'How are you with mobility?" asks Mark Hendricks, regional group fitness director for Equinox, a U.S.-based upscale gym chain that recently acquired the Yorkville Club in Toronto as part of its expansion into Canada. I'm about to take his 60-minute Climb-Max class – step aerobics done on an incline and I am unsure as to how to reply.
You'd be forgiven for dismissing step aerobics as just another fad when it first stomped its way into the gym scene in the late eighties. But more than 20 years later – as thousands of Ab Rollers and Thigh Masters languish in the land of abandoned fitness equipment – the sturdy plastic step is still going strong, used in group classes at gyms across North America.
Climb-Max, one of a rotating menu of branded classes offered at Equinox, takes this enduring piece of equipment to the next level, literally, in the form of two slanted risers that create an 18-degree incline, and that are used in addition to the traditional risers that heighten the step.
"By working on that incline, it hits your posterior chain – which includes your glutes and hamstrings – more effectively," explains Hendricks, who helped develop the class and is determined to pump up group fitness in Toronto. "It's making the step relevant again." It's also, as it turns out, making step aerobics a whole lot harder.
But first, back to the mobility factor. As someone who recently walked into a fire hydrant, I would rate my agility as merely adequate. But like the rest of the distaff world, I stepped like a maniac in the late 1990s and early aughts, which should surely count for something. Right?
Right … at least at first. I'm impressed at how quickly it all comes back: the basic step, the hamstring curl, the corner kick, the repeaters, the rhythmic thumping of 20 women stepping in (relative) synch.
The only notable difference, aside from the updated soundtrack of Rihanna and Pitbull, is gravity's pull, thanks to the addition of the slanted risers. (Hendricks likens the effect to increasing the incline on a treadmill: You're using more muscle, and thus burning more calories, to propel yourself upward.)
Hendricks's moves are impressive, never mind his physique: Vogue.com once referred to the tall, dark and incredibly cut instructor – formerly of the chain's Greenwich Village location – as "a God."
My own footwork is less remarkable. After an impressive start, I quickly fall out of step – and out of breath – as he introduces more complicated moves. Fudging my way through the dance-inspired box step (in which the feet move in a square pattern, incorporating the step) and the skateboarder (leaping onto the step with both feet, bending at the knees and hips, then leaping off), I suddenly realize what he means about mobility.
After an excruciating 35 minutes – during which I need to wipe the sweat from my step several times to avoid sailing off of it – we move on to the strength-training portion of the class. Assuming this means a break for my burning glutes, I am sorely disappointed: Instead, we remove risers from one side of the bench and lie down on it for a series of "functional get-ups" (performing a crunch on an incline, then standing up, sitting back down and returning to the start position). Finally it's time for a wind-down series of planks, plank rows and triceps push-ups and kickbacks.
Hendricks is unsurprisingly upbeat throughout all of this – "Everything is better with a smile!" he exclaims at one point, somehow managing not to elicit groans – and appears to have attracted quite a following since landing at the Yorkville Club in September. (His Climb-Max class is regularly filled to capacity.)
Considering that he successfully led me through a killer workout while remaining entirely likeable (no small feat), Hendricks's popularity seems well-founded, although the full Equinox effect remains to be seen. Aside from introducing a few of its proprietary classes – and Kiehl's products in the showers – at the already high-end Yorkville Club, the chain hasn't made any other major changes yet; a brand-new, 35,000-square-foot Bay Street location is slated to open in early 2013. That said, Climb-Max, one of the hardest group exercise classes I've tried, is an impressive first step.