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Nicole Winhoffer Madonna's former trainer Pin It
Photo: Nicole Winhoffer/Adidas

Fitness instructors are universally pretty inspiring people. I mean, they spend their days drawing the best out of you, down to your last (didn’t-think-you-could-do-it) donkey kick. But sometimes, you meet one who takes it to the next level. That’s the case with Nicole Winhoffer, a rising star on the dance cardio scene who’s best known as Madonna’s former trainer—and is now stepping powerfully into her own spotlight.

Winhoffer got her start as a classically trained ballet dancer (she still references sexy Balanchine angles in class), but the Manhattanite’s big break came when she was picked to join Madonna’s Sticky & Sweet Tour as a trainer (and would go on to become the pop singer’s full-time trainer and creative director of her Hard Candy Fitness empire).

Now, a half dozen years later as a “free agent,” the 31-year-old’s fine-tuning what’s become her NW Method—”a kind of spiritual hip hop” class that she and her instructors teach at New York City’s Standard Hotel and Bandier’s Studio B in the Flatiron District.

It has a special vibe: Winhoffer loves teaching the mind-body connection and body positivity as much as the moves that give pop-stars serious stage presence.

She’s into Eastern philosophy and energy work, and has no qualms referencing your chakras while you’re twerking. She drops goddess-y female empowerment platitudes—yet will shout spontaneous things like “Your butt is smiling at you!” Consider Nicole Winhoffer one of the unicorns of the workout world.

Winhoffer loves teaching the mind-body connection and body positivity as much as the moves that give pop-stars serious stage presence.

When I first met Winhoffer years ago (for this butt toning workout, just BTW), she’d just released her Addicted to Sweat DVDs and her energy conveyed something of a dance teacher’s strictness. Since then she’s loosened her top knot, built a following over the past year or so, and now during group classes her long flowy locks bounce around her. She’s on a healing mission (maybe from the confines of training the universe’s most demanding celeb?), and she’s taking you along for the ride. “If you have a hard time calming your mind using your mind, you can learn to use your body [to do it]. It’s another powerful way,” she says. You sense it’s her therapy of choice.

Nicole Winhoffer Adidas
Photo: Nicole Winhoffer/Adidas

Unlike other dance cardio methods, Winhoffer starts hers with sculpting work (some of which takes place on a step or a folding chair—you know you’re a bad-ass when it doesn’t topple over), then you move on to about 40 minutes of dance choreography. It’s about a 7.5 on the difficulty scale—with lots of explanation.

“When you’re sculpting, you’re tearing small muscle fibers. And if we just stopped, stuff would lock up. That’s when you get cramping. But when you move afterward, you get blood pumping through the muscle. It’s a whole circulation thing and an energetic one,” she explains. Plus you leave on a high.

She’s on a healing mission (maybe from the confines of training the universe’s most demanding celeb?), and she’s taking you along for the ride.

Winhoffer’s super-fun playlists help with that, too. The first time I took her class last summer, I hadn’t heard The Weeknd hit I Can’t Feel My Face yet. Winhoffer was hamming it up for us in front of the mirror, while wearing what can only be called the world’s tiniest shorts (not uncommon), shouting the lyrics, and asking “How, do, you feel? How, do, you, feel?! You really need to knooowww.” It’s a class where booty-dropping combines with be-real-with-yourself messagesand the approach leaves you feeling happy, rejuvenated, and drenched in sweat. Winhoffer calls it “Church.”

Clearly it’s working, since Winhoffer now counts the likes of model Nina Agdal, fit socialite Hannah Bronfman, and actress Molly Simms as devotees of her method. Two years ago she was tapped by friend and client Stella McCartney to be an ambassador for the British designer’s Adidas collaboration (which means you can sometimes find her touring with the fitness fashion brand), and she recently curated a box for Adidas’ Avenue A new fitness fashion subscription offering.

Nicole Winhoffer Adidas fitness artist
Photo: Nicole Winhoffer/Adidas

“There are people who love Nicole and come to this class religiously,” says a class regular, who’s “done every workout” and swears by Winhoffer and her “je ne sais quoi that makes people love her.” The room is filled with super high-profile people, she points out. “We would not all be in this room together in any other setting because of who they are in the art or performance world,” she adds.

Winhoffer says the art, fashion, and music worlds have come to her. “I don’t really promote. Classes have been mostly word of mouth. I think it’s because I’m focused on the results for women—and their lives, everyone’s going through something. I also empower them, and know how to do this for people in the public eye,” she says.

As a recently signed artist to Jay Z’s talent label, however, Winhoffer’s name is about to be out there a whole lot more. And she’s taken to calling herself a fitness artist. “I’m referring to the creative process that goes into creating movement. I don’t just teach bicep curls in the mirror,” she says, miming bored reps. “There’s an unconscious process that all artists share.”

Photo: Nicole Winhoffer
Photo: Nicole Winhoffer

Each NW Method class ends with a squad photo. “I want everyone to remember we made it through this together. We had a collective effort and intention for this day, in this month, of 2016,” says Winhoffer when I ask her about it—and why no one seems to sneak off to get changed and avoid the sweaty snap. “We tend forget the good stuff—but that’s really what we need more of. Everyone wants to be part of something good.” —Melisse Gelula and Victoria Lewis

For more squad fun (it’s good for your health FYI), try hosting a women’s circle, AKA the new girls’ night out.