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LIFESTYLE

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Sweat and the City: New York's Hippest, Hardest and Weirdest Workouts

The last thing you'll find here is a plain old aerobics or spin class: New Yorkers prefer to be bathed in sound, surrounded by fashion and/or pummelled into a paste by a prison-style workout

New York’s most popular workouts can generate the same level of buzz as some of the most coveted “it” restaurants. New Yorkers take their tank top-drenching, music-blasting, calorie-burning practices and fitness trends seriously – to a degree that might seem bizarre to a lot of outsiders, frankly.

For wellness-minded travellers, trying out a new class can be an adventure – not only could you discover an original take on boxing or pilates, but you’ll get the rare chance to experience the city’s raw energy and intensity in a setting that only locals usually get to see. Whether the concept is new and intriguing or tried and true, to get New Yorkers talking it takes more than a shiny gimmick, a kick-ass location, or the chance to witness a post-class celebrity selfie being taken. From indie classes with fashion-world cred to branded fixtures in the fitness scene, here's a bunch of workout trends that are keeping New Yorkers in shape and buzzing.

Heavy hitters

Perhaps helped by Rocky Balboa’s revival in the recent blockbuster Creed, boxing is making a real comeback in New York workouts. It’s a full-body strength and cardio workout that promises to sculpt you into a long, lean and mean machine. Moreover, slamming your fists into a heavy bag seems to hit the therapeutic sweet spot for many New Yorkers.

Boxing for fitness is winning popularity in surprising new ways. It’s proudly the workout of choice for Victoria’s Secret models Gisele Bündchen and Adriana Lima, who train at chic Aerospace in Chelsea, as well as Helena Christensen, who spars with Jason Lee at Mendez Boxing. And last May, two fitness-centric boxing gyms made their Manhattan debuts: Overthrow New York and Shadowbox NYC.

Overthrow New York’s name was inspired by the roots of its Bleecker Street address, a townhouse which formerly housed 1960s radical activist Abbie Hoffman and his Yippies. The interior feels like a consciously scruffy rocker bar with loud, aggro music and Pabst Blue Ribbon in the mini-fridge. The top floor features a boxing ring for sparring workouts, personal training and small group classes. Meanwhile, in the red-lit basement studio, participants slug away at nine punching bags. Lead trainer Alicia Napoleon (also known as “The Empress”) is a pro fighter with 11 amateur titles. She’ll give you the tough love you need to strike a gratifying adrenalin rush.

At the Flatiron district’s clean and minimal Shadowbox NYC there’s no fighting or sparring. It’s all about boxing as lifestyle. The music is clubby pop and the cafe serves Intelligentsia coffee and cold-pressed kale juice. In a dark room with 40 hanging bags, classes are run by headset wearing instructors with the precision style of Soulcycle or a Barry’s Bootcamp. Shadowbox NYC just signed a deal to open a second location in Dumbo, Brooklyn, right around the corner from an old-school boxing gym called Gleason’s.

Since its beginnings in the Bronx in 1937 (it moved to Dumbo in 1984), Gleason’s has trained the likes of Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, and both Sugar Rays (Leonard and Robinson). The gym’s membership of 1,200 devotees is larger than it has ever been, and together the members create the only soundtrack offered here: the whirring of jump-ropes and the rhythmic pummelling of heavy bags. According to Gleason’s owner, 300 are training to fight, and the other 900 are there purely for the workout.

Courtesy Gleason's

Prison cred

Coss Marte spent four years in prison, during which he lost 70 pounds in one six-month period. After his release, Marte launched ConBody, a Lower East Side studio that teaches the workout he developed in jail. ConBody opened at the beginning of 2016 in a small basement space with bare-bones prison style, from a cell door attached to a cinder block wall to metal lockers, pull-up bars, and a mural of prisoners cutting through barbed wire. There’s also a mugshot backdrop for clients to post photos with the hashtag #dothetime.

The classes themselves are prison-style boot camps that use your own body weight in brutal and basic ways. But what’s most compelling is Marte’s genuine personal transformation story and his mission of sharing hope inside and outside of the gym. Five of his seven trainers were formerly incarcerated and he also hosts workshops to help others get back on their feet.

With waiting lists for his most popular classes, Marte is already hunting for two or three more locations by the end of the year. The future looks bright, having just won a Shark Tank/Dragon’s Den-style competition for fitness entrepreneurs, Foundermade’s Future of Wellness challenge.

Sound bathing and headphone yoga

Purporting to be based on ancient Buddhist healing traditions, sound baths are quickly becoming New York’s favourite form of group meditation and urban escape. The sonic bath boom seems to be a natural next-level extension of the social meditation scene (which includes massive meditative gatherings in Central Park and stylish girlfriends unplugging together at MNDFL’s drop-in sessions). It’s even gained fashion cred from a recent New York Times Style feature on Los Angeles’s best sound bath studios.

Sound bathing is a deep listening experience for reducing stress and recalibrating the mind and body. In an all-immersive environment, sound healers, licensed music psychotherapists, and plain old musicians play everything from 99% quartz crystal bowls to Tibetan singing bowls, gongs, tuning forks, Indian shruti boxes, and sometimes even the piano. It’s been likened to a horizontal concert or the most profound savasana you’ll ever experience, finding a full sense of release while feeling entirely supported by the sounds and vibrations around you.

What began as one-off events, notably a 700-person sound meditation session hosted by The Big Quiet last September (on a boat), has developed into a bigger trend, with sound baths now appearing on the schedules of a growing number of yoga studios. Sky Ting, the Chinatown yoga studio known for its fashionable downtown clientele, just hosted its first monthly sound bath with Nate Martinez. Over in the East Village, Ishta Yoga offers up weekly classes with indigenous instruments and vocal harmonies. The recently opened Brooklyn Yoga Club is already bringing musical therapy to Clinton Hill. And Maha Rose, Greenpoint Brooklyn’s ultimate in holistic healing, neo-boho space has added twice-a-month sound baths to its roster of yoga classes. You can now even sound bathe to yoga in a Himalayan sea salt room at Midtown’s Breathe spa.

The yoga-sound bath pairing is becoming so de rigueur that it’s already spawning intriguing iterations. Sound Off Yoga’s new monthly headphone yoga event at the W Hotel in Union Squareis a bona fide mat-to-mat-to-mat mega hit. Sporting neon blue wireless headphones, hundreds of yogis practice downward-facing dogs and warrior poses bathed in sound from start to finish.

The specially designed headphones cancel out any surrounding noise to create a vacuum-seal of only the instructor’s voice and the DJ’s music.Yogis are instructed not to worry about what their poses look like, but just to focus on the feel and flow of the movement. Without the usual suspects of distraction, the immersive experience of having the instructor and music piped directly into your head is meant to elicit a deeper mental and physical release through yoga practice.

The concept and headphone technology for Sound Off were originally developed by Castel Valere-Couturier for silent discos. In 2014, he got the idea to fuse music and yoga on a Hong Kong beach where sound ordinances prohibited playing music out loud. And last spring, he introduced headphone yoga to New York City at Sugarcube, an inflatable event space at South Street Seaport. The 12 weeks of sessions sold out.

High intensity

Los Angeles import and celeb favourite Barry’s Bootcamp was one of the first studios in the industry to raise the intensity on group workouts. With seductive red lighting, pumping music and beautiful people, it might seem more nightclub than gym. But Barry’s signature combination of treadmill intervals (with plenty of sprints and steep inclines) and heavy-weight training is a no-fail formula for sweat-drenched glory and activating the coveted after-burn. Boasting locations in NoHo, Chelsea and TriBeCa, the camp is now expanding rule to the Upper East Side with its biggest studio yet.

If you like your high-intensity interval training (HIIT) even more intense, Tone House is reputed to be the hardest workout in all of New York. Last year, athlete and fitness model Alonzo Wilson opened New York’s first self-proclaimed “extreme athletic-based” group fitness studioin Union Square. The black AstroTurf playing field is outfitted with cool sports conditioning toys, including harnesses that pull you back towards the wall with 77 pounds of resistance, as you pour every fighting ounce into sprinting and bear crawling forwards.

New Yorkers have also been developing a love-hate relationship with The Fhitting Room, one of the first New York studios to apply the HIIT concept to countless forms of exercise, from running to biking and functional movements. Expect intervals of heavy kettlebell moves, push-ups, and TRX work, combined with explosive box jumps and burpees. The studio recently opened a massive new two-storey space on 19th Street.

The cheekily named Mile High Run Club was the first boutique fitness club dedicated to group treadmill training (à la Soulcyle, but with running instead of stationary bikes). Headquartered in NoHo, the boutique club focuses on high speed sprints and uphill climbs to the roar of upbeat music. It started 2016 off with a dash, launching a second studio in NoMAD (North of Madison) and an outdoor running program led by a former Olympian, John Henwood.

Yin meets yang  

bodyART is bringing balance to New York’s highly segmented fitness scene between high-intensity concepts and more mindful practices like yoga and pilates. Developed by Swiss dancer-gymnast-physiotherapist Robert Steinbacher, it’s a full body workout based on the principles of yin and yang. The movements integrate strength, cardio and flexibility by fusing yoga, pilates, primal movement, modern dance, and martial arts. It’s already a major phenomenon across Europe and is growing real momentum at New York’s Broadway Dance Center and its recent debut in Hoboken.

Meanwhile, Sebastien Lagree’s revved-up version of the old-school Pilates Reformer (his state-of-the-art M3S Megaformer machine) moves you through 50 minutes of high-intensity, low-impact movements at a glacial pace. Megaformer workouts are a hybrid of cardio and pilates, and New York offers a chance to try this workout style at SLT and Brooklyn Bodyburn. The classes will get your muscles quivering like no other workout, in the name of stimulating slow-twitch muscle fibre. From limb-shaking lunges to pikes that make your abs scream, the machine’s spring carriage prevents momentum, which means you can’t use physics to “cheat.” The movement is all you, so you’ll need plenty of balance, strength and focus to get through it.

While over at BodyRoots – a private Wall Street Pilates and Mind-Body studio with a cult following – Canadian international trainer JOana Menses (yes, that is how she writes it) is re-imagining TRX suspension training. This spring, she plans to launch her signature “Strap Tease” workout. The routine will transform the Navy SEAL-inspired drills of TRX into sexy, flowy, undulating moves that fuse suspension training with pilates, yoga, and striptease.

Courtesy BodyRoots

Raising the barre

Among the hottest fitness crazes in New York at the moment, barre classes are a ballet dancer’s workout, but for those who aren’t pro dancers. The luxury gym chain Equinox, known for its innovative group fitness, is investing in new ballet-inspired classes and plans to add dedicated barre studios at multiple locations. This spring Equinox will debut “Gold Barre,” a figure skating-inspired barre workout created in collaboration with Olympic champion Tara Lipinski. The class focuses on skating positions and footwork, from one-legged balances to spins, lunges and plyometric jumps, all set to classical and electronic dance music.

Courtesy PopPhysique

Adding to New York’s impressive menu of Barre studios (including Xtend Barre, Flybarre, Flex Studios, Exhale, and barre3) comes the recently opened Pop Physique. The California-based studio, whose branding is reminiscent of American Apparel ads, has set up shop in Manhattan’s NoMAD district with an oh-so-hip barre workout. The one-hour ballet inspired classes count celebrity clients such as Diane Kruger, Vanessa Hudgens, Brie Larson and the HAIM sisters. Bring your brightest ‘80s leotards and expect equal parts style and sweat. There’s even a “selfie station” in a washroom for showing off the outfit.

New Yorkers are also moving in step to AKT in Motion, an of-the-moment dance cardio workout developed by Anna Kaiser. She has trained fitness-minded stars including Kelly Ripa, Sarah Jessica Parker and Shakira. But not to worry, you’ll need little or no dance experience for 60-minute classes like "Happy Hour," “4Play”, “One Night Stand”, and “Sweat Dream,” or 90-minute “S&M” sessions (gulp). The right attitude and a caffeine buzz will get you through. Get ready to alternate between high energy, ridiculously fun dance intervals and pure strengthening moves. To get you in the mood, the 800-square-foot room is equipped with a disco ball and shock-absorbent floors for jumping around.

Sweatwork orange

Launching a Chelsea studio last year with three locations coming this summer to Brooklyn (and more to follow in Queens), Orangetheory is the interval-training franchise catching the attention of New Yorkers who aren’t your typical fitness Alphas. While other interval training classes are all about pushing yourself to the max, Orangetheory thinks differently. Based on the theory of EPOC, or excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, it’s all about a colour-coded system and a proprietary heart-rate monitor (worn across the chest or on the bra line). Alternating between treadmill, rowing, and weight training stations, you actively watch your real-time stats on screens around the studio. How hard you train is based on staying in the target orange and yellow zones, and spending less time in zones that are either not intense enough (green and blue) or too intense (red). Only time will tell if New Yorkers take to seeing orange.  

(This articles was originally published on March 9, 2016)

Published Monday, January 2nd 2017

Header image credit: These strapping gentlemen will show you what it's like to work out in jail. Courtesy ConBody

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