Kristin Shane & Aaron Leventhal flyfeet
Kristin Shane and Aaron Leventhal recently opened Fly Feet, a running-based group fitness studio in downtown Minneapolis.
Photographs by Chad Holder
Twenty treadmills are lined in a row, facing a mirror in a dimly lit studio in downtown Minneapolis. Green accent lights cast a superhero’s glow as you stare at yourself, as though in a tunnel, despite fellow runners just an arm’s length away on either side. Music is pulsating. A coach is calling your name (which is written in chalk at the base of your treadmill), urging you to push on, give more. So you run. Faster. Harder. Just 30 seconds longer.
This is Fly Feet, one of the first boutique fitness studios to focus on indoor running in a group setting—a niche the founders believe will allow them to expand—like CorePower, Pure Barre, and many other successful specialty fitness chains sweeping the cities. “Fitter, faster, stronger—together,” is Fly Feet’s mantra.
“I’m super passionate about running a business, but I’m equally passionate about fitness,” says Fly Feet co-founder Kristin Shane, a former Target Corp. merchandiser and avid runner, who teamed up with Aaron Leventhal, a former professional soccer player for the Minnesota Thunder. “I love going to different boutique fitness studios. So I thought, wouldn’t it be amazing if I could marry my passion with my job. I think I can bring something really unique to the Twin Cities—a brand that’s approachable and inspirational and feels like community, more than just a workout.”
Community. Specialization. Not just a workout. Those are refrains you’ll hear repeatedly at boutique fitness studios. That pursuit is driving entrepreneurs like Shane to open fitness studios at an unprecedented rate, and it’s inspiring more people to exercise—spending record sums on their workouts, which often cost $20 per class. Americans spent $25.8 billion at health clubs in 2015, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association—a five-year high.
“The growth is non-stop,” says John Atwood, managing partner of a Massachusetts-based fitness industry consulting firm called the Atwood Group. That’s not just anecdotal: IHRSA reports visits to health clubs have grown by 25 percent since 2009. Today, nearly one in five Americans belongs to a gym.
“Clubs are pulling in more and more people, not just because fitness is a trend,” Atwood says. “It’s because clubs are finding different ways to engage people.”
An estimated 2,300 fitness studios opened around the country in 2015, the IHRSA reports. In just the past three years, the Twin Cities has seen the launch of more than two-dozen barre studios, a half-dozen cycle studios, aerial yoga centers, a rowing gym, boutique studios that have trademarked their own blend of stretching and muscle work, a gym inspired by TV competition show American Ninja Warrior, a balanced-based fitness studio, and treadmill-based group workouts, such as Fly Feet and Orange Theory.
“People want their fitness to be like a cocktail—this on Monday, that on Tuesday,” Shane says. “I think there’s room for all of us in the Twin Cities to exist together and service a market of people who are all interested in living a healthy life.”
Not too far from Fly Feet, the streets around St. Anthony Main at 6:45 am on a Monday are quiet, but there’s a steady stream of fit-looking folks in their 20s and 30s heading into the industrial-cool boutique studio, Alchemy. Members sign themselves in on iPads. Shoes and sweatshirts are tucked into lockers—Alchemy’s hybrid strength and yoga workout is done in bare feet. You can feel the heat coming from the largest of Alchemy’s three workout rooms, where a class is about to end. In the middle room, the day’s routine is listed on a white board: Air squats/box jumps. Burpees. Deadlifts. Participants gather the necessary equipment: foam boxes for jumps and Alchemy’s exclusive “Torpedo”-style weights, which look like a blend of barbell, kettlebell, and dumbbell. Co-founder Tyler Quinn breezes into the studio, feet bare, wearing black Alchemy-logo shorts and a matching T-shirt. He turns up the volume on an ambient beat. He asks participants to form a circle and share names. He applauds everyone for getting there before sunrise. He offers a few calm words of motivation, then leads the group into warrior pose.
“Community is very important,” Quinn says after class, explaining that the feeling of belonging gives people another reason to stay motivated. “We’re not training you to be good at Alchemy—we’re training you so you can go skiing, go hiking. When people are pumped about healthy living, they’ll spend more on health and wellness.” Alchemy charges $20 each class, or an unlimited membership—as many classes as you can take—is $155 per month. In comparison, a Life Time Fitness monthly individual membership is typically around $95. Anytime Fitness—a more barebones studio without group classes—is around $39 per month.
Boutique fitness studios aren’t trying to compete on price, so they focus on experience and creating community.
“Everyone knows your name here. You know you’ll always have a spot,” says Angie Bartness, co-founder of Physical Culture, a multidisciplinary studio in Edina. “People are seeking the boutique style, the personal touch.”
That can be as simple as gathering names before class. The Bar Method, which recently opened in the North Loop, collects birth dates to acknowledge members’ special occasions. CycleBar, which entered the Twin Cities last year with locations in Uptown and Woodbury, hosts frequent charity rides where 100 percent of the class fee goes to a local cause.
The efforts are working. From 2012 to 2015, while membership at traditional fitness clubs grew by only 5 percent, IHRSA reports membership at smaller studios saw growth of more than 70 percent. One of the biggest health club chains—Chanhassen-based Life Time Fitness—is taking note.
Consumers have shown that they like consistency in boutique fitness classes, to know a class will be fundamentally the same whether they take it in St. Louis Park or Plymouth. As a result, Life Time Fitness brought on a group fitness program manager and stepped up its training and specialization for group fitness instructors.
But improving the quality of classes is only half of the equation.
“You still have to walk through a big, huge gym to get to the spinning room in back,” says Bill Pryor, co-founder of CycleBar, a franchise business with 33 locations around the country and plans to more than double that by April. “It doesn’t have that cool studio feel.” Life Time has taken steps to address that, too, investing in lighting effects, elevated platforms, and better sound systems for its cycling studios—amenities that are standard at CycleBar and other spin-only studios.
Perhaps more than any other workout, spinning illustrates the current demand for challenge fused with entertainment. It’s dark. It’s loud. It’s heart-pumping, but easier on the knees than running. CycleBar describes its studios as theaters—“part sanctuary, part rock concert.” As a business model, spin studios are appealing, Atwood says. “You can slam so many more people into a small cycling studio than you can yoga or any other activity where you have to spread your arms and legs.”
In response to the growth of new cycle studios nationwide, Life Time revamped its spin classes to offer more variety and to encapsulate what fitness experts say are two key industry trends: to make exercise entertaining and to measure success. Life Time’s AMP class is like a dance party on a bike; PWR is an offseason training program for road cyclists and endurance athletes; and EDG is a hybrid of the two, fusing the dance party on a bike attitude with high-intensity heart rate–based challenges and drills.
“There’s a philosophical shift happening. People know they need to exercise. But are they excited to exercise? They’re looking for an experience, not a workout,” says Rob Glick, Life Time senior director of group fitness, yoga, and cycle. “If I’m engaged, I’m getting stronger, more flexible, but it wasn’t the focus.”
In recent months, Glick’s focus has shifted from overseeing classes to analyzing programming and innovation. It relects Life Time’s intention to make group fitness fresh and engaging. He’s looking beyond current obsessions such as barre and studio cycling for the next trend. How long does each fitness craze last? “I almost don’t care how long it lasts,” Glick says. “What I care most about is that it inspires you to stay active.”
In the early 1980s—the heyday of Jane Fonda’s workout—a group of bankers asked Atwood if fitness was a fad. “Will people even be exercising in 10 years?” they wondered. The proliferation of clubs, the participation rate of individuals has only continued to grow. Still, with 27 percent of Minnesotans considered obese, according to IHRSA, there are many more potential health club members.
At least that’s the way it seemed to Dave Bortnem, who closed Cycle Society in Minnetonka last fall after just a year in business. The moms he was counting on to show up mid-morning to his location near Lunds & Byerlys just didn’t turn out in significant numbers. The Class Passes intended to encourage people to try many boutique fitness studios at a discount—it’s the Groupon of the fitness industry, selling five classes for $55—cut into sales, Bortnem says, and did not result in loyal members. “If this part of the metro is not saturated already, I can definitely say this: There are plenty of options,” says Bortnem.
But while some might fall, like the frozen yogurt places that opened by the dozen a few summers ago, there seems to be no slowing of this fitness boom. Next up could be bundled boutiques. Atwood is working on two projects in other parts of the country that bring several fitness studios under one roof, the idea being that a barre studio and CrossFit club can share some economies—showers, a front desk—but still have their own distinct look.
Meanwhile, the pursuit of the next big workout is in full force. Could paddle boarding move to an indoor pool? Will Minnesotans pay to meditate at a health club? “Five years ago, I was really sensitive to people leaving my gym,” says Alchemy’s Quinn. “Now, I know the enemy is not another fitness product. It’s no fitness at all.”
Exercising the Options
Whether you like to run, row, bike, barre, or lift, there’s a class for that. We tried out some of the newest boutique studios and found that each has its own style, so you’ve got to shop around.
Photo courtesy of ZeSa
Roughly 42 million Americans consider themselves runners, so it’s no wonder that workouts involving treadmills are gaining popularity, especially in Minneapolis, one of the fittest cities in the country. With more than 50 miles of pathways, Twin Citians are running longer and farther than ever before. Take, for example, the annual Twin Cities Marathon. Nearly 11,500 runners signed up to run in this year’s marathon, a significant increase from the 8,813 registrants in 2000. Perceptive entrepreneurs, such as Kristin Shane, are picking up on the running as a lifestyle trend and creating classes that go beyond just logging miles. Shane recently opened Fly Feet Running in downtown Minneapolis. “Our goal is to make you work at an intensity that you don’t normally train at,” she says. “Here you do the stuff that you have a hard time doing on your own.” While Fly Feet is the first studio dedicated solely to group treadmill training with a side of strength training, other studios, like the heart rate–based Orangetheory, have been using treadmills to push an intense cardio agenda for years. Meanwhile, big-box gyms like Life Time host running clubs to cater to their jogging demographic. But as runners continue to infiltrate the Twin Cities, gyms and small studios alike continue to adapt. “Running is not going away anytime soon,” Shane says. “It’s not a fad.”
Top pick: Fly Feet Running
You don’t have to be a long-distance runner to frequent the new Fly Feet Running studio. “Running is the tool that we use to get you to the intensity that you need to drive change,” says Shane. “But it’s definitely not 50 minutes on the treadmill.” Shane and former Minnesota Thunder player Aaron Leventhal created a program that combines the science of running with training like an athlete. The setup for the 20-person class changes daily, but the primary focus is on sprints and high-intensity treadmill work combined with strength training on the floor. Students are asked to write their results in chalk by their treadmill as a motivational tool. “We’re all human,” says Shane. “If you don’t write it down, that’s how you slack.” Two coaches lead each class, and instead of doing the workout with you, they circulate the floor, checking your form and pushing your intensity levels.
“We’re trying to provide a workout that produces results,” Shane says. “Fly Feet allows people to get fitter, faster, and stronger. In four to six weeks, they will be able to see a change.”
Favorite Teacher: Aaron Leventhal. You feel like he’s coaching you in the biggest game of your life. $25/class; packages available for $17.50 to $19/class. 15 S. 5th St., Ste. 100, Mpls., 612-333-3786, flyfeetrunning.com
More to Try:
- Orangetheory: A sweat-filled 60 minutes that takes you through cardio workouts like running and rowing mixed with weight and resistance training, all while wearing a heart rate monitor that projects your results on screens throughout the studio. The goal is to drive students to spend an optimum amount of time moving in and out of the fat burning “orange zone.” Favorite Teacher: Wes at the Plymouth location. His music will get you going from the start, but his motivational cues will keep you going ‘til the end. $28/class. Several metro locations, orangetheoryfitness.com
- ZeSa: Runners typically neglect to pay attention to important elements of fitness such as flexibility and balance. ZeSa classes counteract that mentality by using instability to build strength and improve balance. The class is done using unstable, rotating activators. Imagine standing on one foot atop a ball that’s cut in half—it’s not easy, but after a few fumbles, you’ll get the hang of it, and after a few classes you may even be good at it. Favorite Class: The noon ZeSa Power class. If you’re looking to shrug off a tough morning at the office, the focus it takes to balance through class will give your brain a break. $25/class. 1024 Washington Ave. S., Mpls., zesafitness.com
- The Aviary: Suspending upside down with your feet wrapped around an aerial hammock may sound daunting, but the workout is just as fun as it is hard. The goal of each class is to use hammocks to train your muscles to respond fluidly to challenging and changing positions. It targets muscle groups you never work in a monotonous workout, making it the perfect auxiliary to running. Insider Tip: If you purchase any one of their larger class packages, you become a “frequent flier,” which entitles you to unlimited guest passes and a body fat and fitness test every three months. $20/class. 201 SE 6th St., Mpls., 612-405-0092, theaviarympls.com
Uptown's CycleBar class
Maybe it’s because running is hard on our aging knees. More likely, it’s because New York’s SoulCycle has elevated riding on a stationary bike to performance art—attracting the likes of Lady Gaga, Lena Dunham, and Anderson Cooper.Studio cycling is suddenly seeing explosive growth nationwide. In the Twin Cities, at least five cycling studios have opened in the last year, and more are likely on the way (no SoulCycle in Minneapolis just yet). If you haven’t tried spinning since the late ’90s, get ready to feel like you’ve shifted from the library to the nightclub. Studio cycling is dark, loud, and immersive. It’s a low-impact, high-intensity cardio workout, but one that each rider controls (no one has to know what gear you’re really in). Theater-style studios have become the standard, with bikes placed on elevated platforms around the instructor—or “performer,” as some clubs have aptly started calling their class leaders (dance background is a plus). Spotlights change colors along with the music. Video screens allow riders to escape into a Beyonce video. “We almost never used to see high school kids, and now it’s become kind of a cool thing to do,” says Bill Pryor, founder of CycleBar, a 2-year-old chain that has a couple Twin Cities studios and expects to grow from 33 to 100 locations nationwide by April. Says Pryor, “We’re nowhere near saturation.”
Top Pick: Cyclebar
Think of CycleBar as the Midwest equivalent—or intentional alternative—to SoulCycle. While SoulCycle has focused its growth on big cities primarily on the coasts (Chicago has three locations) where riders don’t chafe at paying as much as $30 for a 50-minute class, Pryor decided to compete by offering less expensive classes and a broader variety of instructors. “SoulCycle has a certain style of class that’s appealing to some, but others can’t stand it,” Pryor says. “We encourage a variety of instructor styles. At each club, there could be a classic rock guy, a hip-hop girl, a drill sergeant type.” Unlike SoulCycle, which is owned by Equinox Fitness, CycleBar is a franchise.
That appealed to 24-year-old Mackenzie Holm, who fell in love with indoor cycling while training for the hockey season at University of St. Thomas and decided to turn it into a career after graduating. Six months ago, she and her parents opened a CycleBar in Woodbury—across the street from Life Time Fitness. “For people who like cycle, you want to do it at the coolest option,” Holm says. “There’s a lot of pressure to keep it new and fresh.”
Insider Tip: Cycling shoes, which clip into pedals, are provided at no additional cost. And don’t worry if you forget your water bottle—they’ve got those, too, along with fruit to grab after class. $20/class; packages for $12 to $18 per ride; student passes are available for $12 per class. 265 Radio Dr., Woodbury, 651-418-1444; 2927 Girard Ave. S., Mpls., 612-404-1948, cyclebar.com
More to Try:
- Torque Cycling: Personal trainer Jason Burgoon, beloved for his balance of sensitivity and strength, added a cycle studio above his personal training gym about a year ago. It’s a somewhat edgier alternative to other fancy new studios, with a mural by local artist Adam Turman on the wall instead of giant screens. But the sound system is top notch, and so are the bikes and energetic instructors. Favorite Class: The 6 p.m. Thursday evening ride is the perfect entrée to happy hour next door at Tattersall Distilling. $18/class; packages for $14 or $15/class. 1620 Central Ave. N.E., Suite 134, Mpls., 612-326-3933, torque-powered.com
- Surge Cycling: Many instructors started out taking classes, which speaks to the welcoming community and addictive quality to the ride at Surge. It’s all about the music, and so you can sample each instructor’s playlist online before selecting a class. Favorite Instructor: Zion, a founder, embodies the spirit of Surge—equal parts Zen master and rebel on wheels. Expect to rock out, and sweat a lot. $19/class; packages for $15.80 to $17.80/class. 5601 Wayzata Blvd., St. Louis Park, 612-385-6911 and 6826 Hemlock Lane N., Maple Grove, 763-316-6908, surgecycling.com
- Urban Cycle: The schedule is more limited, the classes tend to be smaller, and that’s the idea at this South Minneapolis studio, which focuses on endurance over dance moves. Urban Cycle prides itself on a holistic approach to fitness, with classes that combine cycle with strength training or yoga. Favorite Class: Cycle Strength, 30 minutes on a bike followed by 30 minutes of weights. Estimated burn: 500 to 1000 calories! $25/class, packages for $19 to $21/class. 2313 W. 50th St., Mpls., 651-442-9538, myurbancycle.com
The Bar Method
The Bar Method
Don’t let the name fool you—you don’t have to be able to arabesque for this fitness craze. Barre workouts became a national fitness phenom 15 years ago when The Bar Method became one of the first franchises to combine postures inspired by ballet with small isometric movements to work muscles to fatigue. While The Bar Method just joined the Minneapolis landscape—“It was the only remaining major metropolitan area without one,” says Minneapolis owner Kayla O’Rourke—barre workouts have been gaining traction in the Twin Cities for the past five years. What started as a one-off addition to a pilates studio’s schedule has grown into dozens of barre-based studios popping up in suburbs like Edina, St. Paul, Wayzata, Eden Prairie, and Woodbury. Gyms like Life Time and The Firm have added barre classes to their roster in an effort to keep up with demand as well. The sudden growth is due in part to the workout’s cult-like following, and in part because the low-impact, high-intensity workout results in longer, leaner muscles, just like a dancer. But without the tutu.
Top Pick: The Bar Method
The Bar Method, known nationally as the mothership of barre, finally made it to the Twin Cities with a location in the North Loop’s new T3 building. O’Rourke recently uprooted her family from Boston after being hand-selected by a team that included Method’s founder, Burr Leonard. Workouts here begin with upper-body exercises using lightweight dumbbells, then progress to intense lower-body work at the barre and on the mat. You finish with abs and stretching, and walk away knowing that a lifted derriére and toned thighs are in your future. Teachers are so intensely trained—they go through months of lessons, including anatomy and physical therapy—that you know you’re in good hands.
Insider Tip: The monthly auto-renew membership is $175 and includes free parking—a major get when you’re in the North Loop—and five free passes, so you can share the addiction with friends. $25/class; packages for $17 to $20/class. 323 Washington Ave. N., Mpls., 612-584-3487, barmethod.com
More to Try:
- Haute Barre: A blend of mini movements from traditional barre mixed with yoga positions. Anticipate a lot of stretching to help elongate those tight muscles With a variety of options on the schedule, it’s easy to find a class that best fits your skill level—and mood. Favorite Class: The daily Haute Fab 45-minute class at noon makes it easy to sneak in a quick fix over the lunch hour. $20. The Shops at West End, 952-681-2639, hautebarrestudios.com
- Pure Barre: A high-energy class that uses music to motivate. Because it’s a national franchise, each of the Twin Cities’ seven studios follows the same structure: a brief warm-up, followed by arms, thighs, seatwork, and abs—all with an exhaustive number of repetitions and guaranteed quivering muscles. You’ll hear “shaking means change” more than once. Favorite Teacher: Ashley Cohn at St. Louis Park. She’s upbeat, encouraging, and hard. Like real hard. $27. Several metro locations, purebarre.com
- The Barre: Instructors choreograph their classes with micro movements and the goal of working every muscle to exhaustion then stretching, so while the order of which muscle you work is the same, the exercises will vary by teacher and class. Favorite Teacher: Try founders Rachel Tessalone or Paula Warford. They started the biz in 2011 because they love barre and that passion manifests itself in their teaching. Insider Tip: Both studios offer a “monkey barre” option for $5, where your little one can play while you tuck it out. $22. 3801 W. 50th St., Edina, 612-926-8525; 539 Lake St., Wayzata, 952-473-0109, thebarrestudio.com
Photo courtesy of weRow
Kettlebells seem decidedly quaint considering today’s array of options for group strength training. Rings, rowing, and reformer machines are among the popular ways to tone those arms and strengthen that core in a class setting. A new crop of studios take inspiration from CrossFit’s mix of activities and focus on strength, but with more variety in skill level, less impact, and elements of yoga in place of handstand pushups.
Top Pick: Alchemy
If you’re wondering where to find North Loop’s young professionals before their morning espresso, this is the place. Founded in 2015 by a team of five fitness pros from the worlds of CrossFit and yoga, Alchemy has quickly developed a loyal following for its blend of yoga, strength, and cardiovascular training. Classes change daily, so if you’re doing burpees and box jumps on Monday, you’ll want to come back for ring presses and sit-ups the next day. Classes start and end with 10 minutes of stretching—that’s one of the fundamental differences between Alchemy and CrossFit, says Alchemy co-founder Tyler Quinn, who also owns Union Fitness, a CrossFit studio with three locations in Minneapolis and St. Paul. “There are days when CrossFit leaves me drained, feeling like I can’t even go back to work,” Quinn says. “I always leave Alchemy feeling better.” North Loop resident Scott Myers, 53, made the switch from CrossFit to Alchemy, where you’ll find him up to five days a week. “I get a full workout with strength and cardio that varies every day. Fifty minutes, and I’m done,” he says. Alchemy opened a larger, three-room location in Northeast about a year ago, and others are planned for Edina and Highland Park in St. Paul.
Insider Tip: The website lists the workouts for each day of the week so you can pace yourself, and avoid overloading on biceps or quads. $20/class; unlimited pass for $155/month, 246 9th Ave. N.; 120 3rd Ave. SE, Mpls., 612-444-6287, alchemy365.com
More to Try:
- solidcore: The entire full-body workout class is done on a resistance-based machine that looks like a reformer, but is a far cry from pilates. The goal is to create constant tension and work your muscle fibers to the point of failure. It’s zero impact, 100 percent intensity. Favorite Teacher: Alyssa Jacobson. The owner is a force to be reckoned with in the studio. She knows how to push you so you get the results you want—even if it means you’ll be so sore it hurts to laugh. $33/class. 820 Mill St., Wayzata; The Shops at West End, 952-999-6879, solidcoremsp.co
- Physical Culture(v): Barre, TRX, Sculpt, High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). Think of a top trending workout and chances are this boutique gym in Edina has it. The objective is to provide a different mix of strengthening workouts to allow members a variety of classes but in a boutique gym setting. Favorite Class: Culture Shock Strength at 6:30 a.m. on Monday. Wipe away your weekend indulgences with this triple threat of a class that combines strength and resistance training with cardio. $20/class. 4508 Valley View Rd., Edina, 952-285-8873, physicalculturev.com
- weRow: Rowers tend to be the overlooked machine around the gym, but weRow, the first rowing-only studio in Northeast Minneapolis, makes a case for rowing being one of the most complete full body workouts. Combining cardio and strength training, each stroke works your core and nine major upper and lower body muscle groups—without leaving your joints aching. Similar to studio cycling, weRow utilizes music, high energy instructors, and challenging drills to keep the workout engaging. Favorite Instructor: Tish, owner and founder, is challenging without intimidation and so positive, you can’t help but push yourself. $18/class. 34 13th Ave. NE, Ste. 110, Mpls., 612-354-3581, werowmsp.com