It’s a cliche that New Yorkers thrive on intensity and stress, but it feels true on the boutique fitness scene. Or at least part of it, where the thrill of discomfort via punishing pull-up reps and kettlebell swings is alive and well—or alive and in desperate need of foam rolling.
Over the course of nearly six years, I’ve tried almost all of it, and to report this story, I went back to re-experience many classes and methods multiple times to find the absolute toughest workouts in NYC.
Some disclaimers: There are bound to be boot camps in secret Brooklyn basement gyms I missed, and difficulty is somewhat subjective. My body type, for example, makes running a breeze and lifting heavy harrowing, but I’ve tried to be as objective as possible, using my vast context for comparison (and the feedback of many others).
There are also many, many classes that are crazy challenging that I didn’t include—and I left CrossFit out because it’s its own genre, entirely. (Please add your additions, angry disagreement, and any other feedback in the Comments.)
But these seven stood out for pushing you to a physical place so challenging it often elicits an emotional response—or a gag reflex.
I chose them because I couldn’t physically keep going, because my muscles shook uncontrollably, because I felt like the Pizza Rat descending the subway steps for days after, dragging my heavy, exhausted limbs behind me (and wishing they were a delicious slice, because I was so f*cking hungry).
It’s all very dramatic when you’re talking about office professionals paying $35 per hour for flat abs, but New York is theater, whether you’re on Broadway or banging out burpees.
The most telling detail is the warm-up, which, on its own, is harder than probably 75 percent of the full-length workouts offered around town. You’re moving your feet crazy quick and throwing your chest to the ground from the get-go, and after plyometric-packed circle drills, you move into relays that feel like an endless succession of push-ups and sprints, burpees and sprints, all at a race speed. Then to the props, working your muscles with resistance bands, weighted harnesses, pushing and pulling sleds. At some point during a relay circuit, I sat out one interval, which is something that seriously hurts my pride, but that I felt forced into by bile rising in my throat.
It needs to be said: Tone House is an extremely friendly place owned by possibly the nicest trainer, Alonzo Wilson, who truly wants everyone to succeed, together—which is why he built his concept around teamwork. (It’s just that his team is, well, pro.) Trainers are super upbeat and encourage you without fail, and high fives abound. Nothing sums it up better than this insight from a real Yelp review: “A fellow participant looked over at me and said, ‘Wasn’t that awful? I can’t wait to come back.'”
There’s a tight-knit crew of fitness instructors and fanatics who show up for this 75-minute session (that often stretches to 90) with beloved trainer Kira Stokes every Monday night. Their sculpted six packs peek out from beneath “Get Stoked!” tanks, and the energy in the room makes the whole thing feel like an exclusive concert you finally got a ticket to. Think endless whooping and cheering…for painful plyometric exercises.
Jumping rope is rest position (really), which means you never stop moving unless you have to, and you progress through circuits that include body-weight strength training, conditioning, and plyometrics, with core work popping up in between.
Most importantly, it’s long, and it feels that way, but Stokes’ enthusiasm and level of dedication to her students is motivating, while her regular students’ skills are just impressive. Chest-to-floor push-ups are entry level for these people. They modify to make those harder, and then kick into handstands that flow into side planks, you know, for fun.
It’s at least partially due to the fact that Stokes says she wants “to teach, not tell,” and the focus is on sequencing circuits to build core strength and stabilization, plus explosive strength. “It’s not hard to make a workout hard. All it takes is 200 lunges,” she says. “It’s about hard, but smart.”
Fhixtreme at The Fhitting Room
Confession: I didn’t actually try this class. It earned a spot on this list by virtue of it being the harder, more “advanced version” of the popular studio’s Signature Fhix, which I was already going to include on the list.
Either class will be grueling, especially for those not used to tons of lifting, since intervals include lots of heavy kettlebell moves, push-ups, and TRX work, plus explosive movements like box jumps and burpees. After you think you’ve made it through, you hit the high-intensity “Fhix” at the end, which is brutal because you’re already exhausted. (One example: A 60-second plank, 50 deep squats, 40 mountain climbers, 30 deadlifts, 20 sit-ups, 10 frogger push-ups).
The good and bad part: Every class comes with two instructors who are relentless about helping you nail good form. They watch and make you execute moves properly, which is a super safe strategy and good for your body, but can also make it harder in the moment, because you can’t just phone it in and cheat on your squats.
“Just keep moving” is the mantra WRKNYC founder Will Jackson repeats throughout his class, and that’s the main reason it lands on this list.
The class, which was formerly offered only as an outdoor boot camp and now has its own space on 34th Street, involves high-intensity movements back-to-back, like plyometrics (burpees, jump squats with resistance bands) and heavy lifting (squat, curl, overhead press with a barbell). Plus challenge-yourself moves like pull-ups and jumping jacks with simultaneous dumbbell overhead presses (pain!).
And since there’s literally no break time built in, you’re supposed to get as far as you can without stopping. The only thing that makes it easier is Jackson’s laid-back teaching style. Instead of yelling at you boot camp-style or using cheesy lines about how your mind will power you through (you definitely need muscle and endurance for this, okay?), he acts like a friend who knows what’s good for you. The tactic I like the best, which works both when you’re slacking or killing it: “Thanks for showing up, Lis! Nice to see you!”
This one shouldn’t be here. Offered in a rented studio with an old boombox just a few times a week, it’s too simple, too basic, too bare bones—and yet that feeds its intensity. There are no weights to pick up or different fancy equipment to switch to or colored light shows set to the beat of the music to distract you.
It’s just you, your own bodyweight (which suddenly feels ridiculously heavy), your uncontrollably shaking muscles, salty sweat blurring your vision, and the a$$hole in your head who knows you cannot do another scissor switch. Nowhere to hide, no moment to rest.
HIIT is used all over the place now, but founder Adam Rosante has a knack for sequencing the most explosive, difficult movements together to make it truly intense, and his energetic, never-ceasing motivational style leaves little space for slacking.
Los Angeles-founded celeb favorite Barry’s Bootcamp deserves a spot on this list because it upped the intensity of group workouts in the industry before most of the others even existed.
Its combination of heavy-weight training and treadmill intervals that involve many, many sprints and a high incline is a no-fail formula for muscle exhaustion and afterburn activation.
While it is possible to bring everything down a notch and do the workout at an easier level, the most common reaction I hear from first-timers is “they wanted me to put the treadmill up to 10!” and if you really do try to keep up with the cues, it’ll push you to a crazy place every time.
New York’s two Megaformer workouts are nothing like the other workouts on this list. Despite their lack of jumping and heaving, they involve a special kind of painful intensity not found anywhere else. (And while they each have their own vibe and differences, the method is similar enough that it makes sense to group them together, here).
Using Sebastien Lagree’s souped-up, tricked-out version of the age-old Pilates Reformer, instructors tell you to slowly move the carriage of the machine through a challenging 50-minute sequence—maybe lunges or repeated pikes, while the machine’s springs block any momentum you might have hoped for. Before long, you realize muscles you never knew you had (and definitely never worked) are on fire. Your legs are quiver like jello jigglers; your abs strain like you’re being stabbed in the gut.
It’s like a muscle-y barre workout with higher stakes, since you feel like you might fall off if you can’t make it through an interval that requires your balance, strength, and a ton of focus. Based on how many studios are opening all over the place, the results likely reflect the hard work.
Need a break? Wellness isn’t all about sweat. Check out the best modern meditation spots in NYC, next.