Sometimes, on the BART, after I sprint up the stairs, I'll go back for more. I'll find some bikers on the platform, and carry their bikes up the stairs. That gets my shoulders burning. Then I'll do some crack and run back down and find a young couple with a baby. Let me help, I'll say, and I'll carry one of those SUV-sized strollers up the stairs, while curling their baby in my other arm. That's always a good calf burn. Then, just for fun, I'll run back down, grab the nearest elderly woman I can find, throw her over my shoulders, and carry her up the stairs, too. If I'm feeling good, I'll skip steps. If I'm feeling really good and high, I'll skip steps and carry her wheelchair in my free arm. The old folks love it. Such a gentleman! they say. Oh, it's nothing, I say. I just need the exercise.
In that regard, crack and exercise are alike: the more you get, the more you need. And since I like my abs to feel like I've puked all day, and my quads to feel like they do on mile 21 of a marathon -- like a psycho-killer is stabbing them over and over and over again -- I signed up for a bunch of San Francisco's craziest fitness classes. To hell with helping the elderly up stairs. I wanted a real burn.
I started out easy, with a one-hour class in the Marina called Method Daily. I liked the name -- it reminded me of my crack/exercise addiction. Beth was my instructor, and I blame her for not giving me the heads up on tight/stretchy/black pants dress code. I wore shorts, and felt a little bit like bigfoot. I was the only guy in the class - a class, apparently, designed for wanna-be ballet dancers who don't wanna bulk up. Beth had told me that the Dailey Method was the first studio on the west coast to teach the barre method, which sounded cool until I learned that barre is just a fancy ballet word for "handrail." I know plenty about handrails. Handrails are what sissies use while helping old folks up the stairs. Not me -- over the shoulder and go!
But here's the thing: the handrail kicked my ass, or "rear," or "seat" as Beth called it. ("Ass" and "butt" are apparently are up there on the hush-hush list with "Lord Voldemort.") I couldn't get my leg up on the damn thing, or kiss my knees, or keep my back straight, or do a whole bunch of orthopedic yoga-type stretches that the women in the class did gracefully on the padded mats. But I'm not complaining, because even when you can't do the "knee dancing" stretch, you can still watch all the hot women gyrate their hips like cowgirls. But drooling isn't exercising, and I'd come for a burn, complete with sweating and pain. The core exercises were solid: they almost made me sweat. The other exercises -- marching, planks, pushups, lunges, and weights -- never quite got the burn going, but felt good. I was warmed up. I asked Beth if I could just sling her over my shoulder. What? Why not? I signed a waiver!
The next morning, I raced over to the TRX Training Center, in Russian Hill. TRX suspension training was created by a Navy SEAL named Randy Hetrick, who spent years in forbidding/hostile places -- from submarines to jungles -- trying to stay fit. I bet he's never put his leg up on a ballet barre, and I bet he's not just an athlete, but an athlete who could kill me a hundred different ways, really fast, and get away with it. I bet he carries two or three old folks over his shoulders at a time, while under fire. Anyway, Randy stitched some parachute webbing into a harness, hung it from a pole, and developed a whole bunch of cool ways to hang from it in ways that flex every muscle in your body. His "suspension training" caught on among the badass Navy SEALS, and after Randy went to business school, it caught on in fitness clubs around the country, too. Now he's got DVD's ($35) on everything from military fitness to golf to tennis to cardio, and also for people who want to focus on their backs or their flexibility. The suspension straps, which are called "the TRX" are also for sale ($150), as are TRX hats ($15), and t-shirts with the slogan: "make your body your machine," which was way better than the slogan on my shirt: "make your body a device for transporting the elderly up long flights of stairs."
Not surprisingly, the place was slick as an auto showroom, with huge windows, wall-to-wall mirrors, video screens, a snazzy locker room, and color-coordinated interior design. Twenty-five TRX slings, made of black and yellow webbing, hung from the ceiling, sorta like in a slaughterhouse. Among my classmates I spotted some tight/stretchy/black pants, but by no means an overabundance, as well as some other guys.There were even some old people in the class, and I had to restrain myself from throwing them over my shoulder. Alexis, the cute instructor whose lats rivaled mine, told me flat out that since I was a newbie, I'd be sore. I was psyched. She was right. In an hour, Alexis led us through four rounds -- the first three were legs and upper-body, and the last was just our cores. "If it's too hard," she said, "Just step away from the TRX. If it's too easy, step closer." I'm no tank-ass, and I'd had a whole bunch of crack, so I stepped in pretty close. For round 1, we did single-leg squats and chest presses. Round 2 was mountain climbers, low rows, sprinter starts, and clutches. Round 3 was suspended lunges, atomic pushups, and planks. Round 4 hurt so much I don't remember what the exercises were called, but I can tell you how many drops of sweat fell off my forehead onto the floor. A couple of things resonate still: the workouts were burly enough that it helped having Alexis tell me when to breathe. It also helped having her count down -- 4,3,2,1. What's four more seconds of the burn? My abs burned. My arms burned. My quads burned. And the exercises were super fun, super playful, super creative. That's what I was talking about. I could imagine giving up staircases and old people for this.
That afternoon, I boogied over to Flow Studios, which is above the Pacific Heights Health Club. I'd signed up for the "Hardcore" circuit-training pilates class, which is described online as "fierce," "intense," "warp-speed," and "high-energy," and which promised "serious" results. "Prepare to be challenged," the description says. Because I still wasn't sure what pilates was, or what I was in for, I asked Jimmy, a trainer there, what to expect. "There will be screaming," he said. "Screaming?" "Screaming," he said, nodding. I liked the sound of that. Sometimes the old people scream when I skip steps. I went upstairs to change, and found a fancy locker room, with body soaps, wooden lockers, a sauna, and a steam room. Perhaps my definition of hardcore -- you know what -- wasn't the same as theirs.
Then I met Leslie Goldman, who's more extroverted than most presidential candidates, and way more fun. She had a big tattoo on her arm, and knew everybody in her class. She promised me I was in for a good time, then threw me down the stairs. I sprinted back up and gave her a hug. I liked her already. For the next hour, Leslie led us -- no, commanded us -- through a series of 60-second exercises. Each one started off easy enough, but by the end, squeezing and pulsing took discipline. That's where Leslie came in. She's a disciplinarian. A motivator. No, motivator isn't the right word. She's a human bullhorn. She threatened to sit on my lap if I stopped squatting, and offered to kiss me if I could do a one-arm pushup at the end of one routine. If motivation is what you need, there's no better class in San Francisco. Leslie means business, and she's tons of fun. She's agro and hilarious and awesome, and her workout kicks your ass, or Jane Fonda, as she calls it. If she weren't so enthusiastic, there'd be no way to put up with the 60-second torture routines -- things like spidermans, clams, sit-n-squeezes, hooteehoos, paddles, and bridges. And really: Jane Fonda is so much better than "rear," and yes, by now mine was sore.
A few days later, I met up with Richard Martinez, the co-founder of PacWest Athletics. I'd signed up for a session of BootCamp, which he bills as an outdoor cross-training alternative to a gym workout. We were in Golden Gate Park, near the de Young museum, but PacWest Athletics leads classes in 12 other locations, too, including the Presidio and Dolores Park. As I marveled at the fog rolling in, Richard hopped around and told me he liked natural terrain and obstacles. He calls it "street furniture." The street furniture was a bit chilly, but I figured it was good for me. Thus far, I'd only had female instructors, only one of whom had the cajones to toss me down a flight of stairs. Richard seemed to have the cajones, too. He was lithe, and fit, and ran the Boston Marathon in 3:00 this April. I was impressed, and ready for 75 minutes of non-stop Jane Fonda kicking.
One of the tenets of BootCamp is that you get no breaks, so every exercise is preceded and followed by some form of jogging. A dozen of us jogged over to a bridge, and warmed up for 10 minutes. We did high knees, butt kicks, hand kicks, and jumping jacks -- and I thought, Really? Jumping jacks? Like in Rocky? Like in 6th grade? Then we did sevens -- bicep curls with elastic bands -- and my arms began to burn. Burpees got my heart pumping, overhead lunges got me sweating and hurting, shoulder presses I just barely survived, and pushups got me. The lack of breaks was catching up with me. I was impressed that Richard was able to do all the exercises AND talk at the same time. A few exercises stand out: toe-taps were awesome. Exploding lunges got my quads red hot. Dips in between sets were downright brutal. I loved it. We did 10 minutes of ab exercises -- V-ups, side-ups, and crunches -- then jogged back to the road. I'd gotten the burn big time. And soreness. And fatigue. There would be no crack tonight, and I'd probably have to ask some old lady to carry me down the stairs.
The next day, I limped over to the Mission to the Burn SF studio. I saw an old lady in the BART station, and tried to carry her up the stairs, and, well, ended up dragging her most of the way. It was a pretty poor showing, but you gotta help wherever you can. All this exercise was catching up with me, and my Jane Fonda refused to follow orders. It just wanted to sit there. I met Lisa, the owner of Burn SF, who spent the last sixyears teaching one-on-one and group fitness classes, and who now employes half a dozen fitness instructors and runs a hip studio on Valencia Street. Not bad. She was also 8 months pregnant, and super fit (and gorgeous), and would be teaching my class. Now that's impressive. I informed her of my baby-and-stroller carrying services.
Burn SF leads classic pilates classes with a little cardio and weight-training tossed in, with never more than three seconds of rest between exercises. It was sorta like Beth's class, but harder. It was sorta like Richard's class, but indoors, with music, and springs instead of elastic bands. And it was kinda like the TRX class, with spring resistance instead of body-weight resistance. And it was sorta like Leslie's class, except without screaming. My favorite exercises were football feet, sideways hops, walk-downs, and cross-foot squats -- but Lisa also knew how to spice up old, worn-out exercises and make them hurt. She had me arrange my feet into a V-shape for some leg presses. She corrected my posture a few times, and told me when to breathe. I'll admit, I grabbed a towel and wiped off a liter of sweat.
After a week of non-stop fitness classes, I felt a little over-branded. Must a fitness class have a sans-serif font/slogan/logo/website/brochure combo? Must the instructors be certified by the American Institute of Foreign Exercises You've Never Heard About? Must Moby or some hip-hop artist be playing in the background of every studio? Must half the city wear the same tight/stretchy/black pants when exercising, as if it's some big sorority event? Then again, I've got an arsenal of creative new exercises locked away in my head, for sometime later. And my ass hurts. My jane fonda is sore. My legs are screaming, my shoulders are complaining, and my arms won't cooperate. No way am I helping any disabled person up the stairs the rest of this week. Screw the elderly. I'm taking a nap.