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Jamie Sulc (right) prepares to lead a strength-training class at Crossfit RVA, a boutique-style health club on West Leigh Street. At left are Brandon Roberson and Christie Randall. Photo by Jay Paul
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ACAC instructors, including (from left, in a white shirt) Zach Boland, Sue Hulsebusch and Ed Ross-Clunis, practice the Bosu stability squat hold. Photo by Jay Paul
It is 5:30 in the afternoon and fitness instructor Jamie Sulc is preparing to lead a strength-training class at Crossfit RVA, a boutique-style health club on West Leigh Street. Dressed in a red T-shirt and gray sweatpants, Sulc glances at his wristwatch as he strides toward a large whiteboard on the far wall. Highlighted in black marker are the particulars of the evening's workout.
"Gather around, everyone. Let's take a look at what you'll be doing today," he says, and 15 people in workout gear dutifully fall in line.
They pay $120 to $155 a month for several hourlong workouts a week. All eyes are on Sulc, who sprawls on the floor to demonstrate the proper technique for several stretching exercises, including the spiderman lunge, the duck walk and the scorpion.
Moments later, Sulc is back on his feet. "OK, get started. Ten reps for each exercise," and class members mimic the routine, while Sulc observes each person and occasionally gives hands-on instruction.
During the next 45 minutes, he guides the group through a grueling series of high-intensity activities — today those include running, double-skipping a rope and tossing a medicine ball against a high wall — with a focus on pushing boundaries and building endurance. All of it is done in double time, with a sense of great urgency. Some people look like they want to take a break, but Sulc keeps pushing them to work harder.
Housed in the former Lewis Printing Co. warehouse at 900 W. Leigh St., CrossFit RVA opened two years ago as an alternative to traditional gyms. Rather than using exercise machines, which isolate one muscle group at a time, Sulc teaches cross-functional fitness training, which engages multiple muscle groups simultaneously. The objective is to strengthen muscles that form the body's core, extending from the upper abdomen to the thighs.
CrossFit RVA isn't for everyone. Its monthly membership fee for individuals is significantly higher than area health-club chains, whose rates range between $35 and $70 a month, depending on the facility and amenities. CrossFit RVA also limits classes to about 20 people. But Sulc doesn't consider any of that to be a drawback, and his classes are always filled.
"We provide a bridge between personalized training and working out independently," he says during a break between classes. "The other thing is that we're a supportive community. Each person here might have a different fitness goal, but we all push each other to get stronger."
More than a half-dozen new gyms opened in greater Richmond during the past two years. Nationally, membership in fitness clubs continues to grow modestly in the United States, inching up 2.5 percent to more than 51.5 million people. That's according to a report last year by the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, a trade group in Boston.
Florida-based Fitness Evolution is the newest entrant into the market, moving into a Brook Road facility formerly occupied by American Family Fitness of Glen Allen. Construction of its facility is ongoing and a formal grand opening has not been announced, owner Paul Summers says.
Fitness Evolution bucks trends by offering low monthly membership rates and taking a holistic approach to fitness and wellness, Summers says.
"We are living in an era of personal improvement," Summers says, noting that conspicuous consumption and excess is giving way to a quest for simpler living. "It makes sense that more people than ever are choosing to take care of themselves."
Evolution Fitness arrives on the heels of a mammoth five-story complex in Short Pump by ACAC Fitness and Wellness Centers, based in Charlottesville. Meanwhile, American Family Fitness added two gyms in Chesterfield County and plans to open a third one in Virginia Center Commons this year. And in addition, Irving, Texas-based Golds Gyms International has opened three new franchises here.
Boutique chains like Snap Fitness also are making inroads. Based in Chanhassen, Minn., Snap Fitness is national franchise with more than 1,200 locations, including several in the Richmond region. Most of its franchises are around-the-clock operations.
B.J. Byers, owner of the Snap Fitness club in Hanover County's Montpelier community, says people want greater flexibility and don't want to wait around for equipment to become available. She says the club provides staff assistance during regular hours, but members can gain access to the facility after hours by using an electronic keycard. It's ideal for people who work at night or odd shifts. "It's like having your own personal gym," Byers says.
The new clubs underscore a booming market for fitness products and services, although people's reasons for working out appear to be in flux. While many people join a gym to lift weights or run a treadmill, demand for workouts that tone muscles and boost flexibility is at an all-time high, according to Richmond fitness experts.
"People are more worried about their health and the functionality of their workouts, rather than working out simply to look good," says Jill Lakey, the general manager of American Family Fitness at 11760 W. Broad St.
In addition, Lakey says, an increasing number of people are willing to pay a little extra to consult with a personal trainer on fitness goals. "It's a heck of a lot cheaper to work with a fitness professional to prevent health issues than it is to pay for the costs of medical bills after the fact," Lakey says. "Plus, working with a certified personal trainer guarantees people will reach their personal fitness goals."
Focus on Function
Although people continue to sign up for gym memberships, experts note their reasons for doing so are different than in years past. Functional training is changing perceptions about fitness methods, says Jennie Meharg, owner of Range of Motion Virginia. Rather than adding bulk or mass, functional exercises help people increase flexibility, balance and mobility, making it easier to perform daily tasks and reducing the chance of injury.
A person who goes to the gym religiously might still suffer deep muscle aches after certain activities, such as raking leaves in the fall or planting a garden in spring. Those types of activities involve complex, dynamic movement of muscle groups that don't get targeted with exercise equipment.
"People are starting to realize why it's important to do exercises that involve the entire body, including muscles, bones and soft tissue," Meharg says.
"It's a matter of conditioning your body to accept those motions." She cites barre classes as an example of functional training. High-energy barre workouts, which combine elements of ballet, Pilates and yoga, help to sculpt lean muscle and increase endurance. "It's a very intense workout, but it's also a lot of fun. It was therapeutic for me, helping me get stronger and correct some postural issues."
Functional training is often used to help people with movement-related illnesses, such as Parkinson's disease, but anyone can benefit, says Corky Bishop, general manager of ACAC Fitness and Wellness Centers in Short Pump.
The tools each person uses will vary based on their goals, but they include resistance machines, kettle bells, balance disks and other devices. A mother with a newborn, for instance, would build strength through moderate lifting, whereas someone training for a 10K race would focus on cardio exercises that increase stamina.
"Rather than doing one thing, you do a composite exercise that brings in different movements, both planned and unplanned," Bishop says.
Membership rates at ACAC range from $67 a month for individuals to $121 a month for a family of three. The club includes the usual amenities of most gyms — free weights, strength training, and cardio machines — but integrates physical fitness with a focus on wellness. The ACAC facility even includes a small beverage bar adjacent to an outdoor rooftop pool, hot tub and fire pit. "We want to be a destination for social activity, not only a workout," Bishop says.
Another high-octane activity involves interval training, in which people work out in short bursts of energy, followed by a brief interval of rest. Thomas Haskins, the general manager at Gold's Gym Arboretum, cites interval classes as one of his facility's most sought-after activities. Each interval class at Gold's accommodates about 50 people who endure a "butt-kicking, heart-rate-raising, muscle-fatiguing" series of activities lasting for one hour.
"People love it because they know they're getting an intense workout. It really works their core muscle groups," Haskins says.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, yet equally popular, are classes in water aerobics, Haskins says. It enables people to get a good cardiovascular workout without the impact on knees and joints of regular aerobics. "People who use our aqua classes use [them] to see how much water they can push," a way of measuring their strength gain, he says.
Group-fitness classes have seen resurgence in the last few years, says Summers of Fitness Evolution. "We have embraced this trend fully. Our new facilities have as many as 60 classes per week to accommodate every conceivable group activity," he says.
ACAC Fitness, meanwhile, is adding a new twist to traditional health-club offerings. As part of its focus on wellness, ACAC offers the Physicians Referred Exercise Program, or PREP. Its aim is to enable area doctors to prescribe regular exercise for their patients, just as they would write a prescription for medication and other treatments.
"We think the PREP program is a big differentiator for us because it fills a need. Doctors have told us they want better outcomes for their patients, and exercise is the magic pill," says Grant Gamble, ACAC's corporate and wellness director.
The company's fitness professionals consult with doctors and patients to design a workout routine. ACAC also employs a registered nurse to monitor progress and a nutritionist to help people develop healthy eating habits.
Says Gamble: "We don't want people to be intimidated by exercise. Our job is to get them moving, even if they have never exercised before."