Five best exercise classes

Do you exercise? I’ve never really worked out (other than walking and biking around town), but recently I’ve grown curious about exercise classes. So many women swear by yoga or Pilates or kickboxing, and I was curious to see if I, too, could find something I loved. So, I tried five different classes, including one I was TERRIBLE at…

Henry Street Pilates Class

Henry Street Pilates, 45 minutes

What it is: Pilates uses slow movements to help develop core strength, improve flexibility and elongate muscles. (Amazing fact: The tower machine was originally designed on the bunk beds at the WWI internment camps where founder Joseph Pilates was a prisoner.)

How it felt: The towers always intimidated me (they sound like creaky roller coasters!), but you quickly get the hang of them. Henry Street Pilates can fit nine students, but there were only five people in each of the classes I took. The teacher learned everyone’s name and gave us very personal attention. We repeated movements over and over, while isolating muscles in our arms, then abs, then legs. (For an ab exercise, she said, “Imagine there’s a cactus in your lap, scoop your abs and don’t touch the cactus!”) The tower adds resistance and helps you control your body; since it’s sustainable and low-impact, you could probably do it your entire life. Our classmates were all different ages, and it was inspiring to see older women in such amazing shape. (That could be us!)

Soul Cycle Class

SoulCycle, 45 minutes

What it is: SoulCycle is an intense indoor cycling class, known for its super-sweaty classes with loud music and dark classrooms. It’s like working out at a nightclub.

How it felt: At first, I felt like I was in a sitcom parody of an exercise class: I joined 65 other riders on bikes in a small room, squeezed tightly together, with loud bumping music (Madonna, Jay Z). The room was pitch black except for the glowing red exit sign and candles around the instructor. You clip your bike shoes into the pedals, standing up to ride and doing push ups against the handlebars. The instructor yelled tough love (“What do you want?! What are you going to do to get there?!! Get your ass in the air!!!”). During the class, I was sweaty and red-faced, but didn’t really feel anything — I figured that since I bike around town, maybe my bike muscles were already strong. But the next day I was SO SORE. And then I realized: That’s the genius of it. You’re basically on drugs when you’re there. The music and darkness and crazy vibe distract you from feeling tired. I see why it has a cult following. If classes weren’t a whopping $34 (plus the $2 shoe rental), I would definitely go back.

The Cut at Equinox Kickboxing Class

Kickboxing, 45 minutes

What it isThe Cut at Equinox is a new fast-paced cardio class that mixes martial arts with challenging moves like sit-ups and planks, through five rounds of punching routines. You hold light hand weights for a lot of the movements, for added conditioning.

How it felt: My sophomore year in college, my roommates and I spent a semester obsessed with the Tae Bo DVD with Billy Blanks, so I was excited for this kickboxing class. And it didn’t disappoint. The teacher, who was like a brusque-but-encouraging drill sergeant, led us through combinations of punches, jabs, kicks and squats, along to an explosive soundtrack. The cardio was so fast-paced, the whole class was dripping with sweat just five minutes in. At the end of the class came “reactionary drills,” which were like Simon Says for adults — if the teacher yells, “up!” you jump into the air with your knees up; “down!” means squat, and “hit the floor” means dive on the floor. I was radiating so much heat afterward that I walked a mile home in my tank top, surrounded by people in winter jackets. Then I ordered a giant burrito and passed out at 9 p.m. If you did this workout twice a week, you would be a MACHINE.

Bar Method Brooklyn

Bar Method, 60 minutes

What it is: Founded by Burr Leonard in 1981, The Bar Method is meant to give students “lean, toned, healthy bodies for life.”

What it feels like: The teacher, who looked like a ballet dancer, led us through repetitions of teeny movements — e.g., squatting or lifting a leg while going “up an inch, down an inch, up an inch, down an inch” — that made my muscles burn. Just when I thought we were done, we’d do 30 more reps. I actually used labor techniques to power through them. In other bar classes, I’ve had a tough time following along and worried I’d pull a muscle; but here, the teacher explained each position first and corrected people’s movements without embarrassing them. At the end of a long day, I can feel anxious and stressed, but in this class, you have to stay SUPER present while concentrating on the movements; it’s almost like meditating. You pack so much into an hour and leave feeling proud of yourself. The welcoming studio feels like a lovely community of women, and this was my favorite of all the classes I tried.

Zumba Dance Class

Zumba, 45 minutes.

What it is: Zumba is a fast-paced dance fitness class combining hip-hop, soca, samba, salsa, merengue and mambo. (Sometimes squats and lunges are also thrown in there, for “fun.”)

What it feels like: First, you should know: I am a terrible dancer. Terrible. Even at weddings, I do a sort of step-tap-step-tap move. So, heading to this class, I had major butterflies in my stomach, and would actually have bailed if Caroline hadn’t dragged me (she loves it). Our class was led by a professional dancer, who looked so joyful while shaking her hips, it was contagious. But then I saw myself in the mirror and actually laughed out loud at how insane I looked. Still, it was fun: She played everything from Beyoncé to Bieber, and showed us classic salsa movies and straight-up hip hop. The website says it’s easy-to-follow and good for all levels, but that ultimately depends on the instructor (and, of course, the dancer). I’ll leave that class to Caroline.

Do you take exercise classes? Which would you recommend? I’d LOVE to hear.

P.S. A beginner’s guide to running, and sneaky exercise.

(Top photo by Julia Elizabeth Photography for Cup of Jo. My shirt and top are from Tracksmith.)