The online videos show young men leaping over fences, running up walls and flipping off roofs.
It's called parkour and the videos are wildly popular. One on YouTube called "The World's Best Parkour and Freerunning 2012" has had more than 22 million views.
A new gym that opened Saturday in a converted industrial building off Eastern Avenue near Baltimore Community High School aims to capitalize on that popularity by offering customers training in parkour, free-running and a variation of cross-fit it calls urban fit.
"We're not in the fitness business," said Adam McConnell, owner of Urban Evolution. "We're in the entertainment business. We need people to have fun, to be laughing and yelping and happen to get in shape along the way."
Urban Evolution is not the first parkour gym in the Baltimore area — there's another one in White Marsh — but it is the latest in a trend toward specialty gyms. Small facilities designed for yoga, personal training, spinning and dance-based fitness — from ballet to pole dancing — increasingly compete with large gyms that offer users more options but less guidance. Larger gyms have, in turn, offered more personalized training options and continue adding classes and workout equipment that goes beyond free weights or machines.
"It goes along with the redevelopment of the city and reaching out to the creative class," said Jacob Bustad, a doctoral student in the University of Maryland's kinesiology department who has studied fitness trends. "When you bring young people into the city, or young families, you're seeing a group of people that looks for alternatives to the traditional weight-lifting or team-sport experience. There's more emphasis on lifestyle activities that fit within the culture."
Bustad said large-scale fitness centers have tried to adjust by diversifying their offerings.
Demand for gyms and fitness centers remains consistent with spending by U.S. consumers, growing an average of 1.4 percent a year between 2008 and 2013, according to IbisWorld, a research firm based in Los Angeles. The industry now generates nearly $26 billion in revenue a year, IbisWorld reports.
A June 2012 IbisWorld report found increased demand for and spending in specialty gyms. Spending in yoga and Pilates studios, for example, topped $6.8 billion in 2012, up from $4.7 billion in 2007.
"As fitness remains a social symbol, niche fitness clubs and expensive classes will thrive where the exclusivity of such services creates status," IbisWorld said in its conclusion.
Urban Evolution is a franchise of a Northern Virginia business with gyms in Alexandria and Manassas.
Customers ages 12 and up will pay $140 a month for unlimited access to the Baltimore facility and its classes, but other payment options are available.
Only those at a fairly advanced level will be free to attend open gym and freely use the various ramps and obstacle course-like areas. Beginners must attend classes and be guided by McConnell and his small team of trainers.
"That's really the benefit of doing it this way," McConnell said. "We're going to offer guidance to show people how this can work for them. They might have never thought about Parkour before as something they could do, but it's a very practical and fun way to get a work out."
The idea of putting parkour, which is derived from military obstacle-course training but became a counter-culture movement in the late 1990s and 2000s, inside a building might seem to subvert the spirit of the endeavor, McConnell conceded.
Hard-core practitioners view it as art as much as athletic exhibition, with the point being to move through the world in a fast, unpredictable way. Part of the beauty is that the obstacles aren't meant to be jumped on, through or around.
But McConnell sees his gym, with movable ramps and large tires scattered about, as a place where people can begin to understand what parkour really means and then practice it in a controlled environment.
"I like to say you don't do parkour here, but you do learn how to do it," he said.
That's what Alternate Route in White Marsh aims to do as well. The gym's business has grown gradually since it opened a year ago, said co-owner Tony Torres. Located in an old industrial building off Philadelphia Road, his gym features a larger obstacle course and a gymnastics-style floor for teaching "tricking" — a combination of acrobatic aerial moves and martial-arts kicks.
"We've had better success this summer with kids off of school," Torres said. "But it's been tough. It is building slowly, and I'm hoping to get to schools, do some demos and spread the word."
Torres said he is concerned about the new competition but hopes his gym's focus on parkour, tricking and Ninja warrior training will differentiate it from Urban Evolution.
McConnell said he looked at 20 facilities in Baltimore before settling on the empty warehouse space off Eastern Avenue between Rosedale and Dundalk because of the size and the price for a five-year lease.
It took a month and a half just to clean the floor and paint over the rusted beams supporting the roof. He hosted a party for graffiti artists to paint the walls. McConnell put down rubber mats — at a cost of $16,000, he said — and began building the obstacles. The back portion of the facility has been set aside for what he's dubbed urban fit, and there are pull-up bars, ropes to climb and free weights available.
A 32-year-old Denton native, McConnell previously worked in the family business as an agricultural consultant, crisscrossing Maryland's Eastern Shore examining crops for infestations and disease.
His interest in parkour began seven years ago when he watched the French film "District B13," which includes chase scenes in which the protagonist escapes by jumping through tight spaces, scaling walls and flipping past pursuers. Soon McConnell was driving an hour each way from his Easton home to Washington to train with groups there that had began practicing parkour at the Silver Spring Metro station. The day after his first session, he was so sore he couldn't walk.
After training for several years, he became friends with Salil Maniktahla, who founded Urban Evolution in Alexandria.
McConnell began observing how the business worked. But it wasn't until he sought a place closer to home to train and ended up joining the cross-fit movement two years ago that he began believing he could run his own gym. He became a cross-fit instructor, which kindled a desire he's had since he was 12-years-old.
"I've always wanted to teach, but I wanted a situation where they wanted to be there," he said. "They're invested, and then you seen them get it, the look on their eyes when they say, 'Whoa.' That's my dream and why I'm here."
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