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Surf’s up on dry land

A series exploring some of Boston’s unique fitness classes by someone who hates fitness classes.

The summer before I turned 18, I was obsessed with surfing. I had “Blue Crush” and Kate Bosworth to thank as I boogie boarded my way along the East Coast shoreline. Years later, I got my chance at the real thing during a trip to Hawaii. I was terrible. I’m an awful swimmer and tend to panic when the waves crash over my head. It’s something I haven’t attempted since. But that surfer lifestyle maintains its appeal.

A new fitness class called SurfSet, held on the Rooftop at the Revere Hotel, seems like it could be just what I need. I picture surfing on dry land — none of that pesky water to get in the way.

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SurfSet was developed by personal trainer and fitness instructor Sarah Ponn, former Stonehill College hockey player Bill Ninteau, and Mike Hartwick, a Dartmouth College graduate and former professional hockey player, who were looking for a way to keep that surfer physique year round. After an appearance on season four of the ABC show “Shark Tank,” things began to pick up. Now, there are SurfSet classes in more than 130 locations in the United States and Canada.

The board is built to mimic the instability of being on water. Two air-filled sacs prop the board up 11 inches off the ground while four bungee cords provide stability. Want to increase the difficulty and make the board more wobbly? Simply remove a cord or two.

Here’s the thing: Though the device is shaped like a surfboard, this is not a surfing class on dry land. It does take balance to remain on the board, though, so there’s that.

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So forget for a minute the idea that this is supposed to feel like surfing. The goal, in fact, is to simply look like a surfer. Engage your muscles in the same way, and that long, lean surfer bod is within reach. That’s the idea anyway.

Our instructor, Astrid Bengston, is petite and blonde, with a hint of accent that I try to place over the hum of the AC unit we’re stationed next to.

It’s nice to be outside and a welcome change from the typical indoor fitness classes. There’s a slight breeze and blue sky overhead with a view of the city behind. It’s my first time at the Rooftop at the Revere Hotel, and I’m charmed by this urban oasis. For a minute, I consider grabbing a cocktail and skipping the class altogether.

Thankfully, the class is separate from the main part of the rooftop bar, so we have some privacy behind closed doors. Each class is kept to five people and the one I attend is all women.

We lay down on the boards and “swim,” paddling our arms up over our heads in a sort of dry-docked backstroke. I try not to scrape my knuckles on the concrete.

We do a lot of core work, everything heightened by the added challenge of staying balanced on the board, which forces us to engage stabilizer muscles.

We do push-ups and planks, crunches and squats. We practice going from lying on our backs to standing up on the board in one fluid motion.

A former rhythmic gymnast in Sweden, Bengston became a personal trainer after she was injured and founded the studio Bodytalk Factory in the North End. She’s also an orthopedic training specialist, with an interest in posture and alignment, so many of the moves in her class are meant to build core strength that will help correct poor habits acquired from hours spent hunched in front of a computer.

She tells us that during SurfSet training, instructors are encouraged to bring their own background to the class they teach. As such, the class you’re getting here is going to be different from other locations.

One of the challenges, she says, is that she’s yet to have any repeat attendees to her class. The benefit is that each class is great for beginners, but it makes it difficult to progress the class to more advanced moves without a baseline in place first.

It’s not an intense workout. We don’t sweat but our muscles are engaged for an hour and it’s a fun challenge to stay balanced on the board. It’s the kind of workout you do on vacation to feel better about all those restaurant meals and loafing around.

What’s really great about it though is simply that it’s something different.

Where to find it

SurfSet classes

At: The Revere Hotel

When: Wednesdays at 7 p.m., Thursdays at 6:30 p.m., and Saturdays at 10:30 a.m.

Cost: $25 (requires registration)

Nicole Cammorata can be reached at and on Twitter @nicolecammorata.
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