As I wait in the spare, industrial-style holding area of Ultra Lagree, the sound of labored groans and loud exhales rises above the upbeat crooning of Ariana Grande from the other side of a wooden sliding door. Cutting through the noise, another voice calmly counts down and gives out instructions, prompting a collective sigh of relief upon signaling that it’s time to wrap up. The door slides open and a woman pokes her head outside, brightly motioning for the next batch of students to come in.
The sun shines through the floor-to-ceiling windows and across two rows of leather and metal machines that resemble medieval torture devices. Fitspiration and mom of two Iya Villania is stretching her limbs out on one as she cools down. The instructor, Sarah, introduces us to the Megaformer by walking us through the basics: the movable central platform called the carriage, flanked on either side by foam-padded handles, covering a set of bolts, springs, and pulleys that can be adjusted to varying levels of resistance. It’s dizzying and intimidating, and the workout hasn’t even started yet.
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From LA to Manila
Harold Lee and his wife Ela stumbled across the Lagree Fitness Method on a trip to California last year. A longtime fan of Pilates, Ela signed up for a class in Burbank, hoping to squeeze a workout in while on vacation. She enjoyed it so much that they tracked down its French American founder Sebastien Lagree and talked to him about bringing it to the Philippines.
“Sebastien Lagree developed this and perfected the low-impact, high-intensity workout,” Harold says. “There are now 400 licensed studios all over the world. There are less than a hundred in LA, but plenty in Europe and Canada. He was very accommodating, so we decided to push through.”
But first they had to find someone Mr. Lagree could mentor and train, who would then be able to groom their own instructor pool. Harold thought of his friend, fitness devotee Will Devaughn. “I called him up, asked him to Google Lagree Fitness and tell me if he’s game. After 10 minutes, he called and said, ‘Bro, mind blown. This is different.’ I booked his trip to LA right then and there. He trained at Sebastien’s warehouse and got certified.”
Harold felt Devaughn would be the perfect face for their studio because he’s aware there are people who may dismiss Lagree, with its long, languid moves that emphasize balance, endurance, and flexibility, as being feminine and softcore compared to the fast and furious pace of Cross Fit or pumping iron at the gym. “It’s not just for women; it’s for everybody. An MMA fighter told us that when he tried it, hirap na hirap sya. Another male client says that when he goes to class, he leaves his ego at the door. I encourage men to try it, especially the ones who are really strong. A lot of husbands and boyfriends go with their partners and enjoy it so much, they sign up. I’ve stopped doing all other workouts except this one. It’s helped with my own back problems.”
Despite being lower impact and slower than, say, boxing or Zumba, Lagree’s contorted positions and controlled, time-under-tension pace are just as intense and no less challenging. And while you may not necessarily be knocked out of breath after 45 minutes of lunging, planking, and twisting on the Megaformer machine, you will definitely find yourself sore all over and dripping in sweat.
“It’s a good kind of sore every time you do it, even if you’ve been doing it for years,” says Harold, who counts PBA players and body builders among those who have walked in since Ultra Lagree opened its doors last May. “I tell our clients who are athletes that Lagree will help them get better at their sport. But what’s funny is that they start training at the gym so they can be better at Lagree! They want to conquer the class because they find it so challenging.”
What makes Harold happiest is seeing the transformations of their clients, like a middle-aged couple who started attending class regularly. The husband related that, after years of seeing a physical therapist due to back pain, his doctor was so amazed by the improvements in his posture and core that he gave him a clean bill of health. “After 10 sessions, his doctor asked what he was doing and told him to keep it up. On his next visit, his PT told him, ‘I’m not going to assess you anymore, you’re good.’”
Embrace the shake
Now it’s time to get through my own 45-minute session at Ultra Lagree. Sarah cues the music and we start out with the saw, stretching our bodies with the carriage propped up on our palms and toes as we move into a plank. Then Sarah instructs us to stand at the foot of the platform and walks us through a sequence of lunges and squats that set our butts on fire. Because the class is so small (a maximum of seven students, as there are only seven Megaformer machines), Sarah moves through the room adjusting our positions—telling us to lean forward, lead with our heads, straighten our backs, stretch out our arms, point our tailbones down, and all kinds of corrections that only make it more painful and impossible to cheat. Most excruciating of all are the pulses and holds, where movements are so minimal (you’re supposed to limit the range to just an inch) that you can’t tell if you’re moving your muscles or they’re just shaking involuntarily.
We move into the mermaid, angled twisting sit-ups that work our cores and obliques, before again standing at the end of the Megaformer for more squats and straddles to target our thighs. Then it’s time for the part of the class that had the students in the session before ours gasping: a one-minute sprint putting together a series of moves so you push yourself to the point of exhaustion before it’s time to walk away. Today, we’re told to hold a plank, tap our shoulders, then alternately bring our knees up to our chests (a.k.a. mountain climbers), repeating as many times as we can. The only thing that gets me through is planning what I’m going to eat for breakfast later. After what feels like a lifetime, we’re finally done, and we’re encouraged to towel off, hydrate (the first time we’re allowed to drink throughout class, as there are no rest periods or water breaks). My legs wobble like jelly as I slowly make my way down the stairs.
“It’s addicting; you’re going to feel it in your muscles tomorrow,” Harold assures me when we meet right after, promising it won’t be long before my body starts craving the challenge again. A little hard to believe, as just sitting across from him is making me wince.
But a funny thing happens as I’m lying in bed that night in an oddly exhilarated state of post-workout pain. I find myself logging on to their website, scrolling through the schedule, and checking it against my calendar for the week. Before I know it, I’m booking my next class.