David von Storch has spent a decade building Vida Fitness into a chain of gyms known for its one-size-fits-all approach. In addition to infinity pools and hundreds of machines, Vida locations are often outfitted with spas, juice bars and hair salons.
But for his next venture, von Storch is thinking small.
The aptly-named SweatBox, scheduled to open by April, is his answer to the scores of CrossFit sites and cycling studios cropping up around town. Each 50-minute workout will incorporate cardio, strength training and a carefully-honed playlist of booming music.
At 1,725 square feet, the facility — a $750,000 project to be housed inside the company’s U Street complex — is compact. (The adjacent Vida, for comparison’s sake, is 60,000 square feet.) SweatBox will have 23 stations, each equipped with a stationary bicycle, yoga mat and straps for suspension training.
The hope, von Storch says, is to attract Vida members and non-members alike. Each session will cost $39 and is billed separately from Vida, where membership rates start at $99 per month. (You do not have to be a Vida member to participate.)
The price is on the higher end of the spectrum for boutique fitness programs, which range from $19 for a hot yoga class at Pure Om in Bethesda to $37 for a 55-minute reformer session at Fuse Pilates in Northwest Washington. Other popular programs come with similar price tags: Trident CrossFit in Alexandria ($25 for a drop-in class), Bar Method ($26) and Soul Cycle ($30 for 45 minutes).
“People are looking for different ways to stay in shape,” von Storch, 57, said. “There is no doubt that there is a tremendous growth in boutique fitness these days.”
There is also more of a penchant for sizing up your fellow gym-goers, he says. Fitness-tracking devices like Fitbit and Jawbone have turned everyday exercisers into zealous competitors.
At SweatBox, participants will wear heart-rate monitors that track their performance during each session. At the end of class, their results will be sent to their smartphones and displayed on big-screen TVs outside the studio, where they can see how they stack up next to their classmates.
“In terms of just getting people to walk out of the studio sweaty and saying, ‘Now that was a great work-out’ — well, that’s not enough anymore,” von Storch said. “People want to know how they did relative to the last time, and how they performed versus their peers.”
That camaraderie, however competitive, is among the reasons behind the rapid growth of boutique gyms, says Walter R. Thompson, a professor of kinesiology and health at Georgia State University. After all, you’re more likely to go to the gym if you’ve gotten to know a classmate or trainer than if you’ll be running solo on the treadmill.
Smaller outfits “are more likely to call you up and say, ‘Hey, we missed you today. Will we see you tomorrow?'” Thompson said. “It’s a more personal approach, and that keeps people motivated.”
But, he added, the rise of boutiques has just as much to do with the economy. In the early 2000s, specialty gyms like Curves, which offered a 30-minute program targeted to the working woman, were rapidly expanding.
When the recession hit, Americans tightened their belts and small gyms were the first to shutter. The ones that remained were mostly larger and could afford to offer annual memberships at steep discounts.
But as the economy has climbed back, so has the appetite for smaller, more personalized programs, Thompson said.
As a result, a number of traditional fitness chains, from Gold’s Gym to Washington Sports Club, have added more high-intensity group classes in recent years to compete with boutique studios. At the Gold’s Gym Elite Training Center in Woodbridge, owner Lori Lowell began offering CrossFit classes, as well as pole dancing lessons, bubble soccer and aerial yoga in late 2014. Weekend yoga sessions often include live performances by DJs, rappers and human beat-boxers.
“It’s been a tremendous success,” she said. “It’s very outside the box of traditional fitness, and draws a whole different crowd that is looking for something more than just getting on a treadmill for 20 minutes.”
But these fads are nothing new. As with Jazzercise and Tae Bo workouts of the past, Thompson says the appeal of these programs is sure to fade with time.
It’s a dynamic von Storch understands well.
“There is a lifecycle to this boutique fitness concept,” he said. “It’s going to change one day, just as Vida had, in many ways, represented the next generation of fitness.”
Today, Vida has 14,000 members at its six District locations. Urban Adventures Cos., the gym’s parent company that von Storch founded in 1986, also owns Bang Salon, Aura Spa and Penthouse Pool Club.
Once he perfects the SweatBox model on U Street, von Storch says he plans to expand throughout the area. Vida’s success, he says, has allowed him the flexibility to create something like Sweatbox — at least for now.
“If I had to bet all my money on Vida or on one of these concepts — in the short-run, I might pick one of these boutiques,” von Storch said. “But in the long-run, I will always pick Vida.”