What's a fitness writer to do when every glam magazine in the grocery store is screaming about the latest fitness trend?
Gird her loins and jump in, of course.
And so I found myself at The Bar Method Austin recently, where phrases like "butt on fire," "it's intense" and "yeah, you'll die" wafted around like dust bunnies on an unswept floor. (To be fair, that last comment came after I mentioned I'd be dropping by after riding my bike 12 miles and enduring an hour-and-15-minute swim practice.)
Owner Laura Lee Kozusko, 35, who used to operate a Pilates center in Tarrytown, opened the 3,200-square-foot studio in July. It's one of 46 Bar Method outlets that have popped up around the country in recent years; 24 more are planned.
Besides the main workout room, lined on one side with windows that look out on West Sixth Street, there's a second, smaller workout room, a locker room and showers.
The technique is based on a program created by Lotte Berk, a dancer who fled Germany in the late 1930s for London. One of her students, Burr Leonard, tweaked the exercise program after consulting a physical therapist and started her own studio in New York City.
Berk's classes folded in 2005, but the Bar Method is one of a slew of spinoffs that sprang up in its place, among them Physique 57, Pure Barre, Fluidity, BarrePhysique, Karve, Body Fit and Bodd. Actresses such as Drew Barrymore, Ricki Lake, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Zooey Deschanel and Denise Richards tout the benefits of the sessions, performed within reach of one of those wooden bars most often associated with pink tutus.
I ask Kozusko if a dance background is required; it is not. Neither is coordination, she assures me.
The goal is to create long, lean muscle tone versus Hulk Hogan bulk. Devotees talk about "the Bar Method body," with its teardrop-shaped deltoids, defined triceps, sculpted hamstrings and "cute little butt that sits right up on top."
"We think of your muscles like clay, then stretch them out," she says.
I'm not all that eager to transform my boyish, big-shouldered look into that of a dainty ballerina, but I unclip my helmet, peel off my biking gear, yank on a pair of stretchy tights and head to class.
"You're going to shake. The shake is good," Kozusko warns me. Quivering muscles equal an effective workout.
With that, I grab a pair of 2-pound weights and sneak to the back of the room, trying to hide behind the 17 other students (all women) as instructor Jennifer Kuczaj, 40, gets things rolling.
The low-impact, ballet-based class includes elements of yoga and Pilates. The bar provides balance, resistance and a sort of bodily awareness.
It's all about tiny moves. Kuczaj leads us through a whirlwind of exercises that look like we're hardly moving but serve up a serious burn. The recipe? Intervals of muscle-clenching exertion followed by stretching.
After 10 minutes of arm work, we move to the bar for some thigh-busting moves. The class includes tons of abdominal work, too, with planks and pushups, plus some torturous exercises that have us sitting on the ground, backs against the wall, lifting our legs just an inch or two off the ground.
We pulse our muscles, moving nearly imperceptible distances. We rise up on balls of feet, knees flexed, one hand on the bar. My quads scream like a train screeching to a halt on rusty wheels.
I glance over at Kristen Turner, on the other side of the room. We used to swim together. Her legs are quivering like crazy. It's like there's a tiny little earthquake going on right underneath her feet.
It's pretty funny, until it starts happening to me, too.
"This is our most intense part of class," the instructor says, noticing our convulsions. "This is very intense work, but you're burning a lot of calories."
At various points in the hour-long session, we face the bar, pointing our legs out behind us; hoist them in front of us on the bar; and squeeze a small mat between our thighs.
"You have the option to slide into the splits here," Kuczaj announces about two-thirds of the way through the class.
Ha. I think not.
In an hour, we're done. I flop to the ground.
"It feels awkward, but it's a matter of getting the lay of the land," Kuczaj tells me, sensing my inner sense of water buffalo-ishness. Just don't expect it to get easier. It gets harder, she says, when you perfect your form.
"It's like learning a new language," agrees Jenni Finley, 28, another instructor at the studio.
Most workouts just get into big targeted muscles, Finley explains. This one focuses on tiny isometric movements, or contractions, particularly on the back of the body. "That's important because as we get older, those are the muscles that stabilize you," she says.
The reward comes after a couple of months. "It's really cool when you're not a dancer for people to come up and say ‘How long have you been dancing?' " Finley says.
In case the basic class isn't enough, there's an advanced class that requires instructor approval for admission.
I poll a few students to get their reactions.
Acupuncturist and public relations professional Lisa Rice, 48, has been practicing yoga and running for 20 years. She turned to the Bar Method for something new.
"I'm addicted. I'm not doing anything else," she says. "It feels really good. I'm sore in all the right places."
Emily Murray, 25, yoga instructor at Bfree Yoga Austin, has two months of Bar Method under her belt. "I like the toning aspect of it. It's a nice complement to doing yoga all the time," she says.
Clearly, I need more time. I like the class but wouldn't do it to try to look like a dancer.
I'd do it for the challenge, and for the core- and glute-strengthening aspects.
If you go
The Bar Method Austin is at 1611 W. Fifth St. A single class costs $22, with discounts for packages and specials for new clients. For more information and a class schedule, go to austin.barmethod.com.