Strength in Numbers: The Rise of Group Fitness Classes for Men

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Photograph by Justin Steele

It's easy to get seduced by the equipment at New York City's Tone House: Harnesses hang from the walls; agility ladders and plyo boxes fill the floor. There's not a barbell in sight. Guys grimace and gasp as they fight their way through bear crawls and long jumps while bound by a resistance band. Music blares, but it's not a dance remix, and the room is dark and tinged with a mildly sinister red light. In the precious few seconds between exercises, classmates grunt affirmations; then it's back to box jumps and one-legged mountain climbers. "There's a foxhole mentality," trainer Alonzo Wilson says of his mostly male classes. "The camaraderie helps push participants to the next level."

Wilson found the local class scene "heavily geared to women," so in March he opened something different. "We wanted a place that was inviting and challenging for everyone."

He's not alone. From chains to independent studios, the group-fitness business is figuring out how to get men to join in, with higher intensities, equipment straight out of a Gatorade commercial, and that age-old motivational tool: competition.

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That image of an ear-budded man lurking in the weight room between reps while women line up to sweat to Lady Gaga is at last eroding. But Phil Dozois, owner of Breakthru Fitness in Pasadena, California, knows men will still avoid any workout that may make them feel stupid. "If it's too dancey, guys are not going to do it. They'll participate if they can do the moves."

Despite their feminine stigma, cardio classes are now a draw for men who have a newfound respect for high-intensity interval training. As Dozois points out, group fitness popularity has coincided with a new optimal male aesthetic. "It isn't about the giant body­builder anymore," he says. "Guys want to be lean, ripped, more functional. You can get that in a group setting."

Another gateway to classes has been the collective realization that an instructor-led workout may deliver better results than whatever you've got loaded on your smartphone. A trainer doesn't forget what rep you're on, isn't afraid to correct your poor form, and doesn't care that you hate lunges.

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Or maybe men have realized they're less likely to punt on that last set when there's a roomful of witnesses. Psychologists dub this the Köhler effect: No one wants to be the weak link, so we instinctively strive to keep up. Dozois makes use of this urge in the training he does with groups of four, staggering start times to create a perpetual chase. "It's how the magic happens," he explains. "You move your ass a lot faster."

That drive is tough to replicate solo. "Guys respond to competition," explains Brian Gallagher, who co-founded Throwback Fitness, a New York studio whose game-based classes often culminate in schoolyard contests. "They forget how much burpees suck because they're having fun playing dodgeball."

Ironically, given the cliché that classes are "for girls," the presence of the opposite sex actually dials up the intensity. Says Gallagher: "No one wants to lose to another guy when there are five girls around."

Find a Killer Class
These nationwide gyms nail the group workout.

  • Equinox
    In its new class Precision Running, the treadmill gets interesting: You'll constantly change incline and speed as you race the guy next to you.
  • Flywheel
    Every bike at this cycling hot spot has a computer to monitor pace and power, and an electronic leaderboard spurs you to pedal harder.
  • Barry's Bootcamp
    The studio's hour-long cardio and strength mash-up toggles between treadmill sprints and dumbbell sets with no rest.
  • Crunch
    Try Disq, this gym's newest class. A belt with built-in resistance bands makes moves like jumps and squats tougher and more effective.
  • Orange-Theory
    Classes at this gym hook you up to a wireless heart rate monitor and project your numbers on a big screen as you row and lift weights.

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