(Bloomberg) -- Touring Gym U a month before its grand opening feels like entering a time machine. It’s been 30 years since David Barton opened his first gym. And yet, after shuttering numerous David Barton Gyms in 2016 and selling TMPL IN 2017, Barton is entering the battleground of NYC’s fitness scene once more. His trademark style has remained steadfast: He wears a sleeveless, sun-bleached Grateful Dead T-shirt that reveals biceps the size of bowling balls; shredded jeans and combat boots; and hair fashioned in small braids that sprout out from a bandana like the crown of a pineapple. The Napolean of fitness, he employs a degree of stratagem that belies his Deadhead demeanor.
“I train every trainer,” Barton says. “Fitness certifications are getting dumbed down these days,” likening the degradation to getting a state-issued driver's license for Nascar. “I like to mold them from clay.”
At this stage, the 35,000-square-foot space in NYC’s Chelsea neighborhood is largely under construction; a support beam of one wall reveals the space was once home to a YMCA (most recently it was a Crunch gym and, at one point, it was one of Barton’s namesake gyms). As we snake around equipment shrouded in plastic and follow narrow paths of brown paper, like an industrial Candy Land, Barton paints a vivid picture of the gym’s new identity.
What Is Gym U?
This isn’t a reinvention of Barton’s ethos and aesthetic. It’s a revitalization—a homecoming, he says. There’s a monstrous red chandelier in the entrance and window decals of a naked man and woman, which harks back to David Barton Gyms’ tagline "Look Better Naked."
“This is my masterpiece,” Barton says, as we ascend a marble staircase to the gym’s studio where group fitness will be held. “I take a lot of my visual inspiration from film.”
Barton was largely inspired by Metropolis, the 1927 German expressionist sci-fi flick with art deco and modernist influences. The bottom floor includes 23-foot-tall walls of mirrors, a nod to the hall of mirrors sequence in Orson Welles’s The Lady From Shanghai. Huge rotating fans create a sense of kinetic energy, like wind turbines. Riveted steel columns and a floating staircase akin to a drawbridge that connects the weight room to the first-level floor pay homage to New York City’s industrial past.
Ambient lighting, done in partnership with design firm Focus Lighting, evades the sterile, corporate setting of most big box gyms. In fact, the lighting design is meant to be evocative of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. The walls will be awash in International Klein Blue (IKB), a deep royal blue by French artist Yves Klein. Barton tapped architects Charles Renfro and Stephen Alton to materialize these different reference points.
“Most who use a gym regularly spend up to 10% of their waking hours working out,” Barton says. “That’s a lot of time to spend at a place you don’t like. My goal is to make the gym more beautiful, more exhilarating, and improve our operations so we’re better at transforming the body.”
By day, Gym U, which opens to the public on June 2, will act as an agora, a communal space for people to train, refuel and engage with other members. Right off the main entrance is a mushroom-themed lounge and cafe, cheekily called Mush Room, that’s centered on medicinal, seasonal varieties like reishi, lion’s mane and cordyceps foraged in upstate New York by Tivoli Mushrooms. Its concept and execution was done in partnership with restaurateur Billy Gilroy, owner and operator of Employees Only. The menu will feature juices, smoothies and other nourishing bites like mujadara, japchae and banh mi bowls.
The locker rooms will feature a co-ed dry sauna, separate steam rooms for men and women, towel service, Dyson dryers and bespoke toiletries.
By night, Gym U will default to Barton’s gym-as-nightclub concept, complete with a DJ booth on the bottom level hours of operation are currently 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends). As for the fitness, Gym U is taking a decidedly high-tech approach. Barton’s biggest gripe with the industry is its antiquity and boilerplate ways of personal training.
“I’d been doing a lot of traveling pre- and post-pandemic, discovering a lot of incredible technology that isn’t available in a singular space,” Barton says. He finds most gyms disjointed in how to elevate wellness and fitness. “If a gym doesn’t keep up with the scientific advances being made in protocols and equipment, the concept will eventually become obsolete, so all these factors combined became my motivation.”
He sees this space as a lab of sorts that prescribes custom programs for clients across nutrition, fitness, and overall lifestyle behaviors. While the basic components of losing weight and building muscle haven’t changed over time, the process certainly has. Barton hopes Gym U will be the connective tissue in marrying methodical means to a more efficient end.
Fitness Equipment for the New Age
Italian-made Panatta equipment covers everything from treadmills to free weight machines to powerlifting platforms. An $18,000 neuro-bio-electric stimulator called the Neubie will be used in private training sessions for strength, hypertrophy and recovery (a machine that only elite athletes and those in a clinical setting have traditionally had access to).
It’s believed to increase muscle activation and recruitment without having to lift as much weight and to lower the risk of injury, and recent research suggests it’s effective for individuals looking to experience a lower rate of perceived exertion and have a less intense workout. It maximizes efficiency, Barton says. Results you’d traditionally get from an hourlong session can be achieved in 15 minutes, and using it without resistance is equivalent to working out with 80% of your one-rep max, he adds.
For recovery, Barton collaborated with wellness boutique The Fuel Stop to offer personalized IV treatments and Hocatt (hyperthermic ozone and carbonic acid transdermal therapy), a space age-y personal steam sauna by infusing ozone, carbon dioxide, steam, photon light and oxygen to reduce inflammation.
Patients can also utilize ph360, a digital holistic health platform that uses anthropometry—in which your body’s measurements are assessed with family history, lifestyle, and environmental factors—to determine your phenotype (gene expression). This is then used to make recommendations on optimal times to sleep and train, and how to fuel to reach peak performance. You’ll select a trainer from the gym to help put these guidelines into action.
Gyms Are Having a Resurgence
The fitness industry’s revenue dropped 58% in 2020 in the US because of the pandemic, but it’s seeing a favorable, steady uptick. Revenue in 2021 was $33.25 billion and its expected to hit $434.74 billion by the end of 2028—a total growth of 171.75%.
While virtual training saw an immense boom during the pandemic, we’re seeing offline visitation surge with people experiencing home-workout fatigue. Between Jan 2022 to Jan 2023, offline fitness visits increased by 23.3%, according to data from Placer.ai, a location analytics company that studies visit trends. Foot traffic isn’t just up in discount chains like Planet Fitness and Crunch Fitness—even though the former is the nation’s most-visited gym. LA Fitness and Powerhouse Gym have seen a boost in visits, too.
Across America, boutique fitness studios account for 42% of all gym memberships, and that’s especially true in New York City with dozens of studios on offer for HIIT workouts, Pilates classes, and strength sessions. The New York market is no stranger to luxury gyms, though. Higher-end franchises like Life Time and ultra-luxury spaces like E by Equinox ($26,000 annual membership) scratch an itch for those who want a premium experience.
For Gym U, the question is: Will adopting the same business model as before net a different outcome? Members were burned by the abrupt closing of David Barton Gyms in 2016, which were shuttered because of high competition in NYC and rental rates. Those factors haven’t changed, but Barton is confident this venture will fill a gap in the market.
“In the end, the most distinguishable feature is the incredible team I’ve put together,” Barton says. “A dumbbell weighs the same everywhere, but it’s the people who make Gym U.”
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