Gym rat: Time to revisit the neighbourhood YMCA

Lidia Salvador, bottom right, and Megan Sipos, left, participate in Gravity, a pulled-based mixed-level class.Lidia Salvador, bottom right, and Megan Sipos, left, participate in Gravity, a pulled-based mixed-level class.

Lidia Salvador, bottom right, and Megan Sipos, left, participate in Gravity, a pulled-based mixed-level class.

Aaron Harris/For the Toronto Star

All this time I’ve been reviewing boutique studios, niche gyms and fitness chains, flitting from place to place week after week, one place has served as my own little sanctuary.

For more than two years, the West End YMCA has been my space to work up some energy ahead of a long day or burn off frustration after a rough one.

I recently gave up my membership after moving to a building with an in-house gym. So I figured it was time to take a second look at the Y.

For the record, I hardly took any classes as a member. There was a short stretch in 2009 when I did a great 90-minute class every Saturday afternoon — Box Rocs with Sonia, for those interested — but that’s not the one I chose to critique, for obvious reasons.

Instead, I revisited Gravity, a pulley-based workout I previously test drove at Goodlife Fitness in my last review of 2011.

It’s a popular class at the Y and with less than a dozen machines, participants have to sign up half an hour in advance just to get in.

The instructor, Eleni Kessari, isn’t someone I know — I’ve never made it to the gym at this time before — but she’s on a first-name basis with almost everyone else.

This is a mixed-level class, so she starts by explaining how to adjust the intensity by changing the machine’s incline. For now, mine is set at an angle about two-thirds up, considered intermediate.

“It’s as hard as you want to make it,” says Cathyann White, the club’s general manager, in an interview a few days after the class.

Even people who regularly hit the weights realize Gravity, which uses body weight for resistance, is tougher than they think once the incline is steep enough, she adds.

We warm up with squats. Feet firmly planted on the squat board, we push off so the backboard glides along the rails. That turns into single-leg hops on alternating sides.

Kessari throws in some basic core work: while sinking into the squats, we lift our head and shoulder blades off the board in a crunch. The instability definitely adds a challenge, but nothing compared with the more advanced core moves later in the workout.

Next come one-legged side squats, side crunches and leg circles. The latter two are performed without moving the board, but they’re still tricky because of the angle. Each move gets two sets of about 30 to 45 seconds, with a break in between.

That’s when the pulleys kick in. Kessari tells us to hook straps to the board; we’ll use them to pull ourselves up and down. It’s a good time to lower the incline since the upper body is generally weaker than the legs and glutes.

We begin with a combination lat pull and crunch. Lying on our back with our knees bent and feet on the board, we pull down on the straps, hoisting ourselves up while performing a crunch at the same time. After the second set, we repeat with our legs in tabletop position, then again lifting them halfway in a kind of V-sit.

Switching between exercises is surprisingly seamless. Still, for some of the more complex moves, verbal cues aren’t always enough to follow along.

Kessari, who circles the group throughout the 45 minutes, makes up for it by commandeering a machine every so often to demonstrate. She apologizes each time and hops off after only few reps. It breaks up the flow of the class, but it’s a minor and momentary disruption and probably saves us a lot of embarrassment.

All of the Y’s certified Gravity instructors are encouraged to “be creative with their classes” and let their personal style shine through, White says.

Some prefer Pilates-inspired routines while others work in bursts of cardio — either way, “you’re not doing complicated choreography,” which may explain the class’s broad appeal, she says.

Kessari clearly favours basic moves and simple combinations. We mostly stick with the straps for the rest of the class, mixing in chest presses, back rows and torso twists.

Near the end, we lower the board until it’s nearly flat for some triceps push-ups and planks. The slight incline means the board still wobbles, an added challenge. Then it’s back up for a combination sit-up and hamstring curl using the foot stirrups.

My favourite part comes when we hang off the pulleys, letting the weight lengthen our muscles. Apparently I’m not the only one who appreciates the stretch — White says some people use the machines just for that.

Verdict: A basic class that makes good use of Gravity’s unique features and delivers a challenging strength and core workout.

Paola Loriggio is a freelance writer in Toronto. She owns more workout clothes than real ones.

West End YMCA

Find it: 931 College St.

Class: Gravity (Mixed)

Time: Monday at 5:30 p.m., 45-minute class

Cost: $15 for day pass

Instructor: Eleni Kessari

Music: High-energy tunes through the ’90s

Volume: Moderate, doesn’t compete with instructor

Intensity: Regular breaks help recover from the challenging resistance work

Amenities: Large change rooms with several showers, sauna and whirlpool. Soap and a few hair dryers provided. Towels for rent at $2.

Ambience: A colourful, airy and family-friendly space with high ceilings and lots of windows. A neighbourhood hub.

Who goes there: A wide mix of residents from the area.

Who the class is for: Pilates fans looking to build some muscle.

Grade: A-

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