fitness for bibliophiles: the downstairs girl

At least we have a home. It’s dry, warm, and rent-free, one of the perks of living secretly in someone else’s basement. As long as you have a home, you have a place to plan and dream.

The Downstairs Girl, by Stacey Lee

Can you go up and down undetected? Can you keep your upper body still while moving your lower body? Can you lift yourself out of a lunge without needing assistance from a barre or yanking on your hip?

You should be able to. Or you should want to be able to.

The Downstairs Girl is one of my favorite reads from 2019, which should not have surprised me, because it’s rare that I don’t love a Stacey Lee book. It’s feminist historical fiction about someone who’s not just a white girl, and it’s also about secret identities and murky family secrets. I’m not someone who reads a lot of adventure or survival novels, as that’s something I prefer in my movies, but I’m always down for a Stacey Lee survival adventure. This isn’t a survival novel in the desert island sense, but it is a bit thrilling and deals with social survival when you’re part of a disenfranchised class of people. Jo Kuan, the protagonist, has to constantly traverse Atlanta’s social and metropolitan systems, and she’s pretty much always at a disadvantage. She is adept at slipping out of sight when she needs to, but she also finds strength and learns to stand tall.

Ballet lunges, or elevator lunges, or scooters, or any other name you know them by, are a great exercise because you can work on your stability and control, and even if they are a quad-centric exercise, you have to do a lot of stabilization with the abs, and if your hips aren’t in good shape, your form will be off and then your hips will hurt more as a result. Hooray! I love it when an exercise uses more than a single muscle group.

If you have access to a ballet barre at home or at your gym, where you are MOST DEFINITELY WEARING A MASK, RIGHT?, use it. Otherwise, you’ve got a counter or a high-back chair at home. If all of those are inaccessible, you’ll have to do it without, which actually makes it harder-easier, by which I mean harder to perform but easier in the sense that you won’t be able to cheat, so your body will learn proper form right away.

You’ll see in the video that I’m using a home ballet barre and sliders, but if sliders/gliders are something you don’t have available at home, small towels or washcloths work fine on tile/wood/cement, and paper plates work fine on carpet. Now, here’s how you do the thing:

Feet on sliders, facing your “barre,” with about four feet of space behind you. Underhanded, light grip on your support. Raise the heel on your right foot so just the toes are on the slider. Now begin to bend your left knee, and as you do so, push the right slider back behind you as you lengthen your right leg. Your left thigh is what’s initiating the movement, so it’s what’s responsible for your right leg sliding back. Your upper body should be still and straight, so if someone couldn’t see below your waist, they would think you were going straight up and down like in an elevator. You’re going as low as you can, but what determines the “as you can” is not literally how deeply you can bend your knee but how deeply you can bend it without needing tons of assistance to stand up again. As you bring your right leg back in, you should be driving your weight into your left thigh as you slowly straighten it back up to stand tall. Repeat on the other side. Do each side 2-8 times, depending on your fitness level and comfort.

What not to do: Many people hold onto the barre for dear life as they bring the moving leg in and use it to help them pull themselves up. When you strangle the barre, you’re forcing your back into an uncomfortable position and yanking your hips, which is terrible because then you’ll be in pain, and it’s also terrible because you’re supposed to be working on your legs, not your hips or lumbar region. This is not something that should or even can be done quickly if it’s going to be correct. Try aiming for a 4-count in each direction.

Bonus burn: keep the left leg bent as you rapidly (1- or 2-count) scoot the right knee in and out, 4-12 reps. Again, no yanking on your support system, and think about holding your abs in as a way to keep your balance, not forcing your hips to do it. The point is increased strength, not pain.

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