Alternative fitness gyms and studios are all the rage. Gone are the days of gyms being only made up of bulky men lifting weights and trying to pass that off as the apex of fitness. Today, being a well rounded weekend warrior takes more than bodybuilding or running a few miles.
Jackson is home to several traditional gyms but also a few places that may not be on your radar. Lucky for you, I tried out three of these establishments and did my best to survive them. As a thirty-seven-year-old man who is firmly straddling the line between being in decent shape and having it all fall apart, I feel like I was a good test subject for the workouts in these locally owned fitness establishments. I visited and participated in workouts at The Fight Shop, CrossFit, and Pure Barre for a look at what they offer a first time participant.
Balance. Poise. Grace. Stamina. All things that are waning for this thirty-seven-year-old man. Honestly, I never had a lot of physical grace or poise. In my athletic years, I generally excelled by crashing, slamming, and flinging my body all over the court or field in order to succeed. I was never a graceful athlete. Unfortunately, for me, the workout at Pure Barre required all of the aforementioned attributes.
The first time I heard about Pure Barre was from a coworker who told me that she used to work at a studio in Nashville and was interested in working at the one in Jackson. She explained that the process of the workout is loosely based on the movements of ballet. “It takes a lot of core strength and balance. All the movements are small and intentional. The workout is so challenging.” Really? Small movements and no running didn’t sound challenging at all, but once a few other fellow teachers started talking about how “amazing” Pure Barre was, I knew I needed to include it on this list.
Katie Nickey is the owner of Pure Barre in Jackson. She worked at a studio in Nashville before moving here and opening her current location at 1370 Union University Drive. Since opening, Pure Barre has been one of the most successful alternative fitness options in the city. I messaged Katie to see if she would allow to me to take a class and get the full Pure Barre experience, and her response left me puzzled—and a little worried: “I’ll put your name down! Bring your tights and get ready to feel the burn!” The laughable emojis following the message didn’t concern me; two words did: tights and burn.
First of all, I didn’t have any tights. Then I wondered why I would even need tights. Should I go buy some? Should I just go all in and wear a full, one-piece unitard? In the end, I remembered I had a pair of compression tights I wore when I ran, so . . . problem solved.
But what about the burn? I had flashbacks of wall-sits during basketball practice in school where my thighs would feel like they were engulfed in flames and would shake as if they sat above the San Andreas. I also remembered what my teacher friend had said about “small movements” and “balance,” and it all sort of synthesized in my mind the physical hell I was about to experience.
When I arrived at Pure Barre on that Tuesday evening (with my tights on), I was welcomed by Katie and her staff. I also quickly noticed that I was the only man in the studio. I was handed what appeared to be a giant rubber band with handles on both sides and a pair of five-pound dumbbells. Five pounds? Come on. I made some pithy comment about the light weight, and the women around me responded with a knowing laugh that seemed to say, “Wait and see how that feels in about thirty minutes.”
I took off my shoes, placed them in a cubby, and made my way into the mirrored studio. The carpeted floor was something I had never seen in an exercise room, and Katie explained that there’s a significant amount of work done on the floor during the session. Made sense.
As I searched for the least visible place in the room, a kind woman and her daughter invited me to sit near them, saying they would help me along through the workout. Sounded like a plan to me. I noticed everyone in the room was doing some stretching, so I mimicked what they were doing so I didn’t look as out of place as I felt. All of a sudden, music began, and Katie was at the front of the room with a Garth Brooks style microphone. Everybody got on their feet, dumbbells in hand. My descent into exercise hell began.
Our warmup included some curls, shoulder presses, and squats. I could feel my heart rate creeping up, but I was hanging in there. Once the warmup was complete, however, things took a nasty turn.
“Put down your dumbbells and move to the bar.” Context is everything. The word “bar” in this context is far different than the context I’m used to. I would have gladly dropped my weights and sipped on a bourbon, but that wasn’t the bar Katie was talking about.
I placed my hands on the wooden rail and bent my legs into a squat position while facing the mirror. We held that position. And held it. And held it. And held it some more. Just when my legs started to burn, I was instructed to raise my left leg, bend it at the knee, and extend it with small, isometric movements. "Isometric" is a word I heard a lot that night, and it’s at the core of what Pure Barre is.
Isometric movements, in their simplest form, are movements that allow you to contract your muscle without changing the length of your muscle. For example, traditional weightlifting stretches your muscles by extending and pulling/pushing the weight. It tears your muscles down and causes them to build back stronger through rest. While weightlifting has many advantages and is my preferred style of exercise, it can also wear on your body over time. Isometric movements activate all of the motor units of your muscle while not putting as much strain on your joints. They also focus longer periods on concentrated areas of your body. For Pure Barre, that’s mainly your core (stomach) and thighs and glutes (rear end).
As I was performing these movements, my body screamed at me. I was sweating profusely, and each time I changed positions, my legs shook and my core seemed like it was collapsing. Katie walked by a few times and encouraged me to shorten my movements or to raise my leg higher while contracting it. Honestly, I didn’t think it could go any higher. At that point, I was just hoping to be able to walk the next day.
After what felt like an eternity on the bar, we grabbed our mats and headed to the floor. I hadn’t been as happy to be on a mat in the floor since nap time in Kindergarten. I thought this would be some light stretching, and we’d call it a day. I was wrong.
While on the floor, we did more isometric movements with our legs and glutes. My balance was wavering, and my legs felt as if they weighed a hundred pounds each. Through it all, though, Katie was encouraging and helpful when she needed to correct my form. As we neared the end of the workout, I knew (without a doubt) that this was the most challenging of three gyms I had visited.
My expectations regarding Pure Barre were exceeded, by far. CrossFit and the Fightshop were more my style, but Pure Barre challenged me the most. Based on the workouts and design of the gym, it is clearly a place that caters to women, but men are more than welcome. They just need to be ready to be challenged in a way they’ve never been challenged before.
Gabe Hart is an English and Language Arts teacher at Northeast Middle School. He was born and raised in Jackson, graduating from Jackson Central-Merry in 1997 and Union University in 2001. Gabe enjoys spending time and traveling with his daughter, Jordan, who is eight years old. His hobbies include reading, writing, and playing sports . . . even though he’s getting too old for the last one. Gabe lives in Midtown Jackson and has a desire to see all of Jackson grow together.
Kristi Woody is a photographer and storyteller for our Hello Jackson features about locally owned retail stores and restaurants. She also works as the university photographer for Union University and owns her own wedding photography business, Woody & Pearl Photography. In her free time, Kristi enjoys spending time with her husband and rambunctious beagle, Rhett and Chipper respectively. If you can't find Kristi in Jackson, you'll find her in her second favorite place: Disney World!