Pain for gain: High-intensity fitness trend trumps machines

“Who’s gonna win?” calls former Navy Seal John McGuire to the group of about 50 people lined up before him. “We are!” the group yells back in unison, “Hoo-yah!”

Up before the sun, the group sprints across a still-dewy field, drops and does pushups, runs relays, lifts and carries one another, working in teams to hoist giant inflatable rafts across an invisible finish line. At the center of this coordinated commotion is McGuire, calling out instructions.

It may look and sound like military training, but these aren’t soldiers; this is Seal Team Training— a group made up of students, mothers, grandfathers, professors, and friends who report to a different outdoor location in Charlottesville every day at 6am for an hour of group exercise that would have Richard Simmons wringing out his headband and gasping. And if a crowd of people carrying rafts around a field might have attracted stares a few years ago, these days, passersby will just nod, because at this point, most people know at least someone who's participated in boot-camp-type training of some form or another.

Indeed, there's been a national shift toward high-intensity interval training and away from the traditional exercise paradigm of treadmills and stationary bikes positioned in front of rows of televisions.

In Charlottesville, that trend has opened a niche in the fitness market for boutique gyms to open and thrive. In the past four years, in fact, no fewer than eight new exercise businesses have opened or are readying to open, some offering dedicated gym locations and others, like Seal Team, espousing a "pop-up gym" philosophy or sending trainers straight to clients' homes or offices.

While they differ in certain ways, these new gyms and programs share certain similarities in addition to the focus on higher intensity exercise. The group training breeds camaraderie among members akin to a sports team experience, something members and trainers say helps participants stick with the program.

"If you’re having fun, you're not as likely to drop out," says Kalil Mohammed, co-founder of Club Mo Fitness, a business that uses fully-equipped vans to bring the gym to clients, instead of clients to the gym.

While weight training and cardio are incorporated into many of the programs offered, there's more of a focus on "functional fitness," movements that mimic actions we all take in regular life, rather than movements designed strictly to "sculpt" or improve your appearance. You’re more likely to find trainers encouraging push-ups and pull-ups, both of which work multiple arm muscles, rather than mere bicep curls.

Perhaps no fitness "brand" has capitalized on research supporting high-intensity interval training more than CrossFit, a national fitness movement that was the topic of a 2009 Hook cover story when the first CrossFit gym, CrossFit Charlottesville, opened in Charlottesville. There are now 5,500 CrossFit affiliates around the world, and regional competitions culminate each summer in a Reebok-sponsored event called the CrossFit Games, which is televised on ESPN.

“People are looking up CrossFit by name,” says Michael Towne, owner of Solidarity CrossFit, which opened last November in the Allied Business Park. “They are moving away from corporate or mass model anything because they want something personal that they can be passionate about.”

Not everyone's a fan of CrossFit, however, with its esoteric lingo featuring words like WOD (Workout of the Day) and "Box" instead of gym. There are workouts named after war heroes who've perished ("Murph," for instance, is particularly brutal, requiring participants to run a mile, then perform 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, 300 air-squats and then run an additional mile) and women ("Cindy," for instance, orders 5 pull-ups, 10 push-ups and 15 squats, repeated as many times possible in 20 minutes).

Some critics of CrossFit label it a cult due to the level of devotion shown by many of its patrons, and they complain that the training doesn't prepare participants for anything other than more CrossFit.

Hamilton Nolan, writer for the popular New York City-based blog, Gawker, is one of CrossFit's most outspoken critics.

“The simple counterpoint to CrossFit is that if you are training for something specific, you'll want to train for that thing," Nolan raged in a 2012 post, "rather than training for 'what if you're caught in a burning building and you have to climb out while carrying someone on your shoulders and then run away at top speed and then throw a kettlebell at an angry dog that chased you,' as CrossFit does.”

That hasn't stopped legions of athletes, gym rats, military and public service personnel, former gymnasts, and exercise newbies from joining boxes around the country, with the hopes of becoming stronger, faster, and more healthy.

The popularity of CrossFit led to last fall's opening of a second Charlottesville box, Solidarity CrossFit, as well as inspiring the soon-to-open franchise of a Charlotte, NC-based gym called Fight Gone Mad, which will open a Charlottesville location in August. While not officially a CrossFit affiliate, Fight Gone Mad will draw people interested in high-intensity station-based training and well-rounded workouts. The exercises are reminiscent of CrossFit, but the gym separates itself in several key ways, particularly by eliminating the competition between members to be the fastest or lift the heaviest weights.

“We want Crossfitters to say, ‘Hey, what’s that?’” says Dar Malecki, co-owner of Fight Gone Mad. “The main difference between our program and CrossFit is that anyone can come in; there is no on-ramping program. There is also no Olympic lifting and no times-on-the-board competition.”

Cultish or not, CrossFit and other exercise programs like it have gotten a huge boost from more than a dozen published studies, dating back to 2008, showing that there is science behind the benefits of high-intensity exercise.

Recent short-term studies, such as one by Arthur Weltman, professor of exercise physiology in UVA's Curry School of Education, show that people who exercise at higher perceived intensity get a greater benefit from exercise than those who train at a moderate perceived intensity.

“The old adage was, if you want to burn fat you should burn at your ‘fat-burning zone,’ which is moderate intensity,” Weltman says. “But it actually turns out in our study that the group that trained at the higher intensity actually lost more fat and considerably more visceral fat, which is the dangerous kind of fat. You really have to overload the enzymes that are involved in metabolizing fat…and that means that some of your training should be at high intensity.”

Weltman adds that recovery is key in high-intensity exercise— he recommends taking at least 48 hours between sessions, especially between weight-bearing exercise, and he stresses the importance of supervision by properly trained and certified instructors, particularly for those who are just starting out.

The mounting research and increasing competition from smaller gyms is prompting full-service health clubs like ACAC and Gold’s Gym to adapt to this new style of fitness, even if rows of cardio machines still line the gyms. ACAC recently mailed invitations to nonmembers to come in and try a newly added class called Body Combat, which combines martial arts and cardio. Gold’s Gym has adapted to the changing fitness landscape as well, currently offering a full range of workouts, also including Body Combat.

“I think the whole movement toward functional training has really captured everyone’s imagination,” says Christine Thalwitz, vice president of marketing at ACAC. “One of the things we did over the last year is to devote space to functional training, and there are open spaces with things like TRX, battle ropes, and kettle bells.” ACAC has also upped its small group, high-intensity fitness classes in the last two years.

And while boutique gyms can offer highly personalized, carefully programmed workouts all performed under the watchful eye of a trainer, they are undoubtedly pricier than the traditional gym model, which often includes tennis courts, swimming pools, and fancy locker rooms with all the expected accoutrements. A month’s membership to CrossFit can more than $150, and at Clay Fitness and Nutrition, which prices its classes à la carte in 13-week sessions, the monthly expense can top $300. In comparison, ACAC's full membership is closer to $80 per month, and Gold's comes in at less than half of that.

But for members who can swing the price for boutique exercise, the reward of a workout that brings not only noticeable physical results but also social rewards, it's a small fee.

“When I started [SEAL Team Physical Training] over three years ago, I was surrounded by people of backgrounds and ages and lifestyles that were so different than me, that I probably would never have approached them on my own,” says 32-year-old graduate student Nadia Cempre. “Fast forward two-and-a-half years later, and a big group of them were at my wedding.”

Whether you’re looking to shake up a boring workout routine or make a complete lifestyle change, there is a program out there for you. Here's a round-up of some of what Charlottesville has to offer.

Clay Fitness and Nutrition

“This is highly personalized, science-based training that’s all about accountability.” 

 Owner: Hyam Hosny

Date Opened: March 2010

Background: Hosny’s own personal weight loss journey influenced her to begin a career in fitness, and today she's one of the most highly certified instructors around with training in everything from triathlons to gymnastics. Hosny's approach to fitness is holistic, as she offers not only personal training but also nutritional counseling.

Cost: Memberships are purchased in 12- or 13-week blocks called "seasons," and clients can pick from classes ranging from athletic training (with a low-impact option) to cycle yoga to a half cycle/half weight training class. One season can run from $286 to $884.

Client quote: “Athletic conditioning at Clay provides the cross-training and strength-training that I need to be able to keep up with my very active kids! Hyam is incredibly knowledgeable when it comes to body mechanics and form, is encouraging of people at all levels of fitness, and builds a community around Clay that keeps people accountable and coming to class.” — Sarah Bedford, mother of three, lactation consultant, 39

Location: 233 Douglas Ave.
(434) 245-2288


Solidarity CrossFit

 “We have 100 percent member participation. If you’re not in here for a week, you’re going to get a phone call from me checking in on you. All intensity means working hard.” 

Owner: Michael Towne & Becky Tippet

Date opened: November 1, 2012

Background:  Towne discovered CrossFit while preparing for Marine Corps Officer Candidate School six years ago. Not only did CrossFit help him reach the top of the pack fitness-wise in OCS, he says he enjoyed the camaraderie and fun that CrossFit offers. The original CrossFit prescription calls for preparing people for the unknown, which Towne says is what empowers people to do what they want outside the gym. “CrossFit is all about becoming well-rounded athletes,” Towne says.

Training offered: CrossFit workouts are different every day and include climbing ropes, lifting weights, gymnastics, body weight exercises, and more. Solidarity also offers boot camps and a three-week prep course for all new CrossFit members.

Cost: Membership starts at $100-$130/month.

Client quote: “It became clear to me that Michael wanted to take a more practical, functional approach to CrossFit, rather than focus on the competition side that you see on ESPN. CrossFit can and has become a lifestyle— some drink the Kool-aid and join the cult of CrossFit, and some use it as a tool for the best day-to-day workout you'll ever experience. Really, CrossFit is different because it’s just more fun than other methods of training. It's a stripped down version of a regular gym that looks like an adult playground.” — Bobby Craft, preparing for Air Force Basic Training, 26

Location: 770 Harris St.
(434) 218-2111

The Gym

“There is such a void for education in the industry. We pride ourselves on teaching.” 

Owner: Justin Tooley

Date opened: 2010

Background: As a high school football player and professional power lifter, working out and lifting weights have always been a part of Tooley’s life. He opened The Gym to help others get the same mental and physical benefits from working out that he did.

Training offered: Varies from CrossFit-type workouts to power lifting. Workouts are divided into two categories, upper or lower body, but the exercises change each time to keep the workouts dynamic.  Classes are divided by gender and members range in age from 13-75.

Cost: Basic membership is $50/month to use the equipment. Training memberships range from $160/month for 1 group training class per week to $360/month for unlimited group training classes per week. Private coaching is also available. Those who buy a training membership get basic membership access for free.

Client quote: “The Gym is different because Justin is probably one of the hardest working and generous individuals I've ever met. I am a running and road cycling enthusiast and am so happy to use the workouts at The Gym to complement those interests to make me a stronger, better, and happier athlete.” — Andrea Fiumefreddo, assistant director, UVA Medical Simulation Center, 29

Location: 1739 Allied Lane, Suite B
(434) 878-0369


Seal Team Physical Training

“Yelling doesn’t impress me; push-ups do.” 

Owner: John McGuire

Date opened: August 2009 (in Charlottesville)

Background: During McGuire’s 10-year career as a Navy Seal, his favorite assignment was teaching inner city kids in Norfolk about fitness, academics, and military bearing. It was after this assignment that he realized helping people become more fit and knowledgeable was something he wanted to continue. In his words, “There are worse things you can do with your time than to help others improve." 

Training offered: 6am classes feature just about every traditional exercise and many others that aren’t, such as sledding and running with sandbags. Swimming, biking, kayaking, and other outdoor activities are also optional parts of the training.

Cost: $70-90/month

Client quote: “I like that we're outside— rain, snow, or shine— at one of the beautiful parks in our area, with different instructors doing different workouts. We do some pretty crazy stuff like sledding, ropes, logs, boats, lifting people, and so on. You don’t get that at the gym! Since there is only one time for the SEAL workouts, you really get to know the other members, and it does feel like a team.” — John Pepper, UVA professor, 48

Location: Varies, Charlottesville locations include Darden Towe Park, Charlottesville High School, and Washington Park.
(804) 262-1894

Fight Gone Mad  “There exists an inverse relationship between the cost of a piece of equipment and its effectiveness. Our training is results driven, professional and personalized.”

Owners: Dar Malecki and Valerie Morini

Date Opened: Set to open in early August

Background: Fight Gone Mad (the name is a spin off of the CrossFit workout, Fight Gone Bad), was founded in Charlotte, NC. The location in Charlottesville and another location opening soon in Richmond are the first franchises of the company. True believers in the FGM programming and with eight different certifications between them, Malecki and Morini are bringing the FGM philosophy of "intense interval and insane conditioning" to Charlottesville.

Training offered: High-intensity interval training that includes functional and CrossFit-like movements as well as cardio. Unlike CrossFit, however, there is no competitive aspect to FGM; instead, clients train to enhance other exercise pursuits like running or yoga.

Cost: $10 to $22 dollars per class depending on the class package. Monthly and unlimited packages will also be available.

Client quote: “Dar and Val are incredible motivators and trainers— they actively try to get to know everyone on a personal level then cater weights and movements according to your ability, while still challenging the body. I am stronger, healthier, and happier every week— I have Dar and Val to thank and look forward to Fight Gone Mad opening their doors in the coming month!” — John Farmer, Insurance Agent, 30

Location: In the Frank IX building off of 2nd street


CrossFit Charlottesville

“At our heart and soul we are a CrossFit gym, but we have other options. It’s designed so everyone can get in here, work out, and learn.” —Scott Linton, General Manager

Owners: Kyle Redinger, Landon Perdue, Chris Obenshein

Date opened: July 2009

Background:  From the specially programmed workouts to the giant white board covered with times to track how fast members completed the workouts, CrossFit Charlottesville is a CrossFit gym. However, it has also adapted to include other programs, such as Cville Burn and Cville Strength, and members frequently gather for cookouts, volunteer work, and other outdoor athletic pursuits.

Training offered: CrossFit, Cville Burn— a four-week, 12-session program dedicated to the base of fitness; Cville Strength, an Olympic lifting program.

Gym demographics: Popular among undergraduate and graduate students, but the age of members ranges from 20 to 72 years.

Cost: $115 to $169/month

Client quote: “They do all of the programming so I don't have to think about planning my daily workout. I just get to show up and sweat. The coaches are all amazing— they teach me a new skill nearly every day, watch my form to keep me safe, scale the workout according to my strengths and weaknesses, and push me harder than I knew my body was capable of. I've been doing CrossFit for only a few weeks, and I am already a die-hard convert!”— Sierra Seaman, Medical Student, 23

Location: 1309 Belleview Avenue
(434) 260-0209


Club Mo Fitness

"Person is taken out of the phrase ‘personal training.’ We’re people, and we want [our clients] to be satisfied and enjoy themselves.”

Owners: Kalil Mohammed and Mahogany Smith

Date opened: January 2012

Background:  Kalil’s own experience with weight loss and working with Mahogany Smith inspired the duo to start up their own gym. They established their place in the fitness market with the mobile gym concept and their inextinguishable energy. Club Mo focuses on education— proper technique, nutrition, strength training— with a healthy dose of entertainment. “If you don’t laugh while you’re working with us, something is seriously wrong,” Mohammed promises. The Club Mo founders see their business as a way to complement, not compete with other gyms and workout regimens.

Training offered: With their two fully stocked vans, the trainers at Club Mo bring high-intensity interval training and conditioning to homes, offices and anywhere else. They also offer classes at their gym including boxing, a strength training class, and the-high intensity class called Octane.

Cost: In-home: $75/hour; in-studio: $45/half-hour; individual classes also available for purchase on a pay-as-you-go basis.

Location: 971 Second Street SE
(434) 242-9969


T.E.A.M.S. Training Center

“We are here to help. We don’t achieve success without helping others achieve success.” 

Owner: Todd Proctor

Date opened: March 2013

Background:  Proctor opened T.E.A.M.S. Training Center three months ago after leaving Total Performance, another local gym and sports training center located on Seminole Lane. T.E.A.M.S. is an acronym for "Together Everyone Achieves More Success" and is the basis for all the training offered at T.E.A.M.S. Proctor says that the facility is a training center, rather than a gym, and the emphasis is on training all clients— whether they are high school baseball players or adult runners— with a goal in mind. 

Training offered: Full body boot camp, XFit, Interval Training, Strength and Conditioning, Speed and Agility, and sports instruction for baseball, soccer, and lacrosse.

Cost: $10/class; $80/10 classes; One-on-one sports instruction: $65-$85/hour

Location: 442 Westfield Rd.
(434) 529-8370

Correction: There are 5,500 Crossfit gyms around the world. The original figure of 450,000 is the estimated number of people who participate in Crossfit— Ed.


So cool that there are so many options for fitness in this town! No wonder Charlottesville is up there as one of the fittest places in the country . . .

1 correction on the article - my main focus as a coach is to motivate people, not sell videos. Same is true with all Beachbody coaches I know. I coach to help people, not to recruit more coaches.

Want to experience the latest Shaun T (Insanity trainer) workout? Come to Charlottesville Friends Meeting from 9-11 on Saturday morning, June 29. Email me for details!

that's in Jim Baldi's old spot once known as Bel Rio, LOL!

CrossFit is a great complement to sport-specific training. If you are training for a footrace, for example, the legwork you do in CrossFit will give your running a boost (I speak from experience). People interested in CrossFit should know that every box is a little different--if you don't like the first one you visit, try another. (Disclaimer: I go to CrossFit Charlottesville and have had an excellent experience there--better than any gym I've gone to in 20+ years of working out.)

I have worked and worked out at over 150 gyms in my lifetime, as i worked on the road year round. TEAMS Training Center, in my opinion is the best, most versatile gym i have ever been in. I am 43 and this gym gives me the opportunity to get my best workouts ever. Key? Never boring and many choices. Very functional real world exercises to choose from.

Amway doesn't have the ethics or morals to be in business, it is a scam. For more information visit my blog by googling "Stop The Amway Tool Scam Wordpress" and forward the blog link to every non-Distributor/IBO you know, so they don't get scammed.

You overestimated the number of CrossFit gyms by about 445,000

As a longtime resident of Charlottesville, athlete, coach and supporter of athletics in the Charlottesville area, I am excited to see so many new options for people to choose from. All of the mentioned facilities have unique products to offer and are reputable. My favorite by far are T.E.A.M.S and Athelite Factory. They have established themselves in the community, offer professional training and instruction for all levels of competition and are affordable. Because of this, I recommend student athletes to both of the facilities. If professional athletes from MLB and NFL, college players and local college coaching staff trusts these facilities, you should as well. Don’t waste your money on facilities like Total Performance or ACAC.

Hey,its really awesome post.I like this.

Not sure why you want to bash Total Performance. My son sometimes works out there before school and it has everything he needs at a reasonable price. I have seen some of the best High School Athletes in the area train there. Young athletes should also check out the new Carver Rec Center facility. At $27/mo for city kids, it is tough to beat!

Gus, its what recently happened behind the scenes. The owner who started that place 12 years ago left for a.good reason. The folks that knew the truth left.

An orthopedist I know in Texas said she loves Crossfit. Over half her repeat-flyer injured patients are Crossfit Junkies.

I was starting to wonder about that Ferrari she acquired.