Strength in Numbers

Five group fitness classes that should stand the test of time.

Anyone who’s been alive more than a decade is all too aware of the fickle whims of fitness fashion (Jane Fonda, anyone?). But as baby boomers head into their elder years and younger folks realize the importance of long-term health, the vast majority of fitness buffs are looking for something more than the next big thing. These days, the focus is on efficiency, fun, fellowship and visible results that take into account the entire body.

Here are five group classes with growing or established popularity that, thanks to their infectious charm, brutal effectiveness or both, are likely to remain with us for many years to come.

Originally developed by New Zealand athlete Les Mills and introduced worldwide in 1997, BodyPump takes the basic equipment of weightlifting—the old-fashioned barbell—and thrusts it into a group-exercise setting formerly dominated by dance-heavy, woman-friendly workouts like step aerobics. Forgoing the clanging of metal—and freakishly huge muscles—BodyPump participants follow the class leader in a series of choreographed movements to music while supporting a weight they can handle. In forcing the entire body to work as a single unit rather than isolating individual muscle groups, BodyPump promotes increased strength and flexibility.

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BodyPump has been available at West Chester’s ACAC Fitness & Wellness Center since it opened in 2002, and it continues to be the facility’s most popular group class. “It’s very consistent, and once you learn the moves, you’re good,” says Barbara Morlock, ACAC’s director of group fitness.

And BodyPump has a true coed appeal: The music and choreography make the classes woman-friendly, while the weights appeal to their male counterparts. “There are a lot of men who don’t go out on the workout floor,” Morlock says. “They get it all from BodyPump.”

Iron Man 
When it comes to an effective exercise program, what some people need most is a little bit of motivation. That’s a major part of the appeal of Main Line YMCA’s Iron Man class, says wellness director Leticia Torres. The program offers an intense mix of cardio, flexibility work, relaxation, muscle training and all-around sweat, while instructors run the show like a military boot camp, urging participants on with all the subtlety of a jackhammer next to the ear.

For some, the intensity might be too much. But for those who get into it, the benefits are obvious. “It’s pretty hardcore,” Torres says. “They want to be pushed; they want to sweat; they want to be sore the next day. They want the intensity, and they want somebody screaming in their face, ‘You can do this! You can do this!'”

Iron Man instructors also take a personal interest in each student, especially if he or she has strayed when it comes to good nutrition. Students are frequently lined up, asked what they ate the day before and assigned more workout time based on their answers.

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“It’s so much fun, and it brings a camaraderie to the class,” Torres says. “They’re stronger at the end; they feel better about themselves. It’s a great confidence booster.”

Forget the Bowflex, Universal Gym, Pilates Reformer or even your weight bench. Kettlebell instructor Gary Berenbroick offers the benefits of all those fitness devices and more with a tool almost primitive in its simplicity—the cast iron kettlebell.

Essentially a cannonball fitted with a handle for stability and control, this simple device is the basis of a fitness system that’s been around in Russia for more than 100 years. In the mid-’90s, kettlebell expert Pavel Tsatsouline teamed with fitness equipment manufacturer Dragon Door to make and sell the devices, along with associated literature and training videos, in the United States. And to spread the kettlebell gospel around the country, Tsatsouline set up a certification program for trainers in St. Paul, Minn. “Basically, you go out there for three days, and they try to kill you,” says Berenbroick, who teaches group kettlebell classes at High Level Fitness in Bryn Mawr.

Since then, word of kettlebell users’ explosive strength, lean muscle mass, increased flexibility and resistance to injury has spread. The fact that Tsatsouline’s system is used by special ops teams, police and athletes certainly doesn’t hurt its credibility, either-nor does the potential for dramatic weight loss in those who are heavy, and increased wiry muscle in those who aren’t.

Berenbroick says one of the biggest benefits is the kettlebell’s brutal efficacy. “In 20 minutes, I can give you a workout you won’t forget,” he says. “It’s very efficient; it’s filled with compound movements. You’re going to get lean, dense muscle.”

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And while you’ll look better naked, you probably won’t have to buy a new wardrobe to accommodate any extra bulk. That’s because your upper and lower back get much of the workout. “You start to stand taller, and your shoulders start to define and develop,” says Berenbroick. “You actually start to become more erect.”

The system’s holistic focus, meanwhile, prepares you for just about any physical challenge you might face. “You train the body as one unit, as opposed to a bunch of parts put together. The beauty of it is, when you have a cast iron bell over your head, every exercise you do is an ab exercise. You don’t have to specifically train your core; your core has to react to everything,” Berenbroick says. “And it’s very functional, too. You’re not going to throw your back out shoveling snow.”

Call it a function of our hectic times, but yoga, once considered a fad for students of Eastern thought, has grown into a full-blown mainstream fitness phenomenon. Whether it’s at a dedicated studio or a full-service fitness center, the ranks of yoga practitioners young and old have been growing exponentially.

Yoga goes back centuries as a path to spiritual enlightenment in India’s Hindu culture. The Western versions of the practice focus primarily on its ability to quiet the mind through meditation and breathing while strengthening the body through a series of poses that build flexibility and lean, powerful muscles.

These days, just about any fitness center offers some form of yoga, often with variations on the theme and in a variety of traditional forms. And many have a decidedly Western spin. Take Main Line YMCA’s power yoga class, which combines three traditional styles with elements of other practices like Pilates and medicine balls. Participants hold poses for five breaths instead of the normal three.

“It still has the essence of yoga—a calming environment, soft music, breathing techniques,” while requiring more exertion and focusing more on strength, says Main Line Y’s Torres.

“Some people like to be long and lean and flexible and calm, and they don’t need all that testosterone,” she adds. “When they get older, they want to be able to tie their shoes and still bend down and be flexible.”

It takes about five minutes of salsa dancing to realize that getting your groove on to hot Latin tunes is a great way to give your cardiovascular system a major workout. So it was only a matter of time before someone combined salsa’s booty-shaking music and movement with group aerobics, touching off a muy caliente (very hot) workout trend.

That someone was Miami’s “Beto” Perez, the Colombian-born fitness trainer who developed Zumba, a proprietary fitness system that offers a completely different spin on the typical step/dance cardio class. By following a mix of Latin and other international grooves at different tempos, participants vary the intensity of their workouts from fast to slow, enjoying the benefits of interval training while pulling off moves that look like something out of a samba parade at Rio de Janeiro’s annual Carnival.

Upper Main Line YMCA in Berwyn has witnessed an overwhelming response since adding Zumba classes in September. Enrollment has grown steadily, with enough students to fill morning, lunchtime and evening sessions. “Right away, we had an audience that wanted to come in,” says Christine Gallagher, UMLY’s director of health and wellness. “Even people who were on the fence about the styles of music feel that it’s very motivating.”

Core devotees are so motivated, in fact, that when UMLY changed the time of one class, many rearranged their own schedules to make it. And for women in particular, Zumba has secondary benefits. “They lose their inhibitions, they gain confidence, and they take that with them into their everyday lives,” says Gallagher. “They just leave feeling better about themselves. They have fun—and that’s what keeps them coming back.” 


ACAC Fitness & Wellness Center
1130 McDermott Drive, West Chester; (610) 431-7000,

Aquatic & Fitness Center
601 Righters Ferry Road, Bala Cynwyd; (610) 664-6464,

High Level Fitness
19 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr; (610) 520-1680,

Main Line YMCA
100 St. George’s Road, Ardmore; (610) 649-0700,

Tapestry Tribal Bellydance
828 Paoli Pike, West Chester,

Upper Main Line YMCA
1416 Berwyn-Paoli Road, Berwyn; (610) 249-9622,

West Chester Wellness Center
828 Paoli Pike, West Chester; (610) 431-2005,

World Tai Chi and Qigong Day
April 26, 10 a.m. Shortridge Memorial Park, Shortridge Drive, Wynnewood; Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia;,

Yoga Garden
131 N. Narberth Ave., Narberth; (610) 664-2705,

Resolution Reminder

More great, new ideas for getting back in shape.
By Valerie Brooks

Whether winter has left you feeling flabby, stressed or spiritually spent, there are plenty of fun, new ways to tune up your mind, body and spirit. When fighting fat and fatigue, adding a little zip to your mundane workout routine can be all the inspiration you need to stick with it this year. Choosing the right exercise regimen depends on what you’re looking to accomplish, your current physical condition and your personality. Diehard fitness enthusiasts and newcomers alike can find many exciting options close to home. Here are a few:

Make a Splash
It doesn’t have to be summer for you to enjoy the pool—or reap its benefits. And you also don’t have to limit yourself to swimming laps. ACAC Fitness & Wellness Center in West Chester offers a myriad of fun water exercise classes. Those who think water is for wimps should try “Run in Resistance,” a deep-water cardio workout, or “Extreme Aqua,” described as water boot camp. For lighter fare, there’s yoga in the water and “Hydro Low.” ACAC also has pool classes that cater to various physical conditions—like “Arthritis Aquatics” and a strength-and-balance water class for people with multiple sclerosis.

Water workouts have many advantages. “Because water is buoyant, it supports some or all of your weight,” says Barbara Morlock, ACAC’s group exercise director. “It provides resistance, and working against resistance helps to strengthen muscles.”

And ACAC instructor Maggie Christie adds that working out in water is great for injury or illness recovery and athletic cross-training.

The Aquatic & Fitness Center in Bala Cynwyd features such water-based classes as “Twinges & Hinges” for stiffness and the challenging resistance class “HydroPump.”

Fresh Spin
This year brings playful new variations on aerobic and core-strengthening workouts. For slightly less inhibited folks who’d love to let loose while burning fat and increasing flexibility, there’s a new wave of exercise dance classes popping up around the Delaware Valley. No dance skills are necessary. “Sometimes experience can be a drawback if it causes the student not to come to class with a beginner’s mind,” says Irene Reinke of Tapestry Tribal Bellydance.

Reinke teaches tribal bellydancing at West Chester Wellness Center and soon will be starting classes at Delaware County Community College. Her program works the chest, arms and abdomen while emphasizing posture and arm movements. Eight-week classes are offered at three levels. 

Another dance exercise combo gaining popularity is Nia, a cardiovascular fitness fusion program that combines nine movement forms from the martial arts, dance arts and healing arts. Nia improves endurance, promotes weight loss and tones muscles.

Blurring the line between exercise and martial arts is Forza (Italian for “strength”). Also known as samurai sword training, Forza gives participants a heart-pounding workout, though it won’t train them in self-defense. Offered at the Aquatic & Fitness Center, classes incorporate a bokken (wooden practice sword), along with footwork, lunges and squats, all choreographed as sword-fighting routines.

Fit and Centered
Along with its Ashtanga (fluid movements), Vinyasa (breath and movement) and therapeutic (gentle) yoga programs, the Yoga Garden in Narberth offers classes in tai chi and qigong. With its structured sequence of motion, Tai Chi is the more complicated of the two. A Chinese martial art, it uses slow, precise meditative movements to help increase the body’s inner awareness.

“Tai chi allows negative thought patterns to dissolve and be replaced by positive, life-affirming attitudes, thereby relieving stress and curing a host of stress-related diseases,” says Yoga Garden instructor Craig Bundick.

Qigong is more like “moving yoga” and is often used to address health issues. “It’s a nature-based Chinese cosmology that teaches us that ‘qi’—coarsely translated as ‘energy’ or ‘life force’—infuses everything,” says Yoga Garden’s Dawn Weisbord.

Our Best of the Main Line & Western Suburbs Party is July 25!