Sweat: Rage against the machines

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 January, 2013, 11:21am

Remember the 2008 film Tropic Thunder, and how ripped Ben Stiller, playing a narcissistic Hollywood action star, looked in it? The comedian, then 43, achieved that physique by training with Los Angeles-based celebrity fitness trainer Sebastien Lagree, doing a type of workout that involves continuous resistance movements while standing, sitting or lying on a machine designed by Lagree.

The workout is officially named the Lagree Fitness method, but it's known in Hollywood circles as "Pilates on crack". That was how Courtney Cox, one of the stars of the hit sitcom Friends, described it during an interview a few years back. "I thought it was going to be this easy Pilates class, but it's work-your-ass-off tough," she said.

Developed in 2003 by Lagree, the workout has become so popular that the 38-year-old Frenchman is now an international exercise entrepreneur, licensing his routine, and his machines, to more than 60 cities, including New York, Toronto, Seoul and London. Now, it's in Hong Kong, at H-Kore, a new exercise studio in Central opened by British expats Vivienne Fitzpatrick and Vanessa Valenzuela. The Lagree method, which boasts "a shortcut to fitness" in just 40 minutes per session, is perhaps especially appealing in this city, where time is at a premium.

The two women had been doing the Lagree method regularly at a gym in London. After moving to Hong Kong in 2011 they soon found themselves out of shape and missing the workout. They tried various gyms and workouts, but came away unimpressed with the results each time. Eventually, they decided to bring the Lagree method here.

So Fitzpatrick quit her job and the two set to work scouring potential gym locations, contacting Lagree and hiring staff. The process took more than six months.

Lagree, like he does with every new gym that uses his machines, travelled here last month to train the H-Kore's staff … and me.

I've led an active lifestyle most of my life: for more than two decades, I've either played basketball or jogged at least four nights a week. But lately, especially after basketball, I've experienced knee discomfort. So when the ladies at H-Kore invited me for a trial workout, claiming the Lagree method would give me an intense workout without stressing my joints, I jumped at the chance.

Lagree's machine is called the Megaformer. It looks like a Pilates Reformer on steroids: it's got the similar sliding platform, pulleys and adjustable resistance springs as the Reformer, but it's longer and has different handles.

Lagree was inspired to develop his method when, as a Pilates instructor in California, he noticed that his clients would always do cardio and weight training after a Pilates session. He began creating a series of machines that would reinvent the Pilates workout, offering something quicker and more efficient, thereby eliminating the need to go to the gym.

To start with, I was given a pair of special socks with skid-proof soles. Lagree said they would keep me from "slipping off the machine and falling on [my] ass".

Once you get on the Megaformer, there's no stopping. For 40 minutes, I was on the machine, transitioning from one exercise to the other. Each routine involved placing either my feet, knees or back on the machine, hands gripped to the handles, using various muscles to move the slider. It's done at a slow and steady pace; but it's tough, requiring strength, balance, control and endurance.

Lagree has devised more than 1,000 exercises for the Megaformer. For example, the "Mega Plank to Pike" had me place my hands on the floor, back angled with my bum in the air, moving the slider back and forth with my feet. It's like the ultimate ab roller, and works the shoulders and legs as well as core. It's a killer. The continuous nature of the exercise keeps the heart rate up, while Lagree says the deliberate pace ensures you activate your "slow twitch muscle fibres" - the muscles engaged during low-intensity, high-endurance movements such as distance running. "It places pressure on your muscle at all times," he says.

Somewhere between trying to catch my breath and seeing my legs wobble and shake with each movement, I noticed that my knees didn't feel a thing. It's one of the most strenuous workouts I've ever done, yet it had nearly no impact on my grumpy knees. Lagree says his machines are designed for everyone - of all ages and fitness levels - and for everything: building strength and endurance, or for fat-burn and muscle toning. His diverse clientele, including professional athletes as well as film stars, support the claim.

The H-Kore founders expect a similarly diverse experience in Hong Kong. Says Valenzuela: "That each session only takes 40 minutes should appeal to many in a hectic city like Hong Kong."

For more information, go to Classes are sold in packages, starting from HK$300 per session