Miami Fitness Culture 2.0
By Michael Kaplan
Right now, Anya Ellerbroek is probably mere hours away from her next workout. Lean, blonde, attractive, sporting the latest Lululemon, and quite possibly sweating, she ranks among Miami’s top fitness devotees. Workouts are scheduled at a minimum of six days per week, as she bounces between old-fashioned weight training at Equinox, the defined muscle development of Purgatory Boot Camp, high-energy spin classes, sweat sessions of Bikram yoga, and then back to Equinox for a Metcon3 class: 10 different exercises in 10 minutes, repeated three times, where muscle-fatigue is all but guaranteed. Rigorous workouts have given her a fit body, a healthy heart, social cachet, and something to discuss at dinner parties. As hardcore and possibly excessive as that routine seems, it is the new normal among a growing population of fitness fanatics in Miami.
Ellerbroek exemplifies the current breed of Miami’s body-conscious elite, a cadre of folks who look their best in as little clothing as possible, which makes perfect sense given our city’s climate. The “scene” in Miami has always been hyper body-conscious, with its model-industry elements and nearby beach, but today, there’s been an explosion of fitness methods. No wonder someone as driven as Ellerbroek can fill up a weekly calendar.
For Ellerbroek, a student at Nova Southeastern University studying sports and exercise science, the classes—which provide a kind of esprit de corps that you can’t get sweating in solitude—go beyond merely improving health and aesthetics. At Equinox, for example, housewives pile in for multiple classes per day, building their afternoons around the calorie-burning sessions and showing up early to ensure prime spaces, and of course to gab and catch up since yesterday’s class. Elsewhere around town, in-house juice bars serve as perfect pickup spots or meeting points for friends. “Fitness is a major part of my life,” Ellerbroek says. “I’ve met great people; going to the gym is part of my social life.” Fitness fashion can also be a badge of honor, she notes: “It’s part of the reason why you see people wearing workout clothes when they’re shopping for groceries, even if they aren’t going to the gym that day. It’s a way of letting everyone know that they have healthy, active lives.”
Joseph Anthony, CEO of Vital Sports Entertainment, has described the Miami market as “endemic to fitness.” When SweatUSA, a fitness expo, recently debuted at the Miami Beach Convention Center, 3,000 exercisers showed up to take part in classes such as Piloxing (a Pilates-boxing hybrid), to hero-worship guys like Tony Horton, creator of the P90X workout formula, and to score workout tips from super trainer Jillian Michaels, who moved her company down here. Miami, which was once deemed among the fattest cities in America by Men’s Fitness magazine, now boasts a booming fitness market and is luring major get-in-shape firms. Fitness is as much a part of the Miami DNA now as the beach and sun.
The newest arrival is Barry’s Bootcamp Miami in Sunset Harbour, a program that already has a crazed following in New York City and Los Angeles. Derek DeGrazio, the company’s partner and lead instructor, who has worked with everyone from Britney Spears to Kim Kardashian, views the addition of Miami as completing a fitness trifecta. Barry’s workout sessions take place in a mirrored room, with atmospherically dim lighting and blasts of motivational music. It’s interval-based with 30 minutes of cardio and 30 minutes of strength training, working individual muscles for no more than one minute at a time. The pacing is so intense that a 1,000-calorie burn is the goal, negating that neighboring JugoFresh açai bowl you’ll probably down after class.
“Exercise is very trendy right now, and when a new workout comes to the city, it’s a big deal,” says DeGrazio, not needing to mention that Barry’s is at the forefront of a trend: boutique classes. “Clients enjoy the energy of a group situation, but our instructors give individual attention so that it also feels like a private class. We walk around the room, show how it’s done, and correct form. But at the same time, you see yourself in the mirror and see the silhouettes of the other people in the class. Everybody’s working hard. It’s very inspiring.”
Long before sledgehammers were swung (a boot camp staple) and salsa steps toned the core, Miami had already gotten into the fitness act. Back in 1969, the big players were Jack LaLanne, Vic Tanny, and Gold’s Gym. Working out meant lifting weights and using vibrating abdominal toning belts; housewives, however, were nowhere near the gyms, which were the domain of beefy muscle-heads and in-the-know health enthusiasts. Workouts became more efficient in the 1970s when Nautilus machines hit the market and circuit training debuted. Things blew up big a decade later, after Richard Simmons and Jane Fonda turned women on to aerobics, setting off a fashion trend in leg warmers and short-shorts, which somehow evolved into the stylish tanks and skinny yoga pants that have come to define Lululemon.
By the 1980s, industry veteran Peter Cicale owned Olympia Gym and Fitness Center (which he still has, in Aventura) and took notice of his cardio- craving women carefully checking out the weights and aiming for lean musculature. Step classes came into vogue during the early 1990s, David Barton opened up Miami’s first gym-asdisco in ’95 at the Delano, and spinning became all the rage as the decade ended. Then, in 2003, Alberto “Beto” Perez showed up in Cicale’s gym and they debuted the game-changing Zumba there. It became the hottest thing in Miami, let alone globally, with a Guinness World Record set in Mexico, where 6,633 participants Zumbaed simultaneously. Throw in boxing, body sculpting, and private training, which were all big during the early 2000s, and the fitness boom was clearly in full swing. Fattest city? Hardly.
When the recession hit in 2008, boutique classes suddenly came on strong. But that was more out of necessity than desire. “A lot of people couldn’t afford private trainers,” says Cicale. “The smallgroup classes provided a way to get personal attention without needing to pay for a private instructor.” From then until now, all manner of small classes—Equinox offers 90 of them per week—have blossomed. Currently, they are the preferred means for getting fit. It all makes private training—even for those who can afford it—the equivalent of having a personal chef for solitary home dining while everyone else lives it up at Prime One Twelve.
And Barry’s isn’t alone in this new boutique arena. DeGrazio acknowledges nobody expects monogamy when it comes to exercise classes, citing the fact that he is happy to be in close proximity to Green Monkey, the entrenched yoga mecca of South Beach. Miami provides plenty of fitness promiscuity options: There’s the no-holds-barred warehouse aesthetic of Fight Club, where you can go to learn everything from technical boxing to a military-style workout called Fight Camp. Knockout Zone offers Muay Thai and Brazilian jujitsu. Sobekick lives up to its name with a signature sweat-and-kick class—and a slogan that encourages clients to “be fearless.” 5th St. Gym provides an opportunity to box where Muhammad Ali once did; sparring lessons there may not make you GOAT (Ali’s favorite acronym: Greatest of All Time) but they will get you in great shape with a pedigree. CrossFit has you lifting giant truck tires that seem best suited for an A-Rod preseason workout and whipping around weighted ropes. Ayama Yoga Center now has slings for hanging from the ceiling for its gravity-defying aerial yoga, Crunch offers sessions of aerobics aboard springy attachments on the bottoms of sneakers in its Kangoo classes, and Animal Flow at Equinox encourages you to walk like a bear, crawl like a crab, and hop like a frog, while the Vixen Workout, which takes place all over Miami, involves twerking, burns up to 1,000 calories a class, and usually includes an afterparty. From paddleboard yoga to Surfset core classes to inside-out barre to iron tabata to pole dancing to Krav Maga to candlelit yoga, there clearly is somewhere for everyone to bond and tighten up.
But it’s not all camaraderie. Some classes cleverly use technology to stoke your competitive nature. At Flywheel group exercycle classes, those who desire can have the intensity of their workouts tracked on a real-time leaderboard, for all to see. “Three or four times during a class, you see everyone’s total number,” says cofounder Ruth Zukerman of the exercise format that uses tech-packs on bikes to make various speeds and resistances easy to maintain. “The names jockey around, and you see who ends up in first place. This brings it all back to the spirit of running a race in gym class.”
How spirited is it? “Some people,” says master instructor Aleah Stander, “are so competitive that if they don’t hit a certain number”—or get to their desired place in the rankings—“they stay and take a second class in a row.” Inadvertently or not, these might be cool Miami versions of the two-a-days that football players endure during so-called Hell Week—but we’re doing them year round and completely voluntarily.
As Cicale knows all too well, though, fitness fads come and go. Remember Tae Bo? Or Step? At the moment, according to Geoff Bagshaw, area group fitness manager of Equinox, which has some 6,000 members paying around $150 per month in the Miami area, high-intensity interval training ranks as the reigning It workout. “It is very results driven, and people like that,” says Bagshaw, whose gym features rowing machines that are designed with actual water in order to provide heavy resistance and a sense of reality. “You can be in and out within a very short period of time. More importantly, it works. Just being on the elliptical machine will do only so much for you, compared to high-intensity interval training. It burns the most calories and makes you the strongest.”
Some people are going beyond the gym and into the lab. That has created a growing market for physicians and chemists devising cuttingedge techniques for souping up bodies. Leading in that arena is Dr. Ivan Rusilko, the 2008 and 2010 Mr. USA who operates out of Club Essentia spa, atop the Delano. Amid the spa’s massage tables and treatment rooms, he provides vitamin- and mineral-loaded IVs that offer nutrition and hormone “balancing” and purport to burn fat with feeds of chromium glutamine and B-12 plus about 10 other vitamins and minerals. “IV nutrition allows you to optimize your efforts, build muscle faster, recover faster, burn calories faster; hormone balancing puts you back to being 25 years old,” he says, ticking off Rihanna, Emilio Estefan, and others as satisfied clients of the treatments, which go for $150 to $600. “Your body is your calling card. Looking great gets you access.” Of course it’s also a killer quick fix for a hangover from a late night of partying at LIV, which is probably the only activity in Miami that trumps fitness. Yes, it sounds a little obsessive, but as all Miamians know, the payoff is immediately apparent. “When you’re in shape,” says Peter Cicale, “you can wear a $4 T-shirt and look better than someone wearing $300 Versace. That’s just the way it is.”
And regardless of changes in exercise trends and advances in equipment, that is what keeps people sweating it up in the gym.