Newly swathed in head to toe Lululemon, I embarked on a new adventure. I entered the bar already drunk with anticipation.
I spent over a year of my life working out in one of those fancy boutique fitness studios. The Bar Method was my workout of choice. I came to this workout during a major fitness rut. I desperately needed to try something new. I was tired of the gym, disillusioned with my cardio routine which basically consisted of mile after mile slogging along on the treadmill, going nowhere. My lifting routine had also grown stale and I wasn’t seeing the results I craved. This was in large part due to my diet which is a whole other story.
I can’t remember exactly how I was introduced to the concept of workout based a ballet barre but having worked in the fitness industry for years, I like to stay current on the latest exercise trends. The Bar Method promised long, lean, sculpted muscles and a dancer’s physique. OK, so I knew enough to know that those are empty promises. You can neither elongate nor lengthen muscle past its natural-for-you state but I wanted to do something totally different than what I was doing and this seemed like it would fit the bill.
The boutique was located in an affluent urban town with metered parking. Parking could be a nightmare depending on how late you were running and how close to the building you insisted on leaving your car. It always amazed me the number of people who were arriving for a workout but insisted on parking as close to the gym as possible. I mostly preferred to utilize the free street parking that had me walking several blocks to the studio. This worked out OK for me as I tried to always leave plenty of time before class to park and walk. The only time it didn’t work was when it was pouring or when the streets were caked in great heaps of snow and most of the street curbs were blocked. This made for a stressful experience and these were the times when I seriously wondered if a workout was worth all this trouble. I could frequent a far less expensive gym, closer to home with all the free parking I could want or I could simply do a home based workout. I had space, plenty of equipment, and access to an entire library of streaming online workouts, including ironically, The Bar Method itself. Ahhh but I wanted the realexperience.
Initially, I decided to purchase the $100 unlimited one month special for new students. I figured I could go often and really get a feel for the workout and how it would work with my schedule. My first class was great. I loved the instructor who continued to rank as one of my favorites during my time there. The entire staff was friendly, especially the full time front desk girl. She was an absolute doll and very likely the reason I joined on the spot. After my month was up I signed on for the unlimited month to month package which required an immediate commitment to lock in the “special” rate.
There were plenty of classes offered each day but you needed to make a reservation for the one class you were permitted to attend each day. I suppose unlimited is a bit of a misnomer since one class a day will only give you a maximum of 30 or 31 days per month but who had time to go back and forth, taking multiple classes in a day? Secretly, I suspected that many of the women drawn to bar classes did not work and could have afforded the time. You could book classes well in advance but if you didn’t make the class and neglected to cancel in the allotted two hour window before it began, you were charged a penalty fee. There were several “prime time” classes each day and those were the ones you wanted to lock in early. Also, there were the “unspoken” popular instructors whose classes would book up fast. The notion of scarcity that is the cornerstone of the boutique fitness model can get obnoxious after a while. Over time, students learn that a spot in the class they seek will almost always open up given enough time as long as they put their name on a wait list. The problem is, you may get in at the last minute so if a spot opens for the 5:30 am class and the notification comes through on your email at say 11:30 pm, you may not know it and miss out. The other issue is that if you are on the wait list for your first choice but backed yourself up by reserving a class at an alternate time, you would need to make sure you canceled your backup class if you happened to get the spot. What you really needed was a degree in organization to juggle all the balls in the air, either that or have access to the kind of income that renders you blase about any incurred charges to your account. When did planning a single workout become so complicated?
The dress code of a Bar Method class is another area with a steep learning curve depending upon your background. We were required to wear socks in class, absolutely no shoes or bare feet allowed in the studio. Bar Method sold their own special socks for about $10. They were extra plush with grippy little dots along with the company logo on the soles. Everyone had them so I naturally wanted my own pair plus they were completely functional since they stayed on during Flat Back, an exercise that had us dragging our heels along the floor. Try that exercise wearing regular socks and you will undoubtedly soon be staring at your naked feet. I ended up purchasing about four or five pairs during my time there. Also, during my very first class, I noticed how gorgeously put together most of the students were. Lululemon was the clothier of choice and Bar Method also sold the line in their lobby along with several other high end brands. I felt like a big slob in my oversize t-shirt and track pants so I ended up buying several of the Lulu pieces that first week before hitting up Old Navy to supplement with their far cheaper knock-offs. The daily fashion show was a big part of the culture. The instructors and most fashion forward students usually modeled the line’s newest arrivals as soon as they could get their hands on them. Lululemon is a company well known for creating a competition frenzy through the notion of scarcity. Some of their used items on Ebay sell for more than retail so the girls who were wearing the latest arrivals first got lots of extra attention. I guess you could say that we liked to keep the atmosphere light and extra superficial. Regular compliments on what we were all wearing became a normal part of showing up for class. To this day, I cannot fathom why Lululemon is so popular? Some of their stuff is downright uncomfortable and anyone who shows up at a backyard barbecue wearing it, looks like an idiot.
At first, I did revel in the fact that I never got sweaty during class and always looked good enough to run errands or meet a friend for lunch afterwards. I was used to wearing the rattiest workout attire, sweating profusely, and having to wash everything in Win detergent after exercise. I usually wore my clothing until it completely fell apart. It was not fit to be seen by anyone and if I ever needed to run errands after a workout, I either had a change of clothes in the car or more likely had to return home to shower first. Still, the personal validation by means of what we wore that day seemed sinister. Nearly everyone bought into it too, myself included. It was almost Stepford-like.
The women were from all walks of life but money did appear to be a common denominator which is why I felt like I didn’t quite belong. Bar method’s clientele stem mostly from the above average income bracket. No one ever made me feel that I didn’t belong , just my own misgivings. The chatter mostly centered around who was vacationing where, who was planning their kid’s bar mitzvah, what play was last seen at the theater, or what hot new restaurant was recently frequented. I never had a thing to contribute to these conversations because I couldn’t afford any of those things, nor could I even afford my monthly Bar Method fee which was auto-deducted each month from my checking account. I felt like an impostor. Still, I feigned enthusiasm for the good fortune of others and listened to their stories with a smile. The 5:30 am class seemed to encompass those who worked outside the home, as did 7:00 am class. The rest of the day’s classes were for the stay-at-home moms and those that had part-time entrepreneurial type businesses such as freelance photography, closet organization, party planning, counseling in a variety of areas, estheticians, and skin care sales consultants.
Several days before the monthly Bar Method auto-deduction, I would frantically make sure I could come up with the nearly $200 dollar payment. I was forever guilty that I was spending so much on a workout. To me it was an over-the-top luxury because I was no stranger to great workouts consisting of nothing more than my own body weight. I made sure that I took full advantage by showing up far more than I wanted to, telling myself that if I went six times a week that was only a little over six dollars a class, an absolute steal.
I found the workout challenging in a completely novel way than what I was used to as my thighs burned like never before. It offered up a needed new challenge. My battered, inflexible runner’s body struggled with the flexibility required for many of the exercises. I could never seem to achieve the dancer’s fluidity that made every move look so pretty, a compliment thrown out by many an instructor but never to me. That was OK since I was so busy concentrating on holding on to all the aspects of my form while keeping them straight in my head that I didn’t have time to worry about what others were doing.
There was a lengthening component built in after every work phase which was marketed as the best way to work a muscle. First you strengthen, then you lengthen. This is a great marketing tool but there is no evidence to make the claim that stretching a muscle right after working it causes it to appear longer. Talking was discouraged during class and the upmost attention to form was required. Months would go by and though I heard the same names called out over and over in class, I could not place names with faces when I saw them in the lobby. Slowly, I began to get to know the different people who appeared regularly at the classes I frequented and even became friendly with several of them. We chatted before and after class and sometimes went out for a coffee or bite to eat. It was fun and it satisfied that female bonding itch I craved, another great feature of the boutique fitness model.
Though there were several pros to attending this kind of class, one thing I found affronting from the start was that the heaviest weights they offered were five pounds. This was unfathomable to a weight lifter but the Bar Method strongly maintains that you don’t need heavy weights to sculpt lean muscle. Sculpting muscle is a fancy way of saying building muscle so I disagree. The type of exercises performed and the number of repetitions definitely dictate lower weight, especially for form and safety sake but you absolutely need weight to increase muscle mass and lean body tissue. The only thing this method is achieving is building muscle to a point that will eventually stall after the student adapts to the weight. It may seem like it is working great in the beginning, especially if the student is brand new to any kind of exercise but over time, results will stagnate. I never noticed any change in my upper body initially but by the end of the year, I was aware that I had lost some of my mass. Without lifting progressively heavier weights, there was no way I was going to keep it. Another issue for me was that standing in that room, going through the same sequence of exercises with wimpy weights felt ridiculous. After a little more than a year, I looked in the mirror one day and knew that I had to make a change. I had taken barre class as far as I could. I had worked as hard as anyone ever had, taking and average of five to six classes a week, making each exercise as challenging as I could. I felt confident that I had already experienced the best the workout had to offer in terms of personal results.
It’s funny how quickly you get used to things. I think this factor played a significant role in my staying at the studio as long as I did, paying a monthly fee for the privilege of burning thighs and being hyper-critiqued by the instructors. I liked the social aspect and comradery. It was lonely at the impersonal don’t- make-eye-contact gyms and even more so at home. The instructors at Bar Method, though nit-picky at times, were really great. They were all very nice and professional, a Bar Method must. They came across as very knowledgeable about the body and the way that it worked. They made constant micro-adjustments to form and offered up plenty of modifications to those who needed them. Yet, over time I saw new instructors who had just gotten their Bar Method certifications starting to teach and the realization hit that they knew no more about movement and the individual differences that make one person able to practically hit the floor in thigh and another barely able to lower down an inch than the students taking their classes. The Bar Method certification is intense, far more so than most other workouts I have encountered but it’s still a crash course and without any prior education in the physical sciences, many of the instructors who were now telling us what to do or perhaps physically adjusting us in ways they shouldn’t were people whose only prior experience was taking class for a certain period of time. This bothered me and especially during one class where I was adjusted in a floor stretch to the point of a mild groin pull. In defense of the discipline, Bar Method does its best to control for this by their constant and diligent requirement for ongoing education and instructor critique. I would also say that in terms of comparison of many other workouts, Bar Method is as safe and sound as it gets but there is still that gap between knowledge and individual inconsistencies that is the cornerstone of all group exercise workouts. In other words, know your limitations and don’t be afraid to let the instructors know what they are ahead of time.
I missed the hardcore training sessions where I was hauling real weight. I needed to abandon the three, four and five pound weights and start building back my lean muscle mass with weights many times heavier. Factoring in the hour long class, chat and travel time, there was no time for other workouts. I began to slowly burnout on the sameness of each class. Man is meant to mix it up and I wasn’t. I finally decided to take my leave of the bar and in turn say goodbye to the people I had come to enjoy spending time with nearly every day.
I made no lasting friendships to take away but that was exactly as expected. The truth is that I mostly enjoyed my time there while always knowing that it would not last and that one day I would no longer see daily the women I had come to know. Every once in a while, I think of a friendly face in class and know that if I ever ran into her on the street we would exchange smiles and well wishes.
The silly little mantras recited daily and designed to market the brand, daily affirmations, and contests showcasing best attendance or who lost the most inches did not interest me. The monthly Bar Star, a student picked by staff that personified the Bar Method credo seemed almost an insult to someone who has always trained and worked out hard. I quietly wondered what I would do if I were picked. I think I would have politely declined but the women that won the title always seemed honored and elated. I longed to ask them why but was afraid it would seem rude. To me, being handed a “star” seemed a childish ploy that was almost disrespectful of all these women had accomplished outside the studio.
Once gone, I never looked back though I will admit I still incorporate a bit of thigh work into my routine. The reason being is that nothing else burns like that type of exercise and I like a little pain with my training as long as it’s the good kind.
My biggest take away once I put down the Kool-Aid and stepped out of the bar was that many people do love this workout and that is great for them. As long as it is safe, movement of any kind is the most important thing. Learning to look past the marketing and the hype and do what you love is the key to long-term exercise success.