Thursday, June 2, 2016

Don't Count on Me

Hey, here's a thing:

This is FigureRobics, a Chinese workout-video series in which they count to eight in English over and over. I've looked at several of these videos, and in all of them the counting is a central feature. It's really the only distinguishing feature, other than consistently good hairstyles for both the male and female performers. 

I have an opinion about counting to eight over and over in workout videos: it's repetitive, depressing, and cultish. Like, yeah, existentially we're all just ticking away the eight-counts until we leave this world (of sass), but must you be so literal about it? Billy Blanks does it with his crew in his early Tae Bo videos, and the counting is definitely framed as an expression of zealotry—a titillating, ritualistic way to show how ALL IN they are—but I think they cut it out after the warm-up. Either that or I learned to tune it out, because the background music wasn't too bad and I could focus on that. Here, all you've got is a lonely high-hat house loop, evoking a hiccuping kitchen clock. 

I was excited to do my first Chinese workout video, and these floor exercises seem fine, but yeah no.  

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Jessica Smith's Plain Dealing

YouTuber Jessica Smith is the new fitness maven in my life. Her appeal is so straightforward yet sneaky I find myself constructing all sorts of tortured descriptors like "distinctively bland" or "normcore fabulosity" to explain her non-mystique. She has the blank, gentle directness of a good therapist, combined with a wellspring of interesting exercises that you won't find in other workouts. She's got the three Cs of effective presentation, a thing I just made up: competent, confident, and casual. Jessica doesn't go for fancy locations or kewl workout clothes or high-polish production—she's typically in her living room (like you, the viewer), filming on her laptop—but her workouts challenge you in perfect doses, and together with her no-pressure motivational style, it all adds up to an addictive home-workout experience. 

Working out with Jessica is like working out at a friend's place. Her dog, Peanut, is usually hanging out with a bone or napping; she wakes up near the end of the workout to lick her sweat. You wouldn't think it's adorable every time, but it absolutely is. Peanut is a chubby little nugget of dog delight, and I will watch her sniff the door or stare off into space any old time. 

Jessica shapes her workouts with real intention and delivers fully conceptualized, well-structured videos. Take, for example, the "Low Impact 'Quiet' Cardio 30-Minute Workout" above: it manages to be truly low-impact (no shoes needed) while making good on the promise of 30 minutes of cardio. She has us do "quiet" squat-jumps, by which she means focusing on a controlled jump all the way through the legs and feet on the way up and down. That kind of attention to detail is hard to find outside of a ballet class. I did "'Quiet' Cardio" on a low-energy day, and, like many of her videos, it gently sucked me in, pushed me to do well, and left me feeling like I'd gone on a nice long run. 

Her exercises: they're dank. (Yep, dank. It's 2002.) Jessica's choreographic vocabulary is truly impressive. Her moves are built on basics—squats, lunges, pliés, jumps, arm movements, yoga poses, floor exercises—but she always adds some sort of twist. She might have you do a curtsy lunge and then hinge at the waist while doing a tricep curl. Or she'll add wide arm circles to a leg-lift series, so that you're working upper and lower halves in new and different ways. If you're into body meridians and that kind of whole-body energy circuit–type thing, you'll love her.

In fact, Jessica's are the only workouts I've encountered that approximate "Rhythmics" levels of innovation and fluidity in the choreography. She and "Rhythmics" are about the only home workouts I do anymore, the latter for that vintage/femme/euro vibe and Jessica for no-frills, American-girl body maintenance.

And I mean "American girl" in the historical, New England sense (though she lives in Florida): Jessica is a walking-in-place embodiment of favorite Puritan girl's names—Verity, Prudence, Amity, Felicity, Tenacious. Industrious and a bit modest—no booty shorts or heaps o' cleavage; no close-ups except for in her Q&As, where she fights the good fight dispelling myths about diet pills and toxin cleanses—Jessica is refreshingly, admirably basic. She's the friend who's always fine to eat at whatever restaurant, even as you change your mind four times. She's the officemate who never talks shit about anyone and is pleasant to talk to at lunch but equally fine not talking. And, as my best friend put it, "More than any other workout-video person, it feels like she's in the room with you, watching you and knowing what to say and when."

She also has a huge line of walking-workout videos, but I haven't done any of those. I've skimmed through a couple, and they seem suited to both beginners and anyone who wants some cardio without having to go outside. I've enjoyed all of her ballet titles, her HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workouts, and some of the more conceptualized ones, like the aforementioned "'Quiet' Cardio" and this "Rise and Shine" morning workout:

So hip-hip-hooray for Jessica Smith. I could spill 500 more words about how she fits into the zeitgeist of DIY YouTube success, but I'm more interested in her message than her medium. What comes through most of all in Jessica's work, as well as in her judiciously served commentary, is the importance of feeling good rather than looking good. That sounds like a cliché, but it's hard to overstate how difficult it can be to internalize that message when society, the media, and your own demons are constantly telling you there's something wrong with the way you look. Jessica only wants you get to know your body, to appreciate it, and to maintain that contraption so that you feel good spending all your time on earth inside of it.