“It already hurts like hell! I know that!” barks coach Anna Wheat of Solidcore, the Marines of boutique fitness programs. “It’s so juicy! It’s so good! I know it hurts so good!”
The eight women in Wheat’s evening class in downtown Washington shake their sweat-drenched heads in disbelief. They’re in the midst of a nonstop routine that features pounding music and a body-numbing number of plank poses, the interminable hate-it-or-hate-it yoga and athletic position that makes your abs miserable. Firm, but miserable.
The class performs exercises on rectangular machines with springs and straps that resemble instruments of torture. Which, in a way, they are.
To witness a Solidcore class is to engage in a form of S&M fitness voyeurism. The Washington-based workout pledges to work “your muscles to failure” until “your legs are on fire or your abs are screaming.”
You’re exhausted just watching. (Trust me, I just watched, worried that I would collapse in the 20th plank or, despite the straps, fall off the machine.) Classes run as high as $37 for 50 minutes. They tend to attract exercise fiends who view Michelle Obama as their lodestar. Indeed, the first lady of fitness is a fan.
“I would rather run a marathon than take this class,” says Sue Frost, 32. Not true. She does both. (Frost also ran to the Mount Vernon class from her Capitol Hill home and back.)
“You almost black out it’s so intense,” says Meg Bradshaw, 31, Solidcore’s vice president of client and studio experience — yes, a job title — who runs marathons, loveloveloves the gym (“My favorite place, I could spend six hours there”) but, once she tried Solidcore, realized that she wasn’t working hard enough and plans to cancel her gym membership.
Forget the Y, or even the bespoke gym. Boutique fitness programs — extreme versions of yoga, spinning, CrossFit, whatever — are America’s current urban exercise obsession, selling community, self-improvement and $90 leggings. And plenty of people are buying, not just in the predictable places such as New York and Washington, but in cities as seemingly low-key as Minneapolis, Solidcore’s second market. Aficionados spend as much as $500 a month (that’s $6,000 a year) at so many iterations that there’s a ClassPass for sampling a smorgasbord of physically exhausting offerings that reflect how we work out today.
Please don’t call these studios gyms. Gyms suggest a lack of structure, intensity and discipline. They seem decidedly old school, as in high school. (Many of these boutique outfits don’t even have showers.) Indeed, Washington’s venerable downtown YMCA is shutting down at year’s end, its membership having atrophied from 11,000 in the late 1990s to 3,400 this fall. Meanwhile, intense new boutique regimens continue to spawn locations within blocks of one another. Limited in size and offering direct supervision, they’re the sweat spot between a fancy gym and a personal trainer.
Despite the price (up to $40 a class) and the rigorous routines, more than 40 percent of the 54 million Americans who belong to health clubs work out in these boutique programs, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association. We wondered what’s driving the madness. So we spent a few weeks sampling classes and seeking answers among the hard-bodied crowds.
The lights are low, the room nearly dark. The music is pounding, covering the perpetual drone of whirring wheels. The scent of grapefruit wafts from candles set around the periphery.
I’m not sure why the SoulCycle class has to be conducted in semidarkness, but I’m grateful that the other “cyclists” can’t see me. I’m worried about falling off my stationary bike, though this is impossible, as my SoulCycle-supplied cleats are locked into the pedals. (In fact, later, I can’t get off.) The candles (yours for only $42) are there, I assume, to mask less-fetching aromas in a windowless room full of 62 highly motivated Soul enthusiasts.
Taking its stock public this year, Manhattan-based SoulCycle markets its spinning-class regimen in its IPO prospectus as an “elevated, meditative fitness experience” and “aspirational lifestyle brand” that creates a legion of “Soul evangelists,” noting: “The experience is tribal. It is primal. And it is fun.” (Also enriching: Two of its founders have pocketed nearly $90 million each.)
And it promises far more than a superior physique in under an hour. “SoulCycle doesn’t change bodies,” intones the company website, “it changes lives.”
Funny, that’s sort of what Pure Barre, launched in a Detroit suburb, says, too: ‘The best part is that not only does it change bodies,” founder Carrie Rezabek Dorr claims on that website, “it changes lives.”
Soul. Power. Core. Pure. Take these four words, mash any two together in any order or combine with a fifth, and you pretty much have the name of any of these boutique programs, all offering a gateway to transformation and spawning multitudes of true believers.
Instructor Durrell Brown is a Soul evangelist. He left a career in human resources to join the tribe. Where other people might see a spinning class — albeit a handsomely designed and highly aromatic spinning class — Soul disciples see something more grand at work.
“I love Soul. I could not leave. This is bigger than me,” says the ripped, cheerful, photogenic Brown, 29. “I love the story of Soul. It’s a spirit-filled, high-octane cardio party.”
In the two months since Brown relocated to Washington, after training in New York, he has attracted a cult following at the company’s Mount Vernon location downtown. In the darkened studio, cheers and yelps punctuate the music pumping during his class, a synchronized disco on stationary bikes. He treats the class as a team — “Come on, Mount Vernon!” — as if it’s our alma matter.
There are Soul addicts who cycle through two sessions in a day. Brown’s 9:30 a.m., 62-rider Saturday class has a waiting list. His classes at 6:30 p.m. on Friday are nearly full.
Let us exhale to reflect on this.
Washington, long famed for its tendency to tipple, its emphatic cocktail hour that could extend all evening, now boasts packed workout classes at 6:30 p.m. on Friday.
It is yet another example of Washington becoming an uber Washington, an endorphin-enhanced city of exertion, competition and constant self-improvement, winding up instead of down, substituting burpees for bourbon and Paul Ryan’s brutal P90X fitness regimen for John A. Boehner’s Dean Martin lifestyle.
In the new Washington, being Type A is merely adequate. The town is now fueled by Type A+, the achiever who is constantly in motion, professionally and physically, and looking for new clubs to maintain the new ideal.
With its pounding music and relentless cardio activity, performed in extreme heat and humidity, CorePower Yoga is like yoga on steroids, converting sun salutations into namaste burpees on your least favorite July day. Every studio of the Denver-based company attempts to mimic a living room or a ski lounge (après yoga?) with a fake fireplace, even if it happens to be off the lobby of a Georgetown office building.
Pure Barre, with its own pounding music and relentless cardio activity, transforms the ballet barre into a fitness tool to strengthen and tighten whatever flab ails you and fire tiny muscles you didn’t know existed. (There was precisely one moment in my class that seemed comparatively easy. Turns out I was doing the movement wrong.) The studios have a shabby-chic feel, with chandeliers and aromatic spa products. Clients arrive early, often stay late and are encouraged to share their stories online with fellow Barre-istas.
“There’s really a sense of community, a really friendly warm environment,” says Courtney Dredden Carter, 33, a lawyer and Pure Barre aficionado, who runs (and blogs about running) and has sampled several boutique fitness programs. Pure Barre has become her club.
That’s what these programs sell, along with soul and power, a venue far more intimate — and often intimidating — than the gym. They offer a place to belong, a correction to that loss of social capital and connections that Harvard’s Robert D. Putnam diagnosed in “Bowling Alone.” Washingtonians are sweating together. In a recent study and symposium, two Harvard Divinity students compared CrossFit to church, a place where unaffiliated millennials find community and spiritual togetherness.
Solidcore is Anne Callas’s community. “I feel like they miss me if I’m not there,” says the 34-year-old librarian, who is training to become a coach.
“In a city as transient and as uptight as D.C., this is awesome — the ability to create relationships and community,” says Solidcore’s Bradshaw. Indeed, the two-year-old program’s goal, according to the promotional video, is “to create a second home.”
Georgetown med student MJ Kramer, 24, belongs to CorePower Yoga.
“It does feel like my club,” says Kramer, who notes that CorePower is so demanding “that when I’m in the room, I’m totally mentally there. There’s nothing I can possibly do about my life outside the room.”
That’s another attraction, fans say; the exercise regimen is therapy, too intense to allow any outside thoughts, especially work, to intrude. (So you’re paying for that, too.)
Studios host bridal showers and Christmas parties. There’s a pop-up Soul studio planned for Art Basel Miami Beach. Your community awaits, while the drive to achieve never rests.
Boutique programs are also literally boutiques, with monthly, if not weekly, turnover of merch. Swag is as much of the sell as strength to practitioners who believe that it’s important to look good while you hurt like hell. (Though wearing makeup is not advised. During CorePower, rivulets of foundation streamed into my eyes.)
The sartorial branding reinforces tribal identity, the sense of belonging (and bragging rights). SoulCycle sells T-shirts emblazoned with the names of its specific studios (Come on, Mount Vernon!). In the early morning, before sunrise, again after work, or a break from work, really anytime, you see an army of women in leggings and sneakers and fetching athleisure wear — a fast-growing, $18.5 billion industry — running to their next class. Washington has become an isle of capris.
And it is mostly women in these classes. Pure Barre, which offers a $400 three-month unlimited bride-to-be package, has a clientele that’s 90 percent female. There were no men in my Pure Barre class, one at CorePower and one at SoulCycle. At least I thought I saw a guy. Hard to tell in the dimness.
The demographics prove, once again, that there are great fortunes to be made from women’s bottomless insecurities about their bodies.
In the last 40 years, “there’s really been an elitist element at play” in exercise programs, says Lance Dalleck, a professor of exercise and sport science at Western State Colorado University. “Physical inactivity is related to poverty.”
Indeed, luxury influences the market, courting the why-pay-less customer who often believes that the more something costs, the better the quality. Consequently, these boutique fitness programs become literal sweat equity.
Yet paying to exercise is a relatively new concept. For much of history , humans moved to find food. You sat, you died. And for centuries, work required physical exertion. Exercise and athletics were an activity for the wealthy, or for professional competitors like Olympians or gladiators.
Today, many of us sit at work. Exercise has become the corrective.
Americans have gone through a recent diet of exercise crazes: running, aerobics, workout tapes, CrossFit, Pilates. “You can’t hold our attention,” Dalleck says. People “get bored with Tae Bo or Zumba, and they move to what’s next. We are cycling through these different trends more quickly.”
That’s because, let’s face it, exercise can be — what is the precise word? — boring.
Hence, the neglected gym membership, the rowing machine rusting in the basement, the need to change fads and locations on a regular basis. Our ancestors would scoff at our willingness to cycle indoors, or pay to walk stairs or elliptically train to nowhere.
Exercise, though few industry experts will admit this, can be relatively inexpensive. It doesn’t require costly attire. Early Olympians competed in the buff. Running is basically free. Some elite Kenyan runners train barefoot. Tossing a ball is cheap. Raking, shoveling and, as George W. Bush would tell you, clearing brush are rigorous forms of exercise.
But humans are restless, and entrepreneurs ingenious at inventing solutions. We’re all too aware that as our bodies age, without care and investment, they don’t tend to improve. Also, we crave the new, the latest secret to looking better faster.
We know that a group works better than alone. A tough instructor motivates performance. Loud music lessens tedium. Semidarkness releases inhibition. New clothes never hurt.
It’s all part of the allure, leading people to pay willingly and dearly to exercise until their legs are on fire and their abs are screaming.