Wacky Workouts: Summer's Hottest Ways to Get Fit

"Shoot your guns. … Kick them out of Lara Croft's hands. … Now, give me an elbow to the head!"

No, this is not dialogue from the next installment of "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" or the summer's latest action flick. It's from a class I attended while tracking the summer's most extreme workouts.

For 60 minutes, I punched my way through Crunch Fitness' Stunts class, grabbing a timid-looking first-timer around the neck in a faux chokehold while "pulling" her hair as she fake-jabbed me in the ribs.

Do I want to give this woman an elbow to the head? Not really. But everyone is watching -- and if this were the class's final week, a camera would be too. So I grit my teeth and attempt to look as svelte and menacing as Angelina Jolie. Though I may not have perfected her pout or punch, it was fun to pretend -- at least for an hour.

WHAT TO KNOW
  • From tapping your inner Elle Woods to getting in touch with your latent Joey Ramone, get the skinny on fun ways to break a sweat during your summer workout.

Since the transformation of strip aerobics from a bicoastal anomaly to a workout staple, themed workout classes have expanded beyond pole dancing into even more outlandish themes of aspiration. Forget strippers; be an action hero. Strut like Elle Woods or shake it like a Bollywood star -- all at your local gym -- at no extra charge.

"The reason you're seeing those out-of-the-box classes, I think people are always looking for a way to make the activity more engaging and stimulating," said Cedric Bryant, the chief science officer for the American Council on Exercise. "One of the challenges that you face is that if the activity becomes somewhat boring," people stop exercising.

The trend in fitness these days is fantasy, according to Crunch spokeswoman Amy Strathern. "By day you're an investment banker, and at night you're an action movie hero."

'Bend and Snap'

Crunch is famous for its unusual classes, from Ex-Factor, which allows jilted lovers to tape photos of their exes on punching bags and pound away, to the now-ubiquitous strip aerobics. But the fantasy factor plays out especially well in the gym's dance classes, according to Strathern.

Isaac Arrieta, a regular at the Crunch class that incorporates dance moves from the new Broadway musical "Legally Blonde," couldn't agree more.

"[The class is] is so upbeat, so energetic. It's really fun," said Arrieta, a recent graduate of the American Music and Dramatic Academy and an aspiring musical theater actor himself. He's also seen the musical five times already. "The class is the embodiment of the show."

For regulars, such as 25-year-old Carrie Wasserman, a four-time show-goer, and her friend, Leah Sinrich, 26, who has seen the show twice, the class combines "the two things we love most: Broadway and dancing."

In the Crunch class, instructors Caroline Johansson, who holds a master of arts degree in dance and dance education, and Jenna Hide lead a class of mostly women through a choreographed routine from the musical, while exhorting the class to "be fierce" and use "Delta snaps," occasionally in a Valley Girl accent.

Shake Your Bollywood Booty, or Get Pumped With Punk and Latin Beats

But Crunch isn't the only gym pushing group exercise boundaries.

On the West Coast, Achinta McDaniel has latched on to the recent stateside popularity of India's Bollywood movies to launch her Bollywood bhangra Beats class at Swerve, which pioneered its own fitness trend a few years ago -- Yoga Booty Ballet.

What began as a dance class morphed into a whole lot more, said McDaniel, who founded the Los Angeles dance company Blue 13.

When she first started teaching Indian dance five years ago in Los Angeles, "Very few people knew what Bollywood was," McDaniel said.

But the popularity of movies like "Monsoon Wedding" and "Bride and Prejudice," the use of bhangra beats by hip-hop artists and an increasingly more visible immigrant Indian population on college campuses, made the music more accessible.

The next thing McDaniel knew, "people started asking me to come to their fitness class and yoga studios to do workshops," she said. "Ninety percent of these people are not Indian" and the students in her classes range in age from 7 to 67.

The class involves what McDaniel calls "bhangra shoulders," the up-and-down movement common in almost every Bollywood movie dance scene, squats, turns, hopping on one foot and modern Bollywood choreography.

"Everyone knows the music now. I think that it really gets people going," McDaniel said.

Punk Rope creator Tim Haft also used music as the inspiration for developing his class. As a personal trainer and marathon coach for the past 10 years, he often went to exercise classes for work -- and hated them.

"I just thought they were really sterile and rigid and people were not having fun and I could not stand the music," he said. His solution: "Let me create the class that I want to take. … I started to draw on my background."

Haft grew up in the '70s in New York during the heyday of the Buzzcocks, the Stooges, the Ramones and their ilk and thought punk music would be just the right choice to get people energized.

Now taught in five states, Punk Rope, as the name implies, combines jumping rope and punk music along with themed drills such as baseball-inspired workouts at the beginning of the season or Boston Tea Party relay race on Patriots Day.

But Haft believes the class, the bulk of which is basically jump rope interval training, works because of the perfect combination of the movement and the music.

"Here's where punk dovetails with Punk Rope. People would pogo and a pogo [move] is just rope jumping without a rope," Haft said. "One of the beautiful things about punk is that it's one of the only music genres that [the songs] are that short."

Like Punk Rope, Zumba, which is taught nationally, draws on music, primarily Latin beats, as well as Latin dances, including samba, merengue, cha cha, mambo and flamenco.

Nicole Toman, who's been teaching Zumba at the Cypress Creek YMCA in Houston since February, has been surprised by the turnout for her class. It's become one of the YMCA's most popular, meeting three times a week with an average class size of about 60 participants.

"It's a little sexy. You can kind of be silly and be fun and just let your body go," Toman said, calling kickboxing and step aerobics classes more rigid. "It's fun for the woman to feel a little sexy with the [chest] shakes and the hip twirls and I think they really enjoy it."

Choosing the Right Class

Still, these classes, while they can be physically challenging, aren't for everyone, according to Bryant.

"Sometimes ... in this quest to make [a class] more creative ... the instructors don't always adhere to proper rates of progression. Something might be too challenging" for participants, he said. "Be smart enough to listen to your body if there's a movement that causes any joint discomfort or pain. Don't get caught up in the group mentality. ... If you're feeling discomfort ... it's probably not right."

Bryant said the instructor can make all the difference. A good instructor will move around the class, make corrections on incorrect movements and ensure that class members are having a safe experience, he said.

So was I having a safe experience in my Crunch Stunts class? Certainly no one was checking my technique as I tumbled on the ground wounded, "punched" my opponent in the face and shot at her with semi-automatic weapons. When I left I was convinced that I'd barely had a workout, but two days later my still-aching hamstrings told a different story.

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