I started and quickly got addicted to feeling the burn. It was a safe space for me to workout, with so much positive feedback and no men around to watch. My instructors were incredible and I felt so supported.

The only problem was, it didn’t really make me stronger. At least, not in the way P90X did. It slowly became another workout of my week that wasn’t really helping me get anywhere physically. And the evidence was clear after I started circus, and realized that making my arms tired by pulsing with 2-3 pound weights was not helping me gain any muscle. Perhaps it helped me endure a lot of muscle fatigue, but I was not feeling stronger. I lamented my lack of progress in circus to my lack of strength to a good friend of mine, and he advised that if I was going to get any stronger, I needed to be lifting heavier weights. 2, 3, or 5 pound weights would not help me do pull-ups and inversions. I needed to stop wasting hours and dollars trying to “tone” my body.

I reflected on my experience in barre, and realized also that so much of the philosophy revolved around achieving physical beauty. Ultimately, despite its claims of supporting strong women, it was still a matter of how “toned” you looked and how “long and lean” your muscles were. This post basically sums it up a lot better than I ever could, but long story short, I spent my class cards and stopped buying them. How “toned” your muscles are and how “long and lean” you’re going to be is going to depend on your genetic makeup and your body fat percentage, both of which are going to be almost entirely dependent on your genes and your diet.

Women are different from men, but they shouldn’t need “specialized training” involving 2 pound weights that is supposed to make them fit a universal ideal.

Circus: A Magical Art Form that Showcases the Beauty of Strong Human Bodies

Circus arts combines gymnastics and dance and creates a form of entertainment through the manipulation of various apparatus or in some cases, nothing at all (partner acro).

I already have an entire post dedicated to the art form, so I won’t elaborate on it here. But I grew to love circus because unlike straight up sport, circus focuses on creating art with physical strength. As someone who cares more about what I am capable of doing than how I look, circus appeals to me – especially its acceptance of new and creative ideas. It’s a fun and supportive community that focuses less on competing and more on showcasing. It gives purpose to getting stronger.

Efficient, Effective Fitness

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Proven to get you stronger.

Everything I did was a part of the learning process, and I figured out what worked and what didn’t through trial and error. But for people who are just getting started, I can at least offer up a few bits of learning to prevent you from wasting your time and money.

  1. Free weights get me the most bang for your buck. Lifting heavy is the most efficient way of gaining muscle. I started with ten pound curls, and after a few years of gradual increases, I am working on curling 30 pound weights. My arms may be marginally bigger, but bulky? It is extremely difficult to bulk up and basically impossible if you’re a woman. You have to be taking steroids to look anything like an Arnold, and even then, it’s not possible. If you look at aerialists (see here and here) who are insanely strong, I really think bulking up should be the least of anyone’s concerns.
  2. Weight loss is predominantly diet, but if you’re trying to get stronger, you shouldn’t concern yourself with to the scale, and instead concern yourself with your body fat percentage. That aside, if you struggle with overeating, diet will probably end up being more difficult to adjust than dragging yourself to the gym. Plenty of people go to the gym and work hard but see no changes, but more likely than not, the lack of results is due to what they’re doing outside of the gym, and more specifically, how much they’re eating…especially when no one is watching. I’ve done it. I’ve done the chips in bed, the ice cream binges…you name it.
  3. Cardio feels great (afterwards, anyway), but after skipping strength training for a month, I promised myself I would never skip it ever again. Cardio is easy to get – any basic HIIT workout, cycling, running, or Stairmaster workout will do it. Strength will help you with your cardio, but it will also help you do useful things more easily. Like carrying groceries. Or a bag of rice. Or lifting kids.
  4. I became less concerned with how I look and more concerned with what my body can do. There is so much focus on how people look, and being thin, and being toned, and being fit but bulky…it drives me crazy.
  5. There is no “magic method” or magic “weight loss drink.” Fitness programs and gimmicks are expensive and hardly effective. And besides, if they actually worked, wouldn’t they go out of business? Put the work in, reap the benefits.

I’m still learning, as this is a lifelong pursuit, so I’d love to hear what you have to say.

The Underrated, Under-Appreciated Art of Circus

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My first aerial silks performance after 1 year of classes

Three years ago, 24-year-old me was riding the subway back home from work and noticed I was a hop and a skip away from the Actor’s Gymnasium, a circus and performing arts school offering classes, camps, and workshops. At that point in my life, I had already begun a personal project I dubbed “Project Body,” a lifelong commitment to make myself as fit as I could. As part of Project Body, I was working on my flexibility after some inspiration from the Yoga X workout from the Tony Horton’s famous P90X workout, which after doing for a while, I was finally able to touch my toes. I didn’t know it at the time, but that small victory changed my entire attitude about my body.

My body could be changed in a short period of time – a matter of weeks, and I could see transformations.

It was then that curiosity got the best of me and I checked out the AG website, noticing that they offered a Contortion (which we jokingly call “contorture”) class. At some point, I decided that I wanted to be able to do the splits. Without any dance or gymnastics training as a child, I was never limber. Before yoga, I had never done flexibility training of any kind. Nearly all of my childhood extracurricular activities involved sitting still. I spent a lot of time in front of the computer from elementary school writing HTML from scratch to practicing piano and cello throughout my middle school years to dabbling in Photoshop in my high school years. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time hunched over a desk studying and working throughout college and my early twenties. I’m afraid to know how much of my life I’ve spent sitting idly in a chair, wasting away the years in which my body was at its physical prime. I was never afraid of working hard, but the hours spent sitting, hunched over my work, resulted in my exceptionally stiff body. I knew that undoing it would require a monumental amount of effort.

The first day I entered contortion class, I knew I would be the least flexible person in the class. It was incredibly discouraging to see young children contort with what looked like minimal effort, easily doing what I wish I did when I was their age. But I knew that I came from a very different place, and despite that, I couldn’t compare myself to them.

We all get dealt a different set of cards, and that would of course dictate our starting lines, but not our finish lines.

Thus, in terms of flexibility, undoing all the years of bad habits would require an insane amount of willpower and dedication. What would take a younger person a few months to accomplish would take me several years. After that humbling day, I dedicated myself to stretching every day for at least 30 minutes. I learned a lot in the process – that in itself is worth its own blog post – but what I did not know was that my flexibility training would lead me to try aerial arts. What I thought would just be a one-time “fun” thing to do became a thought of “maybe if I keep doing this, I’ll get better at it…” and eventually, something I loved to do.

Circus acrobatics combines physical finesse with artistic ability, so it is a natural art for gymnasts, actors, and dancers. It is a multi-disciplinary pursuit, combining physical strength, balance, coordination, flexibility, endurance, artistic ability, creativity, teamwork, and courage, into consistent, quality performance.

That’s a lot to ask of anyone.

I’ve immersed myself in the circus world for three years (one of the years was devoted entirely to stretching, and rightly so, for how stiff my body was) and I have come to realize just how much artists suffer for their art in a very tangible way. The first time I worked on a silk knot, I fell out with my very first circus injury, a friction burn. Bruises, burns, parts of skin peeling off, blisters, and other minor wounds became a regularity. Yet the physical pain  is just a fraction of the suffering these artists willingly undergo.

Even though circus arts is becoming more popular, circus arts get much less media coverage than mainstream events. People still get more excited about watching sports events, movies, or the latest episode of a TV show. For how exciting and impressive circus arts is, you hardly hear about it in the media. You don’t hear much about circus superstars; their identities tend to be hidden by the companies and organizations that they work for. So much of the allure is in the mystery – tricks were traditionally passed down through close-knit circus families – but now that it has become more mainstream, much of the mystery is fading away. We now know that it is simply a rigorous training regimen and an intentional immersion in a supportive network of fellow artists. And for the most part, fellow artists are supremely friendly and very willing to share knowledge. I have not met a single artist who hesitated to teach me a trick.

Tricks are usually informally taught and learned, and of course are not protected intellectual property. Teachers now have to worry about the new problem of passing on tricks to future instructors, and seeing them replicate exactly what they taught, and profiting. Instructional videos are surfacing all over YouTube and some of them explain the tricks very well. A good teacher will correct your form and teach you all sorts of ways to keep yourself safe when executing tricks, something YouTube will not do for you.

The wonderful thing about circus is that after you meet enough professionals and enthusiasts, you realize that it is a very, very humbling community to be in. There is always someone who is better or more talented than you, so sources of inspiration are endless, which means it is always possible to get better – physically or artistically. Circus performers are acutely aware of their physical abilities, and they have to be – the skills required for circus performance truly puts your body through insane trials of strength and unlocks artistic potential. For adults, creativity often gets lost in the doldrums of daily life, and circus is one art that keeps our imaginations alive.

So I’m thankful – really, really thankful – for the kindness, tough love, and generosity I’ve experienced from the Actor’s Gymnasium and the growing Chicago circus community. I only look forward to what my future training brings.

If you’re fortunate to live in or close to a major city, there are surely circus facilities in your area, but even if you don’t, it doesn’t hurt to check. Taking a class, even just once, is still a unique experience!