Retro Fit

Back-to-Basics Gyms Provide a Fresh Approach to Old-School Workouts

By Guy Fletcher | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 01.29.14 – Diversions, Lifestyles

It’s 10 a.m. on a cold Friday morning at the Crossfit Frederick gym, tucked in a business park along MD.85, and trainer Ryan Bateman is leading his class of handful of students in a workout that’s part game, part sadism. Using a standard deck of playing cards, he flips over one card at a time. Each suit is tied to a specific workout—from climbing-style strides to squat-thrust “burpees” that appear just as difficult as the name implies.

The real fun (or is it torture?) in Bateman’s workout is the number on each card, which equals the repetitions each student
must complete; low cards can be handled in a hurry, but draw a high number or a face card (which counts as 10), and, well, the students can get ready to sweat, strain and maybe even cry their way through several minutes, before moving on to the next card.

As the hour-long class continues, the once-chilly students begin to perspire and then peel off their sweat shirts and other workout attire. “You know how good a class is by how many clothes are left here,” says co-owner Dave May, only half-jokingly.

The gym, by fitness club standards, is Spartan—a wide-open, 5,000-square-foot warehouse space filled with mats, weights, pull-up bars, rowing machines, medicine balls and a few other implements of torment. To the uninitiated, it looks more like a boxing gym than a fitness center. That’s intentional, and it’s unique.

Throughout Frederick County you can find these kinds of stripped-down workout facilities, in many brands and formats. They might employ some type of military-style training, with names like Boot Camp or Combat, or they might have a milder approach. Some are class-oriented, while others focus on personal training. Fees can range from less than $100 a month to several hundred. While each gym attempts to carve its own fitness niche, they all share a common theme of eschewing the traditional health club model of modern, mirrored facilities, filled with gleaming workout machines, juice bars and TVs.

“You know how good a class is by how many clothes are left here,” says co-owner Dave May, only half-jokingly.

The move reflects both a change in what people want in working out and how gyms as a business can meet those needs, says Danny Farrar, owner of Soldierfit, a 17,000-square-foot gym housed in a business park near Clustered Spires Golf Club. Farrar, an Army veteran, worked as a trainer at a traditional gym before starting Soldierfit and realized the fitness centers carried expensive overhead in the form of equipment and other continuing expenses to members who were paying a low monthly rate. “I said if a gym could survive like that, why couldn’t a boot camp company?” he says.

Meanwhile, he was seeing a change in what people wanted from working out. Rather than just building muscle for the sake of building muscle, he says his “troops” were seeking a workout that could make their lives easier— whether it’s hauling firewood into their homes or performing tasks on the job. The Soldierfit series of workouts—from weights to aerobic exercises to agility training—is about giving students tools they can use when they are not working out. “This is more functional,” Farrar says. “You are not going to sit down at a machine and do the weights in your real life.”

Over at CrossFit Frederick, Dave May and his wife, Amanda, preach a similar sermon. The couple opened their CrossFit location five years ago after Amanda, a personal trainer with a traditional fitness center background, took up the
workout program for herself. She saw such fast results and real-world applications that she and her husband decided to open their own CrossFit location. “It’s really like training for life,” Amanda says.

The key, they say, is an efficient workout that makes the most of every minute someone is in the gym through various challenging exercises—rather than just running on a treadmill or lifting weights for an hour—all while trainers insist on
proper technique. Do an exercise incorrectly and you will be called out. “We are pretty demanding when it comes to technique,” says Amanda.

“This is more functional,” Farrar says. “You are not going to sit down at a machine and do the weights in your real life.”

Fair or not, this breed of workout is closely associated to an overall mood—be it barking instructors or grueling exercises— that is not conducive to the novice. Although CrossFit is a national brand that has been associated with elite training, such as the popular CrossFit Games, the 250 members at CrossFit Frederick represent a broad demographic and skill range, the Mays say. Four of the gym’s students are in their 60s, and all workouts can be modified based on skill level.

“We don’t expect anyone who comes in to perform at an elite level,” Amanda says. “You have to build up to that.” More likely, she says, her staff will have to restrict members who are pushing themselves too hard and risking injury.

The appeal to the common athlete is one of the reasons you won’t find large mirrors at places like CrossFit and Soldierfit. “You don’t need to see what you are doing, but you need to feel what you are doing,” Dave May says.

At Soliderfit, the philosophy is “pride, not ego,” Farrar says. Mirrors might fill the ego of someone in great shape, but it won’t build pride among the novice measuring his or her success in ways that cannot be reflected in a reflection. That’s also why you won’t find women working out in sports bras or the latest synthetic-fiber workout gear; all Soldierfit members work out in a T-shirt issued when they join.“My main focus is to make everybody comfortable when they come in here,” he says.

As a result, the members don’t feel like they are competing with each other as much as they are encouraging each other to succeed. If one member falls behind during a certain workout, it’s not unusual for others to stop what they are doing to offer encouragement. “How can you not be motivated by that?” Farrar asks.

With more than 1,000 members and growing, it seems to be working for Farrar. He has already grown SoldierFit into locations in Montgomery County, Baltimore County and Northern Virginia. His aim, he says very confidently, is to see Soldierfit become a national company in three to four years. “My main goal with this company isn’t fitness,” he says. “My main goal is the revitalization of the American Dream.”