SF’s Boutique Fitness Boom

by Katie Sweeney

A look at the craze that’s developed a loyal following of devoted worshipers who seek community, a sense of belonging and a better body all at the same time.

Walk the streets of San Francisco and you’ll most likely see more people in yoga pants than jeans. While a non-local might wonder if there’s some sort of yoga convention happening, most San Franciscans won’t even notice. Athleisure fashion and the lifestyle it implies—Pilates classes, juice cleanses and plant-based diets—is simply a part of the everyday fabric of the city. Working out is no longer an activity reserved for gym rats; it’s a part of most locals’ lives, from socialite to social media marketer. However, it hasn’t always been like this. Sure, being active—walking the trail to Land’s End, running the Lyon Street stairs, or hiking the Marin Headlands—has always been a thing to certain health-minded individuals, but in the past two years the fitness movement has gained incredible stride.

Ten years ago, the fitness community consisted of a handful of yoga and Pilates studios, standard big-buck gyms and sports centers like The Bay Club. It was largely segregated by sex: women went to yoga or Pilates, and men went to the gym. Today, every neighborhood has its own offering of distinct fitness studios, from Core40, a mega-reformer Pilates studio with six locations in SF, to Salt, a single studio on Divisadero Street whose signature class is a fusion of classic barre and cardio kick boxing—and the classes are frequented by both sexes. The city has such a vibrant fitness presence that Richard Branson chose San Francisco to be the inaugural U.S. location of Virgin Sport, a weekend-long fitness festival. Virgin Sport, which involved a race up Twin Peaks, a marathon and a series of outdoor classes led by the city’s top trainers, was supposed to take place October 14–15, but was canceled at the last minute due to the North Bay fires. So how did SF become one of the most fit-crazed cities in the nation?

Let’s start with CrossFiT, an intense strength and conditioning program that consists of constantly varied functional movement. It was created in Santa Cruz in 2000 and within five years it had 13 affiliated gyms. (Today there are more than 13,000.) In the mid-2000s, “CrossFit became a thing, everyone wanted to murder themselves at the gym and do as much as possible,” explains Margaux Lushing, a wellness specialist and the founder of Well + Away, the first city guidebook series devoted to health and fitness. “However, I was too nervous to go into a CrossFit box

because it was too intense for me. But plenty of people were curious and so many other workouts have come from CrossFit—essentially safer versions of CrossFit.” Bootcamp workouts like Barry’s, which started in LA, offered those eager for a challenging workout the chance to sweat. In 2008, the flagship center of TRX, Total Resistance eXercise or suspension training, which was founded in San Francisco, opened its doors. Then, in 2013, there was an explosion of new fitness offerings.

SoulCycle set up shop at the Marin Country Mart and quickly developed a following of loyal Marin moms who couldn’t get enough of the spin class with a dance club vibe. Although its Union Street location was supposed to be the first SoulCycle in the Bay, the permit took longer than anticipated, so the Marin studio debuted first. “It was interesting to develop it in the suburbs first. We looked at a bunch of the school times, because a lot of moms want to do their drop-off,” says instructor Ian McAndrew, who came to the Bay from New York to help SoulCycle establish its brand here. “It had this little rumbling through the city—people knew that we were coming. The Union Street studio was actually the first studio that opened with every single class sold out. The waitlists were so long that day, we had to add additional classes. There were only supposed to be five classes on the schedule and we had to add another four. It felt like the restaurant you can’t get into quite yet. You know it’s coming, you know it’s coming, you know it’s coming, and then it opens and now everyone wants to come in and check it out.”

Next came Barry’s Bootcamp, which opened its first studio here, across from AT&T Park, in July 2014. Adam Shane, like McAndrew, moved to the Bay to set up Barry’s. “When I got here, it was more primitive. What was happening in LA and New York—the boutique fitness boom was kind of on the upswing, but it hadn’t reached San Francisco yet.” While SoulCycle opened to much fanfare, it took time for people to catch on to Barry’s. “It took a little while for people to not only find us by the ballpark, but also to really understand what we did and why it was good for you. A lot of people are afraid of the unknown and it took a while for them to realize that boutique fitness could replace or significantly supplement your workout regimen,” Shane remembers.

The phenomenon took off because overworked, constantly connected San Franciscans were in desperate need of a chance to unplug. The fitness world offered them an hour of no emails and allowed them to create a community outside of work. “Everyone was crouched over their computers and no one had been taking lunch,” Lushing says. “It got to this breaking point where people were so miserable and working so hard that fitness became a necessity. If you’re going to be working that hard, especially working in tech and working crazy hours and being connected all the time, you have to build time for yourself.” Shane explains it like this: “Ten years ago, fitness was a hobby. Now wellness is a lifestyle. Fitness is about what you put in your body, what you eat. It’s not about how much weight you lift or how hard you run. Within these studios, people are using fitness to find their social communities.”

Creating community and offering unparalleled experiences are crucial to the future success of the fitness industry. “People are looking for innovative ways to work out that create one-of-a-kind experiences,” Annie Appel, the executive vice president at The Bay Club, explains. “We were one of the first clubs to offer silent disco fitness classes using Sound Off Experience equipment, creating a unique experience for our guests. We also hosted our first annual Fit Crawl, the fitness version of a bar crawl where our members were invited to join us for a series of workouts and healthy refreshments at several locations throughout San Francisco.”

Local entrepreneur Molly Goodson has a similar outlook. Goodson is jumping on the social bonding bandwagon when she opens The Assembly later this month.
The Assembly is a female-driven fitness studio and shared co-working space where people can take a kettleball class and unwind with a friend and a glass of wine afterward. “I’ve met friends for classes, and right afterward you’re out on the cold streets, when all you want to do is just stay in that mental and emotional state a little bit longer and talk to the friend you met for class. That was really missing for me from the fitness scene,” Goodson says. “So why not build a space where you can meet beforehand for a coffee, or have a glass of wine after you take a class together, and really build community? For a lot of us, working out is social, but we don’t actually get to do the social part of it.”

At The Assembly, Goodson hopes to disrupt the current status quo by building a work/fitness space that’s essentially an urban oasis. It’s housed in a unique building—an old church on 14th Street. Goodson worked with Sara and Rich Combs of the Joshua Tree House and a number of local women artists, like Heather Day, Aleksandra Zee and Katie Gong, to create a studio that is relaxing and inspirational. “We truly think of the lifestyle around the fitness experience, and being within a space that is beautifully designed is a huge part of that,” she says.

Ultimately, the current uptick in fitness stems from the simple and ancient human need for belonging to something bigger than oneself. As fewer people commit to a religious institution, they’ve had to look elsewhere for community and purpose. Take a class at Stephanie Snyder’s year-old yoga studio, Love Story Yoga, and the parallels to a church ceremony are uncanny. In a candlelit room crowded with people, Snyder chants in Sanskrit. She asks students to think of an intention—a prayer, if you will—and focus on this for the next 60 minutes of class.

During beloved trainer Erica Stenz’s Barry’s Bootcamp class, there is a similar message. She urges runners to find the power in themselves to keep going, even when they feel as if they have nothing left to give—in turn making her students feel connected, empowered and accomplished. “When you take that class and you experience that intensity, you feel like you’re part of something bigger,” Shane says. “Every time I take class, I feel like I’m part of a larger movement, of a bigger group of people, and I think there’s strength in numbers.”

New Year, New You

We asked three boutique fitness studio owners to share their tips on how to get fit in 2018.

Billy Polson, DIAKADI

New Year’s resolution: We have termed 2018 ‘The D.I.Y. ​Year’ (‘Do It Yourself’), so we are committed to expanding our educational opportunities by providing trainers the tools, knowledge and confidence to open their own private practice as a fitness business entrepreneur.

How you plan to keep it: Keeping a resolution is all about prioritizing it beyond all other distractions on your list.

Go-to nutritious snack: A boiled egg, six raw almonds and a piece of fruit.

Best advice for living a healthy lifestyle in SF: ​We all should be biking to work at least one day a week. Especially now that we have such an extensive bike-share program with the Ford Go Bikes and protected bike lanes. ​I started consistently biking to work a few days a week this past summer, and it has been a game changer for both my cardio health and leg strength.

Elaine Hayes, MNTStudio

New Year’s resolution: Get back to running more than three miles at a time.

How you plan to keep it: Since I had my son in April, I’ve been slowly getting back into running, but I’m not super consistent. Now that he’s big enough, I’m going to invest in a jogging stroller. If I can just get to five miles consistently, I’ll be happy!

Fitness motto: Stay in your own lane. Don’t worry about what the person next to you is doing. Focus on your own progress and you’ll find it easier to sustain and you’ll enjoy the experience a lot more.

Favorite healthy restaurant in SF: Kitava is my jam these days. It’s the only Paleo restaurant in San Francisco, and it’s just a few minutes’ walk from my studio, which makes for a perfect quick lunch break.

Adrian Ramirez, RockSalt

New Year’s resolution: Trusting my intuition more and continuing to take risks.

How you plan to keep it: Remaining focused and motivated.

Your go-to nutritious snack: Organic Honeycrisp apples and MaraNatha organic crunchy peanut butter.

Favorite healthy restaurant in SF: Mixt is my go-to restaurant. It’s quick, easy and healthy. Try the BE WELL salad. You’ll be just that.

Best advice for living a healthy lifestyle in SF: Parking in SF can be really stressful. Skip the stress and ride a bike or walk more—make every day an exercise day!

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