Head to Abu Dhabi’s fashionable restaurant district at Yas Marina, and you might mistake the pumping techno music and strobe lighting emanating from an upstairs window as one of the marina’s new nightspots.
But it’s actually a high-octane fitness class at Vogue Fitness, one of several ultra trendy gyms sprouting up in the UAE that offer intense fitness workouts with an edge – they blur the lines between gym and social club.
Vogue Fitness specialises in CrossFit, a fitness craze sweeping the world that blends cardio workouts with gymnastics, weight training and core training. But it is more than just exercise, according to Patrick Hegarty, 32, an Australian who founded the gym with his fellow CrossFit enthusiast Billy Graham last August.
“One of our main principles is that we’re trying to build a really strong fitness community,” says Mr Hegarty. “We offer a very wide range of programmes – stand-up paddle boarding and swimming workouts in the marina, yoga and warrior workouts of the day.”
The entrepreneurs wanted to infuse their new gym with the same community spirit they had experienced in the past through playing rugby. GX Membership, which includes access to the gym and most classes, costs Dh900 a month, as opposed to a standard membership fee elsewhere of about Dh500.
But for the heftier price, Vogue Fitness aspires to provide a tight-knit fitness community that traditional gyms often lack. “In other gyms, you put your headphones on and work out in front of a mirror,” Mr Hegarty says.
“As soon as you walk through our doors, you’re part of our community. Members have their own WhatsApp groups and form close bonds. Billy and I are there every night. We go into classes, yell out people’s names to encourage them, have a joke with them – it’s really addictive.”
TribeFit in Dubai Marina is another gym where flexing your social skills is as important as flexing your biceps. Along with a gym and fitness studios, the gym has a cafe, lounge and club with an in-house DJ, foosball and pool tables. Fitness friends can also mingle at the barbecues, brunches, fitness Olympics and movie nights that TribeFitplans.
Members get privilege cards offering discounts at outlets and a loyalty rewards programme earns points that can be exchanged for Tribefit’s line of branded merchandise. Graffiti-laden walls and neon add to the urban atmosphere.
Code M, in Abu Dhabi’s Al Reehan district, has also gone for the graffiti look. When it opened last year it was the capital’s first CrossFit box (as CrossFit gyms are known), cofounded by the Emirati pilot Mohammed Al Tamimi, 32.
“CrossFit is really becoming popular in the Emirati community – it’s growing so fast. Everyone now knows how important it is”, says Mr Al Tamimi. According to a study from the University of Wollongong in Dubai, there are at least 17 boxes in Dubai and at least four more each in Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, adding to the 11,000 boxes globally.
For CrossFit devotees, sweating as you socialise is a way of life. Kirsteen Thain, 29, a coach at CrossFit Metalize in Ras Al Khor, says members come three hours before class just to hang out “because all their friends are there. They sit on the benches on the side and motivate people or just chat.”
The parent brand CrossFit HQ’s rule is that anyone can set up a CrossFit-affiliated gym for an annual fee of $3,000, which entitles gym owners to use the CrossFit name to market classes.
CrossFit boxes are sparse, which Ms Thain says makes them cheaper to set up. “There’s no need to invest in expensive gym equipment. People come into our gym and ask ‘where are the machines?’ There are no machines – just barbells, pull-up bars and dumbbells.”
As awareness of the importance of a healthier lifestyle grows, so do the number of UAE fitness facilities. But Grant Goes, the co-founder of Fitnesslink.me, a UAE online health and fitness network, says simply jumping on the bandwagon does not guarantee a successful business.
“In this market, a fitness facility needs to not only differentiate themselves, they must deliver a high standard of service; whether through their coaching staff, instructors, atmosphere or facilities. It’s the reason people will drive farther to attend a certain gym over another. Successful facilities understand that fitness is not only about offering a quality fitness experience, it’s about positive personal interaction. This is what puts bums in seats and keeps someone going back for more.”
Some gyms have entered niche fields to stand out, such as the new outdoor Warehouse gym at The Beach in JBR. Bounce, located in a large warehouse in Al Quoz, is a giant spring-loaded playground full of 80 interconnected trampolines. The company plans to open a new facility in Abu Dhabi in September, to include giant airbags and dodgeball courts.
Meanwhile, the newly opened Sportsmania in JLT offers basketball, handball, tennis courts and five-a-side-football featuring turf with heat-dissipating properties to reduce temperatures. Even the sand on the beach football and volleyball fields is special – the company imported more than 200 tonnes of competition sand to help players land comfortably and gain traction while running.
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