Body Pump is a group fitness class in which participants do bench presses, bicep curls, lunges, squats, clean and press lifts and other exercises using a bar or free weights, all to a popular music track. A bit like aerobics with grunt.
For a long time I was terrified of straining something. I paid very close attention to instructions and tried hard to copy exactly how the instructor moved, even though my weights were about one tenth what she and the rest of the class were lifting. But gradually I felt stronger and less nervous and slowly started increasing my weights.
But there was another class I had noticed. Participants seemed to be doing graceful flowing moves to quiet music (that was a change) and it looked elegant and soothing. It turned out to be called Body Balance, and this time I didn’t wait for Pauline to try it out first.
For devotees of yoga or tai chi I’m sure Body Balance would look like an awful mishmash of ancient and revered spiritual practices. The class includes movements and poses drawn from both of those traditions, and also incorporates Pilates abdominal and lower back strengthening exercises. Clearly designed for Western tastes, at least the music track is toned down in both tempo and volume.
The surprising thing is, I’ve found it really effective in a number of ways and I enjoy this Westernised mishmash so much that if I can’t make it to my usual weekly class I pay extra to attend at another gym.
For example, the yoga-style flexibility and balance exercises improve range of motion of joints, and stretch and strengthen ligaments and muscles. As when I started Body Pump, I was afraid that my effort to reach ideal positions would push some muscle or ligament too far, and indeed sometimes I did feel a twinge here and there.
Also, the Pilates core strengthening exercises have improved my abdominal muscle strength and lower back stability significantly. I’ve been particularly nervous about my lower back since straining it many years ago. However, even though I only do Body Balance once a week, the Pilates segment seems to have had a greater impact than two Body Pump classes a week. Dare I say it; the ab track in Body Pump now seems too easy!
And here’s the thing; all those structures seem to be better able to bounce back now. By gently but consistently pushing their limits, my joints and muscles have become less limited. I have more confidence that I can ask my body to move in a certain way, move and carry a weight, work a muscle a bit harder or hold for longer. Not just at the gym either; in the garden or at work I can trust my legs and back to hold firm while my arms and hands do something either delicate or strong, or at a different angle from the rest of me.
I don’t have the most flexible, strong or balanced body, but I can twist, bend and crouch without maximum effort, and most importantly, I know how to do it without hurting myself. It feels good and I intend to keep working at it as long as possible.
Practices such as yoga and tai chi have long been recognised as beneficial to balance, flexibility and overall health. Studies have consistently found that, irrespective of age when starting resistance exercise (exercises with weights that work specific muscles) many physical parameters improve and the tendency to falls and fractures are greatly reduced. Many sports people, dancers and others have reduced the risk of injury or recovered more quickly from it by incorporating Pilates exercises into their regular schedule.
So regardless of age, try a practice that works your muscles, joints and ligaments. Join a class, hire a trainer, or find a DVD or book and do it at home. Start gently, but remember that improvement comes from stretching your limits.