Dawn had yet to break on a recent Monday morning as 20 women began working out to pulsating music in a well-lit warehouse overlooking darkened Falls Road.
"Look how many people are here," said Allison Buchalter, 42, of Roland Park. "It's 5:30 in the morning. It's insane."
It may be early to be exercising to the Icona Pop song "I Love It," but Jill Feinberg said she really does love it. The Mount Washington mother, 47, said she had to be home by 6:30 a.m. to get her children, ages 10 and 7, out of bed and off to the Mount Washington School by 8:15.
"So, 5:30 works," she said.
Feinberg and Buchalter, both in public relations, are among the many clients, mostly women in their 20s to 50s, who attend the hourlong, 5:30 a.m. classes on weekdays at Believers Fitness Boot Camp in Bare Hills. Most of the women live in north Baltimore. A large contingent is from Mount Washington, where word of mouth among mothers has spread since a Groupon discount coupon for Believers began circulating last summer.
Feinberg said she and her friend, Dr. Rachel Levine, came for the first time in August.
"We walked in and we knew most everybody," Feinberg said. "It was like the place to be for Mount Washington moms."
Levine, an internist at Johns Hopkins Hospital, said she used to work out at the Jewish Community Center in Owings Mills, but she prefers the more varied workouts at Believers.
"I like the time. I think it's fun," she said.
"At 5:30 in the morning, it's hard not to find us," said Howard "Coach" Falcon, 43, who runs the fitness program in a 5,000-square-foot space with green felt carpeting at 6302 Falls Road, Suite D. "We're the only thing open, us and Falls Road Animal Hospital," a 24-hour veterinary practice across the street.
Falcon offers other classes at various times of day, six days a week, including a 5:30 evening class, but he said clients have really taken to the early-bird sessions.
"They get their day going," he said. "The endorphins kick in. After you do what we do, you're ready to take on your day."
What they do is run, swing heavy ropes, lift weights, climb ladders, hula hoop, raise their arms and legs while laying on their stomachs or on their sides, and exercise with medicine balls, all under the watchful eye of Falcon, of Pikesville, who is part drill sergeant, cheerleader and comedian.
"Good morning, ladies," Falcon barked on Oct. 21. "I'm going to be nice to you today. We have visitors," he said, acknowledging the presence of the press.
The women quickly laid mats on the floor and began their regimen.
"C'mon, keep those legs up," Falcon exhorted. "Reach for the toes."
Born and raised in Owings Mills, Falcon is a 15-year veteran of fitness and corporate wellness coaching. He formerly ran Coach Falcon's Fit Body Boot Camp, at Coppermine Fieldhouse just up the road, where his old logo still is displayed. He renamed his business Believers Fitness Boot Camp about 18 months ago and moved to his current location in January. He also teaches martial arts there, under the name Falls Road Akido.
A religious man, his slogan is, "You can do anything with a little faith."
On Saturdays, Falcon runs classes for autistic children, to help them with socializing and motor skills. He started the classes because several of the women in the Believers boot camp are mothers of autistic children, he said.
He charges $125 a month for his fitness classes and has two other trainers who work with him.
"We try to change your lifestyle," he said. "You're in it until you quit."
The classes are for women and men, but women far outnumber the men and seem to "outlast" the men, Falcon said.
On Oct. 21, only one man was exercising, entrepreneur Darrell Middleton, 45, of Mount Washington.
"If I didn't have to bring my daughter to school, I'd be in bed," Middleton said.
Many clients said they come because they believe in Falcon.
"When you wake up early in the morning, you kind of need a decent personality," said T. Rowe Price employee Katie Drew, 47, of Timonium, lifting a 30-pound bag of weights.
"I hate waking up early and I hate exercising, but I love this class," Buchalter said. "I like coach Falcon and the people who come here. It's an interesting mix of exercises — and he's funny."
"If you fall off the apple cart, he calls you and says where are you," said Brinda Nair, 37, of Homeland, an administrator at Johns Hopkins Hospital. "It feels like somebody wants you to be there. And I've lost 10 pounds."
Some were coming for the first time — "to get back into shape," said Jo Funk, 55, of Mount Washington. "I'm a social worker. I sit in my seat all day long."
The early hour was daunting, she admitted.
"I never get up at 5:30 and now I'm doing this," she said.
Funk said she wasn't afraid, though, if only because, "It's too early in the morning."
Melissa Hall, 26, came from Owings Mills.
"It was a really good price," said Hall, who usually works out alone. "I thought it would be a good challenge."
"It's not about weight. It's about building my upper body," said Shani Rosenbaum, 33, of Mount Washington, wearing a T-shirt that said, "Train insane or remain the same."
Rosenbaum said she didn't like her previous exercise program as much as she likes Believers. "I love it," she said. "I'm not going anywhere."
Neither was Falcon. As the class emptied out, the coach was just getting started and said his day wouldn't end until 8 p.m.
"I gotta keep going," he said. "I gotta push."