For the past year, I have been compiling the content for this piece on my top fitness studios in Toronto. I was motivated to write about this for several reasons.
The initial reason was a constant request from my clients for recommendations on where to train when I couldn’t fit them in my schedule. Even after I started working full time in health care, I dabbled in and out of training clients. But the constant struggle of time commitment plus the decline in my own fitness goals brought me to the decision last summer that after 15 years as a personal trainer, the time had come for me to hang up that hat.
Several of my clients, however, felt at a loss and many didn’t want to hire a new trainer; they wanted suggestions for places they could workout. I didn’t just want to rattle off names of studios I had read in reviews or opinions based on others. I wanted to be able to recommend places that I believed were more than just “a fun workout” or “great for weight loss”. I wanted to add another dimension to a “review”. So here in began the idea to scope out various fitness studios across the city myself.
I began this quest last fall and to date have tried over 50 classes across the city (67 to be exact). But part way through this adventure things changed for me in ways I could never have previously imagined. My entire perspective on health and fitness shifted drastically.
My health declined significantly. I went from feeling chronic fatigue, soreness, joint pain, migraines, nausea and vomiting on a daily basis to numbness, peripheral neuropathy, intermittent paralysis, difficulty walking, difficulty speaking, speech impediment, blackouts and seizures which eventually led to hospitalization and time off work. Long story short, I got Lyme disease probably from one of my many reckless hiking escapades last fall.
Part of my recovery plan included getting back on track with my training. I had to start over as a beginner. My focus was no longer about hitting a P.R (personal record) with weight lifting; it was no longer about competing in competitions (fitness, crossfit or otherwise); it was no longer even about being a “trainer” and the expectation that I should excel at training. It shifted to that of being able to move again and to that of gratitude and honouring what my body is capable of doing that moment that day. So when I resumed auditing these studios, I payed attention to modifications, to movement and to the impact the workout had on my body.
Below I share with you my top 10 fitness studio, by category. I hope I can give insight on some things individuals may not initially think to look for or classes they may never have previously considered.
1. SPINNING- Spokehaus
I will go on record and say I am not a cardio or large group training type of person. I had never done spinning before coming to Spokehaus. Truthfully I went because I wanted to write a well-rounded review that catered to all types of fitness but I expected to not be a fan. I was pleasantly surprised! I even purchased more than one class and occasionally go to a spin session here. I also checked out other spinning studios to better suss out spinning and Spokehaus remained my front runner.
All new clients are shown how to operate the bike (change the resistance, adjust the height of the stool, clip into/out of the pedals). This is extremely important not just for safety but also to make the client feel at ease and to give them an opportunity to ask questions or share concerns, if needed.
I expected to be out of breath during the class (again not a cardio person) but I found it manageable and easy to follow the instructions provided by the instructor, Melissa Jamie. I love her energy, but also appreciated that she came down to the floor during the class to check in with the spinners. And at the end of the class she provided some positive reinforcement that made me feel like I was at a motivational speech. And I loved it so I try to book with her for subsequent classes.
The class encompassed elements of HIIT (high intensity interval training) which I personally find an effective style of training. I was able to keep up while still feeling like I was putting in the work. The music selection was upbeat – I felt like the beats made it easy to keep up with the tempo. Spinning at Spokehaus is definitely high energy, which can offer a nice counter balance if you are also doing yoga or barre.
If you suffer from shin splints, any high impact movement such as running, jumping etc may cause these issues to flare up. Spinning offers an opportunity to raise your heart rate without the intense pounding of your feet, provided you don’t have any knee issues. The class also incorporates some low body weights so that you also get an upper body workout – bonus!
For more information on Spokehaus, check out the link below:
2. BARRE – Barre3
I tried barre at several studios, and specifically did Barre3 in NYC and Chicago, so I was not that surprised that I really enjoyed Barre3 in Toronto.
For those of you not familiar, a barre workout uses a combination of movements inspired by ballet, yoga and pilates while using the barre as a prop to balance. Additionally, the class may incorporate light weights, mats and miniature stability balls (red rubber balls displayed in the photo).
The studio of Barre 3 Toronto offers a clean and bright space. The staff are extremely friendly. Moreover the members are friendly! I have never walked into a studio for the first time and have members make small talk, welcome me and offer to show me around. The manager, Jen, was also amazing at showing me around the space, introducing me to the instructor (Sara) and even set up a spot for me next to her during the class in case I needed help. This was my first workout since getting feeling back in my arm and post Lumbar puncture so I was both nervous and cautious.
The class was lower intensity, and while the core was the stabilizer, it provided an all over body workout. It felt great to do some core specific work that was not painful on the back. If you are like me with back issues (scoliosis), ab work can be very painful so I often overlook it or give up on the exercise part way. But their mini stability balls were ideal for core work, so much so that I had to purchase one after class for home use.
The barre assists with balance and the level of intensity can be varied based on positioning, as modifications are provided by the instructor if needed. The studio is equipped with a barre on either side of the room, and a mirror to assist with posture. The class size is approximately 20 individuals, with half at the front and half at the back. It is the perfect balance between not being too crowded and not feeling like you are on display.
Barre 3 is great as a workout on its own (3-4 days a week) or as a compliment to other styles of training ( it compliments a high intensity class like spinning, for example).
For more information on Barre 3, please check out the link below:
3. KICKBOXING- Big Hit Studios
Even though I stated above that I am not a cardio person, I have to say I gravitate towards kickboxing. Maybe it’s the power in the movements that makes me feel strong?
Regardless, I tried Big Hit Studios a few times. And my opinion never wavered. It is a high intensity class that at times had me exhausted but not enough that I wanted to quit. It really provided me an opportunity to push myself. Be sure that you are well hydrated prior to class because you will sweat!
Big Hit offers a variety of styles of kickboxing (details can be found on their website, posted below). Initially I went to a class taught by Cassie Day (she now runs her own fitness company that empowers women- ALL DAY FIT. For more info, check out http://www.alldayfit.com and be sure to stay tuned as I will be featuring her in an upcoming blog piece soon). Her energy and the style of training made me feel like I was really working my body. I felt powerful and it’s honestly a great way to expend some negative energy. If you are ever pissed with someone, go to a kickboxing class and let out your aggression on Bob. Bob won’t answer back nor will he reciprocate the punch. It’s extremely therapeutic.
The second class I went to was taught by Karina V (you can also find her at Barry’s Bootcamp which just opened in Toronto last week). She brought the same level of intensity and energy as Cassie, which was very motivating. If you ever want to feel like you worked out, kickboxing may be up your speed. As always though, be sure to let your instructor know before hand if you have any injuries or concerns. Both Cassie and Karina were great at coming over to offer motivation and to check form, which is key for safety (you don’t want to be round kicking your legs and hurting yourself in the process).
For more information on Big Hit Studios, please check out their link:
Training with Bob- my non responsive partner
Post a$$ kicking session by Coach Karina
4. WOMEN ONLY- Move Fitness
Many women are not comfortable training around men and some are intimidated with the male species walking around the gym space (sorry boys). We also know that physiologically men and women are different. That’s where the stereotypes comes from about men being stronger, women have more body fat etc. These are stereotypes, not always true but unfortunately many people feed into these absolutes.
To have a space though that not only caters to just women, but stands behind the philosophy that “training isn’t just about looking good in a bikini, but feeling strong from the inside out”. YES!!! I LOVE THIS!! So before even stepping foot in this studio, I knew their message alone would make them a high contender for me.
There was also an additional bias for me. One of the coaches, Nina Jung from The Jung Way ( http://www.jungway.com/) had previously coached me at RCFLV (see #10 below) and also performed fascial therapy on me so I knew I would have nothing but great things to say about here.
The studio is a bright open concept space with a yellow, black and white colour scheme. I was instantly attracted to the yellow turf and prowler (pictured below). And they offer alkaline water for its members to stay hydrated. That’s already another win for me.
The classes are friendly and intimate, which I prefer. Classes that are larger with only 1 instructor are often more difficult to check client form (which for me is extremely important) and to connect with the clients. The program was written in a unique way: as a menu with the main course and the dessert. Cute, right?
Nina was great at providing high energy and motivation, while encouraging team work when necessary. For a tiny lady, she is loud and strong! And always smiling so she is sure to brighten your day.
For more information on Move Fitness, please check out their link:
Nina providing motivation while checking form
5. ROWING- Scullhouse
Rowing is the only form of cardio I enjoy. It is a regular component of crossfit and an exercise I do once a week to increase my heart rate. In fact, rowing is a great option for those with knee injuries as it is low impact but still high intensity.
Kristen, the owner of the studio, was very friendly and welcoming. She gave me a tour of the space prior to the class, which I always appreciate. My eyes immediately darted towards all the motivational quotes written on the mirrors of the studio. I like that during a class, you can look up and those words can give you the extra nudge to push through.
Emma was the instructor for the class I attended, and she immediately won me over with her firm handshake upon introduction. She provided the class with a great warmup, which not many studios do. This is key for injury prevention. The program was written on the mirror but Emma also provided clear instructions to the class. I was not the only new person joining the group and I noted the others had no problem following along or keeping up. But dare I state that I struggled with the tempo. I couldn’t figure out for the life of me why I was always 1 step behind the rest of the class. After, Emma kindly reviewed the technique, which is vastly different from that of Crossfit. Even though I was warned prior to that the technique was not the same, I didn’t expect it to be noticeable. And I always appreciate when coaches can take the time to correct form.
The class was not exclusive to rowing for the full hour. Body movements (e.g. push ups) and weights (e.g. lunges) were incorporated. I noted that there were suggestions for scaling the workout and offered guidance, both if needed. And not only was Emma encouraging and motivating us but she called out our names during the class. I learned early on that in fitness, people often respond well to the person touch so good on her for offering personalized encouragement.
For more information on Scullhouse, please check out their link:
6. STRENGTH FLOW – Fitsquad’s Iron & Flow
This class is part kettle bell movement, part animal flow. The latter was my main motivation for signing up. I am intrigued by animal flow and currently in the process of getting certified.
What is it? According to the official animal flow website, it is “an innovative program that combines quadrupedal and ground-based movement with elements from various bodyweight-training disciplines”.
Combining this purposeful movement with a strength element provides a balanced workout. The class is mainly taught by Fitsquad’s trainer Julian and sometimes Aldo. The classes are an intimate size, which is perfect for form correction. I value form over anything so can always appreciate when instructors take the time to do so. If the movement is difficult, they provide substitutions or modifications. But any one at any fitness level can do an Iron and Flow class- you don’t need any animal flow experience; I didn’t have any when I tried my first class. In fact I loved it so much that now I go every week. I will state that with the exception of crossfit, I am not a class person but this one has won me over.
I will also state with full disclosure that aside from my new love for Animal Flow, I am a bit biased about FitSquad. One of the owners was my former trainer/physiotherapist who was instrumental in correcting a decade long poor squat form. I knew that if his name was behind anything that the calibre of training must be high. Even knowing this, I was still blown away by the knowledge and expertise provided by Julian and Aldo. One class Aldo was explaining a movement to us and referenced the posterior chain and our anatomy. Wait, what? Was I being teleported back to a kinesiology or physiology class in university? I am a “why” person so while many don’t care for this type of verbiage, it resonated with me. I like knowing why.
Sidebar- if anyone is looking for a personal trainer, Fitsquad comes highly recommended!
For more information on Fitsquad, please check out their link:
7. PILATES – Misfit Studios
Misfit studios was created by Amber. It is described as a practiced “rooted in yoga, informed by pilates and inspired by dance”. The Misfit method is a mind-body-soul movement where they teach “movement as medicine” . Naturally I was drawn to this as I believe that movement IS medicine, especially in light of my recent health issues.
I went to the Queen location for a pilates class, which is housed in a former church. The studio space with the greenery and large coloured glass panes definitely sets quite the atmosphere. The class was not quite what I expected, however I appreciate that not every workout will be intense and encompass heavy lifting. It incorporated elements of fitness such as squats, but with a dance flow movement to it. Again it isn’t my style but that’s why I have included it in here- because many people would love and get a lot of value from these types of classes.
For those of you that hate working out, the Misfit classes are for you. For those of you who enjoy dancing, Misfit classes are for you. For those of you who want to move, Misfit classes are for you.
For more information on Misfit studios & Misfit method, please check out their link:
8. AERIAL YOGA – Whole Life Balance
I have tried aerial yoga at several locations but was drawn to Whole Life Balance as this past summer it was my home away from home. After doing an IV drip therapy session (blog post to come), I was immediately drawn to the energy of Sandra Chabot Weber, one of the owners, that I just had to return to try out their other services (side bar- highly recommend massage therapy with Katie there).
The aerial yoga class sizes are small. The aerial silks are bright in colour and the room provides colour therapy. I enjoyed a class taught by Melissa, who’s instructions were explicit and it was easy to follow along. I did the gentle flow class, which is a great compliment to any weight training regime. After the class and the following day I felt my body had really been stretched out and I noted my mobility and ROM (range of motion) had increased.
For more information about While Life Balance, please check out their link:
9. HIIT GROUP TRAINING – Strive Life
As a former competitive swimmer and lover of weight lifting, I was immediately drawn to Strive Life whose slogan read “we are life athletes”. They pair movement with conditioning in a high energy circuit form.
I was introduced to Strive Life last fall with a class taught by Ryan, one of the co-founders. I was immediately impressed with the quality of programming and coaching skills. I am a huge fan of Tabata, which is a large component of their classes.
I returned to another class a couple weeks ago and was happy to see that their space expanded and that new movements were introduced for me (a couple I’ve never done before!).
For more information on Strive Life, please check out their link:
10. CROSSFIT – Reebok Crossfit Liberty Village (RCFLV)
I know Crossfit has a terrible reputation especially in the bodybuilding world. I came from the world of bikini fitness competitions (don’t judge) into crossfit because of my love for Power and Olympic lifting. I will say on record ANY sport or activity will cause injury if not done correctly. Crossfit injuries are no higher than shin splints from runners or hockey related injuries. But these issues will be discussed in an upcoming article so stay tuned.
Crossfit is one of the few group classes I enjoy participating in and I have been a member of a few Crossfit studios across the city. I actually hired the owner of RCFLV, Nic Martin, a few years ago to help me with my techniques, while I was a member at another box. I was so impressed by his level of knowledge and expertise (I often referred to him as the Crossfit Doctor although I am not sure I’ve ever told him that) that I made the switch.
I know many people say Crossfit is intimidating. Even though I worked at a fitness facility that had an Olympic lifting room for Team Canada, and even as a certified personal trainer, I was intimidated. I value technique over anything so appreciated taking the Foundations classes (the intro to crossfit) and the coaching sessions by Nic.
I drank the Crossfit cool-aid. I love their philosophy and I strongly believe in their method of movement. They are a sport that advocates for a healthy lifestyle and are constantly pushing the boundaries on what the human body is capable of.
What sets RCFLV apart, in my opinion, is they value technique over a PR, they value effort over competition, they value safety first. Every single coach (Amy, Stephen, Josh, Jordan, Jenna, to name a few) at RCFLV exudes knowledge and skills that truly inspire and motivates their members.
And if the idea of lifting those heavy weights scare you, RCFLV offers “burn” classes- HITT delivered in a fun and highly energized environment. They offer something for everyone.
For more information on RCFLV, please check out their website:
With Head Coach Amy Aldrich
Head Coach Amy with Owner Nic Martin