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Photo: Equinox

Plenty of research has shown that exercise is good for the brain, but this new workout class takes mental fitness to a new level.

Headstrong debuted at Equinox on April 1 and will be offered across locations in New York City, Southern and Northern California, Chicago, and London.

Created by Chicago-based Tier 4 trainer Kai Karlstrom and Los Angeles-based yoga instructor Michael Gervais, it applies brainpower concepts like neuroplasticity, BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), and mindfulness to a 60-minute group fitness experience with the goal of sending gym goers on their way with stronger muscles from cranium to core.

The experience

Headstrong is divided into four sections—focus, adapt, willpower, and reboot—each of which comes with its own colored lighting to provide more sensory stimulation.

Focus is the warm-up and mostly consists of a progression of movements that build on rolling and crawling on the floor, towards standing up. Karlstrom explains that it’s designed based on a developmental kinesiology concept called dynamic neuromuscular stabilization, which taps motor patterns that are formed as the central nervous system develops in infants.  The thinking is that exercises that mimic those positions from early childhood development train the brain to control movement more efficiently, which in turn may help improve performance and prevent injury.

Headstrong brainpower class
Photo: Equinox

You start moving more quickly during adapt, a section designed to improve neuroplasticity—essentially the brain’s ability to make new connections—which is important for memory, learning, and much more. This section may be the toughest for group fitness junkies to, ahem, adapt to, since it totally upends the traditional practice of squatting or spinning in unison. Instead, you’re given exercises with a few variations that are called out sporadically and you’re encouraged to get creative and improvise. “We don’t let our brain make new connections, we do the same thing over and over. A lunge is always a lunge,” Karlstrom says. “You need to think more abstractly to allow for better motor control. We’re allowing people the freedom to think abstractly about movement.”

This section may be the toughest for group fitness junkies to adapt to, since it totally upends the traditional practice of squatting or spinning in unison.

The lights turn red to signal the switch to willpower, which lives up to its name in that it’s essentially 15 minutes of intense intervals, with plyometric and cardio moves like high knees and static holds like a low squat, where you’re meant to be pushing yourself to the max the entire time. The catch is that instructors don’t tell you how long the intervals are and give no indication of when they’ll be over, so the usual 10-second countdowns that help you power through, for example, are absent. I found that aspect to be really disconcerting and was surprised by how much my brain had been relying on those cues to push me through workouts. Karlstrom says the idea is to force you to use the prefontal cortex, or the “willpower” part of the brain, in this section, and to stimulate the production of the protein BDNF, which has also been linked to learning, memory, and other brain benefits.

You finish up with reboot, which is essentially just a smart version of a cool down (with some more science behind it).

Of course, while Karlstrom and Gervais consulted lots of research to design the class, it’s impossible to know how much it may actually benefit exercisers’ brains or how often you’d have to take it to see measurable changes. Either way, you’ll finish feeling like you’ve gotten in both a solid workout and meditation session. “We juxtapose high stress with relaxation, which is why when you finish the class it feels different,” Karlstrom says. “You crushed yourself in the willpower section, but you walk away feeling relaxed.”

Trainers aren’t the only ones talking about brainpower. Check out these 5 things you can learn about meditation from CEOs.

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