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Kenny Pena, New York’s (literally) underground fitness trainer

You have to walk past the pews in St. Bart's to get to the stairwell to Kenny Pena's gym.
You have to walk into St. Bart’s and past the pews to get to the stairwell to Kenny Pena’s gym. Not kidding.


Here’s a place you’d never expect to get in a workout: Two floors below street-level, under St. Bartholomew’s Church in Midtown Manhattan. But that’s where you’ll find Kenny Pena, who seven years ago converted a 300-square-foot room into a gym that he uses to train more than 40 clients a week. You could say he’s an underground fitness secret.

“My gym is like a cheap neighborhood restaurant,” the 41-year-old Brooklyn native says about his church basement space. “It may not be the nicest looking, but it’s always packed because it has the best food.”

Kenny Pena of Pena's Fitness Method. (Photo: Kenny Pena)
As well as being an underground phenom in both senses of the word, Pena’s prices are below market rate: $40 for a 30-minute session. (Photo: Kenny Pena)

Pena’s neighbors in this underground fitness community only add to the workout-speakeasy feel. He’s steps from an Olympic-size swimming pool and a full basketball court. You know, the one that President Obama shoots hoops on when he’s staying at the Waldorf Astoria. (There’s a secret underground tunnel connecting the two!)

Pena mostly offers one-on-one sessions, but teaches Insanity (a certification he’s proud of) and boot camp classes on the basketball court, and moves them outside to Park Avenue in summer. He decided not to get his NASM personal trainer certification 25 years ago due to an “already high client demand” for his creative strength-training-focused workouts.

“You won’t find Tracy Anderson two pound weights here,” Pena says proudly. “But you will find a TRX that I built myself.” And that’s in addition to a rack of heavy weights, medicine balls, and pretty much any non-electric workout equipment you can think of. His collection is impressive and it allows Pena to tailor his workouts to clients, who are 90 percent women. But he definitely does not dumb it down for the ladies.

“I want women to feel empowered when they come here,” Pena says. “They love the punching bag and hitting the tire with a sledgehammer.” Yes, a sledgehammer, which weighs 16 pounds. “Most of my clients can’t do a pushup when they come in—now I have 100-pound women doing 10 pull-ups, no problem,” he says.

(Photo: Kenny Pena)
“My gym is like a cheap neighborhood restaurant,” says Pena. “It may not be the nicest looking, but it’s always packed because it has the best food.” (Photo: Kenny Pena)


Proof is in the (lack of round-the-waist) pudding. Denise Lee, founder of chic fitness fashion brand Alala, started training with Pena in anticipation of her wedding in 2011. “He’s gotten me to a point where I’m doing things I never thought I could, like pull-ups and 100 pushups in a row,” she gushes. “And when I miss a session, he’ll email me a replacement workout that I can do at home.”

I didn’t quite hit Lee’s number of pushups in my session with Pena (by about 80). He started the session with a 9-minute warmup, which included running in place, jump-squats, and high knees. Then we moved into strength-building exercises like seated pull-ups and push-up jacks, before finishing with some ab work. Like most personal training sessions, he didn’t work out with me. Instead, Pena carefully watched my form, helpfully noting how my knee was turning in during squats.

“Looking at me, you might not think I’m as passionate as I am about working out because I’m not fit right now,” Pena says. “That’s because I’m here from 6:00 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. training. My clients are my babies, and it’s their fitness that I’m concerned about.” —Jamie McKillop

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