In boutique gym craze, quality trumps quantity

John Todaro at his Speed Strength Performance gym in Rockville. Photo by Jared Foretek.

Walk into the Speed Strength Performance gym in Rockville and you probably won’t recognize that it is part of one of the fastest-growing trends in the fitness world. You might not know it was a professional gym at all — weights and resistance bands are off to the sides, and there’s a squat rack in the corner, but much of the warehouse-style space is empty.

John Todaro opened the gym last year and business has taken off among athletes and fitness-types who are eschewing the typical gym experience of clustered machines and commotion for something more open, personalized and intimate.

Speed Strength Performance is considered a boutique fitness studio, offering high-intensity training and workouts in a small group setting. And according to a recent report from the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, these gyms now represent about 35 percent of the fitness market, with revenue totaling $81 billion in 2015.

“You can basically take a warehouse and turn it into a world-class gym,” Todaro says.

Brand-name chains like CrossFit and SoulCycle have the most name recognition and market share, but independent businesses like Todaro’s have also become more popular for athletes at the high school, collegiate and professional levels — and the general population as well.

He says Speed Strength Performance shares some commonalities with CrossFit, the extreme regimen that was created in 2000 and has exploded in recent years, but that studios like his do more to tailor to the goals of individual customers.

“This type of gym is more popular than it’s ever been, and we have CrossFit to thank, it’s a great ambassador to this ‘get-after-it’ strength and conditioning,” says Todaro. “But I’ll go to gyms and see what some trainers are doing, and sometimes it’s just not appropriate. Our job is to assess everyone’s ability and take a small-step approach. Even with pro athletes it’s about mastering the basics.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Colin Quay, who runs Elite Athlete Training Services in Rockville. The industry has exploded over the last decade, he says.

That can bring danger when first-timers flock to a new trend without adequate preparation or guidance. A study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research cited a rate of 3.1 injuries per 1,000 CrossFit sessions, rivalling that of competitive weightlifting.

“In the last 10 years, you’ve seen a big boom in our industry and a lot more people have gotten into our field,” Quay says. “It brings tons and tons of competition and there’s almost an excessive amount of information out there for the consumer. So, unfortunately, you see a lot of people that might not be ready for it, but get into something because it looks cool and they know people who’ve done it, and they’re finding themselves getting hurt.”

Individual attention can come with a much bigger price tag than your average monthly gym membership. Packages start around $30 per group session at Speed Strength Performance. Whereas big box gyms like Gold’s or Crunch cover their overhead selling passes to hundreds in a single location, small studios only serve a handful of clients at a time. But Todaro says that people are willing to pay for the kind of Division I-level training they may not have gotten in college.

Todaro went into training after growing up in Springfield and playing baseball at Old Dominion University in Norfolk for a time. These high-end studios often train professional and aspiring professional athletes as well, promising their general population customers a similarly-structured program. For him, training was the best way to overcome the frustration of being removed from competitive sports. And with a proliferation of amateur competitive athletic opportunities like extreme races (think “Tough Mudder” or “Spartan Race”), even weekend warriors are looking to train to get better.

For others, there’s the benefit of small group workouts that, as Todaro says, can “take an uncomfortable situation and make it less awkward.” The American College of Sports Medicine says that group exercise can provide any number of psychological benefits, like peer pressure to stick with a program and simple enjoyment that keeps people coming back.

“People enjoy being in that type of sports performance atmosphere,” Quay says. “Not only do they want to look good but they want to move better or they want to perform better when they’re participating in recreational sports. So we might bring a sort of modified version of what we’d do with our athletes.”

And as always, simple vanity is a motivating factor as well. Says Quay, “As a byproduct of that, they’re going to look better too, which never hurts.” n
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