It's 2 o'clock on a Saturday afternoon and I'm crouched down, one leg raised and pushing against a foam handlebar behind me, while my hands are strapped to a black vinyl bench. I'm 60 minutes into a 75-minute essentials class at celeb trainer Sebastien Lagree's brand-new Toronto studio, and his namesake Pilates-strength-core-cardio workout – commonly referred to as "Pilates on crack" – is hands-down one of the hardest I've ever tried.
If there is music playing at Studio Lagree, I am too preoccupied to hear it. I'm entirely focused on not falling off my Megaformer, the trademarked torture device developed by Lagree. Inspired by the Reformer – the sliding bench with weighted pulleys for resistance, used for Pilates – the pimped-out Megaformer has stationary handlebars and platforms at both ends, plus numbers printed on the bench to assist with hand and foot positioning. As a result, I often feel like I'm taking part in a highly regimented – and, at $35 per session, rather pricey – game of Twister. ("Put your left hand on three and your right heel on six, shoulders back and head up!")
In the tiny essentials session, instructor L.A. Russell runs through 31 different exercises, including the wheelbarrow (pushing the bench out with your upper body until you're in plank position), the catfish (pushing the bench out with your feet until you're in plank position) and the aforementioned spider lunge. "I know, I make it look easy," she says more than once – and she's right. As I attempt each position, most of which are complicated, moving variations of planks and lunges, I feel similar to when I borrowed a friend's BlackBerry after my iPhone died: Basic capabilities are now five million times more difficult.
I leave the studio feeling defeated; despite the modifications and encouragement that Russell provides, I think the Lagree method – whose devotees reportedly include Nicole Kidman and Courteney Cox – is too hard-core for me. The next day, however, I feel as though I've been hit by a truck – especially in my abs, which typically fail to respond to most forms of exercise. I decide to try one more class under the (admittedly flawed) logic that if it hurts, it must work.
This time, I do the 50-minute fusion class, which involves many of the same lunges and planks, plus the most excruciating sit-ups I've ever tried. It is, indeed, easier than the first time, though I still struggle with the core-based moves – suggesting that in my case, at least, it might be best to experiment with plain old Pilates before graduating to Pilates on crack.