Exercise Evolution


Workout studios are hot, hot, hot…but why?

Flashback: 1984. East Bank Club was in its infancy. Lakeshore Athletic Club, renamed Lakeshore Sport + Fitness when new ownership took over in 2011, was Lincoln Park’s Costco-sized fitness supercenter. We ran, we played tennis, we aerobicized. We knew every move from Jane Fonda’s workout and we had the leotard and leggings to match.


Fast forward 30 years and we’re still wearing the leggings—maybe passing on the spandex shiny variety paired with legwarmers—but fitness has come a long way in three decades.


One aspect of its evolution: boutique gyms. It’s a trend that has brought everything from group workouts on a Pilates reformer such as Reform Chicago to stadium-seating indoor cycling like Flywheel Sports to the fitness fold.


“Typically one thinks of something as boutique when it specializes in a certain type of product or service and is also able to provide very personalized service to its clients,” Lis Settimi, co-owner of The Bar Method’s four Chicago locations, says.


These studios might be smaller than their big-box competitors with spas, lap pools, simultaneous classes and rows of cardio equipment, but they sure know how to pack a punch when it comes to getting you in and getting you fit. So what makes them so appealing?



Rather than trying to be the best at Spinning, group fitness, yoga, training and you-name-it, boutique gyms take one fitness format where they can excel. “We had to recognize where our specialty is,” Zach Trowbridge, owner and head strength coach at All Strength Training, says.


Erik Marthaler and Scott McWilliam did that in February 2013 when they opened Lateral Fitness. “We’re not doing what everyone else is doing and training how everyone else is training,” Marthaler says. “We’re looking at other ways to approach the clients and their needs.”


They fused their training styles into a unique boutique space that might resemble a scaled-down gym but offers a far more intimate environment. “We’re combining our abilities to create the first endurance MAT [muscle activation technique] studio,” McWilliam says.


Jason Bressler, owner of Evanston’s Revolution Spinning, knew he had something to offer when his Spinning classes at his former company’s in-house gym began to sell out. “It was one of those follow your dream sort of things,” Bressler explains. “I desperately love Spin.”


Sometimes seeing is believing as is the case for Settimi and Catherine Wendel, co-owners of The Bar Method Chicago. “Catherine and I were loyal clients of The Bar Method at The Bar Method’s flagship studio in San Francisco,” Settimi says. “We wanted to bring The Bar Method to Chicago because we saw how incredibly effective it is as a method in transforming peoples’ bodies, minds and lives.”


Or it’s not finding the hard-core workout and creating one. “We weren’t motivated to work out the way we needed to work out so we knew a high intensity interval training studio is just what Chicago needed,” say the co-owners of Shred415, Bonnie Micheli and Tracy Roemer.


Pick your fitness poison—barre, rowing, running, boot camp, cycling—and you can find it in the area.


Time Is Money

When we’re strapped for time, our workouts often suffer. But wouldn’t you take a power hour or less of combined cardio and strength training if you noticed you were gaining strength and speed and looking better in the mirror?


“With Shred415, you feel like you get everything in one workout instead of having to go to the gym for two hours to accomplish what you can accomplish in a single class,” say Roemer and Micheli.


The same goes for a spin session at Revolution Spinning where Bressler calls some classes insane because they work you so hard and up the intensity so much. Or it’s the high intensity interval training at CrossTown Fitness or Lateral Fitness where you’re constantly running, climbing stairs, or firing up ropes, kettlebells and weights. “Classes are tough, but not more than you can handle,” CrossTown’s owner Charlie Graff says.


Graff also does something different at CrossTown: not all of those tough workouts take place indoors. “We do a lot of stuff outside when the weather is warm,” he says. “We did a ton of classes at the park nearby to us so we’d meet at the gym and go to the park all the way through October.”



“With a studio environment, convenience is key,” Roemer and Micheli say. “A client can park and walk in two minutes before class, put his or her personal belongings in the cubbie inside the room, work out and then leave after 60 minutes.  There’s no long walk from the front desk to the locker rooms, no mentally motivating yourself to get on a piece of cardio equipment or lift weights on your own.”

Trowbridge couldn’t agree more. He says that most of his clients live near All Strength Training, early risers who come before heading to work. “People are going to go with what’s close,” he says.


Or with trainers who push them. “The training kind of trumps everything,” Graff says. “If you fall in love with a trainer, you get a great workout and you’re more than willing to sacrifice the convenience to get that workout in.”


Where Everybody Knows Your Name…

Sometimes it’s easy to slip into the shroud of anonymity during a workout where you can get in, burn those calories and get out. “It’s easy to get lost in the gym, lost in the class,” Bressler says.


Not so when you recognize the same people at class every week or hear your name called out during the session. “Our instructors are trained to be able to teach an entire class of people in a very individualized way, providing each of them with a challenging workout that meets their individual needs,” Settimi says. “We often hear that The Bar Method is like having your own personal trainer within a classroom setting which is a very appealing combination to most people.”


Personalized attention comes into play at Lateral Fitness as well to help clients push harder and reap more benefits. “Recruit is topped off at eight but I keep an eye on every person in the room,” Marthaler says.




Sidebar: Studio Sampler

Whether you yearn to strengthen, stretch or sweat, you won’t be hard pressed to find a workout studio in Chicagoland that meets your fitness requirements. You might not be ready to dump that big-box gym membership just yet, but there are some pretty cool alternatives to slogging it out on the treadmill this winter.


If you’re nervous your remedial strength training know-how will hold up a workout…All Strength Training where group sessions max out at four people and you’re paired with others who have similar skill sets. 4117 N. Broadway, Chicago. allstrengthtraining.com


If you want to avoid anything that resembles swim, bike, run…The Bar Method where its moves will make you stronger, more toned and less prone to injury as it fires up the tiniest of muscle fibers with weights, barre work and core concentration. Four locations in Chicago, plus Highland Park and Naperville. barmethod.com


If you crave variety…Crosstown Fitness where no two workouts are the same, and you’re sweating through everything from burpees and jumping rope to sprints and Turkish getups. 1031 W. Madison, Chicago. Crosstownfitness.com


If you can’t spend hours at the gym…Hard Pressed where you’re done in 30 minutes yet the high intensity strength training puts your body through the ringer and you’re stronger from it. 219 W. Chicago, Suite 600, Chicago. Hardpressed.me


If you’re seeking a one-stop fitness shop…Lateral Fitness where attention is in the details. Inside the scaled down, luxed out gym you’ll find everything from small-group classes and private personal training to MAT (muscle activation technique) that can correct muscle imbalances. 314 W. Superior, Chicago. trainlateral.com


If you want an escape from traditional exercise…React Physical Therapy where physical therapy-driven RMx classes address your body’s imbalances and work toward improving them through muscle release, activation, stretching and strengthening. 225 S. Sangamon, Chicago. bereact.com


If you want to crush it on the bike next season…Revolution Spinning where every class is about torching calories on spin bikes. Your legs might feel like noodles by the end, but that’s the trade off for improved cadence and speed when road riding commences. 904 Sherman Avenue, Evanston. revolutionspinning.com


If your routine runs need refreshing…Shred415 where a power hour switches between fast-paced floor exercises and treadmill intervals that you’re likely to skip on your own time—like running hills at a 15 percent incline. Two locations in Chicago, plus Northfield. shred415.com