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Feeling the Burn

As the high-end fitness market gets ever more competitive, some gyms are resorting to tactics that seem better suited to elementary school playgrounds than million-dollar businesses. DuJour reports from the front lines of the workout battlefields

Last year, personal trainer Andy Speer quit his job at Equinox in New York City’s SoHo area to open his own gym, SoHo Strength Lab, just five blocks away. Over the next few months, some of his clients followed him to the new place…and so did a notice from Equinox accusing Speer of violating his non-compete agreement, and saying that he had to close his gym immediately or they would  sue. The lawsuit is still being threatened today. “They felt like we stole their clients,” Speer says, “but everyone can do what they want. It’s kind of a pain in the ass, but we’re not worried about anything on our end, or about being shut down. It’s an unfortunate side of the business, but it’s just the way things are.”

The way things are in the fitness industry, it seems, is super competitive (and not just over who can achieve the best muscle definition or lowest body-fat percentage). An industry that was once about chasing good vibes, endorphin highs and killer abs has become centered around gyms and studios clinging to their territory and fighting off all other comers. Boutique firms, like SoulCycle or Tracy Anderson Method, along with the big guys, like Equinox or Bally Total Fitness, are squabbling over everything from locations to clients to training styles, all in the hopes of staying in business in what’s become a very crowded space. “There’s fitness on every corner,” says Jennifer Johnson, who founded JJ Dancer in Los Angeles and trains Jessica Alba and Jenna Dewan-Tatum. “It’s all about whoever comes out with something new. Like, say, there’s a new shoveling-your-sand workout, and then it’s, ‘Oh my god, have you been shoveling?’ ”

    

 But with memberships that can cost anywhere from $250 to $950 a month, or up to $40 per class, workout spots can’t afford to have clients running to the next big thing whenever they feel like it. So gyms—and, in many cases, their most devoted members—are engaging in tactics that at times seem more suited to playground skirmishes than to professional rivalries. Some black out their doors so rivals can’t peek in; others ban the competition from taking their classes or tease clients for wearing another brand’s gear. (“We might say, ‘We sell shirts here too,’ and have them buy something else,” a former dance cardio studio employee recalls.) Likewise, there are trainers who (falsely) tell clients that other workouts are bad for them. “Every trainer and company will have their own views and creed,” Johnson says, “and there might be a good reason why certain clients shouldn’t go, say, spinning. But generally speaking, I feel like it’s just manipulation.”

 

In May, Barry’s Bootcamp instructor (and chief operating officer) Joey Gonzalez attended a SoulCycle class; later, he got a voicemail from a SoulCycle lawyer telling him he couldn’t come back. “He essentially said, ‘We have a policy at SoulCycle where instructors at other group-fitness studios are not allowed to take class,’” Gonzalez told fitness website Well + Good. “He seemed half embarrassed.”

 And at Tracy Anderson Method, a former employee says, “We had a couple of incidents where former trainers would try to come to take a class, and they were nicely asked to walk away.” When one former Anderson instructor came to the brand’s Hamptons studio, other clients—and not the gym’s management—recognized her and asked that she be turned out. “Tracy is a little bit more sensitive to people leaving her,” the former employee explains. “People have burned her.”

Practices like this might be commonplace in, say, the notoriously secretive and sometimes savage finance industry, but some fitness professionals think they have no place in a business that’s supposed to be dedicated to making customers feel great about themselves. “It’s very tacky to close your doors,” says Ary Nunez, Rihanna’s trainer and founder of Ary’s America. “No one’s trying to steal your stuff. I shun that. If you’re amazing and incredible, you don’t care if someone’s trying to compete with you. If you’re hiding your stuff because you think you’re that great, you must be insecure. It’s tacky, and you’re making a poor statement about your brand.”

The fitness business has indeed become increasingly personality driven, and more about the brand than what’s making you sweat. “A lot of it is about the ‘you’ factor,” says Gregg D’Andrea, an indoor cycling instructor in Boston who runs GStarFit. “Gyms hire people with entertainment backgrounds. They want people with pizazz. There’s a guy here who teaches for Barry’s Bootcamp: He was a frustrated college athlete who didn’t make it as a pro, and now he’s the man. Everyone packs his class. He became a fitness instructor overnight. Before that, he was working in finance.”

Perhaps because of how charismatic certain instructors are, some particularly devoted clients have begun to act as though they have a stake in their businesses. “Some of the women who train at these very high-priced gyms are normal, but some are lunatics,” says a former boutique gym employee, who tells stories about clients who’d cry or throw tantrums if they couldn’t work with a certain trainer. “It’s all they do. They plan their day around when a certain trainer is teaching. They bring their kid. They get caught up with the drama in the studio, like who’s sleeping with whom.”

Clients become protective, too, if they see something they think their trainer should know about, like if a fellow client “friends” a different trainer on Facebook, or if an instructor at their studio is also teaching a class elsewhere. Some have even started Facebook pages that are specifically devoted to criticizing another workout; SoulCycle followers lashed out against the Tracy Anderson Method after Anderson told Redbook that spinning will “bulk your thighs.” Gifts, like luxury trips or lavish dinners, are also common. “These women become obsessed with these trainers,” the insider says. “When their whole body changes they become very indebted to them and grateful.”

Sometimes, in fact, they become too grateful. “There was a point where I had a Single White Female situation,” Nunez says. “She was, like, everywhere I was. If I was at the supermarket or at a party, she was there. It became uncomfortable. I’m not your guru. I’m not your god or master. If you’re counting on this one thing to make you happy, you’ve taken it too far.”

Along the same lines, Annbeth Eschbach, the owner of Exhale, a barre studio in New York known for its core fusion classes, points out that those in the fitness industry should think well beyond whatever happens to be the brand or workout of the moment. “This thing is bigger than all of us,” she says. “Well-being is something everyone needs. It’d be very sad if we tore each other apart.”

Illustrated by Dennis Eriksson  

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