Jerad Friedline tackles the climbing wall at Sacramento Pipeworks. While the club is best known for its massive wall, it also has one of the area’s largest CrossFit gyms.

Filling a Niche

Boutique gyms are helping satisfy the growing demand for unique workouts with activities such as rock-wall climbing and mixed martial arts

Back Longreads Aug 7, 2019 By Judy Farah

Thirty years ago, muscle gyms like Gold’s Gym were the norm and the aerobics craze started by Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons was in full swing. Now, the trend has turned full circle, back to boutique centers. 

When you walk into Sacramento Pipeworks, in a vintage brick building on North 16th Street that was once a metal factory, the first thing you see is a massive, 40-foot climbing wall partners work together to scale — one climbing and the other holding the safety rope, a technique called a belay. Alex Honnold, a Sacramento native who in 2017 became the only person to climb Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan with no ropes or safety equipment, trained here. A documentary about his climb, “Free Solo,” won an Academy Award. 

Pipeworks also has one of the Sacramento area’s largest and most popular CrossFit gyms and offers group classes such as yoga, pilates and cycling. KCRA meteorologist Tamara Berg joined Pipeworks four years ago and does CrossFit classes five to six times a week, jumping on boxes, doing deadlifts and climbing ropes. “CrossFit has become a staple in my life,” Berg says. “Some of my best friends I’ve met at Pipeworks, and they hold me accountable for sticking to workouts.”

Health and fitness is a $30 billion industry in the United States, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, with more than 60 million members at 38,000 clubs, and one in four Americans belong to a gym. According to IHRSA, the industry is growing 3 to 4 percent a year — and evolving. Americans on average spend $155 per month on health and fitness, according to a survey conducted by sports and nutrition company Myprotein, including $56 on health supplements such as protein shakes and weight-loss products, $35 on workout clothing and accessories, $33 on gym memberships, $17 for healthy meal plans, and $14 on personal trainers.

The past 10 years also have seen the rise of specialized gyms where people are willing to plunk down $20 and more for a class. These boutique gyms, which usually have a specialty one might not get elsewhere and tend to focus on group workouts, have grown 450 percent since 2010, according to Piper Jaffray, a fitness investment firm, and make up 35 percent of the fitness market. They are trying to keep up with the growing demands for new, unique workouts, including CrossFit, yoga, Pilates, cycling, boxing, barre and more. In response to this trend, Pipeworks, for example, added CrossFit five years ago to attract more customers, according to manager Vaughn Medford. 

Devotees say these gyms also offer something the bigger ones don’t, a place where people come together for a common interest. In our increasingly disconnected lives, people are connecting through exercise. Gretchen Eiferle is a teacher who comes to Pipeworks for the machines, yoga and the wall. “I love it here,” she says. “I love the camaraderie. It doesn’t feel corporate.”

A Boom in Boutique Gyms

Thirty years ago, muscle gyms like Gold’s Gym were the norm and the aerobics craze started by Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons was in full swing. Gyms then grew into clubs with a focus on families, with  racquetball, basketball, tennis and swimming pools — and even day care for the kids. Now, the trend has turned full circle, back to boutique centers. 

“People are looking at their lifestyle and saying things are so hectic, I need to exercise,” says David Hawkins, a biomedical engineer who studies fitness trends for UC Davis. “So they’re reaching out to a variety of things.” He says the American College of Sports Medicine now offers certifications for group exercise instructors, not just personal trainers, to reflect the demand for group fitness.

Another example of the boom in boutique gyms is Ultimate Fitness, opened in Midtown Sacramento in 2006 by mixed martial arts champion Urijah Faber. As the popularity of his sport soared, Faber relocated to a larger 23,000-square-foot facility on Folsom Boulevard in 2017. 

His expanded, modern gym has an octagon cage and outdoor boxing ring where professional MMA fighters practice. It also offers kickboxing, wrestling and jiujitsu for men, women and children. One of the most popular classes is Pulse, a fast-paced combination of boxing, total body resistance exercises and strength training. “This concept is a place that anybody can be a part of,” Faber says. “It’s got a massive general-fitness side that caters to everyone in Sacramento from all different ages. A lot of what we do is based on what the best athletes in the world do … strength, conditioning and recovery.”

For cycling enthusiasts, options include Team Ride, a center opened by four sisters in 2012 that now has three locations in the Sacramento area offering a full-body workout with hand weights, and All City Riders, a downtown Sacramento facility where riders spin through cities such as Paris, Berlin and Los Angeles projected on a big screen.

CorePower Yoga, the largest chain of yoga studios in the United States with centers in Fair Oaks and Roseville, has several options including beginning level, sculpting and hot yoga. Kaia Fit, a national company with locations across the Sacramento region, offers group classes for women designed by women, and Fitness Rangers focuses on group circuit classes at its East Sacramento location.

“People like to be pushed, be inspired,” Faber says. “They like to have camaraderie. For most people, if you find something you enjoy doing you almost forget you’re working out. That’s the key.”

Adjusting to the Market

The older, established gyms have taken note of the increase in boutique gyms. When Orangetheory Fitness entered the Sacramento market in 2014, California Family Fitness, which opened in 1999 and now has 20 clubs and 100,000 members throughout the region, reminded its clients that it offers similar classes. Orangetheory, launched in Boca Raton, Florida, in 2010, now has eight studios with plans for more. Its one-hour classes are a combination of cardio, strength and weight training, guided by a coach, and are different each day. 

CalFit is constantly tracking trends to make sure it’s offering what members want, including cycling, yoga and Pilates classes. “Our success has hinged upon being a community provider of family fitness,” says Randy Karr, president of CalFit. “We’ve always had a family focus. We always wanted to be the community option.” Still, Karr acknowledges that some of his members belong to both CalFit and a boutique gym. 

“CrossFit has become a staple in my life. Some of my best friends I’ve met at Pipeworks, and they hold me accountable for sticking to workouts.” Tamara Berg, meteorologist, KCRA

Spare Time Sports Clubs, which opened its first facility, Del Oro Racquet Club, 45 years ago, was the region’s first family-oriented fitness chain. Its seven locations have tennis courts, swimming, cafes and spas. “If you want to play with your grandkids or carry groceries up two flights of stairs, or if you want to become a triathlete or marathon runner, there’s functional fitness for you,” says Gavin Russo, Spare Time’s director of marketing.

Then there’s Life Time, but don’t call it a gym. Its marketing department instead refers to its centers as “athletic resorts.” The national chain has facilities in Folsom and Roseville, palatial at 120,000 square feet with multiple gyms, a cafe and a sprawling outdoor aquatic park with water slides and beer and wine. Its Kids Academy takes children 3 months to 12 years old and offers karate, yoga, tumbling, dance and homework help.

“Life Time is our go-to with kids when we are bored,” says Ludmila Lakeev, a Roseville real estate agent. “My kids are 6 and 3; they enjoy splashing and playing with friends. We have many friends who go to Life Time as well. It’s slowly becoming a community for us.”  

Some gyms, such as Anytime Fitness, Planet Fitness and 24 Hour Fitness that offer few frills, are available 24 hours a day. Mark Mastrov, founder of 24 Hour Fitness and a minority owner of the Sacramento Kings, pioneered the 24-hour concept in 1983, when he was managing a gym. He saw that people who didn’t work conventional hours — police, fire, medical and factory workers — knocked on the door wanting 24-hour access.

“I think there’s a place for everyone in the market,” says Amy Williams, public relations director for Life Time. “Every consumer is looking for something a little bit different. I think consumers in different places in their life are looking for different things.”

Extras — and More

To keep members — and attract new ones — in a hypercompetitive industry, a new trend is to offer benefits not usually associated with gyms. Ultimate Fitness, for example, has an upstairs lounge with tables and a kombucha bar where members can work on their laptops. Life Time has a business workstations where members can grab a snack and work. Capital Athletic Club in Sacramento has a conference room that seats 20 for member use plus several workstations.

“We notice that a lot of people come in and work out of the facility,” says Rick Leonard, Capital Athletic’s general manager and executive director. “They come in and do a workout, but bring their computers and have lunch and work at the tables upstairs. It’s an office away from the office.”

Capital Athletic, the only downtown Sacramento club with an outdoor pool, has been serving the Capitol and business crowd since 1985. Arnold Schwarzenegger worked out at the gym when he was governor. Members can have their workout clothes cleaned by staff and ready for them the next day, and they can have their shoes shined while they work out. 

The Well at Sacramento State, whose members include students, faculty, staff and alumni, also has a unique offering — Netflix, Hulu and YouTube on its stationary bikes. The Well also has a no-device, meditative room for relaxation, and Hawkins says UC Davis is considering an electronic detox center where no devices are allowed so patrons can de-stress.

Technology is helping fuel the boutique boom too. Orangetheory, for example, uses wristbands that monitor each user’s heart rate and calories burned, displayed on a monitor in its black-and-orange studios. “I love Orangetheory because I can increase my workout intensity as my fitness level increases,” says member Lori Grace, who takes both early morning and night classes four to five times a week at the Fair Oaks location. 

At 5 a.m. on a Monday, 36 men and women at the Fair Oaks Orangetheory studio might be bleary-eyed, but the coach soon changes that, barking orders to get on the treadmills, rowers and weights for the next 60 minutes. Over at California Family Fitness in Orangevale, at 10 p.m. the same day, members are still working ellipticals, bikes and weights. Like Grace, people across the region are lacing up their sneakers and hitting gyms all hours of the day and night in an effort to get fit and healthy — and stay that way. 

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