A Few Questions With…fitBallet Founder Julie Walsh
A few months back I had the pleasure of meeting Julie Walsh – Harvard grad, lifelong dancer, and founder of an awesome fitness program called fitBallet. fitBallet combines cardio and strength training while maintaining a focus on stretching and ballet technique to help you tone up, build strength, and achieve that lean, flexible dancers body. Julie offers one-on-one training, distance training (conducted online, so anyone, anywhere can participate in this), and group fitness classes at her studio in NYC (available through Classpass as well). I did a one-on-one session with her as well as a distance session, and both were fantastic. Not only is Julie incredibly sweet and encouraging in a genuine way, but she also possesses the ability to help you make those little tweaks to your form that render a certain exercise that much more effective. Read on to learn more about Julie, including how she developed fitBallet and what keeps her motivated.
Q: How did you go about developing the fitBallet program, once you decided to do so?
A: I’ve been working on the program bit by bit since I was in law school, which was about three years ago. I’d come up with exercise combinations I liked, but once I decided to launch the business, I wanted to make sure it worked for everyone. I enlisted a group of women, some dancers and some not, and had them try it out for several months. Once it was clear that the program worked across a span of body types, I worked on scaling the curriculum (creating multiple levels) so that it would be compatible with all fitness levels as well.
Q: Can you give a brief overview of the program and explain how ballet is integrated throughout?
A: The program is based on circuit training; the warmup and the workout both contain several rounds of exercises that repeat. Ballet exercises are mixed in with more traditional cardio and weight-training movements. So, in a particular workout, you might hop up from a set of pushups to do some grands battements (leg lifts), and then head right into some tricep lifts. The idea is that the ballet is integrated fully into the other movements, so that your heart rate remains elevated whether you’re on a “fit” or a “ballet” exercise.
Q: What exercises or elements did you want to include in the program and why? What elements or exercises did you NOT want to include, and why?
A: I wanted to include the ballet exercises that would highlight and sculpt the muscles that most workout programs overlook, like the inner thighs and the muscles along the spine. When I was developing the program, I’d return to ballet class after working out “traditionally” for a while, and be shocked at how sore I was…and I was in pretty good shape by most metrics! Ballet just targets areas of the body that other workouts leave out completely, and I wanted to make sure I zeroed in on that.
I didn’t want to include heavy weights. The heaviest weights the program uses are 15 lbs, and most people have to work up to that over a significant period of time. I respect weightlifting as a physical discipline, but I’m much more interested in using weight as an accelerator for making functional movements more powerful, rather than as an end in itself.
4. I think everyone admires the grace, flexibility, and strength that ballet dancers possess! Can you explain how fitBallet helps in achieving these qualities?
A: I think when we’re talking about grace, we’re largely talking about postural alignment and coordination. Learning to stand in a ballet alignment is pretty tough…we’re used to sitting with our shoulders slumped forward, core unengaged, etc. Just learning how to hold yourself like a dancer is a real exercise, and one that I work with all my clients on. The coordination aspect is alllll about the core. When your core is hyper-strong, all your movements are rooted and have a real stability.
Flexibility comes from stretching, and the program focuses intensely on that. Stretching is crazily undervalued by other fitness programs. You need to stretch your entire muscular structure every time you work out, and you have to hold each posture for at least 30 seconds in order for your muscle to have time to relax and lengthen. No exercise classes I’ve attended give stretching that much attention, and the result is the shortened, choppy muscles that no one wants.
Strength is the goal of most workout regimes, but fitBallet focuses on functional strength. It’s not about being able to lift enormous barbells. It’s about being able to jump higher and push farther and hold your own body up far past what you thought you were capable of. Dancers are warriors, and I want that mentality for all women. I had a client tell me the other day that she can now lift her 35-lb toddler as a dead weight with just her arms, and (if she needs to) she can also carry her other toddler and her baby. That made my day, knowing that she felt so powerful.
Q: You studied many different fitness programs before starting fitBallet. What sets fitBallet apart from the other programs out there?
A: A lot of people ask if fitBallet is similar to a barre class, and the answer is: not really. Barre classes focus on small, isolated movements and repeat them until muscle failure. In coming up with the fitBallet curriculum, I focused more on high-intensity, whole-body movements. For example, a workout might require a client to do a set of grande battements while holding light weights overhead. In this one exercise, you’re working your lower body (the grande battement movement) your arms (the weights) and your core (via the stabilization necessary not to topple over). It makes for a really efficient workout.
My main desire in developing the program was to make it the one workout you’d need. It has the elongation of yoga, but more cardio. It has the muscle toning of weightlifting, but without the possibility of “bulking up.” It has the intense, circuit-driven nature of a Crossfit workout, but without the need to perform Olympic lifts or find a gym where you can throw medicine balls at the wall. That’s what was most important to me: creating a comprehensive program that addresses all a woman’s fitness needs. Making the decision to exercise is already tough enough, right? Who wants to have to figure out a well-balanced routine on top of that?
Q: You were super encouraging and positive when we worked out together, which was wonderful and very helpful! Can you share some advice or guidance for people out there who are hesitant to embark on a fitness program? How can they overcome the hurdles of the difficult beginning stages and stay motivated?
A: Thanks, Jackie! I think the most important thing to remember is this: the minute you do your first pushup–even if you’re doing it on your knees, and you can’t lower more than an inch–you’ve crossed the river. You’ve done the absolute hardest thing, which is quieting all the bizarre mental demons that tell us we shouldn’t even try, if we’re not going to be perfect immediately. You should never be embarrassed or frustrated about where you are, physically, right now. Instead, summon up the willpower to make one small change, one tiny step forward, and then use the pride you feel to power that engine forward. Take heart in the fact that the very beginning is the hardest it’s ever going to be. The day you make the decision to take care of your own body and do one thing to enact it, you’re already halfway to health.
That’s the spiritual part of it. The day-to-day success comes from one thing: accountability. What does that mean for you? It might be that you set out on a fitness challenge with a friend (so that someone is waiting for you at the gym). It might be setting a goal (like running a marathon) and taking all the steps toward it that remove your choice in the matter (like signing up, paying the entry fee, and telling all your loved ones to meet you at the finish line). Do whatever it takes to place the daily decision-making beyond your power. If the choice to work on your body is made for you during that crucial starting period, you just do it. And then, pretty soon, you won’t have trouble wanting to make it for yourself!
I really can’t recommend Julie enough as a fitness instructor. She has tons of positive energy, and is truly encouraging and inspiring. Her upbeat attitude and love of movement are infectious, even for a total couch potato like myself! I’ll admit, I was a little hesitant about doing a workout session via Google Hangouts, but it honestly worked out perfectly. Having Julie “there” to guide me and talk me through the workout really helped keep me motivated, made me push myself a little harder, and made it way more fun than working out alone. The hour really flew by and I was super sore (in a good way!) the next day. Overall, a great experience and one that I highly recommend!
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I will be taking a class or two when I'm in NYC!