Fitness centers around the country are trying to create unique environments as some gym-goers turn away from the mundane treadmill or elliptical workout. (Ulysses Muñoz, Emma Patti Harris / Baltimore Sun video)
The men and women barreled down the steps and into the darkened room.
They were ready to fight.
Trainer Chris Nissley of Knockout Fitness in Federal Hill cued up the song "2 phones" by Kevin Gates. As the hip-hop beat pumped from the speakers, the people in the class began their attack. They pounded boxing bags with a fury of upper cuts, jabs, hooks and other punches. Neon-colored laser and LED lights bounced off the walls, floors and ceilings as they worked up a sweat.
Nissley and brother Jason, both trainers and co-founders of Knockout Fitness, have reinvented the boxing workout at their studio. They have created what they hope is a unique atmosphere that will rev people up and inspire them to work out harder in the class, which they call fight club.
"We wanted to do something authentic," said Chris Nissley. "We said, 'Let's make as cool and crazy of an atmosphere as we can.' "
Ashley Colvin, a 29-year-old Federal Hill resident, said she likes the mood created in the class. Colvin, who works for the federal government, worked out at traditional gyms before joining Knockout Fitness a year ago. Her fitness regimen used to consist mostly of weightlifting, running and cardio machines, such as the treadmill. Her workouts now are more hard-core, she said.
"They are really intense workouts," she said. "It's something you won't get anywhere else."
The atmosphere at fight club adds an extra layer of inspiration, she said.
"It motivates you," she said. "It makes you want to keep going."
Fitness centers around the country are trying to create unique workout environments as some gym-goers turn away from the mundane treadmill or elliptical workout. Consumers are looking for workouts that are more like experiences, fitness experts said. They want their workout to be fun and not feel like a chore. Much of the interest is being driven by millennials.
People are joining kickball and dodgeball leagues. Instructors are teaching classes to the music of a live DJ. Fitness studios are decorated with disco balls and laser lights. The cult-like following of the Soul Cycle franchise can be credited in part to the vibe of the class, created with mood lighting, custom playlists and upbeat instructors.
"People are continuously looking for a different way to stay active," said Mike May, a spokesman for Silver Spring-based Phit America, a nonprofit that promotes physical activity. "Exercise can come in many forms. It doesn't have to be running on a treadmill or playing softball."
Traditional gyms are having to keep things fresh as smaller fitness boutiques that often focus on a specialty, such as Knockout Fitness, have brought more competition to the market.
The number of U.S. gyms and fitness studios has increased immensely, from 26,830 in 2005 to 36,540 last year, according to the International Health Racquet & Sportsclub Association. Memberships have also grown. In 2005, 41.3 million people had gym memberships, compared with 57.3 million in 2016.
"Fitness clubs are changing with the times and realizing they need to have a larger set of items on the menu to be more appealing to people," May said.
Knockout Fitness is not alone in creating a motivating atmosphere in a boxing gym environment. An official of Title Boxing Club, a Kansas-based company with one Maryland location, in Rockville, said energetic music is a must but that they prefer bright rooms.
"We want to create an atmosphere that will motivate people to achieve their goals," said Marty Mazer, vice president of franchise development for Title Boxing Club. "It's the trainer. It's the music. It's the beauty of the facility, which is lit up."
Knockout Fitness started fight club in August to spice things up.
The class, offered several days a week, combines boxing exercises with high-intensity interval training, or spurts of several exercises, such as burpees or pullups, done at a high intensity. It's demanding, but the Nissleys say anybody can take it — even beginners.
It is the atmosphere of the class that the Nissleys say really makes the difference.
"We wanted to create something that would inspire people and make them want to keep coming back so that they eventually see results," Jason Nissley said. "It is no better feeling to see somebody get results and gain the confidence to get better."
The Nissley brothers, who grew up in Baltimore and have loved boxing for as long as they can remember, started Knockout Fitness five years ago to fill what they thought was a gap in the boxing scene. They thought there was a need for a specialty gym that offered technical boxing training for professionals as well as group fitness classes and strength and conditioning sessions for everyday people who just wanted to get into shape.
The brothers are known in boxing and fitness circles around town for their talents. The pair created training and nutrition programs for Baltimore's Gervonta Davis, who held the International Boxing Federation super featherweight title before missing weight during his last fight in August. His image is painted on one of the walls in the fight club workout room.
The Nissleys believe uplifting music is one of the best motivators, so they installed a JBL sound system that they say is loud enough to shake the block. They hired local artist DJ Chrome to develop customized mixes for the class, and sometimes he will perform live from a DJ booth in the room. The songs are high-energy to match the workout.
The LED lighting can flash to the beat of the music, and a haze machine creates a smoky-like feeling in the room.
A movie screen runs a continuous reel of clips that features boxing matches of famed fighters like Muhammad Ali, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. Scenes from the movies "Rocky" and "Creed" are also interspersed throughout the reel.
The energy is strong in the room on a recent Tuesday. Fifteen boxers are drenched with sweat halfway through the hour-long class. The Nissley brothers tag-team instruction of the class.
"We them boyz. We make some noize," Wiz Khalifa blasts from the speakers as Jason Nissley orders that the music be cranked up and the class attacks the boxing bags with more intensity.
A.J. Williams, a 30-year-old Ridgley's Delight resident who works in information technology, starts banging the long bag with an intense set of jabs. Williams is a professional boxer who trains at Knockout Fitness three times a week and uses fight club as a fun conditioning class.
After the class he said he likes the energy. "It helps me focus and forget everybody around me," he said. "When the music gets louder, I go harder."