These heels were made for ... fitness?
Hip-hop dancer and choreographer Kamilah Barrett's Heel Hop workout class is one of a growing number of exercise programs that forgo sneakers - in favor of some unlikely footwear. "It's a sport-chic, internal and external workout for women," says Barrett, a former "So You Think You Can Dance" competitor who's based in Los Angeles. She's performed with an array of popular musicians, from R. Kelly to 50 Cent. "High heels are almost like walking a tightrope. And if we want to slip into these shoes, we have to condition our feet to withstand it."
Indeed, the no-impact strengthening workout is designed to help women safely master sky-high heels, while gaining confidence in the process. During a Heel Hop class, women work on proper weight distribution, balance and spinal alignment, Barrett says. They also tone the core, glutes, buttocks muscles and legs. Ever notice a woman who looks shaky in her heels? She could benefit from this workout, advocates say.
Barrett, 33, leads all-ages high-heel workout sessions in fitness studios around LA, and her 60-minute DVD helps those who'd rather do their stiletto strutting at home. But Heel Hop isn't the only option: Crunch Fitness gyms, for example, offer classes called "Stiletto Strength" that strengthen the legs, abs and back to support better posture in heels.
Of course, it's not a stretch to think that prancing about in 3- or 6-inch heels sounds - and looks - dangerous. And some experts are skeptical. In a study published last year in the Journal of Applied Physiology, researchers concluded that regular heel use can cause muscle damage and permanent changes in the structure of the foot. It's unclear whether working out in heels is riskier than simply walking in them. Though she isn't a doctor, Barrett stresses that her conditioning program helps women avoid injuries. "If we choose the right shoe and work the right areas to support our body weight, it'll be a walk in the park," she says.
Heel Hop classes typically begin on a yoga mat. After a round of sit-ups, women shake their shoulders and twist their hips to upbeat hip hop songs. At the end of class, they strut their stuff, walking diagonally from one corner of the room to the other.
Barrett expanded on what to expect during a Heel Hop class, and why women should strap on those stilettos, during a conversation with U.S. News. Her responses have been edited.
What kind of heels do women wear to class? Wedges? Six-inchers?
I like to tell women how I shop for shoes. I always want my toes to lie flat, and I want to be open in the ankle bracket so I'm not suffocating my bones. Wedges tend to be a little heavier on the joints, so we want to do more of a lighter heel with straps around the toes and ankles for support.
What are the benefits, both physical and emotional?
I've had women say, "Wow, I've been able to spend longer time in my heels." It's a way to have the luxury without the injuries. I call it the work in and the work out, because oh my gosh, what a remarkable impact on self-confidence. We women are on a mission, and high heels are our vehicle. It's an amazing time to be with yourself, which is key to mental and physical health. It's also great for weight loss because if you don't feel love for yourself, you're not going to allow your body to make the changes it needs.
Are most participants regular heel wearers, or do some typically stick to flats?
I get them all. I had a woman who has been doing a body building pageant; I had one who had no coordination at all and wanted to feel sexy. And this is what Heel Hop is. It's a home where women can come support each other and gain confidence. It's always triumph when you walk out - and the thing that's so amazing is that after a workout, not only do you feel it in your muscles, but you see yourself changing in the mirror.