What happens when men crash female fitness classes?
"A guy walks into a barre" isn't the beginning of a dirty joke—it's what you're seeing more often at boutique fitness studios geared towards ballet moves, like Cardio Barre and The Bar Method. Even femi-centric SoulCycle classes are getting graced by Y chromosomes. So, why now and what has taken us so long?
“I think there is a trend of men going because guys, as they get older, get injured," says Eric Villency, product designer of SoulCycle's stationary bikes. "I used to run through injuries, through stress fractures, because I felt I had to work out, no matter what. There are now a lot of alternative movements in these classes that give the same results without bad effects on your body.” Combining indoor cycling with weights, SoulCycle has seen a major shift in the gender balance in its classes, according to Gabby Etrog Cohen, SoulCycle’s Vice President of PR. Classes have gone from 25% to 40% men. “They come to us now instead of golfing. They bring clients along with them to do exercise. We call it ‘Sweat Working,’” says Etrog Cohen.
Wall Street investment banker Brian Meehan admits he's hooked on The Bar Method's classes. “Because the class is mostly women, the first thought is that it won’t be that hard because it is a dancer’s class. That’s so not the case,” he says.
Wanting to check it out for myself, I headed to The Bar Method’s Midtown Manhattan location, an 8,000-square-foot colossus chockfull of women in tights, leg warmers and “barre socks” (special socks with little sticky plastic circles on the bottom to prevent sliding). My class of 24 women–and yours truly–did everything, and more, on that damn barre, from leg stretches to backstretches and then even more stretching on a matt underneath the barre. We used weights, squeezed a ball between our knees, and squatted, again and again, holding on to the barre, of course. The class was amazing, but I was as sore as when I played football as a middle school tailback.
“The barre requires more stretching and isometrics, which most guys aren’t used to,” says my instructor Amy Duffey, owner of The Bar Method, New York. "The exercises go deep into the muscle and stay there, by isometrics. You are literally sitting on the muscle, which makes you feel the burn.” Personally, I walked out of the class feeling taller, a nice change from the usual weightlifting rush.
Ky Evans, a master trainer at The Studio (MDR) in Marina Del Rey, California, counts Carrie Underwood and Rosario Dawson among his clients. He claims that traditional weight training, which most men do, is actually easier because it isolates muscles, allowing for breaks. "The ever-changing system I teach at The Studio (MDR) never gives your body a break," he says. "Women’s classes often focus on alignment, posture, flow and non-stop movement. For men, this is far more difficult."
Then there's the competitive streak that can rear its ugly head when surrounded by a cluster of intimidating in-shape people. Unlike a solitary trip to the gym, a fitness class puts your shortcomings front and center. At the SoulCycle class I went to, the gender mix was something like 20 women and 7 guys, and I sweated buckets to keeping up with them.
Evans has also seen a huge shift in male clients who seem to be more interested in overall health and vitality and who are looking to improve flexibility, stability and balance. "My clients are embracing and expressing their strength like never before through improved posture, grace, flow and, of course, increased overall muscle strength and agility,” he says. But it's not just about using those muscles I never knew I had. As I'm engulfed by the most powerful bass beat that I’ve ever felt resounding through my chest, I realize that the attraction of SoulCycle is that it works out both the body and the mind. For now women dominate the boutique fitness classes, but as soon as guys see the whole spectrum of benefits, that will surely change.
Guys, are you ready to step up to the barre?