In the cool, dark fitness studio painted in camouflage and lit like a nightclub, instructor Todd Mendiola shouts, “Let’s get this done!” This is the Sunday-morning full-body session of Barry’s Bootcamp in New York City’s TriBeCa neighborhood. About a dozen students warming up on a treadmill pick up their pace; a second group prepares to hold the beginning position of a pushup known as the “plank” for one minute. Fifteen minutes of grueling drills later, the groups switch places.
The hourlong sequence is billed as the “1,000-calorie workout.” The “treaders” practice speed intervals, and the “floor” cycles through classic gym routines: lunges, bicycle-style sit-ups, and free weights. “The idea is to burn out your legs,” Mendiola shouts to the panting, sweating group of men and women in their 20s and 30s.
The exercises aren’t particularly original, yet group fitness instructor and founder Barry Jay has hit on a formula that has inspired a fervent following willing to plunk down up to $38 a class, the price at the franchise’s Hamptons outpost (the average session ranges from $20 to $30, depending on location). Jay’s brainchild is one of a growing niche of boutique fitness studios, such as CrossFit and SoulCyle spinning, that are attracting a health-and-fitness-conscious set willing to pay a premium to be barked at and pushed to their limits to mixes featuring Lana Del Rey and Justin Timberlake. It’s a concept that’s helping to boost the $22 billion health-club industry patronized by approximately one fifth of American adults.
Started in West Hollywood in 1998 as a group fitness class at the gym where Jay worked, Barry’s Bootcamp now has 12 locations throughout the U.S., Norway, and London. “I wanted a class where you could get cardio and strength training in one hour,” says Jay, whose website boasts a workout that combines “drill sergeant tactics and a night club party atmosphere” and who claims that clients can see a difference in their physiques in just a few weeks. After losing his job when the gym closed, Jay took a chance that his most dedicated students would follow him to his own studio. And follow they did. Since 2011, Jay’s students have multiplied from an average of fewer than 3,000 per week to more than 10,000.
Part of the appeal of these “extreme”—almost militant—fitness boutique brands over the older, gentler standbys of yoga and Pilates is the results achieved. Denise Quaglia, 43, a customer-service executive from Brooklyn, who has attended Barry’s Bootcamp twice a week for the past four months, says, “I used to be able to run four miles per hour, and now I can do six.”
Jay’s fitness program draws top-flight instructors lured by higher salaries than those at traditional large gyms, and whose bronzed bodies and well-sculpted physiques adorn giant posters outside the studio.
“The teachers really know how to push you,” says Stevie Turner, 27, an ad sales representative from Manhattan who has been a twice-weekly regular for the past two years. “It’s a fun workout, and I like the energy and atmosphere.”
Theodora Blanchfield, 30, a social-media consultant from Manhattan who runs the food and fitness blog Losing Weight in the City, says she initially resisted her friends’ invitations to accompany them to SoulCycle classes. She had taken plenty of spinning classes at her large gym and didn’t understand how they would be worth $34 a pop at a private studio. “Now I understand why people drink the Kool-Aid. A lot of it has to do with the energy in the class and the instructor knowing your name,” she says. “There’s something powerful about someone shouting, ‘Theodora, you’re doing great!’”
Who wants to take an ordinary spin class when you can pedal while lifting hand weights to candlelight?
Clients often have favorite teachers who are known for engaging with them on social media, including Facebook shoutouts, and they compete to sign up online for sought-after classes, which get fully booked beforehand. At Barry’s Bootcamp, students can sign up for classes seven days in advance, and Turner admits to occasionally setting an alarm so she can get into the classes she likes.
All of which leads to a hard-core loyalty to the brands. Dedication can border on religiosity, and clients aren’t simply people who take CrossFit classes; they become self-identified “CrossFitters.” When you’re a member of such a tight community, it’s easy to make friends. “When I meet someone who says they go to Barry’s, it’s just so easy to engage in conversion with them about which teachers are their favorite, what crazy exercises you had to do in class, and how sore you were the next day.” Turner says. “If you go to the same class every week, you start to see the same people and it just naturally promotes social interaction.”
An emphasis on high-end details and customer service can also make devotees feel as though they’re getting something more in return for a price that’s often more than a monthly gym membership. At Barry’s Bootcamp you can place your order for a $7 peanut-butter protein smoothie at the Fuel Bar before your workout, so it’s ready as soon as you walk out of class; then shower off with luxury bath products.
Following the celebrity buzz that fanned the flames of SoulCycle’s popularity (Kelly Ripa, Jake Gyllenhaal, Chelsea Clinton, and Coopers Bradley and Anderson have been reported to be regulars, and there’s built-in celebrity marketing when Lena Dunham tweets that a SoulCycle class literally brought her to tears), the word-of-mouth chatter for Barry’s Bootcamp has also been compounded by reported sightings of Kim Kardashian, Katie Holmes, Carrie Underwood, and Amanda Seyfried.
Of course, boutique studios didn’t invent motivational teachers or interesting group classes. Some so-called big-box gyms offer so many kinds of classes–from weight training, spinning, and yoga to belly dancing and ab blasters—that they often resemble a cruise-ship activity lineup. But who wants to take an ordinary spin class at your neighborhood gym when you can pedal while lifting hand weights to candlelight—next to Jake Gyllenhaal?
But the question remains: Are those benefits really worth the money?
Not necessarily, cautions Walter Thompson, a professor of exercise science at Georgia State University in Atlanta. “The boutiques don’t necessarily give you a better workout,” he says. “They’re great if they keep you motivated, but that motivation wanes after a while because the activity eventually becomes the same old thing. People like a variety of exercise. If you get tired of kickboxing, you can do Zumba,” says Thompson, referring to the popular Latin dance–themed workout.
On the other hand, the secret to Barry’s Bootcamp’s success could be something more superficial. As Jay points out, “The dark lighting also makes you look better in the mirror.”