Working out in intense temperatures
IT was 105 degrees – as hot as a typical steam room – at Pure Yoga on the Upper East Side on a recent Saturday, but for the 16 women already perspiring through a series of plie squats in a ballet-based barre method workout, it wasn’t blistering enough.
“We’re turning it up to 110 degrees by popular demand,” the instructor, Kate Albarelli, 31, announced in the sort of cheerful tone that would usually signal a time to rest. The women looked as delighted as if she’d given them one.
That’s because the heat is on for a workout promising not just the best body, but also the best sweat. A small but growing upscale clientele, most conditioned to years of regular workouts, won’t leave the locker room for much below 90 degrees.
(Typical gyms are 68 to 72 degrees, in line with American College of Sports Medicine guidelines; Manhattan’s hottest recorded outdoor temperature is 106.) For these religious exercisers, based mostly in New York and Los Angeles, only sweltering temperatures produce adequate workouts: a jackhammering heart rate, pliable muscles and a psychologically satisfying sweat that devotees describe as “detoxing.” So gyms and studios are trying to lure them with ever hotter, harder yoga classes, in addition to roasted versions of Pilates, kettlebells, group cycling and more. (Cue Nelly’s Hot in Herre, which seems to appear on every playlist.) “You don’t waste three songs sitting around warming up – you can hit it hard from the start,” said Mimi Benz, 31, an owner of the Sweat Shoppe, a 7-month-old hot group cycling studio in North Hollywood, Califonia “I’m not going to lie, it’s intense.” Alexandra Cohen, 42, the supervising producer of “The View,” said, “I don’t have time for hours in the gym doing cardio and weights and then sitting in the steam room to detox.” She found Bikram yoga (a static 26-pose sequence practiced in 105-degree temperatures) too slow, and hot power yoga (a generic term for fast-flowing classes) too easy. So, twice a week she goes to the yoga teacher Carlos Rodriguez in New York for a grueling mash-up of the Brazilian martial art capoeira, explosive vinyasas, calisthenics and weights. For that hourlong workout, performed barefoot in a room hotter than the human body, Cohen lines up four exercise mats so she doesn’t waste time (or sneak a cheeky breather) when one becomes too sweat-slicked to use.
“A good day is when I have to literally wring my clothes out,” she said. “Some people do crazy cleanses. I do hot-room workouts.” She mused: “I tell you, your body adjusts. I probably need to make it harder at this point.” The workouts don’t promise fat-melting or even weight loss; instead, the emphasis is on the “extreme” brag factor. In September, Crunch in New York introduced mat-based Pilates at 99 degrees, inviting clients to “turn it up a notch” and “sweat it out” in a workout “that will have you looking hotter than ever.” Loren Bassett, 41, a demanding yoga teacher in Manhattan, lovingly calls some o f h e r followers “insane.” It’s partly for them that she and her trainer, Cole McDonough, of David Barton Gym, cooked up Bassett’s Boot Camp for Pure last year. The class is 75 minutes of alternating high-intensity cardio, crow poses and core work. Marie Claire magazine pronounced it “America’s toughest workout”; spaces sell out weeks in advance.
On a recent Sunday in March, as the class tried to hold a plank after a round of jumps, squats and push-ups, the gentle thrum of what sounded like rain was audible when the music stopped. It was actually sweat landing on mats.
“You’re crawling through the desert in search of the oasis of a better body,” Bassett said softly, as students struggled to circle the room on all fours, bodies parallel to floor and feet on purple gliding discs the size of dinner plates. Later, she added: “I called an hour before class and told them to crank up the heat. Hot enough for you?” Consensus: Yes.
Still, there’s the occasional discount request for “cold” classes. Devotees discuss studio-heating methods in the sort of detail befitting an electrician and know which corner of which studio is hottest.
“I’m the crazy girl who gets there early just to get the spot under the heating vent,” said Karin Wilk, 45, an MBA student in New York who takes hot classes exclusively.
“I feel like it totally pushes me to the edge, and nothing else can bother me the rest of the day after surviving hell.” Experts agree on the benefits, but only to a point.
Douglas Casa, a kinesiology professor at the University of Connecticut and an expert on athletic exertion in heat, said that while there’s no question that hot workouts are harder, any benefits peak at about 100 degrees. “Above that, you’re just jeopardising safety,” said Casa, who is also the chief operating officer of the university’s Korey Stringer Institute, named for the Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman who died of heat stroke in 2001.
The trainer Tracy Anderson, whose clients have included Gwyneth Paltrow and, at one point, Madonna, said her research put the sweet spot for safety but “a muscle state that promotes change” at 86 degrees and 65 percent humidity. Casa judged that that was about right, “at least for sweat effect.” Vigorous hot workouts, he said, are only for the highly fit (and well hydrated) – and even then there are limits.
“If it’s so hot you can’t get a hard workout in, it defeats the purpose,” said Casa, who tests his theories trail-running in the heat. (He has not tried any of these workouts.) “If you’re able to maintain the same intensity in the heat as you do in cool conditions, you’ll have to work harder and you’ll burn more calories. But a lot of people can’t do as much in the heat, so it could just be a wash – you might as well work harder where it’s cooler.” What about the detox effect? “That’s a hoax,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any inherent advantage to sweating more. Some people just like the feeling.” No one keeps figures on these gym class heroes – the trend is too limited and localised for the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association to track.
But the demand for ever-hotter exercise rooms is sufficient enough that Chad Clark, a former college wrestler turned Bikram yoga instructor in Scranton, Pa., has built an entire business turning studios tropical.
He recently worked with a manufacturer to design a special heater that could maintain temperatures of up to 175 degrees.
“I use much more industrial equipment so you can make a room a sauna without a problem,” Clark said.
(One of his clients, a studio owner in San Diego, requested a 158-degree room, a typical temperature for a sauna. Clark thinks he’s since moved “to the lucky folks in Brooklyn.”) “It’s like we used to do in wrestling, except without plastic suits to sweat off the weight,” he said.
This month Chaise23, run by Lauren Piskin, who has trained Olympic athletes, including the gold-medal-winning ice skater Sarah Hughes, enters the fray in the Flatiron district with hot Pilates using Piskin’s “reinvention” chair. (No sitting here: It’s basically a stool with a weighted pedal, paired with overhead resistance bands.) Also on Chaise23’s schedule: Hot TRX suspension training, a class featuring innocuous-looking bands designed by a former member of the Navy SEALs that introduce instability so that the humblest of motions induces a burning that suggests muscles engulfed by cartoon flames (even when done in standard-temperature rooms).
“Without adding heat, I don’t think I could get a certain type of person in the door to do Pilates,” Piskin said. “But it just so happens I believe in it. It lets you do a really hard-core workout that gives you that perfect, lean muscle.” In February, Pure – a bastion of type-A exercisers – unveiled a heated version of its signature barre method workout because much of its membership refused to try the class otherwise. (In the last four years, Pure’s hot offerings have increased by 50 percent to meet demand, according to company figures.) “A lot of barre method workouts tout that you don’t sweat, for women who want to go to lunch after and not worry about their blowouts,” said Albarelli, a former ballerina who taught versions of the workout at several other studios before creating her own. “I feel like the heat removes the priss factor.”