Working out in your stilettos? Bonkers right? Healthista editor Anna Magee recently tried it with personal trainer Nikki Manashe for a story in the Daily Mail. Pictures by Juliette Neel
After doing lengthy Tina Turner impersonations on the dance floor on a recent night out, I woke up the next morning with my leg muscles burning, wondering if I had run a marathon rather than merely attend a friend’s wedding.
Now, a new fitness trend is capitalising on the sore legs most of us feel after dancing in our stilettos on long nights out, claiming that working out in high heels can strengthen and tone parts of the legs, butt, hips thighs and core that regular routines in bog-standard trainers leave behind.
But does it work? More importantly, with doctors advocating the dangers of wearing high heels since well before Manohlo Blahnik designed the first ‘needle’ stiletto in 1974, is it even safe?
Personal trainer Nikki Manashe, girlfriend to cage-fighter and Katie Price ex Alex Reid, thinks so.
She now asks all her female clients to wear high heels during the part of the workout where they work the lower body through lunges, squats and kicks.
Recently, Manashe was photographed training glamour model Alicia Douvall.
After a warm-up of running and boxing, Douvall donned a set of six inch patent stilettos and began doing squats and lunges.
Common sense suggests working out in high heels is a sprained ankle waiting to happen. Indeed, when super-high heel lover Victoria Beckham recently tweeted a picture of herself in five inch stiletto boots walking on a treadmill desk, the twittersphere lit up with responses about the injury potential of Beckham’s latest fitness routine.
Yet, Nikki Manashe is not a lone voice. In the US the Heel Hop workout, created by dancer Kamilah Barrett who has appeared strutting her stuff – in heels – in videos for R Kelly and 50 Cent, is an hour of walking, squatting and even doing sit-ups in heels at an LA gym.
Meanwhile at New York City’s chi-chi Crunch fitness, classes called Stiletto Strength require people bring their own heels and claim to strengthen the legs and improve posture with heel-clad moves such as squats and leg lifts.
Nikki Manashe qualified as a personal trainer four years ago.
Around 18 months ago, Nikki was in her bedroom doing a fitness DVD based on pole dancing – part of the workout was done wearing stilettos.
‘At the time I was experimenting with different fitness methods to see which worked the muscles the most; which really made me feel it in the areas women want to tone.
‘This particular workout required you to do three sets of 15 squats and four sets of 20 lunges while wearing heels,’ remembers Nikki.
‘I had never felt my leg muscles work so hard.
‘It made instinctive sense to me,’ says Nikki. ‘My own trainer at the time had said the best workout is done on an incline because doing lower body moves with the ankles lifted slightly higher make the calf, hip and leg muscles work much harder.
‘He used to ask me to do lunges with the front foot on a step and the back foot flat, saying that incline would tone my leg faster,’ she remembers. ‘He was right, it always felt harder.
‘Wearing high heels gives you a similar kind of incline which means anything you do in them that works the lower body is not only more effective, it also works the smaller muscles so you discover soreness in areas you don’t work when you’re wearing trainers – especially the bottom muscles, the calves, inner thighs and outer hips.’
About a year ago, Nikki mooted the idea of training in heels with her clients.
‘Some said a flat no, others were persuaded to try it out when I explained the logic’.
Still, most of her workout is done in trainers, Nikki explains. ‘It’s only when we get to the lower body that I ask my clients to stick on their favourite pair of heels and get squatting, lunging and kicking’.
So what have results been like so far?
‘Most of them look narrower in the hip area and their butt cheeks are tighter,’ she says.
No broken ankles then? ‘Not at all, it’s important they choose a pair of shoes they can walk comfortably in though, that are high enough – at least three inches – to provide an incline but not too high that they’re in danger!
‘On Saturday, a client said to me: ‘I hadn’t seen a friend in a year since I started training with you and she said ‘Wow, you look different from the back, your shape has changed completely. You look so much more narrow.’
I ran the idea by my own shoe-loving girlfriend Izzy. ‘You must be out of your mind,’ she said bluntly.
As a Louboutin enthusiast, I thought she would be all over it, yet she dismissed the idea outright and sniffed, ‘Darling, there is a time for trainers and a time for Loubis, and never the twain shall meet.’
And yet, against my better judgement I was intrigued. Was it a gimmick or could there be something in it?
Of course, podiatrists have waxed lyrical to me for years about how high heels shorten the Achilles tendon in the ankle and put pressure on the discs in the spine.
Indeed, in June last year figures from the College of Podiatry surveyed 2000 British women and found that one in ten had joint problems, arthritis and muscular issues as a result of simply walking in high heels and over half had bunions – imagine the damage a stiletto workout might do.
But like most women, one of the reasons I work out is shallow but compelling: I want shapelier legs, slimmer hips and a better butt. If something out there is claiming to get me there faster, I am trying it.
Last Friday then, on the hottest day of the year, I donned a pair of pink three inch stilettos and went with Nikki Manashe to my local park to do her workout.
In fact, it started in my trainers, running around the park.
‘I never get people to run in high heels,’ says Nikki. ‘That is just downright silly and extremely dangerous as the risk of falling over and jarring the joints is so high.’
This was the aerobic side of the workout. As Nikki’s sessions focus on burning fat, it was designed to get me sweating and my heart rate up. We did a system called Fartlek training, used by athletes for maximum fat-burning which requires a mix of slow jogging, fast sprinting and walking. As Nikki shouted ‘Faster, now walk, now sprint, now jog’ I did my best not to pass out.
Then it was high heel time. I began with three sets of 20 squats.
Now imagine a 45 year old woman in tight black leggings, a fitted fushcia tank and dusty pink court shoes continuously squatting onto an imaginary kiddie stool whilst another woman stood by her shouting, ‘Lower! And up! Lower! And Up! And again!’
Convinced the poor old passers-by thought we were doing a remake of Beyonce’s Crazy In Love for the middle-aged, I almost apologized to a pensioner dragging her trolley through the park.
Squat exercises are tough enough in functional footwear. Your legs are apart and you’re squatting onto an imaginary seat using all the strength you can muster in your legs and bottom.
With three inches added to my short five foot three frame from the heels, I had to lower my bottom further which worked my calves and hips so hard they burned.
The addition of holding three kilogram weights to work my upper body at the same time meant I was pouring with sweat by the end of the third set.
Being keen to look better in skinny jeans, I am a squatting enthusiast in my day-to-day workout. I normally go to the gym a couple of times a week and on other days, do a Jillian Michaels workout.
Michaels is the trainer off the US The Biggest Loser and until Friday I thought the moves in her 30 Day Shred DVD were the most pain I would ever feel while working my lower body.
But this hurt in new areas, most notably my inner thighs, which rarely say ‘boo’ in terms of that ‘something is working’ kind of pain you get during a good workout.
‘Right, kick boxing,’ shouted Nikki, getting a pair of sparring pads from her bag of torturous props.
‘What? In heels?’ I asked. Was she serious?
I had to get into fighting stance and kick my back foot forward to various heights, hitting the pad with the side of my calf. Ouch. In heels. Double ouch.
To balance required a laser-like focus that meant I could think of little else but staying on my feet creating a kind of commando concentration that made me work even harder.
I felt it in my core and tummy muscles deeply as I tried hard not to fall over and break a tooth.
We then moved onto walking lunges with bicep curls.
I had to put one stiletto-ed foot in front of the other and then lower my body weight almost to the ground, while bringing the weights to my chest, before lifting the back foot up and doing it again – for 100 metres!
By the halfway point I was gasping for breath, my bottom and legs aching with that gnawing pain you get when your muscles are crying for mercy.
Between gob-smacked passers-by on their lunch breaks and intrigued stroller-pushing mums, a truck went by loudly playing Happy by Pharrell Williams.
Suddenly – totally unprompted – I broke into my old Tina Turner impersonation, joyously waving splayed arms about, shaking my booty and doing my best mum-dancing.
What just happened, I thought? Suddenly, I felt 25 and sexy again.
Indeed, 25 years ago I was rarely seen in flat shoes and used to totter to university, to work and on long nights out in all manner of novelty heel.
But by my early 30s I was married and mortgaged, in a stressful job and functional footwear.
As I worked out with Nikki, I got a glimpse of the reckless young woman I used to be, teetering in my thigh high stilettoed boots on night club podiums or strutting across town in bright red patent Mary Janes and loving the powerfully sexy feeling it used to give me.
Needless to say, the jaws of the passers-by fell open even further and when one tried to pick us up with a terrible line (which at my age, I almost thanked him for) I flirted right back.
‘High heels make you feel sexy and more confident,’ says Nikki.
‘For my clients that hate working out, it’s a great way of forgetting you’re trying to get fit and make the workout more fun. They’re also great for confidence and working out in them can make you feel more comfortable in heels on nights out.’
In fact, while a study in July 2012 by footcare company Compeed found that British women wear the highest heels in Europe, other research by shoe designer Kandee has found that some 97 per cent of women said high heels made them feel more attractive, sexy and confident.
That may be so, says leading physiotherapist Tim Allardyce, from Surrey Physio but working out in high heels is ‘absolutely crazy and completely ridiculous.’
‘You’re increasing the stress through your legs because you’re working out with your feet in an abnormal position,’ says Allardyce. ‘Most of the force is going into the big toe which can lead to bunions’.
Moreover, it can also increase the stress on the hips, the back and knees causing damage to joints, he explains.
‘If you workout wearing heels instead of trainers, the foot doesn’t adequately absorb the force of movements such as lunges and squats,’ he says.
‘That force has to go somewhere so it adds unhealthy pressure to the knees, the hips, the ankles and back.’
That can increase the risk of back pain, injury and inflammation, he says.
‘The lower back is under so much pressure in heels because all your weight is shifted forwards’ he says.
‘That means the discs in the lower spine are at greater risk of becoming stiff and inflamed and could lead to serious back injuries such as prolapsed disc where a spinal disc presses against a nerve root in the back causing severe pain.’
But could there be any merit in high-heeled workouts?
‘I can see how working out in high heels can strengthen the calf muscles because the calves have to work harder with the ankle on an incline,’ says Allardyce.
‘It can also potentially improve balance because there is less contact with the ground so other muscles in the body are forced to work harder to keep you upright and stabilise your body. In fact, every muscle in the leg will work harder if you’re wearing high heels.
‘But there are much better and safer ways to strengthen leg muscles – the first step is to wear good supportive trainers,’ he asserts.
The day after my workout, I can hardly walk and my inner and outer thighs are so sore that squatting on the loo comes with groans of muscular agony.
It’s the good pain that a tough workout can bring and makes me wonder whether I might have some heels on hand to pop on for the lower body section of my favourite workout DVDs (so as not to scare passers-by again). But Allardyce’s warnings are too hard to ignore.
So, while I won’t be throwing my stilettos into my gym bag just yet (in other words, it was fun but don’t try this at home), I might bust few new moves into to my next Tina Turner routine.
Read more about Anna’s experience of the stiletto workout in the Daily Mail.
Anna Magee is the editor of healthista.com. Find out more about Nikki Manashe’s training at fitnessbird.co.uk.
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