The 27 Best Alternative Gyms in America

Think you've heard it all when it comes to exercise? Wait until you see what some of the country's most innovative gyms have up their sleeves to make you sweat.
SURFSET Fitness

The phrase "there's something for everyone" has never been so apt. These 27 "gyms" are changing the way we think about working out by offering a veritable exercise buffet, including new twists on traditional iron pumping, classes that teach you how to rebound off walls, and workouts that involve air-drumming to the beat, practicing yoga on a surfboard, or playing dodgeball in a room of trampolines (to name just a few). Check out the full list below and get inspired to move your body in ways you might've never thought possible.

1. Outlaw CrossFit (Alexandria, VA)

Best Combined Training Practices

Outlaw CrossFitPhoto: Outlaw CrossFit

CrossFit ain’t your regular workout, and Outlaw CrossFit ain’t your regular CrossFit gym. In Alexandria, Virginia, this unassuming gym (or “box,” in CF parlance) has performed the unthinkable: It's made CrossFit more badass. Helmed by Rudy Nielsen, the creator of competitive CrossFit training program The Outlaw Way, the training programs might not seem unusual at first glance, but Nielsen is proud to have invented his own system of training that combines the CrossFit template with the theories of champion powerlifter Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell. The result? A complex hybrid of strength, functionality, speed, and intensity that’s led Outlaw to become one of the premier CrossFit gyms on Earth, regularly churning out regional champions and athletes that can deadlift more than 500 pounds.

2. AIR Aerial Fitness (multiple locations)
Best Use of Hammocks

While the term “suspension training” might normally evoke images of a TRX class, the folks at AIR Aerial Fitness have interpreted the idea somewhat more literally. As in, you will spend the class suspended in mid-air via a bouncy, twirly hammock-like contraption. But this ain’t no afternoon nap — equal parts yoga, ballet, Pilates, and suspension training, this is a challenging and unique fitness class that uses the body’s own weight in ways you might have never thought possible. The class uses the hammock as a suspension strap and also to help its users perform resistance exercises and very deep stretches that simply aren’t possible on the ground. Throw in the childlike delight and plain old fun that come with climbing and spinning in mid-air, and you’ve got a workout that barely feels like work. And isn’t that the best kind?

3. Bklyn Beast (Brooklyn, NY)
Best Practical Aerobatics

Bklyn Beast
Photo: Bklyn Beast

Martial arts might be the art of the fight, but is there an art of the flight? You bet: It’s called Parkour, and New York’s first parkour gym is here to redefine your understanding of fitness. Parkour is a sport that’s all about moving through an urban landscape in the most efficient (and awesome-looking) way possible. To that end, Bklyn Beast is a colossal indoor gym that’s filled with obstacles, platforms, graffiti, bars, and more, all for the goal of training gymgoers in what might be called practical acrobatics (Pracrobatics?). A typical day at the gym might include backflips, bar swings, and 15-feet swan-dives into giant foam pits. These days, Bklyn Beast also offers classes in breakdancing, trampolining, hip-hop dance, capoeira, and more. (Note: The gym is in the process of moving to a new location and renaming itself, so be on the lookout for a name change in the near future.).

4. National Fitness Campaign Fitness Court (multiple locations)
Best Pop-Up Workout

Less a gym than it is a social enterprise devoted to providing free outdoor workout spaces, the National Fitness Campaign has been responsible for installing more than 10,000 “fitness courts” across the U.S. since it began in 1979. Back then, the courts were a relatively simple collection of bars and planks, but the concept has since been revitalized. The NFC Fitness Court is now a bright blue, futuristic-looking assortment of rings, foam, bars, and boxes designed to give a full-body workout and improve agility to anyone willing to turn up. Paid for by generous donations, the gyms can be installed in less than two days and are inscribed with several workout routines designed to help anyone, young or old, get in shape, outside, for free. More than a dozen new “courts” will open across the country this year; here’s to many more!

5. Functional Fitness on the Bluffs (Santa Monica, CA)
Best Gym-Without-a-Gym

FFOTB

What is a gym? Some might envision a building full of treadmills and machines, but Logan Gelbrich and Danny Lesslie decided to ditch the machines — and the building. Functional Fitness on the Bluffs is a new-but-old, old-but-new gym in Santa Monica, CA that's nothing more than a strip of grass. While the veteran CrossFitters started the gym with the goal of eventually opening a “real” gym, eventually their open-air setting came to feel just as legit. They adhere to the philosophy that the only thing required for fitness is the right mindset, the right community, and the right atmosphere — not fancy machines or even walls! Rain or shine, the gym is made every day from the ground up with simple equipment like kettlebells, barbells, and tires. Since its inception, it’s blossomed into a functional fitness mecca that doesn’t just hold a variety of classes (from “General Physical Preparedness” to “Barbell Club”) but BBQs, dinners, and goal-setting workshops.

6. Fitwall (multiple locations)
Best Use of a Wall 

Fitwall
Photo: Fitwall

The Fitwall looks like a combination of a steel ladder and a medieval torture device, but it’s nothing to be afraid of — unless you don’t like intense workouts. A typical 40-minute Fitwall session is jam-packed with pull-ups, leg swings, jumps, hops, squats, rows, and all manner of strength, cardio, and flexibility training, without ever touching the ground. As avowed fans of the “quantified self movement,” Fitwall-ers can expect to be hooked up to a heart monitor and an iPad for the duration of the workout and to be constantly aware of their “F Factor,” which reflects a combination of numbers like sex, height, weight, age, heart rate, and overall fitness level in order to determine if participants are working hard enough — and as hard as the rest of the class. The wall is intense but low-impact, activates a lot of muscles simultaneously, and, because the body is off the ground for the whole workout, it allegedly keeps the body in a tense “fight or flight” mode that’s said to be great for burning calories. Try it if you can; it’s available across California, and in 2014 they hope to open new Fitwall gyms in the Bay area, Colorado, and New York.

7. November Project (multiple locations)
Best Grassroots Fitness Movement

It started innocently enough: With graduation looming, two rowing buddies from Northeastern University promised to maintain their fitness in the grown-up world by motivating each other to get out of bed in the morning. The rain-or-shine outdoor workouts have never been anything fancy; they’re primarily sprints, stair climbs, and bodyweight exercises. But the simplicity, intensity, and, most importantly, the camaraderie is what got so many of their friends hooked on their “project.” Three years later, the “grassroots morning fitness tribe” is active in 10 different cities across the country, with more than 1,200 regular participants. The virality of the movement has been attributed to the unifying endorphin rush, social media presence, verbal accountability, ab-tastic results, flash-mob attention, and the fact that participation costs a heck of a lot less than a gym membership (It’s free for life). Whatever their secret sauce is, the November Project is a truly fascinating force for fitness. All you need is to show up.

8. STREB (Brooklyn, NY)
Best Example of Fitness-as-Art

STREB
Photo: Josh Flanigan

Elizabeth Streb is hard to pigeonhole. She’s an artist, director, athlete, philosopher, and critic — some have called her the Evil Knievel of dance — and her gym (if it can be called that) is just as enigmatic. Both a performance space for high-concept physical art and an athletics school for young and old alike, STREB (aka SLAM, the Streb Lab for Action Mechanics) is a Brooklyn institution with the goal of pushing physical and social boundaries to their limits. To the public, it’s an academy that’s both physical and cerebral, as well as a pretty fun place for a date: Classes are available in trampolining, acrobatics, parkour, trapeze, German wheel, and more. The signature class is called Pop Action, an innovative combination of dance, athletics, boxing, rodeo, circus, and Hollywood stunt-work. It’s original in its every atom, and needs to be seen — nay, performed — to be believed.

9. Downsize Fitness (multiple locations)
Best Niche Caretakers

At 360 pounds, Francis Wisniewski was motivated to lose weight but was too intimidated to join a gym, fearing that people would stare at and mock him. Assuming that other overweight people might feel the same way, he founded Downsize Fitness, the only gym exclusively for people looking to lose 50 pounds or more. The gym now has six locations in Illinois, Texas, and Canada, and offers group classes in yoga, meditation, step, nutrition, strength, and cardio. Downsize Fitness strives to be welcoming to its clients via a non-judgmental atmosphere, holistic health education, gym equipment designed for larger bodies, and trainers who are weight loss vets themselves.

10. Monkey Bar Gym (multiple locations)
Best Bodyweight Workout

Headquartered in Madison, Wisconsin, Monkey Bar Gymnasium believes that working out should be as fun as it is functional. All classes are based on the foundational movements of running, jumping, and climbing. There are no machines or weight benches to be found (MBG emphasizes bodyweight exercise), but classes do include plenty of sandbags, tires, and ropes. Monkey Bar currently has 14 locations, all of which integrate functional fitness, Eischens Yoga (which focuses on improving posture), and plant-based nutrition to create programming that is as fun as it is functional.

11. SURFSET Fitness (multiple locations)
Best Use of a Surfboard on Land

When Mike Hartwick played professional hockey overseas, he kept in shape during the off season with daily surfing. After realizing that riding waves provided a killer workout, he developed SURFSET to mimic on dryland the conditioning he was getting in the ocean. His programming promises a surfer’s physique — lean but not weak, muscular but not bulky. SURFSET-ers work out on specially designed surf trainers, which challenge balance and stability while making users sweat. Participants can choose from four low-impact programs: yoga-inspired “Balance,” high-intensity, cardio-based “Burn,” “Build” for strength, and “Blend,” which offers a little of all three. Currently, SURFSET-ers can take classes at more than 140 locations all over the world.

12. Pound (multiple locations)
Best Use of Drumsticks 

Pound
Photo: Pound

Rock your way to fitness with Pound, the drumming-based cardio workout that will turn your next workout into a killer jam sesh. Each class, participants bang out 15,000 repetitions with neon green weighted drumsticks called Ripstix. Drumming in rhythm to music does more than burn calories — the program boasts science-backed benefits, such as lowering stress and improving cognitive skills like focus and decision-making. Pound has classes in gyms all over the country and promises only the hits — no generic gym tunes allowed.

13. Cycle House (Los Angeles, CA)
Best Gym with a Social Conscience

Cycle House
Photo: Cycle House

LA-based Cycle House is a spinning studio on a mission to help people get fit while giving the planet some much needed TLC. The paperless gym doesn’t print receipts, announcements, or schedules and doesn’t sell bottled water. They also have a charitable mission: Every time someone works out at the House, two meals are donated to a person in need. They take good care of their riders too; When you spin at Cycle House, you’ll get fresh fruit, towels treated with eucalyptus, and alkaline water to aid rejuvenation and recovery.

14. Flywheel (multiple locations)
Best Quantified Cycling

Flywheel
Photo: Flywheel

Flywheel is a dream come true for anyone who loves spinning but wishes it could be a little more data-driven and competitive. The custom bikes are outfitted with “tech-packs” that record resistance, speed, and power and save all stats to riders’ personal online accounts. The bikes are set up stadium style, so no matter where you are, you have a great view of the instructor and the Torqboards — aka large-screens that display your stats for all the class the see (riders can opt out of being shown on the leaderboards). In-house DJs spin as riders make their way up climbs and down descents, racing themselves and each other. Flywheelers also get an upper body workout while on the bike by way of a weighted bar and brief arms-oriented routine that's integrated into the ride.

15. Bliss Paddle Yoga (Laguna Beach and San Diego, CA)
Best Off-the-Mat Yoga

Get off the mat and onto the paddleboard (and into the ocean!). At California-based Bliss Paddle Yoga, participants get a lesson in paddleboarding on the beach, then paddle out into the water to practice gentle yoga poses atop their paddle board as it floats in a kelp bed (or pool). You don’t have to have any experience with yoga or paddleboarding to take the classes, which provide guidance for students of all levels as well as all the necessary equipment. The tranquility and restorative benefits of yoga mixed with time on the beach and in the water? Sounds like a win-win.

16. AQUA Studio (New York, NY)
Best Underwater Cycling

AQUA Studio
Photo: AQUA Studio

If you think spinning is challenging, try doing it underwater. Aquacycling tests your sea legs while providing an intense, no-impact workout on bikes that are submerged in a swimming pool. At AQUA, a boutique studio in New York City, aquacyclers can choose from classes that focus on speed and cardiovascular fitness, strength and power, or restoration. Other than one class designed specifically for men, all classes are women-only. All participants are rewarded handsomely for their efforts: The studio boasts state-of-the-art facilities, exclusive amenities, and a candlelit pool.

17. Wave House (San Diego, CA)
Best No-Ocean-Required Waveriding

Thanks to Wave House, you don’t need the beach to get an ocean-based workout. At their locations in California, Chile, and Singapore, surfers can hang ten on artificial waves and enjoy the food, music, and entertainment that are part and parcel of the surfing lifestyle. Boarders at Wave House experience flowboarding, a hybrid board sport that combines elements of surfing, snowboarding, skimboarding, wakeboarding, and bodyboarding. The result is a fun workout that can be super simple for novices or epically high-flying and trick-laden for expert boarders.

18. Sky Zone (multiple locations)
Best Wall-to-Wall Dodgeball

Sky Zone
Photo: Sky Zone

Sky Zone had us at “endless sea of trampolines.” This indoor trampoline park has locations in the U.S. and Canada and offers classes for children and adults of all sizes, shapes, and abilities. Participants can go just to play (bounce around in open jump or get competitive in 3-D dodgeball!) or to get a high-flying workout (Skyrobics fitness class, anyone?).

19. CrossFit LA (Santa Monica, CA) 
Best Whole-Person CrossFit Box

CrossFit LA
Photo: CrossFit LA

At CrossFit LA, you’ll find all the usual CrossFit accoutrement — barbells, kettlebells, pull-up rigs, athletes working up a good sweat, and so on. But what makes CrossFit LA stand out from most gyms (CrossFit or not) is its programming. Developed by head coach Kenny Kane, the Mastery Training Template doesn’t just make you stronger and faster. It goes one step further by emphasizing mental toughness, mindfulness and intention, skill mastery, consistent growth, playfulness, and having fun along the way.

20. Swordplay LA (Burbank, CA)
Best, er, Sword Play

Swordplay
Photo: Swordplay LA

Foil, epee, sabre, oh my! At Swordplay Fencing and Fitness, the oldest fencing club in L.A., swordsmanship is the name of the game. Swordplay has trained many a United States Fencing Association competitor through its mix of private and group classes, which focus on building lightning-fast reflexes, some serious muscle tone, and tough mental game. Swordplay's owner, Tim Weske, is sought after in Hollywood for his mastery of both swordplay and stage combat. Oh, and did we mention they also offer Jedi light saber classes? 

21. Ray's Indoor Mountain Bike Park (Cleveland, OH)
Best Tricked-Out Bike Park

Ray’s Indoor Mountain Bike Park is built for and by bikers who love to ride, and it shows: The park is a gigantic fun house of ramps, jumps, and bridges. From October through April, if you've got a BMX or Mountain Bike (and a helmet and functional brakes), you're welcome to ride at either of two locations in Cleveland and Milwaukee. Ray's offers challenges for beginners and pros alike: Catch some serious hang time in the jump park, launch into a monster foam pit, or set out on a wild cross-country endurance ride via the Cleveland XC trail. Ray closes for most of the summer in order to add new obstacles and encourage bikers to get out into the great outdoors while the weather's fine, but they hope to see patrons again in October. Their motto? “You keep coming, we keep building”.

22. Tempest Freerunning Academy (Chatsworth and Hawthorne, CA)
Best Adult Playground

Parkour! Need we say more? That's exactly what you'll find (and lots of it) at this world-renowned parkour and freerunning academy developed by freeruning "Team Tempest" and X-games course designer Nate Wessel. Now with two California locations, the Academy boasts 7,000 square feet of parkour playground where beginner and pro athletes alike can run, jump, and climb free during open gym sessions or train in classes like Hardcore Parkour and Train Harder Kong Harder. And then there’s the giant trampoline and foam pit, which look like more fun than we've had since third grade.

23. Broadway Dance Center (New York, NY)
Best Place to Find Your Groove

Broadway Dance Center is world-renowned for excellence in dance education, while its open-door policy makes it one of the most inclusive dance schools around. Beginners and professional students alike can study with a diverse group of teachers to get expert instruction in a wide array of dance disciplines, from ballet, to hip-hop, to jazz, to something called "Waacking" (we're just as curious as you are.). With company values based on integrity, generosity, and world-class instruction, it's no wonder some of the Big Apple's best and brightest call Broadway Dance home.

24. MovNat (multiple locations)
Best Place for All-Natural Training

MovNat
Photo: MovNat

MovNat is out to revolutionize the concept of fitness with a program that uses the full range of human movement, which includes running, jumping, balancing, crawling, climbing, swimming, lifting, and throwing. Their motto? "How we move is how we train." This philosophy has generated workshops, retreats, a trainer certification program, and a number of affiliate gyms worldwide. They've got their eyes on a very big prize, with the ultimate goal of getting everyone, everywhere moving — naturally.

25. Burnside Skate Park (Portland, OR)
Best Community Skatepark

Burnside Skatepark
Photo: Burnside Skate Park

Even if you've never been to Burnside in person, you may have played the course in Tony Hawk or ogled photos of its bowls, wallrides, and quarterpipes in Thrasher magazine. This decades-old skate park, set underneath Portland's Burnside Bridge, went through a raucous history as an underground skate mecca before finally gaining official, city-approved park status. Since its inception, Burnside has expanded by thousands of square feet and is constantly asserting itself as a permanent staple for skaters of all kinds. It's free to ride, and many an ambitious skater does.

26. Chaise Fitness (New York, NY)
Best Newfangled Exercise Equipment

Transform yourself with Chaise Fitness' signature Reinvention Method, which we're still trying to wrap our heads around. The full-body workout consists of a combination of Pilates, ballet, and aerobics, with some overhead bungees thrown in for good measure. Participants can get toned in a variety of classes, including Chaise Bootcamp, Ballet Bungee, and Cardio Chair. The studio's founders, mother-and-daughter duo Lauren and Rachel Piskin, promise their unique workouts will improve flexibility, balance, and posture. Judging by the stability required just to stay on their newfangled "fitness chair," we're inclined to believe them!

27. Stone Summit Climbing and Fitness Center (Atlanta, GA)
Best Place to Reach for the Stars

The largest climbing gym in the U.S., Stone Summit boasts climbing walls ranging from 25 to 60 feet high, a dynamic bouldering room, and a yoga studio where athletes can go to calm their minds and stretch their limbs after a challenging climb. Climbers of all ages and skill levels are welcome at this inclusive gym, which helps novices learn the basics via belay lessons, staff-assisted climbing sessions, and a designated beginner's area. There's plenty to challenge pros as well, especially thanks to fitness classes designed to strengthen the muscles needed to safely take on challenging climbs.

A note on how these fitness facilities were selected: Each gym was chosen by Greatist for meeting certain criteria. We looked for gyms that are changing the way we work out by incorporating new equipment, gear, and non-traditional spaces. We also looked for places that are challenging conventional modes of exercising with their unique theories of movement or the combination of activities previously deemed separate  dance, martial arts, and parkour, for example. In general, we looked for spaces that are innovating the way we think of the term "going to the gym" by making fitness fun, accessible, and creative for a wide range of people. Of course, it wasn’t possible to include every amazing fitness experience on this list, so if there are any you think we missed, please let us know!

Have you been to any of these "gyms"? Got any others to add to our list? Share in the comments below or get in touch with us on Twitter @greatist!

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