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Equinox’s “Fitness Incubator” And Its Search For The Next Zumba

At Project by Equinox, creative fitness instructors think up new ways to propel the upscale brand forward. Can they build the next big exercise trend?

Equinox’s “Fitness Incubator” And Its Search For The Next Zumba
[Photo: OSTILL/iStock]

Alongside upscale eateries and fashionable boutiques on Soho’s Mulberry Street, you’d likely miss an unmarked, bare brick storefront. There’s no glaring neon sign or a pun-heavy chalkboard inviting patrons in. It’s quiet and unassuming, a rarity in this Manhattan neighborhood.

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That’s because in it lies a laboratory of sorts, a barely known incubator devoted to the future of fitness. Project by Equinox is a sweaty think tank where instructors, exercise specialists, and program directors brainstorm the next Zumba. Created by Equinox, it independently lives outside a traditional studio to create an intimate training community.

“Our ultimate goal is to welcome ideas and innovation into the brand from outside that might provide us with scalable ideas to use back at Equinox,” explains Keith Irace, Equinox’s VP of group fitness.

Inside, it’s an equal mix of trendy boutique studio and a secretive underground bunker. The blocky and matte cement interiors resemble a panic room, though dotted with a few unexpected amenities like a cold brew tap, tubs of Orbit gum, and a bathroom stocked with Drybar products.

[Photo: Jason Rappaport]
The workout room, meanwhile, features support pillars encased in cognac leather and sleek glass. Grates cover the ceiling, letting bursts of bright colors like melon pink shine through. This place doesn’t look like your average gym, and that’s the point: This is a place to get instructors to, hopefully, think differently.

“We wanted to make sure that we weren’t missing anything that didn’t organically fit under our umbrella,” says Irace of the program.

Embracing the new is on par with the luxury brand, as it continuously expands beyond the gym floor. Most recently, Equinox announced plans for a hotel and launched a line of high-end goods with famous designers like Virgil Abloh.

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Rapid consumer interest in health and fitness activities has skyrocketed, with 1 out of every 5 Americans heading to the gym (or at least paying for a membership), according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association. IBISworld predicts the gym and health club market will grow at an annualized rate of 3.2%, a faster pace than the overall economy.

[Photo: Jason Rappaport]
“It’s never been better to be in the fitness business,” Equinox executive chairman Harvey Spevak recently told CNBC. “Demand has never been stronger . . . Health is the new wealth.”

As boutique fitness grabs a greater percentage of the $30 billion U.S. fitness industry, big brands know they need to innovate to keep up with trends. Cycling studios, for example, doubled in the last few years. The intention isn’t to simply copy what’s working for cult-favorite studios, but to come up with The Next Big Thing.

As such, Project by Equinox acts as both an incubator program and a talent scout. Forward-thinking fitness instructors can apply for a yearlong program on premises, though some are “discovered” by an in-house scout who frequents boutique studios, then sets up auditions. Some are already employed by Equinox, but the majority are new to the brand. It’s an even mix of insiders and outsiders.

At the same time, anyone can take a class at Project. While the studio doesn’t advertise itself in traditional ways, it does get a decent-sized group for each class simply by word of mouth. That, and the fact that many of the instructors boast sizeable social media followers (or as fitness enthusiasts call them, “tribes.”) Attendees are encouraged to provide feedback on each class, thereby helping to improve the end result.

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Equinox introduces a number of new classes to clubs each year. A few become mainstays, but many have a short lifespan. The latter is by no means a sign of failure; limited-edition classes help schedules feel fresh and exciting. “It’s the culture of our members to want new and innovative things all the time anyway,” says Irace.

So what exactly is Project looking for? Does it want out-there ideas and unique class props like, say, goats?

Irace says the incubator is “open to just about anything,” provided it fits within the general style and ethos of Equinox. There are some popular categories the program prefers–most notably, fitness that incorporates elements of martial arts (such as boxing) or dance conditioning classes, like barre. (Equinox recently bought a minority stake in Rumble, a boxing-inspired group fitness company, and one of the brand’s most popular classes is The Cut, described as a “cardio-forward boxing workout with no bags, no wraps, and no ring.”)

[Photo: Jason Rappaport]
Although, one could ask: What is new in fitness? Isn’t everything already a mixture of something else?

“Usually it is either a specific way that someone sequences something together or combines a couple of disparate elements,” Irace explains, “or there’s a storytelling opportunity around the way that an instructor delivers something that becomes unique to them.”

I recently attended a class called #TMI (an acronym for Tempo-Metabolic-Isometric), led by a muscular instructor named Gerren Liles. Much like a standard HIIT (high-intensity interval training) class, attendees were paired into groups and commanded through a sequence of stations for both cardio and strengthening purposes. I skipped side-to-side while throwing a medicine ball; at another station, side planks were interspersed with weight lifting.

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At one challenging point, I was forced to bind my feet together with a plastic band, while simultaneously attempting to move a slider back and forth. It was like SAW for weak people.

[Photo: Jason Rappaport]
“This is always the ‘what the hell’ move,” the instructor laughed. “A lot of people struggle with that.”

Would my grimace and collapsed Bambi legs, I wondered, convey my input on this specific exercise?

Despite my poor coordination and underachieving muscles, I’ll admit it felt different than your average circuit training class. Nearly every station had one such unique slant on the expected move, even if was just as much as a reverse plank. There were, of course, plenty of familiar moves as well, including loads of jumping jacks.

From here, instructors spend months fine-tuning their creation before pairing with an Equinox partner to create a bit of infrastructure–to flush out scalability and craft a teacher manual. There’s also an entire vetting process to ensure each move is both safe to perform and sound from an exercise physiology standpoint.

The goal is to ultimately serve the prestige brand’s greater portfolio (which currently boasts 92 locations), but Project has quite a following in its own right. Classes are half to mostly full, with students eager to experience what’s on the precipice of fitness.

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“The people that are coming in are definitely adventurous fitness fans,” says Irace, “people that are showing up for something new and different.”

When I ask Irace what’s he most excited about in the Project pipeline, he points to a class called Sculpt Society, taught by former Nets dancer Megan Roup. Her session is a mix of high-energy cardio with fast-paced sculpting exercises. At certain points, she incorporates the Step, i.e, the ’90s fitness staple that has since gone out of fashion.

“She is doing these exercises that take you from the ground to standing on the [Step] with grace,” says Irace. “She’s really rethinking these linear patterns around how she’s using that Step in a way that I haven’t seen before. And I’ve been in the industry for over 20 years.” He pauses, before adding, “You sort of start feeling like you’ve seen everything–and then you realize you haven’t.”