What's it like being the only guy in a fitness class full of women? As one man learned, that's not the hard part
A few months ago, I started working from home. It's awesome: No commute! No office! No pants! But then my back started aching, and I couldn't figure out what was going on. Was it the chairs in my apartment? The laptop? The lack of pants? So I ask my wife, for whom this is no mystery. "It's because you don't walk anywhere anymore," she says. I used to march a mile to work every day, but now I march to the kitchen in the morning and don't leave for hours. My back, which once propped up a lazy-but-mobile human male, is just melting away. (Related: 5 Easy Ways to Beat Back Pain.)
"I think you need to exercise," she says. And she's right. She's been working from home for years and goes to a fitness class three times a week. I've tried gyms before, but can never stick to them. I need something new. Frankly, I need to work out like my wife.
And so, for a month, I decide to do just that: Each week, I'd go to a new fitness class filled with women. To save my back, I'd finally put some pants on. Or, at the very least, shorts. Here's how that went down.
Week 1: Meet The Women
As I walk to Pure Barre, my very first class, I worry: Am I about to be a problem? I imagine some poor woman, perfectly comfortable wearing spandex among her fellow females, who will now stress about some strange man ogling her butt. I resolve: I will tuck myself into the corner and do my best not to look at anyone. You won't even notice me, ladies. Just here for the workout. (No barre class nearby? Try this At-Home Barre Workout.)
Then I arrive, and my instructor, Kate, positions me at the ballet bar—front and center. I am the only guy here, of course. Hi, ladies.
Kate runs me through a 30-second orientation, and here's what I retain: The class will work out my under-developed muscle groups, so I should expect my body to vibrate. Also, "tucking" is very important. She does something with her hips and explains it very well, I'm sure, and I try to show her that I understand by mildly humping the air. "You got it!" she says.
Class begins, and she's rattling off 10-part instructions on how to position our bodies while I scramble to keep up. At one point, she has us all lie on the floor, and I watch my classmates to follow along—until Kate comes over to gently turn me around, because I'm facing the wrong way. That is, I am facing everyone, and everyone is facing me. I'm sure this doesn't go unnoticed. At least I can't be accused of staring at anyone's butt.
I'm surprised how, for a class called "barre," we spend most of our time away from the ballet barre. But I enjoy the class's micro-movements—holding a position and then moving slightly back and forth. As promised, I vibrate like a cheap massage chair. "Push through the burn," Kate repeatedly insists, which is easy to say when your leg isn't on fire. But I push through, mostly. Afterward, one woman asks me what I thought. "I had no idea what I was getting into," I reply. She thinks this is funny. I think I'd be welcomed back.
Week 2: The Most Brutal Thing I've Ever Done
Before I go to Brooklyn Bodyburn, I watch a video about the class. In it, a model climbs onto the "megaformer," a juiced-up Pilates contraption with stable platforms on both ends, and a moveable platform in the middle. Then she arranges herself into a plank and glides back and forth. It looks easy and fun.
And it was fun. Briefly.
We start simple: a plank, a lunge, some push-ups. I keep up with the off-duty fitness instructor working out next to me, which is very satisfying. But then the positions become more complex—hold my leg this way, my arm here, my hips forward, my shoulders somewhere else. I become aware of how much energy my body has, and how quickly I'm burning through it. There's no time to rest. Soon, basic instructions seem nearly impossible. "Put your arm here" sounds like "arm-wrestle this bear." And while I'm at it, I should also kick down a metal door, while also flipping over a Buick, and...
Then it happens. The thing I know is coming: I run out of gas and collapse. Just, collapse. My body, this useless and inert thing, just flops down onto megaformer like it's ready for the butcher. I look up at the clock: We're not even 10 minutes into class.
Maybe I just need some water, I think. So I roll over, set my wobbly feet on the ground, and gulp half a bottle. There. That's better. I take a deep breath, and get back onto the megaformer. The instructor tells us to lunge and hold for ten seconds. I get through two and collapse anew.
"Three!" the instructor yells. "Four!"
I lay prostrate on the megaformer, panting.
Somehow, I manage to drag my body back into position.
I fall again.
Do women tell themselves that they can always soldier on—that deep inside of them, there when they need it most, there is a limitless reservoir of energy? Men do. I always did. In movies, when someone flees the bad guy, runs out of steam, and simply awaits their fate, I always think, "If my life depended on it, I'd keep going." Now I know that's not true. I would get half a block away, then curl up and die.
I have never failed as fully at something as I failed this class.
The rest of the class is a blur. Although, I do remember the instructor continually coming over and physically moving me into whatever position the rest of the class is achieving. "We talk a lot of shit about ourselves, but we'd never say that about someone else," she announces to us all, though I suspect it's aimed at me. I appreciate the sentiment, but I want to be clear: If someone else fails this class as badly as I've done, I would definitely not talk shit about them. I'd say, "Hey, come join me over here—I'm taking a nap." Because anyone who even attempts this class is heroic. And so, as the class ends and I finally hobble out, that's what I ultimately decide: My success was staying in the building. I kept trying. I failed, but I kept trying.
A few days later, Brooklyn Bodyburn sends me a mass email. Subject line: WE WANT YOU TO BE OUR NEWEST ROCKSTAR INSTRUCTOR. Sounds great! In my class, we'll all sit on those torture machines for an hour and eat pie. Sign up now. Classes are selling out.
Week 3: And Now We Dance
I don't like cardio. It's boring and repetitive, and my lungs always hate me for it. My wife once talked me into running a mile, and I nearly fainted at the finish line. But at karaoke bars or wedding dance floors, I have an unusually strong stamina. Maybe, I think, I just need one of these dancing fitness classes. I beg my wife to join, and she says yes. Then, the day of my class, she catches the flu and I'm on my own again.
I arrive at 305 Fitness's West Village, Manhattan, studio, and really wish I had my female companion. (Check out This 305 Fitness Dance Cardio Workout.) There's a glowing neon sign screaming GIRLS, GIRLS, GIRLS, and a cascade of pink flamingos in the window. I sign in, casually mention that my wife was going to join me but no longer can, and ask if men are ever in this class. "Oh, sure," the woman at the desk says. "There are always one or two men in every class. Though, they usually don't have wives..."
She waits a beat.
"They have husbands."
The studio has mirrors, enormous lips painted on the wall, and a live DJ. There are maybe 30 women here (and, indeed, one other man). Our instructor gives us a mantra to repeat to ourselves during the class: "She needed a hero, so she became one." It occurs to me that some version of this has come up in all three classes I've taken. They offer a narrative—you're stronger than you think you are—that isn't all that different from the one I used to tell myself when watching those movies. The only difference is, the women in these classes are regularly coming out to prove it to themselves. I'd never actually wanted to test my limit.
Then the dance music is cranked up, and we get going. The instructor is all energy—jumping, punching the air, and running side to side. (There's also the occasional hip swivel, which I watch myself attempt in the mirror once, and then never try again.) I'm surprised by how much I enjoy this. It's such a strangely contrived environment—all the trappings of a dance party, minus the party—and yet way more fun than running. I'm bouncing along with the roomful of bobbing ponytails, feeling Beyoncé in my bones. At one point, we're instructed to turn to the person next to us, give them a high five, and scream, "Yes, queen!" I think the woman next to me actually says it to me, but I can't hear her over my own laughing.
Week #4: Working Out With My Wife
"Is anyone going to tell me to push past my limits today?" I ask my wife, Jen.
We're walking towards the pilates class she takes three times a week at a little Brooklyn studio called Henry Street Pilates. I tell her about all the pushing I've been urged to do this month, and how tired I feel. This is the other problem with pushing: It's the opposite of pacing. If I do too much too early, I now fear, I'll have nothing left for the rest of class.
"No, nobody is going to tell you to push it today," she says.
We arrive. Unlike the other classes, this instructor, Jan, isn't on a microphone. There's no thumping music. The students are, I'd guess, mostly in their 40s. Nobody's here for a life event. They're just here for a healthy routine, so their back doesn't give up on them like mine. Until now, I never realized just how varied the experiences at these classes are. You're not just shopping for a fitness style; you're shopping for a lifestyle.
The first part of our class happens on a cushioned pad, where we do crunches and other ab workouts. Then we move on to the tower unit—a ladder of springs and bars, very much unlike the megaformer I was once martyred upon. We push and hold a bar. In my favorite move, we lie down, strap our feet into spring-loaded harnesses, and then move our legs in big open circles. It feels good—at once a satisfying challenge, and a stretch I'd never do otherwise. At one point, we swing our legs to our right. My wife, who is to my left, stretches out and accidentally bumps me. I give her toe a little squeeze, and she smiles. Then we swing our legs to the left, and the woman to my right accidentally bumps me. No toe-squeeze for you, lady.
The class goes by quickly. I never feel fatigued, but always feel worked. Nobody's panting and jelly-like at the end. Nobody's being pushed past their limits. Nobody's being told this is the best part of their day. It all feels good, because, for me, it all feels true.
As we pack up to go, a few women compliment me for tagging along. "I'd love to get my husband to come here, but I don't think he would," one says. Well, he should...
Just let your guy know what he's in for, K?