All fired up to sweat

Got a soft spot for firemen? Want a flat stomach? Now New Yorkers can indulge both fantasies at once. Lucky them, says VICTORIA YOUNG

New York is the city where everyone (and their mother) works out, and there is a plethora of novelty, punter-wooing, exercise regimes all over the city. But a downtown workout run by a certain 33-year-old Eric Torres is the session on just about everyone's lips.

It sounds suspiciously like a plotline for Sex And The City, but, in this case, the fuss is because Torres, a fully qualified personal trainer, also happens to be a working Manhattan firefighter. Torres has big blue eyes, a boxer's nose and a body like a pitbull terrier. Not only does he fight fires for a living, he also looks like he tosses down a handful of steroids with his cereal every morning. Suddenly New York women can indulge two dreams at once: their fireman fantasies and the idea that one day soon they will have firm thighs.

The Firefighter's Workout - Eric's trademarked idea - has been running for a year at Crunch Gym in downtown Manhattan. Based on the rigorous training undertaken by fledgling firemen and women in the States, he also oversees the training of firefighters who will teach the class in San Francisco.

Does one have to be terribly fit, I enquire, to take his classes? $22 out of pocket, and a confessed couch potato, I need to know. He says not, but advises me to pace myself. Why is the class so popular? "Depending on your metabolism, it burns between 500-1,000 calories, works every single muscle group, combining toning with vigorous aerobic activity," says Eric, deadpan. "Without doubt it is the most strenuous workout that the gym offers. And it's different."

I don't appreciate the resonance of these words until the next day, when I wake up unable to move, feeling like every muscle in my body has been battered with an iron bar. But for the moment, blase, I decide I can handle it.

Torres' class is a mixed bag, ranging from a stout, bearded man to a petite dancer. "I tell you, this class is a butt-kicker - I have new respect for firefighters," whoops 35-year old Klavdia Roc. "But everyone in the building would die if I had to save them," adds Mari Aldin, a 62-year- old.

Eric talks us into character: "OK, rookies, let's go. There is a fire at the top of a tall building..." We must put it out. Accompanied by a red flashing light, crackling walky-talkies and low, pulsing funk, the idea, of course, is that we get so carried away fancying ourselves as heroic firefighters that we don't notice we are doing a very full-on workout.

There are props: a step (to simulate stair-climbing) and 20lb bar (we pretend to batter down an iron door). Raising two hand-held weights alternately, we climb an imaginary ladder. There is a skipping rope and a hosepipe.

By the time we have "warmed up", I am sweating and puce. It feels like an emergency but perhaps not the kind Torres has in mind.

Eric shouts that a "backdraft" means we must descend to floor level. It is not dignified, squatting in a press-up pose, bottom in the air, scissoring one's legs and jumping. Next I have to haul the fire hose, which is filthy, onto my right shoulder. It is folded with large chunks of rubber tyre and weighs a ton. The pace revs up to top speed for 80 flights (elevator out of order apparently).

It's time to skip like a boxer, pretending we are running downstairs. I am mesmerised by Eric's skipping steps, thrusting and matador-like. He makes it look so easy but I trip, too exhausted to lift my legs properly.

Just as they threaten to give way altogether, he announces that it is time for a non-stop medley implementing all our new skills. With the end in sight, I get a second wind. We line up, jogging on the spot as we wait to drag a dummy - weighing all of 185lb - across the studio before dashing back, hosepipe on shoulder, for press-ups, more lunges (with hosepipe), and endless sit-ups thrown in for good measure.

And then, suddenly, it is over. The fire is out, and we are warming down. Gasping, I push my way to the water fountain and drink like a camel. I attempt to talk to a 6ft musclebound man nearby, but I have come over all giddy, giggling as my words trip over each other in some strange mumbo- jumbo. He says that simply by taking this class every week since May he has lost 40lb. Despite my fatigue I contemplate returning next week.

Must be the Torres factor...

WEIRD AND WONDERFUL WORKOUTS

WEIGH DOWN WORKSHOP: participants lose weight by replacing their devotion to food and sloth with devotion to God.

ABS, THIGHS AND GOSSIP: body-conditioning belted out by a pint-sized drag queen in full regalia.

AEROBICS WITH ATTITUDE: same as above, but aerobics.

RECESS (see right): adults relive their childhood innocence doing hopscotch, hula-hoop and relay-racing.

MOON MEDITATION: mixes yoga and meditation with aromatherapy incense and live music from Indian percussionists.

BALLET BOOT CAMP: impossibly complicated choreography and postures are struck, not really taught, by members of the New York City Ballet Company.

BOOT CAMP: a no-frills workout for masochists and purists alike, barked out by former marines.

FIVE RHYTHMS: freeflowing dance class that attempts to improvise the "five stages of life" from childhood to adulthood.

REBOUNDING: aerobics taught on

mini-trampolenes.

B-BOYING: a complex fusion of hip-hop and breakdance known, in the trade as, "locking and popping".

REAR ATTITUDE, UPPER CUT OR ROCK BOTTOM: seasoned workout veterans zoom in on problem areas.

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