816 North

Gym owners say small can be mighty

Crossfit 816 members take to the cycles as a part of the WOD, which will take them five times through a circuit of weightlifting and cardio movements.
Crossfit 816 members take to the cycles as a part of the WOD, which will take them five times through a circuit of weightlifting and cardio movements. Special to The Star

Loud, energetic music plays.

Gladstone resident Codie Lea throws her body weight into the two resistance bands tied to an overhead weight training bar.

Messages like “Dig Deep,” “Consistency” and “Don’t Quit” dot the walls.

The 30-year-old massage therapist has a broad workout background. She has done roller derby. She does a lot of yoga. She landed at Pride Fitness in Liberty because it has the right mix.

“This is a good combination of all of it,” Lea said. “I feel like I get a really good workout. I feel like I don’t have to kill myself. I feel like all these people here root for you and are excited for you and have a camaraderie, neighborhood feel.”

Lea is one of a growing number of gym members who are opting for smaller, more intimate and often more intense workout experiences. They are places where everybody knows your name. And if you haven’t been there for a few days, you’ll hear about it.

These boutique gyms, personal training gyms or group fitness gyms have become a dominating industry trend in the last decade. They started pulling in members at a time when the flailing economy and the emergence of social media provided a fertile ground for new fitness options.

Generally smaller than traditional gyms, they often pop up in strip malls with little setup and a small amount of equipment. Owners say they offer motivation and results that are priceless in the pursuit of fitness.


Wilson Thomas is the owner of BarNone Training, which has locations in Lenexa and Mission. He opened his group training facility in 2007. At the time, he was a personal trainer. When the economy started to sour, people started to cut back on personal training services, which can really drive up the cost of working out.

“I cared about helping people, and as people lost wealth, I tried to find ways to accommodate my clients,” Thomas said.

Thomas decided to open his own gym, which he built on motivating people through relationships and accountability. The gym uses a group training method that gives members a personal workout at a much lower cost than one-on-one personal training.

Thomas says personal training services in a gym can run between $600 and $1,200 a month on top on the monthly fees for belonging to a gym. The BarNone group training services are between $90 and $120 a month, the going rate for many boutique gyms.

“We’re cheaper than personal training, but we’re more than doing it yourself,” Thomas said.

Thomas’ members are often people who have been frustrated by trying to get fit on their own. They also might be uncomfortable and isolated in a traditional gym setting, or they simply don’t know where to start.

The idea behind the small gym is to give members easier access to experts in the industry.

“It is just like if you need your car fixed, you find a mechanic. If you need your teeth fixed, you find a dentist. If you want your hair done, you find a hairdresser. When you need a solution to your fitness, you need to go to a fitness expert,” Thomas said.


The CrossFit movement has become one of the driving forces toward group- and team-driven support in fitness for the average gym member. CrossFit.com currently lists more than 7,000 affiliate CrossFit sites in the United States, including 46 in the Kansas City metro area.

While these sites all carry the CrossFit name and model, they vary greatly in their levels of intensity and atmosphere. CrossFit does not actually franchise itself, so its affiliates are only loosely connected. “CrossFit” refers to a conceptual framework and methodology. This means the background training and qualifications of CrossFit trainers also varies greatly. There are no prerequisites for taking the class to become a CrossFit trainer.

CrossFit Level 1 credentials cost $1,000 and require taking a two-day course and passing a written test every five years. The Level 1 credential allows a person to open a gym with a CrossFit affiliation. Rates can be set by individual gym owners, but in the Kansas City area they average about $130 to $150 a month.

What CrossFit gyms have in common is a heavy reliance on culture and community, particularly the connection through social media. The gyms emphasize similar exercises designed to build functional movements, and the workout of the day, or WOD, which is posted on CrossFit.com and can be altered to meet the skill levels of athletes at different abilities. The basic model is a different workout every day for three days, followed by a day of rest.

CrossFit 816 is in Pleasant Valley. Owners Sarah and Matt Neal rely heavily on the community aspect of CrossFit in their program.

“Everybody in our gym is like family to us. We know them and we know their kids,” Sarah Neal said.

The Neals got into CrossFit after the department where Matt Neal is a full-time police officer started using the methodology in their training. It relies on high-intensity interval training, which is essentially the idea that pushing harder in a workout for short periods of time, followed by periods of rest, can be a much more effective way to get in shape than maintaining a high level for extended lengths of time. It has become a key idea in fitness training.

It also works for people who are busy.

“We try to push ourselves more than you would if you were on your own,” Sarah Neal said. “We have a really structured program, and it’s easy to follow. We’re all so busy in our everyday lives. Here, you can come in and be told what to do, and not have to think about your workout.”

She also says the CrossFit model is “infinitely scalable.” It allows people to work out at the level they can, but it also gives people a sense of accomplishment.

CrossFit 816 also offers a program for kids from preschool through teens. Neal’s goal is to make movement fun and positive, something people look forward to rather than something to check off the list.

“We believe kids who are active at a young age are going to carry that into adulthood and be generally fitter and more healthy,” she said.


Getting healthy after becoming a mom inspired Darby Brender to open Fusion Fitness in Overland Park. (There are two additional locations in Mission Farms and Corbin Park.) She developed a high-energy program that combines calisthenics, Pilates, yoga, strength training and plyometrics into one 60 minute workout.

“When I started training myself and created the method myself, I needed to lose some baby weight,” Brender said. “I felt good from listening to this loud music and working my muscles. I felt like I was a more positive person. I wanted to work out hard, and I figured other people did, too.”

Fusion also targets people who have a hectic lifestyle: working mothers, people who want to get the most bang out of a 60-minute workout. While men are not excluded from the workouts, about 99 percent of the members are women. Brender says they are open to people of all abilities, but the workout and energy in the room, as well as the movement, are aligned.

When Fusion opened eight years ago, there were very few small studios where members could get an intense workout. With the explosion of small-gym options, Brender believes people just have to find a place that feels right.

“Talk to your friends who are like-minded,” Brender said. “Check out a few different places. Go to a place more than once, because your experience will be different based on the time of day.”


Giving members the chance to figure out if they fit into the fitness family is very important to Andrew Helmick, the owner of Pride Fitness Personal Training Studio in Liberty.

“The reason we are called Pride Fitness is that we’re a family,” Helmick said. “Our clients know that they can come in here and enjoy themselves with other people but be pushed and push others like a family would.”

In the group personal training Helmick offers, four to five clients are scheduled into sessions. He guides, directs and instructs each member, but does not hang over their necks during the workout.

“The only difference between us and a one-on-one trainer is we don’t count to 10,” Helmick said. “We firmly believe our clients know how to count to 10. We show them everything and are building their programs to help them get to where they want to be.

The gym also relies heavily on community. They connect online, and if members have not signed up for a workout session in a few days, Helmick is likely to send them a text asking where they are. He says people tend to work out at the same times each week, which helps them get to know each other.

Austin Richardson, a 29-year-old Liberty city employee, says he chose the group training at Pride Fitness because he knew he reacts well to coaching.

“I was an athlete in high school,” Richardson said. “I feel like I can get pushed a lot harder than me doing something by myself.”

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