Boutique gyms offer individual attention

Orangetheory studio manager Kelsie Floyd works with gym members to get them “in the zone”— 84 to 91 percent of their maximum heart rate—for at least 12 minutes during every workout. Photo by Eze Amos Orangetheory studio manager Kelsie Floyd works with gym members to get them “in the zone”— 84 to 91 percent of their maximum heart rate—for at least 12 minutes during every workout. Photo by Eze Amos

For a town its size, Charlottesville is bursting with fitness club choices.

“We really have a big city-level of unique offerings here,” says Claire Mitchell, co-founder and owner of treadHAPPY, a treadmill-based fitness studio located off West Main Street. In contrast to “big-box” clubs like ACAC or the YMCA, boutique, or niche gyms, like treadHAPPY are small enterprises that offer highly structured, carefully curated classes for patrons seeking more efficiency and a personal touch.

The boutique trend took off about 10 years ago as small clubs began offering specialized workouts such as indoor cycling or CrossFit training, taught in classes structured around short intervals of high-intensity activity. “The emphasis now is on the fitness exercise science of workouts instead of sheer quantity,” says Valerie Morini of M3 Core Training, “to help people become stronger without injury.”

Boutique gym memberships are often more expensive than regular health clubs, and by design lack larger amenities such as pools or courts. “What you gain is a sense of community, accountability for your goals and results that make you feel good,” says Dar Malecki of MADabolic. In Charlottesville, wedging their way between more familiar options such as yoga, barre and boxing are several innovative standalone or franchise options that offer something for every taste.


One of the more metrics-centric of the boutique gyms, Orangetheory opened in July in Barracks Road Shopping Center. With more than 850 franchise locations worldwide, Orangetheory offers members a one-hour, heart rate-based interval training workout that is different every day. Using cardio equipment like treadmills and water rowers interspersed with core and weight exercises for strength, the workout stresses getting your heart rate into the “orange” zone (84 to 91 percent of maximum) for at least 12 minutes. This, says studio manager Kelsie Floyd, is where the magic happens.

“Hitting that orange zone is beneficial for the body, and maximizes the excess post-exercise oxygen consumption,” says Floyd. “It’s an afterburn effect that lasts long after the workout is over.”

Each member wears a personalized heart rate monitor linked to a large digital screen, which displays her heart rate and zone by color, so it’s easy for both the member and fitness coach to tell if they are on track.

“People are busy and don’t want to have to think about what to do at the gym,” Floyd says. “These workouts are structured so they will work harder, and that structure holds them accountable.”


Local educators Claire Mitchell and Sara Currier wanted to turn their love of running into a group exercise experience that could be indulged no matter the weather or time of day. In early 2016, the pair converted a former auto service center into a light-filled treadmill studio. The club offers music-driven, interval-oriented classes, some of which combine other elements such as yoga and strength training.

Mitchell thinks that Charlottesville’s niche gyms offer a unique experience. “We know everyone by name, know if they have a particular health issue or injury. I think the community feel really helps people stay committed.”

TreadHAPPY’s studio classes were developed in tandem with physicians from Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital, and are taught by running-coach-certified instructors. Mitchell says the club aims to transform the sometimes-monotonous nature of treadmill running. “We’ve married together the science-based functional stuff with what’s cool in group fitness and music, so the work is a bit disguised and the time flies by,” she says. TreadHAPPY is set to open a second location in Richmond’s Fan District this month.

MADabolic and M3 Core Training

Though Dar Malecki had been involved in fitness training her whole life, including bodybuilding, power lifting and owning CrossFit gyms, it wasn’t until she took her first MADabolic class in Charlotte, North Carolina, that she felt like she understood the future of fitness. “I walked out of that class and said, ‘This is how women and men should be training,’ and it’s become my passion.” She and business partner Morini opened MADabolic in Charlottesville in 2013, followed by M3 Core Training in 2015, and the two owners stress the benefits of low-impact training.

“We need a strong foundation of muscle as we age,” says Malecki. “So I believe in a weighted, strength-based program using controlled movements, combined with low-impact cardio training.” In a MADabolic class, that might look like a series of intervals—lunging with hand weights, hoisting a sledge hammer, indoor rowing or biking and pounding a heavy bag. “It’s never out-of-control or competitive, and there’s a work-to-rest ratio that burns fat and increases metabolism without putting extra strain on the body.”

Morini, a former UVA rower who has also taught cycling and barre, say boutique fitness is “about efficiency. People don’t have time to get lost in the social vortex of big-box gyms or to wait in line for 45 minutes to get on the treadmill. Here, there are well-trained instructors with carefully organized workouts who know you.”

M3 Core Training offers classes in barre, water rowing and boxing, and features the area’s only Megaformer studio. The Megaformer machine uses a sliding, spring-resistance platform to allow targeted, low-impact exercises that give the user a cardio, strength and balance workout all in one. “It’s for all ages and all levels, from absolute beginner to professional athlete,” says Morini. “My favorite classes are when my 70-year-old dad and his friends are here alongside younger students. They inspire each other.”

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