From CrossFit to Zumba, specialized fitness options abound in SLO County

Clients work the punching bag at Club Cardio in Grover Beach.
Clients work the punching bag at Club Cardio in Grover Beach.

Zumba. Yoga. Pilates. CrossFit. Spin. Kickboxing. Boot camps. Barre.

The world of fitness has come a long way from Jack LaLanne and big gyms filled with sweaty Nautilus equipment, intimidating weights and a few aerobics classes.

The evolution has created opportunities for Central Coast entrepreneurs to build thriving businesses offering specialized and personalized options to fitness-seeking clients.

“People are looking for a more personalized experience in fitness,” said John Brunson, who opened the county’s first stand-alone spin studio with wife, Jayme, last year. “We have more studio fitness in the county than we ever have.”

It’s an experience that doesn’t come cheap compared with conventional gyms, but customers are willing to pay the premium, forking over $80 to $100 for monthly memberships, $15 for single classes and up to $100 an hour for one-on-one sessions.

The market, fueled by higher disposable incomes from an improved economy and increased societal focus on health and fitness, combined with lower overhead costs have prompted business owners to debut new ventures, expand locations and add new offerings.

The Brunsons, both avid cyclists and health coaches, first tried spin at a gym about five years ago but got hooked after experiencing it at a dedicated studio, in a dark room with good music and personal attention.

They watched the rapid expansion of spin studios in other cities, and after two and a half years of research and planning opened Cycle Tribe on the edge of downtown San Luis Obispo.

It didn’t take long for the studio to find its tribe. Full classes led the Brunsons to add three cycles to the studio’s original 15, and they are already looking to add three more.

And it’s not just serious cyclists. John Brunson noted that most of Cycle Tribe’s clients are non-athletes, people who probably wouldn’t go to a regular, big gym out of intimidation. But at a studio, Brunson said, they find community.

“Everybody cheers, everybody talks to each other, they are greeted when they come in,” he said. “The instructors are great about teaching people the basics and encouraging them as we go.”

Most of the bigger gyms add classes in response to exercise trends such as spin or Pilates. But it’s the personal attention that sets the studio experience apart — from safety and form to progress and results, said Assets Studio owner Julia Pickslay.

“Our instructors aren’t doing the class, they are paying attention to what you are doing,” she said. “They are walking around and walking around and walking around checking on the students.”

Assets specializes in barre, a hot form of fitness combining elements of dance, yoga and Pilates. After teaching classes in the Bay Area, Pickslay began offering them in various venues around San Luis Obispo before demand warranted opening a studio near the Mission three years ago. Interest in barre continued to grow, propelling Pickslay to expand north, opening a second studio in Paso Robles last year.

Tailored training

It’s not just specialized activities finding success with the studio model.

Mike Robinson runs his personal training studio MZR Fitness, in San Luis Obispo, with an unwavering focus on individualized programs.

“My clients never have the same workout,” Robinson is fond of saying.

His space in the bridge over the entrance to the Pacific Coast Center on South Higuera Street is filled with equipment you won’t see at a regular gym, odd-looking apparatuses that can be used for 300 or more different exercises.

The approach is about more than changing things up to stave off boredom. It’s about tailoring a program to the unique goals and exercise, injury and nutrition history of each client.

“I’m selling solutions and results, not memberships,” Robinson said.

He’s also earning national acclaim. Already a sought-after speaker, consultant and e-book author, this summer Robinson was named Personal Trainer of the Year by the IDEA Health and Fitness Association.

Robinson expanded his studio about a year ago to include a small group fitness space but recognizes that privacy is the primary draw for many of his clients, who pay up to $100 an hour for personal training sessions.

“It’s people with disposable income who want a more private gym experience,” Robinson said. “Either they don’t want to be around people who are already in shape, or they don’t want to fight for parking and cruise around the gym wondering what to do for an hour.”

The same market led Kennedy Club Fitness, which operates four big fitness clubs in the county, to open a private personal training studio at its Paso Robles location.

“We have some high-profile members who don’t want to be seen working out, so we created a space just for them,” said Karisha Dearing, the club’s fitness director.

The Elite Training program, which filled up as soon as it opened last year, provides personal coaching sessions in a fully-equipped mini gym with a separate entrance, private, upscale locker rooms, towel service and kitchen offering complimentary coffee, fruit and protein snacks as well as monthly cooking classes.

“It’s 100 percent life coaching and support,” said Tina Mace, one of Elite’s personal trainers. “We’re involved 24-7. People call me all the time.”

The rise of community fitness

Adherents of another fitness craze, CrossFit, eschew any notion of the elite. Members all complete the same workout each day, scaled to their ability, in warehouse-like gyms sparsely outfitted with barbells, pull-up bars, boxes, giant ropes and tires.

Curtis Fortune and Dustin Virgil first encountered CrossFit while in fire academy and got hooked on its constantly varied, functional approach, emphasizing real-life movements like squatting, jumping, lifting and running.

They began offering free outdoor workouts and had built a loyal following by the time they opened Atascadero CrossFit three years ago, one of a half-dozen CrossFit boxes, as the gyms are called, that have popped up in the county.

While the workouts are popular with serious athletes and first-responders like firefighters and EMTs, Fortune said 99 percent of their clients are new to fitness — “Couch to CrossFit,” he calls them.

The draw, Fortune said, is the community.

“We warm up together, we stretch out together, we practice movements together,” he said. “People bond very quickly because we suffer through the workouts together.”

While CrossFitters often participate in high-profile and inter-box competitions, supporting fellow group members is at the core of the concept. Those who have finished a set gather around the ones still going and start cheering them on.

“They may have 10 burpees left, and the entire class is doing the last 10 burpees with them and encouraging them,” Fortune said. “It’s really something special.”

Heather Cecena opened Club Cardio in Grover Beach in December with a smattering of cardio kickboxing classes, mostly led by Cecena before and after her job as a speech pathologist.

An enthusiastic response from the community prompted the small studio to add TRX, strength, fight and Zumba classes along with additional trainers.

To Cecena, like many studio owners, the key to building a clientele is creating a highly personable environment: greeting people by name, breaking down the exercises for them, checking up on them when they haven’t been in for a while.

“Somebody who is there to be your motivation and inspiration and hold you accountable — that’s what continues to bring people in the door.”