When Adam Barker first walked into a boutique fitness studio, he immediately noticed the difference from a public or big-box gym.
“Everything is catered for you,” he said. “You're guaranteed quality in everything from the workout, to the equipment, to the amenities and facilities available to you — it’s like a nirvana for your fitness.”
Like others who frequent trendy studios with an “exclusive club” feel — mood lighting, banging beats, and mirrors everywhere — Barker is more than willing to pay $30 or more for a single fitness class.
“I’m happy to spend a little bit more on the best quality experiences with extra personalized and tailored routines, and extras that make it special,” said Barker, chief executive officer and co-founder of MagnaPass, a U.K.-based company that lets people book local fitness classes online.
Selling an experience
Expensive fitness classes are not a new phenomenon, but right now they seem to be hot — hot enough to burn a hole in your wallet.
In New York, for $34 a class you can experience the spin classes of SoulCycle or its competitor FlyWheel, or try out strength and interval training on a treadmill at Barry’s Bootcamp.
If you want to shell out $37, you can take a drop-in “Pilates-meets-ballet” class at The Bar Method or get pumped and stretchy at Exhale’s CoreFusion yoga classes.
But the boutique fitness ceiling goes even higher.
SLT offers a Pilates and cardio mix done on M3 Megaformer machines, and Aqua takes spin classes into the pool. Both for $40 per class.
Of course, rates vary from city to city. And some studios offer deals or cheaper rates if you pay for more classes up front.
But compare this to regular gyms and you’ll see how quickly the cost of boutique fitness classes can add up.
Planet Fitness and World Gym also offer fitness classes — plus a wide range of treadmills and strength training equipment — for membership fees of $10 to $20 a month.
At the higher end of the scale, the New York Health & Racquet Club — with weights, treadmills, swimming pool, basketball and racquetball courts, sauna, steam room, and more — charges up to $135 a month, plus a $300 initiation fee.
For the racquet club, that comes out to less than $2,000 a year — for unlimited access.
Taking three underwater spin classes a week at Aqua — to hit the recommended 150 minutes of cardio a week — would cost more than $6,000 a year.
Still, working with a personal trainer once a week for $100 or $150 each session would run up to $7,800 a year — and that’s not counting any gym fees.
Hidden costs of fitness
There’s no doubt that part of what you’re paying for at boutique fitness studios is what Barker calls the “good atmosphere and those touches that give a studio that extra personality.”
Aryn Forman, owner of the small online boutique Aryn Payne, noticed this when she attended a SoulCycle class in the Boston area.
“It is clean and has a very nice atmosphere,” she said. “They are selling fancy clothes and everything looks brand new.”
Some boutique fitness studios sell clothing and other merchandise embossed with their logos — sometimes funneling members through the gift shop after class to pick up some trendy supplies.
And there are the free amenities like complimentary towels, deodorant, shampoo, hair ties, and earplugs.
But market forces also drive the higher class prices.
“People don’t realize what it costs for me to run Rise Nation,” Jason Walsh, founder of Rise Nation, a California-based studio that offers fitness classes on climber machines.
“You have to pay your people and hopefully pay them well,” added Walsh. “You’ve got overhead. And for real estate in West Hollywood — prime real estate — it’s thousands of dollars per month.”
As expected from their image, many expensive boutique fitness studios are in trendy neighborhoods — with high rent costs.
Like Rise Nation, they may also have high equipment costs just because of the classes they offer — like the stationary bicycles immersed in a pool at Aqua or the $7,000 M3 Megaformer machines at SLT and Studio Lagree.
And paying instructors to run each class is not cheap, especially when you want the best. Which is a big part of the experience.
“People get to know the instructor — who often teaches a lot of classes at the boutique studio — and they learn to like that person's teaching style and crave it,” said Ashley Pitt, a San Francisco-based personal trainer and author of the blog A Lady Goes West.
Most bang for the buck
No matter how many cold eucalyptus towels you get for free at a fitness studio, though, paying more for a class doesn’t always mean a better workout.
So how do you find something that gives you the most bang for your buck?
“To get the best results,” said Justin Fauci, a certified personal trainer, and co-founder of Lean Muscle Project, “choose classes that focus on one primary goal — such as maximizing strength via weight training, or maximizing calorie burn via high-intensity spinning.”
Variety is good, too, so you don’t hit a fitness plateau or get bored.
Pitt recommends finding classes “that have a different focus each day, in order to work new muscles. Orangetheory Fitness and Barry's Bootcamp are great at this because they keep the participant guessing so that you have to keep working harder and differently each time.”
Also, watch out for classes that try to cram everything into one workout.
“Doing cardio alongside strength training tends to dilute the effectiveness of the strength training by draining your energy and limiting the amount of weight you can lift,” said Fauci.
These types of classes are common among fitness studios chasing the latest craze.
“Unfortunately what you’re seeing in these ‘hybrid classes’ — where there’s two or three different aspects to the workout — is just somebody putting their hand in a grab bag, throwing it against the wall, and seeing what sticks,” said Walsh.
Find a class that fits your goals
Whether a fitness class works for you also depends on your goals.
With spin classes, you can always pedal faster or harder than those around you for a more intense workout.
But Fauci said some group classes may take a one-size-fits-all approach to strength training, where you work with the same weight the entire time, or do low weights and high reps.
This may help build endurance, but not size or strength.
“If building muscle and strength is one of your primary fitness goals,” said Fauci, “then I believe that most fitness classes are going to be a waste of your money — and your time.”
The importance of matching the workout to your goals is true for other areas.
“For clients focused on weight loss, TRX, kettlebell, HIIT [high-intensity interval training], and boot camp style classes are the biggest bang for your buck,” said New York-based certified personal trainer Lisa Snow, president of On the Mend Customized Fitness and Massage.
But if you need to let go of some stress or improve your mobility, she added, yoga, stretching, or MELT foam roller classes would be a better use of your time and money.
Balance is good, too — not just the kind you get from standing on one leg in yoga class.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that in addition to at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week, most adults should also include strength training and flexibility exercises.
If you are just starting out, though, do whatever it takes to make exercise a regular part of your life.
Once the foundation is there, it’s time to balance your workouts, rather than wasting money by focusing only on your strengths — and ignoring your weaknesses.
“If you're already running outside every day, do you really need a spin class?” said Snow. “You've already got so much cardio under your belt. Pilates or yoga might be a better investment.”
For stress-free and flexible yoga fans, said Snow, a dumbbell or kettlebell class might be a good option.
Put the workout first
With the lighting and music, Rise Nation still has a bit of a trendy club feel, but all that, said Walsh, is secondary to helping people get great results.
“I came up with a really efficient and effective and safe workout. That was it,” he said. “That was the seed that started this whole thing. It wasn’t the other way around.”
He said he spent a couple of years in the studio, where he does personal training, coming up with the workout before even opening up shop.
And with only 31 climbers in the room, Rise Nation classes are smaller than some packed stadium fitness classes. This helps instructors keep an eye on students.
“I want people to have great form,” said Walsh. “That’s really important to me.”
Snow sets the bar even higher — or lower — for class size.
“Skip the expensive classes with 20, 30, or 40 people in the room,” she said. “While they may have better music or decor than a chain gym, it's hard to see how these classes are really better than free classes that come with a gym membership.”
What’s the ideal boutique class size to justify the higher price and allow the instructor the focus on you? Snow puts it at 12 or fewer.
Finding an instructor that you connect with is also essential if you plan on returning.
“A great instructor is one who can help you push past comfort in a motivating and supportive environment,” said Donnie Stutland, co-owner of WheelPower Studio in Illinois. “It's easy to have an easy workout at home and not realize how little we have truly pushed ourselves.”
Don’t ignore cheaper options
Expensive boutique fitness studios don’t have a monopoly on good workouts.
Rise Nation’s classes are $26. In New York, on average, Bikram yoga classes are $25, and Jivamukti yoga classes are $22.
WheelPower Studio charges $23 for a class. But like many studios, they also offer monthly pricing to keep the cost lower.
And they have two studios under the same roof for more workout options.
“People can take a cycle class one day, a bootcamp or rhythmic sculpt class the next, and yoga to round out the week, as opposed to getting the exact same workout in every class as at many boutiques,” said Stutland.
Now we’re approaching big-box gym territory.
Which is not necessarily a bad thing.
“The great thing is that I pay one month and I'm able to take as many classes as I want,” said New York-based comedian Dan Nainan, who is a member of the New York Health & Racquet Club.
“You certainly can't beat that. Studio classes in New York are really expensive,” he added. “So to me, it's a no-brainer.”
Cheaper fitness options can also help people exercise regularly — not just when they can afford it.
“If someone is struggling to afford boutique classes,” said Pitt. “I think they would be well served to see what is available at the big-box gym near them.”
As surprising as it may seem to diehard fans of boutique fitness classes, not everyone who tries them is rushing back.
“SoulCycle was a good experience. It was definitely fun but super hard,” said Forman. “But I didn't feel like it was a superior experience to other fitness classes I have taken.”
Others even swear by the variety offered at large gyms.
With his monthly membership, Nainan has taken kickboxing, trampoline, yoga, and core strength classes — and has hardly noticed any difference from what’s offered at boutique studios.
“I took karate classes for years and essentially it's a bunch of people in a room along with an instructor,” said Nainan. “I don't really know how many ways there are to do that.”