“And one, two, three, four!” Selene Byron, the Pound instructor at Edgewood Fitness for Women, counts down over DJ Snake’s thumping bassline. Nine women – including me – in the industrial-chic fitness studio are provided with drum sticks. We summon our inner rock stars and launch into a heart-pumping workout that simulates a rock concert. With our tools aloft, we are the beat masters.
The camaraderie between the nine of us was clear the minute we stepped onto our mats. Like a tight-knit rock band, the women greeted each other with high fives and hugs, and they welcomed me, a newbie, just as warmly. “I’m going to copy your moves,” I warned the statuesque woman in front of me. She confided, “I’m always doing it wrong.” Then Byron turned down the lights, and we rocked.
Rhode Island’s boutique fitness scene is an embarrassment of riches. You can curl old school iron next to muscle heads at places like Rhode Warrior Gym in Charlestown. You can indulge in a relaxing yoga practice at The Yoga Studio of Blackstone River Valley in Cumberland or spin it out at So Co Cycle in Narragansett. For the uninhibited, there’s pole dancing at Providence Pole Fitness in Warwick. One-on-one private training, group classes, boot camps, even ninja gyms cater to every fitness whim at every fitness level.
“This is all about creating organic community,” explains Natalina Earls, who founded Cranston’s Edgewood Fitness for Women 10 years ago. Her experience working at corporate gyms through college and grad school (she has a doctorate in history) was “everything I hated about fitness.” Her philosophy at Edgewood Fitness “isn’t that much of a reach. I studied women’s history and women’s communities and decided to build one.”
Community is the buzzword across Rhode Island’s boutique gyms. Kayla Couto, who worked as an optician before going all in on fitness and opening Salt Cycle Studio in Tiverton, had just moved to Rhode Island and “I wanted new friends,” she says with a laugh. “I was seeking community. I wanted to provide a place where people felt seen and welcome and could connect with others.”
“We are lacking comradery and connection,” says Aubrey Rodman, who founded Bottega Yoga in Wakefield in April. “Because of COVID, we need it more than ever.” Rodman’s background in mental health counseling for adolescents led her to yoga. She founded her studio with the ethos that yoga needed to be more accessible to different communities. With classes like Rollin with my OMies and Barre Fight, the studio’s vibe is inclusive and fun. “We’re not froofy up in here,” she notes.
“My place is probably the most intimidating,” admits Strongman champ Steve Tripp, owner of Pawtucket’s TOP Strength Project. A true muscle gym, TOP Strength is where serious strength athletes come to lift, but newbies are always welcome at the racks. “We have the most supportive atmosphere. If someone’s having trouble, ask for help,” he says, noting that his more experienced members are happy to share their knowledge.
This specialized knowledge, with trainers who focus on specific modalities, makes boutique gyms stand out. Newbies may find the niche training offerings more palatable than the one-size-fits-all concept favored by big box gyms.
“We are very good at what we do,” says Bottega Yoga’s Rodman, noting that all her instructors teach a similar style of yoga. The music choices and vibe the different instructors bring to their classes create the variety in the practice. “The beauty of yoga is that it can adjust to your body,” she continues, pointing out that practicing in the studio’s infrared heat helps with flexibility, of particular importance to those just starting out.
“Our room is not multipurpose,” says Salt Cycle’s Couto. “The space is tailored to deliver indoor cycling’s full experience.” That means peddling in low lighting with music as the prime motivator, creating a nightclub-like atmosphere “but you’re working on your health and fitness.” Newbies are encouraged to ask questions and trainers are always excited to help them find their fitness footing. “Every fitness level can join us,” she says. “We’re here to help.”
TOP Strength owner Tripp founded his gym with niche training in mind. Fed up with the diluted training experience at the bigger gyms, he created a training facility with “stuff I like best,” which includes 20 squat racks, Ardblair Stones, and other Olympic and Powerlifting equipment that’s often hard to find.
Sabrina Kay from SJFit heads to the homes of her Aquidneck Island clients for one-on-one training. “I get to know my clients and their goals,” she says. “I plan their workouts based on those goals.” With multiple certifications, she can take her clients through workouts that range from Barre to Zumba, but she specializes in that individualized experience.
Laid Back Fitness is the only gym in the state with “MovNat” (natural movement) certified trainers. The goal of MovNat is to be “physically competent in a wide range of movement skills,” explains owner Ryan McGowan. It follows developmental movement patterns and scales from there. “MovNat adjusts to where the person is, so everything we do is accessible,” he says. “When an adult unlocks a skill and they jump up and down yelling ‘I did it,’ that gets me pumped.”
Andrew Menton, co-owner of Newport Box Fit, which features classes based on the training protocols of boxers, points out that their ability to be nimble allows them to tailor their classes based on interest, like creating a legs and abs-focused class at the request of their clients. “Group class environments are not for everybody,” he concedes. “But when people feel like they are a part of something, they have more success with it.”
“Just rush in with both feet and get soaking wet,” advises Jake Burke from Atomic Kickboxing in Providence. Like the other boutique gyms, Atomic caters to all fitness levels and works for both beginners and experienced exercisers. “Kickboxing is intimidating,” he admits. “But people are surprised with how much they like punching and kicking stuff.” While it’s a no-contact program, their students learn how to punch, kick, knee, and elbow as if they were going into the ring, which, for some, is empowering.
“It’s not about ‘does my butt look good,’” says Laurel St. Denis who co-owns PE Fitness Studio in Pawtucket with her wife Lisa. “Our motto is ‘work out because you love your body, not because you hate it.’” With a focus on functional fitness, their studio features an inclusive environment where Iron Men competitors train beside Brown professors. Unique to PE is their hiking class, a 10-week program that culminates in a challenging full day outdoor hike. “I always go back to what my wife says: if you had to run a marathon tomorrow, you could. It might take you 20 hours, but you could,” St. Denis says. “Your strength is yourself. That belief in yourself will keep you going.”
An added bonus of boutique studios: they don’t bind you to long-term contracts. Menton from Newport Box Fit says he and his business partner Jesse Macrae created their studio as an alternative to the big box gyms that tied fitness seekers to onerous contract terms. “We give people no-nonsense, flexible pricing that allows them to come when they want to do a class,” he says, noting that their close-knit community comes in all ages, experience levels, shapes, and sizes.
“Don’t limit yourself,” advises Allison Bramhall from Divine Barre in Providence, which combines a ballet, Pilates, and yoga base to isolate muscles, then works them to exhaustion using small movements. “With boutique gyms there is always a new client special,” she continues, noting that her studio offers the first workout free. “Try all of them.” Varying the workouts keeps exercise interesting, and it helps you find what you enjoy. Without costly monthly fees tying you to one location, patrons can feel free to experiment: try a Barre class one day, spin the next, then check out a boot camp or weight lifting class.
Finally, don’t be shy about stepping into the gym, even if you haven’t taken a fitness class since high school. “Start where you are instead of looking backwards or forwards. It’s hard to move forward when you are comparing yourself to your old self,” advises Edgewater’s Earls. “It can be intimidating, but a lot of the people around you started where you are – they are rooting for you.”
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